I just met a young woman who is brave, intelligent and pretty. The problem is, she doesn't know it. She's even mystified by the very idea.
Her name is Lexi Howard, and her smile is one of the few things in her life that's attractive.
On one evening this month, the neighborhood south of downtown San Diego, around Imperial Avenue, is a Darwinian war zone right after the battle has moved on. Survivors have piled belongings head-high on unswept curbs, and they're guarding them from nearby pallets where they lie half-asleep in the shadows. They endure the chill in a cocoon of torn quilts and soiled blankets atop sheets of insulating cardboard.
Storefronts that lost their come-hither a generation ago are guarded by accordion steel fencing. The only business with its doors open is a corner liquor store, taking advantage of a seller's market.
Those compelled to live here are rarely criminals, and very few would harm anyone. They're down here because of circumstances.
Welcome to Lexi Howard's neighborhood.
I have come here to meet Lexi, who assumes she belongs in this neighborhood because to her, it's a safer place than the home she fled. I join her at Stand Up for Kids, an outpost on 16th Street for homeless young people seeking a refuge, which is what Lexi has been for two years. She is 24 and has learned that the world can be a hostile, scary place. Though no longer a kid, she comes here to volunteer and see her friends.
Lexi has been living from hand to mouth, largely thanks to a companion, a security guard who supports them both on minimum wage. They live in a studio apartment on Imperial. Pennies are not only counted, they're guarded.
Lexi extends a small hand to me. She is short with raven hair and Eurasian eyes.
She's nervous, partly because I'm a man. Her experience has made that a reason to be wary. However, she pushes aside her angst to talk to me because she's concerned for her younger siblings, and she's making an effort to deal with the past and go forward with her life.
Later, she says she hates men, but she does not say it venomously. And I don't believe it. It's her defense. She has been used badly in her life, and is fearful of more pain.
I suspect that decent treatment will make that prejudice melt like a microwaved ice cube.
When I ask her last name, she hesitates. "It's because I'm not proud of the name. I haven't seen my real father since I was 8 years old, so I don't really like it, his name, if that makes any sense."
Lexi was born in Modesto, the oldest in a family that eventually grew to a mother, stepfather and nine children. The stepfather's uncle would sometimes join the group, plus assorted hangers-on swept up from the street by her stepfather, she says.
What I say next will cause you to blink: The family members - all of them - lived on and off in an RV as they drifted across the state. On occasion they would rent a small house, but nonpayment of rent would soon end each stint. Back to the RV.
Lexi and her younger sister were children of the father she barely remembers. Her mother is a Filipino immigrant who married Lexi's stepfather to gain welfare benefits for children who seemed to increase in number annually, Lexi says.
"I used to sleep in the back of the RV with my brothers and sisters. They would be laying over me in one little ball. They would move constantly. It was really hard living like that."
Lexi was more than a big sister. She was also a stand-in parent. She says her mother would spend much of the day abed in a depressed semi-stupor.
It was left to Lexi to take care of the little ones after she was returned to the family from a period of foster care.
"My mother was always in her own little world. She was always in bed, it seemed. She was always popping out kids and then staying in bed. She was always crying, like every day.
"It was really hard, because I would go to school and then come home and I would have to take care of the babies: preparing meals and changing their diapers and showering them."
In the summer after Lexi finished sixth grade, her family moved to Las Vegas. She was not enrolled in school the next term. Or ever. Sixth grade was the end of her formal education. Because the family did not stay put long enough to be noticed by authorities, she was able to be kept out of school.
After a few months in Las Vegas, the family moved again. I ask where. Lexi says, "That's a good question. Somewhere. We moved somewhere. I just don't remember exactly."
Which brings up something else from Lexi's past: Though she vividly remembers the most impactful events and impressions, details and dates from her childhood and teen years are hit and miss.
That would not surprise child psychologists, who say amnesia of some events from an abused childhood is common.
What Lexi does distinctly, terrifyingly remember is being sexually abused by her stepfather. She tells the story with fists clenched and eyes averted, but she wants to tell the story.
"The first time he molested me, I was 12 years old. The family lived in a trailer, and then off to the side was a little office trailer that he had for himself.
"(It was there) when it first happened. He showed me child pornography, and it was just really weird. He kind of forced me to watch it on a computer. It was just, it was crazy, and so he turns it on, and then I just realized like, ‘Oh, my god. It's a little boy and a little girl touching each other.'
And I'm like, ‘I don't want to see this, like, turn this off.' And he wouldn't. He just kept it on.
"Then he started asking me questions, like, ‘Have you ever seen somebody masturbate?' I was like, ‘No! I don't want to see that. You're supposed to be my stepdad. What's wrong with you?' I mean, I didn't actually say that, but all those things were going on in my head. I did say I didn't want to see it, though."
(I shift uneasily at this detailed description, but I'm not going to censor a painful memory. If she needs to tell it, we need to hear it.)
"Then he started masturbating. In front of me. And then he started touching me and I was just really uncomfortable. I didn't want to be touched down there. I was just frozen, like I didn't know what to do."
Lexi says she eventually told her mother but was met with disbelief and denial.
"She thought I was lying, and she thought I was trying to break up the family. She didn't want to believe it at all."
Lexi says the sexual molestation continued until she was 16 and capable of fighting off her stepfather.
I spoke with Lexi's sister Allie, who is two years younger and living in Las Vegas. Allie says she was present during the years of Lexi's exploitation and was aware of her stepfather's sexual molestation.
She doesn't hesitate.
"I witnessed it happening. I caught him. I saw it. It happened to her, and it happened to me."
Allie also confirms that Lexi was forced to leave school in the sixth grade, then adds sardonically, "Myself, I left in the fifth grade."
I thought briefly of trying to contact the stepfather but decided it would be to no purpose. Were he to admit his stepdaughters' accusations, he could open himself to serious prosecution.
Also, both women do not want any further interaction with him.
Lexi says when she got to the point of maybe going to the police, someone told her it was too late, that the statute of limitations had passed.
She also says that as she grew to young adulthood, her stepfather asked if she would be willing to become an "escort."
"I knew what that meant. I was like, ‘No! How could you even ask me that?' I was so pissed off, and he was like, ‘There's nothing wrong with being an escort.' I just started going off, and then he's like, ‘Well, you never sacrifice anything for this family.'"
As Lexi grew in years, she also became more independent. On one occasion, she left and traveled to Louisiana but discovered there was nothing there for her, and that society could be an uninviting place for such as she.
So, when the family summoned, she returned. Why? She doesn't know why, except she had no place else to go.
Finally, two years ago, when they traveled through San Diego, she split for the last time.
Her trip to Louisiana had been with a platonic guy friend who, at some point - surprise! - wanted to take the relationship to a more intimate place. That didn't exactly excite Lexi, because she had realized that she's a lesbian.
I ask if becoming a lesbian might, at least in part, be the result of her stepfather's grievous treatment.
"I ask myself about that. I don't know."
What I have heard from Lexi is a level of brutality that would cause Dickens to start a new draft in search of a less grim plot. However, Terilyn Burg is the founder of Stand Up for Kids, and in her many years of serving youths with no place to go, she has seen it all.
I ask if she believes Lexi's story.
"With all my heart and soul," she says. "I've known her for over two years, and she is a great girl, honest and loving. Right now, she's training for adult volunteer leadership in Stand Up for Kids.
"The family first stopped by here in their RV a couple of years ago. The purpose was to give all those kids a chance to take a shower."
That is when Lexi broke free of the family and decided not to go back, Terilyn says.
Heather Fitzgerald, center director for Stand Up for Kids, has known Lexi for the same length of time. She says Lexi shows up faithfully to help as a volunteer. She, too, is convinced the young woman is telling the truth about her upbringing.
Heather says, "The things she told you about sexual abuse and how they lived? Her younger sister also told me separately the same thing. I absolutely believe it."
Lexi's ambition is to join the "outside" world and try to find her place in it. But she doesn't know how to begin. She tells of applying for a job at The Cheesecake Factory once, but ended up tongue-tied during the phone interview.
"They asked me questions that I didn't know how to answer. I'd never done anything like that before."
She says her stepfather always told her she was dumb and "mental," and it's obvious the stink of that scurrilous brow-beating has not gone away completely. She works to self-educate through the computer, and I'm frankly impressed by her vocabulary and coherence of thought.
Given her situation, Lexi - somehow - has escaped becoming a drug user, doesn't have "incidental" kids, is not bitter and has not let her brain go to seed.
She has not given up. She knows there is a different way to live that lies beyond the fence of fear that encloses Imperial Avenue. She has not yet learned how to climb, but she's not afraid of heights.
She has survived intact, and weak people do not do that.
If we lose Lexi Howard, what else would we lose?
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net.
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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