Later, after her April 30 sentencing, Terrigno's mood lightened. But on the Jersey boardwalk, reflecting on her past as she stared at the slate-gray Atlantic Ocean, she spoke grimly. "A situation like this shakes your sense of what life is about. I feel sad about everything. I have no idea where to pick up from this point. I just hope this won't change peoples' attitudes about the city or the gay movement. There are always casualties. . . ."
Terrigno's early years were spent in the Bronx, in tenement neighborhoods of Italian, Irish and black families. Her father, John Terrigno, was a supermarket clerk and staunch union man; her mother, Marie, a housewife who later worked in a print shop. Valerie was the first of five children. The family outgrew even the largest affordable flat and, in 1966, moved to Neptune, a small New Jersey town dominated by German Methodists. They bought a white split-level home near a farm and planted a rose garden in the backyard.
A self-described bookworm, Terrigno skipped a grade and graduated second in her class at Neptune High School. In 1970, she enrolled at Hofstra University on Long Island on a scholarship. It was a lush campus peopled by the offspring of wealthy families. Terrigno, dressed in faded jeans with peace patches, felt keenly out of place.
She befriended a black woman who lived in her dormitory. They took part in anti-war and civil rights protests, the last gasps of student activism before the campus lethargy of the 1970s. Friendship gave way to intimacy. By autumn of 1972, they had become lovers. "You didn't tell anyone at that time," Terrigno recalled. "Gay liberation had just barely started. We couldn't trust anyone."
She dreamed about sunshine. At winter break, Terrigno set out with her lover and another friend in a cramped Gremlin bound for the West Coast. At first, California let them down. It was raining in Berkeley, and grizzled hippies were selling heroin near People's Park. But when the three students reached the UCLA campus in Westwood, Terrigno relaxed. "Kids were sitting on the lawn, playing flutes," she said. "And the sun was out."
Terrigno and her lover enrolled at UCLA. Intent on becoming a psychologist, Terrigno loaded her roster with sociology and human behavior classes. "I didn't want to take all the courses you have to take to become a doctor," she says. "But I did want a job where I could help people."
When her mother and father came to visit, John Terrigno asked his daughter about her roommate. "It sounds like you're more than friends," he said. Terrigno told all; her parents went home anguished. Almost a decade would pass before they could accept her sexual orientation.
Work was not easy to find. Desperate at one point, Terrigno applied for a job as a hostess in a seamy downtown Los Angeles club where women danced with men for a pittance. She was fingerprinted and licensed as a taxi dancer by the police department. But just one night at the club, Terrigno says, was enough to convince her that she should find a new line of work.
At school, she found a job more in line with her bent for psychology and social work, signing on as a part-time counselor for mentally ill convalescents at $100 a month. The first time the program's former director, J. D. (Skip) Johnson, met her was when she stormed into his office, leading a confused elderly patient wearing a robe.
"Valerie wasn't allowed to take that patient out of the convalescent home," Johnson says. "But she had complaints about the patient's treatment, and it later turned out she was right. That's the way she was--a direct-action person. Most of our volunteers chafed under the regulations; Valerie challenged them."
Eventually, her commitment to education flagged. Adapting to the playful California environment, Terrigno thinned her course load. She would never graduate.
Drifting from job to job, Terrigno took courses for a therapy license at New Health Institute, a biofeedback laboratory in the Wilshire area. Dr. Margaret Toomim, the director, was impressed with her ability to help clients relax. But there was no room on the staff. So Terrigno went into business for herself, advertising in the Community Yellow Pages, a directory of gay-owned businesses. Under "Counseling," the ad read: "Effective in relief of pain, ulcers, migraines, cramps and other physical problems. Lifestyle counseling and immunological strengthening."
Renting electronic equipment to monitor pulse and other bodily signals, Terrigno used the instruments to soothe her patients and alter their behavior. "She was so good at it, she could raise the temperature in your hands," says Noreen Hill-Duffy, a client who became a friend.
Ultimately, though, biofeedback brought in little money. Terrigno tried other jobs. She hired on as a telephone researcher for a medical journal, soliciting advertising clients until a male supervisor tried to unbutton her blouse in public. She sued; they settled.