If one had to summarize Denise Whitt’s past in one word, that word might be “harm.”
Harm that others have done to her. Harm she has done to others. And, most of all, harm she has done to herself.
She seems to embody this word. In the scars on her body and face. The track marks on her arms. The pain in her gait. The void in her gaze. And the dark timbre in her voice and the gravity of its cadence.
“I’ve had one helluva life,” says Denise, 53. This is an understatement, one comes to learn, as she slowly draws the details, one measure at a time, from the well of memory.
Each defining event Denise recounts illustrates how fortunate she is to be alive. But she is reconciled with her dramatic story and knows its purpose now: To be told in the hope that it might influence another to avoid some of the harm she has known.
Denise tells her story seated at the kitchen table in her Detroit apartment. She lives there because of a housing voucher provided by the Supportive Housing program at Southwest Solutions. Before the voucher arrived, she was living in a halfway house for former felons.
The west-side apartment is only seven blocks from where Denise grew up and where her mother still lives. Denise’ father was an autoworker. There were eight children in the family, six of them boys.
Denise says that she was “daddy’s little girl,” safe in his embrace, until age 11, when she had her first period. After that, he turned away. “I had a real hatred for my dad,” she says, ”because he gave up on me for no reason other than one I could not help.”
At 12, she fell in with a much older and wayward crowd. She skipped school and ran away from home repeatedly. She started smoking weed and popping pills. And she was already sexually active.
Denise stopped her drug use when she learned she was pregnant at age 14. After her baby girl Danita was born, Denise began using again. Her father expelled both of them from the house. Danita was seven months old.
Denise ramped up her reckless behavior. She and an older man embarked on a spree of armed robberies. They broke into homes, and held up party stores, liquor trucks and dope dens. The spree abruptly ended when, in a fit of jealous rage, Denise’s partner in crime shot her twice in the back and left her for dead. She was 15.
While she was in the hospital, Denise’s father located her little girl and brought Danita home. Denise’s parents decided to adopt her.
As Denise began to recover, her mother said to her, “You are a blessed child.” Denise answered sarcastically under her breath, “Yeah, right.” In the back of her mind, Denise says, she was already thinking, “The party life is just getting started.”
After a stint in the Wayne County Youth Home, Denise got an apartment and collected welfare. She continued to sell and use drugs, and then hooked up with a major heroin dealer. She moved to Bloomfield Hills into his “mansion,” as she describes it. For two years, she lived a lavish lifestyle, shooting up the white powder served on gold platters.
Back in Detroit, Denise resumed her life of stealing and dealing – this time to support her heroin habit. One day she went to visit her daughter with the intention of taking her mother’s money when her mother left the room. Denise’s hands trembled as she reached for the purse, and a fever of self-revulsion overcame her. She ran from the home screaming.
Determined to stop using heroin, Denise went cold turkey and drank heavily to try to tranquillize the excruciating withdrawal pain. Ultimately, she collapsed and nearly died from double pneumonia.
Still, Denise saw no reason to change her life. Indeed, she felt that almost nothing could extinguish her aggressive instinct to survive.
A few years later, in December of 1983, Denise and her brother Dennis Jr. were drinking their father’s favorite liquor to mark their late father’s birthday. He had died three years prior. And he, too, was an alcoholic. As the night wore on, Denise passed out, in a drunken and drug-induced stupor.
When she came to, Dennis was on top of her, holding a knife to her throat, and raping her. He cut deep gashes on both sides of her neck, then lifted her bodily, and threw her out the window of her second-story apartment. Denise’s head just missed hitting the sidewalk, a blow that doctors’ said would have likely decapitated her. The knife wounds severed one of her vocal cords, roughening her voice thereafter.
At his trial for rape and attempted murder, Dennis was asked why he did it. “I just don’t like the b____,” he said. “She don’t deserve nothing.”
Five years later, Denise herself went to prison for the first time. She was convicted of setting fire to the house she shared with a man after catching him in bed with her best friend. She served nine months.
In the summer of 1991, an intruder came into Denise’s apartment while she slept and tried to rape her. Because of the incident with her brother, Denise kept a knife under her pillow. She plunged it into the back of the attacker as he lay on top of her. He died later of his injuries.
Denise served seven and a half years for manslaughter. During that time, she finally started to focus on bettering herself. She sought help for her psychological issues, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress disorder, and began medication and therapy regularly. She completed her GED and earned two dozen certificates for workshops and trainings.
When she got of prison, her family threw her a party. Dennis was there. Denise walked up to him and embraced him.
“If God can forgive me for all I did, who am I not to forgive my brother,” Denise says.
Denise had changed, but had few options as an ex-convict to fend for herself. She violated her probation and was sent back to prison.
She got out in late 2005 and lived in three different halfway houses for the next three years. Without any means of support, she was about to be homeless. She talked to a friend she had met in prison and the friend told her about Southwest Solutions.
Denise met with Jamie Ebaugh, a caseworker in the Supportive Housing program. “I begged Jamie to help me,” Denise says. “I told him that my heart and my blood were clean, but I had nowhere to go. I said that I would rather die than live on the streets. I still feel that way.”
Denise says that Jamie worked tirelessly to find her a voucher, income support, and a place to stay. When he called her to say that things had come through, she broke down and wept in utter relief.
“People like Denise who come out of prison and are rehabilitated face tremendous deficits and obstacles to getting their lives together,” says Jamie, who now directs the Supportive Housing program. “Without help, they lose hope and often wind up on the streets and then back in prison.”
In addition to housing assistance, Denise receives support services through the Homeless Assertive Community Treatment (HACT) team. HACT provides counseling and access to resources. “The team keeps me grounded,” Denise says.
Denise attends group therapy at the Housing Resource Center where the Supportive Housing program is based. The group is comprised of women only, and Denise looks upon its members as practically her sisters.
The ties that bind mean everything to Denise now, particularly those with her daughter’s family. Danita and her husband live in the suburbs and have four children.
“My daughter is proud of me now,” Denise says. “We talk open and honestly, and I pray that my grandchildren will learn from my mistakes and never have to endure the pain that I did.”
Danita is studying nursing now that her children are older. “My daughter is living my dream,” Denise says. “I wanted to be a nurse since I was a little girl. I was such a good student in grade school. I felt I could become anything I wanted to be.”
She pauses, and sighs. “If only.”