One afternoon when she was 8 years old, C.J. Brooks returned to her Park View home from school expecting one of the daily beatings to which she claims her mother subjected her—using extension cords, dog chains, broken mop handles, whatever she could find. Instead, she found the living-room furniture, along with her parents, gone. Brooks headed back to school to wait. But, she writes in her memoir, I…And When: A Disposable Child, “No one came to retrieve me.”
That moment is the turning point of I…And When, but after it, Brooks’ life doesn’t get easier. She’s taken in by a kleptomaniac school librarian with two delinquent sons, and the school bullies continue to torment her. Finally, she escapes to Pennsylvania to enroll in Job Corps.
Brooks, who believes she is 46 (one of the things her parents disappeared with is her birth certificate), began writing her memoir in 2004 at the urging of a roommate. Since the memoir’s first printing the same year, Brooks has dedicated her life to promoting her book and raising awareness of child abuse and abandonment. She typically wakes up at 3 a.m., goes for a swim at 6, then returns to her 16th Street Heights apartment to spend the rest of the day at her computer harvesting e-mail addresses. She says she has phoned, faxed, or e-mailed approximately 100,000 people from across the country asking them to visit her site, voice their support for her cause by signing the guestbook, and buy a book.
These strangers aren’t always receptive to Brooks’ random solicitations. One of her e-mails was mocked by Maui Time Weekly’s “Ask an Annoying Press Release” column. Brooks tends to respond to such slights by adding to the three lists of enemies that she keeps on her Web site: corporations that have declined to support her cause, an e-mail directory of people who “had absolutely NOTHING to contribute to our fight for the Lives and Rights of Abused and Abandoned Children,” and “African-American women representing Churches, Banks, Hospitals, Schools, and other Establishments who have…chosen to COMPLETELY ignore our efforts.”
“You just can’t write companies and ask them to do something for you like that and get upset when they can’t,” says Kaelyn Jones, who corresponded with Brooks on behalf of Delta Airlines (and eventually got corporate security involved). “That’s unfair.”
Many of the people on Brooks’ shit lists don’t remember receiving anything from her at all. Baltimore pastor Laurene Mackel was shocked to hear that Brooks had branded her an enemy of child welfare. “This is really strange,” she says.
Brooks says she donates 100 percent of proceeds from book sales, which she says are up to about 5,000 copies, to Children’s Hospital and Hurricane Katrina victims, but it’s unclear how Brooks thinks someone signing her guestbook will benefit abused children. “I just want to be used, to be a tool,” she explains. “The ideal outcome for me is for someone to realize how hard I’m working and the fact that I’m willing to step up here and open up my wounds. I want to educate, but I don’t know where to start.”
Recently, however, Brooks made a small step toward reconciliation: She removed a couple of the lists from her Web site. “I thought about it hard,” she says. “It shouldn’t matter what a lot of people’s opinions think. I was kind of using them as a crutch. I can’t make people care. I can just hope people care. Why am I taking up all this space on my Web site when I could be using it for more positive things?”
“I think I’m at a point where I can stand up,” she says, biting her lip and wiping away tears. “That’s it. I can stand up and swing back.”—Huan Hsu