On Success

In the summer before the final year of my MFA program, I hid in my parents’ basement while Caleb, Reed, and I were visiting, and, in a frenzy, I wrote the first draft of an essay titled “Like Mourners’ Bread.” It was a numbered essay about my sexual history, but it was about so much more than that. Ultimately, it was an essay about forgiveness.

I wrote:
The man I married slept with other women when we were dating.  He didn’t call me for weeks at a time.  He showed up at my apartment drunk after the bar closed, acting as though he wanted to see me, but really just wanting a place to sleep.  He lied to me many times.  About many things. 

I didn’t hurt then, because I didn’t want to know what was happening.  His friends tried to warn me.  My friends tried to warn me.  Strangers tried to warn me.  But I was stubborn.  The night before my wedding, my mother held me as I cried.  You don’t have to do this, she said. 

I answered the only way I knew how.  Yes, I do.

It turns out the ex was right.  Being hurt was the thing I loved.

Later in the essay, I wrote:

Seven years later, I’m still with my husband.  He stayed, and I stayed, and it was hard.  So many times, I asked, why, and his answer was always the same.  Because I was ashamed of myself, and I knew you’d leave anyway, so I thought I should just make it happen.  And in some way, I understood.

You see, we were both broken.  Everyone is broken.  Lorelei, the wolf biologist, the anthropologist, the long-haired fellow.  Me, most of all. 

You see, I thought that I was the broken one.

In that essay, I had also written about how, in the Tarot, I was the Queen of Swords. I had one hand extended, but the other hand held a sword. I wrote that I had put down my sword for Caleb.

I had given him both hands.

Caleb suggested the alternate title of “Queen of Swords” because Caleb was always my best reader.

I was in a nonfiction workshop, but I didn’t workshop that essay. I didn’t want to sit during a critique of that essay. I sent it to my thesis advisor though. When we met, he told me that he thought it was my finest work yet.

Once, in my thesis advisor’s workshop, he said about an essay of mine (that I never published), “Why does the husband always come off like a jerk in these kinds of essays?” It wasn’t a criticism. He was just curious, and I hadn’t even meant for Caleb to come off like a jerk.

But you see, Caleb was a jerk.

Caleb was the first reader for “Like Mourners’ Bread.” He read it and said, “It’s beautiful. It hurts to read, but I know that it’s true. I know that I didn’t treat you right, and you have every reason to tell this story.”

And I felt valued. As a writer. As a wife. As a person.

I thought, How many women have a husband who supports their career so fully that they can write painful truths about him, and he is okay with that?

Once, after Caleb and I had been in a fight, my mother cornered me in the kitchen, and she said, “You and Caleb have something special. You have so much in common. That is not easy to find. Don’t give up on that.”

When I won a prestigious award in my graduate program, my mother said to me, “Your father is always so surprised by how easily you can write things!”

We were all in the living room together–my mother, father, Caleb, and me. The fireplace was burning, and the Christmas tree glowed in the corner. Caleb jumped in, and he said, “It isn’t easy for her. She works really hard. Kelly has achieved what she has because of her hard work.”

And I felt valued. As a writer. As a wife. As a person.

You see, Caleb was my best ally.

When we were out in social situations, Caleb would say proudly, “If anyone in this family makes money off of their writing, it’s going to be Kelly, and I’m okay with that.”

When we were with his family, they would never ask me about my writing. They would ask Caleb about his writing. He had one story published in a decent journal, and his mother kept that journal displayed in the living room.

Privately, she told me, “That story was so dark. I didn’t raise him like that.”

I thought, You don’t get him.

I felt pain for him, for the pressure that they put on him to succeed. When he was getting Anger Management therapy (which is not recommended for abusers), he brought home a list of the types of angry men. One of them was The Hero.

The Hero had been valued so much by his family that he couldn’t possibly live up to what they expected of him. The Hero was angry because he had been told that he would have one life, and his life had become another. The Hero was angry because he lived in constant fear of disappointing his loved ones.

The Hero can be nothing but inadequate because no one is a real hero.

You see, we are all just humans.

Around the time that I wrote “Like Mourners’ Bread,” I saw an advertisement for a writer’s conference. It was a conference held by Slice Magazine, and they claimed that they wanted to help emerging writers. They were an amazing journal, the conference wasn’t very expensive, and it had a contest. Only people attending the conference could enter the contest, and they would publish the winner (and pay them a small amount). By then, I had learned that submitting via slush piles was wholly disheartening. I had received too many rejections to count, and I wanted that opportunity.

I had recently received an award from my department that would pay for my travel to a conference, and I proposed that Caleb and I go together. He got travel funding from his department, and we did it. We both entered the contest.

Spoiler alert: I won.

“Like Mourners’ Bread” was published in Slice. It was later listed as a Notable in Best American Essays 2013. When Robert Atwan wrote me to tell me of “It Will Look Like a Sunset’s” acceptance for Best American Essays 2015, he told me that he remembered “Like Mourners’ Bread” and how strong it was.

“Like Mourners’ Bread” was my first real publication.

After getting the news, an agent gave me his card. Caleb took me out for tacos. We drank Margaritas. I saw a pair of really cute boots in a boutique shop in Brooklyn, and he said, “Why don’t you use your winnings to buy those?”

He posted on Facebook about how proud he was of me. Lots of people commented, and I believed all of them, but I am no longer friends with most of those people.

I believed them (and Caleb because, you see, if Caleb had won that prize, I would have felt nothing but happiness for him).

When we returned to our home, I was on a high, but Caleb grew depressed. He lamented how he would never succeed with a short story collection. He lamented his own lack of publication. I tried to console him. Nothing worked.

Then, I received another acceptance. Then, another.

Soon, it was a landslide.

Soon, Caleb was very angry. Too angry.

Soon, he was hitting me.

Soon, he was hitting me all of the time.

He would post on Facebook about how proud he was of me, and there would usually be a delay of a day or two, but then, he would find a reason to beat me.

In the final year of our marriage, I hardly submitted anything for publication at all.

Once, when we were married and after Caleb had gone to bed, and I was still awake with insomnia (which I am prone to), I had a breakdown. I needed to get my anger out. I started weeping, and I punched the couch. While punching the couch, I screamed (internally) because Caleb and Reed were sleeping, “I would give it all up. I would give up every publication if Caleb could just have one.”

You see, I meant it.

But it didn’t work that way. Instead, I left him. Not because of my success, which wasn’t much at the time, but because it was time for me to leave him. I got into the PhD program that he had dreamed of attending (though I couldn’t have predicted that). It was the only program I was accepted to, but I was excited. I called him and told him, and he said, “I’m happy for you.” But then, as was his pattern, he sent me an angry email a day later saying that he thought he should have custody of Reed. Up to that point, he had been outwardly supportive of me leaving the state to get my PhD.

You see, there was always a 24 hour delay between my success and his abuse.

In family court, where I was represented by a free attorney for West Virginia Legal Aid–an attorney who only represents domestic violence victims–I had dropped my request for spousal support. The judge said that he was going to award it (it was a minuscule amount, maybe $100). The judge asked me why I was dropping the request. I said that I was dropping the request because I wanted an agreement. The judge then asked Caleb, “Why don’t you think that you should do this for your wife?”

Caleb replied, “She is going to get her PhD. She will make more money than me someday.”

The judge grew visibly angry. He threw down his pencil. He said, “You should want her to succeed!” He said, “What’s best for her is what’s best for your child!”

The judge was right.

I have no doubt that judge has seen his share of selfish parents (on both sides). I could see the judge’s frustration, and maybe I should have fought Caleb, but I didn’t. And I don’t regret opting out of that fight.

Financially, Caleb came out the winner in our divorce, but I left. I was gone, and that was all that I wanted.

I started submitting my work again after I left Caleb, and everything I submitted was accepted. When “Like Mourners’ Bread” was listed as a Notable for Best American Essays, the first person I wanted to share the news with was Caleb.

It was so soon after our divorce, and I still loved him because I had left a person I loved. Do you know how hard it is to leave someone you love?

I called him from my tiny, overly warm apartment, and he told me in the tone that he had always used, which was a measured balanced tone–“Congratulations, Kelly.”

I didn’t have to worry that he was going to beat me in 24 hours.

When I received my acceptance for “It Will Look Like a Sunset” in Best American Essays 2015, I called him too. Not out of spite, but because I wanted him to hear it from me. I knew that the essay had been legally vetted by then, so I could tell him.

That time, he screamed a guttural scream and ended the call.

Women should not have to fist-fight with the couch while bargaining for our partner’s success. We should not have to fear that our partner will be threatened by our success and punish us.

Women should not have to be small.

I will no longer make self-sacrificing bargains with the universe because I can’t help my partner succeed.

You see, I will no longer be small.

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96 thoughts on “On Success

  1. pfptruth

    Thank you so much for this. I am sorry you had to endure this story but am so grateful you wrote what you learned with such compassion. I forwarded this to my 17 yo niece. We’ve been having some really great discussions about power, boys and dating. I’m looking forward to seeing what she has to say about this piece.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. I had to hold my breathe through parts of this story; it’s just too true. I’ve seen friends nearly disfigured by their partners, because they were pretty. They had options to be with other men. I saw a close friend stay with a man, so the illusion she had crafted for so long would not be revealed. I am so happy you are Alive! Celebrate your success, every day remember. You earned and deserve it. Blessings.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Kelly,
    What a journey! No one can ever truly know another’s experience, but when we write, when we read, when we share this way, we can get close.
    Your writing is great because you don’t hold back. You hide nothing. That is a lesson for us all.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Success Strategies

    Mixed emotions. Sad but interesting story of triumph against all odds. Congrats on your awards! Keep smiling. Keep standing tall…you survivor …you! Cheers!

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Darrell Williams

    I understand after my family friend was killed by her husband in domestic violence, the children are the losers because they lost a mother and father read more of why the Bari foundation was started
    The Bari Foundation was established in 2010 two year’s after the death of Yolanda Adams who I grew up with, she had been married for eleven years had two boys from the marriage and was subjected to domestic violence for four of those eleven years. On the day she was killed by her husband, she was constantly beaten by her husband a fact well known to the police department and neighbors. On the night she was killed, she awoke to the screams of her youngest son and found that instead of it being a nightmare it was her husband sexually abusing his son. When she screamed at him he stopped what he was doing and began beating her. When her oldest son woke to the screaming of his mother and brother he went to help only for him to be physically assaulted by his father and had his leg broken and shoulder dislocated. The abuse didn’t just start but was going on for two years, and even though the oldest son Eddie knew he was asked not too say a word about this to anyone. But what is confusing to the youngest Nathaniel is he gave into the sex to avoid his brother and mother from being hurt. Now his mother is dead and all because he let his father abuse him, he thinks it’s his fault for the way things are not his father’s. I’ve explained that what his father did not him was wrong, that his father used threats to get him to have sex with him and he was not going to stop no matter what you or anyone else did the only way was for your mother to do something. Both children are older and the traumatic stress that the abuse and death brought before their lives brings screams at night, Nate has attempted suicide and while his brother is not the dreams evade his sleeping and has joined me in establishing the foundation for his brother and mother. The children often ask if their mother had no place to go why she just did not let go and visit. But telling or explaining what she was feeling is hard to explain how far mothers will go to protect their children or give their own lives in order to see them growing up. The physical scars and emotional scars for the youngest is unconscionable, to cope with not only being molested but witnessing your mother being abused and killed for protecting you a duty any mother would do for the love of her children. According to national studies most young people who are raised in home of domestic violence, become abusers and abused after witnessing the traumatic event of your mother being killed. Phase two also consists of addressing men that are incarcerated for domestic violence and provide counseling that is needed

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Really touched me.
    Thank you for writing about such historical emotion with that clarity.

    Not many seem to get it when you are there,hope your success continues because I’m sure others will take solace.

    Shine on

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Adri Elle

    I always marvel at how much we all share in our writing. I marvel at how much of you, you let us see. Pain is beautiful, but also ugly on the inside on account of the gruesome acts which make the pain. I know it from my own pain. In my writing I hope to be as brave and as beautiful as you are. This was beautiful to read, painful to imagine, but instructive too on every level that counts. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Pingback: On Success – marilyncrosbiephotography

  9. Thank you for this. Facebook is an excellent tool for passive aggressive types. Your story reminded me of always bracing myself whenever my ex would do something nice for me. I knew the nice gestures would always peak right before the free fall into that dark place. Your story of perseverance and drive inspires me.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Wonderful piece of work, I think it’s the patriarchal society that should also be blamed. The society has high hopes from men, which can saddle them down at times. The society may rebuke an average husband of a succesful wife more intensively. But them men of great character have braved such storm for the prosperity of family. The weaker ones flutter for space , get aggressive only to find themselves drowned in the societal quagmire.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You do not need my opinion to validate what a wonderful writer you are, but here it is.

    I want to say thank you. Thank you for being brave. Strong. Taking the step when you knew enough was enough for Reed. For Yourself.

    Too often I read about/hear about/experience myself a certain dynamic within relationships.; especially my own. My husband has never physically touched me, but emotional/verbal abuse requires a different realm of understanding.

    I sometimes wonder which is worse. Like Caleb, my husband is predictable right down to the time of year. Anytime there has been a build up of good things for me, he gets more quiet by the day. Usually once a year, after he has held it all in, he will have a meltdown. One that holds his deepest rooted insecurities and anger that he is unable to verbally express. I feel sorry for him most days that he has to carry this weight, but other times, after reflecting on myself I realize he has no excuse.

    Anyway, Thank you for taking the time to read this, I look forward to reading more of your work.

    I am so proud of you!

    With great respect,

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Chris C

    I didn’t realise I was holding my breath until I could finally breathe at the end of this piece. A powerful and poignant story, and thank you for being brave enough to share this.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. It’s almost impossible to understand unless you’ve been in a relationship like that where you’re hamstrung by your own feelings. As a total stranger I’m sorry you had to go through that, but I’m also proud of you for getting out, proud of you for being such a good writer, and hoping that your life is happy and peaceful now.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Pingback: Apology Not Accepted Writing. Surviving. Thriving. – Greentree Counseling Center, Inc.

  15. This is very powerful. On so many levels. I, too, left an abusive marriage. i thought I had no right to success at that point. He thought I had no right to social contacts outside of family. Congratulations on your writing success and your decision to leave.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. You are an amazing writer. Thank you for sharing your experiences with the world. I understand too well the ambivalence of an abusive relationship and what it means to work away inorder to maintain your sense of self. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Pingback: On Success — Apology Not Accepted | Reggiebankssr's Blog

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