(Zachary Kaufman/The Columbian)
(Rick Bowmer, AP)
Bethany Storro has been accused of being an attention seeker, a racist and a scam artist. She purposefully damaged her face with drain cleaner in 2010 and then concocted a story about being attacked by a nonexistent black woman. Then, she accepted thousands of dollars in donations from people in the community who believed her story.
But the Vancouver woman, now 30, said she's none of those things.
Storro sat down with The Columbian on Tuesday to try to clear up what she said are misconceptions about what happened and to bring attention to the dangers of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, she said.
"I really want to help people," she said. "If I could save just one person from hurting themselves or committing suicide … I would be happy."
Storro, with the help of Portland author Mona Krueger, has written a self-published book, "Facing the Truth." The book examines how her undiagnosed mental illness, including body dysmorphic disorder, drove her to disfigure herself on Aug. 30, 2010. The disorder causes obsessive thoughts about minor or perceived physical flaws.
Before the incident, "I used to look in the mirror and see a monster," she said. "… It's a reality now. I was pretty."
Storro said applying drain cleaner to her face was an attempted suicide — not a bid for attention. She had been severely depressed since a divorce in November 2009 and increasingly obsessed about her face. She didn't expect to live through the experience, and her subsequent lies about what happened were unplanned, she said.
Shocked bystanders who saw her burns asked her if she had been attacked. She said she was so ashamed of what she had done that she answered yes. When a Vancouver police detective showed up in her hospital room, he asked for details about the attacker's appearance in order to complete a composite sketch. She said she never called the attacker "a black woman," a detail that caused some people in the community to call her a racist. Instead, she chose features from a selection on the detective's computer.
"I'm just picking them out," she said. "All of a sudden this image is coming together. The detective says, 'Oh, so she was tan.' I never said she was a black woman. It's just the image that started coming together started looking like a black woman."
She said she also didn't go on a shopping spree with the thousands of dollars raised on her behalf. The only money she spent -- about $1,500 -- was a personal gift from her father's work colleagues. It was intended to buy Storro a computer, she said. After his colleagues found out the truth, they insisted the family keep the money to help cover Storro's medical bills, she said. The other money, gathered from fundraisers and other individuals, was deposited in a separate bank account, never spent and later returned to donors.
She initially faced three counts of second-degree theft for spending part of the donations, but those charges were reduced in exchange for her cooperation.
She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, through a deferred sentencing agreement, and received a suspended jail sentence for lying to police about being a victim of an attack. That charge was dismissed from her record in March 2012 after she completed the terms of the agreement. One of those terms was to seek inpatient mental health treatment.
Road to recovery
Storro lived for a year at Elahan Place, a Vancouver rehabilitation center operated by Columbia River Mental Health Services, where she received daily counseling and medication. She now lives with her parents in the Hough neighborhood.
She still takes the antidepressant fluoxetine to treat her BDD, OCD, depression and anxiety. Before her self-mutilation, she had gone largely untreated.
She said she is trying to move forward in other ways, as well.
Since the incident, Storro also has had seven surgeries on her face, including skin grafts. She said the grafts haven't taken because she has a keloid scarring condition, which causes an overgrowth of scar tissue. Her doctor now is attempting microdermabrasion and other techniques to help repair her face.
She receives Social Security Disability Insurance because she is hearing impaired. That helps pay for most of her medical expenses.
Storro began writing her book about a year after the incident as a form of catharsis and at the suggestion of her counselor. She paired up with Krueger, a fellow burn survivor, after the two women met at the Oregon Burn Center. They met once or twice a week over the course of a year. Krueger did most of the writing, after interviewing Storro, but excerpts from Storro's Elahan journal are included in the book, which is available on Amazon.com.
So far, about 100 copies have been sold, Krueger said.
Storro said she hasn't been looking for work because she is self-conscious about her face and her hearing impairment. But she would like to do something that helps others who have mental health problems.
Her story is still in demand on TV networks. She appeared Feb. 18 on ABC News' "Good Morning America" and will be featured on the network's "20/20" program later this month. An exact date has not been set, Krueger said.
She's said she also is interested in working in the culinary field.
She also has re-entered the dating world. One of the hardest challenges has been explaining her facial scars, she said.
"Do I say what happened right away, or do I say, 'Can I tell you later on when you get to know me?'" Storro said. "I tried it both ways. When I told right away, they freaked out and ran off. When I have waited, it seems better."
She said she also struggles with regret and guilt over her actions. Looking in the mirror is a daily reminder of that horrible day, which finally prompted her to get mental health treatment, she said.
"Mental illness is like cancer," Krueger added. "Early diagnosis and treatment can save your life."