Dara Musick was a career criminal with nearly two decades behind bars; now, she's sharing her story in Texas theaters.
DARA: People don’t just come out of their womb saying, “Hm, I think when I’m 14 I’m just going to go sell my ass, do my first shot of methamphetamine and rob somebody.” People don’t do that.
From the Texas Observer, I’m Jen Reel and you’re listening to Observatory: true stories of life in Texas. Who do you think of when you hear the word, “criminal”? What about “drug addict” or “prostitute”? Maybe you have ideas of who that person is, or how they should be treated—how they got where they are, or what their future might look like. In this episode, we hear from a woman who says she’s been all three, and she wants to challenge the stereotypes of people like her, by telling her story.
Act 1 — The Show
I’m in the backstage dressing room of the Dougherty Arts Center in Austin with Dara Musick, who’s getting ready for tonight’s show.
DARA: Well, I’m nervous. I feel like I’m not going to be ready in time. Like I forgot, I don’t know if I forgot to put powder there.
The show is called Mothers & Daughters. It’s a staged reading about motherhood and incarceration. Dara and three other women will be getting up on stage together to share their stories with a live audience.
DARA: I don’t know if I have hairspray. (Sherry, friend of Dara: Well I don’t know, just leave it like that. Just let it go, let it fall and be good with it.)
The show was organized by a group called Conspire Theater. They teach women in prison and previously incarcerated women how to tell their stories through performance. Dara falls into that latter category. She last served a prison sentence in 2010, marking the end of almost two decades spent behind bars.
DARA: But I remember the very first time I told my story, my whole story? Oh my God, I couldn’t get through it at all.
Dara has shared many other details about her life in previous performances with Conspire, and also through a program called Truth Be Told, which sends her into prisons to tell her story. Dara says she does it so people might understand just how life-changing second chances can be. Both for themselves, and for others.
DARA: If somebody was to look at me on paper, I would be horrible. But I’m not that paper. I did those things, yes, but here is a look inside of a woman’s life, whoever that woman may be. What a great way to break the stigma, you know? And to paint a picture.
DARA DURING SHOW: March 12, 1973. I meet my “birth mother” Debra Jean Shirley. She names me Dara Jean. 1986. I am 13. I go to juvenile detention, and meet my future “adopted mom” Paula Elaine Laycock.
Act 2 — Childhood
DEBRA: My name is Debra Berg.
That’s Dara’s birth mother. She was 22 when she had Dara. She’s recalling the day in the hospital when she told Dara’s father, Papa Don, that he had a daughter.
DEBRA: And he had wanted a boy. But I could see a flash of disappointment and then a big grin and it looked like the buttons on his shirt would pop off. He was so proud and he went right up to see her and from there on it was deep, deep love. … He loved Dara so much he would have done anything for her. Took care of her. Doted on her. Fussed over her. But when she was two he started getting really sick.
The doctors discovered that Papa Don had colon cancer. He would die in the hospital two years later, when Dara was just 4 years old.
DEBRA: For her 4th birthday I took her up there for, I think, a Sunday afternoon and had cupcakes and he was suddenly so much better. He sat up in the bed and he played hide and go seek with her with the hospital table. The nurses kept coming in and out because they were just thrilled to see him like that. And it was one of the most beautiful days of my life. That was March 12th was her birthday, and he died March 17th. I was instantly a single mother on my own.
Dara’s mother remarried, but her new husband and stepson abused Dara; physically, emotionally and sexually. Dara says she was 5 years old when it started.
DEBRA: He seemed like a strong, protective figure and I was just beaten down and I needed that and that’s why I ended up getting married to Dara’s step dad. Dara hadn’t been spanked before I got with Jimmy. And I thought that he knew what he was doing.
Dara says that looking back, she thinks her mother suspected the sexual abuse but stayed in deep denial because she was afraid to leave her husband, and because it was easier to believe his excuses. That the inappropriate touching happened while he and Dara were wrestling and roughhousing. That it was all just a misunderstanding.
DEBRA: Things just started unraveling and falling apart. He became very controlling, very, um, emotionally abusive. I know when she was about 7, she started talking to me about missing her Papa Don, and if she went to heaven to be with Papa Don, would I be mad at her? And she did pull a knife, I’m not going to say it was on me, but she pulled a knife in front of me and I remember it scaring me. She was probably 11 then.
DARA: I was 11 when I went in my first children’s home. And then shortly after I went into my first psychiatric hospital. And by the time I was 13 ½ I had been in 5 psychiatric hospitals and 2 kids homes I guess is what you’d call them. So yeah, I felt a lot of different emotions.
She met a boy at one of these kids homes, and when they snuck outside to have a cigarette, he asked her if she wanted to run away with him.
DARA: I was like, sure.
Act 3 — The Street
DARA: And so we went to Westheimer in Houston and by the time we got there it was nighttime. The only way I can describe it is like on the movies you see the strip, you know? And bumper to bumper traffic. It’s a huge party. And I was in awe. I mean, you had female impersonators, you had the drag queens. You had guys that had gone through the change and I wanted to be like them because they were beautiful, you know? A few of them took me under their wings and they were like mama hens, you know? Naomi and Gypsy. They made rules: “We don’t want you hanging out with this person, there’s a lot of IV drug users, you’re not going to do that. Don’t get in guys’ cars.” I felt loved and I felt protected and I felt that this is what I wanted to do.
I was at, it was called the 401 Game Room and it was where a lot of the addicts hung out and people I wasn’t supposed to hang out with. And this girl, Pumpkin, asked me if I wanted to go on a date. And I was like, “Sure!” You know? Thinking that it was a date. So we went and got in a car, and I sat in back and she sat in the front. I remember we went to a construction site, when we pulled up I remember he gave Pumpkin money and she said, “You’re going to go in here with him, and everything’s going to be OK. Just relax.” And it was horrible, you know? It was disgusting. I don’t remember a lot of the tricks that I turned, but it’s like you never forget your first kiss? You never forget your first trick.
Shortly after that I met this guy that took me to an apartment and it was abandoned and we went in and he said, “You’ve partied before, right?” And I said, “Sure. Of course.” And he pulls out a needle and a spoon and the methamphetamine and I don’t say anything. I’m scared and I’m freaking out, but again, I want to be liked. I don’t want to look like I don’t know what’s going on. But inside I was scared to death, you know? I did my first shot of methamphetamine and I fell in love with that drug, you know? No more pain, you know? No more feeling dirty. I had been feeling dirty, golly, since I was 5, you know? And of course I tried to hide it from Gypsy and Naomi and all that but they knew. And then of course I got strung out and then I’m defiant and nobody can tell me what to do. This is my life, you know the people that were protecting me, I didn’t want it anymore. Then I started turning tricks more and more and more. Getting high more and more and more. I just didn’t care. I always describe it like, I found freedom or so I thought. What I didn’t know was that I had just started a 20+ year dance with death.
Act 4 — Paula
DARA: I remember the very first time I got arrested for prostitution at 14. It was the most humiliating thing. I started going in and out of juvenile detention and I was what you would call a frequent flyer. So juvenile detention became my second home, and the streets being my first.
PAULA: That’s when I met Dara, in ‘86. Unit 3 on the second floor of the girls’ unit.
That’s Paula Laycock. Dara calls Paula her adopted mom. She worked at the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center for 27 years.
PAULA: Well the first time I really talked to her, she was at a table.
DARA: I remember her coming in and sitting down with us girls.
PAULA: And she was bragging to the girls around that she was a prostitute.
DARA: …and how many guys I had sex with and how much dope I had shot. And she looked at me and said…
PAULA: “This is what’s going to happen if you don’t change your life. You’re going to overdose and die, or because you talk all this smack you’re going to be killed or you’re going to get AIDS and die if you don’t change your life.” And she said…
DARA: “Don’t put that on me.”
PAULA: I said, “I’m not. You’re wearing it with a lot of pride.”
DARA: And right then I was like, “Fuck this woman.”
PAULA: The language was a little bit rougher than that but that’s the first conversation I remember having with her.
By this time, Dara was stuck in a cycle. She would get arrested, be sent to juvenile detention for a few weeks, then taken to a children’s home where she would immediately runaway and get arrested again. During one of her bouts on the street, she witnessed a murder when she was just 15. She had been staying in a hotel room for about a month, turning tricks in exchange for drugs from a very violent man. He killed another woman in the hotel room, strangling her right in front of Dara. He then told Dara to go find a john so he could steal his car and get rid of the body. She feared for her life, and she also thought he would kill the person whose car he wanted to steal, too.
DARA: I was like in, I guess survivor mode, I don’t know. And you know, when you’re out there on the street and you’ve been turning tricks for a long time, you know who’s the law and who’s not. And I just remember seeing this really heavyset black man and a white guy in a car and I knew they were cops and i just walked right up to them and I just propositioned them and that’s straight you’re going to jail. And I went to jail. That little stint was cut really short because, you know, juvenile came and got me, but…
PAULA: I don’t know the number of the room, but I remember exactly the room she was in and I went in to see her and she was sitting on her bed, facing the wall. I sat down on the floor and she was crying. And she never cried, she always had to be strong, always be tough. And I said you need to cry, you witnessed a terrible thing, and you need to cry.
DARA: I can remember her coming in and sitting on the floor and telling me that uh, that it was ok to cry. And I was like the exorcist, you know? I turned around and I said, “What the fuck do you know about my life? You don’t know anything.” And she said, “I may not know a lot but what I do know is that I love you” and that, that right there was the beginning of a relationship that I had always wanted.
Act 5 — prison
PAULA: You don’t get over addictions or Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in 6 months. Or 3 months. Sometimes you have to work at it every day for the rest of your life.
By the time she turned 18, Dara had given birth to three children. She placed all of them in adopted homes and spent the next two decades living on the streets. She stole and sold her body for drugs, overdosing more than once. She says she was raped and beaten countless times, and that she lived in hotel rooms when she wasn’t serving time in prison, which was often. Nearly 19 years of her adult life were spent behind bars for six separate felony convictions.
PAULA: I only went to see her one time in prison, when she was in Lockhart. I never saw her in jail. It was sad, because she was getting older and still doing the same things.She would always write me, she always kept in touch. I have a box full of letters from her, I’ve kept all of her letters. I remember one time when she was a minor, driving lower Westheimer and looking for her and just crying. I could hardly see through my tears.
Dara was 37 when she began planning her suicide.
DARA: And my goal was to fill the whole pill bottle up with whatever pill I could get.I had already paid for my room for a week. You know I had been given chance after chance after chance. Surely this was the only other option because I was tired of hustling, I was tired of… I was just done. And the two people that knew something were my drug dealers. They would not leave my room that night and I thank God for that because I would have killed myself.
Dara said after that, she lost her nerve. And about a month later, she was arrested again.
DARA: I was seeing some of the same people I had been doing time with since I was 19. None of us were getting younger, we were all getting old. And I was back at the very place I did not want to frickin’ be at anymore. I was blessed by being put in a tank with general population, which was me, and therapeutic community, which was people that had been sentenced by the judge to go through some kind of therapeutic program for drug abuse. So I was in that dorm half and half and they were having groups all the time, talking about recovery and stuff like that and I’m in general population and I’m hearing this.This was to me the shortest, most humbling and most effective time because I had made a commitment. I am done doing dope, I am done breaking the law, I’m done. I’m finished. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew what I wasn’t going to do. I wasn’t going to do that shit anymore.
After serving her 6-month sentence, she wasn’t sure where to go. She was afraid to go to Paula’s house in Houston because she had too much history with that city. There were just too many triggers that could set her back. So she applied and was accepted into a transitional home in Austin called Maggie’s House. It required a one-year commitment.
DARA: No guys, no smoking, no relationships the whole time you’re there. “You’ll learn how to garden.” I was like, “Well that sounds interesting. Hello, I’ve never done anything like that.” Or sewn, or cooked. And I was so excited about doing that kind of stuff. At first the year kind of freaked me out, and I was like, “What else do I have to do with my life?” I need to go somewhere because I have absolutely no tools on how to live life. None. I don’t know. I’ve never had a bank account, I’ve never paid bills. The only kind of bill I ever paid was a hotel bill.
Maggie’s House was a beautiful 2-story home that housed 4 women, including her. She became friends with Pauly and Sarah, a couple who lived across the street, and together they decorated for the holidays. Dara remembers Pauly and Sarah blaring Christmas music from their VW convertible while everyone hung lights from Maggie’s House. Life was starting to feel stable for Dara. But physically, she was having problems. Before she was arrested she had been experiencing extremely heavy bleeding, and the prison’s doctor told her it was probably just fibrosis. But it continued after she was released, and it was getting worse. So she went to the ER, and they referred her to an OBGYN.
DARA: The doctor called me and told me I had cancer and I can literally see myself just walking in a very short circle. And that’s when the anger, the “I can’t believe this is happening” moment happened and he prayed with me. Then I got off the phone with him and just walked across the street to Pauly and Sara’s and they were coming out of their front door and I just sat on the concrete and just cried. And Pauly goes, “OK. This is what we’re going to do. It’s going to be OK, this is what we’re going to do.” And they promised me that day that they’d go through it with me, the whole process, and they did. Every treatment, everything. Right then is when it really sank in that I had a choice. I get to choose how this plays out. I can stay present and feel every uncomfortable frickin’ feeling that there is to feel. Or I can run and do as much dope as I possibly can and leave that way.
For the next five weeks, Dara went through two rounds of radiation every day. Pauly and Sara drove her to her appointments in their convertible, blowing bubbles to and from the hospital. She had a full hysterectomy on New Year’s Eve of 2010, and that following March, Pauly and Sarah threw her a birthday party.
DARA: My 38th birthday was a princess party. I mean literally, like I was an 8-year-old girl. I had never had one, you know? Also, Pauly — I have it somewhere. She was writing in her journal during that whole time. I didn’t know they were afraid I was going to die, nobody ever shared that with me. But she wrote it in the journal and when I got my first green light that I was doing good she gave that to me, that journal. To read somebody’s thoughts about you, it’s just a beautiful thing. Sad, scary and… But during that time, my mom Paula also, they would always talk about how intelligent I am and how, you know, had I thought about going back to school, what was I going to do? Well, school was out of the question. That is not going to happen. I have no frickin’ clue how to do anything like that. I guess I’ll just get a job, I don’t know. McDonalds, I don’t know. Well, that wasn’t an OK answer to any of those questions from any of those people. So I got out in November 2010 and August 2011 I was already in school, I don’t know how that happened.
Act 6 — Today
DARA: If someone had told me 25 years ago that I would be accepting the Presidential Student Achievement Award, I would have told them they were sadly mistaken.
That’s Dara, giving a speech on December 11, 2014, during the commencement ceremonies for Austin Community College. She had received the Presidential Student Achievement Award and earned her associates degree in general human services. She’s now working toward a bachelor’s degree in social psychology.
DEBRA: When I stop and think about it it just blows me away.
That’s Debra, again. Dara’s birth mother.
DEBRA: The night of the graduation from ACC was one of the best nights of my life. To hear her get up and speak and everyone in the audience stood up and applauded. Our car was about a block and a half away and it took us at least 45 minutes to get to that car because people kept stopping her and exclaiming over her speech, and how much it meant to them. And I just kept watching her and she was just blooming. She’s an incredible woman.
DARA: I was that throwaway kid, I was that career criminal. I was the one they should have gave up on a long time ago. It took me 25+ years maybe to finally get it, and it’s because there were people that didn’t give up on me.
PAULA: That they’ve come into her life, validates her worth, who she is, and the potential that she had, who she could become. It validates her and it validates them. For seeing her potential.To support journalism like this, donate to the Texas Observer.