One tragic, haunted, story about a dead streetwalker

Every now and then, The Washington Post focuses quite a bit of talent and effort on telling a long, detailed story that focuses on the darker, more tragic, side of life here in The District.

The sad story of the life and death of Misty Lachelle Clanton certainly falls into that category. Her story is also, in a way, linked to the startling transformation that is going on in the area surrounding H Street here in the District’s Northeast quadrant, only a few blocks from my office hear D and 8th. That ravaged corridor is now emerging as a hip, edgy zone for young urbanites.

From my perspective, this gripping story gets one thing really right and one thing really wrong. You’ll be stunned to know that the latter has something to do with, you got it, yet another religion ghost.

Clanton was a prostitute who struggled with drug addictions. Two other key figures in her story are Philip Lewis Johnson, who tried to help steer her toward health, and a volunteer D.C. jail chaplain Christine Swift. We are not told of Swift is ordained or whether she was associated with any particular religious group, tradition or ministry. Perhaps one of our region’s ministries that focus on the liberation of prostitutes? Sorry, more on that later.

So what is the strength of this story? The Post team does a great job of selling the fact that there is nothing unusual about this woman’s story, that her life and death were — hard truth be told — not that newsworthy. That’s the ultimate tragedy of all of this. Clanton’s fate was hellish, horrible and, yet, all too common. What is newsworthy about rape, abuse, abandonment, prostitution and binges on cocaine?

Here is a major chunk of the story that combines the major themes:

Misty Lachelle Clanton, 39, died in October. Her body was found in front of an Ivy City fish market steps from where, for years, she strutted along West Virginia Avenue NE, selling her body $20 at a time. She is survived by a family that includes two children in Front Royal. Locally, Clanton is remembered by those who tried to help her — among them Johnson and a D.C. jail volunteer chaplain — and who invested time, emotion and money only to watch her fall further into despair and dependency.

Each year, many on the District’s margins die as Clanton did — alone, addicted, all but forgotten. Clanton was found dead on a public street, and police issued a news release. The report prompted only brief mentions in the local news. Authorities have not yet determined the cause of her death, though it is not being investigated as a homicide.

After she died, advocates for District prostitutes said they had never met Clanton. Her name did not stand out to police officials intimately familiar with the neighborhoods she worked for years. People who answered doors at her past addresses had never heard her name. And neither Johnson nor Christine Swift, the jail chaplain, knew Clanton had died until contacted by a reporter.

When Johnson found out, he expressed frustration that her drug addiction was treated like a crime rather than a disease. “The system is not designed to help addicts like Misty. It destroys people who need help.” But he also bemoaned Clanton’s unwillingness or inability to get clean. Court documents reveal a law enforcement community that grew similarly exasperated as Clanton threw away chances until prison became the only option.

Prison, of course, did not do drive away her demons — whatever they were. Sorry, more on that later.

Swift moved heaven and earth, at a key point in Clanton’s life, to get the young woman a second chance at health and sanity. And what happened? What did Clanton do with that opportunity?

From jail, she wrote letters in flowing cursive, thanking those who had tried to intervene, expressing remorse for having let them down and promising that this time she’d do better. She sent one such letter to Swift, who volunteers in the women’s section of the D.C. jail, after the chaplain persuaded a judge to spare her prison and send her to an intensive drug treatment program in North Carolina.

“Thank you for being non-judgmental, and for showing me unconditional love,” Clanton wrote. “All the efforts you put in will never be in vain.”

She absconded from the program after a month.

Like I said, it’s a long, tragic story.

I would really be interested in knowing what the newspaper’s editors concluded was, for readers, the “take away” — a big term in this news-you-can-use world — from this long news feature. What was the Big Idea?

The story is unblinking in its depiction of Clanton’s missed opportunities. But, in the background, some readers will begin to sense the presence of a big question that remained unasked. We have the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where” and even the “how.” Might there have been a “why” hidden somewhere in this report?

What about Swift and that remarkable open door at the drug-rehab center?

On June 2, 2006, a judge agreed to free Clanton once more, ordering her to a comprehensive drug treatment center in Durham, N.C., where stays can last up to three years.

Clanton wrote Swift five days later: “If I ever even thought for one minute of turning back the other way (living in sin), all I would have to do is remember your face, because the thought of hurting you would be unbearable. Words will never be good enough, so therefore my actions will speak for itself.”

On June 14, Clanton was released from jail. She was to meet Swift and head for the bus to North Carolina. She never showed up.

Later that night, Swift said, Clanton called and said she was ready to go through with the trip. Swift said she picked Clanton up at a motel at 4 a.m. and paid for her Greyhound bus ticket south.

On July 17, Clanton walked out of the Durham facility. Swift said she had a dispute with staff over a cigarette she refused to put out.

Clanton headed right back to the streets, to jail, to the path into an early grave. As the chaplain put it: “She didn’t have her own best interest at heart.”

Why? What were the core issues at the heart of her struggle with — to use her own loaded word — sin. Did any of her demons have names?

The bottom line: This story does not go there. It does not ask those questions. There is, in the end, no attempt to ask “why”? Is the Big Idea that there is no “why”?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    This reminds me of the conversation I had recently with a friend who cannot understand a bi-polar family member’s refusal to take medication and instead remain a dependant, jobless, homeless person.
    I’m not sure the issue is sin. Many times the issue may be a missed dual diagnosis that complicates treatment and compliance with treatment. The mental problems may be pre-existing or brought on/exacerbated by the drugs or alcohol.
    http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/dualdiagnosis.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dual_diagnosis

  • sari

    Julia,
    You took the words right out of my mouth (or off my fingers). Many, many, many people–a huge percentage of those on the street and those incarcerated–self-medicate rather than pursue more effective treatments. The absence of any mention of her mental status, whether she’d been evaluated, treated, or both, was the biggest ghost in the article.

  • tmatt

    My point is not that the story needed to be dominated by sin talk.

    The key for me was the relationship between the chaplain — whatever the denominational ties of the chaplain — and this troubled woman. It’s obvious, from the tiny amount of info given, that there bonds included a spiritual dimension. But this is dropped. Thus, I see a spiritual ghost.

    Again, I am not saying that this is a religion story. I am saying that the religious element in that pivotal relationship is all but ignored.

  • sari

    tmatt,

    I saw this story as incomplete, not a sin story.

    It seemed to me that the religious ghosts were secondary to the mental health ghosts. Both issues were neglected, but one goal of the story appeared to be the desire to make the public aware of people like Misty; mental health is a huge part of that picture. Perhaps the writer’s other goal was to make known church and street ministries, but, their lack of success suggests that she needed more help than prayer and moral support.

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