On My Younger Self

I’m sifting through old emails–I have 7,792 emails in my inbox, and I found this letter to my dear friend, Kelly.

It is so painful, so heartbreaking to read the voice of my younger self, but what I see in all of these communications, whether with Caleb or anyone else, is that I was always kind.

I was kind to Caleb too.


I am not so kind now.

I have an edge now.


But I was raised to be kind.


There is so much I could write about this subject. Re-reading all of my emails has been like sifting through rubble, but I am newly in love with my friends. With the people who have been there for me through all of this.

Thank you.


03/27/2009

Dear Kelly,

I’m typing this because I have writer’s block, and I realize how impersonal it is to type letters, but I’m sitting in front of my computer willing myself to write, and this voice in my head is insistently telling me how inadequate I am, but I can’t bring myself to close my laptop and acknowledge defeat, so instead, I’m writing you a letter.

I’ve been working on this essay about mothering and the fear that accompanies it, and how the body transforms into something bigger—something immutable—that is not quite animal, not quite human, and in my head, I’ve had this metaphor of a house—somewhat like that ramshackle house we (Caleb and I) lived in—where the beauty was decaying, and the ivy had a stranglehold on the bricks, and the inside was haunted by the previous tenant who had lost his mind, but I was living in this house trying to coexist with these spirits while forging a new life, and it was just so damned hard.

So I wrote the first 3 pages, and they are really quite beautiful, but on rereading them, I realize that they read more like a prose poem, and although my intention was to continue in that vein and write the piece as “experimental,” I now understand that I don’t know how to finish it or connect the various threads.

Annie Dillard says that if you find that you can’t go back to a piece—that something in you is just resisting—then  you need to admit to yourself that maybe that piece has a fatal flaw, and in that case, it needs to be scrapped, which of course is extremely painful, because no one wants to kill their darlings.

And maybe the fatal flaw is that the issues I’m bringing up in this essay are still present.  They are still part of me.  That previous tenant who lost his mind—he lives inside of me—except that it’s me—I’m the previous tenant.

How interesting is it that you and I have been having these talks of forgiving your previous self, and I’ve been thinking of the same things on my own?  I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to fully accept my role of mother, because I haven’t forgiven myself for my youth, which, in no way, said “mother”.

And maybe it’s not even the issue of mothering that is at hand.  Maybe it’s just an issue of maturity, of being an adult, and of realizing that I wasn’t spending my youth preparing for the self-awareness of adulthood.  I squandered so much of myself.  Sometimes it feels like I squandered the best of myself.  I know it’s clichéd to say, but I had potential, and what did I do with it?  I slept with men who didn’t love me, who didn’t even like me, who didn’t even know me.  I befriended people who didn’t fulfill or understand me spiritually.  I spent countless hours in bars, but very few hours nourishing any talent or artistic expression.

And, of course, after I write all of that, my rational voice says that I’m too hard on myself—that I did many wonderful things—forged many meaningful relationships.  I met you, after all.  And Caleb.  And I had experiences that were uncommon and wonderful.  They didn’t all revolve around the Neurolux.  Otherwise, I would have nothing to write about.

But somehow, I need to forgive myself too.  Maybe I need a ritual.  I wish that you were here.  We could get together, build a fire, write all of our regrets on a piece of paper, burn them, and forgive ourselves—have a rite of forgiveness.

But of course, we smudged that room once to rid it of your previous roommate’s bad energy (I forget her name), but that only helped temporarily.  We really needed to smudge ME to rid me of all that pain and loss, but I didn’t know how, and if I did, I would have done that long ago.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I know that I’m in a good place now.  Perhaps that’s what makes my past all the more shameful.  Getting into graduate school has been this culmination of all of this work, but it’s really just a new beginning, a stepping stone.  It’s now that the work really begins.  And I’m terrified that I’m not up to the task.

I don’t know what I would do without you to talk about these things.  Maybe that palm reader at the fair was correct.  Maybe we were sisters in a previous life (except that we’re both going to be rich and happy in this life, and we take care of each other).

Certainly, no one understands me like you—except maybe Caleb (but he understands a different side of me).  I’m so lucky to have two people in my life to really know me.  Some people have no one.  I’m fairly sure that Caleb only has me, and that’s not enough, but Ab, at least, comes pretty close.

I feel calmer after writing this letter—still wracked with insecurity, but at least filled with a new sense of purpose.

I’m so glad to hear how well things are going for you.  I hope you get that job, and love, and cute clothes.  Yes, you really can have it all.  You just have to trust yourself.

I miss you terribly, and I hope we see each other soon.

Love,

Kelly

On Perfection

Reed texted me, “Can we talk?”

I could tell it was important. I texted back, “Sure, call me right now.”

He called, and I saw his forehead pop on to the screen, but not his face. I heard a gasp.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Not okay,” he said, though I still couldn’t see his face.


I panicked.

What’s going on? I asked.

And his voice came into view, his sweet face upset, and he told me everything, which was nothing. He was crying, which he rarely does at his age.

His dad was mad because he didn’t feed the dog. His dad took away his allowance. His dad threatened to take away his iPad.


All of this seemed to be normal parent/child conflict, but Reed’s level of being upset was not normal. I have primary custody of this child, and I cannot remember the last time that I have seen him cry, yet he was sobbing.

His dad expects perfection.

His dad’s bar for perfection is ever-changing.


I intervened. I poked the bear. I asked Caleb to be kinder with Reed.


Caleb was a jerk to me. He said that we could revisit our parenting plan if we wanted to. I was confused.

Was this hubris?

Or parenting suicide?


Caleb has to know, at this point, that revisiting our parenting plan could only result in reduced custody for him.

One friend suggested that Caleb wants to start over with his new family, but wants to be able to blame me when he loses time because he is so attached to his idea of himself as the perfect dad.

Still, after giving it some thought, I don’t think it’s parenting suicide; it’s hubris.

Caleb genuinely believes that he is an amazing dad. He genuinely believes that he could get more time with Reed if he tried.


I don’t even know where Caleb will be working or living in a month, though he is legally required to tell me.


Caleb is in arrears on his child support payments.


I don’t know when I will get my next child support payment, and I am not getting paid during the summer. I will not receive the next installment of my book advance until September, so I am flat broke.


Caleb works under the table during the summers so that he doesn’t have to report his income to the child support enforcement office. He already underreports his income by at least 15,000 dollars a year, and I know this because I still have a West Virginia State Employees account and can see the salary of all of the state employees, but I do not have the energy to pursue an income adjustment to our child support.


Caleb is vicious, and I would rather be flat broke than have to see him in a courtroom.


I can never again see his face without seeing it in front of me while he strangled me.

The world grew blurry around him. It was like looking through a prism, but only one thing remained clear.

His face.


Caleb takes Reed with him during the summers while he paints houses. Reed paints alongside him for one dollar an hour. This summer–and last–he painted the outside and inside of a house that belonged to one of my former professors.

When I reached out to her to point out to her that what she was doing was unethical, she wrote back to me, Don’t tell me what to do.


I told a friend tonight that so much of my anger after I left Caleb manifested against other people. I told her of how a writer friend of Caleb’s had posted a thing about being a feminist for his daughter, and I wrote something sarcastic about how he only cared when it was his daughter. He commented back, then I commented, and it turned into a very heated exchange.

This man is somewhat famous in literary circles, and I was a nobody who was bickering with him on his Facebook post.

It was potential career suicide for me.

This man is close to some of my favorite women writers, and though he, himself, is not an abuser, those women have also supported someone who is a known abuser in the literary community.

It has been a wholly disheartening experience. I do not want to reach out to those women to support my book, though they have so much influence within the feminist writing community.


People are complicated.

I, too, cannot be everything to everyone.


Sometimes, women reach out to me with their stories about men in the literary community, and it is as though they want me to take on those stories, to do something about them, even though they, themselves have not done anything about those stories, and I am tired.

I am tired of call-out culture, though I am not tired of call-outs.


I am tired because people seem to assume that it is easy for me to participate in call-out culture, so I am often asked to call-out for people.

And I can’t. I can’t speak for you.


If you have a story, speak it, and I will happily spread it. If you are not ready to be public, I will give my blog space as a place to write anonymously.

But please don’t ask me to speak your story for you.

I only have one story to tell.

I can repeat the stories of others, but that will never make them my own.


When I told Caleb, “I think that you withholding your employment information is an abusive tactic to make me feel anxious,” he said, “Yeah, just go fuck yourself,” and hung up on me.


He said that in front of his now-wife.

She must be used to that kind of language.

Most likely, she’s been brainwashed by now.


I used to think that kind of language was normal too.


Her time is coming.


No one will ever talk to me that way again.


The other night, I was out with a friend. I described to her that the man I’m currently involved with looks nothing like Caleb, and that is probably the appeal. I told her that Caleb is very unattractive.

She didn’t believe me, so she looked Caleb up on Facebook,

“Oh my,” she said.

“I know, right?” I said.

But then, she said, “You and his young wife look nothing alike, but can I say this?”

And I said yes.

“You both have the same look,” she said.

And I already knew this.

I said, “Yeah, he replaced me with a younger version of me.”


And I believe this, but the difference is that the new wife wants to be a stay-at-home mother. She wants to homeschool their child. She has no professional ambitions that I can tell, and because of that, I hope that she will be safe.

In my own experience, the quickest way to threaten Caleb and incite his violence is to be successful at the things he wants to be successful at.


He must fucking hate me now.


A friend recently posted an article about perfectionism paralysis. Basically, perfectionism often causes people who would otherwise be high achievers to fail because they’re so afraid of not being perfect that they can’t complete normal tasks.

I flunked out of undergrad twice.


Yesterday, I talked to my therapist for the first time in a long time. She is the same woman I started seeing when I was married to Caleb, and she hasn’t charged me since I’ve left him.

At that time, she told me, “I don’t want you to stop seeing me because you’re afraid of money.”

Now, she tells me, “We’re just ‘catching up.'”

She is my friend now. We haven’t exchanged money in years, and this time around, we both cried.


I asked her if it was okay that I use her real name in my book, and she started crying. She said, “Just to see how much work you’ve done, and you’ve done it all on your own.”

And then, I started crying, and I am crying right now as I type it because I DID THIS ALL ON MY FUCKING OWN, AND IT HAS BEEN SO HARD.


I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS ALL ON MY OWN.


I hate Caleb. I hate that the man I loved so much hurts our child. I hate that the man I loved so much keeps trying to hurt me.


And I loved him. Do you know that?


Sometimes I think that he was the love of my life, and I just want to crawl under a rock and die because what the fuck is wrong with me?


When Reed called me the other night, and we were talking, I felt this weird sense of relief, then I realized that I was just so glad not to be living with Caleb anymore, and I had survivor’s guilt because Reed was still there.


Tonight, Reed told me, “Mom, quit messaging my dad.”

“Why?” I asked. “Did he take it out on you?

“No,” Reed said. “He made you out like the bad guy, and I don’t want him to hurt you anymore.”


I said, “Buddy (because I call him that), it is not your job to protect me. It is my job to protect you because I am the grown-up. I do not care what your dad says about me. I care how it affects you.”

But it was obvious that my email to Caleb had not helped–had only made things worse for Reed–and what am I supposed to do?


I am wrecked, but I am trying.


I work really hard not to badmouth Caleb to Reed, but this time, I explained gaslighting to him. “You know when see your dad drink three beers, but he tells you that he only drank one?” I said.

Reed nodded because he had told me that himself.

“That’s gaslighting,” I said.


He said, “My dad thinks that you just want to turn me against him, that you want to take me away from him.”

I enjoy my time on my own. I have no desire to take Reed away from Caleb. I wish that Caleb was the kind of dad who could be a 50% dad because I am tired of doing this all on my own.

And I am exhausted by the notion that a “be kinder to our kid” email could somehow be perceived as me poisoning Reed against his father, but it is clear that Caleb has turned himself into a victim.

Though I have tried so hard to avoid it, Caleb has set into motion this “he against she” dynamic.


And Reed was clearly lost as he was translating this all to me, so I finally said, “Have you ever caught me in any lies?”

And he said, “No, not at all.”

And I said, “How about your dad?”

And he said, “Yeah, my dad is kind of a liar.”


I don’t want to have to tell this eleven year old boy what gaslighting is, but what am I supposed to do?

How do I be a good and supportive mother who doesn’t badmouth my co-parent when I know that my co-parent is doing that to me?

I hate this.


For all of our faults, Caleb and I have generally co-parented well, but there is too much change now.

Caleb has a new job, likely a shitty job. A job that he couldn’t even ask his own chair to write him a letter of recommendation for.

A friend of mine at WVU described it as “he just fled.”

He has a new baby, and a wife, who, according to Reed tells Caleb, “Stop treating me like a kid.”

He has an ex-wife who is doing the things that he wanted to do.

He is angry and escalating, and I don’t know what to do.


So, I write this blog post. I sob. They are sobs that come all the way from my stomach because I am utterly powerless in this.


I have no power over Caleb.


I have no power over that male writer who initially supported him.


I have no power over those feminists who don’t denounce abusers in their communities.


I have no power over myself.


My therapist tells me that, what I’m doing with this man I’m involved with is trying to find some control.

Maybe if I change this thing about my own behavior, then that will affect his behavior.

Maybe that will give me some control over this situation.


In her final comments on my book manuscript, my editor had said, “The reader is still going to want to know why he was so violent.”

I was annoyed by that. Though my editor is supremely feminist and wouldn’t have bought my book otherwise, it was an implicitly victim-blaming statement.

How could I know why he was so violent?

I finally wrote a chapter that is full of theories. A list of reasons he might have been violent. I concluded that I could never know.

The truth is that I spent so many years thinking that, if I could pinpoint the cause of his violence, then I could stop it.

I was trying to gain some control, just like my therapist said I’m doing with this new guy.


And let’s be honest.

I am a perfectionist.

I wanted to make the marriage work because I didn’t want to fail.


Ultimately, though, it’s about control. I want to have control over my life, my heart, my behaviors, my responses, my urges, my sex life, my parenting, my PTSD, my career, my education, who I love, and most of all, everything.

But I am powerless over so much.

I cannot make Caleb be nicer to Reed. I cannot protect Reed from the father that he loves. I cannot change the abuse enablers. I cannot make the guy I’m involved with less scared of committing to me.

There is so much I cannot control.


The only thing that gives me any semblance of control is writing about it, so that’s what I’m doing now. I’m telling you my story.

My own. No one else’s.

I can’t control my story, but I can reclaim it. If you have made it to the end of this long post, then you are with me on this journey. Thank you, dear reader. How about we reclaim our stories together?

Guest Post: The Branches That Cover the Snake Pit

By Anonymous

“I don’t believe you”

“Sure, but you weren’t exactly blameless”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t that big of a deal”

You never explicitly said any of these words to me. You didn’t have to. The fact that you remained silent after your friend’s abuse became known spoke for itself. One by one, as more and more survivors stepped forward with eerily similar stories about your friend’s pattern of behaviour, your continued silence became more and more deafening.

You didn’t have to say it, but I still heard you loud and clear: “You don’t matter to me. I don’t believe you. You can’t be trusted”.

Can you imagine what that was like for me? Do you know how hard it was for me to overcome my fear of your friend the abuser, and come forward publicly about the harm he did to me? Do you know how scared I was those first few days, as the story broke, as I silently watched, a helpless mixture of horror and relief that I wasn’t alone in this shameful thing that he did to me? Can you imagine how much I wrestled with myself trying to find the courage and the words to come forward with my story too, with the faint hope that perhaps now that there were other descriptions of similar patterns, I might be believed?

You see, for the longest time, I didn’t realise he was an abuser either. Even after he and I stopped talking, I didn’t think he was the ‘A’ word. I made so many excuses for him, and I blamed myself for everything that he did to me. Because the particular flavour of his abuse was seasoned with gaslighting and manipulation, I was absolutely convinced that it was my fault; that my behaviour was the root cause of everything that went wrong. The mindfuck was so effective that for years, I truly believed his brainwashing narrative that an assault was an affair, that flirting meant I owed him a relationship. The shame of my ostensible complicity ensured my silence, and worse, his impunity. Even now, I am scared to say any of this because I know he will see it, I know he will deny it, and I know that some people, like you, will believe him over me.
It’s difficult for me to understand your public silence and tacit support for your friend the abuser, given how vocal you are about feminism and standing up against bullies. Your outspoken tweets following the election of President Trump particularly stung, because the hypocrisy of your words was made all the more obvious. What makes me, and all the other survivors of your friend’s abuse, so unworthy of your compassion and empathy? What is it about us that make it so easy for you to dismiss our experiences? Why do you find it so hard to believe us?

Have you even tried?

At first, I thought you just needed time to process the fact that your friend is an abuser. After all, it’s not easy to admit that your friend could have harmed so many people. Cognitive dissonance is very powerful, and I understand the instinctive urge to deny accusations against a friend you care for. I have seen first hand how much easier it is to be a coward and choose comfort over complications. But now, almost a year since this all blew open, you are still silent. As far as I am aware, you are still friends with him, you still don’t believe us, he still believes that we were the ones who wronged him, and I am unaware of any accountability on his part – and on yours for giving him a pass with your silence.

I write this not as an attack on you, or to berate you for your behaviour. I don’t expect my words to have any effect on you. But I wonder if you have ever paused to consider that by implicitly supporting your friend the abuser, you are signalling to other women that you too are not a safe person to be around. How? Because you have chosen to prioritize superficial politeness under the excuse of “we must be kind, people are complicated” over protecting the well-being of abuse survivors. Because even though it is hard, being kind  actually means helping our friends break abusive patterns. You are essentially putting up a neon sign saying “Don’t expect me to believe you. Don’t ask me for help if you’re scared. I am not willing to put myself out there by saying anything negative publicly about an abuser. Your safety matters less to me than having a pleasant rapport with my friend”.

See, here’s the thing. When you refuse to ostracize abusers like him, or act to make them take responsibility and help with their public accountability, you’re helping them pull other people into their orbits. You may not want to admit this, but you are part of the problem. You are the leafy branches camouflaging the pit full of snakes and skeletons.

Because if there were more actual tangible consequences for abusing women, maybe someday we might actually see abusers stop abusing.

On Dating After Abuse

I have no answers, and I am not sure how much I can disclose about dating after abuse without sabotaging myself because no one wants to date someone who discloses everything, and I still want to date.


I do want to date.

I don’t want to date.

I do want to date.

I don’t want to date.


I want to not want to date.


I have done a good job of finding men who aren’t available to me.

I am a genius at that.


A while ago, a friend of mine who is a counselor recommended to me that I make a list of everything I want in a man. She recommended that I make it as specific as possible. I included such things as, “Likes television” and “Doesn’t mind when I sleep in.”

But the first thing on my list was, “Available.”

My best friend, Kelly Morse , joked to me when I told her that. She said, “Sundberg, your ball is rolling on the floor.”


But let’s be honest–my ball has been rolling on the floor for a long time.


I spoke today with someone important at my publishing company who had read my book. She said that, as a reader, she had kept wanting to say to me (the narrator of the book) “Why don’t you see this?”

But also that, as a reader, she was right there with the version of me who didn’t see it.

I think this means that, as a writer, I accomplished my goal, but as a person, it is hard to separate these identities from one another.


I don’t know how to write if I’m not writing honestly.


I want to tell you all about the man I’m involved with, but I can’t because that wouldn’t be fair to him.


I want to tell you all about the man I ran into while I was walking up the sidewalk to the man I’m involved with’s house, and how the man I ran into was someone I had previously had a crush on, and that was obvious to all of us.


I want to tell you all about how I recently wrote an essay about hooking up with a younger-than-me firefighter, and about how I sent the essay to him and asked if he would have a problem with it being published somewhere prominent, and he said that he wouldn’t, but if it was, he was going to share it with everyone he knew and tell them that he had hooked up with a writer.


I want to tell you all about how that firefighter has been nothing but a positive experience for me.

The night that we “hooked up,” he looked at me and said, “I like your body. You have a good body.”


My body feels like ruins.


I want to tell you all what it feels like to be ruins.


I want to tell you all what it feels like to be rubble.


I want to tell you all how it feels when someone who I thought only saw me as a potential hookup says to me, quite earnestly, “Kelly, I don’t think of you as a hookup. I think of you as someone I could be serious about.”

Then says, “I know that we have hung out at night, but you’re someone I’d like to do daytime things with too.”


I want to tell you all how getting what I want is such a double-edged sword because what I want is not really what I want.


I want to tell you all how I don’t even know which of my wants is the real want.


I want to tell you all how this man articulates to me that he is afraid of fucking things up with me, and all I can think is, “You have no idea how gloriously I can fuck things up.”


I want to tell you all how I know that I am fucking things up right now. That this, right here, is me fucking things up.


I want to tell you all how scared I am–not of this man, but of myself. Of my history. Of all of the ways in which I can gloriously fuck things up.

At this point, I know that I can handle a man. I am no longer scared of a man.

But how do I handle myself? My own ghosts?


I want to tell you all how I had to review my correspondences with Caleb yesterday–how I had to re-read email threads that included his messages and my replies.

I want to tell you all how present-day Kelly can see what a mind-fuck Caleb was always presenting me with.

I want to tell you all how abused-Kelly couldn’t see the mind-fuckery.


I want to tell you all how present-day Kelly is always terrified that she is still just abused-Kelly.


I want to tell you all how the mind-fuckery was not temporary.

I want to tell you all how the mind-fuckery has altered the way I see the world. The way I see other people.


More than anything, I want to tell you all how the mind-fuckery has altered the way I see myself.


But I also want to tell you all about how my friend says to me, “Look how far you’ve come.”

I want to tell you all about how I pursue this man who doesn’t see me as a hookup because I like myself, and all along, I think, “If he’s not interested in me, then it’s his loss.”

I want to tell you all about how I can hook up with a younger firefighter, and it’s fun, and we become friends.

I want to tell you all about how I tell my friend at dinner tonight that I’m worried I’ll get into a relationship and discover that I haven’t really grown in the ways I’ve thought I have, and she says, “No, that’s not how growth works. You will not just lose all of the progress you’ve made when you’re in a relationship.”


I want to tell you all how Caleb is remarried and has another child, but Reed tells me that they argue, and the new wife says, “Stop treating me like a kid.”

I want to tell you all that the argument Reed describes to me sounds pretty harmless, that Caleb and his new wife don’t appear to fight like Caleb and I did.

I want to tell you all that Caleb never treated me like a kid. He always treated me like his equal.

He always treated me like a woman.

I want to tell you all that I think that was the problem.


I want to tell you all how I need a man who is okay being with a woman.

I want to tell you all how I need a man who is okay being with a force.


I want to tell you all so much, but I guess I just did.

Most of all, I want to tell you all that I don’t have any answers, that dating after abuse is hard. I am fucking terrified, and I should be.


Caleb is remarried and has a new baby because he didn’t do any work. He didn’t try to change. He didn’t need to. Why should he have to change?

Abuse only benefits the perpetrator.


And it sucks that I’m in this situation, that I’m the one who has to heal, who has to try and move forward, who has to change.

But I will not let him destroy me. I will change in the ways that I need to change. I will move on. I believe that I will love someone in healthy ways, and maybe that person will only be myself, but I also believe that there is a person out there who will love me in all of my brokenness, as well as all of my togetherness.


 Most of all, this is what I have to say about Caleb: I will not let him break me.

I am not broken.

Also, FUCK HIM SO HARD.