Survivor Stories, Guest Post: No Trespassing

No Trespassing*

The road to my old neighborhood snakes along this rocky New England coastline, but I am too old and cautious now to take those curves at high speeds, especially since a few years have passed since I last traced this route. Midnight has passed tonight, too, and a full moon brightens the salty midsummer air. I drive slowly enough to see the “No Trespassing After Dark” sign on the back of the concrete bench. The bench half encircles a sunken dais above the beach, remnants of the New Ocean House, a Gilded Age resort that burnt to the ground in 1969.
In 1973 I sat on that bench to rest after the first time my boyfriend beat me, squinting out at the dark blue Atlantic, sunlight reflecting off the waves like crystal shards, my face a ghoulish puff.
“I fell into a stone wall on my way home from school” was the lie I told my parents and my friends. They knew what had really happened, but in 1973, none of us had language for it that was not full of shame.

In the next century, on the west side of the Continental Divide, I am one of six middle-aged women who run outside to see a Great Horned Owl. Our host tells us the owl arrives each day at dusk.  The other women are avid birdwatchers who carry fieldglasses.  I borrow a pair to watch the owl perched atop the triangular yellow Yield sign at the place where two farmroads meet. “He’s magnificent,” says one woman. “He or she?” asks another. The ornithologist among us says it is difficult to tell the females from the males.
Back inside, we take our seats again, and talk turns to the recent murder of Sarah Parks, a twenty-eight-year old woman, pregnant with her first child, a substitute teacher in this small Idaho town. Dental records were used to identify her remains because in the fire that burned her house to the ground, her flesh was consumed by flames. The autopsy had revealed that she was dead before her body burned. Her husband, Silas Parks, is the murder suspect: there is a history of domestic violence.
 I close my eyes. This is the second time I have heard people speak of this murder, the second time the image I have concocted of Sarah Parks’ charred corpse rises up behind my eyelids, her body blackened but draped in pale linen, levitating in mid-air like the hypnotized yet living body of a magician’s assistant.
“I just don’t understand that sort of thing,” says one of us, a long-necked woman whose field glasses rest in her lap like two dead blackbirds in a nest. “Why would any woman stay in a relationship like that? It’s so unhealthy.”
Yes. It is so unhealthy that Sarah Parks is dead. So unhealthy that we do not ask what perceptions or constrictions impel us to cast Sarah Parks as the one who cannot be understood. So unhealthy that no one says, I just don’t understand that sort of thing. Why would any man beat or kill a woman he loves?
My impulse is to slip into the sweet release of rage and slap the stupid out of this long-necked woman, out of all of us, but the ornithologist saves me from myself by beginning to tell her own love story. She had lived in an abusive marriage for many years, she says.  And yet the beginning of her marriage was a fairy tale. Her voice falls softer and softer, becoming inaudible, but I can guess she is explaining how love starts tenderly, how tenderness twists, how love and power entwine like two colors in the same flame. Or maybe she tries to explain how she bought a lovely pair of shoes that blister her heels, but they cost so much, she keeps wearing them anyway. I am a newcomer here, trying to make friends, and so I change the subject myself, to less fiery topics, like whether I can clear anyone’s dessert plate. I circle the table, stack the plates and silverware neatly into piles.

Why did I stay on, for a year, more or less, after that first significant beating?  I could tell you I was dealt a certain hand. I could tell you I grew up in a violent home. I could tell you I come from a culture that still encourages women to be subservient to men.  I could tell you I read too many fairy tales, watched too many Disney movies, listened to too many love songs, that I longed to be pursued, over and over again, because women are prey. I could tell you love and power twist together, indistinguishable, two colors in the same flame. That whatever burns gives off some warmth. That he could make his hipbones slip into low gear. That I was young and passionate. That he had an artist’s hands. That months passed before his hands became his fists. That tenderness twists. That he had a certain predatory grace. Why did I stay?  I could tell you that this is the wrong question.

“No Trespassing After Dark.” It is after midnight in my old neighborhood when I drive by, too late, I tell myself, to stop, too late to sit on the encircling bench in the moonlight and visit the dais, the stage and the grave of my adolescence. Too late because my best friend Lisa waits up for me tonight; I have just blown back into town. She knows everything. Forty-six years of witnessing each other’s lives relieves us of the strain of explanation, the tiresome setting up of context for a conversation.  She is standing under the yellow light of her front porch as I pull into the driveway, wrapped in a thick robe that cannot conceal the lasting angularity of her frame, the smoke of her cigarette swirling from her perpetually manicured fingers into the night. She yells a greeting from her door as I grab my suitcase from the rental car trunk, and we are catching up for five minutes before we remember to embrace.
I cannot sleep that night. My legs twitch, and my feet insist on cuddling each other. Images of shame blink like flashcards, in no particular order and without regard to geography: my grotesque face in a bathroom mirror, the high school janitor’s snicker when he asks whether my boyfriend beat me up, the tree of my determination to make love work being cut down again, again, again. The lovers who came after and how I fell for them, then cut them down myself. My pride.  Blood dripping from my nose onto the seat cushion of the Greyhound bus that took us from New England to California. The advice a convicted killer dropped like a sack of gold in my lap: you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to make sure you are the one who walks away. The sandwich lines, the flophouses. The woman at the San Diego rescue mission who urged me to apply for Welfare: “You can’t eat that pride, honey.” My pride. My bewilderment. The tree of my determination. The sack of gold I could not spend. The lovers who came after and how I cut them down.
I take a pill.  It does its work. In the morning I sit outside and let the salt air soothe me, chatting with Lisa before she leaves for work. 
That afternoon, I wait for Heidi, another childhood friend, to meet me at a train station.  She is late, but I am not worried.  We always manage to meet up, like we did in 1974, the first time I tried to leave Jimmy. He and I were crashing at a dorm at Harvard after hitchhiking back east from San Diego. I left him sleeping on a mattress in a room full of morning light and walked the bridge across the Charles River to Boston Commons, my black high-tops splitting across my instep, my army surplus backpack half full of dirty clothes. On the Commons, the third old man who tried to hustle me for sex had some heart and gave me a few bucks for food.  His timing was just right; I walked into the McDonald’s and saw Heidi there. She knew a recently married couple – teenagers, like us – who let me stay with them, but that did not last long. I reeked of unhappiness and bad luck. They asked me to leave. I had no place to stay.  Jimmy tracked me down and cried, his head in my lap, my fingers curling in his wiry hair. We reconciled in our shared belief in romance, in starting fresh, in what we called forgiveness. The tree sprang back to life again, fuel for the flame.
My train is long gone. Heidi is late, but I am not worried. I trust my old friends, the ones who knew me back then, the ones who need no explanations.  I wait. A young woman, perhaps a teenager, crosses the tracks. She is costumed in rags, half fashion statement, half necessity, I guess, her bare shins a map of scabs. She plucks a discarded cigarette butt from the pavement, asks a group of youngsters for a light.  They shake their heads and back away, as different from her in their youthful innocence as they are from me in my dowdy middle age. She steps back, and her chin dips, her eyes drop as she mimes her submission to them in her plaid tatters, her short dark hair, her black sneakers. My heart shatters. Oh my darling, my penitent, my broken mirror. You are so young, so undeserving of your pain.
Heidi arrives in her mammoth Chevy Suburban. I hug her hard from the passenger seat, reassured by her solid muscles. We catch up on the drive to Plum Island: our families, our work, our thoughts on the changes wrought by menopause and middle age. Then we each do our own thing for an hour before getting back together in time for dinner. She hops on her bike and heads off to the end of the island; I haul a chair over the boardwalk and sit on the beach, watch the waves curl and break, curl and break.  But for the contrails, the sky is cloudless. The ocean is New England cerulean, an intense distillation of the sky’s blueness, the same color it was on the day of the first significant beating at the New Ocean House’s abandoned boathouse. I do not recall whether even then there was a sign that said “No Trespassing After Dark,” or other warnings of how memory can spring at you in the dusk of life.

Why did I leave? And how many times?  Those memories are scattered, like cards from a deck; I pick one up and hold it against my heart and the old fears, the old bewilderments drop into my belly: the circular fears of being abandoned, disfigured, abandoned, the swollen-faced bewilderment at why he beat me this time, if he would ever beat me again, if he would never beat me again, the seesaw fear of being wrong or dead, no matter how I chose. 
A year passes, more or less, from the day of that first beating. I return to New England, to my parents’ breaking up home, to the trivial drama of high school, to my old friends, girls and boys who are all living on the fringe in some way, outcast from the social norms by choice or circumstance.  After school one day, they sit me down in a wing chair, its back and arms all torn up by cats, and they take seats, too, encircling me. They do not ask me to explain why I ran away from home with a boy who beat me. They do not ask me to explain why I keep going back to him. They do not tell me I am crazy. They do not tell me I have made bad choices, big mistakes, that they would have handled things differently.
They tell me if I go back to Jimmy again, they will kill him. And then they tell me how.
I never go back.

In my twenties, I volunteer at a battered women’s service agency in another coastal New England town.  This is what I learn: not to ask for explanations, not to stand in judgment, not to substitute my values for another woman’s idea of what is right for herself, not to undercut—in any way—the power women take when they make their own decisions.
The agency owns a transitional shelter, an ancient three-story clapboard house near the harbor. The first floor holds four square and ample rooms: a kitchen, a dining room, a living room and an office. On the upper floors, the once spacious rooms have been quartered into a warren of bedrooms and closets that accommodate as many as a dozen women and their children at one time. I facilitate a creative writing group here once a week.
The house is crowded, always, and if the weather is fine, the writing group often meets in the backyard, protected by the stockade fence, shaded by the weeping willow. One spring day, as the air is warm and salty and the gulls are crying, we sit at the wooden picnic table. We will be writing fiction today, I tell the women, as I pile up my color-coded index cards with little chunks of stories on them. I have written random details on the pink cards such as “a ham sandwich,” or “a ‘No Trespassing’ sign,” or “a half-smoked cigarette.” The green cards describe settings such as “the back seat of your mother’s car” or “a bench overlooking the ocean.” The blue cards describe characters such as “a high school janitor” or “a maid in a hotel.”
“Everyone gets five cards from the pink pile,” I tell the women sitting at the table with me as I start dealing out the cards. “It’s important to use plenty of concrete details in your writing.” I pick up the green pile and keep dealing. “And everyone gets one blue character card and one green setting card. Put the cards together any way you like,” I tell the women, “and make a story.”
  “Do I have to use all the cards I get?” asks Lucy, a young woman whose four children, none yet school age, are playing or napping upstairs under the watchful eye of Brenda, our childcare volunteer. 
“You have to play the hand you’re dealt,” I tell her bluntly, but when she casts her eyes down at the table, I regret then I regret my harshness and I say, “Never mind that.  You don’t have to use all the cards if you don’t want to. Here are a few blank cards to make some new story chunks. We’ll add them to the pile. Write whatever you want on them.”
One woman writes “a romantic full moon” on her pink card; another writes “a love letter”; another writes “a kiss”; Lucy writes “my daughter’s baby shoes.” We add them to the pile.  I shuffle and deal. From the window over our heads, we hear the children rampaging. One cries out, and we all look up, but Lucy says, “Brenda’s watching them,” and we can look back down at our pages and write our stories.

It is Halloween in the present, in the West, a few months after my visit to my old neighborhood, a few months after my dinner with the birdwatchers.  I walk my dogs down to the park at dusk.  Inside a fringe of tall grass gone gold with the season, the lawn glows green after a week of rain.  Children dressed as princesses and fearsome creatures play on the jungle gym, screaming and rehearsing terrors we must hope will never come to pass. The full moon shines through gauzy clouds, precisely the right light for ghosts. 
A broad shape wings past my peripheral vision, and my breath stops midway to my lungs in fear before my mouth hangs open in astonishment. A Great Horned Owl lands like ash along the bough of a weeping birch tree. A few yellow leaves hang on like tattered flags below the fierce talons. He or she?  I cannot say. We are bound together anyway. The owl turns round eyes down at us, keeping us in visual range while swiveling those tufted ears to catch the chipping of a sparrow, the clucks of quails, the rustling of a rabbit in the thicket, the children’s make-believe screams. 

I have no children, but my stepdaughter tells me that in the full moon she sees a rabbit from the stories her Japanese mother has told her.  Other women say they see a goddess: Diana or Artemis, goddess of the hunt. Try as I might, I see neither the rabbit nor the hunter when I look up, neither predator nor prey. I can only see an ordinary woman’s face: her hollow eyes, her mouth held open in what might be fresh astonishment, what might be constant ache.

Author’s Bio: Michele Leavitt is a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, and former trial attorney who writes essays and poems and sometimes wins contests.  Her work has been published in venues including So to Speak, Mezzo Cammin, Hippocampus, and The Journal. A memoir excerpt, “No Trespassing,” won The Ohio State University’s 2010 William Allen Award for creative nonfiction. Her poetry collection Back East (Moon Pie Press) won the 2013 Michael Macklin Award. In 2014, EAT Poems published her audio chapbook of poems from the hepatitis C epidemic, Virus Conversations. She lives in Maine, where she co-direct the Honors Program at Unity College and teaches writing.

*Originally published in The Journal.

On Freedom

“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” 
–James Baldwin

Freedom is a tricky term when it comes to abuse. The word freedom can be used to minimize or dismiss. People can say, “But you’re free now.” as a way of indirectly dismissing the lasting effects of the abuse. Breaking free begins with the initial separation, the hard, terrible ripping of the wound. Freedom begins then, but it’s not freedom yet. There is so much more. There is so much brainwashing involved in abuse, and the diminishing of one’s own voice to the point that it feels like the abuser lives in the survivor’s bones. My abuser was my exoskeleton for too many years. When I first left him, he was a ghost in my bones. I felt him in my joints. I heard his voice coming out of my mouth. Now, over two years later, he is only sometimes a ghost in my bones. I only sometimes hear his voice. 

So, am I free? Have I survived? When do I finally get to declare to the world that I’m free.


This is the day that I declare that I’m free. That he has no more power over me. This is that day. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently, but today, I’m free.

This morning, I was bone tired. The first days of summer always feel that way for me, as though all of the intensity of the previous semester has left my body drained. So, after Reed went to school, I went back to bed. I slept until after 10. I had feverish dreams, so vivid. I was back in the home that I had shared with Caleb, but it was no longer my home. In the background–vaguely–I knew that I had a home somewhere else, a home that was terrible, dark, moldy, and awful. A slum. But in that moment, I was in Caleb’s home, the home we had purchased together, and I went to his office. I found a box of his writings. It had a lock on it, but I was able to open it. I saw piles of letters. I knew they were written to me. I tried to read them, but the words moved in front of my eyes. I realized I would never knew what those letters said. 

And then, I woke up. I didn’t recognize where I was. I saw the chocolate colored walls of my bedroom, the white of my bed frame, my dog curled up at my feet. This is neither the home I shared with Caleb, nor is it a slum, I thought. Where am I? It took a full minute for me to realize that I was in neither of the places from the dream. I was somewhere entirely different. I was in a home full of love and happiness. A home that I had created for myself. A home I didn’t know could exist on the day that I walked out on my marriage.

I will never be able to read those letters. Caleb told me of letters that he had written to me. He told me of apologies–sincere ones. In the beginning of our separation, he read one to me over the phone while I wept. It felt like a sincere apology, at least. And then, his lawyer told him to not to send the letters, not to read them to me, not to apologize even, so the apologies stopped. And that was probably for the best–that was what motivated me to switch the initial separation papers to divorce papers. And when the divorce papers were filed, his apologies turned to blame. And I wasn’t yet free enough to sift through that blame, to realize that it wasn’t real. I wasn’t yet free enough not to blame myself. So I accepted the burden of his blame, just as I had accepted the burden of my own shame. I even sent him a long email apologizing to him. I believed him when he said it was all my fault.

The other day, DHL was going to drop off a package for me. I was leaving the house, and I had to write a note to the driver. I went into a drawer and pulled out a notebook. I found this contract that Caleb had written in the back of the notebook.
It says:

It is okay to leave if you take a phone.

It is not okay to harass the person who leaves, but you can ask them to come home.

It is okay to ask for timeouts.

It is okay to feel emotions. It is okay to let the other feel emotions and not fix it.

It is not okay to use physical intimidation.

It is not okay to break the other’s things.

It is not okay to call names.

It is not okay to expose Reed to any damaging behavior.

Signed: J. Caleb Winters 11/18/12

I hadn’t known this contract existed. Who was this contract for? Was it for me? Was it for Caleb himself? 

Here is what I do know: This contract was written the day before Caleb was arrested. On the day that Caleb was arrested, he violated every single one of these terms. 

Here is also what I know: When Caleb and I were married, I would have accepted a contract like this. I would have said, okay. I would have held out my arms. I would have let him cry on my shoulder. I would have said, I forgive you. I will not leave you. You are sick. You are not well. I will not leave you to be unwell alone.

Here is also what I know: The person I am now can see that contract and think, Either he was insane or completely calculating, and it does not matter. I am just so glad not to have him messing with my head anymore.

I can recognize all of this because I’m free. I’m finally free. I’m not free every moment of every day. I’m not even free every moment of any single day. I still hear his voice, but now, when I hear his voice, I know it’s full of lies. I know that it is calculated, controlling, manipulative, and sadly, very, very sane.

Being free doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with all of the hallmarks of abuse. I don’t know how to deal with anger. I either repress it or get overwhelmed by it. I don’t always know how to communicate from a rational space rather than an emotional space. I don’t always know how to access my own voice, and when I do, I sometimes access a voice that doesn’t feel like my own. It is a voice that feels angry, and irrational, and full of despair. I don’t know how to repair some of the relationships that were damaged during the years of abuse. I don’t know how to fix everything. I don’t know how to stop wanting to fix everything. But I don’t have to. I’m doing the best I can, and it turns out the best I can do is pretty damn great sometimes. 

Not always, but sometimes, at least.

My essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” was accepted for Best American Essays 2015. This is the biggest award there is for a single essay. I am early in my career to be earning this award. I feel tremendously grateful and overwhelmed with something that feels like joy. One of my favorite writers, Rebecca Solnit wrote a comment on Facebook that she was so excited to be in that book with me. Can I just say that I almost swooned from delight? To be admired and in the company of one of my all-time heroes? These are the kinds of dreams that I never even let myself dream, and yet, they’re coming true. Rebecca described the transformation as “pure alchemy,” and that’s the only way I can think of describing it. I turned my greatest shame–my biggest weakness–into my strength. 

Pure alchemy.

I hosted a party on Saturday night. It was a picnic/kickball tournament. I live on three beautiful acres. About 30 of the smartest, wittiest, funniest, most wonderful people I know showed up. Some of us watched, and some of us played kickball, and many of us bravely admitted that we were frequently the last picked for the team in middle school, but this was a safe space. We reclaimed that game. We made it our own, and it was complete joy. 

Pure alchemy.

It was 91 degrees though. At one point, I apologized. I said, “I’m sorry I planned this on a night when it was going to be so hot.” My friend Brad said, “Kelly Sundberg, are you apologizing for the weather?” He made me laugh, and it was okay. Because every one in that space knew that I will probably always be the kind of person to apologize for the weather, but they will also always gently remind me that it’s not my fault.

Because people are good. Most people are not like Caleb. Caleb is an exception. A terrible, terrible exception, but an exception. For a while I thought he was the norm, but I know now that he’s not. Most people are good.

After the tournament, we made a huge bonfire, and everyone relaxed in that quiet night air, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. 
The fire was pretty large, so I grabbed my fire extinguisher, and my friend snapped this picture of me:
I posted this picture on Facebook, and one of my friends–a wonderful survivor who I met online after publishing “It Will Look Like a Sunset” sent me the most thoughtful message. 

She wrote: 
“Still struck by your beauty and the sense of freedom in your grin tonight. So glad you did the bravest thing so you could have that genuine grin tonight.”

Her words meant so much to me. She was right. There was freedom in my grin. She inspired me to write this blog post. 

She inspired me to write back, “Freedom feels so good.”