by JoAnn Lagace as told to Leslie Dunn

It didn’t matter that she married one of my ex-boyfriends. There were many, even though I was only seventeen. Genuinely curious, I asked her, “How’s your baby doing?”

She looked me in the eyes and said, “Better than yours.”

Six months earlier I had given birth to a stillborn son.

My field of vision pinpointed, turned blood red and a demon took control. On River Street in Savannah, Georgia – home of one of America’s city-wide parties – I pummeled the woman intent on killing her. My friend grabbed my arm and yelled, “The police are coming!” I drew back my foot and viciously kicked the inert woman’s back and ran.


I was born in 1966 in Rhode Island. My dad died from leukemia when I was only eighteen months old. My widowed mother never remarried and raised five children. I was the middle child. My grandfather gave me extra dollops of love, his “Petune” (Little One), until he died when I was five.

By age seven, I tolerated gradually increasing pain in my left leg until paralysis disabled it. I was diagnosed with Legg Perthes, a congenital disease that inhibits the flow of blood to the head of the thigh bone until it dies with no further growing and lengthening of the bone. Surgery was not an option due to my age. The doctor put me in a brace the full length of my leg and crutches provided me with limited mobility. But it was not the constant pain, the diagnosis nor the brace and crutches that spawned seeds of anger that grew to rage. It was the bullies at school. After a vicious push down cement steps, a concussion rendered me blind for four hours. Another time, a boy jumped on my back and, with my braced leg stuck in a locked position, I helplessly spun in circles while he rode me like an over-burdened foal.

My mother transferred my handicapped fat butt to six different schools. Each one added doses of bully poison that eventually killed the little girl I once was. Along the way, I discovered a new way to be. Rather than waiting for other children to victimize me, I bullied them first. I cured bullying by becoming one of them. And I was The Best.

I didn’t leave tormenting others behind when I left school each day. I took it home. My mother tried a geographical cure and moved us to Savannah, Georgia where her brother lived. My older siblings babysat me while Mom worked three jobs but they were now old enough to be on their own which left me to babysit my younger brother and sister. I saw the responsibility as just one more on a growing list of things I didn’t deserve and it shames me to think of how I treated them. I thank God that they forgave me and we now have a close relationship.

I discarded the brace and crutches when I entered high school at age fourteen and discovered boys and alcohol. My anger devolved into rage and defined who I was for the next twenty-seven years. I was overweight and walked with a limp due to the affected leg being shorter than the other. I tried to mask the limp by walking on my toes but the girl who walked on her toes isn’t what classmates would say that they remember about me. “JoAnn? She’s the one that set dumpsters on fire outside the school,” and, “She walked on the school roof.” “She beat a girl a year after she called JoAnn a bitch. And the girl didn’t even remember saying it!” My worst? “She tried to kill the principal.” A staff member deflected the chair I threw at the principal who expelled me and sent me to an alternative school.

A week after the transfer I tried to throw a boy out of a second story window. When the police arrived, they handcuffed me but we both knew they couldn’t arrest a fifteen-year-old. After I covertly slipped out of the handcuffs in the backseat of their car, they released me to my traumatized and overwhelmed mother.

Just for fun, a friend and I went to a traveling circus in town. Smelling risk, energy, and fun in the air, I decided to join the carny and applied for a job. My mother knew she couldn’t stop me and signed over custody of me to the circus owner, a man she didn’t know.

Our first stop was in Maryland where I worked the kiddie ride. I didn’t like the guy I worked for and asked what else I could do. They handed me a black wig and long fake eyelashes. Among the hairless cat, Elvis’ motorcycle, and other exhibitions, Spider Lady was born.

I was a freak but this time it earned me money. I sat with my wigged head sticking out of a box and using hidden controls moved my spidey legs up and down. My convincing act frightened the customers. Yes! The circus owner set me up in a trailer and paid me ten dollars a day.

We traveled from Maryland to our next stop, Akron, Ohio.

In Maryland, though, I met a man, Jamie. He followed me to Akron but, like most teenage flings, it didn’t last and by two months I wanted him to go away. I don’t remember what I did but the circus owner gave me a choice: Stay with Jamie or go home. I went home. Pregnant.

It mattered to everyone else that I was fifteen but not to me. More than anything, I wanted that baby. Certain that it was a boy, he’d be the only man in my life who’d love me unconditionally. I would raise my son so that I would have one good man to believe in.

My mother made a stand – either give up the baby to an adoption agency or demand child support from Jamie. I wrote Jamie letters but instead of making plans with me, he joined the Army and deployed soon afterward to Desert Storm.

In the end, it didn’t matter. After carrying the baby full term, my son was suffocated by the placenta the day before his due date. I named him Joseph after my beloved grandfather. I wrote a letter telling Jamie that he was, “…the proud father of a dead son and I hope you rot in hell.”

A piece of me still remains in a tiny grave in Babyland.


During those moments when I was trying to beat the woman’s life out of her, I truly felt as though a demon took my place. Ironically, the T-shirt I wore that day said, “Fragile – Handle with Care.” The only thing fragile that day was my grip on sanity. The rage inside took control. At that moment, I was a living, breathing demon. For the first time, I was scared of myself. Although only seventeen, I was already years into a life of promiscuity, drugs, alcohol, and thoughts of suicide. It had to stop. Now.

I could think of no better way to fight the demon than through God. Daily prayers became my life preserver tethering me to a source of power and strength greater than mine. I’m proud of the AA chip I earned four years later in 1987 when I was twenty-one but I couldn’t sustain it. In less than thirty days, I was back at it.

There were so many boyfriends that my family asked, “Who is the flavor of the month?” That is until I met Billy at a seafood restaurant in 1987 and got pregnant within a month. We were so poor that we borrowed a wedding ring for the ceremony and returned it afterward. Our daughter, Amanda, was born in April of ’88 but two years later Billy and I divorced with a shared custody arrangement.

By 1992, I felt like a gerbil spinning on a wheel in Savannah. No opportunities, memories of my past everywhere, nothing moving my life forward. If I wanted to get better – and I did – I had to leave the area. I, my four-year-old Amanda, and one of my best girlfriends moved to Tennessee where my brother had moved. There I met Eddie and after only two months got pregnant.

I wish I could say that from that point my life continued a steady upward path but that would be a lie. I still had Legg Perthes’ disease, was overweight, and possessed no marketable job skills. When our son was two, Eddie and I broke up under a dark cloud of his addictions and violence. I asked my mother if my daughter and son and I could move back into her home in Savannah. Long past the point where a lot of mothers would say, “No. You’ve put me through enough,” she said, “Yes.” Grateful for my mother’s love, I began to get my house in order. In 1996, at age thirty, I underwent a hip replacement and within months discovered the joy of wearing high heels.

Although hate still resided in my heart, I kept it behind a locked door. To keep it under control, I drank anger.

A girlfriend and I teamed up cleaning houses until, in 1998, we decided that we were tired of it. “Let’s sell them instead.” We enrolled in a real estate class that I attended drunk. I didn’t get around to using my license then.

I remarried in October of 1999. Kevin didn’t drink, had military experience and we shared a passion for shooting pool. Not a thin bride by any standard, my weight increased to 218 and Kevin didn’t mind. I attended classes for an associate broker’s license, joined a huge real estate firm, and, ever the party girl, ranked second place as the female pool champ in Savannah.

As my success selling homes increased, money started pouring in. Life rocked on until a major wake-up call on Sept. 11, 2001, as I and millions of other Americans watched our nation under attack. It took those ruined buildings for me to realize that, like the Twin Towers, my life could crumble and end without warning.

I joined a gym and suffered back spasms for a week. Still, I stayed on the path of self-improvement and a year and five months after 9/11 underwent a gastric bypass. I lost ten pounds a month. Seven months and seventy pounds after the gastric bypass Kevin left me. He simply preferred overweight women.

For the first time in my life, although I was fit, single and making great money, I wasn’t used to men fawning over me. I berated those who rushed to open doors. How dare they ignore me when I was overweight and fall all over themselves for me now?

At last, the life I always knew I deserved arrived. Problem was that I fixed the outer but not the inner me. My life did not include normal adult things like paying bills, staying sober or taking care of my children. It did include men - I was getting it and hitting it.

Problems spilled into other areas of my life. I lost my self-made title, “professional drunk driver,” with my first DUI in 2006. Hate slithered through its locked bars in my mind but, rather than strike out, I turned the rage inward. Alone in my cell, I took off my shirt, slipped it over the highest bar I could find and tied it around my neck. As my eyes rolled back in my head, the guards found me and cut me down. The only thing I remember them saying was, “This happened last week to somebody else. We aren’t going through it again.” They stripped me of my clothes, put me in a “turtle” suit and moved me to a rubber room.

As stubborn as I am, it took four more DUI’s in two years before I knew I had to get help. I called my brother. “If you don’t come get me,” I said, “I’m going to kill myself.” He said he’d be there in eight hours. He was there in seven. Grateful beyond words, he let me move into his Tennessee home with him, his wife and three daughters.

As unbelievable as it sounds to me now, I didn’t know that alcoholism was my problem. Alcoholism is a beast that whispers and lies to your soul: Only old people are alcoholics. You’re not an alcoholic because you can go days without touching it. If you were an alcoholic, you’d be homeless. Since disbelieving that alcoholism was my problem, I considered a migraine study. To get medicine. I should have realized that I was fixing the wrong issue when my desire for death increased rather than subsided.

On Oct. 13, 2008 I entered detox and provided my history to a woman with the unique name of Nile, like the river. She was a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Plateau Mental Health. For the first time in my life, my emotional, physical and spiritual paradigm shifted. My legs were wobbly and my head even more so but while there I got my feet underneath me. From the alcoholics’ Book of Promises, number nine became my mantra and my prayer: “Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. AA can shift one’s perspective from hopeless to hope. People can begin to imagine a life where they are happy.” I celebrated my ninetieth day of sobriety on Jan. 13, 2009 – the day my baby Joseph would’ve turned twenty-six. I felt as though he was cheering me on from heaven.

Like an archeologist removes one layer at a time to reach hidden treasure, I scraped away one offensive coping mechanism at a time to reveal the woman I was meant to be. While doing so, I began experiencing moments of awareness of God’s love. Those moments strengthened not only my resolve to stay sober but began withering the monster I still kept behind a locked door. I still felt so broken and unworthy that I wondered during my God moments, Why me for all the good? Yet, even that signaled a step in the right direction because the door behind which I’d locked my rage had this written on it: Why me for all the bad?

Beginning with moving into a basement apartment in 2010, and getting my now sixteen-year old son back, my life began a gradual shuffle uphill. I offered to clean the equipment at a personal fitness center in exchange for allowing me to work out. Instead they hired me as a receptionist. That job inspired me to become a personal fitness trainer. What a glorious day I got my driver’s license back! With my credit destroyed yet, in need of transportation, I couldn’t qualify for a conventional car loan. I purchased a car from a “buy here/finance here” and paid it off in two years.

I met my husband, David, at an AA meeting. It took both of us several years of sobriety to reach a point that we could sustain a loving and healthy relationship based on mutual respect. The fire in my tank that once fueled self-destruction continued rebuilding pieces of my broken life. With David’s support and encouragement, I attended two years of college while simultaneously earning 120 required continuing education units for a real estate broker license.

Only one piece remained. Owning our home. Filtering a lookup on Zillow with my hopes and desires wish list anywhere in Tennessee, I hit gold. I hadn’t found it sooner because my Multiple Listing Service was curated for my area and the property was in another county. Waterfront – check. Acreage – check. Home plus a cabin – wait, I didn’t ask for that but I’d take it. I hesitated for ten seconds because it was a, “For Sale by Owner.” Dealing with multiple family members on a deed or an owner’s deep personal attachments – been there. I called anyway.

While viewing the home, the owner and I talked about our careers. She said she was a psychiatric nurse practitioner and that her name was Nile. Like the river. It clicked. She was figuratively the person who opened the door to my sobriety at the rehab center and now literally the person opening the door to my new home. As we walked her property that she’d been trying to sell for ten years, tears jumped out of my eyes.  I felt peaceful and complete, like it was my destiny to call this my home.

There is no more monster behind bars in my head and the rage is gone. I use several tools to maintain my sanity and sobriety. Each morning I listen to inspirational audio. Quick, snappy single-line quips help dampen any sparks that flare. Here are my favorites: “Are you living your resume’ or are you living your eulogy?” “Is God your steering wheel or is He your spare tire?” and, my favorite, “Good morning, God. Welcome to my day. Please come in.”

[JL1](P1/L6)  My cousin Tammy from Rhode Island said, "Jo, the cops are coming, so I reared my leg for one final blow, and kicked her as hard as I could while yelling if I ever see you again, I will kill you." Then when I looked up, I saw an entire crowd surrounding me, but while I was beating her, I saw no one, heard nothing, and I realized that day that I could take a life and not even remember it. I scared me. Then we ran. ☺️P    

[JL2]P3. my pe'pe' (grandfather in french)    

[JL3]P.1 I was confused as to who (she) was until I read it several times, so did my sister, so her name is Laurie (the girl that I beat for saying that about my baby.    

[JL4]I would like to refer to my daughters dad, as my 1st trial run at marriage, or change his name. Removing his name to avoid any legal/personal ramifications even though it is public record. However my daughter is ok with this being published.    

[JL5]Thank you so much for not giving up on my story. ☺️