Review of the Book
based on these stories
about the book & series
Rosa Lee's Story: The Series
The Washington Post, Sept. 18-25, 1994
By Leon Dash; Photos by Lucian Perkins
Rosa Lee Cunningham's Obituary (July 8, 1995)
Daughter Travels the Same Troubled Path
Patty Cunningham is sitting up in her mother's bed, dressed in her mother's white nightgown and surrounded by her mother's belongings. At 34, she is very much Rosa Lee Cunningham's little girl. Rosa Lee bustles around the bedroom, straightening this and dusting that, although the room is as clean as ever.
Patty's feeling much better today than she did yesterday, when she ran out of money and went into heroin withdrawal. Yesterday was a day to forget, a day of sweating, watery eyes and a runny nose. When Patty awoke this mild morning, June 16, 1992, she was ready to face the world again. Later on, she hopes, her friend Steve Priester will give her money that she can use to buy drugs.
Priester is lounging in a chair, listening as I interview Patty. He is one of Patty's three "boyfriends," as she calls them. They've known each other for about nine months, ever since he moved into an apartment on the ground floor. When Priester's roommate kicked him out in December 1991, Patty invited him to stay with her for several weeks in Rosa Lee's one-bedroom apartment.
Patty knows little about him, except that he is 57 and comes from West Virginia. He receives some sort of monthly check, which he is eager to spend on her. In some ways, their relationship is simple enough: She sleeps with him, he gives her money. That is Patty's relationship with many of the men she brings to Rosa Lee's apartment.
But Priester wants more than sex. He tells Rosa Lee that he loves her daughter and that he intends to break Patty of her drug habit. His declarations seem odd because he knows that his money ends up financing Patty's drug use. Still, his concern for her seems genuine.
Photo by Lucian Perkins
Patty playfully spars with her brother, Richard, in Rosa Lee's apartment in Southeast D.C. Patty has spent much of her adulthood living with her mother.
More than once, Rosa Lee has complained to Patty about her prostitution. She can't understand why Patty, who is carrying the AIDS virus, makes no attempt to protect herself or anyone else. Patty doesn't tell anyone that she is HIV-positive, and it angers Rosa Lee that Priester and one of Patty's other boyfriends don't know.
Rosa Lee engaged in prostitution herself when she was younger, before anyone ever heard of AIDS. She did it, she said, primarily to feed her children, not her drug habit. There is a difference, she said. Now, at 56, it kills her to see her daughter travel this road.
"Patty makes me so shamed," Rosa Lee said one day. "I tell her, 'When you go outside, Patty, don't you feel those people talking about you? Don't you feel it?' "
And what does Patty say? I asked.
Rosa Lee's lower lip trembled, the way it always does when she is upset. "She says, 'Momma, don't get mad at me. Ain't that the way you did it?' "
CHAPTER ONE: Meeting Patty
"You're going to have to take off that damn tie and jacket before we go in there," Rosa Lee said as I parked my car outside the three tan brick buildings that make up Clifton Terrace, the federally subsidized housing complex.
That was fine with me. It was a hot, humid Sunday afternoon in May 1988, and my shirt was already soaked. We had come to Clifton Terrace to look for Patty; Rosa Lee had offered to introduce her to me.
I had known Rosa Lee for five months at that point. Our relationship consisted of several lengthy interviews at the D.C. jail, where she told me in detail about her family. She was serving seven months for possession of heroin; I was interviewing the jail's officers and inmates about drug trafficking inside the jail. She was eager to share her story, and I was interested in learning how her life had affected the lives of her eight children. We agreed to get together after her release from jail.
Rosa Lee wasn't sure of Patty's whereabouts. She had heard through the prison grapevine that Patty had turned over her Clifton Terrace apartment to several New York crack dealers, who were using it as a base of operation. In return, they were paying her $50 a day in cash, and $50 worth of crack.
Rosa Lee hoped that her son Ducky, who lived on the top floor of one of the Clifton Terrace buildings, could tell us where Patty was staying. The last time Rosa Lee had seen Ducky, he had been working for the same New York dealers.
Ducky answered our knock. His slight frame was swimming in a badly wrinkled pin-striped, three-piece suit. It was light green. The collar of his tan shirt was open and darkly soiled. The sag in his shoulders, the weary look in his eyes, the way he moved, all made it hard to believe he was 28 years old.
He listened warily as Rosa Lee explained that I was interested in writing about the family. He said he had just returned from church. "I'm very religious," he said. "I've been born again." As he talked about his renewed commitment to Christ, Rosa Lee shook her head as a warning to me not to believe him.
Finally, I interrupted. "Your mother has told me that you cook powdered cocaine into crack for New York City dealers operating out of your sister Patty's apartment in this building and that you have been addicted to crack for some time now."
Ducky shot his mother a questioning, alarmed look.
"I told him everything, Ducky," Rosa Lee said, "so you can stop all that 'born again' shit."
Ducky's religious cloak fell away. He said that he and the New Yorkers had split. They had accused him of stealing some of the cocaine and beat him. Now he was trying to sell crack on his own.
Rosa Lee asked if he knew where Patty was staying.
"Pussycat's," he said.
Rosa Lee scowled. Pussycat ran an "oilin' joint" in an apartment one floor below, a place heroin users could gather in privacy and relative safety. Pussycat charged $3 for entry. She also rented "works" -- a syringe and a hypodermic needle -- for $3.
I asked Pussycat's real name. "I don't know her real name," she said brusquely. "I wish you'd stop asking me about last names and real names. People don't want you to know that. You might be setting them up to be arrested by the police or something."
Rosa Lee rapped hard on Pussycat's door. Someone opened it a crack. "Hello, Mama Rose," a man's voice said.
The door swung open. When the man saw me, he quickly began to close it. Rosa Lee stopped him.
"He's with me, Bernard," she said with quiet authority.
Bernard stood aside. Behind him, two women lay on stained, sheetless mattresses on the living room floor, their bodies limp. We had found Patty and Pussycat.
It was so hot it was hard to breathe.
"You can go into the back!" Rosa Lee commanded Bernard.
She bent down over Patty, who wore black slacks, a red shirt and no shoes. "Wake up, Patty, wake up," Rosa Lee said, slapping her face. "I want you to meet someone." Each time Rosa Lee slapped her, Patty's eyelids opened for a few seconds.
"This isn't going to work," Rosa Lee said. "You'll have to meet Patty another day."
CHAPTER TWO: A Conversation in Jail
Two months later, I finally talked with Patty. I met her at the D.C. jail, where she was being held on a drug charge. Jail meant a forced withdrawal from heroin, so I didn't know what to expect. But she seemed to be bearing up well. She had gained weight and looked nothing like the emaciated woman I had seen on that mattress.
She spoke rapidly, looking down at the chewed fingernails of her right hand as she described some painful or embarrassing incident. I was not prepared for her candor: Within the first hour, she told me that a male relative had raped her when she was 8. He threatened to hurt her if she told anyone, and the assaults continued over the years. I later confirmed her account with the relative, who agreed to discuss it as long as he was not identified.
When Patty was a teenager, several of her brothers found out about the relative's behavior and beat him soundly, they said.
The first rape happened in 1966, while Rosa Lee was in jail. When Rosa Lee was released a few months later, Patty tried to tell her about it, but she didn't know how. Looking back, she said she believes her mother should have known something was wrong, should have wondered why the man was hanging around her room. "I feel like she could have done something to stop it," Patty said.
CHAPTER THREE: The Unbreakable Bond
By the time Patty was born in January 1958, Rosa Lee already had five children, all boys. Rosa Lee named her Donna, but no one has ever called her that. When she was little, she was known as "Papoose," because Rosa Lee thought the shape of her eyes resembled those of an American Indian baby. Over time, Papoose became Patty.
When she was young, Patty had long, straight hair that Rosa Lee liked to twist into a single braid down her back. She had her mother's dark skin and her father's round, cherubic face. Otherwise, her father didn't have much of a role in her life; when he died in 1982, Patty didn't even consider attending his funeral.
Things might have turned out differently. Rosa Lee met Patty's father, David Wright, in the mid-1950s. They had a long relationship that lasted until the early 1960s, and he fathered three of Rosa Lee's children. But he never lived with the family. "Back in them days, the welfare didn't permit no man to live with you," Rosa Lee said. "That's how I lost him. We were going to try to live together, but the welfare wouldn't let us."
The man had a job, but Rosa Lee didn't see how they could make it without welfare. Eventually, the man married someone else. Occasionally, when Rosa Lee needed money, she would gather up the children and march them over to his house. If he was there -- and his wife was not -- he would give her $15 or $20.
Home during the 1960s was a succession of row houses and apartments that never had enough beds for all the children to sleep alone. The boys shared mattresses, while Patty often slept in her mother's room and, at times, the same bed. At bedtime, Patty usually had the room to herself because Rosa Lee worked nights as a waitress at the Cocoa Club and as a dancer at the 821 Club, two popular spots on H Street NE.
On many nights, Rosa Lee brought home some of the customers, who paid her for sex. Rosa Lee didn't try to hide her prostitution from the older children. Afraid that some of her customers might rob her, she enlisted the help of her oldest son, Bobby. He was 11 when she started bringing men home. She remembers telling him, "You're Momma's little man. You have to help me. I'm doing this to feed y'all!"
She would telephone ahead and instruct Bobby to meet her at the door. As soon as she entered the apartment, she demanded that the man pay the $20 in advance. Bobby took the money and hid it. "I didn't want one of these 'tricks' trying to take the money back or something like that," she told me. "That was a rough crowd that came to those H Street clubs. It was just me and my kids in that house!"
Bobby didn't challenge his mother's explanation. "I didn't see it as having anything to do with sex," he told me. "It was all about making money to feed us. It was all about us surviving as a family."
Survival is a word that Rosa Lee often uses to explain her actions, a battle-hardened shield that she puts up to fend off further discussion. "You keep talking about prostitution," she said heatedly one day. "I saw it as survival."
Rosa Lee had sex with the men in the same room where Patty often slept; from a young age, Patty learned the art of pretending to be asleep. It could have driven a wedge between mother and daughter, but those nights in the dark seemed to forge an unbreakable bond.
In 1969, when Patty was 11, one of her mother's customers made an unusual request: He asked Rosa Lee if he could have sex with Patty.
There's no way to recapture exactly what went through Rosa Lee's mind as she considered this request. It is not something that she wanted to remember or talk about. After Patty told me about it, I waited a long time before broaching the subject with Rosa Lee. When I did, she angrily denied that it ever happened and accused Patty of lying. She was sure that if I asked Patty again in her presence, Patty would admit that it was a lie.
Several months later, I gingerly raised the issue while the three of us were eating lunch.
Rosa Lee turned to Patty and waited in silence for her daughter to answer.
Patty looked her mother in the eye and named the man.
Rosa Lee began questioning Patty, as if getting more facts might help jog her memory. "How old was you, Patty?" and "Was I on drugs then?" and "Did he approach me, or did he approach you?"
"He approached you about it," Patty said calmly. "Cause I was a little girl. You asked me about it, and I said, 'Yeah, I want to help you.' Remember that? You were feeding everybody and doing it all on your own."
Rosa Lee turned toward me. There was pain in her eyes. "Okay," she said. "I just feel so shamed."
Piece by piece, the story came out. Patty said her mother asked her to have sex with the man, who was then in his mid-forties. Patty agreed. Rosa Lee told the man it would cost $40 -- twice as much as she had been charging him. The man then drove Patty to his Capitol Heights home. When Patty returned, she put two $20 bills in Rosa Lee's hand.
There were other men after that, perhaps as many as a dozen. The men offered to pay much more than Rosa Lee's usual rate, $100 or more, amounts that made Patty's head swim. Patty said her mother always asked her if she was willing. Patty never turned her mother down. "I went with 'tricks' for my mother," she said. "I saw how hard it was for her to take care of all of us. I love my mother, so I would do it all over again. ... At times I wanted to hate her, but I couldn't see myself doing that 'cause my mother's too sweet for that."
CHAPTER FOUR: Trouble at School
As a third-grader at Shadd Elementary School in the fall of 1969, Patty stood out for all the wrong reasons. At 11, she was three years older than most of her classmates. She couldn't read. Her attendance was spotty. She was headed for trouble, and her teachers didn't know what to do about it.
Nancy H. McAllister, a social worker who had an office at Shadd that year, tried to intervene. McAllister already knew the family. She had been assigned to work with Patty's older brother, Richard, 15; he had just returned home after serving time in a juvenile detention facility for burglary. McAllister established relationships with four of Rosa Lee's children. Eric, who was 13 when he met McAllister, credits her with helping him to make something of his life and avoid drug use and criminal behavior.
McAllister made frequent visits to Rosa Lee's apartment during the day, and she often found Patty there. Rosa Lee would tell her that Patty was sick, but McAllister didn't believe it. "I'd see her just laying around in bed," she said. "I would get her to go to school."
But what concerned McAllister most was the way Patty dressed on Fridays. "I remember being so amazed at this girl," McAllister said. "She used to come to my office in a wig. ... She always wore tight, short skirts. At 11, she was very shapely."
McAllister asked Patty why she dressed the way she did.
"Oh, this is my evening to do my thing," McAllister remembers Patty saying.
"What thing?" McAllister asked.
"Oh, you know," is all Patty would say.
"She was really beyond her years," she said. "The kinds of things that she would talk about were not kid things." McAllister suspected something was wrong, but she had no conclusive evidence that she could report to authorities. Besides, Patty wasn't the only student whose home life seemed troubled. "The teachers probably had 10 to 12 other kids with the same kind of background. It was just overwhelming."
Rosa Lee didn't even enroll Patty in school until she was 7 or 8. The other children teased her because she couldn't read. "Girls used to do it all the time in front of boys who might like me. 'Spell cat! Spell I!' "
Change the name and go backward 20 years, and it's hard to tell the difference between Patty's school record and Rosa Lee's. Both fell behind at an early age. Both began skipping school regularly. Neither one had a parent who believed education was important. Neither one learned to read by the time she dropped out.
There's one more parallel: Rosa Lee was 14 when she gave birth to Bobby, her first child. Patty was 14 when her son, Rocky, was born. And like her mother, that's also when she dropped out of school.
CHAPTER FIVE: Ties That Bind
Patty learned about drugs much the same way that she learned about sex.
She was about 11 years old. She had noticed that her older brother, Ronnie, 17, and his girlfriend would lock themselves in his room in the afternoon. Patty wondered what they were doing. One day, when she should have been at school, she hid in the bedroom closet. Ronnie and his girlfriend hurried in. They took out a bag of white powder, cooked it into a liquid and filled a hypodermic needle. Patty had a clear view through the slightly open door. "I watched Ronnie put the needle in his arm," she said.
After Ronnie had pushed the liquid into his vein, she watched as her brother's worried frown changed to a look of pleasure.
She stepped from the closet. Neither Ronnie nor his girlfriend showed any reaction until she told Ronnie she wanted to try it. "You better not," he said, "but then again, if you're going to try it, let me hit you first."
Ronnie refused to inject her that day. But, Patty told me, "I knew then, 'Well, I'm a gonna try that one day.' "
That day came in late 1973, just a few weeks before Patty's 16th birthday. Early one morning, as the gray-light of dawn seeped into the bedroom where Patty lived with her infant son, she woke up to find Rosa Lee and another woman huddled in a corner. Patty pretended to be asleep and watched.
She saw the woman prepare some sort of liquid, draw it into a hypodermic and inject Rosa Lee. Then, using the same needle, she injected herself. Patty wasn't sure what drug they were using, but she was sure that she wanted to try it.
The drug was "bam," slang for an amphetamine-like stimulant that produces a feeling of euphoria and high energy. Rosa Lee and her friend had been using bam for months. They had tried to hide it from Rosa Lee's children by shooting up early in the morning, before anyone was awake.
Patty sat up in bed, startling the two women. "I want a hit," she said.
Rosa Lee refused. "You're too young to start drugs," she said.
Patty told her mother that if she couldn't have a hit, she would find someone in the hallways of Clifton Terrace who would pay her for sex and use the money to buy the drug on her own.
As Rosa Lee tells me about this critical moment, she looks pained. She says she did too much "dirty living," that if she hadn't used drugs, her children wouldn't have either. But at the time, she felt as if she had no choice, that she had no way to stop Patty from traveling the same road she had.
"Give her a hit," she told her friend.
A year later, Patty graduated to heroin. A year after that, so did Rosa Lee. For the next 15 years, they shared heroin and needles.
Now, there is yet another tie that binds: Both are carrying the virus that causes AIDS.
CHAPTER SIX: Life With Patty
It is a July morning in 1992, and Rosa Lee has Patty on her mind.
We are having breakfast at McDonald's, as we often do after Rosa Lee's visit to the methadone clinic. Rosa Lee is upset: Her latest urine sample was "dirty" -- the second time she has tested positive for heroin in recent months. One more strike and she would be required to appear before a team of counselors, who could decide to suspend her from the program.
"Mr. Dash," she says, "I can't go back to the way I used to be."
For more than a year, her urine samples had been clean; she had such a good record that a market developed for her urine among the other methadone patients. In the bathroom, someone would whisper, "Rosa Lee, you clean?" and hand over a dollar or two. The clinic didn't monitor the bathrooms closely, so the risk of getting caught was low.
Then, for some reason, she began to slip. Over the next six months, she used heroin six times. Every time, Patty was involved. Six times is not the same as a daily habit, but it's still not good enough.
Patty is part of the problem, Rosa Lee tells me. If only Patty weren't addicted to heroin, if only Patty didn't bring heroin into her apartment, if only she could get Patty into methadone treatment -- if only she could do something about Patty, then she wouldn't be facing the risk of getting thrown out of the program.
She tells me that she plans to take Patty to the methadone clinic the next Monday and enroll her. Monday comes and goes, without Patty enrolling, and I hear nothing more about it.
A few weeks later, on Aug. 11, 1992, Rosa Lee is arrested for shoplifting several expensive scarves from the downtown Hecht's store. After spending a night in jail, she called the next day to tell me about it. She needed money, she said, to pay off one of Patty's drug debts. The dealer had threatened to hurt Patty.
Rosa Lee is planning to plead guilty. I remind her that the last time she appeared in court, in early 1991, the commissioner had warned her that another shoplifting charge would land her in jail for a long time.
On Sept. 2, she tells Commissioner John W. King that she is guilty. King listens intently as her criminal record is outlined -- a total of 13 convictions for shoplifting and drug-related charges -- and then pronounces sentence: two years probation.
Rosa Lee decides to celebrate. On the way back to her apartment in Washington Highlands, we pick up a pizza. Lucian Perkins, a Post photographer who has been working with me since the beginning of the project, arrives.
Patty is happy to hear the good news. As we eat, I notice a flurry of activity. There's a knock at the door. It's a drug dealer who lives on the first floor. He and Rosa Lee talk quietly and the dealer leaves. I assume that Patty has persuaded Rosa Lee to buy her a bag of heroin. Sure enough, Patty brings out a metal bottle cap, mixes some powdered heroin with water in the cap, and heats it with a match. She injects herself in her abdomen.
Patty motions to Rosa Lee to lie down. To my surprise, she does. Using the same needle, Patty injects her mother in the leg. Her eyes flutter for a brief second, and our eyes meet.
Patty has allowed Lucian to photograph her before while injecting heroin, but this is the first time that he has seen Rosa Lee do it. Over my left shoulder, I can hear the whir and click of his camera. When we leave, neither Patty nor Rosa Lee say anything about what has happened, and neither do I.
When I return from a few days of vacation, there is an urgent message on my answering machine from Rosa Lee. I call her. As soon as she hears my voice, she interrupts. "I want to apologize. I know you didn't like what you saw, and I wanted you to know I'm sorry. Very sorry!"
"You don't have to apologize to me," I tell her.
"You can try that on someone else, buddy," she says. "I saw your face when Patty hit me. You were in front of me. I saw your eyes! I'll never let you see me take another hit!"
I hadn't realized I had shown any reaction, even though it was difficult for me to watch. Nor was I prepared for her apology. After all, she had told me about other slips. Why did it matter so much if I saw it rather than heard about it?
But it did matter. To Rosa Lee, it mattered a great deal.
Over the next several months, the slip-ups stopped. She began badgering Patty once more about having unprotected sex with Priester and other men. She talked about moving again -- this time to a senior citizens' housing complex -- to get away from the drug traffic in her apartment.
Rosa Lee had tried to cut ties with Patty before, without much success. This time, she told me, would be different: She would make arrangements for Patty to take over her apartment; Patty would pay the $64 rent out of her welfare check.
I asked Rosa Lee what she would do if Patty spent the money on drugs and lost the apartment.
"Mr. Dash, that's her business," she said. "I don't care."
Back to the top