Isolation magnifies poverty's emotional burden Services to cope are often fewer and less accessible

December 26, 1990|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

LEEDS, Maine -- Barbara Wells never had it easy.

The rural Texas of her home promised mostly hard times. She dropped out of school at 16 to get married. But her husband loved booze more than her. So she took her new baby and fled the hard-clay poverty of Texas for the backwoods poverty of Maine.

She was to marry the father of her second child when he was killed in a fight. Then she met David Grover, a lanky fellow with wavy brown hair and a deceptively gentle air. They made home a weathered yellow trailer behind a "No Trespassing" sign set among the tall pines of central Maine.

He sold watches and jewelry at flea markets, and she got a job when she could. But her tall good looks haunted him, and he accused her of eyeing other men at work.

Even after Crystal, their child, was born in 1987, his boiling jealousies continued. She met his suspicions with scorn, according to friends. Harsh words became blows. She often fled, beaten and bruised, from the trailer. But she always returned. With no job and no money, what could she do? Besides, said her mother, "she loved him."

Said Lynn Medrano, a friend of the couple: "Barbara was caught."

On March 30, 1989, neighbors on the country road near the trailer in Leeds say, they heard Barbara Wells screaming. They did not call police. They had heard it before.

The next morning, a Maine State Police detective, Giles Landry, drove to the trailer to investigate a complaint of possible child abuse. He radioed that a woman came running from the home. She was in the police car, talking to the detective, when David Grover approached from behind.

The first two shots from his .44-caliber Magnum carbine killed Detective Landry. The third shot killed Barbara Wells. He saved his final two shots to claim his own life.

Violence and misery are familiar neighbors to the rural poor. No social class is safe from such troubles, but they breed most fervently where conditions are poor: where families are jammed together, money is scarce, frustrations high and hope low.

Those who work with the rural poor see more entangling problems than just the lack of food, clothing or housing. So often, they say, poverty has a hoary escort of physical abuse, drug dependency or alcoholism, depression, mental or emotional illness, shattered families, and suicide.

"Everything is just magnified 10 times by the poverty: the drinking, the physical and sexual and mental abuse," said Pat Sinicropi, who works with the Maine Coalition for the Homeless in rural Alfred. "There's an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

"Rural people are so isolated from services. When you are poor and there is no one around you, and the closest neighbor is a mile or two away, it's twice as easy to feel lonely and depressed," she said. "There's no place to go. You're locked in there with your problems."

There are few studies to put numbers on their observations. But in the Midwest, when the farm crisis of the mid-1980s stripped so many families of everything they owned, social agencies saw sharp increases in spouse abuse, child abuse, suicide and other casualties of distress.

"Most people have the image of rural areas as idyllic, stress-free. But we have children who are abused, people who are stressed and wives beat up," said Peter Beeson, a planner for the state of Nebraska who ran a study documenting the rise of depression among farmers facing hard times.

William Chamberlain knows such depression. It came as the kick in the ribs when he was already down, beaten by a lifetime of scrabbling to survive.

He never knew his mother. His father abandoned him to a grandmother so poor she took in laundry to earn money for the tar-paper shack where they lived. He picked beans at age 6. By 14, he was on his own, living in a rooming house and working in a slaughterhouse.

He was married at 20 and soon had three children. "We were always poor. Always laborers," he said.

By his mid-30s, he had had enough. He started using drugs, then drinking. "I was worn out. I had been working so long, I felt like I had lived the life of a man already. I never was a kid," he said. "I wanted freedom. I wanted to know what was happening in Funtown, U.S.A. But it all turned out to be bad. I ended up losing every goddamn thing I had."

Divorced, he struggled for another 12 years to make it on his own. In July 1988, his daughter Judy, a 22-year-old model, was strangled in Boston. "When I lost her, it was like a Xerox copy [of myself] was gone," he said.

The murder was unsolved. It happened just as the wool factory where Mr. Chamberlain worked was sold and its employees laid off.

"I just gave up. I was ready for death," he said. "I had lost everything. Here I was in a small, rural town, with no transportation. I was drawing unemployment, and the unemployment was running out. There were no other jobs around. So I was just drinking and drinking and drinking.

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