A few minutes later, she heard her name again, blaring through the intercom. She was to collect all her belongings and wait in the office for her mother to pick her up.
What had she done wrong? You're going to have a baby, her mother blurted out in the car. Who's been messing with you? I tried to tell you, Johnson replied.
But you said I was lying. A doctor examined her and gave her the news: She was seven months pregnant. She did the math and knew it was the deacon's baby.
Her mother stood up in church and told everyone her daughter was lying about being raped. She blamed Johnson for bringing shame on the family and sent her away to Miami with the bishop who had raped her.
She was dropped off at Jackson Memorial Hospital and left there alone to have her baby. On a February night in , Johnson, only 10 years old, waited in a hospital hallway. She tried to imagine how a baby would come out of her body; no one had explained it to her. The stares burned through her; she felt like an oddity at an amusement park.
When she returned to Tampa, a child welfare worker came by to ask questions. She figures her elementary school must have tipped off the state. The men who had raped her were adults and if the truth were to surface, they would face statutory rape charges.
Instead, Johnson's mother arranged for her daughter to marry one of her rapists, the deacon. She bought a white dress and veil for her daughter and accompanied bride and groom to the Hillsborough County courthouse in Tampa. The man she was marrying was Johnson remembers sitting at a long table that seemed bigger than her house. She remembers her mother speaking with the judge.
The judge refused to marry a girl so young, even though she had a baby. But a month later, they tried again, this time in neighboring Pinellas County, where Johnson was allowed to sign on the dotted line. The judge was fully aware of her age; the license lists her date of birth.
She had not finished fifth grade yet on March 29, , when she became a wife as well as a mother. So began a life of burden, a life she was forced to accept. Johnson's mother took her daughter to Pinellas County to get married to her rapist.
She was 11; he was Marriage before adulthood often has crushing consequences, undermining a girl's access to health, education and economic opportunities. Girls and women in abusive relationships often suffer from low self-esteem and can fall into a self-destructive pattern of attracting more exploitation. Johnson was no exception. At first, she returned to school while her mother looked after the baby. But her church prohibited the use of birth control, and Johnson had baby after baby.
Her husband abandoned her each time she was pregnant. She had no choice but to take him back when he returned after the baby was born. They lived in the same parsonage house with Johnson's mother and slept in Johnson's old bedroom surrounded by cribs. Girls her age played with baby dolls. Johnson found herself with real babies. She washed diapers, cleaned the house and cooked one-pot stews.
Her husband rarely spoke with her; she was just there for sex. They struggled to pay the bills. She was too young to know how to act, so she watched married couples in church and mimicked their behavior at home. She loved studying and even skipped a grade one year. As it turned out, school was the only normal thing in her life. But that, too, was taken from her. She made it somehow to the ninth grade but then could go on no longer.
By the time she was 17, she was raising six children. She never knew what it was like to play sports or go to the prom or graduate. Robbed of her childhood, she lost all motivation. Every day when she woke up, she cried. Johnson has become a public speaker on child marriage. Here, she watches a video of herself at a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Tahirih Justice Center. It was her husband who should have been handcuffed, she thought.
She felt she was handcuffed instead. She grew tired of her husband's lack of support and sought help from Legal Aid. But not long after, at 19, she married a year-old man. He, too, hurt her verbally and physically. She bore three more children and was 27 when her youngest daughter was born. By then, Johnson felt the weight of nine children -- five girls and four boys -- and an abusive husband pulling her down. She was frustrated, tired, bitter and, most of all, angry that this life had been forced on her.
It began to affect her relationships with her kids. She hollered and fussed at them more often and tried her best to remember they didn't ask to be born. It wasn't their fault. She smiled on the outside, but inside she was always crying. She felt worthless and even contemplated driving her car off the Howard Frankland Bridge that spans Tampa Bay. It was only after she left her mother's church that Johnson was able to start healing. Through a new church, she met a psychologist, Joan Gaines. The two women began talking.
It was the first time, really, that anyone had listened to her. It had taken almost half her life for Johnson to find her voice. Forgiveness I listened to Johnson recount her story, but I couldn't fully understand how she was able to heal after such horrific experiences.
I called Gaines for her perspective. She was like a round-bottomed roly-poly toy: No matter how many times you knock it over, it comes right back up. Gaines, too, was an only child, but she had a happy childhood. Johnson's mother's actions were beyond comprehension. She turned to her faith in God, and she learned to forgive her rapists, her mother and, most important, herself.
It was time, she realized, to escape the dungeon of bitterness that was sapping her energy. The past was hurting her because she had chosen to hold onto it. For Johnson, forgiveness was the only way to move forward, the only way she could speak freely about what she had suffered so she could save others.
Johnson works as a caregiver and visits Tommye Hutto twice a week to help her out at home. Playing lobbyist is Johnson's passion, but her job as a private caregiver pays the bills. She also had been teaching behavior-challenged children at an elementary school but gave that up to focus her energy on the legislative session.
Hutto retired as communications director for the California Teachers Union and moved to Tallahassee to be near her daughters. She lives by herself in north Tallahassee, needs assistance around the house and is one of several elderly clients Johnson sees.
The day before, Johnson helped a woman in her 90s who can no longer fend for herself. Johnson fixed her a dinner of fish sticks and steak fries and then wrote out a checklist: Make sure the bed rails are up on both sides in the highest position; insert an extra pad in the adult diaper for absorbency; check that her life alert is around her neck; empty the trash; tidy the house.
I watched Johnson intently before blurting out the obvious question: She took this job, she explained, because caregiving is what she's good at. She raised nine children, after all. She moved to north Florida in after she remarried again. She and her third husband ran a barbecue place together in Tallahassee. But that marriage, too, ended in divorce. Johnson could have returned to Tampa, where all her children were.
But that was when she felt a calling.