7/6: In conversation with Zoe Zolbrod at Women and Children First Bookstore in Chicago, IL

More Info: Visit Women and Children First bookstore website.


Women and Children First Bookstore

7/10: In conversation with Maggie Smith at Gramercy Books in Bexley, Ohio

More Info: Visit the Gramercy Books website.

Born out of Kelly Sundberg’s viral essay in Guernica, “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” which was collected in the Best American Essays of 2015Goodbye, Sweet Girl sheds light on intimate partner violence, which affects one in four women aged 18 and older in the U.S. but is rarely spoken about as honestly as it is in Sundberg’s memoir. In beautiful, poetic writing, Sundberg’s voice shines through on the page as she chronicles how her marriage to Caleb, a funny, warm, supportive man and a wonderful father to their young son, Reed, devolved from a love story into a shocking tale of abuse—examining the tenderness and violence entwined in the relationship, why Sundberg endured years of physical and emotional pain, and how she eventually broke free.

To understand herself and her violent marriage, Sundberg looks to her childhood in Salmon, a small, isolated mountain community known as the most redneck town in Idaho. Like her marriage, Salmon is a place of deep contradictions, where Mormon ranchers and hippie back-to-landers live side-by-side; a place of magical beauty riven by secret brutality; a place that takes pride in its individualism and rugged self-sufficiency, yet is beholden to church and communal standards at all costs.

Mesmerizing and poetic, Goodbye, Sweet Girl is a harrowing, cautionary, and ultimately redemptive tale that brilliantly illuminates one woman’s transformation as she gradually rejects the painful reality of her violent life at the hands of the man who is supposed to cherish her, begins to accept responsibility for herself, and learns to believe that she deserves better.

Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, and others. She has a PhD in Creative Nonfiction from Ohio University, and has been the recipient of fellowships or grants from Vermont Studio Center, A Room of Her Own Foundation, Dickinson House, and The National Endowment of the Arts. Maggie Smith is the author of Lamp of the Body, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, and Good Bones, named by the Washington Postas one of the Five Best Poetry Books of 2017. Her poems have appeared in the New York Times, Tin House, Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.


My Letter to Cindy Scott

[From an email that I sent on 1/26/2014 to the prosecutor in my ex-husband’s domestic battery case.]

Dear Cindy,

I am writing to let you know how disappointed I am in the handling of my ex-husband, Joshua Caleb Winters, Domestic Battery case.
Caleb would have killed me if I had stayed with him.  He punched me in the head repeatedly, he strangled me, and he threatened to kill me.  I lived my life in terror of him, and I didn’t call 911 until things had gotten so bad, and he had broken so many phones when I wanted to call for help in the past, that I panicked.
I tried to reach out to you, and I tried to make contact with you, and you never acknowledged my emails or my contacts.  I called the Victims Assistance Program, and I called RDVIC, and still, you never contacted me.
The only thing I asked was that my ex-husband be mandated to take Batterer’s Intervention classes. If you had called me, then I could have told you that the counselor who he went to Anger Management with, Charles Cotrill, was someone he started seeing before his abuse escalated. He got worse after he started seeing “Charlie.” Caleb started seeing Charlie as a way of trying to keep me, not as a measure of genuine reform.  He had been seeing a counselor, Dr. Ed Jacobs, who had been helping him, but Ed told him hard truths about his behavior, so he quit seeing Ed and started seeing Charlie instead. Even then, Caleb never admitted to Ed or Charlie the extent of his behavior.  I went with Caleb to see Ed, but I was too scared to tell him how much Caleb was abusing me.  I believed that Caleb was telling his counselors the truth, and that was part of the reason I stayed married to him for so long after his abuse got extremely violent–because I thought he was getting treatment–but after I left Caleb, I spoke with Ed who told me that he had no idea how much Caleb was abusing me, that Caleb had lied to him completely.
Charlie, in contrast to Ed, told Caleb that he was the victim. He made Caleb feel even more powerful. After Caleb started seeing Charlie, his abuse got so bad and so frequent that I started missing work and lunch dates with friends because I could no longer hide the bruises. I asked Caleb why he had gotten worse after seeing Charlie, and his answer was “Charlie makes me feel good about myself so I don’t need to take your shit anymore.”  This was before he held me down and spit in my face, before he punched me in the spine so hard that I stopped breathing, before he held me down by my neck and cut my lip open  with a pill bottle of Ambien while he was trying to make me swallow the entire bottle, before he told me that he was going to commit himself to Chestnut Ridge because he couldn’t stop fantasizing about killing me, before he chased me into the street in his bare feet in front of the RAs at the dorm while I tried to escape and begged them to call the police.
Charlie made Caleb worse.  I tried to tell you that in my first email that I sent to you.  I tried to call you and tell you that in person, but you never spoke to me.
 I am just so devastated.  I realize that, in your position, you become desensitized to the plight of others.  I realize that, when you are dealing with abuse situations that have multiple stab wounds, someone throwing a bowl at another person might not seem like that big of a deal, but I am a person.  I am a person who feared for my life, who had to hide bruises and lie to friends and family, who got evicted from her home after her husband was arrested, who had to live on the floor of a friend’s house with her child for a month, who had to live in three different states in one year while she tried to escape, who has Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, who has been blamed and manipulated by the person who abused her for years, and who was ignored by the system that was supposed to protect her.
The only thing I wanted was for him to take Batterer’s Intervention courses, and on Friday, when I spoke with Sharon from the Victim’s Assistance Program, she told me that he had taken Batterer’s Intervention courses.  If I had known that he hadn’t, I would have insisted upon a trial.  I would have taken my chances at 50/50 because someone like him should not be let go with no consequence.
I realize that you have asked him to write a letter of apology to me, and I appreciate that–and I do want that letter–but that letter will not be sincere.  He is not sorry.  If he was sorry, he would have apologized to me long ago. The letter will probably say things like “I didn’t mean to hurt you” or “I’m sorry if I hurt you.”  Because he has not taken the Batterer’s Intervention classes, he still does not understand that what he does was wrong.
And he will do this to another woman, and now, he will be smarter about it.  He will choose a better victim. He will keep her more isolated.  He will call the police first.  He will not admit to what he’s done when the police come.  He will have her arrested too. When the police arrested him, they asked him “Did she hit you too?”  Caleb said no, then the police officer said “Because we can arrest her too.” That was after Caleb had already said no.  The police officer was basically offering to help him.  The police officer also asked me to describe what happened, and I said that I was walking away from Caleb and he threw the bowl at me.  The other police officer then said “Did he just knock the bowl off the counter and it hit your foot?”  I was confused because I had just told the story, so I said “No, he threw the bowl at me.”  Later, Caleb told me that the police officer wrote in his statement that Caleb knocked the bowl off of the counter, even though Caleb had written in his own statement that he threw it.  I have no way of knowing if this is true because I have not seen the police report, but if it is true, then the police officer was again, trying to help Caleb.  I didn’t want Caleb arrested.  I loved him.  I only wanted him to change, so I begged the police officers not to arrest him.  Maybe that is why they tried to help him.  Maybe they thought they were helping me too.
But those police officers, and your dismissal of his charges, have turned him into the perfect abuser.  He won’t do it to me again, but he will do it to another woman, and she won’t be able to get away because he will be too smart and understand the system too well to let her escape.  My heart breaks for that woman, just as my heart is broken for all of the senseless suffering that my child and I have gone through.
 I don’t know why I’m sending this email. I have received no response from you to my other emails. I can call, but you won’t answer.  Maybe I should send a letter.  Maybe I should send a letter to the judge.  I don’t know.  All I know is that my husband abused me for years, and I thought the legal system was designed to protect me, but all the legal system did was to show him (and me) how untouchable he truly is.

A Legacy of Tenderness for My Son

Reed dancing

The other day, my twelve-year-old son, Reed, burst into my bedroom. “Mom, look what I found” he said. It was his stuffed Curious George animal—tattered and loved. “George the monkey” had been my son’s favorite doll when he was a toddler. I remember carrying Reed up the stairs to bed, his head on my shoulder, his thumb in his cheek, George the monkey hanging from one hand.

In my bedroom that day, I took the stuffed Curious George from Reed. He hesitated as he handed it to me—some part of him wasn’t ready to let go—but I told him that I’d keep George safe for him. I took George to my office where I propped him up on a bookshelf next to another stuffed monkey, a colorful monkey I had purchased at a shop in Hanoi. As I looked at the two monkeys next to each other, they told very different stories. One monkey told the story of my son’s childhood. The other monkey told the story of my decision to leave my son’s father, as well as the story of why I have a difficult time trusting men.

I had gone to Vietnam for my best friend’s wedding, and as I stood at the front of the ceremony next to a wide, blue expanse of water and read a bell hooks quote about love being a verb, it struck me that my own marriage was not going to last, that, in my marriage, love was used as a weapon.

Love was used to control.

My love for my husband was used to hurt me because my then-husband was emotionally and physically abusive, and I was only beginning to realize that I would never be safe while he was in my life. It was another year or two before I left. My then-husband was arrested for domestic battery, and I let him come home for two days of terror before I realized that I needed to leave. I rushed around the home gathering as many things as I could for my escape. That night, Reed and I slept on the floor of a friend’s house, and I wrapped my arms around Reed while he wrapped his arms around George. For the first time, we were a family of two.

After I left my husband, I struggled with so many feelings of caution. I had grown up with a father and brother who were never anything but kind to me, but it had only taken the one man to teach me how to fear. When I turned on my television and tried to watch Game of Thrones, I shuddered at the depictions of rape. I think that I’m the only one of my friends who turned off the show and never returned to it (I chose to watch reruns of Gilmore Girls instead). My skin crawled if a man sat next to me on a bench. I shook when a man slammed his palm down on a table for emphasis. I stopped locking my doors because my ex-husband, too often, had blocked me from leaving when he was abusing me. I knew rationally that it wasn’t safe for me to leave my doors unlocked, but in my bones, I had grown to believe that the menace was everywhere—both inside and outside of my home.

My ex-husband had never been abusive towards our son, and my therapist theorized that that my ex-husband only hated women. My ex-husband still had partial custody, and every other weekend, I would drive my son to a 7-11 in rural Richie County, West Virginia that was halfway between the town my ex-husband lived in and the town in Ohio where I had moved to get my PhD. This 7-11 was busy on Friday evenings when the men from the oil fields were getting off work. I would take my son to his father’s car, where we would not make eye contact, then I’d go into the 7-11 to use the restroom. Every other Friday, as I walked by the workers milling around, I felt their eyes on me. I imagined, probably inaccurately, what they were thinking.

Once, a man with a to-go cup and two travel-sized bottles of White Zinfandel asked me if I “went there often” in the way that someone would try to pick up a date at the bar. I was unnerved, but I responded to him politely. Like all good women, I had been taught to be polite. He told me how much money he was making working for the fracking companies. He seemed to assume that I would be impressed. I made a mental note that he was going to be driving drunk on the same highway as me. I was aware of how he seemed to assume that he was entitled to my attention. When he paid for his wine and left, he turned to me and said, “Burn baby burn!” and as I made the drive back to Ohio, gas tankers drove by me in streams, their lights twinkling in the darkness, while I wept at the way my life had turned out.

I was, it seemed, surrounded by men, and I was distrustful and afraid of them.

But I loved my tender-hearted, creative, and witty son. I loved him with a ferocity that only a single mother can understand. He and I were a team, and I would have done anything for him. What I needed to do for him, I knew, was to create a world where he was safe to be himself. I knew that my son was not destined to become his father, and I didn’t want his father’s abuse of me to become his legacy. I wanted my love for him to be his legacy.

In time I realized that, if I was going to love the man that my boy would become, I had to learn how to trust men again. I wasn’t ready to date yet, but for the first time in my life, I made friends who were men. They didn’t want anything from me but my friendship, and I saw that kindness was not solely a feminine virtue. I developed a close mentorship with my male dissertation advisor who has always been supportive and kind to me, and I worked to be closer with my father who I had grown apart from after my divorce. I needed my son to see that I could be close to men, so that he would know that, when the time comes for him to be a man, I will be capable of loving and accepting him, just the way he is.

In the first year that my son and I lived away from his father, we often went for walks in a nearby nature preserve. Once, in the spring sunlight, I captured a photo of him dancing in the mist. His entire body was joyful. And then, we took a picture of the two of us together. When I look at that picture, I see nothing but tenderness in both of our eyes. There is no anger, no resentment. There is none of what I experienced from his father because my son is his own person.

So, when my now-twelve-year old (who has just started to shave) handed me his Curious George doll with hesitance, I understood why. He didn’t want to let go of that child-like part of himself, and that’s why I told him that I would keep George safe for him. I will always nurture my son’s most tender parts because if he is going to be safe, and I am going to be safe, then our safety has to be in a world that we have created together.

Reed and Mom