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Happy families are all alike. Dysfunctional families interest me more.
This September, Washington Post reporter Leon Dash chronicled Rosa Lee Cunningham’s chilling life and times. The eight-part series revealed that in her 58 years, Rosa Lee has left no social ill unturned: Dash unsparingly recounted her prostitution, drug addiction, theft, illiteracy, and AIDS infection. He also covered the family that raised her, and the family she raised; and during the four years he spent reporting the story, Dash made himself almost a member of that family.
In fact, in his role as a passive reporter, Dash became what 12-steppers call an “enabler.” He saw Rosa Lee shoplift, but didn’t turn her in to the store manager. He stood by as Rosa Lee and her daughter injected themselves with heroin. And when Rosa Lee stretched the truth before the D.C. Superior Court, he sat quiet. Rosa Lee knew that the reporter didn’t approve of those actions, but he didn’t stop her, either.
When I read the Post series, I marveled at Dash’s relationship with his subject, at the way that she manipulated him, and the way that he knew she was manipulating him. They bickered. He nagged her. She threatened to go upside his head. Rosa Lee and Dash left behind the usual cool relationship of source and reporter, and instead behaved like two people yoked by marriage or kinship—more familiar breeding grounds of codependence.
As a reporter, I read about their love/irritation relationship the way I stare at car wrecks: Thank God I wasn’t in that one. Even after I wrote about a family squabble the article touched off, I thought I’d maintained a safe distance from my sources.
I was in denial. Rosa Lee’s family emits a powerful field of dysfunction, and that field eventually sucked me in.
After the Post series, Rosa Lee’s half-sister, Wanda Wright, called the Washington City Paper. She charged that the stories had deeply wronged her mother, Rosetta Wright. Rosa Lee described Rosetta as illiterate, emotionally abusive, and unconcerned about Rosa Lee’s education. Wanda contended that just the opposite was true, and I reported her complaints (see “Rosa Lee’s Mom,” The District Line, 9/30).
Shortly after that story appeared, Rosa Lee called me; Dash had given her my number. We talked for 20 minutes, and I wrote a short item about our conversation (see “Family Feud,” The District Line, 10/14). I also agreed to stretch the boundaries of our reporter/source relationship. Rosa Lee pleaded with me to relay her phone number to Wanda, and I promised that I would.
Wanda—now a married, middle-class mother of two—wants nothing to do with her half-sister, especially since Dash’s series appeared. She asks to be identified by her maiden name, so that casual acquaintances won’t connect her to Rosa Lee. When I gave her the phone number, Wanda said she’d have to think a lot before calling.
In the weeks that have passed, Wanda has defended her mother’s honor on WPFW-FM. But she hasn’t called Rosa Lee.
This week, Rosa Lee once again begged me to make Wanda call her. And once again, Wanda declined to do so. The situation isn’t improving, and I am stuck in the middle.
Things could be worse. I think they are for Leon Dash.
Though Dash has finished reporting on Rosa Lee, he remains entangled in her life; she ranks him more dependable than her own children. She says happily that he and his daughter plan to accompany her to church on Sunday, and that he stays in touch by telephone. “When I have a problem, I call him,” she says. “If Mr. Dash knows I need him, he will come. I’ve told him that when I’m in the hospital dying, I want him to have my last words.”
Rosa Lee seems to revel in the limelight that Dash has brought her. The series transformed her into a minor celebrity, a spokesperson for the underclass and recovering drug addicts. She’s appeared on a TV newscast and spoken to nonprofit groups; after one such appearance, she says, a representative of Marion Barry’s campaign asked her to endorse the candidate publicly.
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Such an endorsement boggles the mind. Most of Dash’s series depicted Rosa Lee as the sort of fiend who haunts taxpayers’ nightmares: lawless, addicted, on the dole, and unrepentant. But Dash also reported that she accepted Christ at a church in North Carolina, and Rosa Lee claims that she’s walked with the Lord ever since. Her story of a fantastically sinful past, erased by redemption and recovery, resonates powerfully with Christian teachings—and also with Barry’s personal mythos.
As election day neared, Rosa Lee had yet to appear or schedule an appearance on Barry’s behalf, and the campaign did not return my calls to confirm the invitation. All the same, Rosa Lee says she is proud to have been asked. “I don’t know nothing about Marion Barry,” she says. “But I’ll speak. I’ll speak the truth.”
Leon Dash’s phone call made me realize I’d gone too far, gotten too enmeshed.
Dash sounded aggrieved. He’d just talked to Eric Wright, one of Rosa Lee’s sons. Eric had told him that—according to Wanda—I’d accused Dash of journalistic improprieties. The chain of conversations made me dizzy: Dash said that Eric said that Wanda said that I said. According to pop psychologists, members of dysfunctional families cannot communicate clearly with one another; their meanings drown in a soup of mystification, preconceived roles, ancient hurts, and current anger. Here we had an entire chain of conversations, with information apt to be misconstrued at every link.
John Bradshaw would be proud of me: I did my best to get things out in the open. Yes, I admitted to Dash, I’d told Wanda that if the Post had printed her brother Jay’s name against Jay’s wishes, then Dash stood clearly in the wrong. But that story hadn’t checked out: Jay admitted that he’d given Dash the go-ahead, and Dash had taped Jay’s consent.
No, I hadn’t told Wanda that Dash stood to reap an enormous financial gain from Rosa Lee’s story, or that Dash had somehow paid Rosa Lee for her cooperation. In fact, Wanda had raised those possibilities to me; she told me that Alvin, another of Rosa Lee’s sons, had said that Rosa Lee planned to foot her grandchildren’s college bills with the money she’d make off Dash’s series. Dash told me that Rosa Lee had, in fact, spread that tale among her acquaintances, and explained that she wanted to offer them a reasonable motive for cooperating with a reporter. I asked Rosa Lee herself about the story; she said that her friends had wrongly assumed that she’d make money off the deal, but that she wasn’t responsible for the rumor.
And so on, with other charges, all equally complicated. I think that Dash and I have made our peace. I can’t speak for the rest of the family.
Something about Rosa Lee’s family draws me back once again. I decide to interview Eric. Of Rosa Lee’s eight children, two have never used drugs, never been in prison, and have clearly escaped the underclass. Eric is one of those. He works at temporary jobs, and lives with his wife and two daughters in a modest Prince Georges County apartment.
Eric’s dining-room chairs are the color of cream and encased in clear plastic. Plastic also shields the pink candles on the table. Eric seems awed by the physical comfort he and his wife have achieved—“all this,” he says, looking reverently around the room—and is determined to protect that achievement.
Plastic also covers some of the clippings from Dash’s series; Eric laminated them, and keeps them readily available in a file folder. He admits that he still hasn’t finished all eight installments, and jokes that shaky reading skills are “a family trait.” But he praises the parts that he has read, and seems to enjoy being interviewed. When I ask if he minds my taping our conversation, he shakes his head and smiles with the familiarity of an old pro.
I ask about the subject at hand: Eric’s grandmother, Rosetta. Eric’s memory of her jibes more closely with Rosa Lee’s than with Wanda’s. He still seethes with resentment toward his grandmother, and says that Rosetta treated him and his siblings like second-class relatives, allowing them to eat at her table only after her own children had finished. “I didn’t have a name,” Eric remembers bitterly. “I was always “Rosa Lee’s child.’ ”
I call Wanda to see if she still remembers the world differently. I like Eric. I also like Wanda. In their soft, round faces, I see a family resemblance; they both pride themselves on their singing voices, and on their insistence on speaking the truth.
Once again I insert myself into the middle of their family feud. Wanda contends that Rosetta treated Eric and his siblings like her own children, and flat-out denies that Eric ever had to wait for his aunts and uncles to finish eating. When she has reached a high pitch of exasperation with him, she says, “Well, that’s Rosa Lee’s child.” (Score one for Eric.)
I told Wanda about my conversation with Dash. She moaned, “That’s just like my family, to keep things going on and on and on.” I sat up straight in my chair, caught by an ugly realization. I, too, was keeping this thing going on and on and on.
I tell Wanda that this will be the last story I write about her family. I too am in recovery. My name is Lisa, and I am a reporter.