Survivor Stories, Guest Post by Mandy Rose: On Car Accidents and Second Wives.

Mandy Rose is a writer, mother, and survivor. I have long admired her for her honesty and integrity. Here, she writes compellingly about her ex-husband’s brutal abuse and his new wife’s denial in the face of it. I wrote recently about The Next Woman in my own life. What I’ve learned from women like Mandy is that The Next Woman is rarely exempt from the abuses the perpetrator inflicted on the previous woman. My wish is that, when women like Mandy speak out, they might not be able to save The Next Woman in their own lives, but maybe, they can make a difference for someone else’s Next Woman.

On Car Accidents and Second Wives

One recent afternoon, my son was in the backseat, playing with a key ring tape measure, when the tape retracted just-so and launched into the front of our car, hitting my window. We were at a red light, so there was no danger of swerving, no accident caused as a result, but I immediately screamed and started crying. It took over an hour to stop shaking. Call it PTSD. Call it a trigger. Call it a complication of the fact my ex-husband assaulted me multiple times in a moving vehicle, usually while I was driving. Call it what happened after I learned just over a month ago that my ex-husband assaulted his wife in the same manner he used to hurt me. Abusers repeat the patterns that work for them.

In each instance, Tim had been drinking, I was sober, and he tried to start a fight. First, he would criticize something he thought I had done wrong—I looked at the wrong man and that meant I wanted to sleep with him.  I didn’t know how to signal properly or change lanes. My car was too messy. I didn’t shift properly. When I failed to take the bait, he would attack me personally.

I was fat.
I was ugly.
I was a “stupid, lazy, motherfucking, dumb bitch.”


It never mattered whether I ignored him or tried to calm him down; his face would get closer and closer to mine, until I was pressed against the door, trying to maintain control of the vehicle. As I tried to get us safely home, he would push me, punch me, shake the steering wheel, and sometimes try to shift the car out of gear or remove the key from the ignition.
The first time he broke my nose, we were on Interstate 70, almost two hours away from home, going 65 miles an hour. We hit a guardrail just after his punch connected and he made me lie to the insurance company. Under duress, I corroborated his story that he swerved to avoid hitting a deer.

Another time, we were on an overpass, preparing to exit onto Interstate 25. After he punched me several times, I told him I was afraid he was going to cause an accident. He said that was good, before jerking the wheel and punching me again, saying, “I hope you die.”

By the time I left him, threats to kill me came several times a day. He would call me from work before lunch and before the end of the day to tell me what was going to happen when he got home. He told me exactly how I was going to die, and regularly demonstrated with choking motions or by squeezing my neck until I was close to losing consciousness. 

The day I knew I had to leave, I asked him not to hurt me in front of our soon to be four-year-old daughter and he hit me anyway. Then he turned to her and said, “Mommy fucked up. She’s going to go away forever and you and your brother are going to live here with me.”

When he told me I was lucky he didn’t kill me, I believed him. I still believe I am lucky.

He didn’t know I planned to leave him, but that day he also told me he was never going to marry again. Despite the fact he broke every marriage vow, I held onto the hope Tim meant it when he said he would stay single. When our kids told me he was engaged, I cried, but not for the reasons most might think. I was worried that he would hurt her, too, proving as incapable of change as I had feared. After all, his threats to kill me came after alcohol evaluations, domestic violence classes, and court ordered “anger management” which all seemed to teach him how to become a more savvy abuser.  I also worried about what it would mean if he didn’t hurt her—that there was some sort of truth in the statements from him and his family that I had driven him to hurt me.

His abuse of me was quickly transferred to our children, despite my best efforts to structure his parenting time to limit exposure when he was drinking or likely to become angry. His then-fiancée swore to the Child and Family Investigator that Tim had never hurt the children, would never hurt the children, and if he tried to hurt her she would leave immediately. She didn’t believe he had ever hurt me.

I sent her one message of warning about him, shortly before they married, with photos of my daughter’s bruises and information on where to find the public records related to my abuse including the application for a protection order which referenced the assaults in the vehicle. She blocked me and attended his child-abuse hearings, holding his hand in the courtroom.  He lost the right to see our children without supervision, and they married the day he cancelled one of his supervised visits, claiming to be sick.

He has not seen the kids in almost four years and this is part of the reason that I don’t know exactly when he started assaulting his new wife, though I have my suspicions.
What I do know is that the police report I read a month ago says they weren’t even fighting. It says the police have been called to their home numerous times, with no results. It says they left dinner early and he’d been drinking. She was driving and he started yelling at her for the way she shifted gears.

He called her a “stupid, lazy, motherfucking, dumb bitch.”


He punched her in the face more than once, spattering blood in all four corners of the car, and she sustained multiple facial fractures. He made her hit a speed limit sign when she tried to pull over.

According to the report, he showed no signs of remorse and showed no concern for her when they advised him she was bleeding profusely from her face, claiming not to have hit her or have any idea what happened. As he never once apologized to me for hurting me, refused to acknowledge abuse of the children and offered only an indirect apology when ordered to give one to the children.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he failed to apologize to her.


I know that he was held less than 48 hours in jail, despite being arrested for 2nd degree assault with serious bodily injury. I know a few days after his release, she recanted her original version of how things happened—claiming the steering wheel injured her face, despite the doctor’s report that the injuries were consistent with the same thing she originally said, that he punched her multiple times in the face with a closed fist before she crashed.

I know despite his plea deal for lesser charges and a reduced sentence, the judge believed her original version of events. I know she wasn’t in the courtroom, because I was.

I want her to know I was there as her witness.

I want to tell her I’m sorry this happened and I believe her original version.

I want to tell her I understand how and why she believed the lies he and his family told about me. I understand the pressure and manipulation he and his family exert with master skill. I understand the desire to grant second chances—to hope it can be different.

I want her to know that you can love the easy giggle and soft touch of a man, to understand his childhood and how he got this way, while still recognizing that it is not okay for him to hurt you. That nothing you did would make his abuse acceptable.

I want to tell her I forgive her for the things she said about me and what she had to believe about me in order to believe he was who she fell in love with.

want to remind her she isn’t the first. I wasn’t the first, but maybe she can be the last.

I want to tell her she is the opposite of all the hurtful things he has ever said to her.

I want to tell her safety is worth fighting for—that love can’t live in the same room as fear.

I want to tell her to run far, far away, while she can.

I want to tell her he isn’t sorry and it isn’t her fault.

Mandy L. Rose studied creative writing at Colorado State University and lives near the Rocky Mountains with her two children. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in Pithead Chapel, A Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park, and Alyss. Her chapbook, Letters to Pluto, is forthcoming from Gesture Press in spring 2016.


On Having a Place to Return to

Photo Credit: Glen Sundberg

When I was pregnant with Reed, I became very aware that my body was a house. My body was a house for his growing body, and while he grew inside of me, I lived inside of a real house that I thought was haunted. Something had happened there. In the bathroom, there was wallpaper with pictures of Kewpie dolls–dolls with shuttered eyelids–and the wallpaper had been torn down in fits. The landlord later told me that the previous tenant had a breakdown of sorts and had to return to Scandinavia. 

I dreamed of ghosts in that house. All of the ghosts were women. All of the ghosts were trying to warn me.

Once, I pulled the cord on the light above the sink, and electricity shot through my body. Black bead imprints were singed onto my fingertips. As I iced the burns, I thought of the baby floating inside of me. I wondered if he had felt the currents. 

I wanted to be safe for him.

I already felt unsafe in my own home.

I didn’t even know that I felt unsafe in my own home.

The stories we tell ourselves sometimes have more power than the stories that are actually occurring. 

I told myself that Caleb was my home. I told myself that Caleb would keep me safe. 


—-

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about regrets. I can’t believe that I have been writing this blog for that long. This blog has been a labor of love for me. When I read those old posts, I can see how far I’ve come. I’m glad they’re here to remind me. After I wrote that post, an old girlfriend of Caleb’s wrote to me. She told me that she had found my story online, and that, as she read through my essay, and then, my blog, she was sad for me, and she knew that Caleb was exactly that type of guy.

She recently reached out to me again, and she is so kind. Another of Caleb’s exes has also become someone I would consider a friend. I console myself by telling myself that Caleb has good taste in women. It’s a small consolation, but it’s something, at least.

I have to believe that there was something of beauty inside of me when I met Caleb. I have to believe that I can get that back. 

I have to believe that beauty is a place I can return to.

—-

Caleb made me feel ugly on the outside. Worse, Caleb made me feel ugly on the inside. Caleb made me feel ugly all over.

Before him, I hadn’t known that ugliness could become a state of being, that the world inside of me, and the world outside of me would become places of such darkness, that only ugliness would seem to be truth. 

—-

My birthday was on Christmas Day. There was a full moon this Christmas. The last full moon on Christmas Day was in 1977, which was the day I was born. I had never known that I was born on a full moon. 

Reed, too, was born on a full moon. We are both full moon babies. 

I attach meaning to things. I think of Reed floating in that darkness inside of me. I think of the tides, of the pull that the moon has on water. I think of lunar water and how it only exists in ice. I think of my soul floating in darkness. I think that my soul, too, has a moon. I think, that, no matter how dark things were, there was still light inside of me.

Shortly before I met Caleb, I had my tarot cards read. The tarot reader told me to think of the men I had loved and imagine one of the four elements–earth, wood, fire, or water. She told me that element was a reflection of whatever was inside of me. I closed my eyes. I thought of those men. None of the elements fit. 

All I could think of was ice.

I was the ice. Those men were the ice.

Caleb, too, was ice. He was nothing but ice, and I was trapped underneath his floes. 

—-

I am in my childhood home. This town. It was not always an easy town to be a child in. The bleakness, the despair, the isolation and poverty–they are all subjects of my writing. But, still, this town is my home. It is a place for me to return to. 

I was talking on the phone the other day to my friend, Kelly M. She was wondering why I am doing better than some other survivors. My recovery is ongoing, but I am genuinely getting better. So many survivors never do. 

Kelly M. said that she wondered if my recovery is, in part, because I have a place to return to. I have a home where I will always be that girl who existed before Caleb. I have a home where no one struggles to accept my story. I have a home where everyone takes me at my word that Caleb was abusive, and that, I did not deserve it.

Before I returned here, I was in Caleb’s home. I had to deal with his family, with their disbelief of me, with their lies (whether intentional or not) about me. I had to deal with his friends who searched desperately for ways to rationalize Caleb’s abuse. I had to deal with the pain that those rationalizations caused me. I had to deal with the way those rationalizations became another way of telling me that I deserved it. 

Here, in my home, I am not Kelly Sundberg, abuse survivor. I am Kelly Sundberg, the redhead. I am Kelly Sundberg, Glen’s little sister. I am Kelly Sundberg, the Democrat. I am Kelly Sundberg, the goofball. I am Kelly Sundberg, the hippie. I am Kelly Sundberg, the book nerd. I am Kelly Sundberg, the loyal friend. 

Here, I am just Kelly Sundberg. 

—-

Last night, two of my girlfriends and I celebrated my birthday. We made Thai food. We drank wine. We went to a bar. We hugged lots of people. We danced. 

I am not married, so I flirted. It was fun. I am allowed to flirt. I am single. That is one of the few bonuses to being single.

A man told me, “Kelly, the more I get to know you, the more I like you.”

Another man kissed me unexpectedly, and I enjoyed it. It was a surprise, but not unwelcome.

So many men bought me birthday drinks that I am lucky I didn’t have a hangover today.

I will not date any of these men. I don’t even live here. 

It is important for me to try and never hurt anyone. I try to be honest about my intentions. My belief is that, as long as I’m acting with integrity, I can flirt. 

It has been a long time since I’ve done something with a man that has made me feel shame. That is a good feeling. 

In my twenties, I didn’t always have those kinds of boundaries. I didn’t always know what I wanted, or more importantly, what I didn’t want. I let men into my life who shouldn’t have been there. I hurt men because I couldn’t be honest with them, because I didn’t want to reject them.

I couldn’t always say no. I am finally able to say no. I am also able to say yes. I recognize now that the decisions are all mine.

Another man and I spoke about being single at our ages. I dated him before I met Caleb, and we have remained friends. We both agreed that we don’t envy our married friends, that we are happy the way we are.

Do I get lonely? Yes. Do I crave human touch? Yes.

But, I have discovered that I am able to provide so much of what my soul needs for myself. 

Yesterday morning, I went skiing with a friend. The sky was so cold and blue. Water rushed silently under ice floes in the stream beside us. It was an easy route, so we chatted while we skied. I told her that I feel like I’m finally ready to be in a relationship again–not because I see a relationship as an exit out of unhappiness (relationships don’t work that way), but because I am so happy right now. In many ways, I am happier than I have ever been. I would love to be able to share that happiness with someone. 

But, as I spoke those words to her, I knew that, until the right person comes along, I’ll keep finding places to return to. Places that bring me joy. Places that remind me of who I am and who I was before. 

Places that accept me.

I’ll keep finding those places inside of myself too. 

And, as much as possible, I’ll be that place for the people I love. If you are someone I love, and you need a place to return to, I promise to always be there for you. You know who you are. You know how to find me.

I am no longer ice.





On The Next Woman

The Next Woman is younger than me. The Next Woman looks like Caleb with his same angular features. The Next Woman has similar coloring to me, but she is slimmer with longer hair. The Next Woman likes to crochet, and craft, and make things with her hands. The Next Woman hula hoops in bikinis. The Next Woman likes braids.

The Next Woman bakes cookies with my son. The Next Woman is nice to my son. The Next Woman refuses to meet me. The Next Woman says she will never shake my hand. The Next Woman thinks I’m a crazy liar. The Next Woman is marrying my abuser. The Next Woman believes my abuser. The Next Woman thinks it will be different for her.

Maybe it will be different for her.

God, I hope it will be different for her.

I don’t know her. Everything I describe about her comes from snooping on social media. She snoops on me too. It is obvious. We take turns blocking each other. The 21st Century is problematic for trauma survivors.

I don’t want her to become a trauma survivor. Maybe she already is one.

I also don’t want her to know how it feels to be held down. I don’t want her to know how it feels to finally decide to fight back, then find that he can hold her down so easily. That he will spit in her face–not once, but three times–just to show her how powerless she is.

I don’t want her to know how it feels to have Caleb’s hands around her neck, how as her oxygen supply disappears, his face will grow blurry, but it is red–so red–and his eyes will have something in them that looks like pleasure.

I don’t want her to ever think “His face will be the last thing I see before  I die.”

I don’t want her to ever think “I am ready to die.”

I don’t want her to apologize when he finally lets go because he has her so inside-out and upside-down that she thinks she brought it upon herself.

I don’t want that life for her.

Even more, I don’t want my son to see his father do that to another woman.

When I divorced Caleb, I told my lawyer, a lawyer who only represents domestic violence victims for free, that I wasn’t worried about Caleb abusing Reed, that child abuse wasn’t a part of his pattern. She looked at me, then said, “But what if he gets together with another woman?”

I hadn’t thought of that. It was hard for me to imagine Caleb with another woman. I knew that he was still in love with me when I left him. As messed up as it was, I had also still been in love with him when I left him. I couldn’t imagine either of us with other people.

I am very loyal; I didn’t believe in falling out of love.

When I left Caleb, he said, “You’ll find someone else.”

And I replied, “I will never love anyone else. I will only ever love you, but I am better off alone than I am with you.”

And I meant it about not loving someone else, but I was wrong. I have been with other men. I have learned how it feels to be treated with respect and kindness. I have learned that I am capable of loving someone else, though I have not loved someone else.

But I love myself now, and that is something I never felt when I was with Caleb.

Today, I was at the Post Office. I had to show the guy my driver’s license. He looked at it, then looked back up. He peered at my face. He didn’t believe it was me. I guess they take this stuff seriously at the Post Office.

I said, “I have longer hair and contacts now, but I promise that it’s me.” He looked again, then back at my driver’s license, then back at me, and said, “Wow.” And honestly, it stung. I knew what he was getting at. I had that photo taken right after I left Caleb, but before we divorced. I looked the worst I had ever looked in my life. I looked tired, old, miserable, and frankly, like someone who had given up. But today, standing in front of that man, I was completely transformed. I am happy. I have my glow back.

And it’s probably in my imagination, but when I see the Next Woman at our child hand-offs in the 7-11 parking lot, it’s like I can see her glow diminishing a little more every other week. But the truth is that I try not to look at her. I immediately get on my phone. It is all so very painful.

I want to say to her, “You are so young, and still, so beautiful. Don’t let that go. Don’t marry a man who will make you feel diminished. Don’t marry a man who hates the women from before you. Don’t marry a man whose own son says, ‘You know my dad. He just goes crazy sometimes.’ Don’t marry a man who is raising a son who distrusts his own father. Don’t have that man’s babies. Don’t give them the childhood that his oldest son has had.”

I can’t say that to her, so I’ll say it here. Maybe she will read it. More likely, she won’t. Caleb has made it clear that no one in his life will read my writing. I guess I’m grateful for that, although that is not why he keeps them from reading it.

Tuesday morning, as my son was leaving for school, he said, “Mom, did I tell you that Dad and Next Woman are getting married?”

And I said, “Wow, that’s great buddy!”

What was I supposed to say?

And I said, “Are you happy?”

And he replied, “Sure.” Then he went outside to wait for the bus.

And I realized that his father’s marriage means little to my son. What’s the difference? My son has no control over his surroundings. He learned early on that he has to ride the waves of his father’s moods.

If I ever remarry, I have no doubt that my son will respond differently. It is obvious that he sees me as the stable force in his life. For that reason, I have protected him from any dating that I have done.

Thankfully, my son is doing great. I remember how Caleb diminished my parenting abilities when we were married, how he made me feel unfit and inadequate, how Caleb took the credit for every good thing in our lives. When I look at Reed now, I know that I’m a good parent. Reed affirms it to me every day. He is kind, empathetic, confident, happy, and good. He is just goodness embodied. And Caleb can’t take the credit for that. I am the one raising that boy, and if I have anything to do with it, he will turn into a beautiful man who respects women and treats them with care.

I was surprised by my feelings when I found out the engagement between Caleb and Next Woman was official. I felt very heavy. It wasn’t jealousy, nor was it sadness. Just an inexplicable heaviness. There were so many feelings involved. I felt fear for Reed and his future. I felt sadness for Next Woman and the hopelessness that is waiting for her. I felt inadequate because I’m not yet at that place in my own life. And I felt resentment towards Next Woman for disbelieving me, even though all of the evidence in the world proves that what I’ve written is true.

My friend Megan, who has been my friend since we were toddlers, and who is a counselor, told me that Next Woman’s entire life depends upon believing what Caleb says, and I know this to be true. Megan’s words helped me to work past the resentment.

The author Mo Daviau, recently wrote a blog post about this same subject. She wrote about how every abuse survivor eventually reads the book Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft. (If you’re reading this blog and you haven’t read that book, then read it. Just do me a favor, please, and read it.)                                                                                                                                    

But Mo pointed out that when the Next Woman agrees with the abuser that the ex is crazy, then the Next Woman is placed in the position of proving that she’s different. That means the Next Woman can never disagree with the abuser, and always has to give in to his needs. Thus, the abuse dynamic is set into place early on.

Can I admit something here? My fear is not really that Caleb will hold Next Woman down. My real fear is that he won’t hold Next Woman down, and she won’t have any reason to leave. I think it’s possible he won’t physically abuse her. I feel that I am a large part of that. I am actively writing about this. He already has one domestic violence charge in his town, and everyone knows what he has done. Is he really going to want to risk the consequences again? Lundy also says that highly intelligent abusers are the most dangerous because they have so much control over their actions. Caleb never “lost control.” He chose to abuse me because it got him what he wanted.

So, my real fear is that Caleb will emotionally abuse Next Woman, which is so much harder to identify, and much harder to get out of. And let me be clear when I say that I have no doubt that he will emotionally abuse her. This is not an if.

Other survivors tell me that it’s naive of me to think he might not hit Next Woman, and I’ve learned that other survivors are usually right. There are patterns to this behavior.

Mo has also written that she wished her ex had hit her. And I get that. I do. I’m not glad that Caleb hit me, but it gives my story a legitimacy that others don’t have. Still, the emotional abuse is what lingers. The emotional abuse is what turns their voice into your voice.

I doubt that Caleb will get arrested again, but I have no doubt that he will abuse Next Woman.

I’m in an online support group of sorts. A woman recently asked when it stops hurting. I was the first to reply. I said that it takes a while, and even then, it’s not permanent, that triggers continue to happen. Every response that followed was similar. We are not on a timeline, nor can we be. We don’t know what’s going to hurt and what won’t.

Can I tell you about my last major trigger? It was when Caleb got together with Next Woman. I realized via social media snooping, and I had a nightmare that Caleb was in my house. I tried to run out the door. He wouldn’t let me. He stepped in front of me in whichever direction I went (which was what he did when we lived together). I said, “Why are you here?” But he just smiled at me. I said, “Are you here to kill me?” And he smiled again and nodded, then reached out his hands.

Then, I woke up. I was so panicked that I spent the next day incapacitated on the couch. I couldn’t stop crying. I was wrapped in a blanket the entire time. My mom called because she often calls me. I don’t really talk a lot to my mom about my feelings. It’s just not the way that my family operates, but I told her about the dream and the way it affected me. I started crying while I was talking. It was one of the few times that, instead of telling me what I should have done, she told me that she understood. She just listened, and I relaxed.

That was the last time I was triggered in that way, and it was over a year ago. Yesterday, my friend, Kelly M. told me how nice it was for her to realize that I rarely talk about Caleb anymore, that I only talk about him in logistical terms. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t sad to hear about his engagement, but for the most part, I’ve moved on.

And the day after I felt so heavy because of the news of Caleb’s engagement, I felt better. That was all it took. A day. And my friend and I decided to prank one of the writers at my university. He has an affinity for polar bears, and so, we bought a polar bear from the grocery store and set it on his porch in a creepy fashion. Reed had no idea what we were doing, but he loved it. He wrote the card, and he laughed, and it was wonderful. After the prank was completed, the writer’s wife wrote, “Kelly, you and Reed are just the personification of joy.”


And we are. Our life is good. Honestly, it is better than good. And I can’t help Caleb’s Next Woman, but I can make sure that I will never be someone else’s Next Woman, and I can make sure that, most of the time, Reed is living with joy rather than yelling.

On Picking Up The Phone.

Kelly and me in our twenties.

I pick up the phone nearly every time my friend Kelly M. calls. If I don’t pick up the phone when she calls, it’s only because I’m doing something that can’t be put off. I pick up the phone when Kelly M. calls because, every time I talk to Kelly M., even eighteen years after we first became friends, I feel like the girl in this photo. I feel as though the world has so much to offer, and I’ve only tasted a fraction of it.

Lately, Kelly M. calls a lot after ten p.m. We live in different time zones, and she has a toddler, so that’s her first peace of the day. Still, she very often uses that moment of peace to call me, so much so, that sometimes she tells me, “Okay, I promised Brendan (her partner) that I would only talk for fifteen minutes.” Then, we inevitably talk for forty-five minutes. 

Last night, Kelly M. called me. I was working on a paper, but I answered the phone anyway. “How did you know that I needed a break?” I asked. Kelly M. laughed. She said, “Well, I saw that you called me twice today.” It was true. I had called twice, both times over silly little things that I had wanted to share with her. 

Later, in the conversation, Kelly M. confided in me that she had been writing, and it was her only day of the week with childcare, so she had opted not to answer the phone when I called.

Still, Kelly M. said that she was happy to see that I had called twice. Kelly M. said that she knew that meant I was celebrating something.

Kelly M. said that, a few years ago, she wouldn’t have turned down those calls.

Kelly M. said that, a few years ago, she had made a commitment to herself to answer the phone no matter when I called. She answered the phone in the supermarket. She answered the phone in coffee shops. She answered the phone in cabs and made everyone in the car uncomfortable. 

She answered the phone because I wasn’t celebrating: I was struggling. I was grieving. I was angry. In many ways, I was fighting for my life.

Still, Kelly M. answered the phone. 

When I needed her to, she answered the phone, and that is the best gift that anyone has ever given to me.

People often comment on my strength and my bravery in getting out of my marriage, but it wasn’t like that. I didn’t just summon up some vast reserve of strength and bravery. I didn’t have a vast reserve of strength and bravery. I was completely broken. Do you hear me? I was completely broken. What he did to me broke me. I cannot understate that, and I could not have put myself back together. I know that other women have done it on their own, but I am not one of those women.

All I did was walk out the door. I walked out the door, and then, as I was falling apart, as everything in my life was being destroyed, my girlfriends like Kelly M., and my friend Megan (who deserves her own post someday), and my friend, Rebecca, and so many others, stepped in, and each of them tenderly put a broken part back into place. And every time that someone diminished me, or disbelieved me, those broken parts would fall out again, and one of my friends would patiently reach out and put the part back where it belonged.

And over time, the broken parts healed, and that’s when I became strong and brave, but it didn’t happen straight out of the box. It was a long and difficult period. It is an ongoing period.

But, now, at least, Kelly M. can answer the phone because I’m celebrating, and not because I’m falling apart.

It is very hard for friendships to survive abuse. Things weren’t always easy between Kelly M. and me. There was an argument in the months after I had left Caleb. We didn’t talk for three weeks. It was a long three weeks. When I finally broke down and called her, she told me, “Kelly, I am not Caleb. I love you unconditionally.” 

I had never known how it felt to be loved unconditionally, you see?

Kelly M. and I met in a dorm at Boise State University. She was eighteen and I was twenty. I was returning to college after an absence. Kelly M. told me that she admired me because I wore a satin robe and made coffee out of a French Press. It all sounds so ridiculously pretentious now. I admired Kelly because, even though she was younger than me, she was whip-smart, funny, and already, completely feminist. 

When we laughed, the sound could fill an entire room and still can. 

When we were in our early twenties, we roomed together for a year. It was a difficult year. I had recently gone through one of my first significant break-ups, and I had entered a period of loneliness and discipline. At night, I walked through the cold snow-covered alley way to the Rec Center and ran on the treadmill. I stared out into the snowy darkness. I measured my progress in minutes and miles. In the glass window, I could see my reflection, but I looked past it. Instead, I looked into the darkness. There was a globe lamp by the sidewalk below me, and if I ran hard enough, the light from that lamp expanded, took on rings. 

If I hit a point where I felt that I could run forever, I knew that I had gone too far. Then, I would go back to the apartment and write. It was the first time I had begun to write in earnest. 

Kelly M., in contrast, was already in a graduate-level poetry workshop with a charismatic and handsome visiting writer who flirted with me in the copy room when I was making copies as a work-study for the English department, asked my other friend at the YMCA about me, and then slept with at least one other undergraduate that I know of. Kelly M.’s life seemed so exciting, and mine felt very void in comparison, but I wrote my first published piece, an essay about my high school mascot that Kelly M, helped me revise. I titled that essay, “I Am Not a Savage,” and it was published in a textbook. It is probably the one piece I’ve written that has been read the most. Sometimes, I think of how young I was when I wrote that essay, and I don’t ever want to read it again. I don’t want to have access to that young woman’s voice. That young woman is gone.

While we lived together, things beyond Kelly M.’s control happened, and she, too, grew sad. Then, I made friends and grew un-sad. 

Our sadnesses were mismatched, but our friendship survived.

A few years later, Kelly M. sat on the couch of my studio apartment with me. She told me that she didn’t think I should marry Caleb. She told me that a professor of his had told her Caleb was not what he pretended to be. I can’t fathom how much strength it must have taken for Kelly M. to do that, but I didn’t listen to her advice. Still, I always appreciated it. Even then, I knew that she was coming from a place of love.

She was in my wedding.

Once, Kelly M. and I went to a palm reader at the state fair who told us many things that would never turn out to be true, but that palm reader told us that we were sisters in a past life, and I like to believe in that.

When Kelly M. got married, her wedding was in Vietnam, and her mother paid for my plane ticket as her wedding gift to Kelly. I was hollow at that time. People who know me now would not have recognized me, had they seen me. I was younger than I am now, but I probably looked a decade older than I do now. Kelly M.’s sister and Brendan’s best friend performed the ceremony. I read a Bell Hooks quote. No one else was a part of the ceremony itself; Kelly M. truly valued me as a sister. 

It was a wedding that was completely invested in feminism and gender equity. We were surrounded by the deepest, most beautiful, dark lake on one side, and rice paddy fields on another. Lush, green mountains stretched up around us. It was one of the most stunning places I have ever visited, but I could not appreciate it. I felt, more acutely than ever, that my own marriage was in shambles. I wanted my own marriage to be over.

Kelly M. was the person I called in the middle of the night and cried to about wanting to end my marriage. I told Kelly M. rather than someone else because I knew that Kelly M. would tell me to leave. I knew that she would tell me that without judgment. I knew that Kelly M. would never encourage me to fight for a marriage that was breaking me.

No one should ever encourage another person to fight for a marriage that is breaking them. Abuse or not, divorce is not the worst option; misery is the worst option.

A few months later, I met up with Kelly M. in Boston. It was the darkest period of my life. She took me to China Town. I hadn’t been eating well, but she took me to her favorite dim sum place. I don’t remember everything we ate, but I remember the pickled cucumbers, how they slid into my hunger so easily, how my hunger felt so diminished. 

I remember how she showed me how to eat the soup dumplings. She showed me to poke a hole in the dumpling with a chop stick, then quickly slurp the steamy broth from the spoon. I remember how, as I poked the hole and slurped the broth, I felt that I, too, had experienced a release: I was eating. I was laughing. I was okay.

I have spent the last two Thanksgivings with Kelly M., her partner Brendan, and their beautiful toddler. I have spent these Thanksgivings with them because they live a relatively short flight away, and while I’m there, they do everything in their power to nourish me. 

This may sound grumbly, but no one feeds me anymore. I only feed myself, and I miss being nourished in that way. When I’m at Kelly M. and Brendan’s, they feed me so well. They nourish me in the way that I typically nourish others. 

And Brendan has become to me, an extension of Kelly M. in a way that may be annoying to him, but only means that I value and treasure him too. He, too, gets to listen to my chatter, my silly jokes, my trivial concerns, and also, my darkest secrets. 

The night after Thanksgiving, we all went out to dinner. We ate brick-oven pizza, and Brendan and I split a bottle of wine. then pregnant Kelly drove us home. Later, Brendan, Kelly M, and I all crammed on to a loveseat and watched the movie Trainwreck on a laptop computer propped up on crates. It was crowded, possibly overly familiar, and perfectly wonderful.  

And their daughter? Well, she is magical in the way that only a child born of two such loving parents could be.

And, when I visit, Brendan always watches the baby for a period so that Kelly and I can go write. This year, we went to write at a coffee shop on the bay of Lake Superior, and I felt such happiness.

Blue Wave on the Bay, Ashland Wisconsin


I had set up my computer in one place, but when I returned, Kelly had moved it. She said, “I want you to have a view of the lighthouse.” 

What Kelly didn’t understand is that she has been my lighthouse. Through all of this, Kelly has been the one guiding me safely to shore, and I don’t even care if that’s a cliche.

Later, we took a self-portrait in front of the lake. We couldn’t get the lighthouse in the background, but we didn’t need to.


Survivor Stories, Guest Post by Georgia Pearle: When Poverty Becomes The Violence

I reached out to Georgia a couple of years ago after reading a moving post on her blog titled Trigger Warning: Safe Space For Haint?. In many of my own posts, I’m searching for answers. I think it’s clear that sometimes, there are no easy answers. Georgia’s story is different from mine, so she’s looking for different answers. Here, she writes movingly again, and in the process, provides a complex and nuanced view of how abuse stories can vary and easy answers are often elusive.
The man who I had to get a restraining order against wants custody of our children.

The man who smashed most of the windows out of my Jeep? He wants physical custody of our children, the children I have been raising as a single mother for eight out of the thirteen years since I became a mother.

And I have considered giving them to him, temporarily, while I finish my PhD.

This consideration stands in contrast with everything that I have told myself I am—a woman against odds, a woman who is fearsome enough to manage and do it all, who will never acquiesce.

And this consideration goes against the comfortable narrative that abusers are always abusers, that violence is an innate and inalterable aspect of a violent someone’s way of being in the world.

Let me qualify this by saying that my former husband never was a batterer. Capital A Abusers, I think, are a different sort of thing. His violence came in two separate and somewhat isolated instances, both of which were likely related to prescription drugs. I don’t fully understand his brain chemistry, but I know the one time he went under anesthesia, he woke up swinging and nearly knocked out a nurse. Otherwise? Not once did he ever hit me, and our children have never even been spanked.

Let me also qualify this by saying that my former husband’s devotion to domesticity far surpasses my own. He is the one who woke early to feed the children a hot breakfast, eggs and grits or pancakes from scratch, and take them to school. He was the one who made dinner most nights, who was trained as a fine dining chef and won more than one regional award for his Sunday brunches. He is the one who swept and scrubbed our floors, who enjoyed folding the towels while watching the news after we’d put the children to bed. And I was the partner who was supposed to wind up the breadwinner.


It’s been years now since he smashed those windows, years more since the restraining order, and he is sober and apparently grounded and sane. Already with our joint custody, and with my living out of state, the children stay with him three or four months a year.

So daily I’m left asking myself: what’s the greater violence? His violence, or the lack of resources with which I have tried to raise my children?

Never mind for a minute the personal violence. Never mind the day the police took him off in handcuffs for having drugs and an illegal weapon in our apartment. Never mind that night he smashed out my windows and overdosed on pills and rum, or the morning after when he was taken off on a stretcher and the officer turned to me to say, “be glad all that broken glass wasn’t your broken face.” Of course those two days were tragic as they sound, and I’m glad things happened while the children were at school or asleep, glad that I was able to somewhat shield them.

What about the violence that is poverty?

I wish I had the sort of support system that made it easy for me to say, “this was all for the best, and I am so free.” But I am not free. The work I need to do to get my children out of poverty is the same work that makes it impossible for me to be the mother I want to be.

When they were younger, I worked full time and went to graduate school full time, and we still needed food stamps. There was a year we were homeless, doubled up with family friends or family. There was a year I worked two jobs and barely made rent. There was a year that, though I was finally, happily, making too much to qualify for food stamps anymore, my childcare costs were so high that our nanny was bringing us boxes from the food pantry.

Now, I am a full time PhD student. I am an editor, an instructor, a writer. I pick up whatever extra work I can manage, often to the detriment of my parenting as well as to my ability to do good work. I feel always on the precipice of some impossible crisis, always suspended between faith and despair. The car is broken down, the phones are cut off, the pantry is often ramen, red beans and rice. Let’s not even talk about my FICO score. My rent for so many years has been equal to my income. My rent right now is higher than my stipend check.

I don’t mean this to be a litany of how hard shit can be, particularly not for me who is possibly not far from an exit. I didn’t grow up poor—my family was what I’d call blue collar comfortable—but I did grow up abused, and when I escaped my childhood situation I was convinced that freedom was worth any cost.

I still believe freedom from violence and abuse is worth any cost, but the years have tempered the brazenness of that determination in me. I’m not sure I know anymore what I mean when I say the word “free.”

Poverty’s daily, grating deprivation is its own sort of violence, a systemic violence, and it stunts countless lives—particularly the lives of children who grow up in it. I don’t mean this as an indictment of poor families. I mean this as an indictment of a system that, because it refuses to value the work of caregiving, pushes so many full-time caregivers into poverty.

I still don’t know what to tell my ex about custody. I’m glad now that after years of stalemate and hostility, we seem able to have those conversations that need having re: what’s truly best for the kids. But, all our limitations accounted for, I have no idea what that is.

Guest Author Bio: Georgia Pearle is a doctoral teaching fellow in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Houston as well as a nonfiction editor for Gulf Coast. She was a finalist for the 2014 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets and Writers. She recently began blogging again at georgiapearle.wordpress.com, and you can find her on Twitter @georgiapearle.


On What I Would Change

None of it. All of it. Some of it. I don’t know.

A while ago, a friend asked me if I would change what had happened to me. The truth is that I don’t know. 

When I started this blog, I thought that Caleb had broken me. I wrote this blog as a way of saying, I am not stronger. I am broken. He broke me in ways that can never be repaired.

But, in the past couple of years, I have been putting the pieces back together, slowly, and although I am still damaged, I am no longer broken.

I have been working on my literary writing about the abuse (which serves a different purpose for me than the blog). It’s emotionally draining to go back to the woman who lived with Caleb. When I think of that woman now, I see her as though she is at the end of a long tunnel. I am on one side, and she is on the other, and we are not the same, but we are shadows of one another. 

There is a certain measure of grief in letting her go. 

I want to say, Come back. 

I want to say, Go.

I want to say, I’m so sorry that I could not save you.

I have no idea if this makes any sense.

That woman was me. I am me. We are only two parts of the whole that I am now. There are so many parts to this whole, and I don’t know that I’m willing to give any of those parts up. Even the part that Caleb damaged. I’m not sure that I want to let her go either. 

Instead, I want to cradle that woman. I want to say, I forgive you.

Oh God, the only person I can forgive is myself. I can never forgive him. I can love him, still–and in ways I always will–but I can never forgive him.

I accidentally stumbled across an old apology from him yesterday while I was searching for a student’s paper. 

He had written:

You’re right to think about leaving. It was wrong of me to argue with you this morning and try to argue why it was right for you to stay or wrong for you to leave.

I don’t know if I covered everything, or if it’s even possible to fix this with an apology, but I wanted to try, and I wanted to tell you what I love about you.

I think you’re beautiful and sexy. Sometimes I’m incredibly filled with pride and vanity about how attractive and smart my wife is. I love being with you, even if we aren’t doing anything special. I love talking to you. I love it that you’re such a wonderful mother to Reed and devoted wife to me. I love you for the fact that you have always seen the best in me and always pushed me to be the best possible version of myself. I love you because you’re honest and forthright. It’s something that few people are, but somehow you do it. I also love you because you’re my partner and because you’ve always forgiven me once I’ve earned it.

All of this that I tell you, I know I say the opposite of when we argue, but I hope you’ll recognize that this is the real me. And these are my real feelings for you.

I read that apology, and I wept for the woman who had believed him, who had believed that what he had written in that apology was what was real, and who had believed that the horrible things he had said during the argument that prefaced the apology were not real. I wept for the woman who had worked so hard to reconcile those two different realities.

But now, I can be kinder to that former version of myself. I can tell myself that it wasn’t my fault that I believed him. Of course I believed him. Like Caleb wrote, I always saw the best in him. Like Caleb wrote, I always forgave him.

Caleb knew me. 

Caleb taught me that forgiveness can be warped into something ugly, and for that reason, I no longer offer him my forgiveness. I offer it only to myself.

His abuse was not my fault, and I did not deserve it. And I believe that. I believe all of the wonderful things he wrote about me in that apology. I believe those things to be true, and I believe the horrible things that he said to me before the apology to be untrue. There is still so much confusion for me, but there is also a lot that I see clearly now. 

And, if I’m being perfectly honest, then I must admit that, even if Caleb hadn’t abused me, I don’t think I would have been happy with him. What I’ve written about the moments of joy we shared were true. He made me laugh in ways that no one else ever has. He made me feel cherished in ways that no one else ever has. At night, I looked forward to closing my eyes so that I could wake them in the morning and see him.

But I was not happy with the life that I had with him.

I often think back to myself as a teenager–a time when I regarded the world with a great certainty that I had not yet earned. At that time, I wanted things that seemed impractical and naive, but with the faith of a teenager, I thought that I could attain them. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to make my living that way. I wanted to have artistic friends. I wanted to travel. I wanted a life that was so different from the life in which I had been raised. But then, when I went to college, reality sunk in. It sunk in that I had to pay my bills and that my dreams were foolish. I spent many years trying to set those dreams aside.

And then, I met Caleb. Caleb became my dream. Caleb is a man who needs a woman who fits easily into his shadow, but I am no one’s shadow. 

And so, my years with him were very unfulfilling. They were painful because of the abuse, but they were also unfulfilling, and there is a difference between painful and unfulfilling. And the truth is that I’m not sure that unfulfilling, on its own, would have been enough to prompt me to leave. So, if Caleb hadn’t abused me, I would likely still be living an intermittently pleasant, but ultimately unfulfilling life.

And perhaps, even if I had never met Caleb, I would still be living an unfulfilling life because I wasn’t really fulfilled when I met him either. I recently read an article that said that happier people are less likely to live meaningful lives, that finding meaning in life requires a certain access to pain and unpleasantness. I am not someone who has ever wanted to live a comfortable life. I don’t believe that an absence of pain is possible in a life lived fully. 

Right now, I am not suffering. A few years ago, I was suffering tremendously. Still, because of that suffering from those years, I am now a more fulfilled person. I realize the sentiment is trite, but the grand destruction of my marriage forced me to confront more than just Caleb’s abuse. It also forced me to confront the ways in which my life wasn’t fulfilling me. It forced me to confront the ways in which I wasn’t meeting my own needs. It forced me to confront some lingering issues with my own family that I had put on the back burner. 

And now, I may be damaged, but I’m also living the life that teenaged-Kelly wanted to live. I’m making a living as a writer. I have artistic friends. I travel a lot. Right now, I am writing in a loft in a lovely, little house while my intelligent, humorous, and kind 10-year-old sleeps quietly downstairs. It is the life that I always dreamed of, and I am not living in anyone’s shadow. 

This life is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it is all mine, and I was never going to have it with Caleb. And in truth, I don’t know if I would have found it without him.

I am not grateful for his abuse. I will never be grateful for what he did to me. I am angry as hell at what he did to me. I am angry as hell at the lessons I learned about humanity through my experience with him. But I still turned out okay. 

Last weekend, I had a cold. I was feeling pretty terrible. I really wanted some soup. I remembered the wonderful soup that Caleb used to make me. I remembered how Caleb nurtured me during the times when he was nurturing me. (I don’t know how else to phrase that previous sentence. He was either nurturing or hateful, and they were bound up in the same dynamic.) But that day, I knew that, if I was going to have soup, I would have to make it myself. And then, in the evening, while I was making soup, my friend Brad showed up. He gave me a present. It was a bracelet in the shape of an arrow. The arrow was for my future, he said. The point and feathers were in turquoise, my favorite color. It was beautiful, and I was so excited that I put it on immediately, but then he said, “There’s something engraved on it!” I took it off, and the word “sunshine” was written on it. Brad calls me “Kelly Sunshine,” and I’m crying as I type this because for so many years, I was not sunshine. 

I was only darkness.

Today, I had lunch with another friend, and she said, “You are joy personified right now.” I felt her words to be true. I am so filled with joy in this current moment (all emotions are transient, I have learned). But in the wake of such deep sadness, there is still joy to be found. I give Caleb none of the credit for that, but I give myself infinite credit for accessing my joy. 

So would I change things? I don’t know. The truth is that I can’t change things, so it doesn’t matter. What I can do is work to find peace with all of my different incarnations. What I can do is work to never again be in someone else’s shadow.