To this day, Renee Banton can’t fully explain why a college-educated woman from a solid middle-class family fell as far and disappeared for as long as she did.
She can’t blame it on having had a tough childhood in Carson, because her parents may have been strict, but life was pretty good. Dad was a middle school principal and mom was a manager at the DMV. All three girls were expected to earn college degrees and eventually did, but Renee dropped out for a time and enlisted in the Air Force.
It was after her service that things started falling apart. She’d been sexually assaulted in the military, and now something wasn’t right in her marriage. The mother of two young boys started trying to block the pain with drugs. The less they worked, the more she needed, and Banton fell into a hole where she remained for more than 10 years.
“I did crack cocaine and alcohol,” said Banton, now 59, who was homeless on the 5th Street corridor known as the Nickel in the heart of downtown L.A.'s skid row.
Her family cared for her children and managed to reel Banton in now and again for rehab attempts. But she was always back on the Nickel before she could get turned around, doing whatever it took to feed her habit. And for this, she was not proud.
“I would see somebody I knew, and dodge them,” Banton said, showing me how she buried her face in the crease of her arm.
For too many people, the only way out of that life is a short ride to the county morgue. But Banton was one of the luckier ones.
“I just got tired of it, and I thought, ‘I don’t wanna do this anymore,’” said Banton.
Her father, Richard Banton, remembers it like this:
“She had nothing to give her mom for Mother’s Day, so she said she was going to go to rehab and get clean.”
Did he believe her?
“No,” he said, because she was an addict, and an addict can burn your patience and trust.
“But she did it,” he said. “And it stuck.”
Banton had a friend who recommended New Directions, a nonprofit residential rehab agency for veterans, located on the campus of the West Los Angeles VA. The day Banton walked in the door in 2003, she knew she had a solid shot at a second chance.
There was counseling, substance abuse treatment, educational training and all manner of support. Blanton thrived, and began rebuilding family ties and addressing her many regrets over all the precious time she’d wasted.
She also laid the foundation for a career, and after a year of recovery, New Directions hired her as a receptionist and then as an accountant. She was sober, self-sufficient and eager to keep going. So, in addition to working by day, she studied in the evenings to add to the undergrad degree she had completed while serving in the Air Force.
And when she got her master’s, New Directions made her supervisor of the women’s program that had helped save her life.
It was the job she was meant to do, says Banton. She was able to understand and help rescue troubled female veterans whose needs she knew intimately.
A short documentary on her life was produced, called “Her War,” and the story was adapted for stage in San Francisco.
It’s a story that seemed to be on the way to a happy ending, but it hasn’t worked out that way.
In 2011, Banton was diagnosed with breast cancer. New Directions employees at the time, including Cindy Young, recall Banton working through radiation and chemotherapy, scarcely missing a day. She had beaten addiction, and she was determined to beat the cancer. And it appeared as though she had won.
But in mid-2012, she took ill, had difficulty speaking, and was rushed to emergency. The diagnosis was devastating. The cancer had spread to her brain, and the brain tumor was inoperable.
There was more chemo and radiation, and Banton has lasted longer than expected, but her decline has been steady. When she speaks, she knows the words she wants to use, but can’t get them to her lips. She’s taken a couple of falls, and a few months ago, she entered hospice care.
You wouldn’t know the gravity of her condition to look at her. In her Norwalk apartment on Tuesday, which was Veterans Day, she flashed a lovely smile as she squeezed out the story of her life, with her partner Denise Phillips patiently helping Banton with forgotten dates and details.
Her father and two sisters called while I was there, as did former colleagues and clients whose lives Banton helped turn around. They wanted to see how she was doing or wish her a happy Veterans Day. Some of them have set up a fund for her daily expenses and funeral costs, and donations can be made at giveforward.com.
“She taught me a whole new way of life,” said Veronica Olson, 32, an Air Force vet who landed at New Directions for her first attempt at rehab in 2011.
“One of the most vivid memories I have is sitting in Renee’s office, and I couldn’t stop crying. I thought I was doomed to relapse,” Olson said. But then Banton shared her own story of recovery, and “I knew anything was possible then.”
Olson has now graduated from the program and, with Banton as her role model, she is studying to be a social worker. She says her goal is to one day be able to “pull somebody else up out of the dark,” as Banton did for her.
Banton told me she has her rough moments, but she does not despair. She didn’t live a perfect life, but none of us do, and the pain of regret is eased by the knowledge that she did some good in the world.
“I have faith, and you know, what can I do?” she asked. “I have strong faith. I am very, very, very safe, and I’m not scared. What do I have to be scared about?”