In 1977, a low-level benefits counselor in the Chicago Veterans Administration office suddenly began badgering her bosses about a vast new potential liability--Agent Orange. Their response was to brush off her research into the harmful long-term effects of the jungle defoliant.
The higher officials sidetracked her career, but she continued fighting to bring the issue to public attention. Why? "People were dying," she says simply. "I had to help."
Maude DeVictor's successful crusade is chronicled in "Unnatural Causes," a TV movie starring Alfre Woodard and John Ritter, airing Monday on NBC.
Now, a decade later, she is no longer so committed and sees the airing of "Unnatural Causes" as a possible end to her mission.
"I want justice for the guys," she said during a short visit to Los Angeles from Oakland, where she is now living. "And I want justice for myself. I don't want to be blacklisted any more. I want my back pay and I want expunged what they put into their computer about me."
DeVictor lost her Chicago VA job in 1984. She was discharged for "conduct unbecoming of a federal employee"--the VA maintained that she was spending more time on union activities than her job--but she blames her firing on her intense involvement with the Agent Orange issue.
Since then she has had a series of temporary jobs, including janitorial work. Despite receiving $25,000 for the rights to her story, she said she is close to penniless.
Over breakfast, DeVictor talked calmly, even humorously, about her life during the past decade.
"I smoke, I drink, I do all the things young girls do," she laughed. "I've had cancer, and I've beaten it." She is divorced and has one son.
She makes jokes, partly because she's a naturally jolly woman and partly through a sense of self-preservation. "I just want to be calm, although whenever I see a file folder"--reminding her of her days at the VA shuffling files full of tragic stories--"my energy starts surging.
"This movie deals with unfinished business. It's like you're divorced, but his clothes are still hanging in your closet."
She wants to get rid of the clothes. "I don't have the strength to keep fighting those people," she explained. "I'm 46. I've got to begin to accrue another pension or I'll be a bag lady."
DeVictor first heard about the existence of Agent Orange when she was processing a disability form for a Vietnam veteran dying of cancer. She remembers the date vividly: June 11, 1977. "When this thing first started," she said, "I was the only one in the world who put it together."
When she was shifted to another area at the VA, DeVictor continued her investigation on her own time. She described herself as "this Mary Poppins social worker who helps the world."
She sought to interest politicians in the Agent Orange question but found that "it's not like 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' I had no access to these giant institutions. My last name wasn't Kennedy. I was just an average citizen saying, 'Hey, this is something that should be looked at.' The VA tried to negate my credibility, and that was all I really had."
Publicity proved to be the lever that lifted the lid. Chicago TV coverage of her concerns led Agent Orange-affected veterans to seek legal remedies. Although the link between Agent Orange and cancer has never been proved, two years ago seven manufacturers of the herbicide reached an out-of-court settlement of $180 million in a class-action lawsuit.
DeVictor's refusal to knuckle under followed a family example: "My aunt was the person who destroyed the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis," she says. Before it was demolished, this notorious complex of 42 high-rise apartment buildings was thought by many to be the worst public housing project in America.
Six years of college and a stint in the military reinforced DeVictor's resolve to do her job, which in her view was "working for the vets, not the VA."
She hopes that "Unnatural Causes" will help.
"It's sensational," she says. She served as story consultant and was present throughout filming. "I learned a lot about myself watching Alfre (whom she nicknamed Maude Jr.). She was like the essence of me, the water boiled off the gravy."
However, DeVictor is somewhat cynical about the potential impact of the movie. "The movie's going to go to millions of housewives who'll be in the midst of fixing their kids' lunch for the next day. I would like to get to the person who can rectify the situation. I'd like the White House, government officials and the Civil Service to realize that this is a wrong that's been perpetrated.
"However, I do see a real benefit: People will realize that a government agency can be like a mad doberman pinscher that's got to be brought under control."
Since her VA job ended, she's worked in telephone sales for Time-Life Books and has cleaned offices. She now has temporary employment with the San Mateo County Long-Term Care Program, dealing with the disabled.
What she wants is "a job with benefits--with insurance, with sick leave," she explained. "I haven't had any health coverage since 1984. When I had to have emergency surgery during filming--I had a 25-pound tumor removed--ITC Productions and Blue Andre (the producer) paid cash."
Yet DeVictor would do it all again. "I'm at the height of my life with all this glory," she said. "The Smithsonian Institution is awaiting the contractual release of my documents from the film company so they can be put in their Afro-American collection. They want to recognize that a black person did what I did."