If you didn’t pay attention to her words, you might never realize that Jannette Darmon, 40, has been through her fair share of suffering. But that’s what Jannette does: she distorts your attention with pure, unabridged joy. She laughs, and smiles from ear to ear. Conversations with her are rather one-sided; but you want it that way – Jannette has been all over the country, and has the anecdotes to back it up. But do pay attention to her words; she has important things to say. Those words themselves, however, will be difficult.
“I got raped in Minnesota. Yep.”
When I first met Darmon at a local homeless shelter, I was taken by her radiant smile. I wondered, “what is this woman doing in a homeless shelter?” and immediately after, “how is she so happy?” Today, I’ve only answered the former – but in doing so, made the latter question so much bigger.
The story begins in Minnesota: “He was put in prison; but he was going to get out – in three or four years,” Darmon recalled, when asked about her assault, which took place in February of 2014. “So, I was like ‘nope, I’m out.’” Knowing her assailant would be released back into her community, Darmon left Minnesota on a cold February morning – and the last bit of normalcy she’s known in some time.
Descending from Moroccan gypsies, Darmon has always stood out from the crowd. Her eyes are like gemstones, and she carries the spirit of expressive ancestors. Those ancestors also passed down a work ethic, evidently: this first-generation American holds two Bachelor’s degrees, and was in Minnesota to earn her Master’s in Health Administration. But since youth, Darmon has fought – not only for success, but for her own body.
Her father was the first battle. “My first bad experience with a man was with him. My dad used to touch me when I was a little girl. My family thinks he’s to blame for a lot of things about me,” Darmon spoke soberly, pondering her father’s character, “maybe he is a monster. Maybe he is.”
Whether employed or jobless, in school or homeless, Darmon would continue to battle against sexual assault. She came to the Bay Area in late 2014, hoping to start anew. But as an African-American woman in the US – with no home, job, or contacts in California – the struggle was only beginning.
“I thought I would leave everything behind, all of that nonsense,” she exclaimed while laughing, oddly enough. “It seems like it’s gotten worse. Since then, I’ve been fighting for my life, my sanity. I’m a single female out here by myself – the closest relative is 3,000 miles away!”
Darmon’s ancestors were nomads, and her life in California has followed suit. She’s occupied homeless shelters in San Jose, San Francisco, and now East Palo Alto – spending many nights on the street as well. Darmon recalled one night, out of the ten or so instances, when a man tried to rape her in the Bay Area. The episode took place in San Jose, where Darmon had been asleep behind a dumpster next to McDonald’s.
“I had a dream; I could see two men walking towards me, but I couldn’t see their faces. I woke up from the dream and there were two men looking at me.” The men approached, with obvious intent, “I was so scared, I was crying and screaming. I just ran to the road.” After escaping her pursuers, she left San Jose for San Francisco in late 2015. Men tried to rape her there, too. After enough close-calls, Dorman came to a repulsive, yet unapologetic conclusion:
“You’re a homeless female? That’s what’s gonna happen; that’s just how it is.” I lacked response. The moral repugnancy, mixed with Darmon’s laidback storytelling, clashed fiercely with anything I had known as a privileged, white male. What could I say? What solace could there be, amidst such gross inhumanity?
“There is none” Darmon said, with yet another confusing smile. “People are just like, ‘Well, who told you to stay out in the street?’ I’ve been yelled at, people saying ‘What’s the matter with you?’”
Glued to her words, I realized something. Jannette Darmon has lived her entire life in multiple, concentric systems of victim-blaming and inequality. As a victim of sexual assault, Darmon is often condemned for the acts of disturbed men; asked why she was sleeping there, or wearing that: “It’s like, if you get raped – ‘Oops.’” Darmon is also viewed by outsiders as lazy and uneducated – a preposterous notion. The woman has two degrees and was working towards a third; that traumatic assault in Minnesota was the only thing stopping her. Nonetheless, onlookers often blame Darmon for her circumstances, propagating delusional self-fulfilling prophesies.
The very society that should be fighting toot-and-nail for Darmon is pushing against her; all that remains is her unmatched, perhaps insane joy. Yet Darmon plans to take everything back. She’s soon moving to the Northwest, to work as a full-figure model. There she will save money to finish her Master’s degree, and gone will be the tribulations of homelessness in Silicon Valley.
But removing oneself from trouble does not remove the trouble itself. Darmon exudes a seemingly-superhuman joy and resilience; others in her place might not be so indomitable. Though her happiness may be insane, Darmon is lucid and clear-eyed towards Bay Area homelessness.
“The homeless problem in California is getting bigger and bigger. I would say, advocate for more shelters – especially for women.” As Darmon’s attention shifted to women like her, joviality turned to laser-like focus: “It’s harder for a woman to get a bed in a shelter; and if they don’t get a bed they stay on the street, and if they stay on the street – ‘Oops.’” For the first time in our conversation, there was intense silence.
“When you’re homeless, people don’t care. It’s the truth,” she said, cutting that silence with a knife. But for those who do care, Darmon doubled down: “Advocate for more shelters. You need them now. If women don’t stay in shelters, they’re high-risk for being raped, killed, whatever.”
Visceral, unwavering words; hidden behind smiles and laughter, but palpable nonetheless. At the end of our conversation, I didn’t know whether to thank or console Darmon. Fortunately, Jannette never allows for an awkward moment. After reliving her troubled past, she looked cheerfully towards a hopeful future.
I hope Jannette Darmon finds what she’s looking for in the Northwest. She will, no doubt, handle whatever comes with a deep, genuine joy – the source of which still perplexes me. But she might worry nonetheless: about Silicon Valley’s growing, vulnerable population of homeless women. She knows their pain; she knows they deserve none of it.
So Jannette Darmon places her faith in us now; in people like You and I. Jannette wants us to advocate. Jannette wants us to give homeless women safety and solace. All her life, Jannette has been exploited by those in power – socially, physically, and economically. We, in this community, have that power. Power to fight inhumanity, power to fulfill our moral obligations. Darmon’s words may be difficult, but their truth is easy to see.