When Helen Smart was three, her father pushed her down a flight of stairs and fractured her skull. He had been home drinking all day—out of work again and intermittently laid out in the living room in his underwear, the usual loop of pornos on the TV. That day he got angry, frustrated with the accumulation of life's pressures, but ostensibly frustrated with the clumsiness of three-year-olds: His daughter had fallen and was crying again. He grabbed her by the arm and spun her off her axis and down the stairs. Not long after, Smart's mother moved her out.
Now 19, Smart has blue eyes and caramel-colored hair. In the past year, she says, she's added weight to her tallish frame. A thin scar still constellates the crest of her forehead. She says she hasn't seen or heard from her father in 12 years. And her real name is not in fact Helen Smart; she agreed to speak to the Indy on the condition that we not use her name, for reasons that might be clear shortly.
After she left her father's home, Smart went to a public elementary school in Missoula where she loved art class and, despite a secular upbringing, became interested in Bible studies. "My friend Heather took me to after-school Bible study," she explains, "because if you brought somebody, you and your friend got to pick a toy out of the treasure box." Smart's mother, who has worked at least two jobs all Smart's life, wasn't home much, so Smart began attending Bible study as often as it was offered. Eventually she went to sleep-away Bible camp on Flathead Lake. She enjoyed the hiking, swimming and craft-making, but most of all, she says, she liked that "nobody knew who I was, and I could be myself. I do well in situations like that."
For ninth grade, Smart switched school districts, enrolling at the public high school across the Missoula Valley. Her freshman year, she again felt invigorated by the prospect of being new. "I went to school with the same kids for nine years," she says, "I went to [high school] and there were Goths and girls that dressed like hoes...there were so many kids." That year, she earned a 4.0 grade-point average.
Toward the end of Smart's freshman year, her mother began to date for the first time since leaving Smart's father. The new boyfriend moved into their house about a month after Smart met him. When he worked, he hung dry wall, but he didn't work often, and he drank a lot. And Smart's mother and her boyfriend became swingers, inviting friends over for sex. "They didn't have swinger parties, but someone would come over and it was obvious what was going on," she says.
About this time, between freshman and sophomore years, Smart says she became aware of herself in a newly autonomous way—she could date. She began seeing a freshman at the University of Montana who lived in university housing with his uncle, also a student, and two cousins. It was in his apartment that Smart had sex for the first time. They had been drinking, and though she says it was awkward, she felt fine afterward, even relieved. "The only reason I lost my virginity," she explains, "was because my best friend lost her virginity." Soon after, Smart says, the boy cheated on her with an older girl.
Sophomore year, Smart began smoking pot regularly and experimented with meth, cocaine, and painkillers. In the early spring, she and a friend were caught in study hall with a pipe and suspended from school. Smart dropped out two weeks before her sixteenth birthday.
Her mother sent her to rehab at Missoula's Turning Point Addiction Services, where she underwent treatment three days a week for six months. From rehab, she enrolled in Job Corps where she began training in culinary arts. After six weeks, she was expelled from the program when her drug test came up positive for THC. She then enrolled at Willard Alternative School. By this time, Smart says, she had already received several of her "five or six" minor-in-possession tickets, one of which came when she was pulled over for drunk driving. When she started at Willard, the conditions of her probation mandated that she not leave Missoula County. A month or so after her first day of classes, Smart attended a party at an apartment complex in Hamilton. The party was busted and a police officer found her hiding behind a door, a bottle of Sailor Jerry's rum in her purse. She was expelled from Willard.
In March, weeks before her eighteenth birthday, a friend whom Smart had met in Job Corps took her to a party at a trailer a few blocks from the Aspen Motel in East Missoula. The trailer was crowded and filthy, she recalls, with dirty dishes and garbage stacked on the counters. A girl who appeared to be wearing a wig was wrapped in a blanket on the couch. Someone tried to move her, but she wouldn't get up, apparently content to sleep amidst the cackle of late-night partying.