MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart spoke out earlier this week about lessons she hopes others will learn from her ordeal, including how to talk to young women about sex. We'll speak with a writer and blogger - who shares Smart's Mormon faith - about this, in just a few minutes.
But first, more on that harrowing story out of Cleveland. Three women are returning to their families after allegedly being held captive for years. Amanda Berry is one of them. Back in 2003, her disappearance made headlines in Cleveland. But as you might expect, after a while, a lot of people moved on. But moving on was never an option for Amanda's mother, Louwana Miller. She made regular pitches and visits to journalists, one of which was Regina Brett, who is a columnist with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Regina talked with Ms. Miller many times over the years, until her death in 2006, and Regina Brett is with us now. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
REGINA BRETT: Michel, thanks for covering this story.
MARTIN: You know, you paint a very vivid picture of Louwana Miller in your column, about how she just - she never gave up. I mean, how did your relationship with her start?
BRETT: You know, it started - was, she called me on the phone and said, how come you're not covering this story? We had had a small story because I think initially, everybody thought it might just be a child running away because she was 16. So we didn't play it very large in the paper. We wrote a story about it, but Louwana called me and said, you need to come over here.
So I drove over to her house on West 111th; walked up the steps. I walked in her home and she screamed at me, close the blankety-blank door. And I walked in and the room was full of cigarette smoke; and she was sitting there, angry, and it wasn't what I expected. You know, on TV you always see the mother crying and soft-spoken, wanting her daughter back.
Louwana was like a mother bear, and she wanted to find who had her daughter, and get that child back. She was fierce in her love for her daughter. She called her Mandy - she called Amanda Mandy - and Louwana just never gave up. You know, I wrote five columns on Amanda missing. over the span of the couple of years that Louwana was alive. And Louwana would call me often and say - you know, yell at me. How come you're not doing more? How come you're not doing more? And it broke my heart, but there was nothing new to say. And I felt terrible saying that to a mother; that there are no new facts, and there's no new information.
But I couldn't write the same column because nothing had changed. And it was heartbreaking. She lived with such pain over this.
MARTIN: You said - you know, you wrote in one of your columns, "I dreaded every phone call because her pain was so great, nothing I said or wrote could diminish it."
BRETT: You know, I wanted to find - I really wanted to find Amanda. I would walk from Burger King, where she was missing, to that house and wrack my brain over, what do - we not cover? You know, we interviewed everybody we could. There were posters everywhere about her missing, yellow ribbons and - you know, I just didn't know, but I really believed that she'd been taken because Louwana kept saying she had $100 on her dresser. She would have taken the money if she ran away. She was in her Burger King uniform. No teenager runs away wearing a Burger King uniform.
MARTIN: Yeah. You write about that in your column. I found that fascinating, too. You said that she said look, no teenager would leave $100 on her dresser. No teenager would leave without taking her phone charger. No teenager would leave the day before her 17th birthday party. No teenager would run away wearing a Burger King uniform. Do you think that she felt that people didn't believe her?
BRETT: You know, I think she felt - from what Louwana shared with me - was that one, they weren't doing enough; and two, that they just assumed that she had run away. And the hard part of all this is that when a teenager is missing, it isn't always treated the same as if it's a child missing. We don't expect children of 5 and 6 years old to run away. But when a child's a teenager - 14, 15, 16, 17 - and they go missing, the first thing people think of is well, did they run away?
And I think we have to right now, from here on out, look at every teenager missing as an endangered child. There are so many people preying on women, especially teenagers, that every child gone missing should be an Amber Alert. I don't care if they're 14, 15, 16 - because there are people like this man who's been charged, that are out there preying on young girls.
MARTIN: You know, as we mentioned, she passed away in 2006. What sort of emotional and physical toll do you think that this ordeal had on her?
BRETT: You know, I looked at Louwana and every time I talked to her, she was - the pain never stopped. I mean, every time we talked, she was angry, she cried, her heart was broken. I talked to her sister the other day - Diana - and she said that they would go out to a restaurant and Louwana would leave in the middle of the meal and say, "I can't eat; I don't know if Mandy's eaten." I mean, she never stopped thinking about her every day, wondering, did she eat today? Is she asleep somewhere? Is she cold? You know - is she hurt? She never stopped thinking daily about her daughter and I think that took its toll on her heart. They said she died of heart failure. She was 43, and I really believe she died of a broken heart.
MARTIN: Do you - you know, you actually mentioned that she actually reached out to a psychic for help, at one point; and the psychic told her that Amanda was no longer alive, and that she would see her in heaven. And I wonder if you have thoughts about what effect that might have had on her - or was she as tough with her as she was with everybody else who didn't believe in her quest?
BRETT: You know, she went to the psychic; it was Sylvia Browne, and it was on "The "Montel Williams Show." And Louwana thought, she's going to give the answers. And Louwana was doing her own private eye work; she put up her own posters, with her own phone number. And I said, Louwana, you need them to call the FBI, not you. And she said, but the FBI's not doing enough. And I said, but you're going to lose the leads. You're going to lose the information if it just comes to you. And so she did everything she could.
The last result - I mean, the last effort was seeing the psychic. And when Sylvia Browne said to her, your daughter - you're not going to see your daughter again, you know; your daughter - I think she said she was either - she visualized her underwater, or somehow deceased. And that just killed Louwana. I mean just, she just thought, oh my God, it can't be true. I mean - and I think that's when she really - if she ever gave up, that was the tipping point.
MARTIN: But you know, it's interesting. Authorities have called Amanda Berry the true hero in this case. I mean, they said that from the beginning. They said if she had not - for whatever reason, she had the strength to break free, and led to the rescue of the two other young women. Knowing Louwana as you came to know her, you think that maybe she got that from her?
BRETT: Oh, yeah. I mean, I had never - I have never met a woman like Louwana Miller. She's an old-fashioned - you know, whiskey drinking, chain-smoking, don't get in the way of my daughter and me. You know, you're going to have to pay. I mean, she was tough - really tough. I mean, I was afraid of her, to be honest. (Laughing)
MARTIN: Were you, really?
BRETT: She was - I was because she would yell at me. I mean, nobody yells at a reporter that they want a story from. You know, I mean, she just...
MARTIN: What would she say?
BRETT: Oh, she'd - I mean, she'd swear at me; you know, goddamn it, how come you're not doing enough? You know, she's been missing, and you haven't written about this in a while, and nobody cares about her! And I knew nobody cared as much as Louwana did. I mean, she would yell. She would yell at the FBI. She'd throw them out of her house. They weren't doing enough.
MARTIN: She would throw the FBI out of her house?
BRETT: Yeah. She threw the FBI out, the Cleveland police. I mean, Louwana was so tough that - you know, she smoked a little pot, to ease the pain; and she had it sitting out one day, and she didn't care. She said, if the police want to arrest me, go for it. I mean, she was just tough. She was her own woman. But boy, did she love her Mandy. I mean, she loved her so much. They were more than just mother-daughter. I think to Louwana, Mandy was like her best friend, you know. They were like sisters.
MARTIN: Before we let you go - we only have about a minute left. I mean, it must be - I don't know, heartbreaking in a way, bittersweet, to know that Amanda is free but her mother, who fought so hard for her, isn't here to see it. I don't - what do you think she would say? I know this is a terrible question, but what do you think she would say if...
BRETT: Well, you know, I don't know what she'd say. But I was out at the scene today. I was out at the scene on Seymour Avenue. I've been out there, on and off, all week, and I see all the satellite trucks. Everybody's there - the BBC from Scotland and France are calling me, and every major network. And Louwana always complained that her daughter never got any national coverage. She goes, I need national coverage. And I look at the scene and all the people covering this and I think, Louwana has got to be laughing now; saying, see, I told you so...
MARTIN: She sure did.
BRETT: ...they just found her...
MARTIN: Regina Brett is a columnist for The Plain Dealer; author of the book "Be the Miracle: 50 Lessons for Making the Impossible Possible" - how appropriate. She joined us by phone, from her home office in Cleveland. Regina, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BRETT: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.