Courage through Heart

By Szatmary, Peter | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Courage through Heart


Szatmary, Peter, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


Commonalities galvanize people to help others, especially when overcoming adversity forms the bond.

Ask Dawn Schiller. Now she pursues an M.A. in women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University, partly through a 2013 Kathleen Greey Fellowship from the Society and a teaching assistantship. Schiller earned a B.S. in liberal studies from Eastern Oregon University, her Phi Kappa Phi chapter, in 2012. But as a youth, she endured heinousness. Through an accidental encounter in 1976, Schiller, then 15, fell under sway of 32-year-old pornography star John Holmes.

Their sordid relationship revolved around his sexual, physical and emotional abuse of her and sharing drugs and alcohol to the point of addiction. The impressionable Schiller, product of a grim childhood, thought they were in love. As Holmes spiraled further downward, he forced her into prostitution and "sold" her to his friend, mobster Eddie Nash, suspected by authorities of operating a narcotics distribution ring from nightclubs he owned.

Horrors magnified with four unsolved killings dubbed the "Wonderland murders" after the avenue, the scene of the 1981 crimes in Los Angeles. Holmes' involvement left him and Schiller at risk, with at least eight contracts out on them she says. Schiller, Holmes, and his wife went into protective custody, briefly. Holmes then decamped underground to Florida, taking Schiller, for almost six months, before she escaped and turned him in.

She eventually received a degree in gemology from the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences. Schiller returned to California in 1988. She enrolled at Glendale Community College and held secretarial jobs. If her travails seem readymade for Hollywood, portions became the 2003 film Wonderland, directed and co-written by James Cox. Kate Bosworth portrayed her; Val Kilmer depicted Holmes. Schiller was an associate producer. Much got left out; Kilmer, who became a friend and then hired her as his website administrator, urged Schiller to share more of her saga. Schiller's 2010 memoir, The Road through Wonderland (Medallion Press), garnered strong notices and media attention. She worked as an administrative support specialist at EOU for several years and continued that job when resuming her studies.

In school, Schiller began to aid others with similar backgrounds. In 2009, she founded the nonprofit E.S.T.E.A.M.: Empowering Successful Teens through Education, Awareness and Mentoring for what Schiller calls "throwaway kids": victims of abuse or neglect. She is an advisory board member of the National Center for Victims of Crime, Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center, and Voices Set Free for battered women. Schiller also has been on the board of Shelter from the Storm women's refuge in La Grande, Ore.

She answered email questions from Editor Peter Szatmary. Edited excerpts follow.

Why do you give back?

I have to. It feels natural and necessary.

Summarize E.S.T.E.A.M.

E.S.T.E.A.M. developed from the awareness that many young folks struggle in life when faced with neglect and/or abuse. It intends to inform communities about their plight and coordinate mentoring. E.S.T.E.A.M., a grassroots organization, is open to collaborating with all who share our vision--to support marginalized teens and young adults into maturation. …

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