Gypsy Wesson never set foot in a classroom until she was 19.
A daughter of Marcus Wesson, who killed nine of his children after isolating them in a dark world of violence and incest, Gypsy could only dream of getting out of the house and going to school.
"We would get little backpacks and put books in them and pretend," she said. "We weren't allowed to go anywhere. We weren't allowed to leave the house, only as a group. I wanted so much to have an education like everyone else."
On Saturday, seven years after running away from home with little more than what she was wearing, Gypsy donned a cap and gown at the Fresno Pacific University commencement ceremonies, where she received her bachelor's degree in business.
Her mother and four of her brothers and sisters watched approvingly.
"I'm just so proud now," said her mother Elizabeth. "She's always told me she wanted to go to school."
Gypsy, 27, is the only one of her siblings to graduate from college, a goal she says gave her the single-minded focus to put aside her sordid past and move on.
She has changed her name since leaving home -- to distance herself from her father. She asked that her new name not be printed because of her traumatic experiences.
More than once she stumbled, she said, and thought about giving up: such as when she was ashamed to admit that she didn't know to write from the left side of the page to the right; or after having a child soon after leaving home; or when she was required to write a 100-page thesis on marketing.
But she pushed on.
"Yes, I'm throwing myself a party tonight," she said before Saturday's graduation. "I think I deserve it."
In school at last
Gypsy's first day of school was shortly before her 20th birthday. It was at Clovis Adult Education school.
The hardest part of school, she said, was getting there.
At 19, having known little else than the inside of the homes her abusive father had sequestered her in, she decided to leave.
"I didn't really know anybody. So when I walked out, I didn't know where to go," she said. "But I just couldn't take it at home anymore. I knew there were better things out there."
Staying with the few people she knew in Fresno, including an older brother, provided the basics she needed to begin a new life. So did a job she held helping with banquets at a downtown hotel.
Gypsy excelled at adult school. Although she never had a formal education, she had learned from older family members and from books her dad kept in crates in a closet.
Her cousins taught her math to the level of fractions and long division, and she was reading Charles Dickens by her teen years.
"The people [at adult school] were shocked that I didn't go to school," Gypsy said. "They asked if I was from another country."
Gypsy kept her past a secret. Few knew of her lurid background, at least until March 12, 2004, when her father's madness became known to the world.
On that afternoon, six months after Gypsy had run away, Fresno police responded to what they thought was a child-custody dispute at a home near Roeding Park. It turned out that Marcus Wesson had shot or coaxed family members to shoot nine of his children, many of whom were mothered by his daughters and nieces.
Officers found the bodies stacked in a back bedroom.
After a four-month trial in 2005, Marcus Wesson was sentenced to California's death row.
Learning at a fast pace
Gypsy's focus remained on school. She got her high school diploma a year and a half after starting adult school, logging a 3.9 grade-point average the same year she gave birth to a baby girl. The father was her then-boyfriend.
"I really didn't have time for anything at that point," she said.
Her schedule didn't let up. Gypsy enrolled in community college at Willow International Center in northeast Fresno and eventually leveraged that into admission at Fresno Pacific.
A job as a leasing agent for an apartment complex supported her and her young daughter while she attended the university. After two years of study, she had the credits she needed for a degree in business.
"I'm so happy I did this," she said.
Gypsy has yet to decide what's next. A master's degree at Fresno State may be in order. So might a break from school and another job in town, maybe in human resources or project management, she said.
But she's not sure she wants to stay in Fresno.
One thing is certain -- she still has unfinished business to tend to. As pleased as she is with her studies, she acknowledges she has left little time to come to terms with her past.
"I've suppressed a lot of things in order to cope," she said.
Gypsy said she has tried talking to therapists about her childhood, for a few short stints anyway. She became depressed when she thought about her father, however, and was unable to focus on school, work or her daughter.
"A teacher at the university said forgiveness is key. But I don't know if I can ever forgive him," she said of her father.
Her next big goal, Gypsy said, will be to figure that out.