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After Tragedy, Hope Blooms : Television: Blind actress tells Costa Mesa group that legend of a tree helped her snap out of depression.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hers is a story of triumph over personal tragedy and how the legend of the dogwood tree made it happen.

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The tragedy involves a freak accident that left actress Millicent Collinsworth blind--in her late 20s. The legend, passed on by her father, is a parable that came to symbolize Collinsworth’s emergence from a suicidal, self-pitying depression.

Collinsworth, who recently acted in “Flying Colors,” an ABC pilot, and has appeared in such series as “Designing Women,” told her life story here Wednesday to about 60 members of the Inside Edge, a private self-enrichment group that books inspirational speakers for weekly meetings in Costa Mesa and Beverly Hills.

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The 46-year-old San Dimas resident, who also writes and teaches self-defense for the visually impaired, stood beside her resting guide dog, a black Labrador retriever named Eeyore, on a platform at Scott’s seafood restaurant, describing her idyllic childhood in rural Arkansas.

With the descriptive language and melodious lilt of a professional story-teller--at times quoting her autobiography, “Millicent,” published last year--she recalled spending weekends at her family’s Five Oaks estate, an erstwhile working plantation where her proudly Confederate, aristocratic forebears planted rice and cotton and “survived” the Civil War.

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It was also there, she said, near woodsy fields, that her father told her the legend.

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The dogwood tree was cut down to make the cross on which Christ was crucified, so it was cursed never to bloom again. But a miracle occurred. God gave the tree a second chance, bringing it back to life while placing a tiny droplet of red on the tip of each petal to represent its scarred past.

As a little girl, Collinsworth was awed by the parable, which, she said, “symbolized God’s promise of new beginnings, the miracle of second chances.”

As she matured, memories of Five Oaks faded. Then, one day in 1976, while coordinating a charity event in Irvine, her life was irrevocably altered.

“On the day of the accident, my spirits were soaring,” she said. But walking past a construction site, she saw a tall ladder on which a worker was standing begin to teeter. Her life changed when she rushed to help.

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“A hammer he held slipped,” she said, “hitting me squarely between the eyes.”

Doctors told her that “the trauma to my brain was so profound that I’d eventually become totally blind.” Nine surgeries followed, she said, as well as a painful breakup with her boyfriend, who introduced his new lover by saying she looked like Collinsworth “used to look.”

She found herself mired in a morbid depression that led to a suicide attempt.

“I threw a hospital room chair through the window,” Collinsworth said, and with the shattered glass, “slit my wrists and throat.”

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Her mother tried tough love, reminding her daughter that life is not fair and calling her behavior weak and cowardly. But that did nothing, said the actress, who spent the next several months “begging God to let me die. I lay in my hospital bed, wasting away to less than 80 pounds.”

The turning point finally came with a card her mother sent from Five Oaks: “Spring has come. You should be here to honor it.” That sentiment, and a spray of dogwood that fell from the envelope, did the trick.

“I had made it to spring,” Collinsworth said, her eyes welling up with tears. “It was a time for healing.”

Like the dogwood, she had been given a second chance.

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“My goal was that I would never be looked upon as pathetic or dependent. I learned that a handicap is nothing more than a limitation we put on ourselves.”

The road back, which entailed relearning such basic tasks as walking, was rough. In a two-year period, she was assaulted four times, she said, the last time in 1987 while riding a crowded RTD bus with Eeyore in Hollywood.

“Another passenger went berserk,” said Collinsworth, who was struck in the face and thrown to the floor in the melee that followed. Not a single person offered to help, but Collinsworth managed to find her way off the bus and walk 15 blocks home, “in tears and bleeding profusely.”

A friend called paramedics and Collinsworth was taken to UCLA Medical Center, where she was given stitches in her mouth and released. The incident, however, motivated her to conquer new challenges. Vowing never again to be a victim, she contacted Impact Personal Safety, becoming the women’s self-protection organization’s first blind student.

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She learned to sense danger by sound, smells and constant alertness and to physically fight for her life. Around the same time, she took up acting.

In 1989, Collinsworth was certified as Impact Personal Safety’s first blind instructor in the United States, she said, and in March, she launched Project: Blind Ambition, her nonprofit self-defense program promoting self-esteem along with personal safety for blind or partially sighted people.

“Three out of every four blind individuals have been or will be assaulted in their lifetimes,” she said. “That’s 15 times greater than the number for sighted people.”

The project’s first graduating class included Henry, a young South Central L.A. man left bloodied and bruised by a mugging, and Cheryl, raped in her home by a stalker. During their graduation, she said she felt their fear and hopelessness replaced with a sense of dignity and grace, and her mind raced back to the day her father told her the story of the dogwood tree.

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“I realized I had truly come full circle,” she said. “All my blind students and I, we were cursed, but a miracle had happened. We had been offered a second chance.”

* “Millicent: The Millicent Collinsworth Story,” by Collinsworth and Jan Winebrenner, is published by WRS Publishing, a division of the WRS Group Inc., Waco, Tex. For information on Project: Blind Ambition, call (909) 599-5699.


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