New York Times
March 10, 2002

Forever Young


Associated Press/The Mobile Register
Treva Throneberry, 28, didn't want to grow up, so she became Brianna Stewart, 16.

Janet L. Mathews/The Columbian/Associated Press
Throneberry was convicted of fraud and sentenced to three years in prison.

Treva Throneberry sits across from me, smiling bashfully as if she is embarrassed to be seen here. We are in a dank, spooky visiting room in the Clark County Jail in Vancouver, Wash., looking at each other through a thick Plexiglas window on which someone has scrawled ''I Love You.'' We speak to each other through telephone receivers. We are talking about high school. She remembers first-period history, when she would sometimes fall asleep with her head down. ''The teacher would bang on the desk to wake me up,'' Throneberry says. She raps on the surface of the prison table, mimicking him.

The history class with its rude awakenings happened at Evergreen High School in Vancouver -- a sprawling, rickety institution of overworked administrators and perennially sold-out soda machines. Throneberry appeared in the principal's office in the late summer of 1997, a fresh-faced girl without any school records, a runaway who had been taken in off the streets by a local Christian family. Her name, she said, was Brianna Stewart, and she was, she said, 16 years old.

The administrators at Evergreen paused momentarily over the gaps in her narrative, but they didn't pause for long. Her claims were easy to believe: she looked like a lost girl who needed help. She was admitted into Evergreen's sophomore class.

In fact, that fall, Treva Throneberry was 28 years old. She was a con artist and a drifter who had been moving from city to city for the previous 10 years, assuming various aliases, always claiming to be a teenager. But it would be three more years before anyone would discover the truth about Brianna Stewart.

Once she enrolled at Evergreen, a huge suburban high school, she became part of its stream of 2,000 students, indistinguishable from the teenage mob. Her imitation of a teenager was so seamless and effective that for a while the world was fooled. Like any high-schooler, she walked down the hallways clutching her books to her chest and covered her notebooks with doodles as teachers droned. She joined the tennis team, found a boyfriend and went to the Sweethearts social. She memorized lines for a bit part in a production of ''Man of La Mancha'' and wrote overwrought short stories for English class.

Ultimately DNA tests and fingerprints linked her irrefutably to her real name, to Treva Throneberry. She was eventually convicted of defrauding the Washington public-school and foster-care systems of $19,400. Yet despite her conviction, she still claims, even today, to be Brianna Stewart. She swears that this is all a vast mistake, a conspiracy, a waste of everybody's time. She is not delusional. She has been tested and retested and found mentally competent. She knows where she is and why. But she is unwilling, or unable, to let go of her story.

I stare at her through the glass. I don't see any signs of age: her skin is without wrinkles; her hair shows no traces of gray. There is a warmth in her demeanor, a hopefulness. I can see why people believed her troubled-teen story; I almost

believe her, too. ''I am Brianna,'' she says, her voice full of consternation. ''I am 19, almost 20. I can remember being me since I was 4 years old.''

She was born to Carl and Patsy Throneberry in Wichita Falls, Tex., and grew up in the nearby town of Electra. Her father worked in the oil fields. Her sisters describe the family as peaceful and loving, but the stories Treva used to tell about her early life, before she reinvented herself, centered on sexual trespasses committed by her father. At the age of 15, she filed charges against him, which she later recanted.

As a consequence of the sexual-abuse allegations, Treva Throneberry was removed from her parents' home in 1985 and, through the state foster-care system, placed in the home of Sharon Gentry, a sweet woman with a wide, forgiving face. Gentry says there was a sadness in the girl that she could not penetrate; she took Treva on trips to tourist attractions and tried to cheer her up, she says, but Treva was inconsolable. When she was 17, Treva ran away from home and was later found walking alone along a highway. Afterward, she spent a brief period in a mental hospital.

At age 18, Throneberry was able to cut herself loose from both the foster-care system and the mental-health system -- in the words of the court, she was ''emancipated.'' She rented an apartment in Arlington, Tex., a suburb of Fort Worth, where she worked as a maid cleaning hotels. Gentry visited occasionally, hoping that the girl had recovered from her sadness and decided to embrace the future. But sometime in 1987, Throneberry left town without a word to anyone. She disappeared from beneath the name Treva Throneberry and its associated history, like someone leaving behind the house she was born into.

She has been known by many names since that time. Her list of aliases includes Cara Leanna Davis, Emily Kara Williams, Keili Smitt and Stephanie Lewis. She has lived in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; Corvallis, Ore.; Altoona, Pa.; and Portland, Ore. Wherever she went, she presented herself -- usually at a church -- as a runaway teenager in need of shelter. She never stayed in any one town long enough to grow up inside an alias; she never allowed herself to age. She always ran away again before much time had passed.

It was adolescence that Treva Throneberry pursued as persistently as she pursued new cities and new names; when she boarded buses and disappeared from her last known address, adolescence was always the destination she was headed toward. As the years passed, true adolescence faded further into her past, but she did not want to give up on the idea of rediscovering it, of occupying it once again.

''The young lady that I knew of as Treva did not see herself living beyond the age of 18,'' Gentry said in court. Throneberry was fixated on 18 as some kind of Rubicon she could not cross; she didn't believe in her own existence after that threshold. Whenever she came close to reaching that age, she backed away from it, left town and started over as a 15- or 16- or 17-year-old, a girl before the age of consent. While the courts considered 18 the point of emancipation, she saw it as the point of vanishing.

When Treva Throneberry arrived in Vancouver, she quickly found her way to a huge modern megachurch called Glad Tidings. One of the secretaries there took her in, took her to Evergreen and helped her enroll. She drifted among the high-school tribes, sometimes hanging out with tennis-team girls, sometimes with a girl she had met in one of the foster homes she shuttled between. She was drawn to the loud, brightly dressed theater crowd -- that species of extrovert that can be found in virtually every school, class clowns and divas, first in line for play tryouts. Brianna Stewart followed these kids around, sometimes eating lunch in the theater where they ate. She even performed in a few plays, although her parts were mostly minor -- two or three lines spoken in her small voice.

For homework, she wrote research reports on ''Society's Missing Youth'' and ''Adjustive Behaviors.'' For a ''life skills'' class, she proposed a project interviewing homeless youth, but on the day it was due, she told her teacher the tapes had come out blank. Instead, she wrote about her own street life -- trying to stay dry in the rain by sitting under the awnings of jewelry stores and being rousted by cops at 3 a.m. as she slept in doorways. The teacher gave her an A.

Nobody at Evergreen challenged Brianna's identity. Teachers who noticed a weariness in her demeanor dismissed it as the exhaustion of homelessness, not adulthood. They were trained to look for kids who were stoned or violent, but they weren't trained to look for kids who weren't kids at all. Greg Merrill, a counselor who met with Brianna many times, says: ''It's impossible to tell how old kids are. They put on this maturity act. They act like adults.'' Like many girls, Brianna moved a little awkwardly in her body, hiding inside baggy clothes. She averted her eyes if anyone looked too far into them.

The rules and rigidity of high-school life must have made Throneberry feel safe. She describes her first year at Evergreen as successful. ''I had friends,'' she says. ''I was really happy.'' Sometimes she would be invited along as groups of girls headed out to Vancouver Mall after school or on weekends, and in the cavernous fluorescent space they would stare into store windows, talking about nothing. ''We would just walk around the mall and look at stuff,'' she remembers. ''The conversation was like: 'What do you wanna do?' 'I don't know, what do you wanna do?'''

Because everyone in high school is to some extent putting on an act, even those who came close to Brianna and felt suspicious of her age banished their suspicions pretty easily. Allison Heyman, a tennis teammate, remembers, ''She looked like she was older and trying to act younger, but I didn't think she really was.''

One thing bothered Allison and the other girls on the tennis team: Brianna's hairdo. This was a fashion ''don't'' at Evergreen: the pigtails seemed ''really weird'' to the girls on the team, and they would hold small conferences about what could possibly motivate her to wear them every single day. ''We definitely thought that was odd,'' Heyman says.

If the girls thought Brianna seemed a little weird, there was one boy who perceived her as the be-all and end-all. Fifteen-year-old Ken Dunn met Brianna in the school's sports-medicine office. He had twisted his leg playing football, and Brianna had come down with a bad case of shin splints. Soaking their limbs in the therapy whirlpool, the hot-water jets loosened them up, made them feel almost drunk, and they talked to each other in a way they didn't talk to anybody else. Ken had really been wanting a girlfriend, and in Brianna, it seemed, she had arrived.

One day Brianna invited Ken to attend church with her at Glad Tidings. Ken agreed, and soon they were a regular pair every Sunday in the pews. During their church dates, Ken started to feel the stirrings of first love. ''One Sunday, it hits me, and I have this feeling,'' he recalls. ''I can't get it out of my mind. Brianna is all I think about. It takes me forever to tell her that I love her, but I finally do.'' The declaration of love brought with it tears and a kiss.

Afterward, Brianna and Ken were officially ''going steady'' -- which meant Ken's mom drove them to movies, and they held hands in the hall at school and wrote valentines to each other. After Ken passed his driver's test, he was able to drive his girlfriend on errands. She was a girl with many errands -- tons,'' according to Ken. He didn't mind ferrying her around all the time; when he was with her, he felt like something serious was happening to him.

As their relationship deepened, Ken and Brianna talked about all manner of heavy topics, sitting around in coffee places getting dizzy from refills. They talked about God and how they were pretty sure they believed in him. Brianna said how hard her life had been. She told stories of murder, rape and drugs. Her mother was dead, she said, killed by her father. Her past sounded like a horror movie to Ken, and as he listened, he felt intimidated by her: all he had ever done was live in his parents' house, and the only violence he had ever endured was on the football field with his grunting peers. Brianna's stories added a layer of pathos and strangeness to his life. ''It was really intense,'' he says.

Ken and Brianna's teenage love persisted for quite a while, from the beginning of 10th grade to the middle of 11th. They went to the Homecoming Dance together -- Brianna wore a gold dress and a crown; Ken wore a vest and gave her a corsage. A photograph shows them beaming like a bride and groom. Ken remembers slow-dancing to Shania Twain, and he says it was one of the greatest nights of his life.

Bit by bit, though, things began to fall apart for Brianna. As time closed in on graduation day, the sadness Sharon Gentry had witnessed surfaced once again -- the fear of life after 18, of an adult realm in which she couldn't imagine herself. She didn't know what she would do once high school ended. She started to feel alienated from her friends. She sat in the counseling office pouring out her troubles to Greg Merrill, sometimes for three or four hours a week. She grew paranoid -- falsely accusing a kid of spreading rumors about her and reporting him to the principal. She imagined teachers were out to get her by giving her C's instead of A's. She was kicked out of a foster home after she claimed the father was spying on her through cameras in the light bulbs.

Throneberry's grip on reality was loosening just as her boyfriend was finally achieving a cherished goal: he was becoming popular. Ken can't remember when things started to click, but by the beginning of junior year, he felt like a king. His popularity reached a pinnacle when he won the lead in the school play: Tevye in ''Fiddler on the Roof.'' According to Ken, ''This was a big deal for me, with all these lines and songs to memorize.'' Suddenly he didn't have as much time for Brianna -- he couldn't sit in cafes for hours listening to her horror stories because he was too busy singing. By the time his big night arrived, they had drifted apart. ''I don't even think she saw my performance,'' he says with disbelief.

Still clearly stung by their breakup, even as she sits in jail, Throneberry provides her side in the he said/she said of their final days, which they both refer to as the period after Ken ''got Fiddler.'' ''He became too important for me after he got the part,'' she says. ''I think I was too fat for him or something.''

When Ken tells the story of his love for Brianna, he claims ''it was unmatched.'' He is a guy with a flair for the dramatic: out of the entire senior class, he is the only one who requested that his yearbook photo run in sepia tone. Now an aspiring actor in drama school, Ken has sold the film rights to his story. If the movie is ever made, he will get a check for $75,000. Maybe he can play the lead role in the Hollywood version of his life. He can reinvent himself, just as Treva did.

Treva Throneberry was picked up by police at a Y.W.C.A. shelter in the spring of 2000 and booked on fraud and forgery charges. The clue that brought her down was one trace of her old self she could not outrun: her own fingerprint, which she had submitted when applying for a Social Security card. To this day, she claims there is a mix-up between her fingerprint and ''this Treva person's'' print. She was assigned a public defender, whom she eventually fired; she refused plea bargains because she didn't want to appear guilty. She was examined by a psychiatrist and found competent to stand trial, and when she finally arrived in court, she represented herself as Brianna Stewart.

The charade of her trial, like the charade of high school, took place within an institutional bureaucracy that had no protocol on how to handle such a strange, determined girl. The judge and the prosecutor seemed in a state of permanent exasperation, but the show went on. Throneberry made her opening statements to the jury, vowing to prove she was 19-year-old Brianna Stewart. Over the course of three days, she made objections and articulate, if futile, arguments: she objected when Sharon Gentry talked about how sad Treva had seemed; she objected when anyone talked about her mental state.

When witnesses who had known her as Brianna took the stand, she asked them some version of these questions: At any time during our acquaintance, did I ever change my story? Was I consistent? She has repeatedly insisted that she is a not a fragmented or falling-apart person; she has insisted on the integrity of her narrative even as her luck disintegrates all around her. ''There is nothing wrong with my mental capacity,'' she says. ''I don't have any personality disorders that would cause distortion of reality.'' Despite her claims, Throneberry was convicted of defrauding the state and was sentenced to a three-year term at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor.

It is possible that if she'd never been arrested, Throneberry would have allowed herself to grow up this time. As Brianna, she had managed to turn 19 without running; she didn't flee Vancouver at the end of her adolescence, as she had so many other towns. It seems this time she was willing to cross the border into adulthood, to graduate from high school and face her fear that she could not exist past 18. At the time of her arrest, she had enrolled in college, and she was talking about becoming a lawyer.

Found in her belongings was a spiral notebook with ''I AM 18!'' written in large balloon letters across the cover. Maybe she wrote the message as a reminder to herself; maybe it was written in disbelief; maybe the exclamation mark indicates joy that she had actually arrived at this fearful age, when all minors are emancipated and the future beckons, a vast and unknowable frontier. Treva Throneberry delayed setting out on this frontier for more than a decade, and in the course of wandering, she found a home in the perpetual state of identity crisis that is high school. In many ways, she belonged at Evergreen: a place where so many of the kids don't know who they are from one year to the next, where one's fate is often determined by rumors and blind luck.

One social worker labeled Throneberry a ''ghost child.'' During her trial, prosecutors characterized her as a menace to society. Yet she insists she is neither a ghost nor a menace, that she is Brianna and she is real. ''I am me, and I want to clear my name,'' she proclaims near the end of a meandering phone call early one recent morning. She has called me many times from prison, and when she calls, I worry about her. Listening to her birdlike voice, I feel the same sympathy the church ladies must have felt at Glad Tidings. I wish there was something I could do for her, but there isn't. Before hanging up this time, she promises to send me a poem about what it feels like to be told you're a person you are not, to be given a stranger's name. I encourage her to send it, although I'm not sure why. As we say goodbye, she sounds positively upbeat, as if it is only a matter of time before she will be believed.

Emily White is the author of ''Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut,'' which will be published later this month by Scribner.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company



Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles