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The Fall and Rise of Anita Brick

Experience is supposed to be a great teacher. So what do you learn from being crushed by an elevator?



L.A. Law was supposed to be good that night in February 1991. Anita Brick and her boyfriend, Tony Knepper, were eating a late dinner in front of the box, but she'd forgotten to bring a drink. Tony offered to fetch her one, but she grabbed her cane and headed for the kitchen while Tony stretched out on the couch.

While Anita was out, Roz, the highly despised TV lawyer, went to get the elevator and got the shaft instead. People all over America laughed out loud, the money-grubbing bitch had met an end she richly deserved. "Anita didn't need this," Tony thought. But when she returned, Anita wanted to hear all about it.

He described the scene briefly, gingerly; Anita set her glass of water down on the table, covered her mouth with both hands, and slumped back on the couch. Only a year earlier she herself had been crushed in an elevator shaft. She had journeyed from the brink of death to a wheelchair to walking with a cane. She had just started to wear regular clothes again. Now this. The accident on TV was played for laughs; everybody knew it wasn't real. But Anita's flashbacks returned that night.

She'd had them daily for the first few months after the accident. She rarely hallucinated during them, didn't so much see the shaft, the elevator, her own broken body, but felt the fear, fear and overwhelming sadness. She'd never be the same.

Afterward she had shut the door on self-pity, but the day after that L.A. Law episode, she was watching TV again when she heard Bob Sirott joke about Roz's death. She phoned Channel Five and gave a message to a receptionist: "Not funny, Bob." Anita stayed in bed that day, and the day went on for months.

Everybody's got a horror story of one kind or another. Five billion people in the world and every one of them scarred by life in some way. Experience is supposed to be a great teacher, but is life worth the lesson? Why don't people just give up? In the mid-80s, Anita Brick and her partner Alice Haywood had started up a small human-resources consulting firm called Decision Dynamics. The office was one floor below her 18th-floor apartment at River Plaza, a 52-story luxury high rise with 24-hour security, carpeting in the halls, a multilevel parking garage. Anita counseled people who'd lost their jobs, or wanted to change careers, or were just looking to discover some purpose in their lives. She taught courses in goal setting. She wore a suit. She rarely had to leave her building. Her life was good.

"I decided my own purpose in life was to encourage other people." And the consulting wasn't enough. "I wanted to understand motivation, and I wanted to understand video a little better, because that was something I knew nothing about. I talked to people and found out about Chicago Access Network, and thought that would be a good place to test it out." She began with an idea for a TV show she would call No Matter What.

It was going to be a talk show. Anita would host, interviewing ordinary people who'd overcome obstacles to triumph over adversity, "people who'd been told that what they wanted to do was impossible, and did it anyway." She figured on having plenty of material.

Anita had met Tony Knepper in her Buddhist group, Nichren Shoshu. They'd been friends for several months, but they'd recently begun a romance. They decided he would coproduce and direct the show, though he had no experience either. They could take a television production course for 75 bucks at Chicago Access Network. After four classes they'd have an episode that could be seen on Channel 19 by approximately a quarter of a million people. "Tony and I went to an orientation meeting in March 1988, put together a proposal for No Matter What, and three days after we submitted it Tony wound up in a coma in the hospital."

He'd had a sinus infection for a couple of weeks, and terrible headaches for a couple of days. Anita was out that Friday night when he called and left a message. Getting home not much later, she heard his voice on the tape; slow and slurred it said: "Hello Anita. This is Tony Knepper. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I'm really, really sorry. Hello Anita. This is Tony Knepper. I'm really sorry." Anita knew Tony didn't drink; she got back to him immediately, telling him he should go to the hospital, but he didn't want to. "Then get into a cab and come to me," she ordered. The next day they attended their weekly Buddhist meeting, but his headache was worse, so Anita took him to Columbus Hospital, just a couple blocks away.

It turned out that the sinus infection had shot into Tony's brain, causing an abscess. He went into a coma and was rushed into surgery. A few days later he asked the doctor how close he had come to death. The doctor's hand went up, his thumb and forefinger shut tight together. "This close," he said. Tony mused, "I didn't see a white light or anything. How did it happen?"

The doctor supposed he could have been bumped on the nose, but leaned more toward the possibility that the infection had eaten through a membrane separating the sinus cavity from the brain. Tony remembered a day a few weeks before when he'd been at a yearly event of the young men's division of Nichren Shoshu--he'd played the big bass drum in their Buddhist brass band. Later that day, playing chicken, he got hit in the nose so hard his glasses broke. "Could it have happened then?" Maybe.

Tony began treatment as an outpatient at the Rehabilitation Institute. He was asked to take a leave of absence from work, but he and Anita went on with their plans for the TV show. His short-term memory was still shaky when No Matter What went into production six months later, in the fall of 1988. He directed the first show with some trepidation, but pulled it off all right. It was only public access after all--there were worse shows directed by people who hadn't had brain surgery recently. Tony directed every weekly installment during the show's first year, except for the one on which he was the featured guest.

It was a simple talk show, but Tony and Anita put a lot of effort into it. They made a sign for the set that said "No Matter What," and had some coffee mugs made up with the show's logo on one side and "Have the Courage to Win" printed on the other; they gave them out to the guests. With practically no budget and minimal training, they strived to look as professional as they possibly could. Anita stumbled occasionally, wore too much makeup or looked at the wrong camera, and Tony kept up his end of the miscues, but all in all, it was a pretty slick endeavor for Channel 19 in 1989. After five months they were given a regular spot, every Monday at five in the afternoon.

Anita and Tony were mostly interested in showcasing individuals who'd overcome social and economic obstacles. Motivational stuff for people seeking careers. "Keep striving" was their message. They occasionally had a guest who had overcome some physical trauma. Tony and a friend named Julie Wlach were interviewed about their head injuries; they and another friend, Kevin Padden, who'd been in a car crash, were the only guests that year who'd been physically disabled.

Anita stuck by Tony through his rehabilitation and recovery, though she sometimes wondered if she should. He'd had seizures and forgetfulness. Anita recalled a Buddhist saying, "Chant a million daimoku" (the chant Nam myoho renge kyo). Going at a rate she estimated at 3,000 an hour, she'd done a million daimoku and still wasn't sure. A friend told her, "Then chant another million." As she started on her second million, Tony got the OK from his doctors to return to work. They told him to stop playing Tetris on his Game Boy, warning that the flashing lights could cause another seizure, but he kept playing and nothing happened.

"For four months," Anita recalls, "things turned around." Then on Friday, February 16, 1990, at 5:30 in the afternoon, they turned around again. Anita was heading out to meet some friends. She put on a thick winter coat and some quilted boots she hardly ever used. Three people were in the elevator already when she got on at 18, and more got on on the way down. Anita moved to the rear. The elevator was full when it reached the lobby. The people in front hurried out, and as Anita started to follow them over the threshold, the doors to the lobby shut in her face. The other set of doors, the ones attached to the elevator car itself, stayed open, and the elevator began to move. In fact it plunged, fast as the first car on a roller coaster. Anita, half in half out of the car, was grabbed around the middle by the top of the elevator's doorway. "I remember feeling like I was being dragged into the shaft." She was. She skidded against the shaft wall for a floor and a half, and then the elevator stopped.

For a moment she thought, "I'm just a little stuck here, I should be able to just climb out." She could see the roof of the elevator, the cables stretching up into the darkness. She could move her arms, but she could see one leg dangling inside the elevator cabin. She pushed against the top of the elevator, but it seemed to push back. Crushed against the wall of the shaft, trapped from the top of her rib cage all the way down, she couldn't go up, down, or sideways. She could hardly breathe from the pressure on her ribs. "Get me out of here," she screamed, "I'm going to die!"

She doesn't remember the two men in the car trying first to pull her back inside the elevator, then trying to push her up into the shaft. She didn't know that one of them had pushed the stop button, or that the other was using a cellular phone to call for help. She began chanting Nam myoho renge kyo and thought about Kevin Padden, who she'd interviewed on No Matter What two weeks earlier.

Padden was a cameraman and filmmaker who specialized in the kind of wilderness footage that constantly put him in harm's way: shooting rapids, climbing mountains, things like that. On the program he'd told Anita, "The most exciting stuff doesn't end up on film." In the fall of 1989, he was working on a nature shoot that would take him to India, on a foray into the Himalayas. He and his producer were riding in a taxi in Jaipur when another car smacked into them head-on. Still conscious after the crash, Padden found himself twisted under the front seat. The producer, also a good friend, was dead. The taxi driver was dead too. None of the people gathered around the car spoke English, and Padden didn't speak Hindi. When they tried to help he'd shouted "No, stop," hoping they'd understand. They did. "If I'd broken my neck it could be OK or it could get much worse if they moved me." Padden's neck wasn't broken, but he was paralyzed, though doctors told him he'd probably be OK. A few weeks later he was flown to Chicago for treatment at the Rehab Institute, and a few months after that he had limped onto the set of No Matter What. Hanging there in the elevator shaft, Anita thought, "If he can get out of that, I can get out of this."

Paramedics forced open the outer elevator doors at the first parking level in the garage under her building and, looking down at Anita, assessed the situation. She remembers hearing one say, "We've never seen anything like this before, I wonder what we should do."

Kneeling above Anita, one of the paramedics stuck his hand down into the gap between the elevator and the wall of the shaft, feeling around. He wasn't sure what it was he found down there, but he didn't like the feel of it. He told the Brick family later that he and the rest of the paramedics thought that once the pressure from the elevator car was released, one of Anita's legs would drop to the bottom of the shaft and the other to the floor of the elevator cabin.

"They were between a rock and a hard place," Anita says, "because they had to release me, but they were afraid that if they did it the wrong way I'd disintegrate. They thought I'd literally been cut in half and the elevator was the only thing holding me together." The paramedics used air bags and the hydraulic wedgelike contraption called the Jaws of Life to free her. Finally lifting her out, they found her broken but still in one piece. She later found out why they thought she'd been cut in half. "When they felt down there, all the tissue from my thigh had traveled up to my waist, and they felt that tissue."

Anita was rushed to Northwestern Hospital, where doctors used scalpels to cut through her winter clothing. She kept chanting all the way through the emergency, pausing only to give out information. A paramedic said that chanting had probably saved her life. "It kept you calm and slowed down the hemorrhaging."

Tony was at work. He'd signed up to help out on another cable program, and he wasn't planning on seeing Anita that night. He heard an anonymous message on his voice mail saying, "Anita's had a little accident."

"She's sprained her ankle or something," Tony thought. He went home and changed clothes, then went on to the hospital.

When he told the staff who he was there for, he was pulled aside into a private room and handed Anita's earrings, her coat, and a boot. He knew then that something bad was up, but he still wasn't prepared for the sight of Anita lying mangled in intensive care. Her arms were burned black from sliding down the shaft. Her left leg looked like it had been gnawed by some large animal. The doctor told him her pubic bone was broken and her pelvis was in pieces, some of it was gone for good. Tony went back to the private room and broke down, weeping in a heap on the couch.

Anita had had the hospital notify Tony and the people she was supposed to meet. She didn't want her friends to think she'd blown them off. After Tony returned to her bedside she asked him to call her family in New Jersey. Tony described the accident to her mother, saying "It's not as bad as it sounds." Anita was alive, awake, and aware. Her mother wouldn't believe him. "What are you hiding?" she snapped. "Tell me." As much as he insisted, she insisted he stop trying to soften the blow.

Anita underwent surgery that night, and the next day her sister Ilene flew in to see her. Her mother doesn't fly, so her parents would arrive by train on Monday. Early Saturday evening, her sister was out, but Tony was there and the room was quiet except for the TV. They were channel-surfing and wound up catching the start of the Channel Two news. Anita was the lead story. It showed the building, described the accident, and said she was in intensive care, but they had no interviews, no grisly footage or weeping friends and relatives. The hospital had kept the media from her bedside. "It was weird watching it on the news," Anita said. "Weird and gratifying at the same time."

After the news Anita called her partner, Alice, who seemed surprised to hear from her. She says that when she first heard Anita's voice she thought the call was coming from beyond the grave. She told Anita she'd seen the news, explaining her reaction: "They said you were in intensive care. I didn't know you could get a phone in intensive care!"

Back in New Jersey, Anita's mother also believed Anita had more than one foot in the grave. Anita found out later that her mother had been busy before she got on the train for Chicago. "I'd never heard of this, but it's an old Jewish tradition, when someone is very ill or about to die, you go to the rabbi and change their Hebrew name to someone's who lived a long, long time. My mother told me she did this, but when she saw later that I was going to live, she changed it back." Anita still doesn't know what her Hebrew name was changed to.

When her parents finally arrived, her father kidded, "Is this some kind of setup for No Matter What? Because of the delicate condition of her pelvis, Anita couldn't laugh, but she indicated she liked his joke by wiggling her index finger.

After surgery Anita had been fitted with a device called an external fixator. Steel bands were hooped around her stomach and four steel pins as long as knitting needles were run through the skin into what remained of her pelvis.

Five days later a rod was screwed across the back of her pelvis. The rod and screws are permanent. Eventually, the doctor said, new bone would meld over them. As for the external fixator, it would come out within the year.

Anita was getting morphine for the pain at first, but it became excruciating as the doctors took her down the drug ladder, first to Vicodin, which wasn't strong enough, then back up a notch to Darvon, which was better but not good. She had a button next to her bed that she could push anytime she wanted drugs, but the doctors had told her to wait ten minutes or more between doses. She could feel the pins twisting inside her every time she moved. She didn't sleep so much as fall into trances, and in the trances she found herself back in the elevator shaft. She didn't sleep and she didn't dream.

Over the first three weeks Tony visited every night after work. Many of her friends couldn't. She was too sore a sight for most eyes, too hard to take. Most nights after Tony left the hospital, he'd hit the 7-Eleven and get some nachos, then he'd head over to Toys-R-Us and buy a new set of Legos. He collected so many sets he had to buy storage chests to hold all the new pieces, and he labeled each drawer with a drawing of the piece according to size and shape. He spent his nights building and tearing down Lego space stations.

After three weeks in the hospital Anita was sent down the street to the Rehab Institute. She began to learn to stand, to sit, to roll over. She wore large, loose-fitting tops over the external fixator. Another patient asked if she was pregnant. If she was pregnant! She didn't even know if she'd ever have sex again.

There were too many ifs to contemplate. If she hadn't chanted, she might have bled to death. If the Jaws of Life didn't exist (it was still pretty new at the time), she could have died just waiting to be cut out of there. If the man in the elevator hadn't pushed the stop button, her skull would have been crushed. A five-year-old girl in Philadelphia (where Anita was born) died in a similar accident because no one was in the elevator to push stop. If the other man hadn't had a phone he couldn't have called for help. She couldn't lie around thinking about ifs. She had work to do.

In April 1990 Tony borrowed a crew from the audiovisual department at the Rehab Institute and shot a new episode of No Matter What. The show had gone into reruns after the accident. Anita interviewed seven of her fellow patients. A little girl with cerebral palsy had been through surgery 26 times. "I've only had two," Anita said. The little girl smiled shyly. Melvin Marslender, an ironworker, had been hit with 19,000 volts on the job. The electricity zapped through his body, burning his limbs so badly they had to be amputated, his arms at the shoulders and his legs just below the knees. He was only the fourth person in the history of the world to get hit with that much voltage and live to tell about it.

Facing the camera, Anita asked, "Can you imagine that happening to you? I don't think so." To Marslender, smiling, calm, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and cutoffs, she declared, "If that had happened to me, I know I'd want to die. But you're one of the most cheerful people I've seen in the institute. Why?"

Marslender answered, "When I woke up and saw I didn't die, at least I had an opportunity to make things right with my maker. That's why I have a smile on my face."

Anita silently asked herself, "If that's his attitude, what have I got to complain about?"

Anita had a third operation scheduled for three days after the taping. The pins were going to be pulled out of her body, the external fixator removed. Tissue and bone had grown around the pins but her doctor didn't want to put her under general anesthesia. He recommended she stay awake for the operation, he'd put novocaine around the exit holes, and the whole thing would be a lot less dangerous than if she went under. It wouldn't hurt much, really, it would be sort of like "pulling a knife through butter."

"If I was your wife, or your daughter, or your sister," Anita asked him, "would you still recommend this course of action?" He said he would. After the operation an aunt admonished her, "You forgot to ask him if he liked his family." Now she could laugh, but when she did it hurt like hell.

After six weeks at the institute she was released. She was using a walker to get around, but independence was a long way off. She wasn't going back to her own apartment, ever. She was moving in with Tony, and they argued over the phone before she left. His place was up a short flight of stairs. He said there were four, but Anita insisted there were about a dozen. She counted ten when she got there.

She used CTA Special Services to get to the institute, waking at five in the morning to make an appointment for a bus to come pick her up. Relearning how to walk, Anita realized she'd never noticed all the cracks in the sidewalk before. It was frightening. Frequently she just didn't feel up to walking a whole block, but she'd kept going, no matter what. The first year taught her about adversity all right, and though she lived with constant, nagging pain, the accident itself was settling into memory when she and Tony sat down to watch L.A. Law that night.

Anita had just begun a three-day-a-week internship at WFLD. After Roz fell to her death, Anita didn't quit going, but she started spending practically every other moment sleeping. She slept through the spring, summer, and fall of 1991. Her joints stiffened up from inactivity. Her condition worsened as she lay in bed, groggy, barely able to shake herself awake. Her eyes shut, she chanted to the ceiling. "I'm lost," she told herself.

No Matter What was on hold, and a lawsuit relating to the accident would probably take years to resolve while the building, the elevator company, and the elevator repair firm all pointed the finger at each other. Somebody screwed up, but who? Larry, Curly, or Moe? Anita didn't care.

She had no income and Tony was supporting her. "He was very sensitive and caring. I'd complain sometimes, 'But you don't know what it's like.' He'd say, 'But I do,' and I'd say, 'This is worse,' and he'd point to his head and say, 'Would you like to trade?' And no, I had to admit, I wouldn't."

"I never felt like I was very tenacious," Anita says now about her life before the accident. But she also had never had much to overcome. She was raised in south Jersey, first in Haddonfield, then Cherry Hill, a ritzy suburb of Philadelphia. She was adopted as an infant, something her family told her at an early age. Her father owned a couple of clothing stores in Pennsauken. He was her mentor and role model. She'd emulated his drive but was still stuck in neutral when, on November 1, 1991, he had a heart attack and died.

"I'd always believed--what's the cliche? Your reach should exceed your grasp? There's always more you can be doing, you're never doing enough." It was enough then just to get on the plane to go to the funeral. She trusted no moving machinery, even being driven to the airport she had to resist the impulse to bolt from the car. Rigid as a porcelain doll, she was strapped into a seat and flown to New Jersey. She had another flashback on the plane.

Back in New Jersey, she took what comfort she could from his death. "My father was standing at the crap table in Atlantic City, a drink in one hand, an English Oval in the other, a thousand bucks ahead; and then he had a massive coronary," Anita said. "That's exactly the way he would have wanted to go." When she got back to Chicago she started physical therapy again at the Rehab Institute, and a few weeks later, she turned "no matter what" sideways. "It's funny in a way," she says. "I was such an 80s type of person--always on the go--and then right at the beginning of the 90s I was slowed down.

"It was like taking baby steps. Actually that's what I called it. A baby just does the stuff it can do and doesn't worry about what it should do. Well, I was like a baby. Right after the accident, I couldn't even turn myself over. So now I decided to be happy with whatever I could do. I'd set a goal: I'm going to be active for ten minutes today; and I'd count everything. I mean everything, as part of that ten minutes. If I got up to get a glass of water, that was a minute. If I changed the channel, there's 15 seconds. Anything physical counted. And I was happy with that. If I couldn't reach ten minutes, well, I wasn't ready for ten minutes. I'd make it nine minutes."

The minutes started to add up. "I always thought that other people had more strength than me, but one thing I got from all this is that everyone goes through something bad, and they can let it destroy them or work it out. I decided to work it out." In August 1992, Tony's mother sent them on a vacation to Denmark. Tony had always wanted to go to Legoland.

When they returned in September the Rehab Institute had arranged an internship for her at WGN. She put promotional clips together for the station, like for a week of Cheers episodes featuring fights between the Cheers bar and its rival, Gary's. Taking her theme from Star Wars, she called it "Bar Wars." WGN also featured promotional spots for the public schools called the Extra Effort Awards, which no one else wanted to do. Anita did them. Every now and then she shot a new No Matter What with Tony but the show had mostly been in reruns since the accident. They finally let it go altogether. The last No Matter What aired on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1992.

Though her time at WGN was also supposed to end then, she was happy there. Tony called her "the intern that wouldn't leave." She stayed until the following July.

No fortune-teller could have foretold the accident, and no doctor would predict she'd ever make a full recovery. In fact, the doctors told her she'd probably get worse. "The pain I have is always there," she says. "And what I was told by the surgeon is that it will get worse and worse, and in my senior years I'll be crippled. Well, I figured that may happen to something like 90 percent of people with pelvic injuries like mine, but I'll continue to do my physical therapy and hope it doesn't happen to me."

With her business gone for good, No Matter What on what was starting to look like permanent hiatus, and the internship at WGN over, Anita tried writing. She took a workshop at the University of Iowa over the summer. Back in Chicago she began writing a series of articles that she called "The Myth of Goal Setting" for the Wall Street Journal's National Business Employment Weekly. "It's a three-part series, and it just says that you can't have your goals in isolation because things can blow up. You never know."

Her baby steps were growing longer and she no longer needed canes to walk when she got up this fall and took herself out to a mind/body healing workshop in Oak Park. Meditation was part of the workshop, and while she was meditating, she had a vision.

Her vision was clear. She was on the main deck of the starship Enterprise. She's not a big fan of Star Trek, but she'd watched the show often enough to know the ship. A crewman touched her shoulder. "Captain Picard wants to see you," he said. She found the captain in a conference room, sitting around a table with the other officers. Motioning for her to sit in the empty chair next to him, he told her he had a message for her, something she had to do. "What is it?" she asked.

"Give up," he told her.

She was taken aback. "What do you mean? Quit?"

"Give up," he repeated. He looked very serious, almost fatherly. He means control, she thought, I should stop trying to control everything. "OK," she agreed, "I give up." Everyone in the room stood up and cheered. Music played, and all around the Enterprise everyone joined in the celebration. Captain Picard presented her with a commemorative pin that read "I Gave Up" in white letters on a red background. He pinned it to her shirt, one TV star to another.

Then, Anita Brick returned to earth. "Maybe No Matter What can be a book," she thought, "or I can do another TV show." She walked outside into the real world, kicking at the leaves on the sidewalk.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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