The Phyllis Cottle Story
In this podcast, journalist Carol Costello revisits the first big assignment she covered as a 22-year-old, novice reporter: Phyllis Cottles’ brutal attack. Psychologists call them “Triumphant Survivors,” but Phyllis Cottle was more than a survivor, she used this crime to better herself and the world around her.
Bonus: A Spiritual Awakening
Phyllis Cottle nearly killed herself when she found out she would never be able to see again. She had a plan, and was about to follow through with it, until she felt a “warm hand on her shoulder,” one that she was convinced was divine. Was she right? Was God intervening? And, if so, what should she do with that sign from above?
In this bonus episode we explore those questions with Larry Vuillemin, Phyllis’ good friend who says he also heard God speak to him after a pivotal, life-changing health scare.
Larry is a former Senior Trial Attorney with the Summit County Prosecutor’s office, an Akron City Councilman, and former Adjunct Professor at the University of Akron School of Law.
In 1990, he co-founded Heart to Heart Communications, which focuses on personal and spiritual development as a foundational way empowering leaders and enriching workplaces
Host - Carol Costello
Producer - Chris Aiola
Audio Engineer - Sean Rule-Hoffman
Contributor - Nijah Golliday
Production Director - Brigid Coyne
Executive Producer - Gerardo Orlando
Original Music - Timothy Law Snyder
Guest: Larry Vuillemin, Attorney at Law
Heart to Heart Leadership: https://www.htohleadership.org/
For additional information about Phyllis Cottle’s case, please visit our newly-launched website (www.carolcostellopresents.com), Carol’s Facebook page (Facebook.com/CarolLMU) and Instagram page (www.instagram.com/carolcostello).
This is a bonus episode. You will enjoy listening more if you listen to the series, Blind Rage. And be sure to visit me at facebook.com/carollmu. I would love to hear from you, and would love for you to talk back.
My mother always told me it’s unwise to question God. “If he wanted me to know,” she said, "He would tell me.”
Mother’s faith was rock solid.
Too many bad things happened to good people for no reason for me to really believe.
I asked more than one priest why that was – one of them told me, “If God is all powerful, God can do what God wants to do.”
Yeah, but – why?
On the day of Phyllis Cottle was attacked, a lot of people were asking that question:
If you believe in God or whatever it is, you think, you hear people say, "Well, everything happens for a reason. We don't know what the reason is." She could’ve just stayed in that car and said, "Okay, I'm done." Right? Or whatever.
That was Mark Williamson, who used to anchor the news at TV23 in Akron, Ohio.
Does everything happen for a reason?
The answer to that question nearly killed Phyllis Cottle. When doctors told her she would be permanently blind, she did ask why. And in those early days, she could conceive of absolutely no reason for what happened to her.
She considered suicide. She had a plan. She had the pills. And the will to do it until she felt a warm hand on her shoulder that she swore was God.
Here’s Phyllis’ daughter, Dianne.
She actually went into the bathroom because she had a lot of pain pills because of everything that had happened. She had some anti anxiety meds and she was just going to take them all and end it. And she went into the bathroom and she just started crying uncontrollably. And, because she was crying she was trembling and she was just so upset, she dropped the pills on the floor and she's like, "Oh great" and now trying to find them.
And as she was down on the floor literally trying to find these pills, she said all of a sudden – and she was a religious woman but nothing terribly religious – but all of a sudden she felt a very calming touch on her shoulder, and she didn't really know who it was and she truly believes it was God who said to her, "Don't do this. You're going to be okay. Just take a deep breath and go back to your chair." He goes, "You're going to have your bad days, just go back to your chair and just relax."
And that she remembered. Every time she had a bad day, she'd start crying and she felt that calm hand on her shoulder and she was going to be okay. And she truly believes it was the hand of God who reached down to her.
From how she felt, what He said to her, she had better days ahead and her journey's not ready to be completed. She had a lot more to do.
And she did have a lot more to do.
She did. She did.
I’m Carol Costello. This is Blind Rage, Bonus Episode 2: A Spiritual Awakening.
Akron, Ohio attorney, Larry Vuillemin, was it back in the ‘80s.
Not that he isn’t it today – he is, but in a different way.
But back in ’84, if you needed the meanest, most aggressive, charismatic lawyer – that was Larry Vuillamen.
You were a really well known attorney, successful, handsome, hard charging in Akron.
Well all those adjectives I don't know if they apply to myself, but if somebody, of course, wanted to say I was handsome, hey, have at it.
Uh, he was – is – handsome. And talented. Larry defended high-profile clients, ran for Akron City Council, and won. He worked hard. Partied hard – until of December 1984 when his body betrayed him – a betrayal steeped in irony.
He was in the midst of defending yet another high-profile client when his brain suffered the equivalent of heart attack.
Larry Vulliaman – the brash, self-assured attorney – suffered a stroke. He fell to the floor in front of judge, jury, defendant, and the media.
I'm 35 at the time of the stroke, and I'm climbing my ladder of success. I'd been elected an Akron City councilman, and that's the reason I left the prosecutor's office. I'd been divorced too, when my kids were seven and four, and they relocated to Kansas City with their mom. And, well I would say that even my marriage with Carol was in trouble. I was just self-centered, self-absorbed, self-occupied, too much about me, not really respecting as much as I should this profession that I was in, and I don't hesitate to say that.
Just to clarify: Larry’s wife is named Carol too.
Funny too at the time of this stroke, it was this high publicity case. This public official that I was involved in, and you being journalists, and all the good work that you've done in media, on the front page of the paper, the day after, there is a picture of me in court with the defendant. In the back pages there is an article, “Vuilleman Suffers Stroke."
So the important thing was put on the back page?
Well…it turned out to be the important thing. I never really thought about it, but yeah.
Here’s the part where Larry, his loved ones, his admirers would ask God, “Why?’ Why?” Larry was 35, fit, successful – but as he lay on the floor of that courtroom, he, like Phyllis, felt something otherworldly.
I had a mystical moment myself when I was heaped on the floor, and I just heard the Lord saying, "Be patient, move slowly."
You really heard those words?
I heard those internally. Be patient, move slowly. Get in the moment. Like after I had this spiritual awakening, I thought what do I do with this? Do I go run off and feed pagan babies across the world? What do I do with this?
Larry’s body slowly healed. But he could not, for the life of him, figure out how to decipher what that ‘internal voice’ was trying to tell him. Until Phyllis Cottle walked into his office in 1985 and informed him she needed the meanest, toughest attorney in Akron.
She wanted to sue the parole board for granting her attacker an early release from prison. No one had ever successfully done that – and she needed the best.
How does it turn out to be good for you? Like beyond the case, beyond the parole board?
That had been a year from the stroke and everything, and although I suffered a seizure in November '85 too so it must have been related to the stroke, when I thought I was really back on top of my game, so that was another kick in the ass. I almost quit the legal profession.
Both of us were in recovery at the time I met her. I was still recovering. Physically, I was doing okay, but the recovery where we most connected was the spiritual and emotional dimension to recovery of any kind.
And the grieving of any kind, that's where we connected at a deeper level. And I just wanted her to know that along the way I was going to be respectful of her own grieving through all of this. And when I use the word grieving, I'm talking one sort of definition of grief, which really applied. It's the conflicting feelings you experience when you go through changes in familiar patterns of behavior. Both of us were plucked out of familiar patterns of behavior. Both of which, in some ways, were even somewhat self-destructive spiritually and emotionally.
What do you mean?
Well the one thing I say that I don't want to ever forget, and I don't know at what point in time, this was after we had become pretty good friends and we were soul partners too. One time we were talking and I said, "Phyll, if you could go back to March 1984, your site is restored, you're well physically. You got it all back together, as it was back then. Would you go back there if that kind of miracle could happen?"
And she says, "No, Larry." And as we were talking, essentially what she was telling me was, "Larry, I have a sense of meaning and purpose about my life right now that I never had back then." She said, in her own way, she was alive and she was well, and she was heroic and she was a leader. She was being recognized as a leader, people saw that name Phyllis Cottle, whether it was in the Blind Center or Victim's Assistance, or whatever she was doing or just her recovery in and of itself was inspiring to people.
How did you pull that out of herself because I don't think I would have?
You mean how was she able to answer in that kind of way?
I think it was that sense of meaning and purpose. In fact, when she was working, and after what she'd been through, marriage and everything, she was just kind of making it day to day, I think.
But now she was kind of alive. It was this expression of herself that was serving people, and bringing other people to life. If that makes sense. And she, herself, said, "God help me along the way." And those three words that I had said after the stroke, I just said, "I need help," because I was on a path that was just self-destructive, and in her own way she had experienced the destruction of so much of what she was all about…
But what a high price to pay to find purpose in your life, she paid a high price. I guess that's what I'm struggling with.
Yeah. That's again, why I don't compare what I was going through with what she was going through, but oh certainly.
But it wasn't, "I want to sue that bastard," necessarily. You know? She could have had all of that, but I think along the way, through the trial and everything else, I mean she didn't have any warm feelings for this guy, obviously, but I think she knew too that she had to move on, focus forward. And when she was having that suicidal thinking and everything, and she kind of reached out to God as...
Did she tell you about that?
Do you believe that, I mean just thinking about that, she said she felt a hand on her shoulder. I'm not a very religious person. I want to believe that, but when...
Nor was she.
Well no. She was not a churchgoer. We used to talk about that.
I wasn't raised in the Catholic tradition. I wasn't going to church and that goes back to when my dad died when I was just 15, and I had never grieved that loss along with the loss through the divorce. I’d just stuff it, and then I stuffed so much of the emotionality of it all.
Again, without me trying to impose my experience on Phyll, I wanted to encourage her that she could speak freely. I wanted her to vent, whatever the emotion was. I'm not a strong believer in negative feeling, positive feeling, that kind of thing. A feeling is a feeling.
Like when she was talking to you about her pain, what were those times like?
Oh we shared a tear with each other. Again, I like to think it's because I'm helping to contribute to an atmosphere which she felt safe and real, and she could just be Phyll.
When you shared a tear with her, what was that like?
I can't answer the question. Looking back I could certainly answer it, but I want to be real. If anything, when we shared a tear together it was to me, that's what lawyering is all about. We have our boundaries. People come to us, after all, because we are lawyers, and we have some certain legal expertise, and that's what they're seeking out, but also this is a profession and it's about relationships. Just because somebody walks into your law office and says, "I have a legal problem." It doesn't necessarily mean that it is a legal problem.
As I said, we have boundaries. Or is it legal? Is that the end of the inquiry here? How is this, the resolution of this going to contribute to you and the course and direction of your life? How is this going to give you more meaning and purpose?Because I almost quit the profession.
You know the other thing that Phyll and I shared in this grieving process was cause and pause to think about the course and direction of our lives. Like she would have been the first to tell you, sure did pray to a presence beyond her, "God help me?" Yes, she did, and did I say, "I need help?" Yeah. And even though, again without comparing mine to hers, was it a near death experience? Yes. Come to Jesus moment so to speak? Okay, yes, but the blessing, and I don't... I can't say it for her because she shared that the blessing of the recovery, the blessing of what was going on in her life, the blessing of this renewed sense of meaning and purpose. But I almost quit the profession because through the, having had the cause and pause, to think about the course and direction of my life, but I had one hell of a spiritual awakening.
What role did she play in you continuing in the profession?
About the time I'm going to quit the profession, because I couldn’t reconcile this spiritual awakening, with the work I’m doing. I'm not knocking lawyers. There's enough people who do that, but I just didn't see that word vocation, that we growing up, that was the priest and the nuns and the rabbis and the ministers that had vocations. The rest of us just bust our asses, and maybe hope to get some sprinkling of grace at a weekend worship experience.
That didn't make, this sacred, secular dichotomy just, I didn't embrace that. I'm saying, "Well wait a minute." And that's where Phyll and I connected to: the spirituality of every day life. The spirituality of relationships. The spirituality of service. The spirituality of leadership. The two words on my heart about Phyll was servant, leadership. She became a heroic leader in the Blind Center, as a woman, and back then, in the 80s, that voice wasn't being heard either.
I decided I was going to re-enter my profession with a new sense of meaning, purpose. With a new sense of vocation, and with a new sense of what this profession is all about. It's about relationships. It's about service. It's not all about me. It's about them. It's about others realizing the best in themselves.
I'd made the decision and I was committed to it. I was doing a lot of reentry, and oftentimes when I'm out talking to grief recovery groups, I talk about the reentry. I was re-entering my marriage with a new sense of meaning and purpose to this beautiful woman here. We've been married since 1979. Together since '77. She and I met when I was in the prosecutor's office.
Phyll, what she did for me, was she more or less was encourage what I was already doing, and in my way, I wanted to be encouraging of her in what she was already doing.
Because when we're young, we're ambitious and it's all about winning and achieving and going...
And that's where I was. And the winning, and looking down the road so do what you're doing. When the Lord put that on my heart, and be patient, move slowly, enter the moment, let it unfold. Also it's not what we do. It's how and why we do this work that we do that's important. How and why are we doing it?
Wow. That's so beautiful.