Naming the problem

Naming the problem

Kinetz, Erika

Karin Dickson lived on the same calm and leafy block of Park Slope, Brooklyn, for twentynine years. On March 7, 2000, she vanished. I came to know her about a year later. She stared out at me from a slightly worn color Xerox, a dark-haired woman with pixilated blue eyes. Her mouth was set in the vague intimation of a smile.

“Our Mother MISSING,” read the flier. The bubbled block print described one Karin Luise Dickson, a fifty-nine-year old, five-foot tall, ninety-pound woman with scar tissue around her jaw and a gap between her front teeth. “She is very ill,” the flier continued. “We are trying to bring her home.”

At the bottom were the names and phone numbers of two of her daughters, Sandra and Sherry, and, finally, an exhortation: “Leave message on cell #’s above. PLEASE!!” I called Sandra and Sherry and spent the next seven months entangled with the Dickson family, working on an artide about the daughters’ search for their missing mother, a story that would eventually remind me again of how journalism’s power sometimes has its limits.

The mystery of what it might mean to vanish is what drew me in, but the family’s frankness is what kept me with them. Their past lives came to me in fragments, a wild, sad mosaic of abandonment, paranoia, and dreams of a happy ever-after. There was something unnerving yet recognizable about the ease with which incomprehensible things coexisted with comprehensible ones. “She literally dragged me out by the hair,” came out in the same tone of voice as a comment about the weather.

Somewhere amid the neatly tended flower boxes of brownstone Brooklyn, Karin Dickson lost her mind. By March 2000, when she was evicted for lighting dozens of candles in her apartment in her refusal to use electricity, Karin and her daughters barely spoke.

Karin did not want help. She learned to sleep on benches. She watched the birds. Her old neighbors spotted her here and there on the streets and in the cafes, but her daughters and I were always one step behind. Then, in March 2001, after fifty-four weeks on the street, one of Karin’s old neighbors spotted her in lower Manhattan. The cops came and took her to Bellevue Hospital, where she was diagnosed and treated for schizophrenia. She was still carrying her house keys.

Karin agreed to meet with me and a photographer for an interview last August, at a diner near the mental institution in Orangeburg, New York, where she had been staying. She wore a pair of immaculate white oxfords, their tongues turned down. Outside, there was a gentle, late summer rain, as unassuming and slight as the woman herself. We ordered coffee. Karin’s hands shook. She said she wanted her freedom back.

Unwittingly, as I researched my story, I had become this family’s confessor, their witness. I felt responsible – and utterly inadequate. It was not, after all, my job to intervene. My story ran on September 9. Two days later Karin’s tragedy was swallowed by the larger grief of the terrorist attacks. Still, I harbored a small and secret belief that by shedding a little light on this lost woman, something would give.

It didn’t.

The next time I saw Karin Dickson she was dead. Her remains lay in a shiny black box at the Joseph G. Duffy funeral home in Park Slope. About thirty people showed up for her funeral on March 15. They passed around copies of my article. Something should be done, they said, nodding gravely at me, as if I had the power – and thus the responsibility – to right the wrongs of an overworked social system. The priest recited his lines about the valley of darkness. The heat was oppressive.

It was the wrong ending to the story.

She had been found. We had singled her out from the great gray current of human suffering that slips through this city’s streets. We had written over her anonymity, and now she was Karin – a woman with an Elvis collection and a bad coffee habit. She had pride, self-righteousness, and high-heeled shoes.

But last August, shortly after I finally met her, Karin was transferred to Seaport Manor, an adult home in Brooklyn that had been cited four times by the State Department of Health for substandard care. Seven months later she died. The cause is still unknown.

In April the Times published an investigative series by Clifford Levy documenting neglect and unexamined deaths at many of the city’s adult homes. Seaport Manor was among the worst offenders. Soon the governor proposed initiatives to reform the system and the gubernatorial candidates proposed counter-initiatives.

But Karin was gone. For me, her death brought home again a frustrating lesson I keep trying to resist – that just because you name something doesn’t mean you can make it better.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Jul/Aug 2002

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