Dawn Schiller is a survivor. That much is apparent in the title of her heartbreaking (and, at times, horrifying) new memoir, The Road Through Wonderland: Surviving John Holmes. Schiller became entangled with the then-32-year-old Holmes at the tender age of fifteen; she spent five years in an unhealthy relationship with the porn king, wherein he used drugs (and gave them to Schiller, too), beat her and forced her to sell her body on the streets. Her story was part of the 2003 James Cox film Wonderland, starring Kate Bosworth as Schiller and Val Kilmer as Holmes. Schiller goes much deeper in her memoir, now available in major bookstores nationwide; we caught up with her to ask about the process of writing the memoir and how she got to where she is today.
WW: Can you tell me about your reasons for writing The Road Through Wonderland?
DS: It really came after the filming of the movie Wonderland. The movie was well done, and I give kudos to James Cox, who, as the director, really tried to incorporate huge character arcs into a movie about a robbery. Kate Bosworth played me, and Val Kilmer played John. And in the end, there was a major issue that was not covered, and that was the abuse that John was responsible for with me. And it really wasn't clear how I got involved with John on a lot of levels, and it wasn't clear that he was very abusive and battered me. There was a part where I'd shared this with the actors, and James actually filmed a section where, after Kate was sold to Eddie Nash -- and they cut out a part, they filmed it -- where you can see after he sold me to Eddie, he did what John always did, beat me afterward and then bathed me in the bathtub. And they showed a silhouette of Val looming over Kate, which gave an indication of what was about to happen. But when I saw the final screening, they'd taken it out. That was a key element that I wish had stayed in the film, because I think it would have told the story of who he was and why I stayed in that situation. But they did cut it out, and I understood why, but it didn't sit well with me as far as being satisfied that my story was accurate.
I became friends with Val, who, throughout the filming, was creating all these photographic collages, and he asked me for a chronology for his artwork. And I sat down and did it for him. It turned into eleven pages. And he called me back and said, "This is your book; you need to write this. This is the story that people need to hear." So he inspired me. And my daughter -- another major inspiration for me to write the story was I really felt my story was not clear to people, still, and if anything ever happened to me, I didn't want my daughter to not know the truth. Even though it was ugly, I wanted her to know, from my own perspective, what I was going through. And as things progressed, I realized it was not only a story I wanted to tell about myself, but a lot of victims' stories. These kids who are battered -- their abusers or predators are not somebody with the name of John Holmes, and people won't listen to the story. And a lot of the time, their voices are unheard, and they're muted and invisible. And I really had the opportunity to speak out to others who are going through this and allow the public to see what kids are going through and what they're thinking when they have a not-so-healthy background, a background of abuse and neglect, like I did, and why they're so vulnerable to predators and the damage it might cause.
WW: The book contains some very detailed memories of what happened to you. What was it like to write those passages?
DS: Literally, I had to go back into the moment. So that took a lot of mental preparation, a lot of good self-care before and afterward. I'm clean and sober for twelve years, I also have a lot of good counselors, and I know what is going to trigger me into a bad place. But not only that; I'm on the board of directors for the local women's shelter, so I had a good support system. In recalling the details, I did literally have to create a safe space, sit back and go back into my memory visually and remember the things. Because sometimes you're not remembering the actual abuse -- the hitting -- you're seeing the thing on the wall, and remembering the way the light hits, and how the time all of a sudden was important to you. And those are the things, as I went back into those moments, that jumped out at me, and those are the things I wrote about, and I think that's how I could accurately describe what I was going through.
I had good motivators. I have a wonderful friend, Linda Pereira, who's just passed away. I acknowledged her in my book because she would call me every day and ask me sweetly if I'd done my three pages. And some days I didn't want to, because I knew I'd come to a part where I'd have to talk about something ugly. There were times when I wrote these hard parts, and afterward, I would fell like I didn't even remember that I wrote them, and maybe that was a survival technique that I had been given.
WW: What happened with Eddie Nash -- what made him finally leave you alone?
DS: I left the country with my father, and I think that really did help keep me away from everything that was going on. And I was in fear of coming back, and when I did, I did reconcile with Sharon (Holmes). I didn't get into that part, because I thought, the book's already very long and to even launch into that would be a whole 'nother story. So for people who are sad about that gap, I'm sorry! But it just had to be. And what I remember, when I came back in 1988, I had met up with Sharon, I had heard that John was acquitted and he'd been doing porn -- but he'd spent the longest amount of time ever in L.A. history, or maybe even national history, in contempt of court, because he refused to say what he knew. Nash was brought to trial, but also acquitted. Ten years ago, he was retried on some RICO charges, and I think he pleaded guilty to some of that, and he pleaded guilty to a very minor charge of being involved with the Wonderland murders, and that's my best recollection of what's going on with him. He'd seen the film and he liked it. I know that he is really, really old now, and he has emphysema and his health is very delicate, and I believe he's just trying to live out his days peacefully.
WW: After everything that Nash and John Holmes put you through, you don't sound bitter or resentful. How did you get to that place in your life?
DS: I'm going to attribute it definitely to sobriety. I have to say that until my mind got clear, my life didn't get cleared up until I was able to do that. I self-medicated after I got away from John for years, and really was a functioning alcoholic. I don't have a problem admitting to that, and you have to be honest about that, because nobody walks away from something like that and all of a sudden is well. You're in a lot of pain, and you're hurting deeply, and your soul is just scarred, and those scars are torturous. But I didn't start getting well until I got clean and sober, and a lot of therapy. I think one of the things that's really important for me is I've been able to -- like that one vision at the end of the book -- I was able to forgive. And I think even though I was still consumed with anger a lot and I didn't forget, I was able to forgive. I just don't ever want those type of people and that type of abuse to have control of my life ever again. My only regret is that John stole time from me. I was never able to have a prom, I was never able to have a teenage life with fun and friends, and to grow and feel confident in myself as an adult. I wasn't given that, and I can't take that time back. So today, I never want anybody or anything to take what time I do have.
WW: Is there anything you would have wanted to say to John about how he treated you? Or did you decide it was better to leave it alone?
DS: I just accepted the way it happened. I had an agenda -- I wanted to tell him what a jerk he was. I was ready to get in his face because I had been suffering, in pain emotionally, and when I found out he had AIDS, as I just arrived in Los Angeles, I thought, "Good, I know where he is." And that made it easier for me. Already in my head I was plotting to go to the hospital and tell him, "Take a look, because I am a whole person. I am better than you ever, ever treated me. Better than you ever told me I was. And you had no right." I had all these things I was going to say, and anger, but it didn't work out that way. And instead, on a sunny day in Los Angeles, I heard him say my name. And I really believe that was a gift of grace for me. It's so true. And in contrast, Sharon's experience was completely different. I wrote it as it was, and I think that the truth is, our personalities were different.
WW: In the book, you said you resented for a long time having your name linked to Holmes. Do you still feel that way?
DS: I think because I felt like I didn't have a voice at that time, people were linking me to their own fantasies of how I may have been or may not have been attached to porn, how I was star-struck by the guy or how I was willingly involved in a lot of these things when most of the time I was dragged in, guilt by association. And it was shameful. I carried a lot of shame and guilt that didn't belong to me, to be attached to somebody so cruel and at times evil, that, yeah, it was hard for me for people to be aware that he was once a -- and I don't even like calling it a boyfriend, because now that I'm an adult and can see what the relationship was from a healthy perspective, he wasn't a boyfriend and that wasn't love. It's hard, and I'm embarrassed. And I say to the porn world, and all the people who idolize him, you're idolizing this person who was horrid, and if you're going to have a hero, get someone else.
WW: What would you like to say to your readers?
DS: I would say, walk this journey with me so that you can learn and understand what a kid might go through. When somebody approaches them and seduces them and sucks them into a world that you feel like you don't understand what they're doing, look at them as needing help. I was surrounded by adults who could have anonymously reported what was going on at any time and chose not to for a lot of reasons. Don't be that anonymous adult who just turns away, because inaction is actually action. There are a lot of things I want people to take out of it -- but I want them to understand and have a better heart for these kids, because, like I was, I was struggling to be accepted and to have self-esteem and feel like I could be somebody and that I mattered and I had value, and I think that a lot of the kids who come from hard places are struggling for acceptance and love.
I have started a nonprofit called E.S.T.E.A.M., Empowering Successful Teens Through Education, Awareness and Mentoring. The website is being developed right now. It's basically there to raise awareness of these kids and the struggles that kids go through, especially if they're survivors of abuse and neglect, and for communities to learn about what these kids are going through, and hopefully developing mentoring programs. So I'm working on getting together people who can offer mentoring suggestions for communities and then link that up. And I'll be working on a documentary on throwaway teens. We're just taking in all suggestions, so contact us through the website, because I want to link in to all communities around the country. (The website is http://empowerteens.com).
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