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October 8, 2012

Out of the Box

jill jodi

Photo Credit: Gregg Segal

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Every Sunday, the family visited the public library so Pam and Donald could read magazines. The kids roamed the children's section, trying to understand the books, as their parents hadn't taught them how to read. One day when Jodi was 15, she was studying a book about a monkey on a bicycle. There was a cassette tape player attached, and Jodi popped the cassette into it. Placing the headphones over her ears, she realized that the words on tape must match the words on each page.

Jodi replayed Curious George over and over again, beckoning to her sister. For the next few months, the sisters played the tape hundreds of times, slowly teaching themselves to read, using hand signals to alert each other when Pam was nearby. After mastering Curious George, they moved on to Clifford the Big Red Dog. At night, they practiced their new words: Car. Jump. Jungle.

When Jodi was 18, she advanced to the adult section. From a plumbing manual, she learned that water in sinks comes from underground pipes. An atlas introduced her to the concept of oceans and the fact that Colorado is a state within the United States of America. And from an anatomy book, she finally learned where babies come from.

"Books showed me that our life wasn't normal," Jodi says. The more she read, the more restless she became, wondering about the world beyond the shed.

A year later, while Pam and Donald were out, Jodi and her sister, then 15, fled to the nearby town of Longmont, where Jodi mowed lawns to afford rent for a small room in a house. The sisters embraced their independence, going to the movies and seeking out free attractions — from fish farms to candy factories.

But it was Jodi's love of books that sustained her. Four years after moving to Longmont, Jodi decided to pursue a career as a literary agent, a job she'd heard about through friends — the first she'd ever made. Saved again by her own imagination, Jodi invented a boss named Karen Eden, who was always unavailable because she was "stuck in traffic" or "at a conference." As manuscripts trickled in from writers she met at workshops, Jodi submitted them to editors whose names she culled from books; over the course of three years, she says, her operation represented dozens of writers. She began keeping a journal about her life in Colorado, and at age 32, decided to write her own book. The following year, she published Tours for Free Colorado based on her experiences exploring free fun in her home state.

But Jodi couldn't stay off her family's radar. Although she had legally changed her last name to Jill to avoid being found by her parents, somehow Pam discovered where her daughters lived and one night came pounding on their door. When the sisters wouldn't answer, Pam camped in her car outside the house for days, and Jodi and her sister used their back door to bypass her. Eventually Pam drove off, but over the next five years, she repeatedly showed up and left. Jodi knew that she needed to put more distance between them.


Three years later, Jodi moved to L.A., a city that provided the anonymity she craved. She got a job at a costume manufacturer and in her spare time, relied on her trusty companions: books, magazines, and newspapers. After stumbling upon the website examiner.com, she learned she could get paid per click for writing about celebrities. Jodi began sneaking into Hollywood events (posing as security after purchasing a $26 dark suit from Goodwill), chatting with stars like Justin Bieber and Ryan Seacrest, then blogging her stories. "I became a writer because I spent my childhood silent, and writing is how I can be heard," says Jodi.

Today, now a highly paid columnist for examiner.com, Jodi earns as much as six figures a year and regularly makes the rounds of L.A.'s media parties. The matted brown hair of her girlhood has been straightened and dyed blonde, and she lives alone in a sunny studio apartment where she writes on her patio, owns a dog, and enjoys hanging out with friends. But there are still many ordinary experiences that seem exotic. At 42, she's never been on a date or kissed a man. "I'd like to have a boyfriend, but the idea of physical intimacy terrifies me," she says.

Robbed of a normal life for so long, Jodi still can't believe that no one came to her and her siblings' aid. Once freed from the shed, she and a brother wrote a list of 173 people in Loveland who knew of their living conditions but didn't report them. "Nobody cared," she says. "I had to save myself."

The Wubben family has scattered. Jodi speaks to one of her brothers. She doesn't know where her two other brothers are, although she suspects they live near — and are in contact with — their father. Her sister moved to Florida and is no longer in touch with anyone. Jodi cut off all contact with her now-divorced parents 15 years ago.

She has no photos from her childhood. The only connections to her past are the copies of Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog she purchased at thrift stores. "I read them every week because I'm still trying to sort out who I am and they give me perspective," she says. "Some people call their parents for this; I have my books."

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