Out of the Box

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

The children could listen to the radio, but only country-Western stations chosen by their parents. If they were "very, very good," Jodi remembers, they got to watch an hour of TV a week, usually Dukes of Hazzard. Once, Jodi won a VCR after she'd placed a postcard in a radio-station giveaway box, and her father rigged the tiny TV so they could watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

More than anything, though, Jodi anticipated the weekly visits to the public library in downtown Loveland, where she was allowed to wander alone among the air-conditioned aisles of children's books while her parents explored the adult section. "It was heaven," she says simply.

Although Jodi's parents claimed to be college-educated, they never taught their children to read. They never read them storybooks. They never recited the alphabet. They never taught the kids to count. Jodi's education came from watching TV shows, listening to others and studying pictures in an incomplete set of encyclopedias that her parents kept in the shed.

John Johnston
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.
John Johnston
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.

Yet Jodi's mother still expected the children to complete worksheets from mail-order home-schooling programs. When Jodi couldn't do the work, her mother answered each question herself and ordered Jodi to memorize the answers. Sometimes her mother filled out the form and sent it in with Jodi's name.

"There were hundreds of arguments over home schooling," Jodi recalls. "I wanted nothing more than to go to school and play the xylophone in a band. But the answer was, 'This is what you have. This is what you'll deal with. You don't deserve to go to school.'"

Unable to read or write, Jodi remembers walking and driving around Loveland feeling "like a foreigner." Dependent on the routine established by her parents, she distinguished medicines by the color of their bottles. She told time by memorizing the symbols on a clock.

She was intrigued by language and knew that words held power. They contained magic -- and opportunity. If she could somehow decipher the symbols she saw all around her, Jodi thought, she could escape.

At the library, she chose her books with care, favoring covers with happy themes and smiling faces. Again and again, she returned to a story that featured a cartoon monkey riding a bicycle. She'd carry the book to a secluded cubicle and flip through the pages over and over.

One day a librarian showed Jodi how to use a machine that went with the book. Jodi slipped on a pair of cumbersome turquoise headphones and put in a tape. "This is George," a voice said. "He lived with his friend, the man with the yellow hat. He was a good little monkey and always very curious."

"I'd follow along and listen," she recalls. "Eventually I realized that each symbol, which is a letter, was equal to a sound. After about the fiftieth time, I figured out words, sounds, and how to repeat them."

At the age of fifteen, Jodi taught herself to read. And she decided that one day she'd be a writer, too.

By the summer of 1990, Jodi thinks, her family had been living in the storage shed for a decade. And while she's fuzzy about exact dates connected to the odd events of her childhood, she remembers the day she finally realized her parents had no intention of leaving. When she asked about it, her mother replied: "I'm comfortable here."

But Jodi was far from comfortable. While devouring book after book in the library, she'd discovered how other people lived. She wanted to live that way, too.

So Jodi, by now nineteen, planned her escape. She and her sister had been skimming can-recycling money and gradually collected $400. One afternoon while their parents were away, the sisters walked up the road to a battered Plymouth with a "For Sale" sign in the window and offered the owner cash. Jodi, who'd learned to drive the family's station wagon, parked the car in a secluded part of the storage yard. Every week, the sisters stuffed prized possessions underneath the seat: clothes, teddy bears, photos, favorite shirts.

And they waited.

Two months later, Jodi made her break. After a night spent collecting cans, she'd staggered back to the unit only to have her parents demand all of the cash. They were going out, they said, ordering her to stay inside and rest because she'd be working all night again.

At that moment, Jodi recalls, "All I wanted to do was get out."

After her parents drove off, she reached into a pipe where they stored their cash and snatched $200. She stuffed jeans, T-shirts and a jacket into a knapsack, hugged her dog and told her siblings, "I'll be back." Her destination: New York City, which she had seen in a travel book.

Leaving the Plymouth behind, Jodi hitchhiked to the bus station and bought a round-trip ticket to New York, with a few detours to some of the other places she'd read about. In Chicago, she saw the Sears Tower. In Philadelphia, she viewed the Liberty Bell. In Washington, D.C., she visited the Library of Congress.

"But it was the faces that blew me away," she says. "I never knew there were so many different kinds of people. I never realized people of different races lived in the United States."

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