The Damage Done
The clock buzzed on cue—and kept buzzing until Linda Danser came in to shut it off and found her daughter lying motionless, facedown in the pillow.
"When I touched her, she was cold, stiff," recalls Linda. "And I went into denial right away. I said, 'Oh, the problem is, she can't breathe. I'll turn her head.' Then I knew, and I screamed at Bill, 'I think she's dead! Call 911.' "
Her parents' sadness became more crushing four weeks later with the release of the toxicologist's report: Elizabeth had died from an accidental overdose of heroin.
Around Princeton Junction, Elizabeth Danser's death was viewed as an aberration. Heroin was supposed to be a vice of the inner cities, not the recreational drug of choice for middle-class schoolkids. But in fact heroin use has exploded. In 1994, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 27,300 people were admitted to hospital emergency rooms after ingesting heroin—up from 1,250 in 1988. Moreover, smack has infiltrated suburbia. Cheap, powerful heroin from Latin America, which can be snorted rather than injected, has changed the user profile in the past few years. In certain areas, among the young and upwardly mobile, smack has become a popular party drug. "Purity is up, the price is down, and it's become the latest sexy, chic thing," says Dr. Herbert Kleber, executive vice president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. "People don't understand this drug. They think if you don't use needles, you don't get addicted, you won't die. Wrong."
"Hey, the stuff is here," adds Greg Eldridge, the West Windsor Township police captain. "And the frustrating part is, a lot of parents would rather talk to their lawyers to get their kids off than get help for them."
That was not the case with Elizabeth Danser. She had been receiving treatment for clinical depression and marijuana and cocaine use. "Intellectually, we know we did everything we could do," says Linda. "But emotionally I feel we should have seen what was coming." Perhaps misleadingly, Elizabeth had appeared to be on the upswing in her final weeks. "I truly felt she was all right, that she was clean," says Korean-born Kate, whom the Dansers adopted in 1985. Adds her father: "We'd all felt we had turned a corner. Elizabeth was becoming this new person."
In early childhood the Dansers' older daughter hadn't seemed marked for a short, anguished life. "She was an easy, placid kid from the start—as an infant, all dark hair and blue eyes," Linda says. Through eighth grade she was a straight-A student and an enthusiastic field hockey player. But in 1992 Elizabeth entered the highly competitive West Windsor-Plainsboro High School and began to lose her way. She started failing tests and cutting classes and seemed "distracted," according to a ninth-grade evaluation. "She got into that high school and hated it," recalls Linda. "She didn't like the people. They were snotty."
Steadily, Elizabeth sank into a serious depression. "At first we didn't realize what was happening," says Linda. Midway through Elizabeth's freshman year, her parents finally took her to a therapist, then to a psychiatrist, who treated her with antidepressants. But sometimes, says her father, she would "self-medicate" with marijuana. Over the next several years, Elizabeth experimented with cocaine as well. "She couldn't stand the school and preppy pretensions, and she used drugs to escape," recalls Liz Keenan, a close friend who is not a drug user. Elizabeth may also have been embarrassed when, in 1992, her father had to find a new job because the market for corporate headhunters had collapsed. "We both had a hard time getting over his driving a limo," Kate admits. "I mean, like, he was driving the fathers of my friends."
In the spring of 1993, the Dansers checked Elizabeth into the Carrier Foundation in Belle Meade, N.J., for one month of treatment for depression. Two years later she spent two weeks at the White Deer Run rehab clinic in Allenwood, Pa., to help wean her off marijuana. After that she briefly attended sessions of Narcotics Anonymous. But she also kept up an active social life, dating a succession of boyfriends, partying or hanging out at a local Denny's. Although she was often attired in obligatory grunge, Elizabeth made more radical fashion statements—notably by way of a tattoo of a small, blue sun above her navel and another one of Chinese lettering on her right upper arm. She began wearing pierced rings in her eyebrow and tongue. (She would carefully remove the ring in her tongue before going home.)
"We found out about the tongue and the tattoos and some other stuff after she died," says Linda. "We really felt kind of angry. What was hurtful was the secret side to her." But there were admirable qualities as well. "She was very kind to this retarded boy who worked at a local supermarket—he had a crush on her," says Bill. "She wouldn't let others pick on him. She didn't tolerate bigotry, gay-bashing, racism. I was proud of that."
By the middle of her senior year, however, Elizabeth, to all outward appearances, seemed finished with drugs. "I didn't see any of the usual signs," says Linda, "like being sleepy, eyes and nose running. She actually looked healthier than she had in years." Sharon Kulick, an administrative assistant at Princeton University, where Elizabeth clerked as part of her high school's work-study program, agrees: "Her appearance sharpened up—she was happy, spunky. She was flourishing." Accepted into two-year Mercer County College, Elizabeth had planned to study photojournalism. Just a week before she died, she accompanied her senior class to Disney World—and returned elated to have enjoyed the company of so many preppies—the very kids she had so long resented. Still, she never made a clean break from her friends who were trouble. "They were the druggies," says Liz Keenan. "And when she told me, I got really upset. So she stopped telling me."
On the night she died, Elizabeth took an overdose of heroin that she had purchased sometime earlier with friends. (The police, who may prosecute the person or persons who provided the heroin, refuse to comment on the case.) Why would Elizabeth, whose life suddenly seemed to be in order, return to drugs with such a vengeance? "I think it was a boy," says her mother. "She was trying to impress him."
On Monday morning, Elizabeth's death was announced over the high school PA system. "I saw teachers crying," her sister Kate says. "The bathrooms were full of smoke—people who didn't even smoke were smoking to relieve the stress." Says Nancy Himsel, a school counselor who thought Elizabeth had turned a corner: "One night of poor choices took away her hopes, her dreams, her future."
A shrine of flowers was laid on Elizabeth's school parking space—No. 37—and on April 30, 500 people, including most of the senior class, filled Prince of Peace Lutheran Church for her funeral service. She was buried in Brainerd Cemetery in Cranbury, N.J., next to her grandfather, with Kangy the Kangaroo, her favorite stuffed animal, nestled in the casket. Scores of friends and relatives paid their respects at the Danser home, but not all their comments were comforting.
"We just got back from the funeral, and people were already saying there was no drug problem around here," says an angry Bill Danser. "Goddammit! My daughter just died! The hell there isn't a problem! Unless somebody does something, Elizabeth won't be the last."
RON ARIAS in Princeton Junction