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First Person: Joyce McDonald

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Willie and Joyce McDonald

Joyce, 5 years old, with her father, Willie. Though he ran a tight ship in the McDonald household, Joyce admires him for ensuring that his children grew up with an appreciation for the entire range of possibilities life had to offer. [Photo by Willie McDonald]

Joyce McDonald

Joyce McDonald, 13 years old. As far as she can remember, Joyce lived an extremely sheltered childhood -- even though she lived in the Farragut projects, a low-income housing district in Brooklyn that became increasingly dangerous as Joyce grew older. When she ran away at 17, it wasn't easy to avoid the traps her father had worked so hard to protect her from. [Photo by Willie McDonald]

Her voice low, smooth and soulful, her broad face far softer than her tumultuous 50 years would suggest, Joyce's memory drifts back into her childhood. "My father had a point of taking us everywhere," she said. Every Saturday, "he'd pack us in the station wagon -- people used to call us the black Brady Bunch. He'd take us to Chinatown, museums, parks, everywhere." And each Sunday, the family would go together to The Church of the Open Door, an inter-denominational place of worship near their home where Joyce was a member of the children's choir. She often passed the time sewing her own clothes and reading through a favorite pair of art books -- one on Leonardo da Vinci, the other on Pablo Picasso -- that her father had given her.

Joyce and her siblings spent their childhood in the caring arms of their mother, guided by their father's strong moral values and shielded from the dangers just outside their door. Though Joyce always held lingering insecurities about her looks, her intelligence and her skin color, her parents never stopped encouraging her to take pride in herself. It wasn't until Joyce was in high school, she said, that the darker side of the world began to cast a shadow over her life.

Some time after she started high school, Joyce began cutting class, skipping church on Sunday and dabbling in drugs. She resisted following her parents' strict guidelines. Though the area surrounding their home was becoming increasingly dangerous, Joyce was done playing by the rules. "My father didn't want me to stay out late at night," she explains. "He wanted to be a good parent. I wanted to be able to, you know, hang out." And so she did -- with a sweet-talking married man who played on her insecurities, luring her into an ill-considered relationship. Soon after, at the age of 17, Joyce ran away from home.

With the help of her married suitor, and with money she had saved working various part-time jobs (she had many, to help keep her occupied when she was skipping classes), Joyce rented a small apartment in Manhattan. While the man Joyce ran off with kept her off drugs, soon after he lured her in he began to emotionally and physically abuse her. "I had no self-esteem," Joyce acknowledges, "and I believed at the time I deserved it."

After two years, Joyce finally managed to end her abusive relationship -- but only slipped further into darkness. At 19, she found herself wandering the streets, or slumped in a seat on a New York City subway train, alone and crying. She met a man who convinced her to come to his Broadway suite to take part in a modeling shoot; he raped her when she arrived.

Another man offered her a different line of work -- prostitution. Desperate, ashamed and lonely, Joyce took the offer. For a year and a half she sold her body on the streets of Brooklyn, giving her pimp all the money she made. In exchange, he provided her with a small apartment she shared with two other sex workers. "We had a sad sisterhood," Joyce admits now. "None of us really wanted to be there."

Deepening Shadow

Her pronounced cheeks shining, eyes intent, Joyce is sure that despite the horrors she'd experienced -- and the horrors yet to come -- someone was always watching over her, ensuring she would make it through. "The way that I look back at the past," she says, "each time in the midst of the most horrible situation, I made it out of it -- something happened and the odds just changed. And I know that it was God, because if He has a divine plan for you, that purpose is going to be fulfilled."

Sometime after she turned 21 -- two years into her time as a sex worker -- Joyce's pimp unexpectedly moved away. She briefly moved back in with her parents, but struggled to right herself. Joyce occasionally took drugs -- mostly sniffing heroin -- and became involved in a new relationship. A year later her daughter Makeeba was born; the following year, she gave birth to a second daughter, Taheesha. Both girls were born addicted to drugs: Makeeba to heroin, Taheesha to methadone after Joyce's unsuccessful stint at a detox center left her hooked on the heroin substitute. Both babies were successfully weaned off their addictions at a hospital, however, and while Joyce's parents helped raise them, Joyce slowly began to regain control of her life. Then, shortly after Christmas in 1977, her father suffered a massive heart attack. He was buried in early January, 1978.

Many years later, when Joyce's life was in a far different place, she created a clay sculpture -- one of hundreds she has made since becoming a full-time artist in 1998 -- of the funeral scene. With wonderment in her voice, Joyce mentally gazes at the sculpture. "When I did [the sculpture], I couldn't understand why I had my dad in the coffin, I have my sisters and brothers and mother, but somebody was missing: It was me, because that was how I felt. ... At the actual scene, I felt just like I was looking at it from afar."

Darkness and Light

Detox Queen by Joyce McDonald

"Detox Queen," by Joyce McDonald, 1998; terra cotta, cloth and paint, 9" x 13" x 6". To see more of Joyce's works, visit her page in our tribute to The Women of Visual AIDS.
[Photo by Augustus C. Temple III]

Her father's death ended Joyce's recovery: She fell into full-blown addiction. For the next 14 years, Joyce floated through a confusing existence, ruled by a dependence on injected heroin, the responsibilities of motherhood and -- oddly -- the fame of budding entrepreneurship. She started her own successful hat and clothing business; Small Business Opportunities magazine pinned her as one of the industry's "new designers on the rise" in the late 1980s. The profits, however, only funded her heroin habit.

Joyce lived a dual life: During the day she would sell her hats in shops in Greenwich Village and other parts of downtown Manhattan, then head up to Harlem and buy her drugs; by the time her daughters came home from school in the afternoon, she'd be there, quietly sewing in a chair. Joyce sought treatment for her addiction -- and failed -- 12 times. In the early '90s Joyce's eldest daughter, Makeeba, gave birth to a daughter of her own -- Joyce's first grandchild. Through it all Joyce remained hopelessly lost. "I would wake up sick every morning from the drugs," she says, "and every night I would pray for death."

Then, like a beam of bright light cleaving through darkness, came that Sunday in November 1993, when Joyce heard a voice in her head, went to her church and received Christ.

"That February," Joyce recalls, "a week after my 44th birthday, my daughters said, 'Mommy, come into the room; we want to talk with you.' They said, 'Mommy, we got somebody on the phone who wants to talk to you.' I got to the phone, and this man said, 'You've got some daughters: They don't know exactly how we can help you, but they know you need help real bad.' He said, 'Come in, we got a bed for you.'"

It was the 13th -- and last -- time Joyce would enter a drug-treatment program. She stayed at Manhattan's Cornerstone of Medical Arts Center for 60 long, difficult days and nights. She passed the time reading the Bible and doodling in a sketch pad her sisters gave her. "Every night I would read and then I would sketch a picture," she says. "I wouldn't even look at it; just anything to try and get sleepy.

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