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Escape From The Sinking Class?

Some People Seem Destined to Remain on Society's Fringes, Exempt From Responsibilities, Divorced From Perks. But for the Rare Late Bloomer, Redemption May Be Within Reach.

April 01, 2001|KARI RENE HALL | Former Los Angeles Times staff photographer Kari Rene Hall shot and co-authored the documentary photo book "Beyond the Killing Fields" (Aperture, 1992)

WHEN I FIRST MEET HENRY GUILIANTE, I AM PLANNING to do a story on what happens to teenage mothers as they grow older. I plan to focus on Michelle Harig, Henry's girlfriend.

Michelle had been physically and sexually abused, beginning when she was 9 years old. She had turned to alcohol, cocaine and, finally, heroin. Henry had returned embittered from a tour of duty in Vietnam. He became an alcoholic and an outlaw biker ("There's a lot of things that I've done that definitely will have to stay between me and God," he says). He was a man who turned his back on the six children he fathered with three different women. One night he put a gun to his head but couldn't pull the trigger.

Henry and Michelle met in 1985 at an Alcoholics Anonymous dance in Anaheim. It was love at first sight. Michelle, then 15, reminded him of Madonna. Henry, 34, was her knight in shining armor. Before long, Michelle was pregnant.

I begin photographing them just over a decade later, in 1996. Michelle and Henry and their not-so-happy family live in a cockroach-infested motel--one bedroom, living room and kitchenette--close enough to Disneyland that they can watch the fireworks at night. Prostitutes and drug dealers ply their trades just outside the window. Police raids, meth labs and violence are a part of everyday life. Michelle and Henry argue often, but they're getting by. Michelle is struggling to provide a good education for their four children--Cassie, 10, Chad, 8, Cody, 5, and Cailee, 3. She even becomes a PTA vice president. Henry works on and off as an auto mechanic, but never makes enough to support his family. They survive on government assistance until Michelle is charged with welfare fraud for failing to claim Henry's presence in the home. She is ordered to pay $25,000 in restitution and sentenced to six months in jail.

Jail visits are torture. "Are you coming home, Mommy?" Cailee asks. Michelle answers as gently as she can: "No. No, sweetie."

*

HENRY IS LOST. THE HOUSEWORK PILES UP. THE KIDS miss their mommy. Cassie, the oldest, refuses to help. Learning from Henry's example, Chad and Cody want nothing to do with "women's work." Cailee, still wearing diapers, is first to pitch in. She climbs up on the counter, makes cereal and washes dishes.

Michelle calls from the jailhouse pay phones every chance she gets. The calls give Henry strength. "I had to hide my emotions, my feelings, my doubts, my discomfort, and be strong." For the first time in his life, Henry must pick up the housekeeping duties and care for his young children.

In jail, Michelle gets her first job ever, working in the kitchen. She likes it. She earns an early release and comes home from jail wanting more out of life. "I felt trapped," she says. "I felt like I didn't want to be a mom anymore." Five months after her release, Michelle walks out on Henry and the kids.

"I seen how it hurt them," Henry says. "I seen the abandonment they felt. I've left my wives with the children, and I never got to see that part of it. I got to know my kids. I got to love my kids. It was knowing that there were four little people dependent on me."

*

HENRY IMMEDIATELY SEEKS CUSTODY OF THE CHILDREN. Michelle gets visitation rights. Henry does his best to comfort his shattered family. The kids cry. They throw temper tantrums. They blame themselves for mommy leaving. Still, they hold out hope she will return to them. "Cody asked me to keep a light on for Michelle so she could find her way back home," Henry says.

Life as a single dad is not easy. "I want to spend prime time with the kids. But I can't do that cause I gotta be mom and dad. If I'm not givin' 'em a bath, I'm washin' clothes. If I ain't washin' clothes, I'm cookin' dinner. If I ain't cookin' dinner, I'm cleanin' house. If I ain't cleanin' house, I'm breakin' up fights or something like that. When you're doing it completely on your own, it's really, really hard. When Michelle was here, when I came home, the house was clean. I still ain't got the hang of it yet. I got to figure out that secret there. No matter how many times I clean it, it never stays clean. But I'll eventually figure that one out."

Henry shaves his head. He gives Chad, Cody and Cailee each a haircut on the porch outside their room. The boys whine and cry. Cailee likes it. She insists on Henry buzzing off her long brown hair so that she can look like her daddy.

She and other kids living in the motel crush beer cans to cash in at the recycling center. Every little bit of income counts. Henry works occasionally on cars in the motel parking lot to barter for toys or other things the kids need, and sometimes money. With a monthly rent of $675, the family barely scrapes by on Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps. "They give me $767. That's cash, a check. And they give me $348 in food stamps," Henry says. "That ain't nothin'. It don't last."

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