This is Julia Hugo Rachel. Like millions around the world I was accused of having a mental illness, had my child taken away from me and spent years in mental and physical agony. Then I found I was not mentally ill but instead had a virus and was cured. There are many people like me and this book, Viral Assault, will show victims, families and friends that there is hope. This is my story.
Physical and emotional abuse as a child is the weirdest thing. On the one hand, I felt I deserved the beatings, the screams, the agonizing pain of having paperclips pushed into my ears or my hands jammed in the car door. After all, this was my mother who was causing me so much pain and suffering so it must be my fault. The shame of failing her has stayed with me all my life, an undercurrent of memory and feeling that has infected my very being.
On the other hand, I became determined to do better, to become so strong that nothing could ever hurt me again. Looking back today, I can see how my mother’s training made me far tougher than the average kid with a resilience that was to stand me in good stead in the years ahead as I struggled as a woman to survive in the world of intelligence, spies and special forces.
But overlaying these two instinctive responses was the climate of fear, a sense that any day, at any moment, something horrible could and probably would happen. It wasn’t until I was grown that I realized my childhood wasn’t like everyone else’s.
Hindsight can provide a more gentle embrace than the reality of the moment. As a child, my world was filled with terror and pain and it is only now that I can see how some of that might have helped prepare me for the world to come. But hindsight does not allow for forgiveness and I will never be able to see or speak to my mother without remembering. However honeyed her words, I will always have the overlay of memory and she continues to this day with the same behavior. My father says “she will never stop”.
My mother was only 18 years old when I was born. She moved to a larger city in central California to avoid the scandal of the unwed mother having a child out of wedlock in a small town. I never really knew my biological father who wanted to be in my life yet my mother prevented him from doing so.
From the day of my birth, she pushed me away and had as little to do with my life as possible. I think my very presence was a reminder to her of how she had failed herself and my family. Rather than take responsibility, she projected everything on to me and so the abuse began as if every physical act against me would somehow reduce her own guilt and shame.
Much of the abuse blurs together but I distinctly recall one time when we went to the doctor after she had pushed a bobby pin into my eardrum as punishment for a crime I don’t recall committing. The doctor completed his examination and turned to my mother.
“If you ever put anything bigger than an elbow in her ear again I’ll have you thrown in jail,” he said sternly.
What stopped going into my tiny ears turned into other forms of physical abuse. She would feed me moldy food and watch as I tried to choke down the rotting mayonnaise. One of her more direct and painful attacks was to place my fingers in the car door and then slam it shut before I could get my hand out of the way. This caused my fingers to swell, and I had my fingernails drilled by the doctor on numerous occasions to relieve the swelling. My mother’s excuse was that I was a wayward child who chose to put her fingers in the car door again and again was enough. Today, such a ridiculous story would launch an investigation by Child Protection Services but back then, nobody bothered to question the pattern.
Curiously, I always felt safe with the doctors and nurses who took care of my various wounds. That feeling of safety and security around the medical profession continues today and was to stand me in good stead through the troubles that were to come.
I remember several hospital stays before the age of 4 years old. The nurses were kind and steady. One nurse used to rub the inside of my forearm gently until I fell asleep in the cold, austere and smelly hospital. To this day, my husband can rub my forearm gently if I am in distress and it will ease my mind and put me to sleep.
Not all of the pushing away by my mother was so bad. Every Friday during the early years of school, my grandfather picked me and took me out for a root beer float and a beef sandwich at a cool local hangout. I’d spend the remainder of the weekend at my grandparents’ house or with one of my five aunts and uncles who treated me like a younger sibling.
The women on my maternal side were of Irish immigrant stock with the complexion and flaming red hair that spoke of their origins. The family had ended up on the west coast several generations earlier and had lost none of their toughness. There was no talk of feelings and much more emphasis on doing. If you got hurt, the expectation was that you sucked it up, got stitched and had a shot of good whisky to cover the pain.
It was a family practice to throw a 6 month old baby into a nearby river as a determinant of the child’s future. If you sank, then you weren’t a swimmer and went into baseball, softball, football, soccer, or skiing. When I was thrown in, I floated happily down river, so I became a swimmer.
I escape from my miserable existence came when I was eight years old when my mother met and married Whit and we began to move around southern California as Whit chased a career and flipped house after house as we climbed the economic ladder. This early movement, not unlike that of a child of military parents, taught me self reliance and I learned to make the best of wherever I ended up even thought it was usually only for around 15 months. It turned out that I was smart and loved school and learning so while home life may have been rough, I made friends and began to see that there was more to life than the brutal world my mother had created for me.
Two things began to change my life. Whit formally adopted me and I began to trust this man who remains a strong figure of love stability in my life. At the same time, I was starting to change from a timid little girl to a more assertive young woman. I had grown taller and was less intimidated by my mother’s bigger size and her pattern of abuse came to an end one afternoon. She was shouting at me for some perceived slight and had picked up a long handled hairbrush with which she planned to beat me.
I had started playing classical guitar and loved the guitar that my uncle had given me. As she grabbed my arm, screaming into my face, I pulled away, picked up the guitar and held it in both hands over my head. She understood that if she stepped forward, I would bring it crashing down on her head. “No more, “ I cried.
She ran to my father, claiming I was a demon child and was threatening her for no reason. Whit was a wise man who somehow managed to keep the peace between the two women in his life. While this marked the end of the physical abuse, the emotional trauma continued. Sometimes this would take the form of her shouting at me that she wished I’d never been born and that she had cut me from her uterus. But that was mild compared with the eardrum piercings or the rotten food.
What she couldn’t do physically, she took out on the things I loved most. In 3rd Grade, I had a beautiful dachshund named Floppy who I adored. We were inseparable and he would sit in my lap while I stroked his long, long ears for hours on end. He would sleep in my bed wrapped in my arms and I think that dog was the first thing I truly loved and who loved me in return. Whit called him Floppy McGee.
My mother saw the joy I got from Floppy and so took steps to demonstrate that, once again, she was in control. She would leave the poor dog locked all day in a room of the duplex we lived in at the time while I was at school and she was at work. I pleaded for the dog to be allowed out in the large fenced garden but she refused and then got really upset when the dog would pee inside the house. The summer before 4th grade, I remember coming home from school to find that Floppy was gone. My mother told me that my adored dog was crazy and had been put down.
Whit’s main interest lay in politics. Whit dressed in Brooks Brothers long sleeved button down shirts and suits and wing tip shoes. He was an intellectual, a lawyer, and a mover and shaker in local and then national politics.
Both my parents were in their early to mid-20s and young to have a pre-teen child in the family so I was always included in their parties, hanging out at the barbecue with already famous politicians and the up and comers.
It was weird watching Whit and my mother’s family try to get on. Once my mother’s side of the family took one of our iconic rafting trips down the Sacramento river. I had my semi-pro young gear on, prepped and ready for the rapids, and Whit joined us, goofy as ever, strolling down the embankment in plaid shorts to his knees, tall black work socks, wing tip shoes and a Brooks Brother button down shirt. He looked at everyone with a shy smile.
“Oh Dear, I don’t think I am dressed like a rafter,” he said. “By the way, what are we doing here?”
One of my uncles laughed as he joked with Whit
“Were just floating and throwing in some class 3 rapids. You’ll love it!”
My father got in the raft, but how he did it, was a rich comedy. The wing tip shoes on the river rocks made for a slippery slide to the raft and heaving his enormous 6’6” body into the boat produced hysterics in everyone, including Whit. By the end of that rafting trip my father was throwing his arms up and screaming hallelujah down class 3 rapids. No doubt there was beer involved in the trip — we were Irish after all — but there was much love and laughter, a memory I treasure today.
Another fond memory I have of Whit and I getting to know one another happened one night in middle school. Whit was the Deputy Secretary of Transportation in California and drove an unmarked Highway Patrol car. He took me out for ice cream after the school day had ended. He blasted The Beatles song Yellow Submarine on the radio as we flew down the highway.
“Hang on,” he yelled as he turned on the sirens on the car.
We sped down a street for about a mile, people moving over in the lanes and we flew by.
Even though we had so little in common, he’d do little things like that just to put a smile on my face.
As I grew older and my family relationship morphed, we continued to move house to house. And after half a year at Santa Monica High school, we moved to San Marino so Whit would have an easier commute to the law office he had opened. My mother worked with my Dad as a secretary in his firm and they became a political powerhouse doing both lobbying and political legal work.
This was the California of Governor Ronald Reagan, the man who would later become President. It was a time of racial and economic tension and the political drama spilled over into our personal lives. As a 13-year-old, I received my first death threat via a call to my father’s office where the caller threatened to kill me in revenge for some perceived slight. The threat was very explicit and apparently revealed details about me and our family that led the FBI and my father’s security detail to believe I needed some additional protection. The result was that I became the proud owner of Zeus, a German Shepherd K9 who had been trained in protective security. The dog was really friendly to everyone around me, except for my mother. But I somehow knew that Zeus was mine and she would not be able to take this one away.
I loved to learn and school was mostly a joy, even though my grades did not always reflect the pleasure I found in the classroom. Part of that is explained by my equal love of sports, particularly swimming (backstroke was my favorite) and equestrian. I found a stable in Malibu and started jumping horses and so began a love affair that has stayed with me to this day.
Shortly after we had moved to Pacific Palisades, my friend Maria and I took a long walking trip up Sunset Boulevard where she said she liked to go watch people play polo. On the walk we met a tall man exiting the field who had just finished playing polo on a tall, beautiful horse.
I walked up and asked the man if I could walk his tired and panting horse, but he did me one better.
“If you can walk this horse until the sweat is dried and his chest stops pounding,” he said. “Then, you have a job young lady.”
I walked the horse until I had blisters on my feet, checking on the horse with every few steps to make sure he was doing alright, and I got the job.
The man was George Randolph Hearst Jr. who was later to become Chairman of the Hearst Corporation, owners of the Los Angeles Times and one of the most powerful families in America. My first experience of the Hearst ranch, which was outside Ojai, was when he drove me and his two boys three or four hours from Los Angeles and then onto a small dusty road which led onto a paved road that marked the entrance to his ranch. An enormous house that looked like something out of Gone with the Wind appeared complete with a circular driveway, huge white columns, a large fountain and a curved stairway leading to the front doors. Uniformed butlers and maids were standing in front of the doors and George waved as we drove around the massive circular driveway only to head three or four miles next to a single wide trailer. George told me that he had built the house for his first wife but he much preferred staying in the trailer. I woke at 5 a.m. the next day to the smell of bacon and eggs cooking and then we were off on horseback working the ranch all day.
George was a kind and gentle man and although he never paid me, I got to be around a normal family and normal people, although, of course, they all lived an extraordinarily privileged existence. As a budding teenager, all I knew was that they were kind and welcoming of me, an experience all too rare in my life.
My first love was a bay horse that George owned called Buddy. He let me ride him and treat him as if he was mine. Then tragedy struck when George sold Buddy to a family he simply referred to as ‘The New Owners’ . The wife weighed about 300lbs and when she got on Buddy, I could see his back sway. George knew I was upset and walked up to me one day, squared my shoulders and said gently: “We can’t keep them all kiddo.”
I was so upset that I stole Buddy’s bridle and hid it in the girls’ bathroom at the polo fields where of course it was found. When George confronted me, I told him that I had stolen the bridle so that the lady could not ride Buddy and hurt him.
My Dad bought me a horse called Willy, a 17.2 hands chestnut and I entered the competitive world of hunter jumpers. I started out on the minor “B” circuit and eventually earned my way into the “A” circuit. I was never the top competitor but I loved it and I loved my horse. I was shuffling between swim meets and horse shows and it was hectic. My coach was preparing me for the junior nationals in AAU swimming while my equine coach was preparing me for my age division hunters at bigger shows.
I spent two years training with him and then my parents sold him to help finance the purchase of a condo in Santa Monica.
Into this mostly halcyon set of experiences came the bump of reality when I fell off a horse and broke my arm when I had first started riding at age 9. The pain was excruciating and I was taken up to one of the ranch offices while the Ranch Manager /owner Roy Rogers called my mom who said she was busy but would get there when she could. Roy offered to call an ambulance but my mother said she couldn’t afford the cost. Three hours and several phone calls later my mother finally turned up and took me to the hospital where I was x-rayed and the doctor said I had a broken collarbone and other fractures in my arm where I had tried to break the fall. The plaster cast was the old-fashioned rigid type which encased my whole upper body and left me with my arm sticking up in the air which made it difficult to move or sleep. Within the first few weeks I started experiencing excruciating pain in my elbow underneath the cast. I told my mom constantly that it really hurt, yet she kept ignoring me.
“Shut up,” she’d say. “You did this to yourself.”
When the nurse removed the cast months later, she got to the inner layer of the gauze and her face turned white. She left the room and grabbed a surgeon. He looked at my arm and grabbed a second surgeon. All three entered the tiny exam room and the main surgeon asked me if my elbow hurt.
“Yes, terribly,” I replied with a grimace.
They ended up sedating me in order to remove the cast as there was a hole in my elbow and part of the wadding of the cast was embedded in the bone. I underwent a second surgery for repair, and for two decades I had just a narrow piece of thin skin scarring over my elbow that was embarrassingly recognizable. The surgeon was appalled my mother had not contacted his office about the pain. But to me, it was just another mom-ism.
I was seen and accepted by many of the families in the polo world and one in particular who boarded horses at the polo ranch, Herb and Merrilyn Edelman, practically adopted me. Herb was an actor and assistant director of movies like The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park and they had a 50 acre ranch up Old Topanga Canyon Road which came with about 20 Shetland ponies which I and two other girls used to ride everywhere. Merrilyn warned us never to take go down the Canyon and across the road because that is where Charles Manson and his gang of girls lived in caves. David Carradine was a neighbor and I would sometimes babysit his son, Free.
I stayed with the Edelmans every weekend and for two summers on their beautiful ranch. What made this even better was that Herb had a black Porsche 911 Targa which I was allowed to wash and wax and even, on occasion, take out for a spin in the grounds. Once he blindfolded me on the twisty driveway and guided me gently through the turns so I could feel how the car handled. I loved that car for her cornering abilities, her feel in the cockpit, her engine, her excellence. The older 911 and 912 has remained my favorite car ever since.
To me, they were the epitome of grace and beauty and the throaty roar of the car as it drove by was one of the most romantic sounds my young self had ever heard. The car seemed to be about freedom, the open road to somewhere fabulous where all cares were left behind by this floating shell of elegance and escapism.
As a nine-year-old, I was swept away by the romance of it all and every weekend, I would take the bus through Pacific Palisades where we lived at the time to look for cars for sale. I was particularly obsessed with the 356 and 912 models and the older 911s. Of course, my meager pocket money would hardly have purchased a Porsche wheel let alone the car but the fantasy was what it was all about, a brief escape to a better world.
I learned later that my biological father was a car nut and the joy of cars must have been in my genes. Even today, cars provide constant pleasure, a topic of conversation with a stranger, an interesting article in a magazine or just a snatched roadside pleasure watching the world drive by.
I was entering my teens and seeking stability in what seemed to me to be a very unstable and uncertain world. Both my parents were working so hard they were effectively absent and I was left on my own. I suppose I would have liked to have some guidance but I was actually grateful to be left alone with my friends, My K9 and their families. I had learned the hard way that there were others out there who were kind and nurturing and I preferred their world to the hell of home and the misery of my mother.
I learned years later that Whit had married my mother and found himself in the middle of the abusive relationship that was my mother and me. He saw and tried to control my mother but he was working too hard and for too many hours to really play a part. And of course, I was an only child and he had no experience of a different kind of family life. This may sound overly charitable but my dad told me later that the only reason he stuck with the marriage was so he could protect me and give me a vague sense of what love could look like. Today, I accept that he did his best and we remain close while I can’t say the same about my mother.
What might have been a more stable life in high school with Bert’s Family and others providing sanctuary took a turn for the worse when I was diagnosed with mononucleosis six months before my senior year. I had complained to Bert’s family that I wasn’t feeling well and they took me to a local doctor in Malibu who then sent the bill for the diagnosis to my parents. My mother was furious that I had incurred the cost but I was more concerned that I had an allergic reaction to the penicillin as I broke out in hives and had trouble breathing.
I had to give up swimming and horses and I would go to class in the morning and by noon I would struggle to make the walk home before collapsing in bed.
If I did go back to the afternoon Math class, I thought the teacher sounded like an alien and I couldn’t begin to understand the theories and equations. It was so weird as I had always loved math (and still do) but something was happening to my brain that however hard I tried to understand, everything seemed to come at me through a thick fog of mystery.
Inevitably I failed the classes, retook them and barely would get a D. It was frustrating because in Biology, English, Latin, Spanish and Chemistry- all morning classes- I was an A-B student. I never realized what had happened to me, just that I felt utterly weak.
I ended up barely graduating from high school and I left town feeling as much of an outsider as when I had arrived. My mother labeled me as lazy and unmotivated, my father thought I was just bored and needed more intellectual stimulation. Not once did they think to seek medical attention for me. It was labeled as rebellion or laziness. Yet back then, who even knew that this illness existed?
Although I was ill, I know that I was also a difficult teenager who alternated between defiance and affection. It must have been frustrating for my parents but it was also frustrating for me as I could never understand what was happening around me and however much I asked, my mother would never answer and my father seemed not to know. The situation was made worse because I had fallen in love with Bert, a man seven years older than me.
We had met at the Malibu ranch of the comedian George Carlin where I had been staying for some of the summer and hanging out to get away from my mother. Bert was kind, gentle and loving, a completely new experience for me. He was also a car nut and drove a lime green Datsun 280Z, not quite a Porsche but good enough. I grew really close to him and his parents and they adopted me paying for me to go on vacations in Europe and Hawaii.
Bert would pick me up after school in his 280Z and we went to every auto show so that he could keep up on the latest automobile technology and I could look at Porsches. We went to watch motor races in Monte Carlo and car shows in Germany. It was quite a life and I felt for the first time like I belonged.
But when I graduated from high school and moved in with Bert, the gloss on our relationship seemed to fade. I began to realize that beyond our shared love of horses and cars, there was no emotional depth to our relationship. The breaking point came when at the beginning of the horse racing season I took a train down to Del Mar to surprise him. I was the one to be surprised as I found him in bed with another woman. I was devastated and walked back to the train station in the dark and then sat on my suitcase bawling as I waited for the train.
A man I later learned was a Navy SEAL came up to make sure I was alright. He let me know that the trains had stopped running for the night, and after some convincing, he gave me a ride to a friend’s home.
After the break, moving forward meant finding a job. I’d had years of experience working secretary type jobs helping out in my Dad’s law firm photocopying, calculating and filing. I took a job at a medical corporation as assistant to the comptroller. In my search for somewhere to belong, this was another temporary home where the President of the company and his wife invited me to their home and there were company picnics and volleyball on the beach. But, all I cared about really was spending time hiking with my dog and mending my heart after the breakup.
I had rented a room in Santa Monica Canyon from my friend’s uncle to stay in while I worked and still had my trusty dog, Zeus, with me who even went to work with me. It was a fabulous house built from lava rock imported from Hawaii and with a signed picture of Muhammad Ali on the bar with the inscription: “If you ever want to sell this house — I’ll buy it.” The owner’s wife had died from cancer a couple of years before and he was happy to have me and my guard dog stay while he traveled for work. It was a great arrangement but he wanted more and asked me to marry him. He was 53 and I was barely out of my teens so I declined and moved out.
Back at home, things were just as rocky for my mom and Whit. He stuck around to make sure she wouldn’t do anything to me, then, just after I turned 21, he moved out and filed for divorce. My mother, unsurprisingly, didn’t take it well. She bad mouthed him loudly and turned his own brother and mother against him during and after the divorce. Whit has never uttered a foul word about my mother.
As they moved on with their lives, so I made some progress with my own. I met a man who was vaguely connected to the company where I was working. He told me he was a businessman but it turned out he was an Army Ranger turned private contractor. He asked me to move in with him and I found a dilapidated old beach house in Venice Beach that became our home. It also became the house for all the guys to mingle in and to stay when in town. The guys were a mix of military and ex-military and they all seemed to be still involved in operations of various kinds both in the US and overseas.
I never knew exactly what was going on but as I became more involved, so I was asked to help with research and logistics of various kinds. As I was drawn further into their world, I was trained in open water swimming, hand to hand combat, situational awareness, tradecraft and all sorts of things most 18 year old young ladies growing up in upper middle class families don’t think about. They also taught me other survival tactics that can be used even in developed countries for safety and security.
As I got drawn more into the operational side of things, it turned out that my specialty was reconnaissance and the cultivation of sources in difficult environments. Instead of sending in one of the big guys who all looked like exactly what they were, they could send in this young, apparently innocent young woman. I could get information from a single conversation that the guys had struggled to get from longer range reconnaissance or I could swim out to a boat and plant a bug and, if discovered, I was just a swimmer in distress. It was fun, exciting and full of adventure.
When I moved into the house with the guys, there were five basic rules for life and how we treated each other. They are rules that I still carry with me today and rules that shaped who I became.
1) If my guy ever left suddenly or for an extended period of time, no questions were to be asked- it in no way had to do with me and he let me know that he loved me dearly-never think otherwise-ever.
2) stay away from people that ask too many questions and pry
3) be direct and never lie to the team-be a straight shooter
4) stay with a low profile always
5) Be on guard at all times, follow the security protocols in and around the house.
As I drew closer to the guys, so they began to trust me and use me for more direct action in various operations. As a young woman I made an unlikely military reconnaissance soldier and an even less likely spy. But I loved the action and the sense of belonging to a group of men who were highly motivated by old fashioned values of service, loyalty and country. It was a happy time for me, filled with adventure, fun and excitement. For the first time in my life, I could see that I could be respected, even loved for the woman I was.
Every once in awhile, my mother would creep her way back into my life and come to the house and try to convince me that I was on the wrong path. I never really knew what she meant. Perhaps she was just angry that she had lost control and no longer had me to kick around. One time she even enlisted Bert to come to the house and the two of them stood in the sitting room screaming abuse at me. The boys saw how toxic my relationship with my mother was and they stepped in and asked her to leave and not come back.
With my mother pushed away for a while the guys and I found ways to enjoy ourselves. On weekends, the guys would head off to dive up the coast to refine their underwater skills which I always refused to do. I would free dive and swim in open waters and ocean but I had no desire to dive. Multiple head injuries from horse accidents made me uncomfortable to dive.
The mixture of military intensity and occasional family drama was offset by the truly fun times we had. We lived in a truly eclectic neighborhood. The house was situated near an iconic lifeguard stand, and just across the street lived a famous Japanese surfboard maker. The Beach Boys had a house just catty corner from ours, and their musical composer Baron Stuart lived just next door and was always up to something new. This man looked like Jack Black had stuck his finger in a light socket, with hair wild and pointed in all directions. He was usually clad in T-shirts and shorts, and I’m not sure I ever saw him wear shoes. Baron played the piano and composed music with the doors to his house and windows swung wide open, playing for the world to hear at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes he would pound on the piano keys and scream sing new ideas for songs, a genius, but high on life and drugs. But then again, everyone was either high, drunk or both on that block, but everyone seemed happy, including me. That is, until my dog ran away one night.
When I returned to the house after a mission with some of the guys, I found my dog had run away, and my heart was broken. There was no consoling me, I was a wreck. The guys brought me puppies, ponies, gifts, they tried everything and nothing worked- I rejected it all. I went into my shell and didn’t participate in anything for a while.
Until one night, the guys were gone on a trip, and I heard a bunch of bumps and scratches outside the house. There was a door in my bedroom that I kept locked, chained and a bar across it. There was a high long rectangular window above it that I kept open for the ocean breeze.
After the series of thuds and scratches stopped, a large figure hurled itself through the opened window. I thought I was dead. I was frozen in bed as a giant 110 pound Great Dane stood over me licking my face.
Her name was Joni, and she was officially owned by the Beach Boys. But Dennis Wilson was always off getting loaded and I never really noticed any of the other guys around to take care of her. Joni adopted me and from that night on, she was my shadow.
I had a midnight blue 280Z at the time, and Joni would hop in uninvited, sit in the passenger seat on her butt with her legs on the floorboard and her head resting on the dash. I tried to send her home, I even refused to feed her, but she wouldn’t leave me.
Sometimes someone from her family would fetch her and lock her in their yard for a time, but she would jump out and find me. She stole my heart. She wasn’t my fierce German shepherd that had run away, but she was big and intimidating and she loved me and I loved her, and we were a team.
I continued my happy life with the group for a while, and the house atmosphere provided my love of the focus, drive and religious daily regimen of open water swimming for miles in the ocean, the exquisite nutritional regimen and the learning and excelling in new skillsets.
I was simply enjoying my time, swimming each morning, playing with my dog and hanging with the grunts, but living near L.A. I got sucked into something else.
I parted ways with the guys when I landed a job in Silicon Valley for a company called Semi-Tech where I was the personal assistant on US soil to a woman who was married to James Ting, the Chinese spy and businessman.
My series of jobs lead me to new and exciting things all the time, but it wasn’t until years later that I found out just how interesting they were.
The woman and I became friends and we travelled on weekend trips together. She was a brilliant engineer and always had fun together and it was a good change from the life I’d been living before.
I only got to meet her husband on a few occasions, but he always seemed anxious to me. He had this tell sign where he would “jingle change in his trouser pockets” it was a really big habit of his. I didn’t feel uncomfortable around him, and I felt bad for his angst. Though he was a spy, he was less than covert to me. That could have been from living with the army types for a while, and after what I was used to, I spotted his act quickly.
I still have a lapel button he gave me from Semi-Tech, a reminder of another time in my life that I’d rather forget.
I eventually left my job there and continued down the coast to Los Angeles. Living in L.A. in the ’80s, it was hard to avoid the drug scene, and I knew there was money to be made in the trade. Los Angeles was becoming the underbelly of the crime world. Pure Cocaine was pouring in from Columbia via several open routes. Hollywood, Doctors, Lawyers, Judges, high society, low society- everyone seemed to want the drug. Then signs of turf wars started to appear, and a notorious biker club was going to duke it out with the Russians who were gaining a toehold- it was something out of a movie.
My networking skills paired with common sense and a mix of falling in with bad people led me to selling cocaine. Some of the drugs came through the hands of the people I was working for, and I was trusted with money and drugs because I was really innocent. To this day, I’ve never smoked a cigarette, had a cup of coffee or drank a beer, and that was my reputation in the group: steady.
It was soon after that, I was passing on a brick of coke to a friend’s brother.
“I’ve heard this stuff is unreal,” he said.
“Yep, that’s what I’ve heard,” I replied.
And he asked if I’d ever tried the stuff and when I said no, he offered it to me.
I cut a small hole in the brick I’d brought him and made a line of cocaine from one end of a glass plate mirror to the other. I had no idea what I was doing, how much was enough or the appropriate amount, how this works.
“Jesus,” he said under his breath.
“Is that enough?” I questioned back, anxious and nervous.
I didn’t even know how to snort it, but he rolled up a dollar bill as a straw and he snorted 1/2 and I did the other 1/2.
It felt very good. Back then, it was pure. And for a while, I was hooked.
Six months passed with me taking hits behind my bosses’ backs and selling on the side. It was no way to live, but I didn’t know any better at the time. It was a change, and I needed that change.
Unlike other users though, I didn’t have the problem of running out. When you are constantly surrounded by something that you want most, it makes it so easy to abuse. Down a rabbit hole of skeevy people and drugs I wandered further and further, but finally after that year and a half, I got out. But it took a push.
I realized one day just what I was doing on the day that an orthopedic surgeon kept returning to me to buy more. I thought about just how ridiculous and wrong what he was doing was, and I was facilitating it.
I remember thinking to myself “You’re going into the operating room. I can’t do this.”
One day, one of the men I was selling for, found out I’d been using behind his back. It was one of the cardinal rules of the group, not to deceive.
He gave me a swift backhand to the face for the offense.
With nose bloodied and a big black eye I left. It was my wakeup call.
Though I knew I needed to get out of that world, it was still a disappointment to be kicked out of a place where I’d been for so long.
I still remember one of the last things he said.
“You want out. You’re too smart to have done this. You did this to get out.”
Many years later, I realized they were right.
Pushed from the pusher group, I fled to get clean and get a respectable job and committed myself to a rehab center on the advice from my Dad.
I went for 30 days and I never looked back.
When she found out I was in rehab, the first thing my mom tried to do was get me committed to an insane asylum. There was a famous doctor that ran that rehab center. He does a talk show in L.A., and he really seemed to understand my situation with my mom.
“When you’re ready to talk about your mother, you come back,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s 40 years from now.”
Though rehab helped, I was still at an unguided time in my life. It might have been another spark of rebellion or just a series of random decisions that swayed me, but I can never be sure.
I moved to a small town south of Salinas, CA. That’s where my unguided journey continued but on a much lesser scale.
In a mix of trying to find out who I was and what I had to offer, paired with the want to stay away from the party scene, I fell in with a mellow group of men and women who were mostly in the same place as me: trying to find themselves and what they wanted to do with their lives. Whit helped me buy a magical little ten acre ranch on the river in Carmel Valley in an enormous old classic house built by Greene and Greene, two great old time architects.
I was going to an event in downtown Los Angeles to meet my father for a nice dinner for a political function. I was in my Porsche when I took a wrong turn off the freeway and ended up in a very, very bad neighborhood. I tried to get out quickly, but the more turns I made, the further in I drove into gangland territory.
I was dressed in high heels and an evening gown and had pearls on, searching desperately for a way out while at the same time trying to pretend I was confident and belonged .
Down one of the streets, I saw a few guys working on a cool Camino, a car I love. The hood was open and they were working on the engine. I pulled my car up next to them and told them I was lost. They had guns on their hips and people in the neighborhood started coming out of their houses and a crowd started gathering.
One of the guys asked where I was going.
“Downtown to meet my father for dinner,” I replied. “I got off the freeway a few exits too early.”
“Obviously,” he said with a smirk.
The man I later knew as Jules then calmly waved everyone back into their houses, and he told the guys to go back to working on the car. He instructed me to stay put and he went back into the small house.
I anxiously waited in my car, the smell of Mexican cooking wafting from the houses, I was hungry.
I sat tight in my car and ten minutes later, the garage door opened, and he rolled out in a relatively new Ferrari, dressed in an immaculate suit
“Follow me,” he said. “I’ll get you there.”
And so I did.
Jules got me there safely and asked me for my contact number as I made my way to dinner. Jules was Latino, a handsome guy with big brown eyes, soft spoken and well mannered. It was only much later that I learned he was involved in some way with a particularly violent and brutal criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles. Exactly what his role was I never knew but some Los Angeles cops later told me he was known as the Peacemaker, so hopefully he was a decent guy. Anyway, he had none of the facial tattoos that are a characteristic of the gang and I never saw him communicate in sign language, which is another of their hallmarks.
He courted me, and we communicated even though our worlds were very far apart and his world of gangs and violence and mine of politics and smart parties could never really meet. He used to wine and dine me in remote spots and was actually really charming. Once he even cleared an abandoned building and set up lights on the top of the building and had a candlelight 5 star meal catered. He was a romantic.
I expected that at that time that I would just continue living and figuring things out. What I didn’t expect was to get pregnant.
There are rules in that gang about marriage, children and family laws, and rival gangs go after family, so we decided it would be best to keep the pregnancy a secret. Jules and I decided that me raising our child alone was the only possible way our son would have a normal life.
But going through pregnancy alone was not something I really wanted either. I had my group of friends, but having someone to be there for physical and emotional support was something I needed even more.
At one point, before I was certain I wanted to have a baby, I had decided an abortion was the only way to go. Deep down, I was unsure about my decision, but I felt I had no other choice.
My mother was in full support of the idea, and even sent money for the procedure.
My OBGYN in Monterey also performed abortions and so I made the decision and went in for the procedure.
Just as I was going under the anesthetic before the abortion, a nurse I knew as a friend asked me one final question before things started to go dark
“Are you sure you want to do this,” she questioned
“No,” I weakly replied.
So, the doctor abandoned the operation and instead provided OBGYN counseling.
As I came to terms with my decision, each week, I would make the trip to the small Valley Center to the Fire Station and do Lamaze,
Because I was the only pregnant woman in the class without a partner, the firemen would rotate and take turns being “my Lamaze coach”. All but one of the firemen was married and the one single one named Joe became the go to guy.
Looking back now, it seems impetuous and even ridiculous but back then it was what I needed. Joe and I were married for just three-months, my first marriage, and a mistake. I remember the exact moment I knew it was a mistake too. Joe and I had gone to see a marriage counselor, and I found out he’d been married many times before. It was like an addiction.
The counselor scolded him for taking the leap yet again, and I sat in that room just thinking “How did I get sucked into this? What did I do? “
Though he wasn’t around long, Joe was there long enough for Blake to be born. The same doctor who had provided me counseling delivered Blake, and it was an easy delivery aside from the Toxemia I had developed during pregnancy that caused me to swell from 135lbs to 245lbs.
Not long after Blake’s birth, Joe and I divorced after I caught him with another woman. He was a man addicted to love, and I wanted no part of it.
Even with Joe out of the picture, Blake was born into the FireHouse Family. All the guys showed up after he was born and his first present was a Dalmatian with a fire hat stuffed animal. I’m not sure who was prouder, me or the Fire crew.
Even in this unguided period of my life, stretched from drug use, to recovery, to trying to find real love: I found real love in my son. And I knew that I wanted his life to be much different than my own. But no matter how tumultuous my childhood was, whether it was my parents or my own curiosity, my son’s was harder.
But his struggle came not from without, like mine, but from within.
This is Julia Hugo Rachel. Next week, I’ll explain just why so many doctors choose the easy diagnosis of mental illness.
Julia Hugo Rachel
CHAPTER ONE: THE ENEMY WITHIN
One woman’s journey into medical hell and the lessons that will help cure millions.