The author-entrepreneur, who recently spoke during the 20th Anniversary gala with Dress for Success, opens up on how a suicide attempt at 12 ended her mother’s life and how she continues to honor her.
By Tammy Jo Johnson, as told to Charreah K. Jackson
At 12 years old, I was convicted of murder.
As a child I had been sexually tortured and molested by three people in my family, and nobody knew except for them. I was being bullied in school because I was dark skinned and a little different. My mom made my clothes for me because I liked them. I was bullied for that. I wore glasses. I was called the "ugly duckling” and I ended up being sexually assaulted at school.
I had a rough time dealing with it all and I didn’t tell my mom. I was trying to protect her, because my brothers were locked up and I didn't want her to have to worry about me too. She loved me. She did everything for me.
I didn't know anything about being the victim. I didn't know that what was happening was wrong, though it felt wrong. My abusers told me if I said something I would get taken away from my mom. And I didn't want to do that because I knew that if I left the things that were happening to me would happen to my nephew.
My mom taught me about reincarnation. I thought suicide would give me a chance to start over. At 12, there was no Google or internet. Me wanting to take my life was me saying "Okay, I'm going to start over. I'm going to come back as something else. I'll leave my mom a note and I'll let her know what's going on.”
I got access to a gun, which I never used. I attempted suicide and I accidentally shot and killed my mom instead. I went into myself. I didn't talk to anybody. So, even going through all of the court proceedings, I didn't talk. No one could go back and say, "She was being sexually molested." The judge read my file. There was something in her that said "Okay, let's send her away, but not for life." So she sent me to a juvenile correctional facility in Delaware, Ohio, and I was there from the time I was 12 until I was 21.
During my time, I saw psychologists and went through different therapies, and I begin to open up around 15 years old. The reason I started opening up because the girls there were opening up. I took a leadership position in that institution and I got to hear the stories behind the crimes that took place. These young girls didn't get to tell their story. The courts told their story. These young girls who had been molested by their mother's boyfriends or being bullied or tortured at school because of their race or their sexual orientation, they didn't get to tell their story the way that I get to tell you mine, but they survived and it was because of them I knew what it was to be a leader.
It took a really long time to forgive myself for what I had done. When I left the institution, I had no idea how to live. I had emotional intelligence beyond measure, but I didn't know how to pay a bill. The lights got cut off. I didn't know how to drive a car. I didn't know how to live independently as a woman. Khakis and t-shirts were my fashion, but I left that institution with so much support and so much love from other women.
At the time I wanted to be a broadcast journalist. I went to school and interned at a local TV station. I worked really hard and there was a job opening in my area for a host. Someone said you should go for it. I didn’t have anything to wear and someone told me about Dress for Success. When the door was opened I walked through it and it changed my life forever.
When I went to Dress for Success, I said “I've got this totally cool job interview that I really don't think I will get, but I need some help because I don't know how to dress.” I had been homeless prior to that, so I didn't have any nice clothes to wear. When I went on very important interviews, I would go to the store, buy an outfit, and take it back because I couldn't afford it.
They dressed me for the interview and I got the job! The ladies from Dress for Success followed up and dressed me for my first couple of shows that I did on the air. I was pampered like I had never had that before. They really took an interest in who I was.
I think about my mom all the time and I see her everywhere. I see myself as her when I'm dealing with my 18 year old girl. I see myself in her when I'm trying to get my 13 year old son to put down minecraft or when I'm trying to talk to my five year old. They are good kids. I had to take my daughter through my life in bits and pieces so that it wouldn't overwhelm her. By the time I was ready to write my book From the Ground Up she was 12. I told her about the homicide. Her reaction was "you have to share this."
Now I am always sharing my story with others to let them know that they need to be present with their kids. To let parents and teachers know that they need to bring technology into the classroom and not shun it, because there is so much happening with our kids.
There is so many different aspects that come into play in protecting our kids. There are kids afraid to tell their parents about their boyfriend, I get to say "Hey, ask the questions. Start the conversation with your daughter. Ask her straight up, 'Is anybody touching you?'" That gives them the platform to say, "Yeah, as a matter of fact.” And I know it's scary, but if they don't do it then our young women are going to grow up with issues.
I want to tell every woman I don't care what happen to you, you have a right to move forward. You have a right to live your life. You have a right to redefine your journey. My name is Tammy Jo.
To learn more about empowering women like Tammy Jo to get back on their feet, visit www.dressforsuccess.org.