I usually prepare for interviews. Granted it’s not very much work because the people I interview generally aren’t people that are interviewed. Or in other words, they’re not celebrities that have much content on the web but more of what Arrested Development sang about in the nineties. They’re your “everyday people.” Still, I’ll Google a name or find someone who knows this person so that I can probe a bit and come prepared to the interview with a list of questions. However, none of that happened in this case.
I was sitting in Chick-fil-a minding my own business and enjoying a number one combo with no pickles and a sweet tea when Lisa interrupted me.
“Hi, excuse me,” she began. “Do you remember me?”
She did look familiar. Turns out she’s worked at the Pier 1 Imports I frequent for the past three years. As she told me this, it all started coming together.
“Anyhow, I went to your book signing. It was absolutely amazing,” she continued. Of course, now she had my full attention. “Mind if I join you?”
Quickly, Lisa jumped into conversation about how she’s been told she should write books, too. She wanted to know how I was published, and was impressed to learn I started my own independent publishing company. My knee jerk reaction to her inquiries were more like, “Oh brother, here we go,” although, I didn’t say that out loud.
“So why do you think you should write books?” I asked her.
“People have told me I should tell my story,” she answered.
“What’s your story?”
“Well,” she said, and then she paused for a brief moment, staring me right in the eye. “My daughter was murdered three years ago.”
I nearly dropped my sandwich.
Before she was too much further into her story, I cut her off. “Look, you obviously are familiar with what I do. Would you like to tell your story to me? I mean, will you please let me interview you?”
And that’s how this interview happened. There was no set-up date, or any time to do research. I simply pulled out my recorder and said, “Um, okay. So this is the first time I’m completely unprepared for an interview … bare with me. “ And she did.
Jana: What did you have planned today?
Lisa: Well, today I was off work. So I’m trying to sell some of my mini-paintings—praying and hoping something will come along to get me a little further in the art world.
How do you normally go about selling your art?
I don’t have a car so I’ve been walking around to places and selling to people I know. I have some of my big pieces hangin’ downtown in City Arts Factory. I’m gettin’ ready for the library.
What’s happening at the library?
I’m the featured artist there for May and June. I get to hang my work on the first floor, and sell it too. To me it’s pretty special because it’s the first place that’s asked me to hang my work. It’s also a huge place that’s all about learning.
What do you hope to achieve by hanging your art in the library?
I hope to get recognition and get my name out there a little bit more. Hopefully, I’ll make some money from it. For me, I think that my art is a lot more than just art. There is a whole lot attached to it, as far as things I want to do with my life, like helping other people. I feel art is going to be the way for me to own those things.
What inspires your paintings?
Well, I want to do something different, something from my heart, something of my own. I want it to be inspirational. I want my art to give someone something if they need it, or keep them going. I did a series of butterflies once, and I did it because butterflies symbolize transformation. I did that so the person that bought the paintings could relate to whatever transformations they were going through.
What type of paintings do you lean towards?
I don’t know the terminology for it because I didn’t ever take classes for any of it. But I can tell you that I draw lines, and I tell stories with those lines.
How did you know that you were an artist?
Well, my daughter kept giving me that title. I’ve always liked art. I’ve always appreciated beauty in odd things, I guess. It something I’ve always wanted to be. I just never have had the guts to do it. Fear has kept me from doing anything.
What’s been the motivating factor for your recent work?
My daughter was murdered three years ago when she was just fifteen. It’s forced me to become a new person. I want that new person to be the best she can be. I want to use my gifts, and help other people. Do a lot of good. I feel I’ve been given some talent, and I need to use it, not let it just sit there. I have the understanding that all the suffering I’ve been through is actually going to empower me.
Do you mind if we talk about your daughter for a bit?
No! I don’t mind talking about her. It hurts, but I like talking about her. I’m very proud of her.
How was she murdered?
It was an older boyfriend that I didn’t know about and two other people. She was the girl that was found in the retention pound on Lake Underhill and Goldenrod.
It was her older boyfriend?
Yeah. I didn’t know about him. There was a rumor going around that Jackie was pregnant, which she wasn’t. He had already had a girlfriend that was his age. He didn’t want her to find out about my daughter. So his bright idea was to kill her. I guess he thought he wouldn’t have to worry about it. And so, yeah, all three of them, him and his two friends, murdered her.
Do you know what they did to her?
Actually, the story was spared from the media. I asked and prayed for that to happen. I didn’t want it to be this media circus. I wanted whatever message to be told from my daughter’s story to be a positive one. You know what I mean?
If it would’ve blown up like other stories had at the time, the focus would have been off of the good that could have come from it. I’m thankful. Even the trial was pretty private. People were everywhere but no one talked to us. A lady from The Sentinel told me the person covering the story had had an emergency, and then another person forgot about it. There were all these odd things that prevented the media from having too much access. Still, we do know what happened.
After nine months, the girl that helped [murder Jackie] up and confessed. She said Jackie had been haunting her in her dreams for those nine months, and she couldn’t take it anymore. That’s how we finally got to know what happened.
Apparently, the guy wanted her to stab my daughter. They had Jackie meet them somewhere. I guess Jackie kept trying to leave and saying things like, “I gotta leave. I gotta go home and see my Mom.” She knew something was up, and even called someone to come get her. Anyhow, they kept her there and the girl tried to stab her. Jackie took the knife from her and broke it in half. She was very strong, a Navy ROTC, skilled in martial arts, but I also know she loved them. The girl said that Jackie kept saying, “I love you. Please don’t hurt me.” So when the girl couldn’t stab her, I guess they started wrestling around or whatever and somehow Jackie slipped. Now, I haven’t listened to the confession myself. I heard this part of it in court. There are some parts that I don’t exactly know about yet, you know? I just haven’t been able to be at that place yet, to listen to it all.
When Jackie slid, I guess one of the guys got a hold of her arms and held her down. The girl started choking her. Only she couldn’t finish it. She felt that Jackie still had a pulse. So the guy, her boyfriend, stomped on her throat and dragged her into the water. Until this day, I still don’t know the exact cause of death. During the trial, I made me and my family leave the court room. We didn’t need to see those pictures. It was too much on top of everything else that was going on.
What happened to those three involved in the murder?
Well, after she confessed, the [boyfriend] was already in jail for something else, but he was charged with murder in the first degree and received life. The girl that confessed got thirty years, and when she gets out of jail she will be transferred to Bosnia. Actually, you know in the Casey Anthony thing? She is one of those girls Casey has been writing letters too. Then the other guy got manslaughter, which I wasn’t happy about. He helped. He knew what he was doing. So I think he deserved more than that. I think the jury had some sympathy for him because he had just started hanging out with these people, and at some point he did say to stop. He still continued to help though.
The way I see it is … I have to be satisfied with that. It didn’t come out by the police. It came out by more miraculous things. At the trial, it was that girl’s word that held up in court. The police didn’t do the DNA evidence like they were supposed to. They waited eleven months to test under Jackie’s fingernails. They found forty-one hairs on her and didn’t test a single one of them. So they kind of dropped the ball on that. What made the final conviction was the girlfriend that he was trying keep, well, she called him while they were trying to kill my daughter. He answered the phone and she heard Jackie screaming, “Why are you doing this to me? I love you. Please don’t hurt me,” and she testified against him. So the girlfriend he was trying to keep was the one who ultimately testified against him, and the one who had him locked up for life. This came by God, and so I have to be satisfied with it. You know what I mean? They are going to have their own private hell that they have to go through. I have to be at peace with that.
Do you feel that there is such a thing as justice being served?
I feel that if we were a higher social status, and I wasn’t a single mom, things might have been different. I think [the case] would have been more of a priority. A lot of times, when it comes to teenagers, the sheriff’s department blows things off.
How does a mother pick-up and keep going after something like this happens?
It’s definitely not an easy thing to do. Unless you have a strong foundation, it’s hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel. It just doesn’t make sense. It robs you of your identity. When you’re a parent, especially to someone like Jackie who was such an accomplished child, I wanted her to flourish and do all the good things she was suppose to do. My life became about her. So I think I had to make a lot of conscious choices. Like, for example, with her not being here, I have to live for both of us now. And if I can’t carry on, then what was it all for?
She wanted to be a motivational speaker when she was eleven, when most kids that age don’t care. I understand that I have to be the voice for her now. For me personally, I have a lot of faith in God. So I turned everything over to him. It’s amazing how when something so significant is taken away, your eyes see things for what it is, and everything becomes more precious. That was part of the perspective I took. We don’t know when things can be taken away from us. Praying about things and trusting God was a huge part of recovery. I feel that, for me, painting is not just about painting, it’s about faith, vision and perseverance
When you find out something like this … how … where … um … I’m sorry. I’m just trying to wrap my head around all this.
Like, what was my thought process? That’s a horrible story, too. I was at my job. The police called and asked me, “When was the last time you saw your sister?” I said, “What do you mean? She only works a couple of doors down.” That’s when they told me that they were trying to identify a body, and that they had found my business card in this person’s pocket. Jackie was six-foot-one, so they probably didn’t think of her as a child at first. I told them about some tattoos she wasn’t supposed to get, one for her grandfather and brother.** They put me on hold. I told the people at my job, “Um, look, they’re trying to identify a body here. If I hit the floor, you know why.” I was on hold for-ever. Sure enough, they came back and I hit the floor.
What they told me was to go home and wait for the police. I went home and the news people were the first to knock on my door. I didn’t know why they were knocking on my door exactly. I called the police to ask why and they said they didn’t know either. Then I turned on the TV and I seen it—that’s how I found out. I heard, saw, “The girl found in the retention pond is Harriet Jacqueline Curtis.” Before anyone had told me what was going on, I saw it on the news. Do you know I couldn’t watch the news for a year-and-a-half after that? I just couldn’t. That really traumatized me. That wasn’t how I was supposed to find out. No one from the Sheriff’s office even came to see me for three weeks.
So what did you do then? Lock yourself up in the house?
To process information like that [pauses] … I’ve never been asked this question, sorry … but I want to answer it the right way. [pauses] Okay. Because of my faith, I knew if I was given this it was for a reason. Of course I was devastated. I loved my daughter, and that wasn’t something I ever saw happening. [pauses] I didn’t really do the whole “Why?” thing because I felt it was silly. There was no way I was going to understand it in that moment anyway. I’m a thinker. I guess at that moment, I was probably stepping towards accepting it. Know what I mean? I couldn’t try to figure it all out, yet. I wasn’t ready.
I don’t know. My whole life I’ve always had it rough. I’ve always had to roll with punches and make adjustments accordingly, adapt. I guess maybe I’m programmed to adapt to things. I don’t know. At that moment, I know I had peace and understanding that came from God and that trumped any other kinds of attempts of understanding.
Not too long after it happened, I asked God, “Help me understand this.” I was reading my Bible a lot back then, and I opened it up right to the crucifix, the part where God willingly gives his son for all of us. I felt he took my daughter for a higher purpose and who am I to argue with that?
Do you have any advice or words of encouragement to any other families that may go through something similar?
Yeah. Eventually, I’d like to start a program to help people go through that process. And to the ones that already have a foundation, to encourage them and let them know other people will see them. Because I’ve been through it, I understand it. Yes, it hurts. Yes, it’s devastating. But being bitter and angry is only going to hurt you.
What do you think about when you think about Jackie?
It varies. Sometimes I see families and I think, “Man, I wish I had that kind of life again.” Sometimes I see other kids and I smile. It reminds of youthfulness. When I do good things, like paint, I think of how proud of me she is. I see this as a responsibility. I’m supposed to do something with this. I take it seriously. Thinking about it all and what it means. What I’m suppose to give to other people and so on.
And that’s why you’ve turned to painting?
I’ve always wanted to do something creative. Painting is a release. It’s a way to tell myself messages, like when I’m working on a piece that has to do with perseverance, in that same message I’m thinking about what it’s going to take for me to keep going on and how it will translate for someone else. I can paint pretty things, but I want to paint pieces that change people.
What do you think Jackie would tell you if she was here right now?
She’d say, “Stop crying Mom!” She always told me that I was a survivor. The weirdest thing was that she was singing karaoke at this place, and I came in the door and she made me sit down in the front, in front of everyone. She said, “I’m gonna sing ‘I’m a Survivor’ for my Mom because that’s what she is,” and she sang the song. I never forgot that. I had no idea what that was really going to me for me in the future. I think she did. She informed of a lot of things that I needed to know. I don’t give myself enough credit sometimes. I see me how I see me.
And how is that?
I see myself as … well, here’s a good way of looking at it. My friend asked me a few years back, “If you could be any fish, which fish would you be?” I thought it was a stupid question. But instantly I knew my answer. I said, “I am one of those fish that live way deep in the bottom of the ocean.” Have you ever seem them? It’s pitch black and you can’t see any light down there. Those are the most odd fish because they’re totally transparent, but it’s okay that they’re transparent because they’re insides are bright reds, yellows and blues. That’s the kind of fish that I am.
People that know me can see that I’m a good person. The thing is nobody sees me because I’m at the bottom of the ocean and there’s no light there. This man told me one time, he said, “Lisa, think about it. When man discovered that those fish were down there. What did they do? They spent billions of dollars on equipment to get down there and see those fish.” So I guess that’s where I feel I am. I feel that I’m beautiful. I’m smart. I have a big heart, and a lot to give. But no body ever sees me because I’m at the bottom. But I’m ready to be seen. I’m ready for some light.
*Interview date: April, 13, 2010
** Jackie’s brother was born with both physical and mental disabilities. Upon learning the quality of her son’s care would increase under different circumstances, Lisa agreed to doing an open adoption with a wealthier family in St. Cloud. Her son lived thirteen years longer than expected, and passed away just last year. “At least I know Jackie was there to welcome him with open arms,” said Lisa, after I had turned the recorder off.