“The Road Through Wonderland: Surviving John Holmes,” is the autobiographical tale of author Dawn Schiller’s relationship at age 15 with 32-year-old married porn superstar John Holmes during the late 70’s, early 80’s. During a U.S. military stint in Germany, Dawn’s father met her mother whom he later married and brought to the United States to live with his family in a suburb of New Jersey. Most of Dawn’s childhood centered around her family accommodating her father’s military career. Ravaged by the Vietnam war, drugs, and his inability to parent his children or hold down a job, Dawn’s father convinced his family to relocate to Carol City, a rough and downtrodden suburb of Florida where he left his family to fend for themselves, returning some time later to divorce Dawn’s mother. Dawn’s mother, frustrated and crippled by her husbands broken promises, lack of emotional and financial support, and abandonment, crumbled under the weight of having to support her family, including her mother in law, which manifest itself through a steady stream of physical and verbal abuse directed toward her family.
Following her parents divorce, Dawn, along with her father, her sister, and her sister’s boyfriend set out on a road trip from Florida to California. Along the way, Dawn’s father picked up a hitchhiker who’d later offer them a place to stay at his girlfriend’s apartment Glendale, CA. It was at the hitchhiker’ girlfriends apartment where Dawn Schiller met the manager of the apartment complex, John Holmes. Unbeknownst at first to Dawn was the fact that in addition to his role of apartment complex manager, John Holmes was also a notable pornographic movie actor and married man. Dawn’s rocky first encounter with Holmes slowly morphed into a sexual relationship fueled by drug addiction, isolation, despair, and later physical violence, culminating into a brief life on the run from police and threats against her life from hit men. Lack of parental supervision and involvement by her father left Dawn vulnerable to Holmes inappropriate advancements. Like most child predators, Holmes capitalized on this glaring lack of parental supervision and involvement by becoming Dawn’s gatekeeper. Holmes rapidly assumed control over virtually every aspect of Dawn’s life, crafting a life where Dawn would depend on him for many basic necessities (i.e. not allowing Dawn to learn how to drive; Dawn depended on him to get around Los Angeles). Additionally, Holmes monitored Dawn’s movements, as well as reduced her already limited contact with her family, making it easy for him to claim that her family wanted nothing to do with her.
Although true crime buffs may be lured into reading this book to glean more information regarding the infamous “Wonderland” murders, at its core, this book is a cautionary tale of what can happen to a teen neglected and abandoned into the arms of a waiting pedophile. Looking back, Schiller identifies herself as being among the legions of “throwaway teens” who are left to, more often than not, unsuccessfully stave off attacks from child predators, drug abusers, rapists, and murderers. Some may chalk up the neglect and abandonment that Dawn suffered by her parents (specifically her father) as being part of the hippie counterculture of the day, but a closer inspection of Dawn’s family dynamics reveals patterns that have persisted throughout a variety of era’s. It was these family dynamics that made it easier for me to push through my initial frustration and disappointment regarding some of Dawn’s choices throughout the book. As I continued making my way through the book, it became easier for me to piece together the correlation between Dawn’s decisions, her tumultuous childhood, and Holmes manipulative, violent, and abusive control. Writing the book almost exclusively from the perspective of her teenage self is a powerful tool in drawing the reader into a ring of understanding and compassion that is achieved through a broader look behind the episodes of abuse and murders at Wonderland.
The Road Through Wonderland: Surviving John Holmes is an important, albeit disturbing, portrait of a life nearly destroyed by drugs and violence. It is a testament to the tenacious and fighting spirit of an individual who rose above horrific abuse and addiction. What could have ended in incarceration or death resulted in a national platform for Schiller to educate people on the perils that face the score of throwaway teens roaming our nations streets today, shining a light on the predatory tactics of abusers, while simultaneously assisting teens to find a way to steer clear of the life she fell prey to.