On Ambition

The other morning, I was chatting on the phone with Rebecca Solnit. Yes, that’s right, Rebecca Solnit. People often ask me, “How did you become friends with Rebecca Solnit?” And I tell them that she came here for our Lit Fest, and I gave her a very earnest introduction where I disclosed how much I loved her work, but then, later, she read my essay at Guernica and reached out to me. Then, she friended me on Facebook, and I had a moment of panic. I wondered if I should put her on a restricted list. I knew that I was not “professional” on my Facebook. But, there she was, commenting on my posts about my gym crush and my kiddo’s quips.

And then, I encountered her in the wilds of Idaho with her face buried in a White Pine. (though she will correct me if I’m wrong, as she has done it before).

Here’s the thing: Rebecca and I have a lot in common. We both grew up in the West. We both had troubled childhoods. We both experienced domestic violence in some fashion. We both love the outdoors. We both love writing. We’re both feminists. We were kind of made to be friends.


A while ago, another writer messaged me on Facebook, “How do you cultivate mentors? You seem to know all of the famous people.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to respond that I am earnest and authentic, and I work hard. I wanted to respond You don’t get to choose your mentors. They choose you.


When Rebecca and I were chatting, we talked about ambition. We talked about how ambitious we both are.

We talked about how risky it is to be ambitious as a woman. We talked about how men get to be “confident” but, so often, have no ambition. Too many men think that they should just publish and publish and publish, but they don’t have the ambition to drive them to that point.

We talked about how women work their asses off to achieve what they achieve, and that is ambition.

Ambition=work.


I am fucking ambitious. I will own this.  I am not ambitious to make money. I am not ambitious to have fame.

I am ambitious to make art.


I sold my book to a New York publisher, and I never expected something like that.

My agent told me, “Writers are jealous. When they ask you about your advance, just say that you got enough to write the book.”

To be clear, I really did only get enough to write the book, but I have also been living at poverty level for a while now, so my perception of “enough” is probably different than others.


I had a friend turn against me after my book deal. I had seen her do it to others, and I should have expected her to do it to me, but I didn’t.

Another friend said, “She only wants women that she can mentor or get something from, and you just jumped categories.”

That friend was right.

The price of female ambition is high.


So much of my marriage misery had nothing to do with Caleb’s physical abuse. So much of my marriage misery had to do with the ways in which I had to stifle my ambition.


I have been writing my book while teaching, and this has been tough, but on the nights when I have been able to give myself over to the writing, I have thought, “There is no other job that I would so willingly give myself to.”


I posted a picture on Facebook recently, and people kept commenting “You look happy!” I am happy. I am not happy because I have met a man, or lost a bunch of weight, or ran a 5K. I am happy because I think that I have created some beautiful art. I am happy because my ambition has paid off.


We women are allowed to want things. We are allowed to be greedy. We are allowed to be needy. We are allowed to be independent. We are allowed to be tough, or weak, or rough, or strong, or whatever the fuck we want to be. Most of all, we are allowed to be ambitious.

I am ambitious.

On Love

I divorced Caleb and moved to Athens the very next day. The day of my divorce was terrible, but not because of the divorce.

On my way home from the hearing, I had thought that I would cry in the car, but I didn’t. Instead, I felt euphoric, and that euphoria is why the day was so terrible.


When I arrived at the house, my parents expected me to be sad, to be broken, but that wasn’t the case. I was happy–manic almost–and I set to bustling around the house and finishing the packing. My mother was obsessed with cleaning, as though I was moving out of a rental. I was dismissive, “He can clean it,” I said (because Caleb was moving back into the home that we had lived in together). And, as the day progressed, my father’s mood darkened.

It was too easy for me, you see?

I had always been a flake, you see?


I left Caleb in November, and in the spring, my father sent Caleb an email and told him how much he hoped that we could work things out. He told Caleb that they loved him too.

Caleb’s parents never sent anything like that to me.


My father’s betrayal is a wound that will never heal.

My father didn’t believe me.


On the day of my divorce, my father and I had the worst fight of my life. I don’t remember how it started. I remember that he diminished me, diminished my decision to get divorced.

I remember that he said, “Well, you also said that your mother abused you, and that wasn’t true.”

I remember saying, “I have never claimed that what mom did to me was like what Caleb did to me.”


I remember all of the years in my life when I favored my father over my mother because my mother was so often angry at me, and my father so very rarely was.

I remember my mother working twelve hours shifts at the hospital, and the anger always came at the end of the second day, and the beginning of her days off. I remember that, on the first and third days of her shift, she was too tired to be angry, and I could hide in my bedroom.

I remember that the sound of the vacuum caused me anxiety because, if she was vacuuming, then that meant that she was catching up on everything my father hadn’t done while she was working.

I remember that I would be in bed, sleeping still, and the vacuum would bang against my door too many times to be an accident.

Bang.

Bang.

Bang.


I remember that my mother was still working at the hospital when I married Caleb, and he was the first one to identify the pattern in the days, that, in my entire life, I had never been able to connect the anger to her fatigue.

I remember Caleb telling me that he used to panic for me, that my brother would make a peanut butter sandwich and leave his knife on the counter, and Caleb would go into fix-it mode. He would wash the peanut butter knife.

He would think, Her brother has no idea that their mother is going to scream at Kelly about this peanut butter knife that she had nothing to do with. He would think, Her brother has no idea what she lives with.


I remember my brother hugging me on a sidewalk and saying, “I don’t think that we experienced the same things when we were kids.”


I remember my mother’s car breaking down the night before my bridal shower. We were stuck by the side of the highway. We tried to walk to my friend’s house and entered a dark canyon. I was pregnant and tired. I was not sure that I wanted to get married, but I had no idea how to confront those feelings.

We walked into that canyon. The trees loomed above us like hands, and then, wolves started howling. My mother grabbed my elbow. She steered me back to the car.

I was so afraid, but her hand on my arm was steady. All of those years at the hospital had taught her how to not be afraid.


I remember writing in a poetry workshop during my MFA, “The child of an orphan is an orphan.”

My mother was an orphan.


My mother was the best mother that she could be, and she was a good mother, and I love her.

I forgive her for her anger, and I hope that she forgives me for mine.

I think that she does.


I remember meeting with an Executive Editor from Henry Holt in New York City at a breakfast place in SoHo. It was the same day that–just after Richard Price, the writer of Clockers and The Wire read from his most recent novel–I read from “It Will Look Like a Sunset” at McNally Jackson books, and people in the audience cried, but I did not cry.

I remember that editor telling me that she loved my book of essays, but that she could never convince her publishers to buy it. She gave me a list of agents instead, and before she left, she stopped and looked at me and said, “What I love most in these essays is your mother. Your mother is such a complicated human being. I respect her.”


I remember screaming at my father on the day of my divorce because he didn’t believe me.

I remember my mother saying, “Stop, this is not between you two.”

I remember my mother saying, “You both need me to admit that something happened, and it did. I was not the best mother that I could have been, and I’m sorry.”

I remember asking my parents to leave.

I remember looking at my father and saying with clinical clarity, “I forgive her because she couldn’t help herself, but you were a coward.”

I remember my father getting up and storming out of the house, but he came back. He pointed at me, and his hand shook, and he said, I am not a coward.


I remember asking my parents to leave my house, and my mother said, “But you need us, you’re moving.”

And I said “I have been doing this on my own for a while. I do not need you anymore.”


I remember realizing that, for the first time in my life, I did not need them.


And I remember realizing, at some point, that I loved them and wanted them in my life, even if I didn’t need them.

Because we are all human, you see?

I am human, and my mother is human, and my father is human too. And we all mess up, and sometimes, we have to forgive each other and move on.


I have never doubted that my parents love me.


I loved Caleb, but my love for him was sick. My love for him taught me that love was fraught, awful, and punishing.

Caleb loved the word punish. He said that his own mother punished him when he didn’t do what she wanted. It didn’t take me long to understand what he meant. She is passive aggressive when she doesn’t get what she wants.

Still, the other day, I dropped Reed off with her in the parking lot of a Western Sizzling. She hugged him, then held his face between her hands. She smiled at him so large, and I couldn’t help myself. As I drove by, I rolled down my window and said, “Diana, he is almost as tall as you now!”

And she smiled, surprised, and said, “All of the grandchildren are shooting by me now!”

This is the first pleasant interaction we’ve had since the divorce, but I am no longer angry at Diana. She didn’t make Caleb into the person he is. She, too, is human.

And she loves my son. I know this.


I was interested in someone recently, and I just found out–just this moment–that he’s kind of a scumbag.

This guy being a scumbag could be a tragic end to a long saga, but it’s not tragic at all because I have had fun.

Can I tell you how important it is to have fun after years of misery?

Fun is not serious. Fun is not commitment. Fun is not love.

Fun is flirtation.

(Expect more on this subject later.)


I submitted my full book manuscript last Sunday. I received an auto-reply from my editor that she was out of office until April 24th. This was probably for the best because I’ve had time to re-read the manuscript, and to realize how much needs changed. Everything that I’ve written here is not included in the book manuscript. You are the first readers.

I left a lot out that needs to be included.

In the stairwell at work yesterday, one of my favorite professors said, “Well, you have so much to write about what’s happened since you’ve left Caleb.”

He thought that was going to be a part of my book because he has only known me since then, but I told him, “No, that stuff is for the next book.”


Here is a preview of the next book:

Reed and I in a hammock, and Reed says, “Everything is just better now, isn’t it?”

Laying in the grass under a dry lightning storm with a man who would open my heart again.

Selling my memoir to a humongous New York Publisher.

Sitting at an outdoor patio in Brussels drinking beer with a Scottish visual artist I had met at an artist’s residency and thinking, “I am living the redemptive ending to my own story.”

Celebrating on my friend’s porch that I had received the contract from my German book publisher, and realizing that the sweet cat cuddling up to my legs indicated that I needed my own cat.

Adopting my own cat.

Cultivating and joking in a semi-public fashion about a crush on a guy who would turn out to be kind of a scumbag.

Realizing that I didn’t care if he was a scumbag because I had already known that I was too good for him.

Realizing that the me who met Caleb had that same impulse–that I was too good for him–but was unable to fully acknowledge that impulse.

Being the person to turn down a Facebook friend request from a man who used to be my friend, but who I know raped another friend.


Realizing that the new me is tough.


Realizing that, as trite as it might sound, I’ve finally learned how to love the one person who would be with me through it all.

Myself.

(Also, my cat and dog and amazing kiddo).

Teddy

On Being Alive

Can I admit something? I kind of hate the word “survivor.” I actually prefer the word “victim.” The word “survivor” doesn’t really imply that one had any agency over the situation, only that they endured it. The word “victim” implies that someone else actively victimized the person. So I will own it. I was a victim. Caleb victimized me. I may have survived his abuse, but he was my victimizer, and the agency there was his.

I = victim.

Caleb = victimizer.


I just sent the complete draft of my book to my editor. I was greeted with an auto-reply that she’ll be out of the office until the 24th, and I’m dying. A friend said that this gives me time to relax, but I am so adrenalized right now. I finished this book, and it will need many, many revisions, but the bones are in place, and I am proud of that.


What does it take to let go of a story? Can I let go of this story now? Will I ever be able to let go of this story?


I have been flirting with someone. I have not told him my history. How do I tell someone I am interested in that I have been broken?

I know that I am not broken now, but how do I convey that over a beer or coffee?


To survive is merely to be alive, but not to live.

I am not a survivor. I didn’t survive that shit; I lived through it.


After I sent my final chapters, I felt euphoric. I wanted to cry happy tears. Then, I felt something else. I felt alone.

I had achieved something so important, yet I had no one to share it with.

I sat on my couch with my aloneness, and I allowed myself to feel it, then I realized that, if I hadn’t been alone, this book would not have been written.

So much of what I have accomplished has happened in solitude, so, though it has been lonely, I give thanks for my solitude.

And after sitting with my solitude for a while, I decided to write a blog post because I knew that would be a way for me to connect with other people. I knew that would be a way of expressing that I’m alive.


So, thank you dear readers, for helping me to feel less alone and more alive. I appreciate you.

I am alive, and so are you, and we are all survivors.

On Redemption

Rain is pouring on to the skylights of my house. My loft office overlooks those skylights, and it’s where I’m writing now.

I told someone recently, “I don’t ever want to live somewhere again where I don’t have a loft office.”

Her reply was, “Good luck with that.”


Recently, I was having an energy audit done on my house (because my power bill was so high), and the auditor kept saying, “I see why you stay in this house. This house has character. It has a good energy to it.” The auditor was a man about ten years older than me. He was physically fit. He had a mullet.

By the end of the visit, he was sitting on the floor with Teddy, my rescue dog, in his lap, and telling me about his first marriage to an emotionally abusive woman.


People share their stories with me. They share their stories with me because I share mine with them. While this auditor was tapping the walls of my office and looking for an entrance into the attic, he said, “So, what’s your book about?”


It has been a long winter, but not as long of a winter as last winter, or the winter before.

The snow didn’t tunnel me in this year.


I started a group with a few friends titled “Goals, Goals, Goals.” This week, one of my goals was to “find beauty,” which is the most basic, yet lofty goal of all. And still, one afternoon, when I had some peace, I went down for a nap, and as I was falling into sleep, but still awake, the colors behind my eyelids began to dance in a beautiful fashion. It was almost psychedelic, and rather than falling asleep, I allowed myself to watch those colors happening behind my closed eyes, and I thought to myself, “I have found beauty.”


I have found beauty.


I have found beauty in this town.

Reed and I first moved into a sterile apartment that was surrounded by college students. I carried my groceries up six flights of metal stairs. I carried Teddy down the stairs to potty when the steps were too cold for his paws.

I wept on the couch when Reed was gone.


On Thanksgiving Day that year–the first year out of my marriage–when Reed was with Caleb, I called Caleb and cried because I felt sorry for myself, and Caleb screamed “Find a new husband to deal with your problems” before hanging up on me.


Caleb used to record all of our phone calls, but it took me a long time to figure out what he was doing.

The other night, I had to talk to Caleb about an issue with Reed being bullied at his after school program. Caleb and I talk on the phone–at most–once or twice a year. When this conversation started, it sounded like Caleb had put me on speaker phone, and I assumed that was so his wife could hear. I did not care. She, too, is one of Reed’s caregivers.

The conversation was one of the most productive conversations we’ve had in a while. It was all very reminiscent of when we were a family, and I would run interference for Reed. I am still good at running interference for him, but it is not as easy.

Reed was relieved at the end of the conversation because it had gone well (and it doesn’t usually go well when I have to talk to Caleb), but I later realized that it wasn’t a speaker phone I had heard, that Caleb had probably been taping us (he knows that we’re going to have to go back to family court soon). Still, I am no longer worried about Caleb trying to get custody of Reed–the straight-A kid–who can speak for himself now, and who explicitly prefers being with me.

I am also okay with Caleb taping our phone conversations if that means he will be nice to our kid (because Caleb often isn’t nice to our kid).

I’ll take Caleb’s posturing over my child’s distress any day.


We had a situation recently where Reed wanted something, and he asked Caleb for it, and Caleb said, “But that wouldn’t make things harder for your mom.”

When I picked Reed up that weekend, the first thing he said in the car was, “Did you know that my dad sometimes makes decisions just to make things harder for you?”


This all sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m not. I’m not complaining because, when we moved into that tiny apartment, Reed and I found a cute, little blue table that fit into that apartment, and Reed and I fit at that table perfectly together.


The first essay I workshopped as a PhD student was “It Will Look Like a Sunset,”  and Dinty W. Moore closed the door, and asked, “Are you okay?”

And I was.

I was okay.


We want traumatic stories to end in redemption, and I rail against this. I rail against redemption.


But I still have that little blue table in the new home, and I have a loft office, and a hammock in the back where Reed once swung next to me and said, “Everything is better now, isn’t it?”


Spring in the new home is beautiful. The hum of the bugs. The moan of the toads.

The rain on the skylights.

I love where we are, and I wouldn’t change it. I’d stay here forever if I could.


And as much as I hate redemptive endings, I feel redeemed.

hammock.jpg

On Introversion and Activism

You know that Myers-Brigg test? The one that classifies people according to their personality types? I’m an ENFP–extroverted, intuitive, feeling, perceiving. There is a stereotype associated with the ENFP. The ENFP is the good-hearted campaigner. A person who loves to be the center of attention.

I am actually the opposite. While I was married to Caleb, my Myers-Briggs results called me an INFP. I thought that I had matured, developed into my own introversion.

I didn’t realize then that I was introverted because secrecy is the greatest introversion.

My most recent Myers-Brigg test rated me as 51% extroversion and 49% introversion. I am an extroverted introvert.


It’s common knowledge at this point that my department has been the subject of a major sexual harassment/assault scandal. There was a rally at my department’s building a while ago. One of the organizers asked me if I would be willing to speak. I didn’t know what to do. I reached out to one of the survivors, and she kindly responded that they didn’t want any one person to be put on the spot.

You see, my position in the department is not very safe.

protest


One of my cohort posted about this situation on Facebook a while ago, and the comments were mostly the same–Take care of yourself first. I couldn’t help myself. I commented.

I commented that, if we all take care of ourselves first, then the burden of establishing safety is going to continue to fall on the most vulnerable populations.

I meant it.

My cohort member, who is a good person, agreed.


I didn’t speak at that rally, but I went to it, and it was beautiful. The power and authenticity with which those undergraduates spoke made me cry. A faculty member who had voted for the predator to keep his tenure also came to the rally.

I leaned into another graduate student and said, “What is she protesting? Is she protesting herself?”


Our department chair recently sent out a letter to the graduate students that told us, “We seek more than just the technicalities of law and policy, though we need those as well. We need a deep understanding of how to support those in trauma and those who need our help navigating a system that can feel alien and inhospitable.”

Our department chair has been one of this predator’s biggest supporters, but she wants to be a hero now?

The letter was signed by the same faculty member who said to the media, “People who claim to be certain about how much culpability is involved in the case, or about its fairest outcome, might be overconfident of their own righteousness.”

It was signed by the faculty member who is being sued for having enabled the predator by burying previous charges against him.

It was signed by all of the faculty members who voted for the predator to keep his tenure.

It was signed by the predator’s wife.


My dissertation advisor (who has been nothing but a good ally) asked me how I felt about the letter that was sent to us graduate students.

I hesitated. I finally said, “It was a good gesture.”

What was I supposed to say?


A student journalist recently reached out and asked me to do an interview. I declined, but then, when I had members of my cohort who wanted to speak out, I agreed to a joint interview. Still, the student journalist primarily quoted me, and it upset me. I felt unsafe. Those weren’t the terms I had agreed to.

There is safety in numbers. We all need to speak out.


I haven’t talked to my therapist in a while, but this  situation has driven me back. I told my therapist that I struggle with my introversion, and with how that is at odds with my activism, and she gave me permission to be an activist in the way that I am most fully capable–through my writing.


So here I am.

On Shame

A couple of years ago, I was going to watch a horror movie, but I didn’t want to watch it alone, so I called a friend of mine, a man, and he came over to watch it with me. It was a hot and humid night, so I opened the front door. My friend and I sat in my dark living room and watched that scary movie. Rain started to drizzle outside the open door, and I inched closer to my friend, then leaned into him. He lifted his arm (almost without thinking), and I laid my head on his chest.

Rain poured outside in the dark night in the hollow.


Last night, I told a friend, a different man, about how that other man and I used to cuddle sometimes.

My friend said, “Kelly, I hate to break it to you, but he just wanted to fuck you.”


I want to continue to believe that there can be a physical connection between a man and a woman that doesn’t involve either of them wanting to fuck the other, but maybe I am naive.


I took Caleb home with me on the same night that I met him. I liked him, so I was determined not to have sex with him. I knew that there were rules, that, if he was going to see me as dateable, I was going to have to portray myself as a good girl. Still, I let him into my bed. I told him that I did not want to have sex, but I put on this Calvin Klein nightshirt that was short and had spaghetti straps. I curled up next to him. He kept asking me to take my shirt off, but I wouldn’t.

Later, he wrote to me about the song “Can I Sleep in Your Arms Tonight?” by Willie Nelson.  He wrote, I never told you this, but the first night we stayed together I had this song in my mind. I remember asking you to take your shirt off. You said no. But, you didn’t know I just wanted to feel your skin against mine.


We stayed in bed until the next afternoon, and then, I finally took my shirt off. I made a joke that we had made it to our third date by then, and then, I fucked him. I didn’t think of it as fucking though.

I thought of it as something different entirely.


The first time I really interacted with Caleb’s friends was on Thanksgiving Day. Caleb had invited me out to the “compound” that he lived on in Idaho City, a tiny town in the mountains outside of Boise. The compound was a collection of cabins that Caleb and two other guys had built themselves. Caleb lived in his cabin alone. One of the other guys lived with his girlfriend, and the owner lived with his wife and toddler.

 A bunch of people from Caleb’s MFA program had gathered for this Thanksgiving dinner. The experience was intimidating for me. One of the female MFA students consistently referred to me as the “undergraduate.” My current poetry instructor was there. The girlfriend of one of the cabin builders made fun of the wine that I had brought.

But, as the evening went on, they seemed to warm up to me. Caleb was solicitous, and one of the men commented to me that he had never seen Caleb act that way with a woman before.

I started to feel comfortable. Worthy.

Wine was being poured, and the writer who lived with his girlfriend pulled out a joint. He passed it around, then he made a joke to me.

He said, “So, Caleb said you two had sex four times. He called you ‘fourgasm.'”

I was quick. I said, “Only one of us had four orgasms.”

The next morning, the married owner of the main house showed up. He looked me up and down, then said, “Does the carpet match the drapes?”

I was quick again. I said, “You’ll never know.”

I said, “It’s not like I haven’t heard that one before.”


Then, I drove home. I wound my car through the narrow mountain roads until I came out above a large reservoir, and the landscape opened up before me.

It was as though my chest cracked open when I emerged from those mountains.

It was as though I could breathe again.


Caleb also wrote to me, Remember when you used to come and stay with me in my shack in the woods? I’d watch for you for hours making sure you didn’t miss the turn off of Highway 21. I remember holding you while we slept on that couch and I never felt crowded. You always fit perfectly beside me.

He didn’t write, I called you “fourgasm” to my friends. 

He didn’t write, My married friend asked you about the color of your pubic hair.


At an MFA graduation party at the compound, I was pregnant. Caleb walked me out on to a ridge line behind the compound. He kneeled in front of me and asked me to marry him. We were already engaged, but the engagement had been so hasty, a result of the pregnancy. I had joked that he had proposed to me in the parking lot of a Mervyns because we had my ring sized there.

Caleb was embarrassed. He wanted to do it right.

I looked at him on his knees on that ridge line. It was raining. I remember thinking, I am pregnant, and we are standing in the rain. I remember thinking, What am I doing?

The beauty of the forest was lost on me. Rain poured into the trees around us.


We went back to the Compound. The guy who lived with his girlfriend had walked in on the married man making out with a rich, married woman from down the highway. Apparently, all three men had thought that she looked hot in her Daisy Dukes.

Everything always falls apart.


The married man took me aside and tried to charm me. He told me that I should move into the upper cabin with Caleb and our baby. He said that was what Caleb wanted. When Caleb and I got back to town, I said No, we are never moving to the compound. 

On the day that Caleb and I moved into our first apartment, the married man showed up drunk. He ate some of our food. He threw his fork at my feet, then a crumpled up beer can.

I was quick. I said, “Is that where that goes?”

He was quick too. He said, “That’s your job, isn’t it?”

Caleb then went to the bar with him. He said that he had said to the married man, “Don’t you ever throw a fork at my wife again.”

I remember thinking, But why did you leave me? I remember thinking, What am I doing?


I spent the first night in our new home alone.

It didn’t rain. Rain can’t be a metaphor for everything.


At our wedding, the married man’s toddler was our ring bearer. His wife looked sad. The Daisy Duke lady had come with them. The wife took the toddler back to their hotel room while the married man and Daisy Duke lady went out to the bar.

I know this because so many people later told me how obvious it was that the married man and Daisy Duke lady were having an affair.

Daisy Duke lady gave Caleb and me a card that had two one-hundred dollar bills in it.

One of them said, HERS. The other said, HIS.

I wanted to burn that money, but we were poor.


The shame. The shame of everything I can’t express. The shame that led me to believe that I didn’t deserve better .

The shame of him. and him. and him. and him.


I don’t know where it began.


Maybe it was because of that district spelling bee where I was the youngest, and my best friend waved at me from the crowd, and I waved back, then my mother summoned me over to tell me not to act like I was so special.

I was supposed to win that year, but I lost.

I never forgot that I wasn’t special.


Maybe it was because of that fourth-grade teacher who gave our entire class a week long lecture about popularity. She explained in detail what it meant to be popular (as well as how popular she herself had been), then later, on a field trip, she only held the hands of the popular girls while I trailed behind, alone in all of my unpopularity.


Maybe it was because of the boys who snapped my bra in the fifth grade because they could tell I was already wearing one, though most of the other girls weren’t.


Maybe it was because of the eighth grade Algebra teacher who took every student but me out into the hall to tell them whether or not they were going on to ninth grade geometry.

Then, he said, “Did I forget anyone?”

And when I responded, “You didn’t take me into the hallway,” he said, in front of the entire class, “Don’t you already know the answer to that?”


Maybe it was because I had to join the ninth-grade geometry class a month late because my then-algebra teacher had finally figured out that I already knew all of the algebra he was teaching.

Maybe it was because the geometry teacher told me, “You should go into math. You’re good at math. Not a lot of girls are.” (And I knew that he was trying to make me feel better.)

Maybe it was because I got my pre-ACT results back in that same teacher’s class, and one of the boys looked at my score and said, “Why did you get a better score than me?


Maybe it was because of my parents’ single friend who flirted with me when I was in high school, and I could tell what was happening, but they could not, so I was polite.

Like a good girl.


Maybe it was because my first kiss was with a stranger in a club in Amsterdam.


Maybe it was because of the boy who made out with me in a car, then told everyone that he had sex with me, and I only heard that he had said that we had sex, because supposedly, he had AIDS, and everyone thought that I should be worried but I knew that I had never had sex with him, and in fact, was practically a virgin.


Maybe it was because of the first man who ever held me down when I didn’t want to be held down.


Maybe it was because sometimes I want to be held down.


Maybe it was because I visited a friend in Chicago once, and, when I was alone with her boyfriend, he kept trying to talk me into having a threesome with them–though I was not interested in that and was fairly certain that my friend was also not interested in that.

Maybe it was because my friend was in my wedding, and she brought her boyfriend, and he went out for beer with the men and said, “I have heard that Kelly is wild in bed” to Caleb (right in front of my future father-in-law).

Maybe it was because of the way Caleb told me that story, as though I should have been ashamed of what this man, who was essentially a stranger, had said about me.


Maybe it was because I knew that I was perfectly average in bed, but still couldn’t parse what I was supposed to be.

Was I supposed to be average? Or wild?

Both options had shame attached to them.


What I know is this:

After the Assistant Prosecutor, Cindy Scott, dismissed Caleb’s domestic battery charges on the condition that he write a letter of apology, I had a conference call with Marcia Ashdown (the then-Prosecuting Attorney) and Cindy.

Cindy tried to explain why she hadn’t taken Caleb to trial. It quickly became apparent that she hadn’t actually read his file when the judge told her to make the decision, so she had been left with no basis with which to make her decision.

She said to me, “He wrote that you had waved your bare butt in his face. How was I supposed to convict him against a jury when you had waved your bare butt in his face?”

I said, “Are you saying this is my fault?” and Ashdown jumped in hastily to say, “No, of course not.”

Still, I felt this deep kernel of shame.

What had I been doing out there antagonizing him without any underwear on? What had I been thinking?

Maybe it was because I deserved it.


In the police report, Caleb wrote that he had thrown the bowl at me because I had “waved my butt” at him.

When Caleb and I had fought that morning, I had just woken up. I had a t-shirt on, but had taken my underwear off during the night because it had kept crawling (I sometimes like to think of this as Wedgiegate).

I woke up angry, and I went out to confront Caleb and tell him that I had talked to my friend, Kelly Morse, and she had helped me realize that I needed to leave him. He screamed some things at me, and I turned to walk away.

At that point, he shouted “Don’t turn your butt to me,” and I did a little flip of my bare butt at him.

Then, he threw the bowl at me. It didn’t hit my butt (or worse, my lower back), but it shattered on on my foot, and I fell to the ground. I knew that I was hurt badly.

I got up and hobbled to the bedroom. I grabbed my phone. I dialed 91, then left the last number empty. I had threatened to call 911 before, but Caleb had always grabbed my phone and broken it. He had probably broken 3-4 phones of mine a year.

 He came into the room, and I told him, “I am going to call 911 if you don’t leave me alone.”

He shouted, “Call them, and tell them what a fucking bitch you are.”

And then, I did it. I called.

And, from that point on, everything changed.


Shame begins with that which cannot be expressed, so I’m expressing it now. I didn’t deserve what he did to me.


I cannot change what he did to me.


I have responded to what he did to me by being cautious. I am going on four years now, and I have not seriously dated someone else. Meanwhile, Caleb is remarried with a baby on the way.

I would rather be cautious.

The thing about abuse is that, often, the abused person is the only one who suffers, while the abuser gets to live his life in peace.


My caution might come from fear, but it does not come from shame. I have not felt shame since leaving Caleb. I have had sex with other men. I have cuddled with friends. I have developed emotional, nurturing connections with men. But I have not done anything that illuminates that kernel of shame that has been in me for so many years.


Maybe it’s because I keep cuddling with my friends–male and female. Maybe it’s because I crave physical connection, and I know that it would be easy to find sex, but that is not what I’m looking for. Maybe it’s because I just want someone to cuddle up with me and watch a horror movie while the rain pours outside.

Maybe it’s because I want to lay my head on a hard, safe chest.

Maybe it’s because shame is the condition of being a woman.


But I say no to the shame.

I say no more to the shame.


At this moment, it is not even close to raining.

Guest Post: On Not Creating Waves

By: Anonymous

Anonymous writes powerfully here about how women’s cultural conditioning to be nurturers paired with the highly sophisticated manipulations of an abusive man groomed her to take responsibility for her own assault. 


How do you say no when saying no will hurt more than giving in?

How do you live with yourself afterwards, because you never said no?

How do you look back at all the red flags that you ignored, and stop feeling complicit in your assault?

This is the story of my assault. This is the story about what happened, how he did it, why I never said anything until now.

***


When I first walked into the hotel room that he had booked for us, I didn’t expect to see the double bed there. In hindsight it was obvious that he planned it this way. I knew — although I didn’t want to admit it at the time — that his surprise and the nonchalant shrug about the hotel perhaps not having enough single beds was a lie. But I brushed my misgivings aside because, after all, we were just two friends spending a few nights in a hotel room. Of course he would respect my boundaries. Of course I wasn’t in any danger from someone who called himself my best friend. I let it slide, because I didn’t want to create waves and upset him.

***

He had tearfully confessed to having feelings for me months before, despite the fact that I was in a committed, monogamous relationship, and was getting married in a few months. I felt guilty for not reciprocating his feelings, and I felt responsible for his resultant anguish and pain. To atone for this, I spent hours talking to him about his feelings for me as he kept coming up with fantastical what-ifs scenarios. What if I had met him first? What if I could be with him instead? In another life, would I have feelings for him too? Through sheer exhaustion and sleep deprivation, I slowly began to stop resisting this narrative, since even my reluctant “I suppose, yeah” seemed to comfort him and provide some respite. I let it slide, because I didn’t want to create waves and upset him.

***

From the moment we first began talking to each other, our conversations were filled with friendly banter and racy innuendo. At first I was enchanted by his funny jokes and his witty wordplay, and I saw the innuendo as harmless, because he knew I was in a relationship. But I also quickly realised that it was a defence mechanism. But defence against what? Long conversations that quickly escalated in the level of personal detail revealed an unhappy childhood and a relationship of convenience with someone he no longer cared for, coupled with self-described ‘imposter syndrome’ about his work. His vulnerability disarmed me, and thus I attributed any awkwardness resulting from his brash humour to that. The sexually charged humour felt innocent and harmless, because he was like that with everybody else and besides, we were both in relationships with other people.

***

I woke up to him kissing me as we slept on the same hotel bed. I froze, because I didn’t know what to do, and I was scared of upsetting him. Even then I realised that I was in an enclosed space with a man who was significantly bigger and stronger than me. I was scared of resisting, in case I’d find out that my friend would use force more aggressively. I didn’t want to know he was capable of that, so I didn’t even try to resist. Denial can be so powerful. But something must have alerted to him that I was conscious, and that I had imperceptibly pulled away, because he began crying. Gasping for air while sobbing, as tears poured down his face in the dark, he began berating himself for ruining everything. He cried that he couldn’t help it, that he’s such a fuck up. I quickly pushed my own shock and confusion aside and stepped into the now-familiar role of comforting him, reassuring him that it wasn’t a big deal, that it was just a mistake, that I understood and I wasn’t upset. I put his well-being ahead of mine, and I let it slide, because I didn’t want to create waves and upset him.

***

I knew, from stories he had told me before, that he was familiar with violence. Descriptions of family arguments that led to physical violence, fantasies about exacting revenge on people who had wronged him, even the visibly shaking rage he’d display when I disagreed with him – these were all things that went through my mind in the split second as I evaluated my options and realised that he was not someone I wanted to risk upsetting. Sometimes survival means not resisting. Sometimes, you have to let it slide to survive within an abusive dynamic, even if you don’t realise how abusive it is.

***

When my fiance (now husband) met him for the first time, he didn’t like him. Neither did any of my friends. But by then I was already deeply involved in my friendship with him, and I ignored their misgivings. I created a barrier so I never talked to anyone else about him, thus allowing him to isolate me as he worked diligently on eroding my boundaries so slowly that I barely noticed. By then, the casual innuendo and racy jokes were reframed as consensual flirting; the inappropriate touching or the hugs that seemed to last just a little bit too long were repackaged as him demonstrating how much he cared for me. I rationalised it to myself that he was starved of normal friendships in his life, and he just didn’t know boundaries. After all, he knew I was married! At the time, I never imagined I would end up in a hotel room with him on top of me as I frantically tried to pretend I wasn’t there, that this wasn’t happening. By that time, I had let too much slide, and now he had leverage.

***

The second night, despite the tears of the previous night, he kissed me again. I don’t remember much from this time, but I know I didn’t say no. I know that I went along with what he was doing to my body because I was too scared not to, and it felt too late to disentangle myself. After all, didn’t I just say that what happened the night before wasn’t a big deal, that I understood him? I know that I disassociated from myself and I never resisted. I know that I was so grateful that it stopped before he had sex with me. I was grateful that he didn’t rape me.

***

When we’d leave the hotel during the day, he would make it a point to take selfies with me, to post on his social media to let all his followers know he was with me, that we were having so much fun, to show how happy I was because I was smiling in the pictures. I now realise he did this so that should I ever accuse him of assault, he had plausible deniability. How could I be out having brunch and drinking cocktails with someone that apparently assaulted me every night?

***

I never told anyone about what he did to me in that hotel room. He and I didn’t speak about the consequences or implications of what happened for months afterwards. I was too ashamed for not resisting, for going along with what he initiated. At the time I couldn’t see, didn’t want to see, that I was rationalising what happened as a mistake. After all, he knew I was married! I remained friends with him out of the pitiful logic that friends don’t assault one another, so if we remained friends then it couldn’t possibly be assault. I thought if I stayed quiet and didn’t upset him, he wouldn’t tell anyone what happened.

It was only later, when he started exercising his leverage against me, that I realised how hopelessly trapped I was. He began to casually refer to what happened in that hotel room as “your infidelity”. While he never explicitly blackmailed me, it was clear that unless I kept him happy he would tell everyone we knew, including my husband, that I was cheating. That I had an affair with him. I now had no choice but to let everything slide, because the cost of upsetting him was too high.

***
It was only much later that I found out that, regardless of my “good behaviour”, he had told all our mutual friends that we were having an affair. He had positioned himself as the victim, someone who was being callously used by me. He was using my assault to craft a narrative of being used and discarded by me, to alienate my friends and further isolate me.

***
Eventually after years of silence, I told my husband everything. I told my friends. It is still so difficult for me to forgive myself, to stop blaming myself for being assaulted. At the time I didn’t have the vocabulary or the insight to understand what happened to me and how he manipulated me. I naively thought abuse could only be physical and I thought people who stayed in those abusive relationships were weak. I had no idea how insidious abuse can be, and how slowly it escalates from barely noticeable to “how the fuck did I end up here”.

I wish I could say now, years later, that I am over it. I wish I didn’t still feel haunted by what happened. I wish I didn’t have days where I blame myself for what he did, and miss the person I used to be. But I am starting to heal, I think. I am stronger now than I was before. Since cutting off all contact with him, since processing what happened and learning exactly how he did this to me, I am starting to realise that blame should not and does not rest on my shoulders. I was not at fault for trusting him; he is, for violating that trust. I am not diminished; he is.

On Being On the Right Side of History

 

Dear Dr. —,

It is my understanding that you have solicited statements from graduate students that describe how they have been affected by this situation with Dr. —.

I’ll start with this: Today, a faculty member forwarded me the letter that Dr. — had sent to the English department faculty, and I almost vomited. I am sitting here triggered, and sad, and angry. My eleven-year-old son just asked me why I’m crying, and I had no idea how to respond. I am a survivor of domestic violence. My ex-husband, too, was an academic, and I know what an abuser’s rationalizations sound like. Reading that letter from Dr. — made me realize that he is a textbook abuser who feels no remorse.

This entire situation has triggered the PTSD that remains from my abusive marriage. I realize that my PTSD is my problem, and I have never demanded a “safe space” or “trigger warnings” while in the department, but in truth, we should work to create safe spaces—for ourselves and for others. For many years, it seems that a certain faction of the English department was primarily interested in creating a safe space for a sexual predator.

I’m not the only survivor among the graduate students, and I know of some who are planning to exit the university. We will all be at a loss without their presence. I will be entering the final year of my program, or I would likely have left myself.

But let me be clear when I say that—survivors or not—every single, graduate student has suffered because of Dr. —’s crimes.

Whether it’s from watching female faculty members who claim to be feminists remain allied with a man who did the exact same thing to two of our graduate students that Donald Trump bragged about in his famous “locker room talk,” or whether it’s from hearing the tales of senior male faculty members berating female graduate students in their offices, or whether it’s the many hours of productivity that graduate students have lost to secret meetings and letters (case in point: I have a memoir about my marriage due to my editor at HarperCollins in three weeks, yet I am spending time on this letter), or whether it’s the fear of having the value of our educations diminished if, or when, this all reaches the press, we graduate students have all suffered.

In her book, Sex Crimes: Ten Years On the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators, author Alice Vachss created the term “collaborator” to describe someone who enables a predator to continue damaging others. Collaboration can happen in a variety of ways. It can be active or passive. Defending the predator is collaboration. Not filing a valid complaint against the predator is collaboration. Rationalizing the predator’s behavior is collaboration. Minimizing the predator’s behavior is collaboration. Delegitimizing the victims is collaboration.

I think what has distressed me the most about this situation has been witnessing the collaboration on the part of the faculty members. I recognize that they genuinely believed him, but in the process of believing him, they disbelieved us. A male faculty member who I am very fond of said to me, “We just feel like the graduate students made up their mind about his guilt before all of the evidence came out.” How could I respond to that? I stared at him for a while, then finally said, “We did.” We made up our minds because we believed our peers. Witnessing so many people I admire immediately leap to disbelief of the victims has damaged my faith in the English department. in the institution of academia, and quite honestly, in humanity

I am preparing to enter the job market, and because I have a book under contract with a major publishing house and an essay anthologized in Best American Essays, I might actually be situated to beat the odds and get a tenure-track position. It is not lost upon me that I am putting my career prospects at risk by speaking out, but I cannot be silent about violence against women. I am a good writer, a good scholar, and a good person, and if my outspokenness damages my prospects on the job market, I am willing to take that chance because I believe my peers.

As graduate students, we are temporary in the lives of the faculty. They can choose to ignore this as they have in the past, and in a few years, we will all be gone, and no one will be the wiser. But let me be clear that the faculty are not temporary in our lives. They will always be the ones who mentored and supported us through our graduate years, or conversely, the ones who didn’t.

You may share this because I am willing to sign this with my name. I have nothing to be ashamed of.

Sincerely,

Kelly Sundberg, PhD Candidate in Creative Nonfiction

 

 

On Cowardice

There is a sexual predator in my community. This is not conjecture; it has been proven. I have been pretty outspoken about this person, and I have also paid the price. Still, I would speak out again. I am doing it right now. See what I just did there?

Last night, I was at the grocery store buying groceries for my friend’s birthday dinner that I was cooking. I had more groceries than usual–a huge haul–and, as I was pulling out my Kroger card and smiling at the cashier, I felt someone lean into me, get my attention. It was that predator.

He stood so close to me that the hair rose on my entire body. The cashier was quick, but I felt like we stood there side-by-side for an hour. My PTSD was on high alert. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I wonder if he was trying to intimidate me.

Maybe he was just trying to show me that he wasn’t afraid of me, that he didn’t think he had anything to be ashamed of.

I am not entirely convinced that he realizes his behavior was predatory. I am not entirely convinced that he doesn’t believe his own rationalizations.

All I know for sure is this: he picked my line. There were a dozen lanes open, and he chose to stand closely behind me with a bouquet of flowers in his hand.

What I also know for sure is this: I panicked.

I smiled at him and said, Hello.


I was polite to a predator. I like to think of myself as an activist, but at heart, I am still that woman who wants to be polite. How many women in the world have suffered because of their politeness?

Who suffers more? The polite women? Or the women who fight back?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I only know that I am both women, and I suffer.


When I left the grocery store, I got into my car. I was rattled. I had seen that man before and never had that kind of reaction, but he had also never stood so close to me.

As I drove home, I stared into the darkness in front of me. I was confronted with the reality that I am not nearly as tough as I like to think I am.

I was ashamed.


What I also know for sure is this: I once hugged my friend’s rapist.

I have never told her this story. Maybe she’ll read it here. Somehow, it feels easier to write it here than it would have felt to tell it to her face.

My writing offers me a veil of bravery, but I am a coward in person.


It was a few years ago. The Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence had flown me into Boise to read from my essay. I had stayed with a friend, and that night, we went to a downtown restaurant for dinner, which is where I saw my friend’s rapist.

He wasn’t only my friend’s rapist. He was also a friend of Caleb’s, and I had once taken a fiction workshop from him. When I was dating Caleb, I had run into him at a bar where he had drunkenly told me that I had “something special” as a writer. He paused, then said, “Tell your boyfriend that he needs some of what you have in your writing.”

At the time, the Boise community of writers was all men. I thought that only the men got to be real writers.

I was flattered by his comments. I told a friend who was in the MFA program with Caleb, and she said, “He just wants to get in your pants.”

She was probably right.


Not long after that night in the bar, he raped a woman who wasn’t my friend at the time, but who would become my friend later. My friend who was raped wrote about it here.

She became my friend because I messaged her and asked her if it was difficult for her to see people remain friends with her rapist. My abuser was friends with her rapist, you see? And we were all a part of this circle together. She wrote back that it was very frustrating. She was further along in her healing than I was, but she understood me.

She made space for my anger, and that is something that I can’t say about others in that circle, which is why I’m no longer a part of it. Still, my friendship with her sustains me. I cannot say enough good about the people who make space for a woman’s anger in the wake of assault.


Last year, I saw her in L.A. at a conference. We went to a fancy VIP party together, and her agent asked how we had become friends. My friend said, “Well, Kelly’s abusive ex-husband is friends with my rapist,” and then, we both laughed. We talked about co-writing an essay about our friendship that had grown from our connections to abusive men, but we’re busy. She is now the film critic for the LA Weekly, and I am writing my memoir. We never got around to writing that essay.

Still, I think that it will happen someday.


We went to this VIP party that had a guest list. We drank all of the free drinks they offered us. We went to another party that had a mountain of champagne glasses. We took photos in a photo booth where we pretended to have received bad news. We laughed at the results. We talked about titling the essay that we were going to write, “Good News.”

photo-booth


Even then, I didn’t tell her about hugging her rapist.


My friends and I were walking into the restaurant. One of my friends saw him first. She said, “Uh-oh. Do we need to go somewhere else?” I didn’t know what to say.

“I’m okay,” I said.

We walked inside. He saw me, stood up, and then, he hugged me. And I hugged him back. It wasn’t a good hug. I just simply did not know what to do. He asked me what I was doing in town, and I told him that I had been reading at a conference of domestic violence and sexual assault advocates. He looked like he wanted to vomit.

And then, my friends and I had dinner. I moved on. Still, I felt ashamed. I had let my friend’s rapist–my own abuser’s enabler–touch me.

More than that, I didn’t defend her, and I didn’t defend myself


A friend wrote to me the other night. She wrote, “I feel like you’re unstoppable and I need that kind of presence!”

But here’s what I know for sure: I am not always tough. Sometimes, I am a coward.

Sometimes, I am stoppable.

Guest Post: The Sad Man

By Spencer Harber

No one knows what it’s like.
To be the bad man.
To be the sad man.
Behind blue eyes.
-The Who

It finally clicks, I’ve had it. No more excuses, it’s time to go. Michelle hurriedly packs the kid’s bags in agreement. We’ve visited for nearly a week. A week punctuated with melancholy, suppressed memories, familial pain and unhealthy interaction.  I load our things in the car, without a backward glance, and just like that–the rich green alfalfa field and golden log house, I called home for 25 years disappears behind me.

view-from-home

I propel our rental car in a daze. Fleeing, speedily, I motor our family down the dirt road that cuts its way through the sagebrush covered foothills. Putting distance between us and this place is my only concern. Michelle clenches my hand, with courageous support, as the car fishtails along the symmetrical washboards of the road, adding a dramatic sense of urgency to our escape.

The vibrations of this old road, which I’ve traveled for years, keeps the noise in my head silent.  As we hit the pavement of the highway and cross the threshold to civilization, the car stops shaking. We are all, however, still shaking. The noise from the tires transforms from a rolling crunch to a calming hum, allowing my pesky inner voice to ask, “are you sure about this?” Yes. I’m sure. I have all the loving support I need; I’m done with this shit.

Our family of four travels southbound on Highway 93 on our way to Boise where the airport awaits to take us far away from here. Why had we come? A sense of obligation? A child’s hope that things would somehow be different? That my family would somehow be functional? Perhaps it was my naïve desire for acceptance. Some misguided need for them to see me on my own terms, with my own family, and somehow feel a sense of pride? I now feel foolish for all these thoughts.

The voice in my head asks, “should I say goodbye to Mom?” I careen my neck to see the parking lot of the Fish & Game. Mom’s place of employment of 30-plus years, to find that her car is gone. Still holding my hand, in loving support, my wife asks, “Is she there?” I shake my head, as my eyes pull focus back onto the highway towards town, the inner voice tries to sooth my decision by telling me “she’s probably at the parade, you’ll find her.”

Our girls have been sitting quietly in the backseat attuned to what Daddy and Mommy are trying to do. No matter what, they have proved time and time again that they are the staunchest survivors of life’s difficulties.

We arrive in Salmon, a small town located in central Idaho, surrounded by rugged mountain landscapes and inhabited by staunchly self-reliant, rugged people.

It’s July the 4th 2012 and the old-fashioned town parade highlights everything good about small communities. It’s quaint and sweet—the tractors, and high school kids on floats. A couple hundred people are in attendance, unconsciously waving flags while small children run into the street collecting rations of thrown smarties and saltwater taffy.

 

“We don’t have to stop you know, Boise is waiting with open arms. Just send them a text, you are justif…” Just then, I spot my uncle’s fireworks booth which sits outside of his cellphone business, (prime real estate) off the main street, next to Salmon’s most popular and only modern attraction: Burger King. I pull the rental car in and park. I tell Michelle that we will just be a minute, I want to say goodbye to my favorite Uncle.

My aunt is facilitating the sale of fireworks as she sees our family arrive and greets us with a smiling hello. My uncle comes over and shakes my hand just like he always has, dating back to my earliest memory of him, when I was probably six. We talk about our plans as a family and I tell him that we are heading back to Japan to get our house packed for our next move to Germany, where Michelle’s career as an international English teacher awaits. As usual, in the cool and collective style of “UR” he expresses his support with such affirmations that I temporarily forget about my impeding worry, and the acid in my stomach is neutralized through the normalcy and supportive response of this beloved uncle.

My aunt is taking pictures with the girls as they excitedly throw poppers against the pavement, shrieking in joy at each tiny combustion. Michelle, ever vigilant to the situation at hand, looks at me and says, “You should go look for your Mom, I’ll wait here with the girls.” I agree and tell her I’ll be back in 10 minutes, so we can go.

My Mom was, and still is, a beauty. I’ve always loved her. We supported each other through numerous occasions where, he, unloaded his raucous fits of rage upon us. Once bright and vibrant as a newly bloomed sunflower, the years of mental and physical abuse suffered, in order to keep the status quo, wilted her flower until it matched in resigned subjugation the rotting blackness of her husband’s soul.

Both Mom and I stayed with him through multiple altercations including name calling, hair pulling, hitting, and his favorite for me and my “mouth” — strangulation.

The names I was called varied. He had a plethora of hurtful terms aimed at “putting me in my place.” I was commonly bellowed for as, “Tubby”, “Chubs”, “Mouth”, and “Dumbass.” These “terms of endearment” confirmed my existence in the family.

What hurt much more than the belittling name calling was the physical hatred expressed in the regular choking, which cut off the air to my brain, and left me gasping, dizzy and sometimes unconscious. My amygdala jumps in caution as I involuntarily recall a traumatic memory of choking inflicted on my nine year old self. I was savagely strangled for the audacious crime of peeking in a box of crayons before Christmas.

The back of my head had been shaped by being slammed up against several backdrops, including but not limited to: walls, cars, and horse trailers while he suffocated me with those cold, gnarled, vice like hands. I was forced to look into those eyes even as the air from my windpipe was cut. What I saw in his eyes, for me, his child, was pure and unadulterated hatred.  I never knew where this hate came from, and my child-self assumed that I was worthless and not entitled to his goodwill. Often before losing consciousness, I faintly heard the muttered threats and wishes for my demise that punctuated my childhood. Choking seemed to be his favorite form of interaction with me.

There was always the constant threat of being mercilessly whipped, with the old thick leather belt, which he kept hanging in the closet for the express purpose of discipline. Hearing him yell the words “BEND OVER AND TOUCH YOUR TOES” still makes me cringe. He always stepped into his swings to deliver his message with maximum impact. It was as if he wanted the belt to beat my soul from the outside in. When I jumped up in white hot agony I would often get thrashed against my back for standing up and not taking it like a man.

I tried often to make friends with him to avoid beatings, but always to no avail. At eight years old, I was backhanded so hard across the face that the blow launched me into the air. I landed flat on my back, knocking the air out of my body. This response was elicited, for buddying up beside him while lightly teasing Mom that she couldn’t fish as well as us. She smiled at the joke, and the next thing I remember is being on my back looking up in disoriented shame while hearing him proclaim, “That is your mother, she deserves respect.”

She deserves respect.

The irony of his words is a bitter pill. My mother was and is a prisoner. My mother was brutally beaten for being a part of our small community theater where she often played the lead actress. She could really sing and relished the creative outlet. She enjoyed the attention from the community and was regarded as a talented performer. The sad man would pick fights with her, jealous of all the attention she was receiving for her performances. Over the years I witnessed hair pulling, hitting, teasing, and continuous name calling for any number of imagined “offenses.” I do not wish to imagine what happened alone between them, when I was not present. Over the years she has endured physical and mental torment which has forced her into hopeless submission. Eventually, she quit performing and organized her life in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid his wrath.

Mom and I bonded through the degradation suffered at the emotional whims of the sad man.


Fast forward to the strange events of the night before, which set our current escape in motion; when I bore witness to how far my mother had gone in order to cope with her circumstances, living in a prison of abuse.

Michelle and I were tidying up in the kitchen after dinner, when Mom came down stairs wearing a very conservative, ugly night gown that was three sizes too large, covering everything from her neck to her toes, without showing a shred of shapeliness. My eyebrows raised in a haunt when she told me that the gown was “Oomom’s”- the mother of my mother. Oomom had passed away eight years prior to this bizarrely depressing fashion show.

Mom came into the kitchen to fill a large ceramic wash bowl which seemed to match the washbowls of old, in the days before indoor plumbing. She then took the bowl over to where the sad man was sitting in his recliner.

The sad man sat on his plush throne staring at an arbitrary T.V. show with his typical scowl. It’s a look that has set for so long that it has permanently disfigured his face with deep wrinkles that burrow into his cheeks where the corners of his mouth have been pressing downwards for decades. His forehead is forever furrowed in annoyance while he sits angrily perturbed for having to exist in this form, in front of the people living in his house.

Mother kneeled in front of him. What I saw next was appalling.

She picked up the sad man’s crusty and decrepit cloven hooves, and placed them into the washbowl where she proceeded to wash. Carefully, gingerly she wiped dirt and grime from his disgusting feet. Never once did she look up, but kept her eyes lowered as she engaged in her gruesome task. As Michelle and I watched this spectacle, with petrified confusion, we felt trapped in a time vortex that took us to some backward Puritanical subjugation. The sad man’s face never acknowledged this gesture, in fact, his steel blue eyes never came away from the screen.  He sat slumped in paralyzed misery, vaguely disguised as lordship–as if, this act of servitude was owed to him.

We went to bed shortly after witnessing this act. Later Michelle correlated the strange spectacle we witnessed to its biblical allusion. Mom was acting as Jesus did when he washed the feet of his disciples, washing away the sad man’s sins. She hoped somehow to wash away this man’s sins, and with it all the pain, and hurt his existence had inflicted.

My wife and I could not endorse this behavior. We couldn’t shake the eerie discomfort of watching the continued degradation of a beaten woman.  So far gone was my poor mother that I don’t believe she had any thought for herself, or ability to comprehend that she would never wash away his pain, anger, hatred, or self-loathing. She would never save the sad man for he did not wish to be saved. His existence was one so bitter he could only communicate through the pain of others. As much as it hurt me to admit, I could do nothing for my mother and it was time to go.

But not before trying to say goodbye.


My search continues.

I expeditiously shuffle through the dense and festive crowd of locals, keeping my head down so as not to get noticed while sidestepping a unique mix of Salmon “lifers,” various hard candies, and the omnipresent pyramids of horseshit. No sign of Mom, but I run into my dear friend Denise, a motherly figure whom I admire and love.

After a hug and some small talk, she compassionately speaks straight to my soul in a way no other “Salmonite” has, expressing her fondness for the people here, but adding that many circles lack the compassion and emotional fortitude needed to acknowledge the way the rest of the world operates.

My inner voice interprets our frank chat as, “They’ll never understand you, just go and be yourself for the sake of you and your family.” I am so touched that I tear up and hug Denise while the parade provides a continuum of background noise. I finally have spoken permission to leave this place.

Now.

I start the small trek back to the car. The noise in my head is abruptly silenced by the arrival of the upcoming demolition derby participants, each clamoring for the crowd’s attention. The processions of once dead cars, now welded together with spare parts, sloppily tagged with spray paint, and nurtured with gasoline, are brought to life for both the sake of hometown glory, and the proverbial key to seemingly everlasting happiness for the winner of the contest: free beer.

Each of these metal bodies is inhabited and operated by its own Dr. Frankenstein. Powered with Fords, GMCs and GEDs this gaggle of motor heads collaborate their cubic inches together in order to ignite a chorus line of rip-roaring power burps while ejaculating toxic fumes into the once fresh mountain air. Their mechanical screams for praise disorient me to the point of nervousness, but I endeavor onward.

Finally, I arrive back at the fireworks stand where a large group of other locals is congregating and chatting–what Salmonites call “bullshittin’” or “shootin’ the shit.”

My brother shows up with his wife and three young kiddos, who are all playing with the girls, throwing poppers, laughing, and carrying on. My brother asks me about my plans and is a bit shocked that I am leaving town, abruptly. My brother is a good man, with a sense of humor, but lacks the sensitivity needed to understand our situation. I tell him we are looking for Mom to say goodbye, so he puts in a call—to someone, I’m not sure who.

I am talking to my uncle when the real fireworks start.

The sad man’s signature dirty blue Dodge diesel roars up, careening onto the sidewalk where 20 plus people scamper to get out of the way.

This sad man made a living, during my time with him and presently, by drilling wells–some 30 years, now. The trademark of this career is that you’re constantly covered in a grimy amalgam of dirt, clay, assorted greases, and diesel fuel. His other signature was his black cowboy hat. He always, and I mean ALWAYS, wore this thing. The hat almost comically matched his personality and outlaw reputation.

Years of hard labor punctuated his strained gait. Multiple back, knee and shoulder surgeries and arthritis plagued the sad man’s physical being. His huge and heavy calloused hands have been torn and patched together with duct tape a thousand times over. The softness of my neck will never forget the galvanized steel grip of those hands. Choking incidences dictated my strict attention. If I was to survive I must not fight back. I had to try to relax my neck under the pressure of those vice like hands. The only aspect of his battered countenance which kept him upright was the prideful male ego borne from the western code that plagues the sensitivity of men with the words, “cowboy up.”

Infuriated, in a complete rage, the sad man rushes toward my uncle and I. He digs his dirty index finger into his bottom lip shoveling his Copenhagen out onto the pavement. He then uses that same finger to ferociously demand my attention by pointing it directly at my head as if it were a loaded pistol, then wordlessly signaling to me that we go away from the crowd. “You, here, now” –is a silent command that everyone heard. I am instantaneously mortified and enraged by his behavior.

I know we aren’t going to talk, (the man has always been incapable of conversation), I also know from years of training that I am about to be publicly abused. Misplaced guilt and shame well up in me, as if I were a beaten teenager, yet again.

My normal instinct is to oblige, but just then a miracle happens. I feel empowered enough to stand my ground, directly replying “No, if there is anything you need to say to me, you can do it right here in front of me.” I am terrified. I actually said that to his face!

We were now in new territory. I made a stand. To this day I am not sure where I found the strength, in that moment, to end a lifetime cycle of abuse with him. Perhaps it was the presence of my wife and kids, and my need to protect them from this. Perhaps it was all the eyes on this spectacle. Maybe I had just reached my breaking point.

He thrusts his barrel chest against mine and gets right in my face. His eyes are blood-shot crimson and boiling. His scowling face is highlighted in a red fury indicating the years of alcohol abuse. His tobacco breath smells like a rotting corpse and overpowers my senses. He growls, “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

He is trying to provoke me and it is working.  The adrenaline is running its intense course through my body, tensing my muscles. Fight or flight mode is in full possession of my facilities.  I growl back in the affirmative, that I know what I am doing. I am getting us the hell out of here.

He pauses for a brief instant, possibly startled. Almost immediately the familiar face of disgust reappears and then it happens. He inhales deeply and spits directly into my face.

The velocity of the Copenhagen-infused slime sends my head reeling backwards. It is in my eyes, my nose, and my mouth. This has to be what death smelled like. If dark seething hate has a smell, this is it. My eyes water with emotion and stinging, searing pain. I am unaware of the sharp intake of breath all around me as the bystanders watch this macabre drama unfold.

Unbelievably humiliated, I am set off, I’ve really had it. The moment has arrived. The vessel of decency that had carried this relationship over thousands of miles of ignorance has finally docked itself in the harbor of indignation. I rear back ready to kill or be killed. A thousand instances of soul shattering abuse are about to rear their ugly heads and I would kill.

I push him—hard.  My uncle moves like lightning between us and his deep voice warns, “SPENCE, don’t…”

The old bull starts circling the young bull as we look to square off with one another. My peripherals sense a growing crowd, I hear children crying among the gasps of the other adults, but this was secondary in this moment. My focus is on him.

Thirty plus years of verbal and physical abuse suffered at the hands this sad man had come to a head and exploded like a volcano. I would rather he hit me again than spit on me. In fact, I beg and egg him on, taunting him so that he would have to punch me.  I stick my chin out, pointing at it, as if to say “right here asshole, put it right here.”

He doesn’t.

I am out of my mind with fear, anger, and confusion. My adrenals help me communicate my disdain in a prominently shouted F*CK YOU! Internally, the impact of these words is the same as if I had given humanitarian aid to ten thousand desert dwellers. Honestly, it feels amazingly liberating to have him know that I am through and that I will stand up for myself.

He looks at me, astonished. Like the dark Emperor did when he oversaw Luke fighting Vader, in pure hatred, as if to say “good, let the hate flow through you.” I had watched a lot of T.V. growing up in an attempt to stay out of this man’s way.

He utters a dumbfounded, “Are you for real?” Separated, now, by a safe distance with my favorite Uncle between us, I proclaim that I am as real as it gets. We are still shouting in inaudible guttural grunts, circling, waiting for a moment to strike.

After what seems like an eternity, but is in reality only moments, the sad man turns his back to me and gimps back to his trustworthy blue Dodge, fires it up, and revs it, as if to drown the noise of this hellish mental torture. He leaves in a sprayed shower of dust, careening out, just as he had come in.

I am shaking uncontrollably as onlookers do their looking, children communicate through cries, and family members shake their heads in united disapproval over what has just transpired.

Michelle and the girls rush to my side to provide aid in the form of hugs and a napkin to wipe the spit that is dripping from my face. I assure them I am alright, though I feel eerily electric and far from alright.

My brother, and his family are supremely upset, and rightfully so. No one should have to see that, let alone children. I try to tell him goodbye though he barely musters enough energy to reply and half hugs me while looking away as if to say, “get out of here.” Abuse in our family in not something you defy. He does not approve.

I walk over to the Burger King bathroom to wash the spit off of my face, still shaking. The stench of putrid soul decay is forever tattooed deep into my epidermis, reminding me that this nightmare has played out into a reality.

I look into the mirror and brave a smile. Just then, a clip from the movie, American Beauty airs in my thoughts. In the movie, upon realizing his wife was cheating on him, Kevin Spacey’s voice mouthed the line promising, “No, no…you…don’t get to tell me what to do…ever…again.”

I gather myself and try my best to put on a nice face when walking back out into the world of rugged landscape and rugged people. My stunned family finishes saying our goodbyes, loads back into the rental car, to trek back to Boise and onward to Japan.


Mom never showed up. We tried calling, but no answer. I thought she would send an email to ask if we were alright. I was sure she would hear about what had transpired. It’s a small town, after all.

Nothing. No text either. In fact, we weren’t to hear anything from her for over eight months. You don’t defy abuse from the sad man was the message I received—loud and clear.

Driving in stunned silence I realized that I was now freed from years of humiliation. I felt free of the guilt and shame for existing as an imperfect human.

I was now independent of my namesake family; freedom forever timestamped on July the 4th. Now and forever my personal Independence Day.

I haven’t spoken to anyone in that family for close to five years.


Some four months after the spitting incident while visiting Prague for the first time, I observed the gloomy Czech tradition of beggars perched upon their knees, hands clasped in a prayer, and head bowed down, so as not to look anyone directly in the face. The beggar’s single paper cup, dug from the trash, precariously balanced, on the uneven cobblestone and anchored with couple of coins to keep the cup from blowing away, in the harsh East European wind, broke my heart in its testimony of their melancholy existence.

The spectacle personified a synopsis of the heart’s condition.

prague-beggar

I thought of the sad man.

What once beat boldly with braveness and gargantuan goodness–a human life–is now demoted to begging on the street. With knees shamefully bent to the cold, stained rock, I can see the sad man looking up with those, steel-blue eyes, glazed now with tears tugging on the coattails of anyone decent as if to cry out:

“help me,
I was once good
help me,
I can’t bear the end,
help me,
I want to wake up fresh,
help me,
I want my heart and mind to mesh,
help me…”

Through this strange visualization brought on by the beggar I wonder if the sad man would ever want my forgiveness? Her forgiveness? His own forgiveness? Did he even acknowledge wrong doing? It must have hurt him. Even raising my voice to my beloved wife hurts me and I am truly ashamed.

I am deeply moved and quickly empty the contents of my meager pocket into the beggar’s cup, walking confusedly on.


After writing this I called my Mom. She answered. She sounds good. She’s still with him. I have come to accept that she always will be.

I like to think that the man who beat me, who beat her, who made me hate myself, who made me hurt, so badly I wished to die–feels sadness. I like to think he is sad. I like to think he wants help but doesn’t know how to accept the love we tried to give. I like to think I will not be him, despite my anger, I like to think…

It’s time to start a new chapter.


bio-pic-1Spencer Harber works in personal health practices. He offers a combined 18 years’ experience in a variety of healing mediums. He is a certified coach through the International Coach Federation (ICF) and holds both a Master’s of Arts and Post Baccalaureate Certificate in health & wellness coaching. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Complementary & Alternative Health and is a certified massage therapist. Spencer is a registered teacher with Yoga Alliance USA, after completing yoga studies in Rishikesh, India. As a healer, he has crafted a unique massage practice utilizing acupressure, aromatherapy, Reiki, and myofascial release allowing patients to get reacquainted with their bodies. Through yoga, he works with clients to heal any number of disorders. With the medium of plants, he has found health through nutrition. Writing has opened new doors allowing Spencer to share and coach through the written word, as well. He is currently following his passions for uniting humor and wellness together in a variety of forms.