By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"This is Brigitte Harris. She has a fucked-up family," Alicia Hill can be heard saying as she points her camcorder at her friend. Alicia has a habit of bringing her video camera everywhere, and on this night, several months before Brigitte would be accused of murder, Alicia was cataloging an evening out with Brigitte and another friend, Bethany Jefferson. The trio were leaving a screening of the ice-skating spoof, Blades of Glory, and stood out on a sidewalk, smoking cigarettes. Alicia was decked out in a studded leather collar, her lip ring gleaming as she talked to the camera. Bethany, who, like Brigitte, has ever-changing hair colors, wore bright red extensions, a studded hat, black lipstick, and fingerless gloves. Brigitte seemed far away, her expression stony since her family was mentioned. She retreated into silence as the other two debated the evening's plans. When her silence became uncomfortable, they prodded her into speaking again. "You're gonna laugh later on and say, 'Damn, I was a grouch that night,' " Alicia joked.
Bethany Jefferson (left) became friends with Brigitte while both were living in a womens shelter several years ago. Alicia Hill (right) has been collecting cards and photographs to send to Brigitte at Rikers.
photo: Alana Cundy
Those friends never guessed what was behind her usual silence, since Brigitte had long ago stopped revealing her history of sexual abuse; she told them she was a virgin. She never spoke about her father, but would often complain about Carleen and the rest of her family. Alicia said they knew something was amiss but didn't press her.
Now, Bethany and Alicia are Brigitte's main connection to the outside world. They have visited her in the psychiatric ward of Elmhurst Hospital, where she was briefly sent by authorities, and they have sent cards and collected memorabilia of better times for her. They are fiercely protective of their friend, angrily defending her against naysayers who have posted nasty messages on her MySpace page. They bristle when Carleen arrives late or not at all for Brigitte's court dates. They were the ones who spent a couple of weeks cleaning out Brigitte's apartment, which was ransacked by police ostenibly in the search for the severed penis. Most afternoons, Brigitte calls Alicia and Bethany on the limited phone time allotted at Rikers. On one such phone call, Brigitte agreed to speak briefly with the Voice.
"I'm drugged up, so it's actually pretty easy," Brigitte says about doing time. She mentioned that Rikers is better than the women's shelter she stayed in after Carleen kicked her out several years ago, and better than Elmhurst Hospital, where she was never allowed outdoors. Sounding calm and unperturbed, she named several medications she had been given to regulate her mood, sleeping, and suicidal thoughts. She has been in and out of suicide watch since checking herself into the psych ward of Staten Island's Bayley Seton Hospital the day of the murder. At one point, Brigitte was trying to cut her wrists with a toothbrush. That was before the psychiatric drugs took effect. "She's now the most chipper I've ever heard her," Alicia said.
Dr. Nicoletta Pallotta, chair of a nonprofit in Brooklyn called Women Against Violence, says that Brigitte likely suffers from a dissociative disorder, in which a person becomes disconnected from their emotions or thoughts. Pallotta has been informally counseling Brigitte by phone for several months, and says Brigitte's reaction is common among sexual-abuse survivors whose memories of rape become overwhelming. "She was talking about it as though she wasn't connected to itabout the fact that she killed him," Pallotta says. "She tried to get something from him and didn't get it. She wanted him to apologize."
Carleen, meanwhile, plans to continue investigating her father's actions. She believes her dad may have abused several other children in his care, including a 15-year-old half-sister in Liberia and the daughter of a family friend. "Once this is settled with my sister, I intend to prove full-blast that, look, he was a bastard!" When asked whom she wants to prove it to, Carleen squinted her eyes and growled back, "The Goodridges."