This past weekend, Lauren Taylor went into the cage at Legacy Fighting Championship 18 in Houston, Texas, as a relative nobody and came out a woman firmly planted on the radar of the MMA community as a result of winning a fight announcer Mike “The Voice” Schiavello would come to call “The Texas Elbow Massacre." But back when we first became close friends, around 2001, in our hometown of Eagle River, Alaska, Lauren wasn’t known as a dedicated athlete or role model but as a teenage druggie many people didn’t expect would live to see 25.
We were 18 or so when our paths started crossing frequently, hanging out with the dirt-bag dropouts in our little town. They were the easiest crowd to be around. No one told us we should be in school or cared really what we were doing. None of them made you feel inferior, awkward, ugly, or weird because … that’s what we all were. We had that in common, Lauren and I: a deep aversion to those feelings, having had enough of that in our lives already. I liked her immediately. She was good at making mistakes but just as good at turning them into jokes. Laughter followed her in and out of rooms like an aura. The fact that she was burning the candle at all ends with a butane torch was somehow easy to separate from who she was as a person: carefree, bouncy, intelligent, charismatic, always late, consistently silly, perpetually losing things, constantly giggling. Probably because, despite spending most days with her, I had no idea she was using until one day she rolled up her sleeves, showed me the black marks on her arms, and told me she was scared.
Lauren was born in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1983, the second child of Richard and Jenni Smith. He was a successful and well-liked lawyer, handsome and charismatic. Jenni worked as a legal secretary and had been a model in a past life. “They met somewhere at a party, I’m sure,” Lauren tells me, “They were both partiers and both really funny. My parents both loved to party. They didn’t have a lot in common past that. I don’t know if they were ever really happy together.”
Lauren was 2 when they divorced, and for her and her brother, the custody battle was anything but easy. “They fought really hard with each other,” she says. “It was a nasty mud-flinging kind of custody battle and went on for years.” Still, she developed a routine: living with mom but spending every other weekend and several weeks during the summer with dad. “We did fun stuff when we went to dad’s house,” she says, “He took us on long trips to Hawaii every year. He had a huge house there with a pool and stuff; we thought we were, like, rich. I adored my father. I was definitely a daddy’s girl. He loved to hunt. He hunted in Argentina, Botswana, all over Africa, and he’d show me pictures from all these places. I still have some of them. He was working on getting his pilot’s license. He drank a lot, he and my step-mom both did, but it never seemed to interfere with his life. He was … functional, I guess.”
In our little town of Eagle River, 10 miles north of Anchorage, back in the early 90s when I moved there from Texas, there was a roller rink called the Skate Station. At first, it was where all the cool kids in grade school and junior high went to hang out, but it quickly deteriorated into a place for kids to find drugs and get drunk. This was common enough knowledge, but Lauren’s dad knew what it meant to a 9-year-old to be allowed to go to a friend’s roller-skate birthday party with her schoolmates, so rather than forbidding her from going like most parents did, he just went with her.
“I loved him so much for that,” Lauren says. “He knew that place was fucked up, so he just sat at a table, and through all the blaring rap music and strobe lights and shit, he read a book about training dogs to hunt and let me do my thing. He didn’t bother me, but he was there to make sure I was okay. I stopped every 10 minutes to give him a hug for that and wasn’t embarrassed at all because I knew how awesome it was for him to let me be there with my friends. That was the kind of dad he was.”
During those years, Lauren’s mom’s house was not quite as much fun. Jenni and Richard had both remarried within a few years of getting divorced, but she and her new husband were much more volatile.
“They drank so much, and fought constantly.” Lauren says. “They didn’t like each other at all. Drinking and fighting and violence: That was our nightly norm. One time, they were fighting and I walked around the corner just in time to see my step-dad grab my mom by the throat and slam her on the ground. I was young and I completely freaked out. I thought he’d broken her back. They never hit us, but she’d attack him and he’d hit her. It was constant. I hated him for a long time, but eventually I forgave him. He never had a chance to measure up to my dad, you know? They were both drunk and sick and doing what drunk, violent, sick people do. My brother and I were glad to go to school just to get a break, even though school sucked and I got picked on all the time. I’d tried to get them to let me move in with my dad, but they wouldn’t for a long time. She wasn't’t a perfect mom when I was a kid, but my childhood was so much better than hers, it’s really hard to blame her.”
Lauren’s mother, Jenni, was the oldest of five children, born to parents with few means to support them. Her dad had various sales jobs that had him away from home for long periods, sometimes months, at a time, and also required that they move around constantly. She was never in any one place for long. “My father was incredibly lousy at supporting my mom when he was away, which was all the time,” Jenni told me. “When my mom wasn’t religious, she would drink alcoholically and become very violent. I was frequently put in the role of mother/protector to my younger siblings. It sucked. There was so much violence and loneliness.”
When Jenni was 12 years old, in the late 60’s, after already having moved all over the country, her father started building a 48 foot trimaran (a boat with three hulls) in order to get his family out of the United States and away from the communism he feared was taking over the country. It had room for her parents, Jenni and her four younger siblings, and three crewmates, one of whom claimed to be a navigator. It wasn’t long before it became clear that he had no idea what he was doing and had gotten them hopelessly lost at sea. They hit one freak storm after another in the Pacific. Low on food and hopelessly lost, they finally spotted some people in a lagoon near Fiji who fed them and led them to a spot they could refill on supplies. Within a month or so, they sailed to New Hebrides, an island northeast of Australia in the South Pacific populated by the Melanesian people, a close relative to the natives of Papua New Guinea. They lived there for two years before moving on. There was no consistent schooling, no real friends, and very little of what you’d call a normal routine for a child. Jenni all but raised her younger siblings, the youngest of whom people just assumed was her son. She married at 17 to get away from her family and was divorced and a single mom to Lauren’s older sister by the time she was 22. “Whatever I did to help Lauren become who she is now, I may well have done by mistake,” Jenni says. “She’s come through so much … Maybe my weaknesses made her stronger. All I wanted was for my children was to protect them from cruelty, loneliness, and isolation. I was so completely unprepared to accomplish those ideals. There are still days I wish I could go back in time.”
One Sunday evening in May 1995, when Lauren was 11 years old, she and her brother were at their mom’s house when their older half-sister came into her room to tell them their father was missing. He had been on a solo flight in a Cessna 150 from Anchorage to Talkeetna (a town just south of Mt. McKinley, the biggest mountain in North America), and he hadn’t checked in at his checkpoint. It had already been several hours before Lauren was ever told about it, and if you’ve gone missing in that part of Alaska for that long, the odds aren’t good that you’ll be reached alive.
“I think I knew then,” Lauren tells me, “I was hoping, of course, but I knew. They woke us up later in the night to tell us they’d found his body.” Richard had crashed 17 miles east of his planned course, 3,000 feet up a mountainside. The clouds had moved in quickly and obscured his vision -- a situation perhaps easily handled by an experienced pilot, but Richard had only 31.7 hours of solo flight time on his record and only half an hour of simulated flight training with just the plane’s instruments. He’d never flown a plane blind in actual practice.
“I called my friend the next morning and told her I couldn’t come to school because my dad died,” Lauren says. “I remember her getting really quiet, and saying something like, ‘Whoa,’ or ‘Holy shit,’ and then, ‘I’m really sorry, but I have to go to school, okay?’ Of course, no one knows what to say at that age. It was weird to tell her about it and weird the way she responded. For years it was like that. Somehow it would come up in conversation that my dad had died in a plane crash, and people would give me the weirdest, most uncomfortable looks. The way they treated me afterward made me feel so alienated. Especially other kids. So I quit telling people at all.” Indeed, I had no idea Lauren’s father was dead until we were almost 20, more than five years after we’d met at a friend’s birthday party.
“We didn’t talk about it at home for years” Lauren says. “My mom didn’t know how to handle it either. She was still drinking then, for a little while after he died. I remember a day or two after he died she took us to the mall instead of school. It was awful, but the whole experience was bizarre. My dad had just enrolled me at a school near him, and I was getting ready to move to his house for seventh grade, and then he died, and I really clearly remember thinking, ‘Fuck. Now I have to stay at my mom’s.’”
A few days later, Lauren continues, “we were at this funeral parlor in Anchorage, and I heard my uncle say, ‘Anyone want some water?’ and, well, I fucking wanted some, so I went looking for him. I turned a corner into this room, and my dad’s body was laid out on this table. He was naked but under a sheet. He looked terrifying. His eyes were closed and his hair was all messed up. For years I wondered who did that. I mean, couldn’t they even fix his goddamn hair? I have no idea why that door wasn’t closed. But my step-mom’s sister was talking to his body, telling him she was sorry. Then, the stories get conflicting. The way my family remembers what happened then is all different. I remember, and I swear this is true, I saw his body, and I just started screaming. I couldn’t stop. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t stop screaming. I was scared I was never going to be able to breathe again. Finally, someone picked me up and carried me away, still screaming my head off. My mom was following me, crying and saying she was sorry I’d seen him like that. My mom and my sister both remember it differently, though. They both say that I walked in, saw my father, and that I never made a sound. That I stood there stone still and silent. Mom says that it was like watching a light turn off inside of someone. That I just stood there, and they saw me completely shut down. I don’t know. I remember screaming forever.”
Jenni says, “The color in her face was gone and the light in her eyes was extinguished. I lost a piece of my little girl that day that’s never really come back.”
A few months later, after weeks of looking at Lauren pale, gaunt, and listless, Jenni put her in Discovery, the psych ward for teenagers at one of our local hospitals.
“She didn’t really know what to do with me,” Lauren says, “I think she thought I was suicidal, but I wasn’t. I liked it there, though. I got three meals a day, I didn’t have to go to school, I didn’t have to go home where things were always crazy, I got to hang out with other kids who were just as fucked up as me. That was my introduction to being institutionalized.”
Read Part 2 here.
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