Joe Morrissey has a daughter?
We were surprised, too, when we heard it, so we called and asked. Yes, he said, she's 13, her name is Angela Schaefer and she moved into his riverfront estate in Varina in January.
The premise sounded like a sitcom: Wealthy playboy Joe Morrissey, the city's most notorious bad-boy criminal defense lawyer, becomes a full-time dad. We tried to picture him packing lunches or coaching soccer. A laugh riot.
We met with Morrissey and Angela in March to talk about this Father's Day story. A precocious, intelligent, sparkling but waifishly thin child, she obviously adored her father. They spoke about their home life, and we imagined warm fuzzy photos of their busy outdoorsy lifestyle: The ever-competitive former prosecutor water-skiing, skating and horseback riding with his young daughter at his side.
We made the dates to meet, shook hands and walked away. Then something unexpected happened: Morrissey called to tell us Angela had been hospitalized at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Anorexic since she was 11, and later bulimic, the 5-foot-3-inch Angela, we learned, had gotten down to about 70 pounds, a far cry from the healthy 103-107 pounds she's supposed to weigh at her age. Her doctors said her starving body had begun to metabolize muscle, a dangerous omen that it could begin to eat her heart muscle. It was decided she would enter Johns Hopkins for what would be her third stint in the hospital's 24-hour-care, locked-down eating disorder unit in two years.
Suddenly, the happy facade retreated, and Morrissey talked frankly about the constant state of struggle in their lives. For the first time, "Fightin'" Joe Morrissey, the man who parlayed an infamous courtroom brawl into an ad campaign, has found a fight he can't win with fists or legal derring-do.
"It's very frustrating for me because I'm used to seeing a problem and dealing with it and resolving it in a logical way, and with Angela's situation, you can't do that," Morrissey says, angst evident in his voice. "The effect of this on a child is very, very frightening for a father."
On a balmy June Saturday with the blue sky filled with bunches of white cotton, while the newly opened Richmond Canal Walk is clogged with visitors and dignitaries, Joe Morrissey is in a day room on the fourth floor of the Meyers building at Johns Hopkins, playing checkers with his daughter. (Editor's note: This visit took place before Morrissey, who is appealing a contempt-of-court conviction, began serving a 30-day sentence in Chesterfield County Jail June 10.)
You enter the dayroom through a locked glass door reinforced with a web steel wire. A sign on the surrounding window reads "Elopement Risk." The day room is Spartan, sterile, institutional, with uniform pine chairs and tables and a smallish TV in a cabinet. Nurses, doctors and orderlies are constantly buzzing about.
In her two months at the hospital, Angela has gained back 20 pounds, but she still looks gaunt, as if she's been sick from a long illness, which she has. She and her dad laugh and with a cocky smile, she tells him she's going to beat him bad, as she intently sets up the checkers.
They make small talk, a little awkwardly. Morrissey tells Angela that his 20-year-old girlfriend, Rebekah Harris, has redecorated Angela's room, sewing new drapes and painting her furniture.
It's getting close to dinner. The unappetizing smells of hospital food emanate from stacks of metal food trays with pink plastic covers. An older woman walks by, skeletal-looking, like a concentration-camp survivor. This is the cost of a society obsessed with impossibly thin body images.
Angela looks like her dad, with the same long nose, the same sharp features. She also possesses his verbal and logical dexterity. Soon after arriving, Morrissey learns he may not be allowed to have dinner with Angela at the hospital. A nurse believes she's been hiding food, perhaps to lose weight, perhaps to binge on later. "She just suspects me," Angela says with irritation. "She didn't see anything."
Instead of using his powers of persuasion to sway a jury to free an accused murderer, Morrissey is negotiating with nurses behind closed doors for extra time with his daughter. He wins.
Morrissey met Angela's mother, Ellen Schaefer, in 1984 when she was newly graduated with a master's in biology from Georgetown. They dated for about a month and a half, their short union producing Angela. (Morrissey, who has never been married, also has another daughter named Lindsey, now age 11, by a different mother.)
Ellen Schaefer married her husband, Ed, a lieutenant commander in the Navy, shortly before Angela was born. Ed Schaefer adopted Angela, but after talking with a child psychologist, the Schaefers decided to tell Angela about Morrissey when she was 5.
She began asking to see him. She also began using the information against the father who raised her, says her mother: "She would always tell my husband, 'You're not my real dad,' and even to this day, she used to sort of use it as a thing to get at him."
Ellen Schaefer is noticeably weary of her long battle with her daughter. She says bluntly that her daughter has made her "miserable." Ever since she was very young, Schaefer says, Angela has been stubborn, obstinate, rude, argumentative with her mother, though she's polite and charming with strangers.
"Her IQ is superior, really high. ... If she could just put all that into positive things, she could go far, I think, be what she wants to be," her mother says of Angela, who is an honor-roll student. But "her personality is very like Joe's, just like him, breaking the rules. She doesn't like doing things the way she's supposed to. She bucks authority."
In her most recent hospital stay, for example, Angela and another patient broke into the nurse's station and stole their medical charts to see how much they weighed. Then they took another patient's chart. The incident was referred to the hospital's legal department, which, fortunately didn't take action against her, Ellen Schaefer says with relief.
Angela met Morrissey, whom she calls Joe, when she was 7 or 8, when he traveled to her home. From then on, she would visit him at his home at least once a year in the summer, a fun time that both came to cherish. "I went up and visited him periodically, whenever possible, as often as possible," Angela says, speaking from a pay phone in the hospital ward. "He was happy to see me. He was nice. It was just like a visit to an uncle at first."
Now, she says, "We're pretty close. We talk to each other, we do things together, we go ice-skating, water-skiing. We were going to go see Jimmy Buffet but we can't now because I'm here."
Angela's problems began shortly after she and her parents and her four younger siblings moved to a naval base in Puerto Rico in November 1996. "What happened was I lost a little bit of weight and people started saying I looked good and I continued to do that, and my diet got more and more restricted," Angela says. "It didn't just happen at once. It gradually decreased and decreased."
Eventually, she was eating half an orange a day. "I didn't have any energy. I was real lethargic. My muscles ached and stuff," says the normally active girl who loves sports. "I went to school, came home and laid down."
She was taken to the base clinic, and then was hospitalized for malnutrition and dehydration. When the doctors realized they weren't equipped to deal with the scope of her problem, she was admitted to the eating-disorder ward at Johns Hopkins, a program that treats women of all ages and that shares space with mental patients grappling with depression. Angela spent a month in the hospital under around-the-clock surveillance. She was 11«.
Her parents moved back to Maryland to be closer to the hospital. Everything was OK for a while, and then school ended and summer boredom set in. "It progressively got worse again," she recalls. "It started off where I'd eat a lot of fat-free yogurt and vegetables and pretzels, and then it got down to where I would have nothing for breakfast, nothing for lunch, and I'd come home and have vegetables for dinner."
She also began bingeing and purging. "At night, I'd have two bowls of ice cream and then throw it up," she says. "The first time I did it, I didn't mean to do it. It was just sort of a reaction. It was like a burp but food came up instead. I never stuck my finger down my throat. I was pretty much able to do it with my muscles. ... I'd eat ice cream because it was easier and it didn't hurt or anything, and I was so hungry at the end of the day."
Before long, Angela was back down to 70 pounds or so again. "One day she just looked like a skeleton," her mother recalls sadly. "You don't realize it. You see her every day and all of a sudden, she looks like she's going to die. ... She wants to look good, I guess, and they don't realize they look terrible when they do that."
She spent three months at Johns Hopkins, some of it as a day patient, returning home to her parents at night. She was released in late 1998 after having regained about 20 pounds, but still below her goal weight and still struggling. Her parents didn't know what to do. Angela enjoyed Richmond and enjoyed staying with Morrissey, so against the advice of her doctors, they sent her to live with him in hopes a change of scenery would help with her problems. "We had nothing to lose," her mother says. "We were at the end of our rope."Continue to Part 2