Juanita Maxwell's many faces

Published Sept. 26, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

There was a time, five or six years ago, when Juanita Maxwell was quite the celebrity.

She had a split personality, and her alter ego, "Wanda," killed somebody. Doctors at a state mental institution treated her, declared her cured and turned her loose. But then "Wanda" robbed a couple of banks, so Juanita was arrested again.

Then it turned out she didn't have just two personalities. She had seven.

Every talk show fought for a piece of her _ Montel, Geraldo, Oprah, even 60 Minutes.

She was like a leaf snatched up by a whirlwind, buoyed aloft and tossed this way and that. Then the media whirlwind moved on, and she fell back to earth. She welcomed the return to obscurity.

"I wanted to just come home, blend in and be normal," she said last week.

She got out of jail and into therapy. The state paid for job training, and she became a certified nursing assistant. She made up to $9 an hour working for an agency supplying help to nursing homes.

Then, about a month ago, she lost her certification and her job. What cost her the license was not her own split personality _ but the state's. The government that trained her now says she cannot have a job in her field because she has a criminal record.

Even she has to admit her record looks bad. "I can imagine myself carrying around a piece of paper saying I committed a homicide and a couple of bank robberies _ can I have a job?"

So the 39-year-old woman wants to go back on the talk-show circuit to explain how hard it is for someone with a criminal past to make a fresh start and an honest living.

She also wants to start an organization to help inmates find jobs when they leave prison. She knows that's not in keeping with a political climate in which punishment is more popular than rehabilitation.

"A lot of people are going to wonder am I crazy," she said.

The answer, she says, is no . . . not anymore.

A normal human being

Juanita's mother was an alcoholic who abused her and fought with her stepfather. She often told Juanita that her real father had once killed a woman, and predicted the girl would turn out to be just like him.

Her stepfather left when Juanita was 8. After that, she would be locked out of her mother's house at night and left to wander the streets until her mother finished "entertaining."

She dropped out of school after the eighth grade, and her mother forced her to sell her body to men. She was raped by a cousin who held her head down in a bucket of water until she gave in.

"If you take a small child and you mistreat them and sexually and mentally abuse them and physically abuse them, what's going to happen to that child?" Juanita said. "A normal human being isn't being created."

She tried running away. All that got her was a trip to a state mental hospital in Arcadia. The doctors decided she was just a troubled adolescent. They gave her drugs and sent her back to her mother.

When she was 12, her mother tried to strangle her with a belt. That night, as her mother slept, Juanita crept in with a rope to pay her back.

Before she could slip the rope around her mother's neck, Juanita blacked out. She woke up under the house. By her lay the bodies of six kittens. Their necks had been snapped.

Only recently, in therapy, has Juanita learned what happened. "Wanda came out and stopped me from killing my mother," she said. It "was Wanda's way of preventing it by taking my anger out on the kittens."

Wanda was her first alter ego, appearing when she was 5 years old to take the abuse and protect Juanita.

But Juanita didn't know Wanda existed. She just knew that sometimes she "lost time." Later people would tell her she did things she didn't remember.

Multiple personality disorder is really a survival technique. When the core personality _ Juanita _ faced a situation she could not handle, her mind created another self to keep those memories.

"Had I not created those other selves," Juanita said, "I would've wound up suicidal or psychotic. It was a life-saving disorder."

A few years ago, while Juanita was in jail for the bank robberies, she learned her mother had died. An avid runner, Juanita got permission to stay out in the jail's exercise yard a little longer than usual. "I ran and ran and I cried and cried," she said. "And I thought, "I wish I had killed you myself.' "

In a way, she already had.

In a dark room

The young Juanita bore three daughters and married a man she says beat her and ran around on her. She still fought with her mother, who once tried to stab her with a pair of scissors.

Days after the scissors attack, on March 17, 1979, Juanita was working as a maid at a motel in Fort Myers. A 73-year-old tenant named Inez Kelly borrowed her pen. Twice Juanita asked for it back. Twice the woman slammed the door in her face.

That day, someone beat in Mrs. Kelly's head with a lamp, then tied a towel and pillowcase around her neck to strangle her. Bloody footprints led police to a sleeping Juanita.

"I don't intend to do the things I do," she told a police officer. "Mrs. Kelly made me mad and reminded me of my mother when my mother used to call me names and beat me. . . . That should have been my mother lying there instead of that old lady."

That, doctors decided later, was Wanda talking. Juanita had no memory of the killing.

At Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, doctors examined Juanita and discovered her split personality.

In a 1981 court hearing, mental health experts summoned Wanda. Juanita closed her eyes and bowed her head. Ten seconds later she looked up and began giggling.

Calling herself a childhood friend of Juanita's, Wanda calmly described killing Mrs. Kelly. She said the woman shouldn't have talked to Juanita the way she did. That's why she killed her.

"Juanita was with me, but she wasn't aware of what was going on," Wanda testified.

A judge found Juanita not guilty by reason of insanity and sent her back to Chattahoochee. She received some therapy, but mostly what she got was Haldol _ up to 85mg every day for five years. The drug does nothing to treat a multiple personality.

Hospital workers noticed she had more than Wanda inside her. There were: Jennifer, the sexy one, who also was smart enough to earn Juanita a high-school equivalency diploma; Tricia, the tough one who appeared when Juanita was 9 so she could work in the fields; Ann, created as Juanita struggled with the birth of her first child; and a little girl named Anna, whose function was to cry.

In those days, when Wanda and the others were inside her, they could see and hear whatever Juanita saw and heard. But when an alter took over, Juanita had no idea what was happening.

"Imagine you're in a dark room with no windows or doors," she said. "You know people are outside because you can hear the noise. That's what it's like."

In 1986, doctors said Wanda had been driven out and Juanita could go home. Actually Wanda hadn't gone anywhere. She and the others were just hiding.

"The exorcism didn't work," Juanita joked.

Home was hellish. Her husband beat her and hospitalized her. She left him and moved to St. Petersburg, where she met somebody new, named Badr Abdul El Amin.

Then she learned she had a heart condition.

"While I was asleep," she said, "Wanda and the others plotted what needed to be done."

Ever since her arrest on the murder charge, her three children had been living with her aunt in Ohio. Wanda decided Juanita was dying and needed to see her children one last time.

To do that would take money. Wanda took charge and robbed a couple of banks.

Juanita was arrested.

Meeting the others

That 1988 arrest marked a turning point. Juanita finally found out how badly fragmented her personality had become.

A sympathetic mental-health counselor named Rita Bruno began trying to help Juanita obtain what's called "co-consciousness." That way when an alter ego would take over, the core personality would at least know what was going on.

Bruno would talk to Juanita's alters, tape-record their conversations, then play them back for Juanita. "She didn't want to deal with them, but they had all this information," Bruno said. "It was like group therapy with a whole bunch of folks in the same body."

Juanita began learning more about her other selves. They all had different religions. One of them, the practical Linda, didn't need glasses.

Smart and sexy Jennifer, she found out, was the one who had sometimes left wigs and tight-fitting red dresses in her closet. She had even created an eighth personality, Susan, to deal with the doctors who wanted to talk to her in jail.

Her attorney, Robert Dillinger, was working on her case, which had the legal system stumped: Should Dr. Jekyll be punished for the sins of Mr. Hyde? The answer, to Juanita at least, is clear.

"I am Wanda. I am Linda. I committed the crime," she says now, her eyes flashing. "We are us. I am them. Those different persons split off from me."

She didn't want to plead insanity again because that would send her back to Chattahoochee. So a psychologist with the Pinellas court system, Dr. Georgia Brandstadter-Palmer, tried to find the right place for her to get treatment.

In 1991, Circuit Judge Grable Stoutamire allowed Juanita to plead no contest to the bank robberies, then crafted an unusual sentence: three years in jail, which she had already served, and probation for life.

He also ordered the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services to pay for her treatment by the doctor Palmer found: Dr. Lawrence Miller at Medfield Hospital in Largo. After a couple of months there, she was releaed to go home to her new husband, El Amin.

The adjustment was not easy. Juanita might ask El Amin for ice cream, then Linda would yell at him for giving her something so unhealthy. There were times, Juanita said, "when I felt like he wanted to be with Jennifer more than he wanted to be with me."

Fortunately her treatment by Miller continued. The doctor has labored to put his Humpty Dumpty patient back together again, a process called integration.

"The selves give me the memories of all the times I had lost," Juanita said. Once they share their memories, she said, "you and that self are one."

Her therapy has been so successful that she is now down to just two alter egos. She would not name them, but says she has integrated with Wanda, who knows now that what she did was wrong.

"She was the first to go because she was the first one I created," Juanita said. "That part of myself I think I will always love because she had the strength to take it."

Juanita needs that strength. She has not seen her children in seven years because she had a disagreement with the aunt raising them. She has left jobs each time someone recognized her.

Now she has lost her license, thanks to a new state law pushed through the Legislature by state Rep. Lars Hafner, D-St. Petersburg, to rid the state's nursing homes of possible abusers.

The law, which took effect July 1, says anyone convicted of crimes ranging from prostitution to possession of obscene literature cannot be a nursing assistant. Juanita's bank robbery convictions rule her out.

Hafner said his bill wasn't really aimed at someone like Juanita. He encouraged her to apply for an exemption. She is not the only nurse's assistant affected. State officials say they have received 100 applications for exemptions.

To apply for an exemption requires Juanita to get letters attesting to her good character. She already has the first one. It's from David Hill, a Hollywood producer who has been working with actor Phylicia Rashad on developing a television movie about Juanita. He said her story is "a hot property" in Hollywood.

"It's not the sideshow of the seven personalities and it's not just a story of a mother who got her kids taken away from her," Hill said. "It's the story of someone who was punished by a system that was designed to help someone like her."

For now, instead of using her nursing training, Juanita cleans houses for minimum wage. But she refuses to let the latest twist in her story get her down. After all, she points out, "I've seen worse days."