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And there's more that doesn't add up, from the cause of Julia's deathï¿½ dehydration due to heatstroke and environmental exposureï¿½to the question of whether there was methadone in her blood (and if there was, how it got there), to the off-duty deputy's description of Julia. "My first impression was that the black woman was mentally handicapped because of her poor coordination," he wrote. "The group . . . did not appear to be in the physical shape necessary for doing such a strenuous hike." By all accounts, Julia was a health fiend who eschewed medication, never left home without a bottle of water, and most importantly, was more than up to the task of a wilderness trekï¿½she had faced down far greater challenges in her life.
"How does someone survive the Marcy projects and die on a mountaintop?" her brother Robert Siverls asks. "It's like, wait a minuteï¿½she spent her life dodging bullets, not getting pregnant, not having a man beating on her and all that craziness, and this is how her life is ended?"
The Siverls family lived in the notorious Bedford-Stuyvesant housing developmentï¿½storied now on account of former resident Jay-Zï¿½from the late '40s to the mid '80s. Their home was filled with a lot of love, Robert says: "A strong bond kept the family together, rooted in a really hip, wise interpretation of the streets from our father, and a deep spiritual connection from our mother," who raised her children Catholic.
"We have this whole idea of surviving, of education as a choice of weapon, that's paramount to us," Robert continues. The siblings passed on both what they learned and the money they earned to the next in line. As the youngest of 12, Julia raised the bar highest, channeling the family's work ethic into a bachelor's degree in economics from Antioch College, a master's degree in urban affairs and public policy from the New School, and master's and doctoral degrees in education from the University of Iowa. In 2002, she became a professor of education at Queensborough Community College and was approaching tenure before she died.
Yoga might seem like an unlikely calling for such an ambitious, achievement- oriented woman, but with its mind- bending tangle of schools, workshops, and courses with names like "Aura Healing" and "Meditation Therapy"ï¿½and its emphasis on progressing through levels and notching certificatesï¿½it resembled the academic system in which she thrived.
Ronald Siverls holds an old family album with a photograph of Julia Severls his sister on July 4th in Upstate NY.
photo: Giulietta Verdon-Roe
In the week before Julia's fatal hike, the group of five aspiring masters trained hard ï¿½so hard, says a former master named Robert, who was on the trek, that he sustained a knee injury that would later lead him to successfully sue for workmen's compensation from Dahn. Yet he pushed forward anyway. "The trip was mandatory to [Robert's] job," says Edward Hilfer, his attorney in that case. "In order to get to a higher level, you had to go through this training."
The training program involved exercises intended to encourage teamwork, such as spoon-feeding each other or racing without using your legs. Others, such as walking across a log suspended in the air, tested the potential masters' courage. According to Robert, Julia struggled with many of these. "I don't want it sounding like I'm being critical of her, but before we did certain tests . . . she would start to twitch and stutter," he says. "I didn't know her to be that way before. In New York she seemed tough and outgoing."
Julia complained frequently throughout the week to their leaders, so on the day of the hike she was told to remain silent. "We all had different jobs to do," Robert explains. "I was given a job as motivator. I was not allowed to say anything negative." But as early as two to three miles into the hikeï¿½where the deputy saw the group at the base of the mountainï¿½both Robert and Julia had started to stray from their assigned tasks. And even after Julia "started breaking down, to the point she was crying, saying, 'I don't want to continue anymore, I want to die,' " Robert says the group prodded her to try harder. "I was screaming at the top of my lungs, 'Julia, let's go now.' . . . If I had to drag her up the hill I would have. And I'm sorry to say that," he says. "I switched from the nice, supportive person I am to, 'I'm getting off this mountain alive.' "