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Family Album / A weekly profile of a family-- its history,
joys and trials.

An Act of Will

When she could fall no further, Samatra Phillips finally asked for help--for herself and the child she was carrying. Eight years later, she is drug-free, starting her first full-time job as a college graduate and forging a bond with her son.

July 18, 1999

Her father spoke of an island that had captured his imagination. It was an exotic, faraway place of rainbows and rain forests, waterfalls and blue-green water. He longed to go there and lie upon a soft, sandy beach but could never raise the money.

When she was born, he gave her a name that combined his, Sam, with Sumatra, this place of his dreams. Samatra Phillips, he would say later, was as uncivilized as the island itself. She grew up with a stone heart and clenched fists. It took many years for rainbows to appear in her life.

When she describes her childhood, she begins with the drugs and booze. The daughter of alcoholics, she was 8 or 9 when she started drinking. It wasn't long before she moved on to drugs, and, in time, that became her path, moving from one high to the next.

The path led to prostitution and the corner of La Brea and Washington in L.A., where early one morning eight years ago she sat on a curb sobbing. She was homeless, hopeless, dressed in secondhand clothes and pregnant.

Those who have lived her life recognize this place as Rock Bottom, where one is faced with a simple choice but a difficult decision--to live or die. The junkies and johns, hookers and dealers who knew her saw her crying and asked if she was OK.

No, she replied, she wasn't. And then they walked away.

What saved Phillips was the life inside her, a son whose first home would be Via Avanta, a residential drug and alcohol treatment center in Pacoima where Phillips sought help.

Each day since her arrival there in 1991 has taken her a step further from her past. In June, she graduated from Cal State Northridge with a degree in business law and a minor in economics. Last week, Phillips, 39, landed a full-time job as an underwriter for a mortgage and loan company.

"Benefits," she says, "for the first time in my life, I have benefits."

Of the six surviving children in her family--a sister was murdered when the family lived in Seattle--all but one eventually fell to alcoholism, drug addiction or both. They and her parents are sober now; Samatra was the last to enter the fold.

They are trying to become what they know a family should be. It's a struggle learning things like love and affection, and incorporating them into family relationships when such things never existed in their past.

"There is still a lot of animosity among some members of the family," says Lillian Phillips, Samatra's mother, who now lives in Tehachapi, Calif. "At this point, I think everyone wants to get to know each other better, but no one has an idea of what a family should be, including me."

It is easier and spontaneous for Samatra with her son, Gyasi (pronounced JAH-see), who turns 8 this month. Gyasi taught her love. His hugs in the morning teach her about commitment and joy. A month ago, he took her by the hand and taught her to in-line skate. She understands she can learn much from this child.

"We're growing up together," she says.


She loved to run. From the time she was in fifth grade, she found something in running that felt good and right. She was defiant and was forced to attend a continuation high school program.

"Running took me away from things," she says. "That's the only reason I ever graduated."

She ran the 220, 440 and relays, training hard because it seemed urgent to run faster and faster. Looking back, it wasn't so much a matter of running toward anything, she says. Even then, she was running away, escaping.

Her mother worked long hours as director of youth services for the city of Seattle, and she was drinking heavily.

"She was pretty involved with kids in the neighborhood, it seemed like more than she was involved with me," Samatra says.

Her father was rarely around, so the children grew up on their own. At age 13, she moved to Los Angeles, where her mother opened a bookkeeping business. Samatra continued getting in trouble, so her mother, fearing Samatra would become involved with gangs, sent her back to Seattle.

She stayed with an older sister, but they couldn't get along and she was kicked out. A woman who worked as an administrator at the continuation school she attended took her in.

After graduating, Phillips enrolled in community college, where her menu of street drugs expanded and she soon dropped out. When Phillips was 18, another older sister, a stripper and prostitute, was killed--strangled, run over three times, bludgeoned with a brick and left to die on the Seattle waterfront, she says. An arrest was never made.

Phillips did not cry at her sister's funeral. Instead, she vowed to find the killer. She dressed up like her sister and went down to "the Stroll" trawling for the murderer. "All I wanted," she says, "was to find the killer and kill him myself."

At 22, Phillips decided to feed her drug habit by becoming a prostitute. For a time, she was making up to $150 a night, even more in Canada, but eventually she worked for drugs, and as she neared Rock Bottom, she was selling herself for a single hit of crack.

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