Local woman recounts life on the run in memoir
By Anna-Claire Terry
“As a child, I fell through the cracks in so many ways. I was illiterate, and I was insecure from my head to my feet,” so said regional best-selling author and Opelika resident, Lisa Ditchkoff. Ditchkoff’s memoir ‘ The Girl With the Caterpillar Eyebrows: Survival. Resilience. Triumph.,’ tells the story of her childhood and young-adult life and how she hurtled over obstacles like living life on the run from her father, Tommy Connors, a well-known boxer and mobster with ties to the infamous Whitey Bulger; physical and sexual abuse, and pregnancy at 15 years old.
When Ditchkoff was four years old, and her father was locked in with the Bulger crew, her mother got word of a hit that had been issued for her life. It was then that she threw three children and three suitcases into a disguised vehicle and escaped from Boston, Mass., in the middle of the night. The family settled down in Tulsa, Okla., where Ditchkoff spent a large portion of her life, and she would not hear from her father again until she was well into adulthood. “At that time, the only memories I had of my father were of him lifting me over his head and saying ‘You’re so beautiful,’ and then I remember him handing me a roll of dimes that I used to buy candy bars from the vending machine,” she said.
According to Ditchkoff, her mother lived in crippling fear for up to 27 years. Whitey Bulger, the subject of the newly released movie ‘Black Mass‘ starring Hollywood big gun Johnny Depp, was a name she heard often throughout her childhood. “I was always curious about my father growing up,” Ditchkoff said. I was always told he’s a mobster, sort of a bad person and connected to Whitey Bulger, but that he loved his children.”
The book tells of the trials and tribulations of her mother taking on the night shift at work in order to provide 50 cents more per hour to her family, leaving Ditchkoff and her two brothers to roam the streets and fend for themselves most of the time. She said most girls her age were participating in cheerleading or other varsity sports while she was experiencing things that most teenagers never imagine.
After becoming a 15-year-old parent, Ditchkoff set her sights on making a life for herself and her son. “I think that was the thing that saved my life – it was the first time that I had experienced unconditional love,” she said. “I don’t know exactly where it came from, but I became extremely determined to get an education.” Ditchkoff enrolled in a community college and said she had to take her first English course three times before passing. She also worked several jobs while attending college. “I pushed myself really hard through school,” she said. The first paragraph she ever managed to compose in college is shown in her book.
When it was time to move on from community college, Ditchkoff applied to and was rejected by Oklahoma State University. “For some reason, I believed that I deserved that opportunity,” she said. Following her rejection letter from the university, Ditchkoff drove to campus to the administration building to plead her case. There, she went from office to office begging for help in gaining admission. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do” was all she was hearing until an employee yelled down the hall “Just give her a chance!” Ditchkoff was admitted on academic probation and graduated with a degree in Human Environmental Sciences seven years later. She continued working three jobs after graduation. She said she found her niche in nonprofit organizations.
Ditchkoff said her late brother Scotty was an inspiration to her. She remembers the encouraging words he always said to her: “Little sister, you can do it,” a phrase that has been incorporated into her business today as a tagline, as she owns and operates the Downtown Opelika Event Center, located in the old Coca Cola Bottling Company on North Railroad Avenue.
It was not until she was 30 years old, when she decided to contact her father in an effort to ease her mother’s fear and help her overcome it. Ditchkoff said the two of them shared and confessed many things, and her father assured her that the family did not have to worry anymore. “I’ve never seen a man cry the way I saw him cry that day,” she said. Her mother was able to grant forgiveness to her father, and he re-entered the family’s lives. According to Ditchkoff, he even approved her manuscript when she was preparing to release her book.
The story behind the title of the book relates to Ditchkoff’s “bushy” eyebrows being one characteristic that people always talked about. However, she stressed that the most important part of the title is the last three words: “ survival, resilience, triumph.”
She said it took her a few years to mentally and emotionally prepare herself for the release of the memoir. The book hit shelves in 2013 on Ditchkoff’s 40th birthday, after almost 9 years in the making. She has two sons and has lived in the Auburn-Opelika area for 14 years. Both of her parents have visited her here.
Chuck Browne, retired Lee County extension agent, began to know Ditchkoff on a professional level and now calls her a dear friend. “She has been through so much and always comes out on top,” he said. “Everything she has accomplished was all her. She’s a very self-made woman.” Browne described Ditchkoff as extremely professional, driven and tenacious.
She said the reason for her interest in sharing her story was her desire to provide hope and inspiration to those who might be giving up on a goal or dream. “I was struggling with so many different things. I felt it was time for me to launch the story to help me to continue to recover from where I was, and I also believed that my story could help impact people,” Ditchkoff said.
Readers from all over the world contact Ditchkoff to praise her for her book and thank her for the inspiration. She said she hears from people from all walks of life, from people who can barely read to the elite.
“What makes me tick is knowing that I have contributed or helped someone else,” she said.