The Kid’s Speech


Illustration by Sam Oldshue.

Wendy Marans’ name is a diagnostic test of sorts.

Section one, “wɛndi,” isn’t too hard. It can be broken down into five distinct sounds: /w/, /ɛ/, /n/, /d/, and /i/. They’re all articulated near the front of the oral tract, so the challenge is just remembering to connect the /n/ and /d/ consonant blends. Fortunately, the two phonemes don’t occur in distant sites of the mouth, which is the hardest part about other consonant blends like “gr” or “tw.” The “nd,” sound, in comparison, is manageable. Both /n/ and /d/ are produced by placing the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge, the front roof of the mouth that reminds Wendy of the bumpy ridges left on a beach when the tide goes out.

Section two, “mærənz,” gets trickier. With seven distinct sounds, an /r/ wedged in the middle, and a voiced /z/ fricative tacked onto the end, “Marans” is complex enough to give any child with a speech impediment some trouble. For these kids, Wendy’s surname easily becomes “Maranth,” “Mah-ens,” “Mawans,” or even “Mamem.” Some parents get tripped up too, incorrectly placing the emphasis on the second syllable: “Mar-ANS.” She’s heard almost every possible mistake. Maybe that’s why she just goes by Wendy.

———

Wendy’s bubblegum-pink lips curl into a taut frown as she checks the time. Her watch stopped last week and though it’s now ticking again, she has been eyeing her wrist sporadically, as if always running a moment late. Her first afternoon appointment doesn’t begin for thirty minutes, but it’s time for her to start rearranging the room.

The next client is one of her tallest, so Wendy heaves the table onto its side and goes about shifting the length of each of its four legs. Wendy’s heels slip out of her shoes as she fidgets with the squeaky pegs, but she declines my offer to assist her. She’s accustomed to performing this manual task solo. But I also get the sense that she doesn’t trust me to do it carefully enough—or simply as carefully as she will.

After double-checking the notches in each leg, Wendy screws the pegs in place—a few inches higher than they were before. Her carefully-groomed bangs are left slightly disheveled, and I can’t help but wonder if the ritual, which she repeats several times a day, is actually necessary. Yet after four decades of working as a pediatric communication disorders specialist, Wendy insists on this level of precision.

The laminate blue-and-grey table is the home base of Wendy’s lessons. It’s where they all begin, with Wendy sitting diagonally from each child, and where Wendy tries to end each hour-long session, though her youngest patients have a habit of wandering. It’s where Wendy conducts intakes to suss out articulation difficulties, where she runs repetitive speech exercises and plays purposeful games when the children grow tired of these exercises, and ultimately, where most of her breakthroughs happen. But if the table is too tall, the child’s neck will strain upwards and he may not be able to see; too short, and he’ll slouch. Wendy even customizes the size of the plastic school chairs that circle the table so each child can firmly plant his or her feet on the floor. Teaching someone to communicate is not a one-size-fits-all project.

There are no diagrams of the oral tract or pamphlets about communication disorders displayed in Wendy’s office, a one-room private practice she opened in 1997. Toys and games are Wendy’s tools, each serving a distinct pedagogical purpose. A glittery pinwheel helps children practice the controlled breath release necessary in strident sounds; glossy plastic microphones coax mumblers into projecting. Wendy keeps the beige walls sparsely decorated to avoid distractions. On the window ledge by her desk sit a model wooden train and a miniature metal toboggan. When Wendy knows a client is particularly fond of vehicles, she usually remembers to preemptively hide them. Incorporating a child’s interests into a lesson plan is one thing, Wendy once explained, but carelessly leaving a toy within reach is asking for a disturbance in the kid’s focus, or even a tantrum. Behind Wendy’s desk, pristine glass windows span the entire northern side of the office. Last fall, after a gust of wind once derailed her train of thought, Wendy glanced toward the windows and remarked that they were the most beautiful, and worst, part of her office.

On Wendy’s old website, below her educational training and professional experience, appeared a bullet-pointed list of her extracurricular passions: Cello, Flamenco, Quilting. (The page has since been taken down.) Wendy handmade the office’s only notable décor—a large multicolored quilt that hangs by her desk—but she repeatedly stresses to me that she has made better quilts. She keeps this flawed one on display only so that she can point to something when children make mistakes, something that shows she makes mistakes too.

“They’re made to be squares and top right yellow one isn’t,” Wendy says, gesturing toward one of the two hundred and ten patches as if it’s the first thing I would notice. The top right yellow one hadn’t caught my eye, but when I walk closer, I see Wendy’s right. I never would have recognized the error—the patch is only slightly rectangular.

For most people, developing one’s voice and ability to communicate is something that just sort of happens. But Wendy works with kids for whom that doesn’t naturally occur—kids whose capacity to verbally express themselves isn’t inborn, but needs to be taught to them. This thing that most people take for granted, speech, is incredibly complex, Wendy says. So maybe this care—her insistence on adjusting the table by several inches, or hanging a near-perfect quilt as an example of a mistake—is necessary.

Wendy’s natural speaking voice is crisp, potent, and unmistakably British. Having been raised and schooled in England, Wendy talks with broad vowels and delicately discards her /r/ sounds, letting them slip just before they settle on the tongue. Her specific dialect, Received Pronunciation, is untraceable to any physical region or socioeconomic class. Wendy attributes her speech to her grandmother, who, as a young woman, swore off the Derbyshire parlance—a regional giveaway of her own humble beginnings. Besides a couple adolescent nieces who’ve acquired the “Mockney” dialect—a middle-class London trend that began during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership—everyone in Wendy’s family still speaks with Received Pronunciation.

In conversation, Wendy’s rich tone is almost melodic, bouncing between syllables like notes, performing dynamic intervals with each clause. Her cadence could dwell within the five lines of a treble clef. When she reaches the end of a sentence, or wants to emphasize a point, she slows her pace and chews on her words, letting them resonate one by one. “I think…it’s a…trahhhgedy,” she said once, describing other foreigners’ tendency to lose their accents after years in the United States.

It’s easy to catch yourself intensely listening to Wendy—not explicitly because of what she’s saying, but because of how good she sounds saying it. And the primrose hue of her lips, a staple which somehow always looks both girlish and elegant on Wendy, is perhaps her voice’s most effective billboard. Listen to me, it says. Watch what’s happening here.

Otherwise, Wendy’s physical presence is fairly unimposing. She has a small, slender frame, and the child-sized seat in which she conducts lessons never looks as miniature as it seems like it should. She regularly joins patients on the matted blue carpet of her office—sometimes to lie horizontally and use gravity to urge a child’s tongue to fall backward; other times, simply to conduct a lesson on the floor if an uncooperative student strays from the table. At the end of eight-hour days, Wendy’s hands still flutter with sweeping gestures as she speaks, and her patient, lupine eyes blink with purpose.

With ten minutes remaining before the appointment, Wendy agrees to show me the last unseen area of her office: the closet. Behind a locked wooden door, opaque plastic bins, phonetic diagnostic tests, and niche speech and language-related games are tightly packed from the floor to the ceiling, like a game of Tetris.

“Wow,” I exhale. “There are so many…”

Wendy stares into the closet and blinks, as if she’s unsure whether my comment was a compliment or a criticism. I scramble to clarify what I meant, but Wendy finds the words faster than I do.

“It’s actually very organized,” she says. And then she shuts the door.

———

When I first met Wendy roughly sixteen years ago, I was an extroverted kindergartener with a spitty interdental lisp, biting softly on my tongue with each /s/, and the inability to pronounce my own name.

Section one, æntoniə, wasn’t an issue. The hardest part of my first name is just remembering to connect the /n/ and /t/ sounds, but my parents had always called me Anna anyway, voiding the issue of the consonant blend. Section two, ɛɪrz brɑʊn, was my trouble spot, and until I began working with Wendy, I proudly introduced myself as Anna Ayrethhh-Brown to everyone I met.

I don’t remember much about our weekly lessons besides the fact that Wendy rewarded me with Cheerios and M&Ms for maneuvering my tongue against the alveolar ridge. She was similar back then—same office, same lupine eyes, same melodic tones—and she taught me to fix my speech impediment by looking, listening, and imitating her, just as my older brother, Henry, had already done with her.

Henry’s challenges were more debilitating than mine. As he entered elementary school, both his /r/ and /s/ phonemes were unintelligible, which fractured his ability to communicate with peers, teachers, and our parents. My mother still winces whenever she recalls one evening when Henry asked her to read him a story before bed. Because of Henry’s /r/ and /s/ omissions, she heard him ask for a “toy,” and scolded him for trying to play so late at night. Henry, desperate to be understood, whined in frustration, “No, Mom! A toe-ey!”

Henry began speech therapy with Wendy in kindergarten and continued until his /s/ and /r/ sounds improved. Other facets of his impediment, like substituting “ch” sounds for “sh,” persisted well into middle school. This impairment presented itself most overtly on Sundays, when Henry would gab about singing in “shursh.” At our school’s annual book swap, where used titles could be traded for tokens called “chits,” Henry’s classmates mocked him for confidently announcing how many “shits” he had collected.

My family’s history with speech impediments, however, predates both Henry and me. When my father was a child, he never mastered his “s” and “th” sounds. Speech therapy was well out of my grandparents’ financial means, so my father learned to mask these insecurities by slowing his speaking pace around certain hazardous words. As an adult, he still avoids “ths”—months, truths, myths.

Last year, after I began reporting this profile and researching speech therapy, I sat my father down for an impromptu diagnostic test.

“Say ‘anesthesia,’” I instructed.

Anesthesia,” he copied back. No trouble.

“Okay,” I said. “Say ‘cloths.’”

Closs.”

“No. Cloths,” I repeated.

Closth.”

Betrayed by his tongue, he shrugged and left the room, revealing the boy in him I’ve rarely seen—the boy who never got help with his articulation, the boy who would right that wrong by sending both of his children to speech therapy one day. Later, when I asked my mother what she knew about his ambiguous impediment, I learned that when my parents were deliberating baby names for me, my mother’s top choices included “Martha” and “Lilith.” My father vetoed both.

In a home video that often makes its rounds during family reunions, I’m five years old and still unaware of my lisp. I stride into the frame and begin to sing: “Little Jackie Paper loved that rathcal puff, and brought him thtrings and thieling wakth, and other fanthy thhhhtuff!”

Interdental /s/ sounds now feel foreign in my mouth, and I don’t think of my speech patterns as anyone’s but my own, but I sometimes wonder whether lispy tones would still feel foreign if I had never met Wendy—or whether I would have ended up an adult, vetoing baby names like my father did. Sarah. Silas. Spencer. Susannah. Sebastian.

———

In the opening scene of The King’s Speech, the 2010 film about George VI’s journey to overcoming his stutter, an unnamed speech pathologist fills the king’s mouth with glass marbles and instructs him to enunciate several words. Later in the film, Lionel Logue, the Australian-born elocutionist who ultimately succeeds in improving the stammer, leads the king in a myriad of other unconventional speech exercises: rolling log-style across a dusty carpet, swinging his arms like a windmill, lying down and breathing deeply while the queen sits on his diaphragm. At one point, as King George practices yelling “Ahhh” for fifteen uninterrupted seconds, Logue chimes in above the din: “Anyone who can shout vowels at an open window can learn to deliver a speech!”

Since the movie’s release in 2010, speech therapists like Wendy have become used to answering questions about the film, which brought the discipline of speech pathology into the public eye. And though most say that the techniques shown in The King’s Speech are outdated by contemporary standards, the film captures a fundamental part of the field’s history: its roots in elocution.

During the late 18th century, generations before King George VI assumed the throne, the study of elocution and oratory gained widespread popularity in England. Soon after, the movement migrated to the United States, where writers began studying elocution for individuals with communication disorders. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, founded Boston’s “School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech” in 1872, which specialized in speech instruction for deaf pupils. By 1887, there were 1,646 self-proclaimed elocutionists working in the United States.

It was not until the early twentieth century, however, that speech correction evolved into a discipline distinct from elocution. In 1922, Sara Stinchfield Hawk became the first American to receive a doctorate in Speech Pathology. And in 1937, Robert West, who served as the first president of the American Speech Correction Association, published The Rehabilitation of Speech. The classic text is still in print today, and West is known to many as the founding father of speech pathology in the United States.

Wendy’s discipline has grown to address myriad speech and language difficulties over the past century. Some speech therapists work primarily with transgender people, assisting in the transition process and highlighting the rhythmic and intonational differences between most men’s and women’s speech patterns. Other pathologists specialize in post-surgical voice therapy for thyroid and laryngeal cancer patients, or work with individuals after strokes and traumatic brain injuries. Pediatric therapists, like Wendy, treat articulation-related impediments, phonological disorders, and other language and communication difficulties.

Roughly 8 percent of young children in the United States have a speech disorder. By the time kids reach first grade, the prevalence of speech impediments falls to 5 percent. Still, only half of affected kids receive intervention services from speech therapists. The U.S. Department of Labor reported in 2016 that there are roughly 145,000 speech-language pathologists in the United States. A reported 43 percent of these therapists work in schools, but they’re often overworked with heavy caseloads—and children with minor but consequential articulation impediments can fall to the wayside.

When Wendy was a young girl, she once gushed to her parents, “Wouldn’t ‘Multitudes’ be a wonderful name for a boy?’”

Now 62, Wendy is unsure where she developed her fascination with speech and language. She often cites the influence of her father, who read Winnie the Pooh to her at bedtime and assumed perfectly suited voices for each of the book’s characters. As Wendy matured, she began experimenting with different accents as well, and quickly noticed she had a knack for impersonating regional English dialects. In late elementary school, after meeting a Scottish girl and her family on vacation, Wendy briefly abandoned her Received Pronunciation for a Scottish brogue.

A decade later, Wendy found herself 19 years old and living with her parents after dropping out of a university program in Hotel Management. In an attempt to keep her daughter occupied, Wendy’s mother suggested she shadow the speech therapist in Bedford. Over several days, Wendy traveled from appointment to appointment with the pathologist and listened to her deconstruct speech with mind-boggling specificity. Wendy witnessed the complexity of children’s communication difficulties and came to believe—for the first time in her life—that speech patterns could be built.

For Wendy, it was a life-changing revelation. She immediately enrolled at the National Hospital’s College of Speech Sciences. After receiving her bachelor’s, she worked as a speech pathologist in London for seven years, and then returned to The Institute of Neurology to complete a one-year intensive master’s program.

During this time, Wendy met “an American”—the most specific she gets when referring to her ex-husband—with whom she moved to the United States in 1984. The couple settled in Connecticut and raised two sons. The kids have their father’s accent.

Now, Wendy is a member of both the American Speech–Language–Hearing Association and the Connecticut Speech–Language–Hearing Association. She sometimes attends ASHA’s annual convention, which regularly attracts nearly fifteen thousand speech-language pathologists, but last year she opted out. “I’m very…picky,” she once confessed to me before correcting herself. “There are certain people I really want to hear.”

What Wendy genuinely cares about is the science of phonetics and linguistics as it pertains to communication. Spoken language can be broken down into several units—sentences, words, syllables, and, at its most deconstructed level, phonemes. There are forty-four phonemes in the English language, twenty-four of which are consonants (which challenge children more often than vowels). These two dozen consonantal phonemes make up roughly 62 percent of English speech, and can be categorized by their voice, manner, and place.

Voice refers to whether the vocal folds vibrate or not when producing a noise. Because of this distinction, the same physical movements in the oral tract can produce different sounds, such as /s/ and /z/, or /p/ and /b/. Manner, on the other hand, describes how air is released when making a sound. Plosive consonants, like /p/ and /t/, are characterized by full blockage of the airstream, followed by a quick release of air. Fricative consonants, including /f/ and /v/, create a hissing-like tone by releasing air through a tight opening.

Lastly, place describes where a phoneme occurs within the scope of the oral tract. Bilabial consonants, /p/, /b/, and /m/, are articulated between the lips. Labiodental consonants, /f/ and /v/, manifest when the bottom lip touches the upper incisors. Dental consonants, like the voiceless “th” sound in “thin,” are made by extending the tongue tip slightly between the upper and lower incisors. Alveolar consonants, such as /t/, /d/, and /s/, occur when the tongue blade is raised to the alveolar ridge. The glottal consonant /h/ occurs when the vocal folds do not vibrate but are close enough to produce friction as air is exhaled. The list goes on.

A properly trained speech pathologist, Wendy says, should be able to transcribe any consonant, vowel, or diphthong by ear—and identify its voice, manner, and place. One of Wendy’s biggest complaints about her field is how underappreciated this scientific part goes, and how frequently acquaintances—the same kind that ask about The King’s Speech—confuse speech pathology with the less-scientific discipline of elocution. “When I was starting out, people heard you were a speech therapist and they would go, ‘How now brown cow,’” Wendy once remarked, rolling her eyes.

———

Wendy points to her lips, painted her signature pink. “Are these two the same or different?” she asks, adopting a hard American /r/ for the session. “Arr…arr…arr. Arrarrarr.”

The five-year-old boy sitting at the table, Samuel, tucks his chin and continues twisting his yellow rain boots around the legs of his chair. (To protect the child’s privacy, Samuel is a pseudonym.) He starts to pick at the Wallingford Police Station temporary tattoo that’s been on his arm for ten days.

Wendy tries again. “What part of my mouth is mostly moving? Arrarrarr.

Samuel started attending weekly lessons with Wendy in the spring of 2017. When they first began, he had a medley of severe articulation issues: he struggled with the strident system, which includes sounds like “sh” and “ch”; he displayed non-rhotacism, omitting his “r” sounds; and he substituted “th” for “f,” expressing his characteristically good manners with “please” and “fank you.” Many speech therapists wait until a child is eight years old to treat these issues, as there’s a chance they’ll resolve naturally, but Samuel persuaded Wendy with his eagerness and aptitude. At their first lesson, when Wendy asked him why he thought they were meeting, Samuel was certain. “I’m here so you can teach me to say ‘shursh,’” he said, unknowingly echoing my brother.

Samuel has since improved his strident sounds and learned to articulate “r” at the end of words, but he still can’t isolate his tongue on r-initial words like “rat,” or r-remedial words like “carrot.” Wendy hopes that “Arrarrarr” will push Samuel to articulate the “r” sound before a vowel, but his lips have a habit of rounding into the “w” shape when he doesn’t pause between each “r.”

Samuel finally tilts his head back in frustration, shakes his bronze curls, and howls. “Arr! Arr! Arr!” Not quite. Wendy furrows her eyebrows and playfully corrects him: “That sounds like a hiccupping seal.”

After twenty years of running her private practice, Wendy rarely encounters articulation issues that she doesn’t know how to fix, once she has cracked what she calls the child’s “systematic error code.” For almost any common problem like a lisp or non-rhotacism, Wendy knows a set of strategies—some technical and some not-so-technical—that she uses until she identifies one that works best. When she first started working with Samuel last spring, Wendy began with her usual technique: make a long “ee” and imagine the tongue is glued to the palate but allowed to slide from front to back. As the tongue moves backward in the mouth, “ee” becomes “eer.”

This visual didn’t work with Samuel—he couldn’t move his tongue without rounding his lips—so Wendy shifted to a less mechanical approach: do a seal impression. Samuel correctly articulated an “r” on his first try.

Between their weekly sessions, Samuel frequently practices speech exercises for fun, which Wendy says is practically unheard of. His r-final word articulation has now improved to the point that he corrects Wendy when she forgets her affected American /r/. Wendy recognizes the irony in teaching children a speech pattern that she does not share, but her accent doesn’t undermine her effectiveness, she says. If anything, it makes the children’s final /r/ sounds, though systematically constructed, more their own.

“I say to them, ‘You’ll be better at this than I am,’” Wendy tells me after Samuel’s session wraps up. “And they are, by the time they finish.”

———

A week later, Samuel’s Wallingford Police Station tattoo, now seventeen days out, has peeled to only a grey penumbra of a crest. He practiced “Arrrarrrarrr” at home this week, and Wendy thinks he’s ready for full r-initial words. She pulls out a page scattered with terms: rope, road, read, ring, rag, rat, red, rip, rug, run.

Wendy has scrupulously sketched a picture beside each word to provide a visual cue. The hand-drawn illustrations strike me like Wendy’s micro-adjustment of the table, but this time, I trust that whatever energy and attention she put into them is necessary. That maybe, one day, they’ll be a part of why Samuel won’t have to dodge words with perilous r sounds or veto baby names of his own.

Samuel and Wendy take turns pointing to a picture and reciting the corresponding word. When Samuel’s lips begin to round, Wendy gently rests her palm against his lower lip.

In a moment between drills, Samuel spots old papers protruding from Wendy’s case binder. “That’s from when you couldn’t say ‘church,’” Wendy says. Samuel clicks his tongue indignantly.

“I can say it!” he retorts. “Churrrrrrrrrrch.

Antonia Ayres-Brown is a senior in Saybrook College.

When Neil Hughes works the front reception desk at the Mayflower Motel in Milford, Connecticut, he always stays alert. Nestled between car service stations in a retail area just off Interstate 95, the motel where he has been employed for the past eight years doesn’t look particularly vulnerable to crime: a table in the front office is scattered with cheap romance novels that visitors are invited to borrow; one wall is decorated with a playful plaque that reads, “I work 40 hours a week to be this poor”; guests stream in and out of the office to check in, chat with one another, and buy snacks. But Hughes, who lives on the premises, doesn’t let the familiarity of the space blind him to the threat currently afflicting Connecticut hotels and motels: human trafficking.

Behind the counter where Hughes works, the Mayflower Motel’s management team has hung several informational posters about how to identify and respond to signs of trafficking. Some of the clues are conspicuous, such as a woman with visible bruises, or a guest aggressively refusing to let his companion speak. But others, Hughes noted, are less obvious: a young girl checking in with a much older man, or even a feeling in his gut.

“If something doesn’t look right, it usually isn’t,” he said, stuffing his hands in his pocket with a sense of proud authority. Hughes hasn’t observed any signs of trafficking at the Mayflower recently, but in the event that he ever does, he knows to call the authorities.

Hughes’s vigilance and preparedness reflect a recent statewide push to raise awareness about human trafficking in the lodging sector—a movement that the Connecticut state legislature most recently advanced with Public Act No. 16-71. The bill, which became law in 2016, was enacted in response to the more than 650 underage victims of trafficking referred to the Connecticut Department of Children and Families since 2008. Before Public Act No. 16-71 was instituted, Connecticut prosecutors had not succeeded in convicting a single perpetrator since trafficking was made a felony in 2006. Its measures include a new requirement that hotels and motels keep records of all guests and receipts for at least six months following each transaction, as well as an unfunded mandate that all lodging employees receive human trafficking awareness training before October 1, 2017.

Today, the bill’s success remains largely uncertain. On the one hand, the preparedness of employees like Neil Hughes suggests that it has worked. The Human Trafficking Prevention Project, an initiative run by Quinnipiac Law School students, has trained an estimated 350 hotel and motel employees across the state. Yet disagreements concerning the legislation’s technical stipulations persist, a majority of lodging employees remain untrained, and anti-trafficking advocates are tasked with enforcing a bill that has no financial carrot or legal stick. Now, several months after the supposed October 1 deadline for training completion, critics and proponents of the bill are grappling with the same question: if Public Act No. 16-71 isn’t self-enforcing, how can service-providers and prosecutors make it effective?

“In general, people still believe trafficking happens someplace else. It’s something in the movies,” said Tammy Sneed, Director of Adolescent Services at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. This “not in my state” attitude, she believes, is why so many residents are surprised to learn that hundreds of local minors are trafficked in Connecticut each year. Sneed is also the director of the Human Anti-Trafficking Response Team (HART), a statewide collaboration between individuals from diverse professional backgrounds—law enforcement, mental health providers, anti-trafficking advocates, and more. The HART team’s primary purpose is to identify and provide support services to survivors of trafficking and youth at risk of exploitation.

There are seventeen HART liaisons throughout the state, each responsible for covering a different geographic region and connecting local youth with necessary services. In 2014, HART received ninety-four unique referrals of minors who were either confirmed survivors of trafficking or suspected of being trafficked. The next year, the program received 133 referrals. In 2016, the most recent year for which HART has complete data, the program received 202 referrals.

(The Mayflower Motel, photo by Robbie Short)

Despite this concerning trend, Sneed said it’s often difficult for Connecticut residents to recognize the threat and impact of the trafficking industry because so much of its business is conducted in a nearly invisible arena: the web.

“Many of our kids are being recruited via the internet,” Sneed said. “So they’re often being groomed by the internet, and often… they’re being sold by the internet.” Victims are typically first targeted on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Grindr, where traffickers can cultivate close friendships with dozens of underage children simultaneously. Sneed noted that people tend to assume children in urban areas are at the highest risk of being trafficked, but HART has encountered several rural cases in which minors were trafficked despite living several miles from their closest neighbors.

Once traffickers gain the trust of these children, their industry of exploitation thrives on internet platforms like Backpage and Craigslist, websites that allow users to post free classified advertisements. Since 2010, Backpage has repeatedly come under fire for knowingly tolerating advertisements for the sexual exploitation of minors. In 2017, Backpage removed the “Adult Services” section of their website and cracked down on illicit language, but traffickers continue to advertise minors using misspellings and widely-understood code words. “New in town,” one anti-trafficking advocate explained, universally means that the advertised individual is underage. Other posts advertise “yung” girls in order to avoid the website’s filter on the word “young.”

Roughly half of the youth who are trafficked in Connecticut are already in the Department of Children and Families system at the time of their trafficking. In addition to hailing from a range of communities—urban, suburban, and rural—these vulnerable minors also cross racial demographics and family backgrounds. In 2016, 37 percent of HART’s clients were white, 28 percent were Black, and 24 percent were Latinx. A reported 58 percent of these minors resided with their parents at the time of their exploitation, but 16 percent were runaways and 11 percent were living in foster care. Gender is the one constant across most of Sneed’s clients: although HART cares for survivors of all genders, more than 91 percent of those served in 2016 were women.

In 2004, the Connecticut legislature created the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Council to examine the issue of trafficking in the state and make policy recommendations. Jillian Gilchrest, the Director of Health Professional Outreach at the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, chairs the council, whose twenty-five members come from both the public and private sectors.

The TIP Council’s research indicates that the trafficking industry (both sexual and labor) thrives in Connecticut because of the state’s close proximity to both New York City and Boston. Travel is cheap in Connecticut, and traffickers can constantly move along the Interstate 95 corridor to evade police detection. Food and lodging prices are typically lower than in the neighboring two major cities, and the demand for underage sex work is high. “What people aren’t understanding is that, no, no, there is an industry for selling youth,” Gilchrest said. In other words, working in Connecticut is a good business move for traffickers.

With the help of the TIP Council, the Connecticut Joint Committee on Judiciary introduced a new in-state anti-trafficking bill—which would later evolve into Public Act No. 16-71—in the spring of 2016. The proposed legislation included a number of provisions designed to regulate lodging properties’ role in human trafficking, including the six month policy governing record keeping and the mandate concerning employee awareness training. If lodging property owners failed to train their employees by October 1, 2017, they would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. Finally, hotels and motels would be banned from offering hourly rates for room rentals. But by the time Governor Dannel Malloy signed the new bill, Public Act No. 16-71, into law on June 1, 2016, congressmen had removed most of the legislation’s teeth.

The Connecticut lodging industry strongly opposed the stipulations outlined by the original bill. For a public hearing in March 2016, the president of the Connecticut Lodging Association, Victor Antico, wrote a letter urging lawmakers to consider an alternative “strong anti-human trafficking campaign that focuses on the nature of the issue not the regulation of an industry used in the process.” Two days later, the Judiciary Committee filed a substitute bill that omitted the ban on hourly rentals. The final legislation also failed to allocate funding for the trafficking awareness training requirement.

Legislators successfully defended Section 5, which required that lodging owners “ensure that each employee of such hotel, motel, inn or similar lodging receive training at the time of hire on the (1) recognition of potential victims of human trafficking, and (2) activities commonly associated with human trafficking.” By October 1, 2017, hotel and motels owners would theoretically need to certify that all employees received this training. However, without funds, the training initiative had no monetary support to incentivize hotel and motel staff to attend training sessions, or to compensate the instructors of these trainings.

By the time Governor Dannel Malloy signed the new bill, congressmen had removed most of the legislation’s teeth.

Lastly, Public Act No. 16-71 included no explicit methods for ensuring that lodging property owners would be held accountable to the bill. No government body was created or assigned to verify that all properties complied with the bill by the 2017 deadline. Throughout the legislative process, even the section designating failure to train employees as a class A misdemeanor was cut—meaning the final draft of the bill articulated no punishment for non-compliance.

In January 2017, Governor Malloy announced a public-private partnership between several bodies, including the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF), the Connecticut Lodging Association, Marriott International, Quinnipiac Law School, and Grace Farms Foundation, a non-profit organization in New Canaan that contributed to the development of Public Act No. 16-71. With the help of anti-trafficking organizations Polaris Project and EPCAT, an international network that began as the campaign to End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, Marriott International developed a hotel employee training program on human trafficking in 2011. Quinnipiac Law School professor Sheila Hayre had mostly worked against labor trafficking before she got involved, but she stepped up to ensure that the Connecticut hotel and motel trainings were run effectively. Since then, Hayre and her team of over thirty Quinnipiac student volunteers have become the vehicle for these trainings.

Hayre estimates that since last January, they’ve organized ten sessions for hotel employees across the state of Connecticut. The Quinnipiac Human Trafficking Prevention Project workshops follow the Marriott curriculum, but the law students attempt to incorporate local examples when they can. (They typically have to explain, for example, why hotels and motels along Connecticut’s I-95 corridor are so prone to becoming sites of trafficking.) Additionally, the student organizers gather a panel of four or five experts—from law enforcement, the DCF, or anti-trafficking organizations—to answer hotel and motel employees’ questions at the end of each training session.

Since beginning their workshops, the Quinnipiac team has found it most effective to reach out to hotels and motels and deliver the trafficking awareness trainings on site. This approach has had success thus far, but Hayre is unsure if they will ever be able to train every lodging worker in the state with this approach. “Honestly, I don’t think we’ve even touched the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

Sarah Washburn, an employee of the Connecticut Lodging Association and the association’s representative on the Connecticut TIP Council, echoed Hayre. “The general reaction has been challenging,” Washburn said. “The effort to get the training done by that date [October 1, 2017] has been hard for the industry.” When listing lodging properties’ training options in an interview, Washburn noted that many owners ask their employees to simply read and sign informational materials. Others, she said, can send a representative to one of the Quinnipiac workshops and then have that representative review the curriculum with other employees when they return.

Sheila Hayre, however, believes Public Act No. 16-71 forbids businesses from sending a representative who will subsequently train other staff members—and she expressed concern that this misunderstanding could actually have dangerous consequences. “It’s kind of horrifying that people are thinking, ‘We can send a rep and have that happen,’” Hayre said. “Trafficking is an elusive, very difficult-to-define topic, so we do not want folks who are not well-versed around trafficking issues to be dealing with this.”

In 2011, Shelia Fredrick, a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines, noticed something off about a girl in a window seat. The teenager had a bruise on her leg, was traveling with a much older man, and looked distressed. Fredrick knew something wasn’t right. She decided to intervene.

While the man was looking away, Fredrick caught the girl’s attention and mouthed to go to the bathroom, where she had left paper and a pen. When Fredrick later checked the bathroom, she found a note: “I need help.” The flight attendant immediately alerted the captain, and law enforcement officials arrived at the airport before the flight landed.

A BuzzFeed article about Fredrick’s intervention went viral in 2017, with thousands of people applauding the flight attendant for her quick thinking. But Sheila Hayre sometimes tells this story in trafficking awareness trainings as an example of exactly what not to do.

“We actually point out that that’s extremely dangerous—both to yourself, the people around you, the people you work with, but also to the victim,” Hayre said. “While you want to engage in vigilante justice, and you really want to help these folks, you can actually endanger them.” If the adult male trafficker had found Fredrick’s note, Hayre explained, he could have reacted violently. Furthermore, many victims of sexual trafficking, at the time of their exploitation, do not see themselves as victims and instead think of their traffickers as their boyfriends.

But while the Quinnipiac Law School trainings discourage workers from pursuing vigilante justice, they still discuss myriad examples of what hotel and motel workers should recognize as signs of trafficking. Then, they say, the most appropriate response is to let law enforcement handle it.

“While you want to engage in vigilante justice, and you really want to help these folks, you can actually endanger them.”

“What I tell folks to pay attention to is the dynamics between the adult and the minor, or sometimes what they think is a young adult. Does the situation seem to be very controlling? Is the adult doing all the talking? Are they attempting to secure a hotel room with cash [and] without identification?” said Tammy Sneed, who has served as an expert panelist.
The trainings also emphasize that trafficking awareness must be a collaborative effort between staff members in different roles. “When you’re cleaning staff, and you’re going into a hotel room, and you’re supposedly renting to a father and his two daughters, and you see sex toys or you see lubricant all over the place, that to me is a huge red flag,” Sneed said. “If you’re working at the front desk, and you have a room that keeps renting pornography, and again you’re supposed to have a family staying in a particular room, that would be a concern.” Many hotel and motel employees are afraid of reporting a client and being incorrect, but communicating with other employees about their observations often empowers them to call the authorities.

And reporting a potential instance of trafficking in Connecticut is as easy as that—just placing a phone call. This procedure ensures law enforcement is involved early on, and deters unqualified “vigilantes” from intervening counterproductively. Once lodging employees call the Connecticut trafficking tip line or local police, their responsibilities are supposedly fulfilled. “You need to err on the side of caution. Because mistakes will be made, but the trick is, they don’t have to be made by you. Your job is to report,” Hayre said.

Hotel and motel employees have been receptive at the trafficking awareness trainings thus far, and many have been shocked by how pertinent the issue of trafficking is in Connecticut. After hearing about sexual trafficking on Backpage, one property owner visited the website to see for himself. He was devastated to find an advertisement that featured a photo of an underage girl being trafficked in his own hotel. The trafficker had already vacated the room by this point, but the property owner’s sense of immunity was shattered. He swore to be more vigilant in the future.

Despite these moments of success, anti-trafficking advocates are still weighing how to bring about widespread enforcement of Public Act No. 16-71. Because the bill’s training initiative has no funding—and there have been no legal consequences for properties that did not finish training by October 1, 2017—many advocates are shifting toward moral arguments. If most hotels now boast about being eco-friendly, why can’t they create a culture in which hotels also want to be openly anti-trafficking? Sheila Hayre thinks this may be an effective strategy in Connecticut, but she is not hopeful about the replicability of the training mandate in other states. “In larger states…I just can’t imagine how they’d be able to do this without funding. Already it’s quite difficult to do it with all the traveling, and [Connecticut is] quite a small state.”

Tammy Sneed recognizes Public Act No. 16-71’s lack of teeth, but the HART team is dedicated to making the bill work, even if progress is slower than expected. “In a perfect world, we would have some money to make it easier to implement,” she said. “But we can’t just be dependent on that, because the reality is money’s not out there. And the criminals are out there making money.”

A cross stands in the center of Waterbury, Connecticut. It’s atop Pine Hill, wedged between I-84 and Route 8, and inside Holy Land USA, a shuttered Catholic theme park. Most Saturdays and Sundays, you can find Bill Fitzpatrick below the cross, clearing brush from the path between “Jerusalem” and “Bethlehem Village,” clusters of biblical replicas made of plywood and stainless steel. Chuck Pagano, the President of Holy Land’s Board of Directors, will glimpse the cross as he flies out of Bradley Airport to catch a Packers game in Green Bay. Though Mayor Neil O’Leary cannot see the cross from his corner office in Waterbury’s City Hall, a drawing of Holy Land’s original layout is displayed upon a cabinet. Katerina Valenti eyes the cross through a window in her biology classroom at Sacred Heart High School.

Constructed in 1956, Holy Land USA was New England’s first religious theme park. The attraction was founded by a wealthy Waterbury attorney, John Greco, and was composed of more than 125 religious mini-exhibits. Despite the park’s initial success, the property aged poorly and eventually fell into a state of disrepair. Replicas became remains and the area turned into a site of vandalism. In 2010, Holy Land’s aura changed from deserted to tragic. A local teenager, Chloe Ottman, was murdered on the grounds, shocking the city and forcing residents to address the future of the abandoned park.

While fundraising efforts following Ottman’s murder led O’Leary and a local car dealer to purchase the land for $350,000, Waterbury’s healing cannot be so easily quantified. The small city situated in Connecticut’s “manufacturing valley” received national media attention for a few weeks after the murder before newspapers lost interest. Nowadays, Ottman’s death is a hushed subject. Her name is spoken in quiet tones, followed with murmurs—“It’s really too bad.” The park reopened in 2014, but Holy Land’s period of abandonment remains a somber footnote in the property’s history. As one resident recalled, “The bad stuff happened up there and then no one went.”

A locked chain link gate guards the crumbling entrance of the property a few hundred yards from the cross. An attached poster board reads “NO TRESPASSING. Violators will be prosecuted,” in bold red lettering. The neighborhood seems to listen, opting to observe the cross from afar. On an October afternoon, there’s no sign of people besides two boys pushing a toddler on a tricycle down the road outside the gate. Fifty years ago, this scene looked quite different. Older Waterbury residents recall Sunday picnics at Holy Land and races to see who could pick the most blueberries from the bushes on the outskirts of the property. But for those without these memories, it’s hard to see beyond the cracked asphalt driveway and the conspicuous video surveillance.
Some of Holy Land’s advocates say that Ottman’s murder motivated them to take back the park from abandon. Others refuse to let the crime taint their memories of Holy Land. As Chuck Pagano explains, “I look at life myself, personally, like sailing a boat. You gotta jibe. You gotta tack. But you gotta keep your eye on the mark. And I think that’s what this group is focused on now: keeping our eye on the mark. But it was a dark episode.”

Can the loss of a sixteen-year-old’s life be reduced to a single dark moment in the history of a revered place? Or does it change the place forever? Should it? Holy Land USA is both the best of Waterbury and the worst: a symbol of its golden age and its decline, a temple and a tomb. This duality still permeates the park’s identity today, begging the question of whether sites of trauma should be redeemed and transformed—or preserved for what they have become.

Life

A 1950’s black-and-white photograph of John Greco hangs in the Holy Land chapel. He sits in a wooden chair with his left hand gripping his opposite wrist. His smile is cautious, as though he’s uncertain whether his portrait belongs next to the twentieth century pietà that looms to its right. Holy Land organizers have kept the portrait on display as a eulogy to the religious site’s founder. There’s much more to learn about Greco, however, from what’s outside— the remnant of his labor of love, Holy Land USA.

“When you were in his presence, you felt the spirit come through your core,” says Rebecca Calabrese, Greco’s great-niece. Born in Waterbury in 1895, Greco and his family returned to his parents’ hometown in Avellino, Italy when his father could not find work. He only later moved back to the States for his education at the Catholic University of Washington, D.C. Perpetually ill as an adolescent, Greco had to delay school indefinitely. After finally recovering, he earned a full scholarship to attend Yale Law School and stayed in Connecticut for the rest of his life. His descendants say that he never fully shook his internal desire to become a priest. He founded an Italian ethnicity group and devoted his free time to tutoring recent Italian immigrants (“all pro-bono” his family still boasts). He later started Catholic Campaigners for Christ, where he developed the idea to construct a Catholic theme park. By 1956, the group had erected a thirty-two-foot neon crucifix on Pine Hill, and Holy Land USA became a reality.

Sites of Christian tourism were not uncommon in the 1950’s, and they continue to thrive in the South today. Another “Holy Land USA” opened in the 1960’s in Del Rio, Texas. An additional park in Orlando, Florida called “The Holy Land Experience” lets visitors be baptized in a chlorinated pool by a John the Baptist impersonator. “Ark Encounter,” a $100 million recreation of Noah’s ark, opened in Kentucky in July 2016. The ark replica is 510 feet long and houses a zoo. These parks differ widely in offerings, but their popularity and high budgets reveal the passion with which religious fundamentalists have sought to create religious spaces outside the church to inspire the faithful and, perhaps, attract new members to the flock.

In Waterbury, Holy Land USA succeeded at becoming a community place that everyone knew, regardless of religion. The park was composed of religious replicas, exhibits, and spaces for reflection. Park visitors summited the hill and passed through two archways labeled “Holy Land” and “Jerusalem.” From this point, they could observe miniature replicas of notable places from the Bible, including Herod’s Palace and an inn with a “No Vacancy” sign. The inn was large, like a children’s playhouse, with scrappy plastic windowing and a bold red door frame. Figurines of the nativity scene sat in a cave-like structure, blocked off by black metal bars. A nearby plaque on the ground read “Every Day Is Christmas.” Visitors could take pictures at the “Dignity of Marriage” exhibit, which highlighted biblical evidence for the sanctity of matrimony. The narrative pathway of Jesus’ life wrapped around Pine Hill and culminated at the glowing cross.

A donation bucket sat at the exit of the park for fifty-cent parking contributions, but most revenue came from the Holy Land collections that local churches hosted about six times each year. With an average of forty thousand visitors annually, Holy Land didn’t have much trouble staying busy or financially afloat. Hordes of vehicles, an average of five hundred cars and thirty buses each weekend, navigated the steep climb up Pine Hill to unload tourists at the park. For many, Holy Land was the humble destination of countless personal pilgrimages.
Chuck Pagano grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Waterbury next to Saint Patrick’s Church. Most Decembers, his parents would take him to the Saint Patrick’s nativity scene before bringing him up to Holy Land, which he says always struck him as “a nativity scene on steroids.” Linda Barone, another lifelong Waterbury resident, remembers from childhood the realism of the Holy Land exhibits. She would follow her family around the park, careful not to venture too close to the crypt replicas. After reaching the cross, her family would convene again and return home to watch Jesus Christ Superstar on Sunday nights.

Visiting the park became as ritualistic as church itself to many Waterbury residents. Pagano attributes Holy Land’s success to the universality of its message: peace, reflection, and acceptance. “I think Holy Land was a magnet.” In his opinion, regardless of people’s backgrounds, Waterbury residents considered the park a place of reflection. With its cross glowing in the sky from the highest point in the city, Holy Land was impossible to ignore, Pagano says, “And they had good blueberries up there too.”

John Greco died in 1986, at the age of ninety-one, and designated in his will that Holy Land be left to an order of nuns, the Religious Teachers of Filippini. Several nuns moved onto the property, but they weren’t able to handle the upkeep. Fearing liability from accidental injury, the religious order officially closed the park soon after inheriting it. Holy Land remained sealed for three decades.
Keeping 17.7 acres of land sealed, of course, is a difficult task, and the nuns attempted it half-heartedly. In 1997, the nuns granted a troop of Boy Scouts permission to renovate the Hollywood-style Holy Land USA sign that rests on Pine Hill above I-84. A decade later, in 2007, a coalition of local Catholic volunteers scraped together enough money to replace the crumbling crucifix with a fifty-foot, stainless steel cross. The new cross was not internally lit, making it harder to see at a distance. As the lights dimmed on Holy Land, the park sank further into disrepair.

Death

RoadsideAmerica.com suggests skipping a visit to Holy Land USA if you don’t have an up-to-date tetanus shot. Grassy clumps peek through fissures in the sidewalk outside the chapel. Discarded plywood replicas of toy church steeples, held together by rusty nails, are strewn around the park’s entrance. The ceramic torso of an animal, maybe a horse or a camel, rests on the site’s sloping terrain. An aged crucifix, which has since been removed from the property, used to lay horizontally, marked with graffiti reading “God is dead.”
Chloe Ottman, like many of her peers, was intrigued by Holy Land’s seedy mystery. The abandoned park did not scare her. Ottman’s father, Derek, told me that his daughter had a passion for the underdog and a never-ceasing urge to cheer people up. Friends of Chloe’s tenderly recall the lengths to which she would go to make them smile, trying goofy faces and sometimes even using her hands to force the corners of her classmates’ mouths upward. Curiosity spurred her to leave her house by 7:30 a.m. some weekends to explore Waterbury, the city where she grew up. She would later describe these daylong outings with her friends in lengthy Facebook posts, calling them “Epic Adventures.”

On July 15, 2010, Ottman, who was sixteen at the time, agreed to join a friend of her boyfriend, whom she had met at several parties, Francisco Cruz, Jr., at Holy Land as part of an “Epic Adventure” he planned for her. Ottman and Cruz sat at the base of the crucifix, chatting and sipping Joose, a caffeinated malt drink. Soon after they sat down, Cruz made sexual advances toward Ottman, which she rebuffed. Cruz attempted to grope Ottman. She elbowed him in the face, knocking his glasses to the ground. Cruz became enraged. He strangled Ottman and raped her. Unsure if she was still alive, Cruz stabbed her several times and left her body in a nearby wooded area.

The next day, Ottman’s family reported her missing; Cruz confessed to the crime two days later. He initially pled guilty but later withdrew his plea. Facing the possibility of going to trial, Chloe’s mother wanted to push for the death penalty but her father feared the lengthy trial that it would entail. Cruz finally agreed to plea guilty again if the rape charge was dropped. Ottman’s father reluctantly agreed, admitting that it was “fucked up.” Cruz is now serving fifty-five years in state prison.

Following the murder, the Religious Teachers of Filippini vacated the property and moved to Morristown, New Jersey. As Derek Ottman remembers, the organization was unresponsive to his inquiries about Holy Land’s future. What were their plans for the property? What were they going to do about the blood-stained concrete? Could they build a fence to keep future trespassers out? The nuns said they would have to confer with the heads of the religious order in Rome. They never got back to him. (The provincial supervisor of Holy Land at that time of his attempts has since died, according to Sister Ascenza of the order, who spoke to me over the phone from Morristown.)z

Although Derek Ottman does not blame the religious order for his daughter’s murder, he admits that some resentment lingered for a while. Pagano, on the other hand, adamantly insists that the crime was not a product of Holy Land itself or its managers. He attributes the death to circumstance. He told me, “Holy Land happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Resurrection

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary’s office sits on the second floor of City Hall. A framed vintage advertisement that reads “Waterbury Renaissance,” hangs on the wall in the waiting room. A copy of Emery Roth’s Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry sits on the coffee table. (Waterbury’s nickname is “The Brass City.”) Through the Mayor’s window, just across the road on Grand Street, you can see the Waterbury Courthouse, where Francisco Cruz was convicted of murder in 2011.

One afternoon in August of 2013, Mayor O’Leary ventured to Holy Land. The temperature had just reached the high nineties. Scanning the Waterbury skyline, thinking about the town’s past and future, he decided to call Fritz Blasius, a wealthy Catholic friend who owns a car dealership. As O’Leary recalls, “I called him up and said, ‘What are you doing right now?’ And he said, ‘I just came off the golf course.’ And I said, ‘Come up to Holy Land.’”

O’Leary says that the idea for Holy Land’s resurrection didn’t come as an epiphany, but rather a gradual realization. When he had campaigned for mayor earlier in 2011, he made a point to visit Waterbury’s retirement homes. Across the board, seniors’ biggest request was to illuminate the cross once more. Once elected, he called the realtor of the Holy Land property and learned that the nuns, who still owned it, were asking for $750,000 for the 17.7 acres (city records indicate the property is worth roughly $1.24 million). Knowing that he could never fundraise this sum, the new mayor let the idea go. Three years later, however, O’Leary and Blasius decided to jointly purchase Holy Land using money that they would fundraise on their own.

Holy Land’s restoration (and Mayor O’Leary’s leadership of the movement) has not received any significant opposition. Still, an elected official’s advocacy for a religious site intuitively raises some red flags. Discussing Holy Land’s recent history in his office, Mayor O’Leary cuts himself off mid-sentence. “I’ve got to make sure you understand only one thing so far: this has nothing to do with the city of Waterbury. I’m the mayor, but this was not done with me being a representative of the city, because that would be a big problem with separation of church and state.” I nod. He pauses, leans heavily into his chair, and dives back into the story.

After some negotiating, O’Leary and Blasius convinced the nuns to listen to their pitch. The day of their meeting, the men awoke early and drove to Morristown, New Jersey. The meeting began sharply at 10 a.m. There was no small talk—O’Leary sat with a cup of coffee in one hand and a Danish in the other, he says, waiting for the women to speak.

In the meeting, O’Leary and Blasius explained their motivation for buying the property, promising that they would never change it into a hotel or let the land be mined. By the end of the day, the nuns agreed to sell the listing for $350,000. As part of the deal, the land deed required that the property always remain Holy Land.

Three years later, at Holy Land’s second annual banquet at La Bella Vista Banquet Hall, Jennifer Carroll, a senior at Holy Cross Catholic High School, concludes her speech. “I realize that God does not just let bad things happen in our world. He gave us free will, which makes any outcome possible,” she projects slowly into the microphone. She and Katerina Valenti are the 2016 winners of Holy Land’s high school essay competition, for which students write personal statements about what Holy Land means to them. The young women stand by the podium as Rebecca Calabrese awards them one thousand dollars each to help fund their college educations.

Near the center of the ballroom, Joe Pisani sits with ten talkative family members and friends at a table marked “Pisani Steel.” To this crowd, his name alone is enough to stir approving murmurs. In 2013, soon after the purchase of Holy Land, Pisani agreed to construct a new lighted steel cross, entirely free of charge. His company was determined to build a crucifix larger than any of its predecessors. The project required roughly $300,000 worth of material.

On Friday, December 20, 2013, a crane erected the cross on Pine Hill, where it now sits on a hundred square foot base. The cross was illuminated for the first time in years, just in time for Christmas. Ten thousand Waterbury residents, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, came to watch the lighting ceremony. Even Waterbury’s Albanian Muslim community was in attendance. Some Waterbury residents say that traffic came to a halt on I-84 that day; regardless of their religious affiliation, people were leaning out their windows to try to catch a better look. Holy Land—they could finally see—was not lost.

Derek Ottman was not included in planning for the cross-raising ceremony and I wasn’t able to get in touch with Chloe’s mother for this piece. (The two are now divorced.) Mayor O’Leary initially told me that Ottman’s parents were in attendance, but he later retracted this claim, saying that he only heard of their presence second-hand through a police officer. The Mayor acknowledges the role of Ottman’s death in the restoration process. “I think that it inspired a lot of people to step forward,” he says. She seems to serve as an unspoken martyr for the movement. Neither of the two Holy Land writing competition winners mention her in their essays, and her name goes entirely unspoken at the annual banquet.

After the cross began to shine again in 2013, the restoration movement continued to pick up steam. They’ve received donations from more than 4,500 individuals in the past two years. At this year’s banquet, they’ve set a goal of raising eighty thousand dollars to cover the material cost of constructing a new Holy Land sign. Mayor O’Leary grabs the microphone and calls on the attendees to make monetary pledges. They auction off the letters from the old sign for five thousand dollars each. (O’Leary revealed before the banquet that he pre-sold three of the letters.) After the letters are auctioned, people raise their hands to pledge smaller amounts. O’Leary publically thanks each individual by name, congratulating several donors on their recent retirements or upcoming marriages.

“Lot of Irish names here tonight!” O’Leary remarks. One of the men at the Pisani table promptly raises his hand to place a bid. O’Leary squints before recognizing his friend from across the room. “I knew if I challenged these Italian guys they’d step it up.”

Between dinner courses, two priests in clerical collars examine tickets to a Yankees/Red Sox game at the silent auction. A group of Sacred Hearth High School students huddle around a table selling limited-edition Holy Land Timex watches. A Waterbury-based cover band takes the stage. Mickey, the group’s bassist, leans into the microphone. “We love Holy Land. We actually do.”
The absence of Chloe Ottman’s parents goes unmentioned. The two have maintained a low-profile since their tragedy. Derek Ottman made a GoFundMe page last year, hoping to raise $25,000 to return to school to become a writer (he has raised $678 as of this writing). On his fundraising page, he states that he’s on a mission from God, writing that he’s trying to shake his former life plans: “I’ve given up the stifling but ‘sure thing’ path my risk-averse-father-of-a-murdered-teenager brain wants.” Before Chloe’s death, a leaky roof damaged the family’s house, taking down an entire wall in her room. Derek wasn’t able to fix it before she died. More than five years later, the house repairs are still incomplete. “The weight of unfinished business is part of the brain feeling sorry for itself,” he explains. Derek writes that after trauma, he initially found messiness to be comforting. Five years later though, he knows it’s time to move forward, for himself and for Chloe, who he believes would want for people to relate to each other even when circumstances are difficult. He’s not focusing on Holy Land as a path forward anymore.

Long after dark, the silent auction winners are announced and the banquet’s attendees slowly trickle out of La Bella Vista. Mickey packs up his bass and the Holy Land vision boards are taken down from the entrance. The parking lot is illuminated as a hundred cars turn on their headlights and migrate toward the venue’s winding exit. Volunteers will be on-site at Holy Land by 11am tomorrow to continue restoration work, but until then, the cross stands alone on Pine Hill, hovering above the old manufacturing town.

Far below the cross, Chloe Monique Ottman’s grave reads, “We love you… forever.” Six years following her death though, her memory remains more prevalent in some people’s minds than others’. Holy Land has risen from tragedy, but the role of Ottman’s murder in the process of restoration continues to be dubious. Maybe forgetting violence in order to overcome it is productive, a way of honoring her. On the other hand, the potential to take advantage of trauma in order to motivate the redemption of a space is ethically challenging. The Bible assures followers that challenges can be overcome; Isaiah promises redemptive glory for the followers of the Lord: “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise” (Isaiah 60:18). But the role of memory is ambiguous. Maybe we serve ourselves best by moving on, but what do we lose in disremembering trauma? If you turn your head as you leave Waterbury on I-84, you can catch a glimpse of the glowing cross one last time, its LED lighting glowing on the horizon.