Now that Dawn Schiller has written the final chapter on her horrific
experiences in Southern California in the late 1970s and early 1980s,
she's looking forward to a new chapter in her life.
The La Grande woman, whose book "The Road Through Wonderland" hit the
stands this month, will turn more of her attention to E.S.T.E.A.M, the
national movement she started to help homeless, rootless, abused young
people, the kids she calls "throwaway teens."
She feels it's her calling to shed all the light she can on the issue.
"It's about raising awareness," Schiller said. "I am focused on raising awareness about the existence of these kids."
It's a cause Schiller identifies with intimately. To understand why, pick up a copy of the new book.
"The Road Through Wonderland" details Schiller's involvement with John Holmes, a Southern California porn star with a penchant for cocaine and a nasty habit of physical abuse. When they met, he was 32, and she was 15.
Holmes all but made her his slave. By the time she turned 20, she was a shell-shocked wreck of a young woman. She'd been beaten, sold into prostitution, raped, nearly kidnapped and pursued across the country by federal officials and drug lords.
Holmes' cocaine addiction led him to involvement in the June 1981 Wonderland Drive murders in Los Angeles in which four people were brutally beaten to death in a dispute over guns and money.
Schiller had no part in that, but when newscasts about the killings aired, she recognized the Wonderland Avenue house as a place she had visited with Holmes. Her life had truly become a nightmare.
Suspected of involvement in the crimes, Holmes fled, taking Schiller with him to Florida. There, she turned him in to police and escaped his clutches for good.
After that, she spent some time in Northern California, and finally moved to La Grande. She worked hard to rebuild her life and forget what she'd gone through.
But the past followed her. There came a time when a private detective showed up at her door, explaining that he'd been hired by movie producers to track her down. A film about Holmes and the Wonderland murders was in the works, and the producers wanted Schiller's input.
At first, she refused to help. What she wanted most in life was to forget Holmes and all the abuse she'd suffered at his hands.
But the movie people were persistent and finally Schiller decided to participate. She was hired as an associate producer and consultant.
"They were going to do it whether I wanted them to or not, and besides, I thought it would be a chance to clarify misinformation that was out there," she said.
The 2003 movie, directed by James Cox and starring Val Kilmer as Holmes and Kate Bosworth as Schiller, focused on people and events surrounding the Wonderland killings, and on the criminal investigation.
Schiller said she thinks the film is well-done, but, because it is a crime drama about the Wonderland massacre, it doesn't say enough about teen abuse. That struck her as a vital omission.
"They tried very hard to get my complicated story out, but scenes showing the abuse got cut," she said.
She felt she needed to show more of herself and her situation than was portrayed in the movie. She wanted to strike a blow against the sexual, physical and emotional abuse people like Holmes dish out.
She had a personal reason for wanting to tell the whole story as well.
"I have a daughter, and I didn't want her thinking that what had been in the media already was all there was to the story," she said.
In connection with the movie, Kilmer traveled with a photo exhibit on the Wonderland travesty. He asked Schiller to do an outline of her story. She wrote 11 pages. Kilmer read them and said she should write a book.
She struggled with it, but eventually the work began to take shape. Over the next couple of years, she learned a lot about the hard discipline of writing.
"It was three pages a day until I had a complete draft. Then I had to go back through memory and decide what needed to stay in and what should be left out," she said. "It was important to talk about the level of abuse, but not batter the reader with it," she said.
With a draft of the book complete in 2005, she contracted with an agent in California, but the deal fell through when the agent became ill. Later, Schiller connected with Lori Perkins, a well-known agent based in Riverdale, N.Y.
The L. Perkins Agency placed the book with Medallion Press, but it took some time. Schiller went on with her life in La Grande and intensified her fight against abuse of teens.
These days, she is employed in Eastern Oregon University's arts and sciences department. For many years, she has volunteered as an advocate and board member for Shelter from the Storm, the local non-profit agency that fights domestic abuse. She belongs to many other regional and national organizations dealing with the problem.
She works for a world where kids have their basic needs met and are free from physical, emotional and sexual abuse. A couple of years ago, she presented a program locally on "throwaway teens," kids who are not receiving adequate care from at least one guardian in a safe environment.
Out of that program grew Empowering Successful Teens through Education, Awareness and Mentoring. Her E.S.T.E.A.M website reaches out to an international audience, and currently, with help from Medallion, she is helping develop a documentary film about teen abuse.
It can't hurt that she has penned a successful memoir dealing on the subject.
Since its publication this month, "The Road Through Wonderland" has attracted some attention. Schiller is proud to say it was recently named to the New York Post's Required Reading List.
She said she is grateful to her friends and family for the love, patience and understanding they showed as she wrote.
One friend she mentioned in particular was Linda Pereira, a Cove woman who died of leukemia in 2008. Despite her own problems, Pereira stayed keenly interested in Schiller's project.
"This was a difficult story to tell and she was always the voice of optimism," Schiller said.
Since "The Road Through Wonderland" came out, Schiller has been the guest of honor in a round of book signings, including a local one at Sunflower Books in La Grande.
Other local signings are scheduled for Betty's Books in Baker City, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 11, and at Armchair Books in Pendleton, 2 to 4 p.m. Oct. 2.
With the book project complete, Schiller said she's undergoing a little bit of separation anxiety. At the same time, she is hopeful the work has some positive impact.
"I'm hoping that it helps people put themselves in the shoes of a kid who's lost, lonely and scared," she said.