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National speaker and journalist Patrice Gaines explains why her journey from a North Carolina jail to the Washington Post news desk proves anything's possible.

The Challenge to Change


The power of grace is amazing. It makes people strong enough to believe they can change. So says Patrice Gaines, 50, who overcame abuse, heroin addiction and prison to become an award-winning Washington Post reporter, commentator for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and author of "Laughing in the Dark: From Colored Girl to Woman of Color," and "Moments of Grace: Meeting the Challenge to Change." Recently, Style spoke with Gaines about her struggles with self-esteem and the quest for a fresh start. Style: How did your experience in jail change you? Gaines: I was only in jail for about half a summer, in Charlotte [N.C.]. I was 21 and went to trial for possession, pleaded guilty, first offense. I at least didn't have the stigma of a previous jail sentence. What I did have, that I know, was a low sense of self-worth, that I was nobody. Basically, I felt like trash. That was pretty much what I had to overcome — that sense of powerlessness. When I got out it was hard. Once people find out that you have any kind of record they generally don't hire you. A lot of people [who have been in jail] ask me — because they're frightened about the prospect of an interview — whether they should tell the truth. But until you are free from the secret, you're never really free. Style: How did you get back on your feet? Gaines: Organizations that deal with rehabilitation are more likely to be compassionate. I got a job at the county mental health service. At that first job, a woman took a chance on me. She was an elderly white woman, and that was significant for me. … It didn't change like, snap your fingers. You're not talking about just changing one habit, but reinventing yourself and who you are. … I started taking classes at night. I had started writing poems when I was 19 because I was in such pain. I had always loved to read, so I naturally believed in the power of words. ... I also knew I had to quit the guy I got busted with. I had a 2-year-old child. I knew — I thought — I was doing better. When you're just popping pills you think you're better than the people shooting. … You're in for the long road. I was 21 and I didn't become a reporter until I was 29. I got a job as a secretary at the Charlotte Reporter. … When I walked in there and first went into the newsroom, by the time I walked out, I was in love with the idea of writing. I saw these folks and thought, hey, maybe I could do this one day. Style: What opened the door for you? Gaines: My boss eventually hired me as a research writer. … Occasionally I started writing a review of a book, or a concert. In 1978, what's now the Maynard Institute for Education offered a journalism-training program over the summer at [University of California] Berkeley. They were training minority journalists. … Newsrooms were not as integrated as they are now. I thought: This is free and it's in California. … I got accepted and I was shocked. I went and it was just incredible. … People said "You can be somebody," and "We're going to invest and train you." I really buckled down and started studying. My first job was as a reporter for the Miami News. … I was happy, but I was still getting into these abusive relationships. When I became a reporter I got to a place where I wasn't doing drugs, but abusive relationships were harder to break. Style: That seems to be the case for a lot of women. How did you stop this pattern? Gaines: I dated a guy who was a hustler. He beat me so badly that I passed out and I really thought I was dying. He beat me with a whip. Then, I had this incredible experience of feeling the pain I imagined my mother would feel if she knew. My esteem was so low I wasn't going to call the police. ... When I got my job at the Post, I thought it would change. My daughter was in college, I purchased a house. After my third marriage, I started dating a guy who was dating someone else, and I realized that this was still abuse. I went into therapy for the first time. My whole consciousness was raised. … I had escaped a physical prison, but was still in a mental prison. I was in therapy for 2« years. The biggest thing that came out of that was that all my life I had believed that my father didn't love me, and I had been searching for my father's love in other men. So, I called him up and asked him to breakfast — at this little dive of a place. …That one experience of having breakfast with him … showed me he had always loved me but I hadn't listened. So many women do this and look for their father's love somewhere else. I've spoken all over the country, in so many settings, and it never fails that there's a woman who's crying whether it's in a prison or at an Ivy League school. Style: In your literary work you say that life is a weaver's design. What does this image say about you? Gaines: I'm committed to helping heal. But to do that, I have to learn more and more and more. … I actually took a weaving class. Looking at the material I couldn't tell which side was the good side, it was the same thread. To me, both sides are equally pretty. There's only a slight difference, just so slight. I always tell women I never feel any more at home than when I'm at a prison speaking. I know who they are and who they have to be. … The difference between us is just so slight; it's just perspective. … People sometimes look at me like I'm a museum piece, like I've made it. I want to say the process is there, I don't own it. … Here's some of the

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