This article was originally published on October 1, 2006. Find out what has happened to Crystal Brown and her family today.
The body of Joseph Baxter Sr., 68, lay in an open casket – goatee freshly trimmed, dress shoes shined – as the pastor’s eulogy resonated through the crowded funeral home.
“He knew that God had blessed him so that if he never got back what he gave, hallelujah, it didn’t matter,” the pastor orated.
“He had love in his heart.”
Aylisha Brown, 16, sitting in a wheelchair in the front row, turned to her mother. “Mom, who he talking about?”
“I don’t know,” Crystal Brown fumed. “Sure ain’t my father.”
Certainly not the father she knew.
The Rev. Jeremiah Norris continued his tribute, describing how the deceased had donated hot dogs from his small store in North Philadelphia for church picnics, or offered cash from a cigar box every time the pastor stopped in.
Crystal’s feet started tapping.
She fought an urge to get up, approach the casket from behind, and knock it over so her father’s body would fall onto the floor.
At least the deception would be shattered, and people would wonder what this man had done to Crystal Brown, his own daughter.
But the hot lava of hatred had cooled just enough over the years that Crystal restrained herself. She had her sick children to think about. She had channeled her anger and pain into a maternal mission to fight for them, protect them.
And her long-secret story was beginning to come out anyway.
Crystal, now 36, first contemplated killing her father when she was 16, watching an episode of Hardcastle and McCormick. A bad guy smuggled a gun into the courtroom in a hollowed-out Bible, hoping to shoot Judge Hardcastle.
Of course, Crystal couldn’t murder her father. Even though she hated and feared him, she loved him, too. Her first recollections of him are letters from prison. She saved them all. “Chrissy Sweetheart, I do love you and I do miss not seeing you. Have pictures taken so I can see how big you’ve grown. – With lots of love, Daddy.”
When Crystal was 4, in 1974, her father abducted a Center City executive at gunpoint, held him for $250,000 ransom, and let him go 48 hours later.
After he was paroled in 1979, Crystal was so happy to have a daddy. He didn’t live with Crystal and her mother; he already had a family. But Crystal would go on Saturdays to clean trucks at his small trucking company.
When she was 8, “he climbed on top of me and molested me in his van,” she said. He threatened her and told her not to tell.
Her father declined two requests to be interviewed for this article before he died last winter.
Crystal hated what her father did and would return home scratched and bruised from efforts to get away, but thought, “That’s just what daddies do.”
This lasted eight years, she said, before she told anyone.
In 1987, when Crystal was a sophomore, her English teacher at Strawberry Mansion High School, Diane Holliday, showed The Color Purple, about a 14-year-old abused by her father.
“I am Celie,” Crystal suddenly realized. “I’m her.”
The next Saturday, Crystal refused to go to her father’s and told her mother why.
Shirley Brown confronted Baxter, who, she said, denied everything. Afterward, Crystal felt her mother no longer believed her.
“I was her child,” said Crystal, “and she should have just believed me.”
Tears pouring out with the memories, Shirley Brown said that of course she believed her daughter that day, but also that she probably didn’t.
Shirley had always thought of Crystal’s father as a good man. He had been kind to her when her babies were small, buying food, giving her a job.
On the other hand, Shirley said, “I don’t know why it would be unbelievable to me, being as I was molested when I was a child.”
She did not take Crystal to a doctor or call police.
The abuse resumed.
No one realized what was happening to Crystal, who had been elected class secretary and wrote poetry for the yearbook.
Evan Brockington, now a chief petty officer in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was crushed when Crystal, 17, rejected his proposal of marriage. He was 20, in the Navy, and asked her to move away with him. He didn’t learn about the incest for many years.
“I remember he would come around and give her gifts of money,” Brockington said. “It was as if he really loved his daughter, not to do anything to hurt her. That was just a facade.”
Crystal’s teacher, Holliday, said Crystal had been an excellent student and, at the end of her junior year, won a coveted after-school job at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
But Crystal had other things on her mind and soon quit.
On September 9, 1989, the second week of her senior year, Crystal gave birth to Aylisha.
She said she didn’t realize she was pregnant until her sixth month. Crystal was certain that her own father was Aylisha’s father. But on the birth certificate, she listed a neighborhood boy.
“If they didn’t believe me at 16,” Crystal reasoned, “why would they believe me now? “
Her father demanded she keep the secret, Crystal said, and promised he’d never again get her pregnant.
But four months later, she was pregnant with Chris. She went to an abortion clinic, but changed her mind and decided to keep the baby.
Chris was born 13 months after Aylisha. Again, Crystal listed another boy in the neighborhood as the father.
At least the abuse stopped, she said. Her father had broken his promise, enabling her to break free.
Crystal poured out her anger at her father into late-night poetry. Was your nights filled with horror? Did you ever wonder why you did the things you took such pride in doing?
God, she felt, had abandoned her.
She struggled to care for her two small children while working as a home-health aide and living with her mother, whom she blamed. She worried about Aylisha, who had a thyroid problem and didn’t walk until age 3.
When Chris was 5, Crystal gathered the courage to strike back. Spurring her decision was Aylisha’s doctor, who urged Crystal to sue for child support.
Crystal went to court alone. Desperation trumped her fear.
She believes the judge had no idea the defendant was her father. “She thought I was trying to get something over on him,” Crystal said, “on an older man.” When Baxter denied in court that Aylisha and Chris were his children, Crystal hurled a stapler at him.
Family Court Judge Esther R. Sylvester ordered DNA testing.
That night, in Crystal’s poetry, a new confidence emerged, maybe even a new image of herself:
. . . Constantly doing as I was told Trusting him because he was gold Now I know that he was not right. Giving my all to win this fight.
She signed it, “ Crystal Brown, Survivor.”
On May 8, 1996, DNA results confirmed a 99.96 percent probability that Baxter was Chris’ father, 99.98 percent for Aylisha.
Baxter signed paternity papers and began paying child support.
Said Crystal: “That was the most important thing I ever did in my life, to prove this man did that to me.”
That summer, Crystal said she went to police to file criminal charges but was told that the statute of limitations, then five years for a sex crime, had run out.
That limit is now 12 years, and the District Attorney’s Office is trying to eliminate any time limit in light of the clergy sex-abuse scandals.
Crystal has had men in her life, but has never married. She has no close girlfriends. It can be hard for victims of child sexual abuse to build lasting relationships as adults, to trust others.
The father of Crystal’s third child, Jasmine, now 11, had to fight Crystal for visitation rights. “I had to take her to court just to be in my daughter’s life,” he said.
Crystal has little contact with the father of her fourth child, Brandon, 7. She said he would not be a good influence.
She had run-ins with staff at her children’s former school, where she hovered constantly, first worrying about Aylisha, then her other children.
Ultimately, the principal said Crystal was too disruptive and, citing a list of infractions, banned her from the building unless she was escorted.
Crystal will never apologize for her behavior as a mother – it is what she’s most proud of. Her children are polite, respectful. Aylisha was just elected president of the Widener Memorial School for the physically challenged, which she and Chris attend.
But there are consequences. The children rarely do anything or go anywhere, other than school, without their mother.
Crystal’s brother Bill, for instance, long ago gave up inviting Aylisha for sleepovers with his children. Crystal would never let her go, worrying who might drop by.
“If my father could do that to me,” she said, “anybody is capable of anything. I’m not taking any chances with my kids.”
Most of all, Crystal tried to protect Chris and Aylisha from their father. She didn’t even want them to know who he was.
“I smothered them with love so they would never ask.”
Then, in 2001, he showed up, uninvited, at Aylisha’s sixth-grade graduation.
“Who is this man, Mama?” they kept asking.
“He’s your dad,” she said, not revealing he was her dad, too.
She felt bad about lying, but would have felt worse telling the truth.
In 2002, Crystal landed a job she loved – driving a SEPTA bus. She always wanted to drive a truck like her father. This was the next best thing.
She would earn $17 an hour, and even started a 401(k). But within months, Aylisha and Chris began falling down.
Crystal had long suspected something wasn’t right. Aylisha had had trouble learning to walk, and Chris had been walking on tiptoe since grade school.
This, though, was different.
“Their legs just gave out on them,” said Sonya, Crystal’s sister. “We knew there was something major wrong going on.”
At first, Crystal couldn’t face it. She told them to stop being so clumsy, to tie their shoes. But soon the children needed a doctor’s note to ride the school elevator.
Aylisha was three days shy of 13 when a doctor asked her to sit on the floor and get up without using her hands.
Crystal was blown away.
Three weeks later, Crystal learned the children had muscular dystrophy. She remembers this as the worst day of her life.
In her heart, Crystal knew that the incest was to blame.
Later, Gihan Tennekoon, chief of neurology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, confirmed it.
Both children had inherited two rare recessive genes – one from their mother and one from their father.
Their form of muscular dystrophy, called limb girdle, attacks the hip and shoulder muscles and can progress to the heart and lungs.
As this sank in, Crystal said, her mission became clear. “I don’t want them to be sad,” she said. “I will do everything in my power to make them have a better day.”
Crystal took them to malls, to parks, to parties, lugging them and their wheelchairs in and out of her 1990 Toyota station wagon. Once she carried Chris up the steep steps of an Air Force jet – in two-inch heels – so he could speed down the runway at a Make-A-Wish Foundation event.
Crystal began missing more and more work. In 2005, SEPTA fired her.
When she was little, Crystal’s father had told her that whatever she did, she should do it the biggest and best she could.
By last fall, she decided to take a dramatic step.
Determined to get a van with a wheelchair lift, she revealed her story in a four-page letter.
“How you going to ask for help,” she later explained, “if you don’t tell the truth?” Starting “To Whom It May Concern,” she wrote: “There was a time in my life where I had no belief in the Lord. You see I am an INCEST SURVIVOR. . . . If you could see through my eyes all the pain I have felt you too would have had doubt. . . . If you can help us, God will bless you 10 times over.”
She handed copies to strangers in parks, to dog walkers. She sent one to Oprah Winfrey, another to Allen Iverson. His came back because it had the wrong address.
She also addressed a copy with a glitter pen to “Father Hallinan,” and dropped it off at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church at 23d Street and Lehigh Avenue, where Jasmine and Brandon, her two youngest, had just started school.
The Rev. Ed Hallinan had never met Crystal. But her letter moved him.
On a windy, cold November morning, he watched as Crystal ascended the rectory steps to meet him, shouldering Aylisha and Chris, one by one, in a fireman’s carry.
He loved “the spark in her,” he recalled. “She’s gritty. She’s aggressive. She wasn’t going to get locked into that house and have these kids be victims their entire life.”
Father Ed turned to his cadre of benefactors who help raise $400,000 a year for the parish.
“I’m in,” said one, although the van, customized for two wheelchairs, would cost $53,000.
On Dec. 21, Crystal carried Chris and Aylisha from the station wagon one last time.
In the rectory, they met the benefactor and his family. He was 48, well-known, and asked that his name not be published.
Crystal, tears pouring down her cheeks like rain, hugged him long and tight, as if glue were between them and she wanted to make sure they never came unstuck.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Congratulations,” he said.
“Thank you so much,” she repeated.
He handed Crystal the keys.
“God bless you all,” said Crystal. “No more lifting.”
The benefactor turned to his children, and hers.
“This is the power of a mother’s love,” he said. “Remember that. The power of a mother’s love. Everything is possible.”
Sharing her story had led to a miracle – the van. Suddenly, she was speaking about the unspeakable.
She talked about it with her mother, and apologized.
“I blamed my mom for a long time,” said Crystal. “And it hurt her. But it wasn’t her fault. It was his fault.”
Crystal insists she wouldn’t be the mother she is were it not for her mother’s example.
She finally told Chris and Aylisha the whole truth.
Aylisha said she kind of knew.
The children said they were comfortable with The Inquirer’s publishing their story. They know it’s important to their mother. But they prefer to focus on picking out prom shoes or watching pro wrestling.
Who can blame them?
“Life is a real painful thing,” said Crystal. “But if they have a mom that loves them . . . to have this come out is not going to hurt them.”
Besides, she said, “how else they going to have some kind of way to talk about their feelings? Eventually it’s going to come out to everybody, even though everybody already knows and just doesn’t talk about it.”
Aylisha revealed a bit of herself in June in a poem.
Do you wish to feel the way I feel I doubt it. ‘Cause . . . I can’t have love or hold it I can’t talk the way I want . . . I can’t even show emotion when I need to . . . I wish I had an Island all my own to live on . . .
One Friday last February, Crystal’s father, wheezing and coughing, called.
“Will you ever forgive me?” he asked.
“I already did,” she said, and slammed down the phone.
Three days later, he was dead.
A tear rolled down Crystal’s cheek. She didn’t know why.
“I’ve dreamed of this day since I was 16,” she said.
Emotions swirled within her: She felt cheated. He had asked for forgiveness, yet he had never told her he was sorry. She felt a loss for her children. She had never let them know their father. Now they ever could. She felt panic about losing his child support of $390, paid faithfully each month.
That evening, Crystal called a relative of her father’s with whom she was on good terms.
He asked Crystal a question that shocked her.
How did she want Chris’ and Aylisha’s names listed in the funeral program: As kids or grandkids?
“You put them down any way you want,” Crystal finally replied. “Either way is the truth.”
Aylisha and Chris didn’t want to go to the viewing and funeral, but Crystal made them.
As Aylisha was getting dressed, she decided to put a dress shoe on one foot, but leave a sneaker on the other.
“This shows how confused I am,” Aylisha told her mother. In sympathy and in agreement, Crystal also put on shoes that did not match.
They arrived an hour early. The funeral home was empty, but for the open casket. Stacked on a table were the programs. Crystal, Chris and Aylisha were all listed as his children – a declaration in print of what had long been whispered.
Crystal pushed her son in his wheelchair toward his dead father, a man he barely knew.
She said to Chris but really to herself, “We can do this.”
“Oh, my, he looks the same,” she said, arriving at the casket.
They paused in silence, each looking at their father.
“You cool?” Crystal asked.
“Yeah,” Chris said. “I’m cool.”
Neither shed a tear.
“Say goodbye,” said Crystal. “Or hello. Whichever.”
In a record of the moment she had so long wished for, Crystal snapped a picture of her father’s body, and of Chris in front of the casket. “Just so they can say, ‘Mommy took me.’”
She pushed Chris back around. “We can go to [T.G.I.] Friday’s now,” she joked.
“You ready, Aylisha?” Crystal asked.
“No,” she said.
Crystal wheeled Aylisha to the body, but Aylisha would not look.
Crystal took a long look at the once-powerful man and shook her head.
“I don’t feel it anymore,” she said. “Not no more. I feel safe.”
Any closure that Crystal felt at the funeral quickly vanished.
She’d had this fantasy that her father would one day buy them a house with bathroom doors and showers wide enough for wheelchairs.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority had installed a stair glide in her rowhouse, but she dreamed of a house designed for the disabled. Lifting the children into the tub was exhausting.
He left them nothing.
“My kids have to suffer every single day because of what he did to me,” she said. “I hate him. If I could dig him up and kill him again, I would do it.”
Crystal became relentless in pursuit of a house. She has called City Councilman Darrell L. Clarke’s office, among others, three or four times a day for months.
“I do not have any other constituents like her,” said Clarke’s administrative assistant, Norma Morales. “The councilman would like to help, but we have to follow the guidelines.”
And more and more, she told her story.
At an April “Speak Out” rally in Center City led by Women Organized Against Rape, executive director Carole Johnson handed Crystal a microphone.
“I’m not sure I’m ready,” Crystal said.
“You’re ready,” Johnson said.
Crystal spoke from the stage, introducing Chris and Aylisha. People clapped. A few cried. They hugged Crystal and her children.
“For other victims, that is what they want to hear, that she got through it,” said Johnson.
Telling her story was also a way of getting back at her father. And she wasn’t above using it to raise money – anything that would help her get a house for the kids.
In July, she and her children drove to her father’s old store. Crystal sat on a milk crate, wearing a white T-shirt on which she had written her story in black marker. The last line asked for help to get a house for her kids.
Many passersby knew Crystal’s father and were shocked. Others were not.
Many had stories of their own, about how they were molested or nearly so by their fathers or relatives. One man said he was a foster parent to a girl raped by her father, now in jail; their baby was given up for adoption.
One woman told Crystal that after her uncle tried to molest her, her mother gave her a bus ticket and told her to leave town. Another woman, sexually abused by her father, said that what Crystal was doing was pointless and destructive. She should work to heal her family.
Though Crystal got no money that day and in the end never asked for any, she didn’t feel the time had been a waste.
On the contrary, she had told her story, and others had shared their own. To Crystal, that was worth plenty.
Three weeks after my story on Crystal ran in the paper, she got a call from a staffer to Barack Obama, who was just about to declare his candidacy for president, and who had come to town to campaign for local Democrats. Crystal had never heard of him, but was interested in anyone who was interested in her kids. She talked with the future president briefly about her story. She told him she was trying to raise money to buy a handicapped-accessible house for her kids. Obama, she said, told her if she collected just $2 from everyone she met, she’d soon have enough. “Two dollars can change a life,” he told her.
Crystal never got her dream house, but she never stopped doing for her kids and for others. In early 2015, eight years after my story appeared, Crystal founded a nonprofit to perform random acts of kindness for other people. She got IRS 501c(3) tax-exempt status. She named her charity Two Dollars Can Change a Life. She and the charity are going strong! And Crystal is still driving around in that van.