Hawaii counselor describes her sad youth
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
In her book about her childhood and early adult years on O'ahu, former prison inmate Serena Camara describes a damaged young woman's embrace of the cocaine subculture of Honolulu's Chinatown in the early 1990s, a detailed description of intoxication before a fall.
Pregnant for the first time at 15, a high school dropout, a rape victim and survivor of vicious abuse by a boyfriend, Camara describes her younger self as "numb" until she found solace in a crack pipe in a foul-smelling alley behind a Chinatown pool hall.
In her disturbing reaction to that first taste, Camara writes that she felt as if she had replaced the security of her real childhood with "a home where I am loved and safe and secure and free, bound up by nothing, trodden by nothing at all. It happens just like that. One second becoming a promise of eternity.
"Eternally I will love thee."
Today Camara, 37, is a substance abuse counselor who works with inmates, and the women convicts who read Camara's book often tell her it echoes elements of their own lives. But to the uninitiated, the story is a peek into a hidden wasteland.
This was Hotel Street before the video surveillance cameras were installed, and before the federal Weed & Seed law enforcement effort clamped down on the area. Camara camped in 'A'ala Park or lived out of hotel rooms, working as a prostitute or selling crack, mingling with a cast of pimps and dealers who shared space with usually clueless Downtown businesspeople.
It was "a three-block radius where they work and shop, where I don't sleep, don't eat, just drift. I think of nowhere else, nothing and no one else. This is where I want to live and then die. Just leave me here, let me be," she wrote.
It didn't work out that way. Instead, Camara went to prison on a half-dozen drug charges in 1992, went through several drug treatment programs and emerged to write what she plans as a series of three books describing her experiences.
The first 290-page volume is entitled "The Making of A0210208," a reference to the inmate number assigned to Camara when she was a prisoner at the Women's Community Correctional Center.
The story is described on the book jacket as "a work of fiction based on fact," but Camara said it is fictional only in the sense that she reconstructed dialogue she couldn't precisely remember and compressed timelines for events to move the narrative along. Apart from that, the story is hers, she said.
The book was published under the pseudonym of "Jayne Dough" because Camara was worried about her family members who didn't know the details of where she had been or what she had done. She wanted them to have a chance to read the book before she went public.
The book's chapters alternate between grim accounts of the woman's adult years on the street and under the control of abusive men, and sometimes sweet accounts of the girl's childhood with her strong-willed mother in a community easily identifiable as Waimanalo.
Camara was jailed for the first time at the Alder Street youth detention facility at age 16 after she stole the keys to her mother's car and drove off with a friend to meet up with some boys.
She was pregnant again by age 17 by a partner who was ferociously violent and controlling, and conceived another child when she was raped by an acquaintance after being lured away from a group of friends during an evening of drinking.
Camara said she has told her story so many times in treatment programs and other settings that she didn't feel much emotion when she put the narrative down on paper.
Camara struggled even after she was released, and was locked up again several times before she finally walked out of prison for the last time on July 8, 1995. She has been clean since 1996, and said a combination of factors finally got her to change her life.
She went through a drug treatment program tailored to women's needs that helped, and she wanted to rebuild her relationship with her children and family.
She also got help from a residential furlough program offered by TJ Mahoney & Associates, landed her first job at age 26 working in a gas station, and got into college. She began to build a life for herself and found the consequences of the drug-using lifestyle were now greater than the rewards, she said.
Part of her objective in writing the book was to describe women's pathways to crime and drug addiction, which she believes are different from the routes taken by men.
"I also wanted to convey that sometimes drug addiction is deliberate," Camara said. "A lot of people believe they're victims of their drug addiction, and for me what I was trying to express in my book was that it saved me, really ... it got me out of the situation, it released me from the things that I was going through, and it worked for me at the time that I was doing it.
"And then there comes a point where it doesn't work for you anymore, and you have to change it."
Sales of her book have been slow, but "I knew that that's how it would be and I'm OK with that," Camara said. "I know it's going to get where it needs to go at some point. The universe is going to move it where it needs to be."
Reach Kevin Dayton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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