Out of the Box

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

Unit 151 stands on the northeastern edge of the Loveland Self Storage lot, on the south end of town, near a concrete drainage ditch and a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The unit is about the size of a one-car garage, ten feet by twenty feet, with cinderblock walls, a concrete floor and a metal roll-up door; it looks just like hundreds of other sheds on the lot. But Jodi Jill sees something very different. Unit 151 was her home -- and her prison.

"I feel like I'm suffocating," she says, standing before the storage shed on a clear autumn morning. "Too many memories. Too many bad memories."

For ten years, Jodi, her parents and her siblings lived inside Unit 151 without running water, windows or much contact with the outside world. For a third of her life, for reasons her parents have never explained, they were hidden away here, living amid other people's junk. Even now, after building a new life, Jodi cannot escape this barren place.

 
John Johnston
 
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.
John Johnston
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.
Gimme shelter: Jodi took this picture of her former home.
Gimme shelter: Jodi took this picture of her former home.

"It's strange how little has changed," she says, staring down the neat rows of faded yellow buildings. "The silence. The filth. The cold. It was always cold."


They were nomads, moving from town to town and state to state, changing addresses every few months, until finally they settled in the small farming community of Loveland.

Jodi was nine. She remembers arriving in the family's brown '68 Ford station wagon. After years of bedding down in a travel trailer, she was relieved and excited to move into what her parents had promised would be a house. But after her father unloaded their possessions at Loveland Self Storage, she learned the truth. When she asked him why Unit 151 would be their new home, he said: "That's just the way it is." When Jodi asked her mother, she replied, "Because you deserve it."

Jodi, who's now thirty, still doesn't know why her parents chose Loveland, or a storage shed. Her father had worked in an RV factory in the Midwest, she thinks, then hurt his back and became disabled. But whenever the family needed money, there seemed to be cash around. Although her father often walked with a cane, he always seemed to find odd jobs doing clerical work or hauling supplies.

"I don't think there was a struggle for them to find work," Jodi says. "My mom always had twenty or thirty dollars. No, I wouldn't say they were poor."

Her parents weren't driven into hiding by deep religious convictions, either. They weren't running from the law. They weren't battling drugs or alcohol. They weren't chasing romantic notions of life on the road. In retrospect, Jodi thinks it was simply a matter of convenience.

"They were comfortable," she says. "Instead of finding an appropriate way to live, they wanted to do this."

And what they did was slap together a life that, for their children, combined basic survival skills with absolute secrecy.

Their first job was modifying the storage shed. The west wall was fitted with cabinets and a long particle-board shelf that held groceries, medicine and sewing supplies; the east wall was fitted with more cabinets and a long counter that functioned as a kitchen and a desk. On the north wall, Jodi's father built a loft where she, her sister and a brother slept on hard, flat cushions. Near the center of the room, on a throw rug retrieved from the dump, her parents arranged three fold-out RV cushions, where they slept. When more children arrived, one slept on the cushions and the other in a cubbyhole under a shelf. A single lightbulb hanging overhead was fitted with an adapter and two electrical cords that fed, at various times, a crockpot, a hot plate, an alarm clock, a two-inch black-and-white TV and, later, a primitive computer.

Every few days, always at night, the children retrieved water from an outdoor spigot at the north end of the storage yard. They lugged water back to the shed in ten five-gallon pickle buckets, appropriated from the nearby Johnson's Corner truck stop. Even after scrubbing the plastic with bleach, Jodi could still taste vinegar.

Another bucket functioned as a toilet. The family chipped away mortar from a wall of cinderblocks and dug a doorway into an empty, adjoining unit, where Jodi's father configured sheets of wood into a Z-shaped privacy screen. The bucket was emptied once a day, at night, in the concrete ditch that bordered the yard.

Twice a day, never in the morning, the children ate sandwiches, canned fruit and odd concoctions of macaroni, cheese, beans and alfalfa sprouts. Food that wasn't canned or sealed in plastic quickly spoiled; in the winter, they stored catsup, pickles and cheese in the snow. About five years after they moved into the unit, Jodi remembers, her father finally brought home a small refrigerator.

Once a month, the children visited a campground to bathe. Sometimes they showered in the storage shed, using a device designed for camping and catching the dirty water in a large metal trough so they could wash clothes in it later. Still, hygiene was not a priority, Jodi recalls. She had four sets of clothes. She rarely brushed her teeth, seldom combed her hair. Since the shed had no mirror, she had no clue how she looked.

"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.

"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."

In the winter, the children shoveled snow at the storage yard, clearing the entrances to hundreds of units. Again, they worked at night. "Our parents didn't want anyone to see us," she recalls, "because they told the owner they'd do the work."

No matter how bad things got, though, Jodi and her siblings never considered going for help.

"In some aspects, it was normal," she says. "We didn't know any different. We didn't have anything to compare it to. We didn't have anyone to tell. We had nowhere to go. We were afraid."

Years later, after they'd left the shed, Jodi and a brother compiled a list of people who should have known something about their plight. One of the owners of Loveland Self Storage, who took his sons to Unit 151 for babysitting. The security guards, who stopped by for barbecues. The owners of a fireworks business that rented storage units a few yards away. The Burger King employees.

"If you have children who look like hell, smell like hell, and come in almost every afternoon, there's no way you can walk by and not suspect that something is wrong," Jodi says. "But no one did anything. No one said a word."

Bob Paul, a former manager at Loveland Self Storage, confirms that Jodi's family stayed in Unit 151 but says he didn't know anything about the living conditions. "They did spend some time out there. That's a true statement," he acknowledges. "I don't know the details. I was just the manager. I never went out back. I just collected the rent and took it to the bank, basically. I didn't get involved in what happened out back."

Nor did the business's owners.

"We had our suspicions, but we were never able to prove anything," says Jean Davis, whose husband is a partner in Loveland Self Storage. "They were in and out and in and out. But we never went down there at night. They rented it as a storage unit. If we'd been able to prove they lived there, they would have been evicted."

But neither she nor her husband ever opened Unit 151 to see for themselves. "You just can't go in there," she says. "When someone rents a unit, you can't go in there without due cause."

Toni Petersen, who rents space at Loveland Self Storage for a silk-screening business, remembers hearing rumors about the family. "I used to see a brown station wagon with all the kids inside, but I didn't know if they were renting or running a business or what," she says. "When I heard they were living there, I said, 'Aw, come on.' But it was possible. Very possible."

Joyce Snyder, who managed the Burger King they used to visit, remembers Jodi and her family.

"I knew who they were," she says. "They came in all the time. But they never talked about their personal life. The kids were quiet and well behaved. They seemed content. They were not as clean as other people, not as well kept, but they were nice people."

Ron Denton ran an automative service center next to Loveland Self Storage. He says he remembers Jodi's family "big time"; he even let them use land behind his shop for a small garden filled with tomatoes, squash and pumpkins. Often the parents would stop by to chat.

"They were extremely poor," he recalls. "As a family, they absolutely had no friends. I probably came as close to being a friend as anyone. I'd lend them money periodically. I guess they were kind of radical. Their beliefs and what they thought of society were pretty stretched. They were always complaining about what was happening with the government. I don't know if capitalism was a thing they believed in. I am almost totally positive there was never drugs or alcohol. It was just a strange way that they lived their lives."

Even though he knew that the family lived in the storage shed, Denton didn't consider reporting Jodi's parents to the authorities.

"I didn't go back there or nose around or anything," he says. "The kids never asked for help. They were very timid. I've always been one to let people do what they do. To each his own."


One day Jodi discovered a puppy outside of their shed, tied to the door handle of the station wagon. Beside the dog was a 25-pound bag of Alpo. Someone had left a gift for the grubby children. Jodi named the multicolored mutt Jingle, after "Jingle Bells."

The dog barked frequently, and the children had to fight to keep her. Remarkably, their parents relented, and Jingle became a rare bright spot in a bleak life. Jingle and Jodi were inseparable. They took walks, played ball, even shared dog biscuits.

"She was always there for me," Jodi says. "She was never angry. She always listened when life became overwhelming. When I gave her a kiss, I taught her to lick me back. And she always did. That meant a lot. She loved me."

Christmas was another exception to their daily pattern. The family decorated a sixteen-inch plastic tree and exchanged gifts -- usually socks, underwear and peanut brittle. Every so often, their grandparents sent toys and games, once even a thirteen-inch color TV. But if the gifts were expensive -- like the TV -- their parents would drive to Fort Collins and exchange them for cash.

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.

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."

Jodi arrived in New York City with $35 in her pocket. She was dazed, overwhelmed, overjoyed.

"There were taxis honking," she remembers. "People yelling. Vendors roasting nuts in the subway. One woman walked by with a ton of perfume on. It was just too much."

For three hours, she leaned against the wall of the bus terminal, just watching.

"I was afraid to go anywhere," she says. "I thought everyone was going to attack me. One big burly guy was talking to me with this accent and scaring the hell out of me. But what I realized was that everyone had their own little missions. Everyone was doing their own thing. I told myself, 'I like this place.'"

Her first stop beyond the bus station was Times Square. At a TGI Friday's, she ordered what seemed like a gourmet meal: pasta. "We used to eat macaroni and cheese without milk," she says. "This had texture. Flavor. Spices. Aroma. I had never tasted anything like it." But when the bill arrived, she was stunned. "No one ever told me how expensive New York was," she says.

Jodi headed to Central Park to spend the night, but changed her mind after a few natives warned her that she could get killed there. She returned to the bus terminal, where she slept on the floor.

After a decade in a storage shed, Jodi easily adapted to street life. Once her money was gone, she panhandled, visited a pizzeria after hours for leftover food, offered to work for meals. "I ate well," Jodi says. "I didn't starve one day. I was accustomed to danger, so I didn't overreact to things."

Using a map she found on the subway, she explored the city. "I just bummed along, checking out statues and looking at storefronts for entertainment," she says. "I was there to prove to myself I could do things."

She visited the Statue of Liberty, taking her first boat ride. "Look! We're floating!" she shouted from the ferry. She visited FAO Schwarz, where she spent hours looking at the stuffed animals, model trains and remote-control cars. She visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and gazed at sculptures, paintings and drawings for the first time.

"No one ever told me that things like Monet existed," she says. "No one ever told me he used a paintbrush. I cried."

Brimming with confidence, intoxicated by "how wonderful the world was," Jodi decided to seek a writing job. She had no idea how to do it, so she went into an employment agency. But when clerks there asked for a work history and an address, she got worried and left.

With no job prospects and no notion of how to change that, Jodi saw only one option: to go back to Colorado.


As her bus approached Loveland, Jodi made herself a promise. Someday, somehow, she would return to New York. "I didn't care what it took," she says.

She made her way back to the storage yard, "expecting to be pounded," she remembers. But during the two weeks that she had been away, things had suddenly changed: Her family was leaving the shed. Her parents had split up, and the boys were going with their father, who was already loading supplies from Unit 151 into the station wagon. The girls were to go with their mother.

Jodi and her sister chose the Plymouth instead.

They drove to Fort Collins, where they slept at a truck stop and visited business after business looking for jobs. Jodi's sister found work in a restaurant; Jodi took on some clerical jobs. She changed her name, dropping the surname she'd shared with her parents.

At last she was free.

"You could drive where you wanted, check out things as long as you wanted, talk to people if you wanted. It was the best feeling in the whole damn world," Jodi recalls.

After two months, the sisters found a house to rent for $600 a month. But even the simplest of modern conveniences posed a challenge. "We couldn't figure out the running-water thing," Jodi says. "And it had windows, too. That was different. We couldn't figure out how to use a key to the door, either. But it had shag carpet. It had a medicine cabinet that opened and closed. It had pillows. Our dog could bark until she was green. It was safe."

For their birthdays, the sisters treated themselves to a big-screen viewing of Who Framed Roger Rabbitat a two-dollar theater in Longmont."I never realized you could just go to the movies," Jodi says. "I always thought you had to be invited."

She also visited an eye doctor and discovered "that there were trees on the mountains."

Jodi, who read twelve books a week, everything from literature to cartoon collections, began writing stories for a newspaper agriculture supplement and a recipe column for a magazine. "It sounds silly," she says, "but when you're making icicle pops with lemonade, it's pretty exciting. Especially if you've never had a refrigerator."

She even transformed a notebook doodle into a word puzzle called "Brain Baffler," which she eventually sold to weekly newspapers. But that was just the start of her literary career.

"I wanted to be involved in books," Jodi says. "I researched the process and discovered that a literary agent was the closest you could get to being an author. I felt I could do it because I loved books. And I thought if I loved books, I could sell books."

So she attended local writers' groups, posted fliers, wrote publishers. And in 1993 she formed a literary agency called Eden.

"After the garden," she says. "The beginning of something new."


By the next year, Jodi's business had begun to blossom.

She was manning the Eden Literary booth at a San Francisco book fair when a woman approached, looking perplexed. She was soft-spoken, polite, in her late fifties. Rather than sift through the books and fliers cluttering the display table as everyone else had done, the woman looked directly at Jodi. "Tell me about your literacy program," she said.

"I don't understand," Jodi replied.

The woman explained that she had a friend who couldn't read, so she had come to the book fair seeking help.

"We're a literary agency," Jodi said. "We don't have any programs."

The woman frowned. "But you can still help, can't you?"

At that moment, Jodi understood. The woman didn't have an illiterate friend; she was the one who couldn't read. "In her face," Jodi remembers, "I saw flashes of myself."

She also saw an opportunity. Book fairs were the perfect forums for advocating literacy. But instead of starting her own project -- "I'm not patient enough to teach people how to read," she says -- Jodi decided to raise money for existing literacy programs. She remembered what she'd told her squirming brother in the Loveland library: "Quit whining and read!"

All the other literacy promotions were "kind of stodgy," she recalls. "This was kind of smart-alecky, like me." She designed T-shirts carrying that smart-alecky slogan and displayed them at the next book fair, alongside brochures from local literacy projects that would receive half of the proceeds from the sale of the shirts.

"It was a hit from the first shirt," Jodi says. "I sold thirty shirts once in fourteen minutes. I was looking at my watch saying, 'Oh, my God. I didn't even think this was going to work.'"

The shirts were particularly appealing to librarians, teachers and high school students, who also wanted refrigerator magnets, tote bags and sweatshirts. "A woman in Miami was so upset after we sold out that she kept saying, 'Swap me shirts! Swap me shirts!'" Jodi recalls. "So I did. And I got a really nice flower shirt out of it."

Soon Jodi was fielding more T-shirt orders than manuscripts. In 1999 she struck a deal with John Kellow of Boulder-based BentLight Media, who agreed to license the Quit Whining and Read! name, redesign the logo and handle distribution of the merchandise.

Kellow had met Jodi through a poetry and fiction contest sponsored by the now-defunct Boulder Daily Planet, in which she'd offered to represent the winners for six months without charging a fee. She was "really honest with people and very kind in her approach to writers," Kellow says. At one point, Eden employed six people and was listed in trade publications as among the largest literary agencies in the West, with between eighty and a hundred clients. One reason for Jodi's popularity was her willingness to look at practically any manuscript.

"She always took the time to read and personally respond to all of them," Kellow says. "Whether the writing was good or not, she always gave them a personal response and direction. She amazes me. She works harder than me, and I think I work pretty hard."

Joe Bullard, a Florida man whose novel Waiting for Agnes has yet to be published, signed on with Jodi's agency after hearing about Quit Whining and Read! "Jodi is hardworking and curious, and her passion in life is reading and literature," he says. "She's been through hard times, but doesn't hold a hard heart toward anyone. I'm very glad I got to know her."

So far, Quit Whining and Read! has raised more than $40,000 for literacy programs in Colorado and California. While Kellow continues to handle the merchandise, Jodi has developed a literacy Web site (quitwhining.com), started a literacy newsletter, and made a promise to eat a paperback if 50,000 people pledge to read a book.

Through years of enthusiastic advocacy, Jodi never explained publicly why reading was so important to her. She was "extremely guarded" about her childhood, Kellow says, "overwhelmed by anxiety" that someone would discover the truth. Once, a disgruntled client threatened to tell other writers that Jodi had grown up in a shed and never attended school. Even though his work wasn't ready for publication, Jodi says, it was hard to hear such threats. She was humiliated by her past.

And then one day in Chicago, where she'd attended another book fair, Jodi finally took a good look at her fellow passengers on board the El. "Here I was around all these people, and then I realized they were just like me," she says. "We're all just people. I wasn't afraid anymore. I was tired of hiding who I am."

She wrote down her story and posted it on her Web site. And then last March, at a writers' conference in Houston, Jodi stood before 285 authors, editors and publishers and spoke for the first time about her life. Afterward, audience members rose to their feet and applauded.

"It was very moving," recalls Glen Graiser, a Houston writer. "It was one of the better speeches I've heard."

After another presentation in Chicago several months later, an older woman approached Jodi and enveloped her in a tight embrace. "I know I'm black and you're white," the woman said. "But if I had my choice, I'd love to be your mother."


Jodi started telling her story publicly, but she didn't know the whole story. She says she still doesn't.

It turns out that at least one nearby business owner did report the family to the authorities. "I'm a parent, and I know the signs," this woman explains. "Things just weren't right. Their living conditions were not what most families have. We thought they lived in a car. People just don't do that. They knew how to talk themselves through a lot of things. They looked and acted as if they were hiding something. What that was, I don't know."

In May 1990, Larimer County sheriff's deputies showed up at Loveland Self Storage, investigating a report of a stolen Ford Granada. One deputy spoke to Jodi's mother and saw kids running in and out of Unit 151. He asked her if they were living in the shed, and she said no; he asked if he could go inside to make sure everyone was okay, and she said no; when he asked again, she accused him of harassment. In his report of the encounter, the deputy noted that the kids seemed dirty but otherwise healthy.

A month later, Loveland police officers, a county social services worker and a health department official arrived at Unit 151, acting on a tip that some kids were living there and were often alone. No one answered their knock, but they heard a dog barking. It was hot, and they thought kids might be inside -- so they cut the lock and went in. The unit was empty except for the dog. They took photos of its contents, including bedding, food and cooking utensils. Then they shut the door and left, filing a report with the sheriff's department, which had jurisdiction.

Later that summer, Jodi's parents filed reports of their own, accusing the authorities of burglarizing the shed -- which they claimed was used for a printing business -- and ransacking their belongings, beating their dog and stealing personal items. When a sheriff's deputy -- the same one who'd investigated the car theft -- arrived to check out their complaint, Jodi's father accused him of harassing his wife. During their encounter, Jodi's father fell down, and he accused the deputy of pushing him and hurting his back.

In the months that followed, according to police reports, Jodi's parents continued to accuse the cops of burglarizing their unit. Fliers charging assorted authorities -- the Loveland police, the sheriff's department, social services -- with wrongdoing began appearing around town. Some named Larimer County social worker Kathryn Bryer by name.

In 1991, Bryer sued Jodi's parents for harassment -- buying advertisements and magazine subscriptions in her name, posting slanderous fliers. In 1993, the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld an earlier injunction against Jodi's parents.

By then, they'd left the shed -- and each other.

"There's a lot of things that happened in the past," Jodi's father says now. "An awful lot of things. I choose not to discuss them. Things are not the same now and probably will never be the same. I'm very fortunate that my ex is an ex. Outside of that, I do not want to go into the past. That's an extremely rough thing. At this point, it's 180 degrees, and I don't want to go back to them. A lot of things have changed. The ex is so deranged that anything I say will be twisted. No comment is the best comment. I don't want to give her ammunition.

"It's been a long and grueling time getting away and making changes. Things are not the same. I'm very, very proud of what [Jodi's] been able to do. I don't feel in my position, with minors under my roof, I dare do anything. I really supported her efforts. I have. The best thing I can say is that the past has got to stay in the past. I don't want to dwell on it. Things are not the same and never will be."

He also asks that his name not be used. But since he left the shed -- put that past behind him -- Don Wubben's name has appeared in the papers a number of times. There were stories about Bryer's lawsuit. He wrote a letter to the Denver Post around Father's Day 1995, which urged, "Let's say something upbeat about dads." And he touted his work on parental rights, as well as his role as a single father with custody of his children, in a Loveland Reporter-Heraldstory when he ran for the Thompson School District Board of Education in 1999.

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."


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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