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TALKING WITH JANET McDONALD / I Will Survive

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

craziness of New York City, and from McDonald's own resilience and brains.

"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

pressure."

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