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Life after unbearable loss: Florida legislator finds her way amid the pain

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

Months ago, when coronavirus roared into Palm Beach County, Emily Slosberg knew it meant trouble for her state legislative district.

Coronavirus had proven itself to be a particularly deadly scourge for older people, and Slosberg’s district, which stretches from Boynton Beach to Boca Raton, is home to more than 15,000 people who are older than 80.

County leaders were trying to get testing — any testing — to figure out where the virus was so they could stop it.

Slosberg, 38, knew where she wanted some of that testing to take place. She wanted it done in her district, and she wasn’t shy about saying so.

She addressed the Palm Beach County Commission. She reached out to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

A few weeks later, in early April, a drive-thru testing site opened at the South County Civic Center west of Delray Beach.

The site was a victory for the people of state House District 91, and it was a victory for Slosberg.

Late last year, few could have foreseen that Slosberg would even be holding public office now, much less advocating for her district in the middle of a global pandemic.

Her father, former state Rep. Irv Slosberg, had her involuntarily committed for mental health examination and care, the capper to a year of head-scratching events that sparked whispers that she was not fit for the job.

Her father acted after two wildly different incidents, both public and hard to fathom.

The first involved access to her Boca Raton home — after she sold it.

Police charged Emily Slosberg with misdemeanor criminal trespass and criminal mischief after she hired a locksmith and changed the locks on her former home in March 2019.

She had sold her home for $369,000 the previous December, reports showed. The new owners changed the locks that month, went to New York and planned to return in February.

But, when the son of the new owners went to the house to prepare it for his parents’ return, he said he saw Slosberg in the house and a locksmith’s van parked outside.

The son “asked Slosberg to leave and she responded by telling him that he needed to leave,” a police report states.

The son called police. Slosberg and the locksmith left before police arrived.

But the locksmith had already changed the locks. And Emily Slosberg left with the new keys.

The new owners told police they wanted to pursue charges against Slosberg, who denied any wrongdoing at the time but later agreed to pretrial intervention.

More than a year later, in an interview with The Palm Beach Post, Slosberg said she wanted to retrieve a bed frame she had left in the house.

“I thought there was a clause in the contract allowing me to get it,” she said. “I was wrong. It was a misunderstanding.”

She did not explain why she had the locks changed on a house she had already sold.

Her actions raised eyebrows and generated headlines.

She’d do both again before the year was over.

In October, about a month after Slosberg’s birthday, a deputy from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office responded to a call about a possibly suicidal woman on Powerline Road just south of Glades Road.

It was Emily Slosberg, who told the deputy she suffered from depression but was not taking her medications.

“I explained to Emily that I had received a report that she was acting erratic and that she was a danger to herself,” reported the deputy, who said he called Irv Slosberg.

Irv Slosberg said his daughter had come to his home, let his dog out and left suddenly. He and Emily’s older sister fanned out to find her, he said.

According to the deputy’s report, the security guard at Irv Slosberg’s subdivision saw Emily chasing one car and trying to open the doors of others. She kept saying her hands were on fire.

When Emily’s sister found her, Irv Slosberg said he knew his daughter needed help and decided to have her involuntarily detained through the state’s Baker Act.

Emily vehemently resisted the idea that she needed hospitalization.

“Emily was mad,” Irv Slosberg said. “She said, ‘I’m fine.’ I said, ‘You’re chasing cars in the middle of the street. Yeah, you’re fine.’”

This new headline — ‘Politician, chasing cars, involuntarily detained’ — would be, at a minimum, personally embarrassing. There might be a political price to pay as well if voters came to believe their representative was not mentally fit to serve.

“I didn’t care,” Irv Slosberg said. “I did what was in her best interest. It was what I felt was right.”

Even as Emily resisted, her father persisted.

“I said, ‘You’re getting in with the deputies, and you’re going to the hospital,’” Irv said. “I would never have Baker Acted her if I didn’t think this was a major crisis.”

Emily Slosberg knows all about crisis. A shadow of pain has been her unwelcome companion for much of her life.

It’s been there at Emily Slosberg’s side for 24 years now, unacknowledged and often unheeded.

It arrived in her hospital room when her father showed her a local newspaper, unable to say out loud that Slosberg’s identical twin sister, Dori Slosberg, was gone from this world.

That shadow of pain, wispy yet visceral, has carved out a spot in Slosberg’s life, making itself known whenever it damn well pleases. And only when it pleases.

Some of its appearances are predictable.

There’s the February anniversary of the horrific crash that killed Dori and four other teenagers, a crash teenaged Emily survived. It’s usually there when Emily drives her car past the four white crosses and the white Star of David — Dori’s star — that mark the spot on Palmetto Park Road where they all died.

It knows the dreaded September birthday Slosberg no longer shares and no longer cares to remember.

The pain’s power is renewed whenever Slosberg looks in the mirror and sees not just herself but the sister who is no longer here.

How do you carry a load you can’t wrap your arms around? How do you chase away a shadow?

Those are the tasks Emily Slosberg has set for herself. She says she wants her career as a state legislator to be about finding answers to those questions — for herself and for everyone else asking them.

She hadn’t always seen a career in politics for herself. Nor had her father, in the years before he would make his name as a state legislator.

Irv Slosberg enjoyed life as a gregarious Illinois native who moved to Florida in the late 1970s and found success selling leather goods.

The Slosbergs had a comfortable, affluent life in Boca Raton.

Irv Slosberg and his wife, Rochelle, already had a daughter when they learned they were expecting twins.

Irv was elated.

Dori, named after a great-grandmother, came first. Then, 30 minutes later, came Emily.

Dori didn’t let her little sister forget that she was the big sister.

“She pulled rank,” Emily said. “She was more of the leader between us.”

Irv doted on the children.

“The best moment in my life was when I taught my twins how to ride a bicycle,” he said. “My wife would have to throw me out of their room every night. I’d read to them. We’d play games — the itch game, the state capitals, wrestling. I used to say every night was New Year’s Eve.”

Some twins fight for their own identity and resist being paired in everything. Not Dori and Emily.

“They were inseparable,” Irv said. “They wore the same clothes.”

Dori wanted to be a lawyer and was a whiz at math. Emily knew she’d keep pace with her big sister. They would stay together, step by step, no matter what.

On Feb. 23, 1996, Dori and Emily, 14, joined a group of school friends at the Town Center Mall in Boca Raton.

After hanging out there, they moved on to a bowling alley east of the mall.

It had been a fun evening, and, when it was time to go, a mutual acquaintance asked a 19-year old, Nicholas Copertino, to give them all a ride home.

Copertino and his friend, 17-year old David Grossman, sat in the front.

The younger teens — Dori, Emily, Margaux Schehr, Carolina Gil Gallego, Maribel Farinas, Crystal Cordes and Ryan Rashidian — all crammed in the back of Copertino’s 1995 Honda Civic.

The kids could have found other ways home.

“When we were 14, the cool thing was not to ride with your parents,” Emily would later tell a reporter. “You’re a kid. You think nothing will happen to me. Until it’s too late.”

Too late came too early.

Copertino was zooming west on Palmetto Park Road at speeds approaching 90 mph when he lost control of the car, which spun counterclockwise, hit a road sign, sheared off a metal pole and began to spin clockwise.

The Honda veered into the eastbound lanes and smashed into another car. Teenagers in the Honda were ejected. Both cars were obliterated.

“There were bodies all over,” Florida Highway Patrol traffic homicide investigator Thomas Altieri told a reporter. “It was eerie, pitch black and so quiet. All you could hear was pagers going off.”

Margaux, Ryan, Crystal, Carolina and Dori were killed. Maribel was made a quadriplegic.

Emily Slosberg suffered grievous injuries — a fractured pelvis, a punctured lung, broken ribs. Her front teeth were knocked out, and her right tibia was shattered into five pieces.

Emily would learn that the accident marred much more than her body.

Copertino eventually would be convicted of five counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The trial, Copertino’s appeals, all of it had been a marathon of pain for Emily and her family.

In the early days after the crash, no one told her all that had happened.

Emily struggled to rest, to sleep.

“I would wake up screaming,” she said.

Through the searing pain, she had a question: Where’s Dori?

“They’d tell me, ‘She’s down there in another room,’” Emily said.

But Emily didn’t trust that information.

When visitors came, she’d write them notes.

“I kept writing, ‘Where’s Dori? Where’s Dori?’”

No one would say. Emily kept on asking.

“They couldn’t keep it from me any more,” Emily said. “I couldn’t sleep at night.”

The non-answers, the evasions, eventually, they carried their own message. Emily wanted confirmation.

She sought it from her father, but he couldn’t say it.

“He couldn’t get the words out,” Emily said. “He handed me the newspaper. ...”

Fourteen. Your body is shattered. Your identical twin sister is dead. So are your closest friends. They’re gone.

Nothing makes sense. It’s too immense. It can’t be.

Moments are mountains.

“I counted the first Friday without her, the first weekend without her, the first month without her, the first New Year’s without her,” Emily said. “I would recap what happened that day in bed in case there was anything she missed.”

Her father had insisted on counseling. Emily did as she was bid, but, with her first counselor, she would open up only in exchange for more information.

She had been shielded from the details of Dori’s death. No one had told her Dori died of head injuries.

“I would ask, ‘How did Dori die?’” Emily said. “She wouldn’t tell me.”

That refusal ate away at any rapport the counselor was trying to build, Emily said.

She stopped seeing that counselor, but her father found another.

Again, though, Emily couldn’t connect. The scale of the tragedy was too much — for the counselor.

“The second counselor broke down in uncontrollable sobs,” Emily said. “I didn’t feel I was going to get that much help.”

So Emily moved forward on her own.

That shadow of pain had found its place in Emily’s life. And Emily was struggling to come to grips with all that she had lost.

“(Dori) was a jokester,” Emily said. “For the first year and a half, I’m thinking she’s going to come back and say, ‘This was a joke. I’m back. Ha ha.’”

New people did not take the place of the ones Emily had lost. Emily didn’t let them in.

“My sister and my best friends, everyone got wiped out,” she said. “I didn’t trust. It was hard to make new friends. I thought I’d lose them.”

There was still physical pain from the crash injuries, emotional pain — and anger. Anger at Dori.

“I had her pictures everywhere,” Emily said. “After six months, I had to take them down. It was too much. There was some part of me that was mad at her for leaving me.”

Irv could see that Emily was struggling.

“She was unhappy,” he said. “No matter how hard I tried, she was unhappy. I took her and her friends on cruises. I tried everything. She looked happy, but I knew she wasn’t. I’m her father.”

Emily struggled to find permanence, consistency, Irv said.

“She went from job to job to job, looking for something,” he said. “She hasn’t come to grips with her twin sister not being there. I took her to psychologists. She’s probably been to five to seven psychologists. I can’t make her stay with a psychologist.”

Emily kept to the path Dori had planned to follow.

She graduated from high school and enrolled at Florida Atlantic University, majoring in criminal justice.

“Graduating from high school without her was bittersweet,” Emily said. “So was starting college without her.”

Emily went on to law school, graduating from Nova Southeastern University in 2011.

Three years later, her mother died of cancer.

They had shared the terrible pain of Dori’s death, but it had not brought them closer.

“She wouldn’t go to the crash site,” Emily said of her mother. “She would take the long way around. Anything to avoid the site. We never talked about Dori until the last three days of her life. I would tell her to tell Dori I love her.”

Irv Slosberg threw himself into a public campaign to make wearing seat belts mandatory in Florida.

Initially, he backed legislation already filed in Tallahassee. But when lawmakers failed to pass it, he decided to get elected and push it through himself.

Challenging the political power brokers in southern Palm Beach County, Slosberg ran on his own against an incumbent Democrat, gaining renown for handing out corned-beef sandwiches at campaign events. He won.

Immediately, he pursued seat-belt legislation. He crisscrossed the state urging local communities to get their legislators to back the bill.

“If seat belts would have been the law, these kids might not have died,” he said.

Emily traveled with her father across the state as they pushed road safety legislation named in Dori’s honor.

The seat belt law eventually passed.

Irv Slosberg, who had left the House after 2006 only to return four years later, lost his bid to win election to the state Senate in 2016. But Emily won the House seat her father had held.

Over coffee at Starbucks earlier this year, Irv, now a candidate again for state Senate, paused when asked if it was good for Emily to join him on those travels across the state where they retold, over and over, the story of what happened to Dori and her friends.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. I ask myself the same question.”

As a state legislator, Emily Slosberg, a Democrat like her father, also has pushed for road safety, including passage of a bill last year banning texting and driving.

She hasn’t always had the smoothest of relations with some of her legislative colleagues.

Like her father, she defeated a Democratic incumbent to win her seat. Incumbent Democrats typically enjoy the support of fellow Democrats in the county delegation as they seek reelection.

Two years ago, Emily Slosberg made news when she ripped the county’s legislative affairs director, Rebecca De La Rosa, whom she said had supported legislation that would have limited the impact of road safety legislation named in her sister’s honor.

De La Rosa said she backed the legislation not because it limited the road safety measure but because it appeared to address the problem of young drivers with poor driving records. The Slosberg road safety bill had not been part of the county’s tracking system, she said, arguing that she was not trying to undermine it.

Some of Slosberg’s colleagues viewed the rare criticism by a legislator of a staffer as unnecessarily harsh and public.

And then Slosberg clashed with state Sen. Bobby Powell, who had concerns that her texting ban could lead to police harassment of Black drivers.

Asked about her relationship with colleagues, Slosberg answered like a politician.

“While we may have our individual differences, the Palm Beach County legislative delegation has always made it a priority to effectively serve our county’s residents by working together,” she said.

In the years since the crash, Slosberg said she has struggled with depression.

Birthdays are particularly painful.

“That’s one of my most difficult days, my birthday,” she said. “That was our day. We’d have food fights. Big celebrations.”

Slosberg has met with reporters to discuss mental health, the need for focus on it and the need to remove the stigma attached to those who struggle with mental health problems.

She is open, expansive even.

In December, after the incidents, Slosberg’s legislative office released a statement saying she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I was traumatized by the death of my twin sister, who passed away over twenty-three years ago in a tragic car crash that claimed the lives of five young people,” the statement read. “I survived the same crash, was hospitalized for one month, underwent several surgeries, and was unable to attend my twin sister’s funeral.”

Slosberg’s statement said she had “undergone treatment” and was doing well now.

“I am ready to continue championing issues for the people of Florida,” she wrote.

This fall, Slosberg has no Democratic primary opponent but will face Republican Sayd Hussain in November.

Moving forward, she thought, has often kept her from looking back.

“It was easier to distract myself with other things,” she said. “It’s easier to focus on everything else. But you have to focus on it.”

Ignoring the pain, she has learned, comes at her own peril.

Last year, in the weeks after her birthday, a friend had tried to tell Emily that something was amiss.

“She said, ‘It’s time to check in with your psychologist,’” Emily said. “I just brushed it off.”

Emily said she has taken antidepressants off and on in the years since the crash. Occasionally, she’d have terrible dreams she was certain were related to it.

“I had woken up before thinking I was spinning,” she said.

There appeared to be no obvious trigger for her behavior in October, though, in an interview, Emily noted the incident happened a month after her birthday, which is always hard.

She blamed herself for not taking better care of her mental health.

Carol Lewis, a clinical psychologist with 30 years of experience, said the type of trauma Emily experienced as a teenager could lie dormant for years and then suddenly cause problems.

That’s especially true when the trauma happens early in life, she said.

“When you have these things occur in your developmental years, it impacts how your brain wires,” Lewis said. “Her life changed that day. There’s a traumatic event. You have to get specialized treatment.”

Emily said she wishes there was some step short of involuntary detention through the Baker Act for people who suffer a mental breakdown.

That’s long been a goal of mental health advocates, but even finding bed space for people who have been detained through the Baker Act is a challenge.

Emily was eventually taken to Fair Oaks Pavilion, a part of Delray Medical Center. Irv Slosberg said his daughter received excellent care.

“I can’t say enough about the difference between Emily when she went in there and when she came out,” he said. “I’m very, very grateful.”

Emily did not know it, but her father didn’t really need to be in Tallahassee at the start of the 2020 legislative session.

“When she went back to Tallahassee, I’m following her around,” he said. “I didn’t tell her that. I said I had my own business there. But she might have known.”

The truth is, Irv Slosberg was worried for his daughter.

“All I know is, I’m there for her,” he said.

For her part, Emily Slosberg said she is more attentive to her mental health needs now.

She said she’s not unhappy with her father for having her detained through the Baker Act.

“I was thankful,” she said. “You know you need help. You don’t know what that help is going to look like.”

Even though she’s gone, Dori will always be with her, she said.

On a drive from Tallahassee back to Boca Raton, she found herself behind a car with a personalized license plate for 90 minutes.

“DORI,” the plate read.

“I’ve never seen another license plate with her name, ever,” Emily Slosberg said.

She said she’s learned to watch for triggers that worsen her PTSD. And she’s adding mental health to her legislative priorities.

Toward that end, Slosberg is backing legislation filed by Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, that would keep private conversations first responders have with peers who need emotional or physical support.

The goal, she said, is to make sure first responders can speak freely about their needs with no fear it will harm their career.

Slosberg has filed her own legislation, House Bill 939, that would require insurance companies to certify that they cover mental health costs the same way they cover costs associated with a patient’s physical health.

HB 939 was not heard in committee, though Slosberg can file it again next year.

“Mental illness affects so many people across our state and we need to do more to combat the stigma around it,” Slosberg said in a recent press release. “We need to stop ignoring the problem and start taking real steps toward helping patients.”

For Slosberg, steps toward her own mental health involve coming to terms with the loss of Dori. It means knowing there won’t be a moment when it’s all better, when the weight of it will somehow lighten.

She must wear it, just as she wears the ring on her right hand, Dori’s ring, the one given to her about a year before her death.

“I never take it off,” Slosberg said. “I don’t even think I can.”

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This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.