I’m my mother’s child

Kuzuri Reid’s checkered past has a whole lot to do with how her mother lived.

By Brittany Hailer

Kuzuri Reid said she is the only woman on her construction team. She has been working in construction for about two years. At work, she wears a hard hat with Betty Boop on it, makeup and faux lashes. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


Voices Unlocked is a project telling the stories of Pittsburgh-area residents whose life experiences have been shaped by the penal system.

Meet the people behind this project July 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Alloy 26 in Pittsburgh. We will have food, refreshments and a jail cake. Register here!

Explore another voice in this series:

Sarah Womack: A song within a storm

Yeshua David's adaptation

Jason Sauer: Trying as best he can

Luna: Seeking compassion for those cast aside

Cedric Rudolph: One of the Mirrors

Emily and Liza Geissinger: Sisters through addiction, jail time and new endeavors

Jason Toombs finds his voice while writing a novel and love letters from jail

Robin Tomczak: How a scholarship athlete ended up in ‘the hole’

Kuzuri Reid is exactly what her mom, Anita Reid, wanted her to be. Beautiful, smart and tough. She writes poetry and lives alone. Her four kids are all grown. Kuzuri has two jobs: as a cook and as a construction worker. She is the only woman on her construction team. At work, she wears a hard hat with Betty Boop on it, makeup and faux lashes.

I spent Mother’s Day with Kuzuri at her suggestion. It was the only day she was free for an interview. We sat at a kitchen table at her apartment, talking about motherhood, what it means and how our mothers influenced us.

I learned quickly that Kuzuri’s life journey follows her mother’s. Four years clean in July, Kuzuri, 47, confesses that for a time, she turned into her mother: abandoning her children, chasing a high first and living second. Today, Kuzuri says she can only lead by example and that bonding with her adult children isn’t easy: You know they say it's like instinct. But I don't believe that. You definitely have to learn. Kuzuri also identifies as a lesbian and much of her pregnancies have been a result of casual sex with men. I was the surrogate mother. I just had them. I never wanted kids. I never got to know them. I was just too caught up in using where I couldn't abort it. Thank God for family because that's who had them. She describes her relationship with men as a business transaction or unfortunate circumstance. In short, motherhood isn’t something Kuzuri chose for herself.
And my relationship with my mom is so bittersweet.

Yet, Kuzuri’s story starts even before this when she is molested at the age of 4.

My mom was very abusive and I don't know if it came from me being molested or raped at a very young age and her not being able to deal with the guilt.

Text in italics are Kuzuri's words.

Kuzuri Reid says she couldn’t get clean until she treated both of her diseases: her addiction, and the trauma she sustained after a molestation as a young girl. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Kuzuri’s mother would leave her with a friend when she was using. This friend’s boyfriend molested Kuzuri repeatedly. One of Kuzuri’s earliest memories is having her legs up in stirrups and her mother, Anita, wrapping her hand in a towel so that Kuzuri could bite because of the pain. A doctor was checking her for semen. She remembers a judge asking her to recite her ABC’s and 123’s to see if she was competent, if she was smart enough to be telling the truth. After this, she is abused again by an uncle repeatedly. Kuzuri says her family never talked about it. Anita continued to leave Kuzuri with men who would harm her.

I needed help after that. She was caught up; she was using. I never got the help that I needed. ...I believe that that’s where a lot of my issues came from. That was the beginning. It was real easy to sell myself to somebody. Because I was having orgasms at a very young age, not knowing what they were – 4 years old.
When Kuzuri gets older and sells herself, she links the feeling to when she was young. She says she always was looking for that feeling without knowing what it was. She was chasing a high even before she became an addict. She wishes she had received the proper help and care, wishes she could have processed what had happened to her. She never understood the abuse until she was much older and in rehab. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Kuzuri tells me she was filled with rage: It gave me permission to commit suicide in increments.

89 dollars will take you anywhere

Kuzuri was arrested the first time at the age of 16 in Houston, Texas. She was trying to track down her mother.

My mother got paroled from the penitentiary and she started using it again. She went on the lam. She went on the run. She went to Houston, Texas and she pulled me from ninth grade at Westinghouse and I went down there with her.

Anita is arrested not long after they arrive in Houston, and Kuzuri is sent back to Pittsburgh by her godmother, who lived in Houston at the time.

A framed photo of the late Anita Reid, the mother of Kuzuri. Kuzuri shares about her mother's addiction and how it changed her childhood. "We had this relationship where she would tell me where she hid her needles. ...I went the same route because I was curious."(Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

A framed photo of the late Anita Reid, the mother of Kuzuri. Kuzuri shares about her mother's addiction and how it changed her childhood. "We had this relationship where she would tell me where she hid her needles. ...I went the same route because I was curious." (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

But she wanted to be with her mom.

I knew nothing about the ‘hoe stroll,’ which was prostituting on Downtown Liberty Avenue. But I knew that's where all the ladies were with fishnet stockings and little skirts and fur coats. ...So I knew where to go to get money to go back to Houston. And that's what I did.
People's Express Airlines.
$89 one way. I'll never forget it. It was the airline they had years ago. $89 will take you anywhere.

Kuzuri’s first time prostituting is to earn enough money to get back to her mother. By the time she returns, Anita had escaped the county jail and ended up in prison. Kuzuri has nowhere to go and finds places to stay with people she meets. She starts smoking crack and shooting cocaine, stripping and drugging rich men and stealing their money. She is still 15 years old.

Kuzuri passes out in a hotel room after drugging and robbing a male guest. She is arrested. When she’s in jail, she tries to tell the officers that she is underage, but no one believes her. Which is totally illegal and I wish I would have sued them. And I don't know if there is a statute of limitations. It traumatized me.

A friend pays her bond, and she returns to Pittsburgh.

That came back to haunt me. When I went to jail here, when I turned 18, I had warrants for my arrest in Houston, Texas. They were trying to extradite me. You know I had to get proof of my age. The [jail] counselor really fought for me saying: ‘She should never been in jail in the first place.’

After this, the floodgates open for Kuzuri. She continues to get arrested: disorderly conduct, prostitution, drugs, etc.

Once you get a record, once your name is already down there, it's real easy. They run your name, they see you have something on it — it’s just real easy to get caught into the system. Once you start not paying fines then you're going to jail for not paying the fines and you're getting on probation. It's a domino effect.

When Kuzuri was 19 years old, she received 20 years of probation for prostitution. From there she continues to violate, continues to land behind bars. On more than one occasion, she is housed with her mother.


Kuzuri does not blame her addiction or her choices on her mom.

It did make me curious. I would want to know what took her away from us. What was it? ...We had this relationship where she would tell me where she hid her needles. ...I went the same route because I was curious. I wanted to know why everybody was in the bathroom. Eventually I found out what happened in the bathroom.

Kuzuri served time upstate at Muncy State Correctional Institution twice in the early 1990s and both times her mother was incarcerated with her. The first time she was sent upstate, she was 21.

Kuzuri Reid, 47, at her apartment in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

She tells me she didn’t take her sentence seriously. She thought it was a joke. Her mother was there to talk to. She describes the prison like a college campus. Prisoners were allowed outside; they were allowed to smoke. She had a key to her “room,” where she could come and go as she pleased. Everything was fun for the time being.

I ask Kuzuri when everything stopped being a joke.

RHU, the Restricted Housing Unit. I did 75 days in the hole.
I have never experienced nothing like that. You're out off the campus, up in the woods where you see bears. You're not in population. You're in your room 22 hours a day. You have these thick jumpsuits on that are striped, like the old school striped black-and-white jumpsuits.
When you go outside, you go out in handcuffs and you're in a dog kennel. You get to walk back and forth like a dog. That’s all you could do.

Saying goodbye

Kuzuri says she couldn’t get clean until she treated both of her diseases: her addiction, and the trauma she sustained after her molestation.

My first nine months clean, I took care of my mom. ...She died just before I celebrated a year. She was clean eight years before she passed away at 61. So look how many years it took her. I really had to ask myself, ‘What do you want? What do you want your legacy to be? Do you want to die with no health insurance?’

She died [in June 2014] of kidney failure. She was on dialysis for the last 13 years. She had been in the penitentiary and she wasn't getting the [proper] care. She kept getting infections where the port was, and there was really no other place to put the port. She said she didn't want dialysis anymore.
She lasted a week.
I was the one who had to sign that paper not to resuscitate her.

Anita died in her own apartment. Kuzuri can’t remember how long it had been since her mother could afford and take care of her own housing:

My mom was very institutionalized. She's spent half my life in the penitentiary. ...[She was] very smart, very talented in so many ways. ...
I don't think she'd ever really forgiven herself for what happened to me.
My mom's death for me was a major turning point. She definitely asked me on her deathbed, Kuzuri, please don't get high.

Kuzuri Reid got a tattoo to memorialize the life of her late mother, Anita Reid. "My mom's death for me was a major turning point." (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Kuzuri Reid got a tattoo to memorialize the life of her late mother, Anita Reid. "My mom's death for me was a major turning point." (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

A couple of months before she died, I had so much anger toward her still.

Kuzuri tells Anita before she dies that she’s not going to take any more abuse during an argument. Anita, for the first time, admits, in her own way, to what happened to Kuzuri all those years ago.

One day she said, ‘Do you think I wanted to do those things to you?’ That was her way of apologizing. I wanted her just to acknowledge what she did. And she did.

This is the only time Kuzuri and Anita talk about the abuse. She says that because she knows her mom, she knew what her mother meant. Anita and Kuzuri got the closest they’d ever been at the end of Anita’s life.

Kuzuri starts to smile, telling me about her mother’s character: funny, charismatic, the life of the party, everyone at the hospitals loving her. I get another glimpse of Anita. She is no longer addict or prisoner, but comedian and neighbor. I tell Kuzuri that her description of Anita reminds me of her.

I'm my mother's child. I am. My sister looks exactly like her; I act like her. ...Even I hate to say, Oh my God, I'm just like my mother.

Kuzuri shared her poem “She” which is an ode to her mother, Anita Reid:

Every day, she shot dope and smoked crack. Looking at her you would have no idea, no signs of track marks, able to keep a good appearance. One day she would be reupholstering your furniture, the next stealing your jewels.
Buttery sweet caramel complected, thick brown dark shoulder-length hair.
36-24-36 built like a shit brick house. High cheekbones, nose shaped liked she belongs to the Blackfoot Indian tribe. Her smile lit up any and all rooms she entered. Beauty couldn’t even describe her.

Kuzuri Reid works as a cook and in construction as a laborer. She is a member in the Laborers Local 373 union. "I love the challenge and I love being a trendsetter for other women in a male dominant workplace," she said. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

The way she moved was like a Lioness on the prowl in the deep dark jungle Africa, moving with strides of confidence and determination.
Humorous and the life of the party. Yet guarded, mean and real standoffish.
She could recite any Bible verse in one breath, and curse you to the Gods with the next. Smart and witty to say the least. So well-polished and wore many masks if necessary. She would often say to me:
Kuzuri, you are beautiful,
Kuzuri, you are smart,
Kuzuri, you are a bad motherf**ker,
Never settle for less.

Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of the Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Word Riot, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at BrittanyHailer.com.