Momentarily at rest, Kristen Stillman sits with her hands clasped, displaying the tattoos on her forearms: "family" on one, "first" on the other. She keeps her hands clasped as she slowly starts her story, a story of the most dysfunctional family imaginable, a story filled with unspeakable horrors.
It starts with the foggy memories of early childhood. Kristen remembers some good times, mostly involving her twin brother, Will. Her father was never around; her mother, Karen, could only be depended on to be undependable. "I really have no solid memories of Karen," she says. "She slept and was gone." They lived in a housing project, in shelters, at friends' houses. Sometimes Karen was there, sometimes she wasn't.
"Who leaves children at friends' houses?" Kristen wonders.
After Karen's father died — her grandfather was a musician on Blinky's Fun Club, Kristen thinks — there was some money. "We moved into a nice house and got a nice car...a Camry," she remembers. "And then we were homeless. We were sleeping in that Camry."
No place was safe. Both Kristen and Will think they were raped before they were old enough to know what sex was. They think their mother, Karen, was probably on drugs. They think she might have sold them to a stranger for drugs.
Then things got really bad.
The twins were eight and the new school year hadn't yet started when their mother took them to a house in northwest Denver, on the quiet, tree-lined 2500 block of Irving Street. She told them to wait — Kristen and Will played in the alley — while Karen went up to the door and talked to a man. The house belonged to the parents of Linda Torrez, and the elderly couple still lived there, as did Linda's brother, but Linda's husband, Eric, really ruled the roost. "I remember her telling Eric that we were kicked out of the homeless shelter," Kristen says. "I remember her telling us we were going to stay there and to do what we were told."
And for twelve long years, Kristen did.
In the fall of 1996, the twins moved into the front room of the ramshackle house, a stark contrast to the other brick bungalows and two-story Victorians on the block. At first the Torrez family was "kind of nice," Kristen says. "I didn't really talk to them; I've always been a shy person. But Will was outgoing. He talked. I remember him playing video games with Eric's oldest son." There were two other Torrez children: a girl a couple of years older than the twins, and Patrick, just a year older.
The twins enrolled at nearby Brown Elementary School. Kristen didn't talk much there, either; she stayed in the shadows. But Will was acting out. When Will was suspended after a fight, Eric got mad that he hadn't beaten up the other kid. He made Will stand in the corner with a backpack full of sand. He shaved Will's head. "When I came home, Will was bald, and I started crying," Kristen remembers. "I didn't understand what was going on."
What was going on soon got worse. Will had bruises all over his arms; Eric told the teachers that Will was pinching himself for attention. But Eric was beating Will, and around Christmas, he started beating Kristen. Sometimes he beat his own kids. "Linda's mom would threaten to call the cops," Kristen says, "but Eric would just abuse us more when she said something. That's why she left." Linda's father stayed. Eric hit him, too.
The twins' mother would occasionally stop by. They begged her to take them away. She didn't.
"I would read all the time when I was in school," Kristen says. There were no books at home; she and Will weren't even allowed to do their homework there. They weren't allowed to have friends over, either; they just had each other. As she read, Kristen was looking for a story about a girl who was going through what she was, "a true story. If I had found it, I know I could have looked at my life differently." She never found that story, and so she had no other way to look at her life. It was just what it was. There was no escape.
No escape from the work that Eric — who bought abandoned storage units, then sorted and sold their contents — had them do, digging through the strange, sometimes toxic hauls that littered the yard and kept neighbors far away. No escape from the strange exercises he had them do, to make them strong. "It was soldier training," Kristen says. "We'd have to do push-ups and run in place, and stand on rocks and nails for hours. I remember being in the push-up position for 24 hours once. If I dropped to my knees, I was whupped with a bamboo cane." Eric would handcuff Will, hang him from a chain in the basement. Once he put him in an open sewage pit in the back yard for days. Karen, who was visiting him, turned the hose on him and laughed.