Her criminal childhood, her tragic family

BOOK REVIEW

September 20, 1993|By Gregory P. Kane | Gregory P. Kane,Staff Writer

Title: "Life for Me Ain't Been No Crystal Stair"

Author: Susan Sheehan

Publisher: Pantheon

-! Length, price: 174 pages, $21

Crystal Taylor's favorite poem is the Langston Hughes classic, "Mother to Son." The title of Susan Sheehan's book comes from the second line of the poem, in which an impoverished woman tells her son that "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair."

The woman's life has "had tacks in it, and splinters and boards torn up." That's almost a perfect metaphorical description of Crystal Taylor's life, told in the superb reporting style of Ms. Sheehan that won her a Pulitzer Prize for her book "Is There No Place on Earth for Me?"

Sodomized by an uncle at the age of 4 and molested by the superintendent of her apartment building when she was 12, Crystal gave birth to a son at the age of 14 in a Bronx hospital. Her parents were drug addicts, so the hospital discharged her to the foster-care system of New York City. Crystal's odyssey through various foster homes is the main focus of "Life for Me Ain't Been No Crystal Stair," which concludes with Crystal at the age of 21 having been discharged from foster care and gaining custody of her son, who has also been in foster care.

Ms. Sheehan skillfully depicts the maelstrom Crystal's life has become during the seven years in between. Arrested for drug possession at the age of 16, Crystal gets a break from the courts only be arrested at 17 for shoplifting. An uncomfortable night at a detention center makes her mend her ways about stealing, but not about her choice in men.

Showing utter disdain for monogamy, Crystal takes up with several men at a time. A 22-year-old drug dealer got her pregnant when she was 14. She seems to be a groupie for drug dealers, and is continually attracted to this type even after two boyfriends are fatally shot while engaging in drug traffic.

"Crystal is fickle when it comes to men," writes Ms. Sheehan, in what may well be the understatement of the decade. Her assessment is a noble attempt by a liberal, white, middle-class woman to not be judgmental of a poor, black, inner-city teen.

Crystal's "fickleness" almost cost the girl her life. She not only hops nonchalantly from man to man -- trading sexual favors for material rewards -- but some of the men she doesn't even particularly like.

She ruthlessly uses them for monetary gain. One of them, a man in his late 40s, catches on to her scam and shoots her. She escapes with a wound to the hand. He aimed for her head.

Thief, drug addict, sexually indiscriminate -- Crystal is simply not a nice person. But it is to Susan Sheehan's credit that she chooses not to judge Crystal for her actions. Ms. Sheehan simply gives the family history in an attempt to show why Crystal is the way she is.

Her mother, Florence Drummond, is a drug addict and child abuser. "I could only ask Mommy once how to dot the times table," she told Sheehan. "If I didn't get it and asked again, she'd beat me. If I said,'Mommy, I don't think it's fair,' I got hit again. I could never express my feelings without getting a beating."

Florence Drummond's abuse was not only physical. To obtain money for drugs, she had Crystal's younger brother, Carlos, have sex with men. Ms. Drummond would habitually abandon her children from 9 in the morning until 11 at night -- leaving Crystal to care for her younger brothers. One of Florence's boyfriends also forced Crystal into sex when she was 12. Abused, neglected, undisciplined and thrust into a surrogate mother role at a young age, Crystal has had no real childhood. She started using alcohol and drugs before she was a teen-ager.

But Florence Drummond, too, is the victim of an abusive childhood. Her mother, Lavinia Wilson, is a religious zealot who uses "the Lord's direction" to justify beating her children. One of her children has a bladder problem. His mother's solution was to strike matches -- nine in all -- and burn her son's penis with them.

Susan Sheehan has given us this grisly account not to shock, but to inform. With over a half-million children now in foster care, she is trying to wake us up to the criminal way that many of the nation's children are treated. Drastic steps need to be taken to correct conditions that make being a child the most dangerous occupation in the country circa 1993.

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