Out of the Box

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

Jodi's mother, Pamela Gilsenan, also lives in the area. In 1999, according to police records, she was arrested and charged with trespassing and littering; earlier, she'd been charged with littering and vagrancy. Although Pamela could not be reached for comment, Jodi continues to receive abusive postcards from her mother, who threatens to take her "back to the shed," Jodi says.

"I make it a point to stay away from her," she adds. "I need some space to figure this out. There's a lot of pain. But I don't hate anyone. I can't. That's the worst thing I could do."

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

Jodi made it back to New York City last fall. After revisiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she sat in Central Park and, moved by what she had seen, sketched designs for what would become fifteen sculptures focusing on literacy.

One is a faceless figure reclining on its back with its brain exposed, reading a book. Another depicts a Webster's dictionary inside a box, with a hammer on top alongside a sign that reads: "For Emergency Use Only."

"I wanted something people could touch," she says. "I wanted to make people react."

And they have. Wherever Jodi displays her "Images of Literacy" sculptures, often at presentations about her life, children touch and caress the figures, and adults stop and ponder. The work has been so popular that Jodi's had to prevent people from carrying pieces away. "I had to stop one woman who said she was going to take it and put it in her classroom," she remembers.

Earlier this year, after placing dozens of books with publishers, Jodi closed her literary agency -- she's still paying off some of her bills -- in order to concentrate her efforts on literacy advocacy and doing her own writing. And last week, her first book, Tours for Free Colorado, published by BentLight Media, hit bookstore shelves. Jodi compiled the guide during four-day road trips in her Ford Escort with her current dog, Tiger, taking the same approach to exploring this state that she'd used ten years earlier in New York. "There's a lot of fun stuff to do if you just take time to look for it," she says.

Although Jodi had already compiled a collection of Brain Baffler puzzles and crafted a number of chapbooks, including a primer for children on how to make money and save the environment by collecting aluminum cans and shoveling snow, Tours for Free Colorado represents a milestone. "It's a real book," she explains. "It's in the bookstores. It's the book I always dreamed about writing. When I go to book signings, I'm so excited, I can't stop talking to people."

Despite her professional and personal progress, Jodi still struggles to overcome the traumas of her past. She's very shy, often overly apologetic and uncomfortable in crowds. "I can't go to parties," she says. "I got in trouble for talking to people. When I go to parties, I get that same feeling.

"They made me a monster in so many ways," she says of not just her parents, but the adults who did nothing to help. "What happened to me wasn't my fault. I have to keep telling myself that."

She's tried to share that realization with her siblings. Jodi's sister works for a university in Florida, Jodi says, and has vowed not to return to Colorado until her mother is dead. Jodi stays in closer touch with her brothers, one of whom runs an Internet business. "I have no interest in communicating issues of the past," he says in a fax to Westword. "The situation has changed. Any discussion could bring more harm and harassment from my former parent. There is no reason to discuss this further!"

The younger boys live with their father, who has given them a life Jodi never had. "They have a house, running water, friends, lots of activities like the 4-H," she says. "They're doing well. Very well. They seem to be enjoying life." Those brothers are the main reason Jodi communicates with her father, who still has not offered an explanation or apology for the family's decade in a storage shed.

Jodi tries to focus on the joy in her life today. She visits Disneyland twice a year, collects yo-yos, romps through the park with her dog and rereads Curious George. Each day brings a new wonder: a pocket calculator, a door knocker, a package of Pop-Tarts.

"You put them in a toaster!" Jodi says. "I never knew that. And in the grocery store, in the seasoning aisle, you can make gravy from little packets. And at McDonald's, you can ask for extra pickles if you want. These things don't seem important unless they're not available to you.

"Words saved me," she continues. "I'm proud of where I am, but I'm not proud of how I got here. It's very sad, but it's liberating, too. I don't want to sit and wallow in what happened, but if my story helps inspire someone, then it's worth something."

Although Jodi made a quick trip to Loveland to take a picture of the storage yard a few years ago, it wasn't until last month that she confronted the symbols of her past: She visited the Burger King, the Safeway, the library, the steel dumpsters. She stood outside Unit 151. That night, she couldn't sleep.

She still has nightmares.

"They say when you look into the face of your enemy, you get stronger," Jodi says. "But sometimes you just pretend."

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