| Payton North
WILBRAHAM – Poetry has been the means by which one woman has overcome tragedy.
Thomas Damoulakis, Laura Chagnon’s soulmate, descibed the journey she has been on for the last 28 years.
It was Laura Chagnon’s 26th birthday on Nov. 4, 1989. She was exploring Boston for the first time, window shopping and strolling along the cobblestone walkways. She was wearing a new grey suede coat and white leather purse her parents gave her. The purse was slung over her shoulder when she felt a sharp tug that spun her around and changed her life forever. Though the events that left a mark on her life were horrific, she has found a way to be at peace, and a way to help others.
“She heard the footsteps behind her and being a female by herself, it raised a red flag so she walked faster to get to the bus station faster, she was about three blocks away, but as she walked faster so did the footsteps. When she walked slower to allow them to pass her, then they slowed down, so this really scared her,” Thomas Damoulakis, Chagnon’s soulmate, recounted. “All of a sudden she felt a tug on her purse like it had caught onto something, and then she felt another sharp tug and it spun her around, and there were two men, and they looked at her and said, ‘Keep your mouth shut or we’re going to hurt you.’”
When the men grabbed Chagnon, they whisked her away into their vehicle. Once the three were in the car, according to Damoulakis, one man turned to the other, grabbed Chagnon’s purse, and commented that Chagnon had money in the purse and they would be able to ‘get a free high tonight.’ Later, Chagnon concluded the two men were heroin addicts. What ensued was a sexual assault, as well as a horrific physical assault.
“The two [men] looked at each other and one reached under the front seat, pulled out a baseball bat. What they did, was they beat her and every blow was to her head, thus fracturing her skull and eventually she was knocked out, they beat her several times so badly doctors in the hospital couldn’t believe a person was beaten so bad. Now they had to get rid of her body, so they waited till it was dark, they drove through Boston, they tossed her body on a sidewalk, nobody was around, they took off, and they never were caught,” Damoulakis said.
Chagnon says she believes in fate, and believes that God is the reason why she is still alive today. Not long after Chagnon was left for dead on a sidewalk in the city, a police officer spotted her on the street. He called an ambulance, and Chagnon was rushed to New England Medical Center, where she laid in a coma labeled as “Jane Doe” for five weeks. When Chagnon woke, she blurted out her mother's phone number to a nearby nurse, who alerted her parents.
“They [Chagnon’s parents] came down, and when they did the doctors told them good news is your daughter is here and safe, but the bad news is she’s now a legally blind quadriplegic with a traumatic brain injury,” Damoulakis shared.
For four years following Chagnon’s assault she was in intensive speech, occupational and physical rehabilitation facilities across New England. In 1993, she finally moved back to Western Massachusetts and into her parents home. Chagnon’s parents, Wayne and Carole, transformed their home into one that Chagnon could function in easily. The pair added a wheel chair ramp, a walk-in shower for Chagnon’s bathroom, added transfer devices and contacted Stavros Center for Independent Living to be sure that Chagnon would get the 24 hour care she needed.
“They’re wonderful, they gave their whole lives to me,” Chagnon said.
Chagnon’s first order of business was to forgive her assailants. Though they were never caught or brought to justice, Chagnon says she forgave them so that she could move forward and become a “productive member of society.” Back with her parents and unable to work a “normal” nine to five job, Chagnon was left to find something to occupy her time. She remembered her interest in poetry in high school, as she had used it as an outlet for the bullying she had experienced.
"When she came home after her accident with her caregivers, she dictated to them, they wrote the words down, and they put it in a computer to store her poems, and she did that day after day and then she started submitting the poems to contests, newspapers, the Springfield Journal at the time, and she was getting good feedback,” Damoulakis explained.
In 2014, Chagnon decided she wanted to publish a book comprised of her poetry. Her first book, “Never Touched a Pen,” is an 80-page hardcover book displaying her work. In the customer review section on amazon.com where Chagnon’s book is sold, several individuals reached out, saying they purchased her book because they’d heard of her story, but didn’t realize what a talented poet she is.
“As a fellow brain injury survivor, and having met many who have brain injury, to learn of how terribly she was hurt and to hear that she holds no ill-will toward her attacker(s), and to know how far she has come since her injury over 20 years ago and how accepting she is of the changes in her life that she had no control over, she is the embodiment of perseverance, hope and forgiveness. She is lovely, soft-spoken and beneath that is her drive to write poetry. What is also amazing is that she will write a poem for anyone in need of a spiritual lifting-she is a giving and caring soul,” Sandra Madden wrote.
“I'm admittedly not a huge poetry fan but I purchased this book due to the amazing story of inspiration and overcoming of obstacles that surrounds the book. After reading the first three poems, I was hooked,” T Civin commented.
Not only did Chagnon publish her first book in 2014, but she also decided to become a motivational speaker.
“Laura said to me, ‘I have physical confinements, but inmates in correctional facilities are also confined by the length of their sentences and their surroundings,’ and she said to me, ‘I’d like to go to prison and speak to the inmates. Maybe there will be a connection there,’” Damoulakis recounted.
Damoulakis and Chagnon contacted the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office, and through their Victim Impact Program, Chagnon was able to go to the prison on Nov. 4, 2014, exactly 25 years after her accident, and speak to the inmates. Chagnon shared her story and shared how she’s risen above tragedy. This resonated with the inmates so much so that they gave her a standing ovation. Additionally, they brought her a birthday cake and collectively wished Chagnon a happy birthday.
“She was there to uplift them, and in return they uplifted her,” Damoulakis said.
Today, Chagnon speaks in at least 25 prisons each year across Massachusetts.
“They all [the inmates] tell her that she gave them hope today. They’re looking at someone who’s quadriplegic, in a wheelchair, who never gave up on herself and her life. They’re looking at her and then looking at themselves, they feel their situation isn’t now nearly as bad,” Damoulakis noted.
Three years after the release of her first book and touching the lives of thousands of inmates, Chagnon has released her second book, titled “Accepting the Waltz.” The book features nearly 70 of Chagnon’s latest poems, selected from a sea of over 6,000 poems that she’s written.
While Chagnon is inspired by the warm summer weather, the book is not focused on one particular topic. “Accepting the Waltz” features a poem about cancer, where Chagnon refers to it as a “dark and most ominous villain.”
“We live together never peacefully, not ever will I call you friend, to my life you bring nothing but sorrow, and my journey you threaten to end,” “A Message to Cancer” reads.
“Accepting the Waltz: The Second in a Series of Inspired Poetry” can be purchased on amazon.com in paperback for $12.95.
Chagnon, though having experienced such tragedy, has never wavered. She plans to continue to continue her poetry as well as her inspirational and motivational speaking, as it not only benefits the inmates, but it lifts her spirits, too.
As her poem “I the River” reads, “I am ecstatic, so ecstatic, for the privilege and the honor to be alive…”