TO SEE and listen to Janet McDonald at this stage in her
life is enough to make one drool with envy.
Wisp-thin in slacks and a simple sweater, with a short reddish Afro and the
features of a woman in her 30s, not someone who's 47, McDonald met me in New
York recently on a visit from her home in Paris. An international corporate
lawyer, she travels all over Europe for her job, lives in a spacious apartment
in Paris' 16th Arondissement, collects art by contemporary women and enjoys the
life of a prosperous American expatriate.
What a change from 19 years ago, when McDonald-in February, 1981-was
arrested for setting fires in trash bins in a dormitory at New York University
Law School. She had recently transferred from Cornell Law School, where she had
made headlines after being raped by a fellow student, an ex-convict. Still
reeling from the trauma of the rape and the subsequent rape trial, McDonald was
having a nervous breakdown when she committed the NYU arsons.
"You were really--up," I tell her, and she laughs heartily. 'I put the 'b'
in bugged,' she says. "Now I can laugh, which shows how far I've come."
McDonald is promoting the paperbook reprint of her memoir, "Project Girl"
(University of California, $15.95), which came out a year ago and recounts her
rocky journey from the crime- and drug-riddled Farragut housing project in
Brooklyn to Vassar College, Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, Cornell
and NYU Law School, a tony new York City law firm and finally the idyllic life
in Paris. Along the way, McDonald struggled more than the average black person
trying to make the leap from the projects to the Ivy League who finds herself
torn between the demands and values of two diametrically opposed worlds.
She experimented with heroin and attempted suicide while at Vassar, dropped
out for a while to live with followers of the guru Maharaj-ji, walked around
with a gun for protection after she was raped, did a brief stint in a
psychiatric hospital, dropped out of one law school and was expelled from
another, spent a night with prostitutes in a Manhattan jail and got "fired" by
a half-dozen therapists who told her she was so angry and anti-life that she'd
probably wind up either dead or in prison.
Salvation finally came from a Columbia University therapist named Doris
Bertocci, who was able to empathize with this angry black woman; from an NYU
law school dean who was willing to give her a second chance; from jobs in
Seattle and Paris, where she discovered an alternative to the success-driven
"I used to walk around saying 'God hates me.' We're talking about decades
of drama and trauma, each incident more horrible than the prior one. It's
amazing that I could withstand all that. But, you know, after a while it's like
being homeless. You just become numb." McDonald was encouraged to write the
book by a college friend who's a Hollywood film editor, and she wrote it during
a 10-week leave from her Paris job.
When I ask her what damaged her the most-growing up in the crime-infested
ghetto, where a lot of adults were unemployed and where she watched her
siblings and friends fall into lives of drugs, prison and early parenthood, or
being raped in the upper-middle-class enclave of Cornell-she said the rape was
far more traumatic.
"It devastates you," she says. "It totally undermines your sense of
personal integrity, of personal safety in the world, and for me it made me very
afraid in general, and it also made me feel very violent, because I was
enraged that I wasn't able to stop it from happening."
Besides the empathetic help of Doris Bertucci, leaving New York City was
vital to McDonald's recovery. She sometimes misses it for its energy and
because her family is still here, but she found it too competitive and menacing
to allow her to be happy. In Paris she's also found acceptance as a woman and
an American, and she is not seen totally through the lens of color.
"I have a wonderful life in Paris," she says. "I love the French to the
point where even they think I'm pathological. The French love
African-Americans, and I speak French, so they really love me. When we [the
French] won the World Cup two years ago I was out there on the Champs Elysees,
my face painted red, white and blue, and I'm thinking I'm so happy to have a
country. Here I never really felt I had a country."
When I interviewed McDonald she had been back in New York for only a week
and had visited her mother, who still lives in the Farragut Houses with
McDonald's niece and the niece's daughter, the third and fourth generation of
project girls in her family. "It was so depressing," McDonald said, learning
who in the family is HIV-positive, which friends have been killed. Yet her
family members have also been successful in their own ways. Her sister, Ann, a
former drug addict, now runs an AIDS ministry. Her brother Ernest, who did time
in prison for drugs, is a building superintendent who's trying to get his own
son out of jail. Her brother Kevin works for a landscaping company in upstate
New York. And her mother, long widowed, is a survivor.
So is McDonald, who believes her academic skills and the encouragement of
her teachers allowed her to get out of the projects. She has written a young
adult novel that will soon be published by Farrar, Straus, and is under
contract to do two more. "Project Girl" has been an inspiration to the many
young people who write to her, like the Vassar student who said she-like the
younger McDonald-was thinking about committing suicide.
"I wrote back to her and told her that she should just try to hold on and
hang in there, because things change over time, if you can just withstand the