Out of the Box

Her parents kept her prisoner in a storage unit, but words set Jodi Jill free.

"We did have a hairbrush," she says. "But a hat was the best solution to our problems."

The children were not allowed to talk to strangers. They were not allowed to play with others. They were not allowed to speak in public. If anyone asked what grade she was in, Jodi was ordered to reply, "I'm home-schooled." But in reality, from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., the children were locked inside the shed. They just lounged around, talked, slept or drew faces on their fingers for impromptu puppet shows. When people visited other storage units, their mother demanded absolute silence.

In the afternoons, though, Jodi and her siblings were allowed to play ball or accompany their parents to Burger King, where the adults drank free cups of coffee and chatted with the attendants while the children shared two kiddie-sized cups of Dr Pepper or Coke and flipped through newspaper comics. Always, their mother hovered nearby.

Gimme shelter: Jodi took this picture of her former home.
Gimme shelter: Jodi took this picture of her former home.

"We couldn't do anything unless she was standing there and approved of it," Jodi recalls. "She didn't shelter us; she cut us off."

The family communicated with relatives by mail, using a post office box downtown. Once a month, the children were allowed to call their grandparents on their father's side, who lived in Iowa. Their mother monitored every word. If the children said anything inappropriate, they were told they could not speak to their grandparents again. And if they disobeyed, they "felt it later" from her mom, Jodi says.

"Phone books," she explains. "On your back. On your arms. On your butt."

When Jodi's uncles visited, her family met them at the hotel they were staying in, or at the Burger King on the other end of town. Whenever questions about their home life came up, her parents changed the subject. Jodi believes her relatives were completely in the dark about the family's situation. When Jody told her grandfather the truth, two weeks before he died, the old man cried.

During the day, the door to the shed was usually barricaded by a wooden frame and a black sheet of plastic. In the summer, the unit became a furnace. When the wind kicked up dust, Jodi practically suffocated. She suffered from severe asthma and became so weak she could not walk across the room; it was all she could do to sit in front of a fan and inhale blasts of hot air. Her father once brought her an inhaler from the drugstore, but she received no sympathy from her mother, who said, "There's nothing wrong with you. Get up and do something."

"I was terrified," Jodi says. "I couldn't breathe."

During the winter, the family fired up a small propane heater that barely warmed the uninsulated room. The children caught frequent colds and suffered from sinus infections. When chicken pox spread through the family, it lingered for six weeks.

No matter how sick the children became, they were never allowed to see a doctor. Two of Jodi's brothers were even were born in the shed: one in 1984, she thinks, and the other in 1986. Jodi's mother never had a prenatal checkup, and she didn't go to the hospital when she went into labor. Instead, she had her stunned older children sterilize towels in boiling water while she gave birth on the RV cushions.

"I freaked," Jodi recalls. "I was this completely naive person presented with a problem I was not prepared to handle. I was sound asleep when she started having contractions. She didn't have any pain-killers, as far as I knew. She screamed loud enough to give me that impression. It was a terrifying experience."

Jodi suffered through other, less dramatic terrors on a regular basis. When her family visited the neighborhood Safeway, the children were ordered to shoplift loaves of bread, packages of Velveeta and chuck steak, cans of peaches. Sometimes they stuffed food under their baggy clothing; other times they plucked receipts from the parking lot and filled a grocery bag with items they pretended to have purchased. At first, Jodi remembers, it felt like a game. But when she got older and realized she could go to jail, she was petrified. And still, her parents continued to scribble down grocery lists.

"They told us what they wanted and we'd get it," Jodi says. "You never questioned my mother. You always did exactly what she told you, no matter how right or wrong."

Jodi and her siblings, and occasionally their father, scoured nearby parks, businesses, restaurants and even the county fairgrounds for aluminum cans. They waited until after midnight, when the security guards left, then draped blankets over the barbed-wire fence and climbed over. They haunted nearby dumpsters, some twenty feet long, six feet deep and filled with filth.

"If there was nothing to stand on, you couldn't get out," Jodi recalls. "Me and my sister used a rope with knots in it to pull ourselves up. It was horrible. But you just went through it. You had no choice. You brought back cans whether you wanted to or not. To this day, I can't drink beer. The smell -- it still gets to me."

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