She was born in New Orleans at Sara Mayo Women’s Hospital on Friday the 13th, June, 1975. It was the last significant thing she would do in her life. The hospital would shut its doors shortly thereafter. She went to bed that first night Ethan Andrew, when she left the hospital, she was Justin John Sullivan. The original name scratched out on her birth certificate, the new name scribbled in. This was New Orleans after all, no one was typing up the most important document of someone’s life twice.
It was the moment she first learned to take the easy way out.
Her parents separated when she was in her first trimester or at two, as with the rest of her life, the timeline and truth get a little murky. Justin and her older brother grew up being shuffled back and forth between Mandeville and Denham Springs, Louisiana. It was in Mandeville where Justin developed her lack of any real work ethic. It was Denham Springs where she developed her appreciation for the arts and sciences and for style and culture. Ducks Unlimited Banquets, shotguns, “Hooper”, mustaches on 10 year olds, John Deere tractors with guns, and John Deere tractors carrying shotguns. And it was one summer night, on the first base side of Field 6 in North Park, she met one of the ‘jeunesse doree’ of Denham, William Walker Liddell.
It was a meeting that would have absolutely no effect on her life.
An uncertain home life led Justin to throw herself into sports, where she displayed an emotional maturity and a level of sportsmanship well below her years. From 3rd through 5th grade, she studied at an elite private rich reform school called “The Academy” in Lacombe, Louisiana. The curriculum at the Academy did not allow for homework, did not assign formal grades and let classes out at noon for 3 hours of “free think and play time”.It was there where Justin’s non-conformist streak first set in. It was there where she learned that academics and hard work should never be the top priority in someone’s day, that doing what you felt like doing at any given moment was the most important thing you could do in your life. As with the hospital she was born in, the school shut its doors immediately after he left.
The next 8 years were spent in substandard public schools, with the exception of one year at a Catholic high school in Covington, LA that mostly consisted of uppity elitist students, but it was anyone’s guess as to the reasons why. Academically, it was a mixed bag for Justin, one semester it was a 4.0, the next 10, Ds and Fs. She had suspensions, self-suspensions and 3rd hour Tecmo Bowl. And, in what should have been an embarrassment to her but wasn’t, she barely managed to graduate high school, needing an 88 on her final in Senior English .
While her family thought it would be a much-needed wake up call, it was actually the moment when she first realized that doing the bare minimum is usually more than enough to get by in life.
Eighteen years were over.
The next 18 would known as the “Lost Years”. Ironically, it was the same number of “lost years” as Jesus, only Jesus hadn‘t been to 5 different colleges in 7 years and Justin would only die for her own sins. She had two unproductive years even by her standards at LSU. 2 days before her junior year, she left after being beaten by two men for wearing a “Savannah College of Arts and Design” shirt into a LSU bar. The only college she could get into and get to in time for the fall semester was the University of Memphis.
William Liddell would be the one who would help her move there, so he might have had a little effect on her life, but it was very minimal.
Justin took one look at the city of Memphis and one look at the school and didn’t leave her apartment for the next 9 months, except to go to class and to see what had been stolen from her Jeep the night before.
And for another reason, to be in a play called “Rutherford and Son”. She played the son. She had been required to audition as part of the Theater class she took for an “easy D”. However, weeks before the mandatory audition, she was forced in front of a disciplinary board . Her professor was trying to kick her out of his class after she kept pointing out how ridiculous he looked doing those bizarre gyrations or “warm up exercises”. She argued her case in front of the disciplinary board, including the Dean of the Theater Department. She won. It was the highpoint of her life. She reluctantly went to the mandatory audition. She was called a few days later and told she had won the lead. Her first thought, this wasn’t good. Her second, how much she was going to enjoy walking into class that Monday in front of her teacher.
No one ever knew about the play. The performances came and went. She didn’t tell a soul.
But it was an experience that taught her something, that instinctive God-given talent was much more important than dedication and passion. And it reaffirmed that there are no ramifications for your behavior, your actions or your words.
The next 3 to 5 years would be the best wasted ones of her life, not going to class at the University of Alabama. She had stopped in Tuscaloosa on her way to the Carolinas to look at colleges to escape herself. She had stopped to get high with a long-time friend and never left. It was further confirmation that nothing bad ever came from smoking weed. Alabama was where her self-education began and where the smallest slightest chance of still living a productive life ended.
She was young, white and gifted, an artist with a sense of entitlement and a developing drug problem. So when it was finally time to move on, there was only one place for her go, Portland, Oregon, the “city where young people go to retire”. And with the exception of holding a fake UPS job for 5 months, one that did not exist, strictly made up to appease a family member, she would not work again for 16 years, or for another 16 years, however you look at it.
Her Portland days were spent trying to do a complete deconstruction of the mind and a self-destruction of everything else. It was a city she loved, a city she belonged in, but it was a city she could easily leave in a casket. There was no difference between day or night, she spent them all paralyzed by words, drugs and OCD.
Portland was where she began to learn that drugs are, on occasion, not the solution to all of your problems. However, that didn’t stop them from being a factor in the new highpoint of her life. It started when she bought something illicit on the street, one white, two black, one looked like sugar, the others felt like tar.
The deal, however, had been witnessed by a passing cop. The officer called out for her, but a foot race through downtown Portland had already begun. She sprinted across streets, dodging people and moving cars, desperately trying to swallow three tightly wrapped pieces of cellophane carrying products prohibited by Oregon state law – and 49 other states’ laws. The adrenaline dried her mouth out, she couldn’t relax her throat and she was fading.
Swallowing each of them did not come quick, or easily, but it finally did come. She collapsed on her feet. The cop caught up, threw her up against a brick wall, arrested and chauffeured her to jail. The detention officer in charge of booking studied the police report for a long time, before finally looking up at the cop and saying, “Yeah, I can’t put him in jail for jaywalking.”
The booking agent told the cop the only thing they could do was ban her from the new “Drug Free Zone” the city had just created to address the drug issues in downtown Portland. All that was required was “suspicion of”. The ACLU hadn’t gotten around to killing it yet.
Thirty minutes later, Justin was back in her apartment, an apartment now located in the dead center of an area she was banned from. As she stood over the counter of her half kitchen drinking Gatorade, she started feeling something towards the bottom of her throat. She coughed, then coughed again, on the third time something dislodged from her throat, flew out of her mouth and landed on the counter. It was one of the small cellophane wrappers that she had been forced to swallow.
It was a remarkable, one in a million, beat all odds moment. She had beat the fascists, or at least the very polite Portland Police. She stood there in reflection, basking in the satisfaction of knowing she had won, before quickly shooting it in her arm. It was at that very moment when she learned the most important lesson of her life, when you’re running from the cops with diacetylmorphine and benzoylmethyl in your mouth that you bought from a pair of well-dressed Mexicans under the Burnside bridge in downtown Portland, try to have one of them lodge at the bottom of your esophagus, so you at least give yourself a chance to cough it back up two hours later. It was her last good moment.
When she left Portland, she was a skeleton and a ghost. She had dead eyes and not a feeling left for anything in the world. She had gone 90 mph down a dead-end street. She had burned the candle at both ends, only stopping long enough to light the blow torch she was using in the middle. The person she was hanging out with in her last days in Portland would be dead within three weeks. When she asked how he died…
someone replied “on everything”.
She began her three-day drive home. When she finally arrived, only her mother was left by her side.
It was that age-old question, was it better to burn out or to fade away?
She had said many times, “all I can do is be me…whoever that is”.
A**hole and drug addict were two things that came to mind. She had stopped trying to work on the rest a long, long time ago…