By Editor Peter Szatmary
Commonalities galvanize people to help others, especially when overcoming ad- versity forms the bond.
Ask Dawn Schiller. Now she pursues an M.A.
in women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon
State University, partly through a 2013 Kathleen
Greey Fellowship from the Society and a teaching
assistantship. Schiller earned a B.S. in liberal
studies from Eastern Oregon University, her
Phi Kappa Phi chapter, in 2012. But as a youth, she
endured heinousness. Through an accidental encounter in 1976, Schiller, then 15, fell under sway
of 32-year-old pornography star John Holmes.
Their sordid relationship revolved around his
sexual, physical and emotional abuse of her and
sharing drugs and alcohol to the point of addiction. The impressionable Schiller, product of a
grim childhood, thought they were in love. As
Holmes spiraled further downward, he forced
her into prostitution and “sold” her to his
friend, mobster Eddie Nash, suspected by authorities of operating a narcotics distribution
ring from nightclubs he owned.
Horrors magnified with four unsolved killings
dubbed the “Wonderland murders” after the avenue, the scene of the 1981 crimes in Los Angeles.
Holmes’ involvement left him and Schiller at risk,
with at least eight contracts out on them she says.
Schiller, Holmes, and his wife went into protective custody, briefly. Holmes then decamped underground to Florida, taking Schiller, for almost
six months, before she escaped and turned him in.
She eventually received a degree in gemology
from the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences.
Schiller returned to California in 1988. She enrolled at Glendale Community College and held
secretarial jobs. If her travails seem readymade
for Hollywood, portions became the 2003 film
Wonderland, directed and co-written by James
Cox. Kate Bosworth portrayed her; Val Kilmer
depicted Holmes. Schiller was an associate producer. Much got left out; Kilmer, who became a
friend and then hired her as his website administrator, urged Schiller to share more of her saga.
Schiller’s 2010 memoir, The Road through Wonderland (Medallion Press), garnered strong notices and media attention. She worked as an administrative support specialist at EOU for several years and continued that job when resuming
In school, Schiller began to aid others with
similar backgrounds. In 2009, she founded the
nonprofit E.S. T.E.A.M.: Empowering Successful Teens through Education, Awareness and
Mentoring for what Schiller calls “throwaway
kids”: victims of abuse or neglect. She is an advisory board member of the National Center for
Victims of Crime, Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center, and Voices Set Free
for battered women. Schiller also has been on
the board of Shelter from the Storm women’s
refuge in La Grande, Ore.
She answered email questions from Editor
Peter Szatmary. Edited excerpts follow.
Why do you give back?
I have to. It feels natural and
Summarize E.S. T.E.A.M.
E.S. T.E.A.M. developed from
the awareness that many young
folks struggle in life when faced
with neglect and/or abuse. It intends to inform communities
about their plight and coordinate
mentoring. E.S. T.E.A.M., a
grassroots organization, is open
to collaborating with all who
share our vision — to support marginalized teens and young adults into maturation.
You are also a motivational speaker.
What is your message?
To impart tools to identify vulnerable youth
and their challenges such as poverty, homelessness, sexual assault, human trafficking, other violence, and death. To offer solutions that include all community members. And to share my
story of survival as hope and inspiration. I do,
however, warn that my story is an exception,
not the rule. Many other oppressed youth do
not, and cannot, find a way out — without help.
Does your background influence your
bell hooks, the feminist, social activist and
professor, in her book Teaching to Transgress
(Routledge, 1994), writes: “I came to theory
because I was hurting — the pain within me
was so intense that I could not go on living. I
came to theory desperate, wanting to compre-
hend — to grasp what was happening around
me and within me. Most importantly, I wanted
to make the hurt go away. I saw in theory then
a location for healing.” When I first read that, I
knew instantly I had found my home, the pain-
ful years of my past had a higher purpose, and
I could transition from intellectual idle frustra-
tion. My background guides me toward specific
theories that allow me to interpret and hypoth-
esize questions of my past. My lived experienc-
es combined with academia (theory) to a place
Do your academics influence your
Academia is my saving grace. It gives me the
language, tools and support to apply to and in-
terpret my lived experiences. Without academia,
my past would remain as subjugated knowledge,
in a way, brimming to be released and trans-
formed into a higher meaning geared toward so-
cial justice. Many who have had trauma in their
lives are wise beyond their
years but lack ways to com-
municate that wisdom. Not
everyone has access or the
privilege to gain an education.
Yet many who don’t have lived
such poignant lives. Some are
able to heal; others aren’t. In
understanding this, I am com-
pelled to utilize my education
to help bring marginalized voic-
es into mainstream society.
Much to regret and much
to be proud of?
When I think of any regrets,
they’re about what it would have
been like to be an average teenag-
er: to have high school friends,
go to my prom, figure out who I
was, without being controlled by
an older man with a selfish agenda. I regret that
John stole time from me. We all only get so
much; in his sense of entitlement, he took those
memories from me.
I am proud of a lot. Some very important
posttraumatic stress disorder therapy. Being
drug- and alcohol-free for 16 years now. And I’m
mom to an amazing, talented and socially conscious 14-year-old daughter.
Are you a survivor, role model, both,
I have referenced myself as a survivor but
often become unsatisfied with that label. There
is so much more to coming out of trauma: quality of life and a sense of thriving that require nurturing a multitude of personal attributes. I still
seek counseling when I’m confused or overwhelmed. I have come through some horrific situations, but these do not define me. I strive to
embrace my life, good and bad. Perhaps I’m not
a role model, but simply another person’s wise
counsel, as we can all be.
Courage through Heart