It was sometime in October 1993 when 17-year-old Theresa Hooks was nearly killed. She had been thrown through the sliding door of her third story apartment by her then-current boyfriend, an ex-military man named Frank.
They had been fighting, and he had gotten angry.
Before she plummeted to her death on the pavement below, Theresa’s hand reached out and grabbed onto the ledge, hanging on for dear life—and not just for her own sake.
She had been four-months-pregnant at the time.
Frank pulled her up, apologizing and swearing that it would never happen again. Theresa stayed that night in the apartment, terrified, wondering if she and her unborn child were going to die in their sleep. She fled the apartment the next morning after he left for work, still shaking uncontrollably.
Nearly 17 years later, it’s a sweltering fall day at the fairgrounds of the annual Pierce College Harvest Festival. The temperature refuses to drop below 100 degrees. Dust swirls through the air, carried by gusts of warm wind that offer no solace from the heat.
A family of three walks through the wooden archway of the festival, their sandal-clad feet already coated in a fine layer of dust.
Four-year-old Danica Hooks and her 11-year-old half-sister, Jayda, are dressed lightly as they skip into the grounds. Danica wears crisp white leggings with lace trim.
“They’re brand new,” said their mother, Theresa Hooks, now 34. “They’ll be sure to be dirty by the end of the day.”
They’re coming to the festival, as they have always done since Theresa became a student at Pierce, but this time’s special: the girls’ 16-year-old brother, DePree, has volunteered to work at the festival as one of the many ghouls and spooks who haunt the fairgrounds after sundown.
The Factory of Nightmares, DePree’s new stomping grounds, stands dark and imposing despite the harsh and unforgiving sunlight. Theresa and her daughters veer towards the arts and crafts tent instead.
Jayda and Theresa have root beer floats, while Danica sips at a frozen strawberry-lemonade, all purchased from an old-fashioned red striped popcorn cart by the entrance.
Pink, Danica says, is her favorite color, besides the colors purple, green and blue.
The girls, who share the same wide brown eyes and dark hair of their mother, paint their wooden picture frames at an arts and crafts tent, oblivious to everything.
Theresa watches them both, happy to spend the day with her daughters. She has the day off today. As a notary, a state official who witnesses the signing of legal documents, she chooses her own hours. It’s a good job that pays well, but it pays by the signature.
“I have to work as much as I can, but sometimes you have to take a time out to enjoy life, what’s important,” she observes. It’s a luxury that Theresa hasn’t enjoyed for many years.
She began at Pierce in fall 2009, and in the following fall, Theresa completed both her associate degree in humanities and behavioral and social health, leaving only a statistics class for her to complete this spring. She eventually plans to attend Cal State Northridge.
“What I really, really, really want to do—I’ve got a few books that I want to write,” she said. Theresa wishes to set an example for dealing with hardship using the experiences of her own life, which is one of the reasons she is aiming to get a bachelor’s degree in speech communications.
“I feel that there are a lot of people who go through difficulties and they just give up, and they really shouldn’t do that,” she said. “Sometimes, I go to school and I’m tired—I’m at school full-time, I work and I have three kids. So it really annoys me when people say ‘I can’t.'”
Theresa was born in San Gabriel Valley in 1976, and for the first 12 years of her life, things were good.
“It was like living in Disneyland,” she said, laughing. “I was really naïve then.”
Her parents separated when Theresa was 12.
The divorce shook her life to its foundations, leaving Theresa adrift, with two younger brothers and a pair of infant twin stepsisters to look after.
“What happened really forced me to grow up. It was like having the rug pulled out under my life. My mother was an alcoholic and a drug user,” she said, eyes distant. “Men [were] coming in and out of this house, constantly, and my dad ran out with another woman.”
The family uprooted and left California when Theresa was 15, forcing her to part with all her friends, and her childhood sweetheart Gregory, who she refers to by the pet name ‘Kindu.’
It was in this turbulent period that she met Frank. Talking about Frank isn’t easy for Theresa; her nose wrinkles up at the mention of him, her eyes become avoidant. He had been, in her words, “physically, emotionally, and mentally abusive.”
But still, she said, she fell in love with him. On the day he had nearly killed her, they had been arguing. She can’t even remember what it had been about, “something stupid,” she recalled.
And then he threw her across the room.
“It was one of those, ‘oh god, what’s going to happen to me’ moments. And you kind of hope that you make it through the night and in the morning you’re like, ok, how do I get out of this?” Theresa still lives sometimes in ‘survival mode,’ as she calls it.
That just-get-it-done mindset has carried her through many of the hard points of her life, she said.
About a year after her near death, in 1994, things at her mother’s house had not gotten better. But now, she had a child of her own to look after. It was one of the many moments in her life where she had to make a choice.
“I didn’t sit down and cry and say ‘woe is me,’ I just did it,” she said.
So, at age 18, she took custody of all four of her siblings, caring for them as well as her firstborn DePree, who had dangled along with her from a third-story balcony only a year before.
“Leaving them [her siblings] where they were was just not OK,” she said.
They moved into Theresa’s two-bedroom apartment, living off welfare checks and Theresa’s job as a waitress in a bingo bar, where tips served as the bulk of her income.
The burden of raising five young children finally lessened when Theresa turned 20, when Theresa’s maternal grandparents took custody of the twins, who were five at the time.
Even years later, living on their own at 19, the twins still bear the scars of living with an addict, Theresa said. “They’re still not used to having someone care for them.”
Both her brothers left as she neared 30.
All of her siblings now live in Seattle, but despite the distance she still remains the matriarch of the family she held together by force of will.
“They don’t like to tell me things, because they’re afraid I might disapprove,” she said, with the good-natured but long-suffering air of an older sibling forced to play parent.
She’s interrupted by the sound of her phone, which has rung four times already, and checks her messages. She smiles fondly. “It’s Greg,” she said.
Greg is the very same Gregory that Theresa had loved as a young girl, the high school sweetheart she had left behind when her family moved to Seattle.
Now, they are seeing each other once again, and Gregory has become a father figure to all three of the Hooks children. Whenever his name is mentioned, Danica perks up and repeats his name brightly. “He’s my daddy, I call him Gregory,” she said, tripping over his name, substituting a ‘w’ for each ‘r.’
Theresa smiles. “It’s just weird, it’s seamless how we just flow into each other’s lives,” she said. For the past few months, Greg has been in Texas, repairing homes in preparation of hurricane season. Theresa and the kids remained in Chatsworth, in a small apartment they chose together, after living for weeks with no home at all.
It had been difficult for Theresa to be living in a hotel room, homeless, three weeks before the start of fall 2009, her first semester at Pierce. It had been a single room with two beds, cramped and without privacy, and had cost them $350 a week to rent.
It was all the more motivation to drive out every morning, spending the rest of the day searching for an apartment while her three children stayed behind at the hotel to play in the pool and watch TV. “We’re a really close family, and it only made us closer,” she said.
The apartment they ended up renting in Chatsworth isn’t much bigger, but it’s one the family chose for themselves, and the Hooks have been living there ever since.
The sun finally begins its descent towards the horizon, taking the heat with it. Shadows lengthen on the ground as night falls, so the Hooks family drops by the Factory of Nightmares for a quick visit before DePree has to get to work frightening people.
DePree volunteered full time at the festival, so Theresa and the girls will be making many return trips over the next few months to support him. Since he doesn’t have a car or a license yet, Theresa drives him to the fairgrounds every day, and picks him up at 10 p.m.
They plod across the dirt and dust to the Factory, Danica’s new white leggings stained brown after she had sat straight down in the dirt.
Theresa rolled her eyes. “You know, not too long ago, I would have gone straight home to change her, or at least I would have had a spare outfit in the car.”
But Theresa said she’s become much more laid back about those sorts of things, so instead she resolves not to notice the ruined clothes.
“To be honest, I’m just now coming to terms with being a mom,” she said. “In these last two years, I’ve started enjoying it. That doesn’t mean I’ll drive a minivan, though,” she admits, laughing.
It’s 6 p.m. when an un-costumed DePree emerges from a side entrance of the Factory. He stands at least five inches taller than his mother, with a wild mass of brown curls that fall into his eyes. DePree currently goes to Chatsworth High School. He wants to go to Pierce someday, the college that his family has molded their lives around, to major in music.
For now, he’ll take part in the festival, terrifying the grounds as a demented Joker, complete with blood splatters and a top hat.
He shoos Jayda away before she can hear that, however, because he wants it to be a surprise next time she visits.
What he doesn’t know is that, just before he arrived, the intuitive Jayda had been announcing his role the whole time. It hadn’t been hard for her to guess from the white face makeup and lipstick DePree had come home wearing one night, Theresa explains.
DePree leaves, he has to get in costume. Night has fallen.
Danica hops and skips through the night, kicking up dust trails in her wake. Jayda walks behind calmly, with a smile on her face. In the distance, DePree and his ghoulish companions slink off into the corn maze, howls and shrieks rent the air.
They’ve been at the festival now for hours, but Theresa doesn’t mind.
“You have to take the time to enjoy the little things,” she said, eyes on her children. “For the first time in my life, I’m not rushing.”