Donna Hylton says she is not a murderer. Yes, she has been convicted, and yes too, please recall what this means for a Black woman in the US.*
- Writer’s Introductory Note
“When I was young, very young, before I was ‘adopted,’ really sold, at 7 years old, my mother was…” Hylton pauses to collect her thoughts. “She was quite abusive.” Growing up on the island of Jamaica, Hylton would disassociate from the times of abuse by her mother, retreating into a world of fantasy. Hylton says, “my friends were hummingbirds, butterflies, flowers, the water, the sand … I was a very magically inclined child.” Noting that now, as an adult, “my mother was probably what would be considered suffering from bipolar disorder, some days she would be loving, at times there would be moments of great affection, followed by something terrible, something brutal.” At the age of 3, Hylton’s mother threw her to the floor; she still has the scar on her forehead. Getting close to the camera, she shows me the mark. Interviewing her, from another continent, her presence is big enough to reach into my studio.
“Yes, my mother, she would make these scalding hot baths, put me in them, oh they would burn terribly, and one day, with the power-cables … telephone wires, they had come down in a storm, she got a bunch of these and beat me with them, and then put me in one of those scolding hot baths.” Enduring abuse at the hands of her mother, she would later be sold, or ‘adopted,’ to the Hylton family. “They said I was going to Disneyland, that’s how they basically sold me a dream. To me, I thought I was going to a magical place … instead, I ended up in the Bronx.” The details around Hylton’s ‘adoption’ are murky, and she only has one piece of official paperwork confirming her early existence. No birth-certificate, Hylton doesn’t even know the exact year she was born. “I am guessing 1964, but it could be another date, in Jamaica the record keeping was not the best, and – it being a poor country – I imagine that children are ‘adopted’ this way, let’s say outside the bounds of any normal process, all the time. It is a matter of ‘what you can pay.”
Moving to a 4th floor apartment in the Bronx in the summer of her 7th year on Earth, Hylton started school that September. “After about a year, he – Mr Hylton – would start taking me into the closet, and raping me, almost everyday for five years … He would say ‘we must keep this between ourselves’ and ‘she [Mrs Hylton] will get upset’ – I internalized this message.” The message that the person, usually a woman, being raped must somehow ‘protect’ the feelings of their rapist, is all too pervasive under patriarchy. “Yes, this continued from the time I was about 9 till I left at 14. I had a scholarship to an excellent private school, St Andrews, and then I just broke down, well it’s complicated. My math teacher, who was tutoring me, raped me. I needed to get away; in the building there was a 25-year-old, he lived a few floors, below us, and I came to know him. I thought he could take me away from all the pain; he drove me to Philadelphia. I escaped with him. He’d become one of my biggest abusers.” Driving Hylton from New York City to Philadelphia, “on the first night there, he raped me.” She says all of this in such a matter-of-fact way, I can tell that five decades have worn on her; these horrific experiences, accumulated, synthesized, overcome and still present, as words, memories, sensations in and on the body, she retains these mental and emotional spaces to speak them, but can I listen?
Of course, I can listen, yet at this point, I don’t know what to say; I have an interview format ready, I am prepared, I have done my research into her case, yet nothing can prepare you for the rawness of speaking with a victim of multiple, ongoing rapes committed by various men. I meekly say “I am sorry.” Hylton chokes up, and she does cry a little. I am concerned I may have gone too far, yet she says “No, keep asking, this is my truth and it will be spoken!” Driving, a valuable lesson she learned whilst in Philadelphia, gave her “a sense of freedom. You see he – the man who brought me – worked at a garage, so I learned there, I really love driving, I love it. People would look at me, thinking, ‘I am sure you must be younger than 19.’ He told me that I must use his mother’s ID and say I was 19, it was really bizarre, I didn’t even use my own name, my own age, I was somebody else, nobody else.” Ghosting in Philadelphia, presumably disassociating from the ever-more traumatic environments that all too many Black women live in and under in the US and elsewhere, Hylton returned to New York City a wreck. “Several months, four months later, we returned. The Hyltons had not been looking for me … I mean your 14 year old ‘daughter’ goes missing for months, and these people didn’t seem to care at all.”
During the five years Donna lived with them, the Hyltons combined extreme austerity (no friends, no social contact outside of school, etc.) with near complete absence and neglect after she left. Two forms of extreme abuse, on different ends of a spectrum of parental failures, haunted Donna; that of being both imprisoned and lost, of being caged and thrown into the void; furthermore, she never had the ability to develop childhood friendships. “The Hyltons would prohibit me from having any friends, I focused solely on my studies. That was it, me and books. Basically this left me with no social skills, certainly nothing that would allow me to be a bit more ‘savvy’ in public, or to be able to sense danger; if you paid attention to me, if you even spoke to me, for the first time, I considered you my best friend. Of course, this is dangerous.” Hylton, socially inept, traumatized, mentally, emotionally and physically abused, moved in with the 25-year-old.
“We moved to Harlem.” I ask where, as I used to live in Harlem. She lived in the center (Lennox/111th), I was further to the West Side (142nd/Amsterdam). Architecturally, what did Donna’s landscape look like; asking, what was that apartment like, could she describe it to me? She replies, “No one has ever asked me about that! Interesting question! Well this place was totally austere, wooden floors, not one carpet or rug, there was a little space for cooking, a one bedroom place, no plants, nothing, a few dishes, pots and pans, a bed, and a window that – as they do – looked out into an alley-way. I think it was north facing, so we never received proper light. The place didn’t feel like home, but nowhere felt like home, nowhere.” Now pregnant, at 15, she’d walk to Central Park, “I would walk and walk and walk, I would say hello to the horses, Central Park was my savior, I could just walk all day, I would walk in circles around that park. I read too, ha! I read Dr. Spock, because I really wanted to know how to be a good mother. I went to the library and started reading Dr. Spock.”
Perennially optimistic, Hylton, “always thought it would get better. I held onto a thread of hope. But, it seemed to never come.” She pauses and continues, “Ok, speeding up time, when I was 16, my was daughter was around 1-2 months old. We had no food in the house. I told him ‘I haven’t been able to feed her’ and of course, I couldn’t feed his dog. Well, he came home and said, ‘I don’t get a fuck about her, you better feed my fucking dog.’ He gave me $5 to get the dog something to eat. I bought the dog food and a can of infant food, yet, upon returning to the building, something stopped me from going up those stairs. I simply could not get up the stairs. My legs froze. He was extremely high, and he already had a history of violence, pushing me down stairs … I nearly lost my daughter from that attack. But there was something there … malevolent … I went to the Bronx to the Hyltons’ place, stayed the night. I went back the next day to get my daughter. I went back and no one answered the door. A day later I am back in the Bronx where we grew up. Someone said that they saw him with Adrenne, my daughter, the Hyltons advised I call the police. I got my daughter back.”
Facing yet another problem, Hylton had to return to that Harlem apartment to retrieve her and her daughter’s things. She walked up the staircase, and she recalls “He was shouting at me, he told me he was going to kill me, he said: how dare you call the police?” Walking outside, “across the street, there were these drug dealers, for months they had seen me coming and going, with black eyes, from being punched, they knew, they knew right away what was going on … They came up to me and said ‘wait here. Ten minutes later they were back with bags filled with my stuff. They said, ‘he will never threaten you again.’ Of course, this shows that people can and do care, what some people might call ‘bad guys on the street,’ were the only good Samaritans around, the only ones who helped me during that whole period without asking for anything in return.”
“After that incident, I basically just tried to take care of my daughter. I was a kid raising a kid, I didn’t know what she needed beyond diapers, food and clothing. But I did give her lots of love, of course, she was like a doll who I loved and who loved me back.” Hylton seems to disconnect here; her recollections of this period, 17 to 19, require some “speeding past that” and “speeding ahead in time” as she says several times. “Frankly I just wanted to get on with my life, I wanted a safe place, and a safe place to be pretty. Modelling, ha! how silly when I think about it now, seriously, though I thought it would be a safe place to be pretty and not exploited. I was clueless.” She’d go to Macy’s and get her make-up done, go to shoots, etc. Yet she needed a portfolio of her work, to demonstrate to agencies what type of model she’d like to be, what her range could be, “basically, they ask you what your goals are, where you think you might fit into this very big industry, and all of that requires a portfolio of photographs, professionally done, to show to agencies.” She also, of course, wanted some extra money to take care of her daughter.
Working at one of her odd jobs, Hylton met Maria. Maria was connected to the Italian-American mafia via her ‘godfather’ a man named ‘Miranda.’ During this part of the interview, details come thick, heavy and redacted. Hylton is holding something back. She isn’t telling me something, but she is telling me the truth. First, I note that she won’t tell me who was living with her during her time at the Hyltons, after she left the Harlem flat; during that time “I would be downstairs, but I can’t say much … The women I lived with downstairs would later become my co-defendant.” Whatever, or whoever, is being protected in that omission, I don’t find it nefarious. “London Fog raincoat and Pall Mall cigarettes. London Fog raincoat and Pall Mall Cigarettes.” This phrase sticks in my head for the next several days. Hylton refers to Thomas Vigliarolo, the man who was murdered, only as “Mr V.” (At the end of our interview, she said “Mr V. walks with me, his is in front of me, behind me, he is all around me; I do this work for him, and every other victim of the system.”)
The aforementioned ‘Miranda,’ Maria’s godfather, enlisted Hylton to ‘witness something.’ She recalls, “He said I needed to ‘witness something,’ he wasn’t clear, he kept talking and talking. I was thinking: OK, what is it that you want me to do? I need to pay for this portfolio. And, of course, Maria had basically said he was a wonderful man, like a father, etc. She had her own problems with being accepted by her father. I don’t know the psychology here. But this wasn’t a good start. Miranda called me a ‘friend of the family.’ Do you know, the family was so powerful, the Pope wrote a letter on behalf of Maria? Really, the Pope!”
Hylton pauses, we both take a needed break; continuing, she talks about the series of events that changed her life for 27 years, “So I agreed, basically to blackmail a man. I was meant to walk in on Maria with this man in a sexual situation.” Here I know that Hylton must’ve been naive. Very naive, eager and reckless. Why would you have someone ‘witness’ a sexual encounter, it makes no sense, as there would be no photographic evidence. Hylton never says she was asked to take photographs; so she’s either lying now, or was extremely naive and desperate at the time. I agree with the latter. She continues “Comes the day where I am supposed to witness this … I get to Maria’s apartment. I walk in, and something is off; it’s like The Twilight Zone. I hear movement. Mr V. is on the sofa, he only had boxers, shirt, socks, handcuffs on; he’s gagged, blindfolded; clearly they had given him a knockout drug. I had walked into a kidnapping. I had agreed to a blackmail scheme, but here I was: I had walked into a kidnapping.” At this point in the stream of events, Hylton is stunned and she looks to her friend, “Maria, who pulled out a gun! These two massive guys were there. One of them leaves, one stays. Immediately got afraid; I knew this was different.”
Having learned to drive in Philadelphia, Hylton “was told to drive the car. I drove from Queens to Harlem. And they hauled Mr V. into the apartment. He’s held there, beaten; I can’t speak to it; I didn’t see it. I think it involved his Nassau County business, lots of money. He was burnt with cigarettes. They weren’t feeding him. I found this out when I was there. I argued for him, I said ‘you must let this man eat;’ I got hit because of this protest. I gave him juice and broth. He smoked Pall Malls, they were in his London Fog raincoat pocket. I gave him Pall Malls.” I imagine the scene, Thomas Vigliarolo, beaten, almost naked on the couch, and 19-year-old-Donna looking over his body, bruised and burnt, thumbing through his raincoat. Bringing him cigarettes, lighting them. Feeding him some broth. I freeze that scene, and ask Hylton, who was also burnt with cigarettes by her erstwhile ‘boyfriend,’ how the burnt flesh, the suffering of another, made her feel? She says “And this is where I always break-down.” She cries for a good minute, I am sure this feeling has washed over her so many countless times, and I am sure the emotional rainstorm is just as strong, albeit less visible with decades of erosion, polishing and perfecting.
Hylton continues, I refocus, “Miranda rapes me while Mr V. is being held, for around 11 days; Miranda takes me to his apartment in Midtown. My role in the crime is to drive Maria and Miranda around for these days. I would come into that apartment where they held Mr V., and I used to beat myself up a lot because for some moments, and this is the honest truth, I was happy it wasn’t me. There were times that I was like ‘I’ve got to do something, but what I am supposed to do?’ They have people in the police department, and I didn’t trust the police, I was raped by a police officer at 17. First, I was raped. My friend said call the police, and this officer, who took me to the hospital, well he then raped me on the way back from the hospital.” I sit, motionless, I can feel the tension in my neck. Rape after rape, violation after violation, systematic and systemic violence against this woman, this Black woman, that very few, if any, white men outside of prison, would ever have to face. “Anyways,” she continues, “there was this joke among the police officers, about how we were the dumbest criminals; Maria had rented a car which had an over-due fee, and she was the last person that Mr V. was going to see for a meeting. The cops were looking for her; they got a search warrant into her house; they found rope, masking tape, listened to her voice-machine, etc.” And of course, the police found Hylton, “the police were very abusive, punched me in the face, I was not told of my Miranda rights. I told them everything. Of course, I always had the fear of my daughter being killed … and I found out later that the mafia were going to kill me.”
The Judge, Edwin Torres, who was writing his book Carlito’s Way, and in the midst of movie deals, “used the trial as a great publicity stunt” according to Hylton. She continues, “Here we have a Judge who is literally writing fiction, promoting himself for profit, and presiding over this incredibly high-profile case. She recounts, “the media, well they labelled me “Leader of the Girl Gang,’ this psychopath who would kill to be a model. Essentially, the truth was never told. The particulars of the case were never told in an authentic way. While being held at Rikers Island Prison, I was medicated with very strong psychotropic drugs, held in complete isolation. I could hardly pick my head up. I had to go through the wringer to get off that crap. 13 months.”
February of 1986, almost exactly one year before I was born, Hylton was pronounced guilty. On March 12 1986, Hylton went for sentencing, “I heard 25 to life … that was another twilight zone, I didn’t understand … I just didn’t understand what that meant. I heard ‘life’ … I didn’t understand how I got here… I didn’t help Mr V. I had a breakdown. It was all too much.” While in prison, which lasted 27 years, Hylton learned that, “In the end, I couldn’t help Mr V. That took time. To grapple with that, to struggle with that, to come to terms with that. It was during that introspection that I really started to question the system, and realized, that there is too much of this: the large majority of the women are in prison for being abused. Many times it is a ‘do or die’ situation. It was just too much. And I said this has to change. Fortunately, Elaine Lord at the Bedford Correctional Facility understood this. I was in prison at a time where the right person was running the prison.”
Hylton has high praise for Elaine Lord, “it was her understanding about women that helped. She allowed us to build and create programs to work on every aspect of ourselves. I engaged in therapy. It was a safe transitional, space for me.” Hylton skips over these 27 years, and I am not here to talk about them, I will let another person do that. I ask, and afterwards? “After I came out, I began immediately advocating for my sisters on the inside, and several years ago I had a stroke in front of the governor’s house; I was protesting for clemency; you have these very elderly women who have been in prison forever, and there is no need to keep them there. No risk to the public. Anyways, I almost died, I had several appearances a day at the time, constant protests. Really the stress of the work. And you know we don’t look at people as people when something happens, crimes are situational.” Hylton continues, undeterred by her stroke, which we skip over, “Women are often placed in situations often out of necessity. John and Jane Q public don’t understand the real world. They live in a middle-class, Middle American bubble. Besides that, Torres is not the only Judge to hold Kangaroo Courts.”
Donna Hylton says she is not a murderer. Donna Hylton was a very naive, socially inept and traumatized 19-year-old who got caught up in a web made by creatures much larger than her. The nets of racism, sexism, rape culture, organized crime, economic and structural-institutional indifference to suffering and sadism, forged a path to murder that became all too easy. It is important to remember that narrow corridor, closed options, rejection from society, and social isolation are key elements in this and other cases like it. Does this excuse Hylton from culpability? I will not answer that question here because I think, in this case, no answer can be given readily and easily. Hylton ends, saying, “There are women in prison aging and dying [there] because of sexual abuse they experienced. We have become too comfortable in pushing this subject of women’s oppression away. I want people to get uncomfortable. It’s time to be uncomfortable,”
Uncomfortable: This essentially describes my feeling at the end of the interview. Rosario Dawson is meant be working on a film that will cover Hylton’s life. It will take an extremely adept, emotionally stable actor like Dawson to hold ‘the range’ of experiences on screen. London Fog raincoat and Pall Malls. I heard this repeat in my head. I also see Hylton feeding this man, barely clothed and handcuffed, broth. Juxtapositions discomfort, and synthesizing the experiences of those deemed ‘monsters’ is essential. For, as Hegel noted, Evil resides in the gaze that sees Evil all around. Behind the headlines, behind the outrage over Hylton’s speaking out at the Women’s March, is a woman – for whatever personal reason – publicly committed to justice for prisoners, and more importantly someone with experiences that are valuable lessons to us all.
Perhaps Donna Hylton represents the worst nightmares of white, Middle America, a convicted murderer of a white man who is a Black woman, a feminist, and who speaks her truth. Perhaps that’s exactly why we cannot be silent or take the side of Middle America, that Agency of Death, but must boldly say ‘I Stand With Donna?’ Perhaps. I am not taking this side.
What follows, dear reader, is an addendum, that I had to add, after hours of deliberating. Adding it is about elucidating a problem, namely the way women are treated by male producers in the media.
After asking Hylton to approve this interview, I received a message from her to call her immediately. An irate Dan Pearson, producer, stated “You can’t publish this!” He went on about how he owned the intellectual property rights, and stated loudly at Hylton, “Look at what you have done to me!” Over the next agonizing 30 minutes, I was told to “take a line out of each paragraph, remove this, actually just make it a synopsis.” One cannot turn a two hour interview into a ‘synopsis,’ and the article is already heavily edited. On the second or third call, Pearson was saying “take all of it out, just a few lines!” A nervous, and unusually timid Hylton said, “I overstepped. I am sorry. Can you hear him, he’s on the other side of the room?” Yes, I could hear him just fine. Ultimately, Hylton agreed to a redacted version, which is what you’ve read. I am writing this to ask if emancipation doesn’t just mean getting out of prison, or even finding your truth, but something entirely more radical? A strong-willed Hylton, still being partially controlled? I hope not.
* From The Guardian, “Women in jails are the fastest growing incarcerated population, study says,”
Women held in local jails represent the fastest growing population of incarcerated people in the US, according to a new study. The researchers found that trauma, sexual violence and mental health issues were all closely wrapped up with the swelling numbers.
“While we started to see a decline in the incarceration and jailing of men, we haven’t seen a comparable kind of trend for women,” said Laurie Garduque, director of Justice Reform for the MacArthur Foundation, which co-published the report with the Vera Institute. Since 1970, the number of women in US jails has increased by 14 times, far outstripping the growth in the male prison population, even though in raw numbers there remain many more men locked up.
The majority of those women entering jail are black and Hispanic, mirroring demographic trends that cross gender lines. Women, however, tend to enter jails in more vulnerable situations than men, as a higher percentage of women in jail were using drugs, unemployed or receiving public assistance at the time they were arrested.”