Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter

We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.

Bitterly she said, “One day I’m gonna buy up this whole place.” We were looking out the barred window of the children’s ward. Josephine swept her hand toward a line of red brick buildings on the St. Elizabeths grounds. Her face was screwed up in fury. “I’m gonna make this into a store with beautiful things. And I’m gonna invite all my friends into it. They can have whatever they want. And you know what? My arms are gonna be loaded with gold. I’m gonna have gold bracelets all the way from here,” moving her finger from her shoulder to her wrist, “to here. Loaded with gold.”

Josephine Wise was 13. She was locked up here because she had swallowed a bottle of pills. She swallowed a bottle of pills because she was deeply, deeply angry. She was angry because…because…well, there was the sodomy attack when she was 11. She was mad because her mother didn’t believe her when Josephine ran screaming from the house and because the criminal trial of the attacker ended in a not-guilty verdict. She was mad about all that, and the breakup of the household, and her mother’s anger…until finally she just wanted to go to sleep for a long, long time. So they put her in St. E’s.

Josephine did everything she could to escape from St. E’s, and succeeded at least twice. There was no holding her anywhere; she was faster than quicksilver. Pop her into a group home and she was out the back door before you could blink. Send her away to residential “treatment” and she would start a riot. Enroll her in a hospital psychiatric ward and she would kick out the air conditioner and slide out the hole.

She roamed D.C.’s alleys, rode in fine, fast cars, spent the money her boyfriends gave her, hid their guns and dope, and was beaten up in public and private, often.

“I fell down the stairs.”

“I bumped into a piano.”

During the criminal trial of Rayful Edmond III, Josephine said, “I know the gentleman well.”

Oh, and she slept. It seemed like a six-month-on, six-month-off schedule. She would work obsessively with high energy for half the year, moving to the top of her class in school work, holding down a job, taking care of other family members, keeping up a social life….And then the house of cards would flutter down. She would fall into a shadowy depression, sleep the day and night away, forget to go to school…just stop. Even after she began to have kids, she would just not care. Her great aunt, who took her in again and again, was sick with worry. Other family members rallied ’round, tried to rouse her during these long dark periods. For Josephine has a luminous nature even in her bluest moods, and people are attracted to her heat and light. They hover and worry and care. “Just leave me alone,” Josephine said.

One day in her great aunt’s home, sitting on the big bed upstairs with a babe in arms, a son crawling on the floor, and her oldest son off with her mother, Josephine could see her life ahead. It stretched out in small rooms where the blinds were pulled, where she was kicked and humiliated by brutal men, bored and embarrassed waiting for food stamps, and always having too little too late.

And she had a sudden vision of a house where she and her children could live for their whole lives; grandchildren could live there, too. The door would never be shut against her family. How far away was that house from the bed she sat on?

One of her cousins had a house. Josephine called her up right then. “How do I get a house?”

“To get a house,” the cousin said, “you have to start out with no place to live. That’s the only way you can get help in this town. Go to a shelter with your children.”

Josephine went downstairs and said to her great aunt: “I want you to throw me out, right now. No matter what, I don’t want you to let me back in that door. Me and my kids are leaving.” Great aunt cried, but Josephine, stubborn as always, was on fire with this vision.

That very night Josephine and her children entered the intake office for the city’s sprawling shelter system. And even that night Josephine was recognized as someone special. She seemed so calm, so intent, so sure of herself. The intake officer hesitated, moving her finger back and forth between the name of the huge city shelter and the name of a small shelter with good social services run by a religious group. She gave Josephine a second careful look. She chose the small shelter.

Today, at the age of 23, Josephine is gorgeous, healthy, and full of high spirits and expectations. She is one year away from a registered-nurse degree from the University of the District of Columbia.

It’s been four years since Josephine had the vision on her great aunt’s bed—yes, four exactly, because her babe in arms is now 4 years old, and her sons are 5 and 7. Her accomplishments are stunning: a two-year practical nursing degree, a job in a nursing home where she is loved, a tidy, pleasant apartment, a central position in her family as a wise and educated woman, and one more year to go before college graduation. She can almost touch the brass doorknob on a house of her own.

She is loaded with gold. CP