On Giving Thanks

The other day, Reed said to me, “My favorite birthday was my first-grade birthday when you had all of my friends over, and we wore superhero costumes and had a scavenger hunt.” Then, “You left my dad exactly five days after that birthday.”

You left my dad exactly five days after that birthday.

It was November 19, the day before Thanksgiving.

The next day, I let Reed accompany Caleb to his parents’ house for Thanksgiving, and while Reed was gone, I packed as much stuff as I could and stuffed it into my car. My friend Rebecca was with me. She says now that I was most concerned about taking my plants because they “bring light into a room,” but I don’t remember that.

Rebecca says that I bring light into a room. Rebecca says that I am all light, but I am darkness too.

I give thanks for the light. I give thanks for the darkness too.

I spent that awful Thanksgiving with Rebecca. I wrote about it in “It Will Look Like a Sunset”.

I wrote, “After packing, Rebecca and I ate at a Chinese Buffet attached to a casino because it was the only place open in three counties. The future loomed before me like a buffet full of hungry, lonely people.”

The future is here, and I am alone, but I am not lonely.

I give thanks for my solitude.

I have another essay coming out in Guernica tomorrow. Guernica has been good to me. When this essay was finished, I sent it straight to the Editor-in-Chief,and I wrote to him that I hadn’t been that excited about an essay since writing “It Will Look Like a Sunset.” He wrote back that I was “family.” In the four years since I left Caleb, I have found family in the most unusual places. In Guernica. In my graduate advisor, Dinty. In my favorite writer, Rebecca. In my agent, Joy.

And so many others.

Another writer messaged me a while ago. She said, “How do you cultivate mentors? You know all of the important people.”

I had no idea what to write back. This was not something I had cultivated. I wrote back something true, something like, “By being intensely vulnerable and sincere. Also, hardworking.”

I give thanks for vulnerability.

This new essay was written with Melissa Ferrone, who is a beautiful writer, and also, a campus rape survivor. I have a lot to say about the process of writing with her, but for now, I’ll say this: She is family too, though I have not even met her in person.

What Melissa and I wrote has power.

I give thanks for power.

The irony of this new essay being published on Thanksgiving Day is not lost upon me.

I give thanks for irony.

I am a funny person. This does not come across in my writing, but I am a rather avid Facebook poster, and my humor sometimes comes across in my status updates. Last night, I posted about getting stuck in a dress in a J. Crew store. Literally stuck. Some friends commented with this.


Some other folks commented about how nice it is to see my less serious side emerging. Those who spend time with me in person will know that I am often funny—joyful even—in person. I am not as sad as my writing conveys. I write about sadness, not because sadness is my permanent state of being, but because sadness is what interests me.

I give thanks for the humor that is too often born from sadness.

You know how November is so often the “Thirty Days of Gratitude” month on Facebook for optimists everywhere?

That trend was happening in the November when I left Caleb. Caleb and I both had dark senses of humor, even about the state of our marriage. Caleb had a friend who was having some writing success, and his life was in a constant state of AWESOME. His book was the best! His wife was the prettiest! His kids were the cleverest! Caleb, the man who once confessed that his number one resentment was “other people’s success,” was resentful of that friend, but he would joke about it too.

I cannot do those terrible jokes justice here, but that month, Caleb would come up with mock Facebook responses to that man’s gratitude. Stuff like, “Well, I beat my wife yesterday, and the Zoloft is giving me brain zaps, and, just to piss off my wife, I threw away a perfectly good pork dish that I had labored over.”

And then, we would both laugh. It was the most fucked up kind of camaraderie that two people can have.

After I left Caleb, but when we were still talking on the phone, and he was still hoping to reunite, and I guess that I was too, he told me that, when he was arrested, he had told his mother that it wasn’t the first time he had beaten me. He told her, “Don’t hold it against Kelly. It’s not her fault. This has been happening for a while.”

And God, I loved him in that moment. I wanted to say, “Come over. I forgive you.” I did not say that. Instead, I said, “What did your mom say?”

And he said, “She said, ‘Put your problems at the foot of the cross.'”And then, we both laughed.

Sometimes, I still miss him. That is what fucked up camaraderie will do to a girl.

I give thanks that I don’t miss him very much anymore.

The first Thanksgiving after I left Caleb, I was alone in my new town. I was overcome with grief for all that I had lost. I thought, There is no one who would understand this grief but Caleb (fucked-up camaraderie). I called him. I told him how sad I was. He told me that he was sad too. I was sobbing. Then I think I said something that blamed him for my sadness, and he exploded. He yelled at me, “You are not my problem anymore. Get a new husband to deal with your problems.”

And there I was, all alone in my tiny apartment, and I was no one’s problem.

I give thanks that I didn’t get a new husband to deal with my problems.

The winter after that first Thanksgiving away was so very cold, but I put my head down and I kept going.

I am coming upon my fourth winter out, and I am still going.

I give thanks for progress,

That first Thanksgiving out—the same one when I called Caleb—my new friend Maggie had invited me to her house for Thanksgiving dinner. It was supposed to be a graduate students’ only thing, but her family ended up coming to town, and she still included us. It was lovely. I no longer felt so alone. Maggie had written an essay about her own divorce, and another friend asked her father what he thought of it. He got choked up. He said something like, “It is so hard to find out that your daughter has ended up with the wrong man.”

I thought of my own father, of how he didn’t want me to leave Caleb. Of how hard that was for me. Of how my mother made him call me to apologize, and when he called, he cried. I thought of how my mother told me that my father hadn’t even cried when his own mother died.

I am crying as I write these words, but I cry all of the time, so that means very little.

I feel so angry at Caleb for doing this to my family. He didn’t just hurt me. He hurt us all. He hurt my relationship with my father, which was sacred.

I do not give thanks for the damage that Caleb did to my relationship with my father.

I am tired of the idea that we should always be thankful.

Sometimes, there is no silver lining.

But my relationship with my mother, which was always strained through my teen years and twenties, is the best that it has ever been. That’s a silver lining.

And my father and I went backpacking this past summer for the first time since I had married Caleb. He is almost 70, but he takes great care of himself. We had the same experience that we have ever had backpacking. My brother was there too, and my brother and I chatted while our father listened. My father is a good man—uniquely good—and I have never loved another man as much as I love him. He raised me to be the activist that I am. He raised me to care about everyone, and not just the people in front of me. He raised me to stick to my values, to be honest, and to be consistent.

He messed up when he didn’t support me in leaving Caleb, but I forgive him.

I give thanks for forgiveness.


This One Is Not About Abusive Men; This One Is About The Women Who Enable Them.

I don’t want this to be a political post, but it will probably turn into one.

A friend who I haven’t seen since my honeymoon messaged me last night. She wrote,”We share a lot of experiences (as unfortunate as that may be) but I appreciate you in a way you may not know. I appreciate the fact that you had the strength to get out and not just survive but strive…..You are a special person and anyone who has the benefit of your friendship is graced. I mean these words whole heartedly. I have spent the last few days in a deep depression and crying because of this election and all the triggers but I am trying to come out in the same way I have in the past. Being responsible for my own energy. It is hard, but I am trying.”

I immediately wrote back with all that I appreciate about her, but I also thought a lot about her words. She knew the before Kelly, and I am now the after Kelly. I wondered if she would like the after Kelly as much as the before Kelly?

In my twenties, I was very earnest, very tender, and very naive. I am still earnest and tender, but I am no longer naive. I have a hardness to me now that I didn’t possess before.

I thought of her words, and I thought, Caleb would not agree. I thought, Caleb’s wife would not agree. I thought, Caleb’s friends would not agree.

For so many years, Caleb told me that I was awful. No matter how much my friends reach out to me, it is difficult now for me not to believe that he was right.

That is what abusers do so well. They make the victim think that she deserved it, and then they convince their friends that she deserved it.

I am too often stunned by who will take the side of an abuser. Those people are frequently women, and that, too, feels like a betrayal.

Other circumstances in my current life have put female enablers at the forefront of my mind. I told a friend the other day, “I am constantly amazed at the lengths that someone will go to in order to convince themselves that their friend is a good person.”

My friend replied, “I have done that.”

I have done that too.

When I left Caleb, a friend of his reached out to me with compassion. She told me that she supported us both, and I appreciated her thoughts. At the time, I wasn’t being open about the fact that he was abusive. Later, though, I wrote her and told her what he had done.

She wrote back a long message that I think she thought was compassionate. She told me to dig deep and examine what my triggers were that caused me to stay when things got bad. I read her message, and I was confused. At that time, I didn’t have the lexicon that I have now. I didn’t even know the term “victim-blaming.” Still, I knew that what she was saying didn’t feel right. I wrote back angrily. I wrote that she should be focusing on his triggers rather than mine. That was a huge step for me, and I’m proud of it. As painful as it was, that was the beginning of my healing.

She wrote more of the same to me. She wrote about the power of forgiveness. She wrote about how she believed that Caleb “could and would” change. I wrote to her that he was not even trying to change, that it was pretty presumptuous of her to think that she knew Caleb better than I did when she hadn’t even seen him in years. I sent her a list of resources. I told her to read Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That?

The exchange went on for a long while. Neither of us came to see the others’ viewpoint. Finally, she wrote something like, “Why are you so angry at me specifically?”

I wrote back, “Because I expected better from you.”

When Caleb and I were married, I was the one who kept in touch with that woman. When she had a tragedy, I was the one who reached out to her. Caleb was too self-involved to be bothered with her grief. He kept in touch with her because, out of my compassion for her, I made sure of it.

I knew how much she valued him, and in the end, she valued him more than she valued me.

Even knowing that he was a batterer, she asked him to officiate her wedding. In the grand scheme of her life, his violence to me meant nothing to her.

She is a rape survivor, and I expected better from her.

Three nights ago, I sobbed in my bathroom. Deep sobs that came from my gut. The bathroom has a door that connects to Reed’s room. I thought, “Dear lord, please don’t let him hear me.”

I had not felt pain like that since my divorce.

I did everything that I was supposed to do. I left my abuser. I rebuilt my life. I not only “survived, but strived,” and what did all of that hard work get me? I am once again living under the rule of an abusive man.

53% of white female voters voted for Trump, and this, too, feels like a betrayal.

But those voters aren’t the only ones who made Trump. All of the enabling women in our culture made Trump. That woman who enabled Caleb surely didn’t vote for Trump, but she still made him.

I have a theory about why women make excuses for abusive men, even though most of us have, at some point in our life, suffered at the hands of one. Bear with me here.

Women are raised to be compassionate. We are taught that kindness is the most important virtue that we can have, and we are rewarded for being kind. That gives us a little jolt of good feelings, right?

When my friend sent me that message last night, she also told me that she appreciated my “kind heart,” and you know what? That felt good. I felt rewarded. I basked in the glow of my own kindness. I even felt a little smug.

In the eighth grade, there was a new girl who was being bullied, but she was also a defiant student. She picked and picked at one of the teachers who was a man with a temper. He finally completely flipped his lid and threw a desk against the chalkboard, then sent her to the office. She was understandably sobbing and terrified. The rest of us were silent.

He followed her, then came back and chewed out the entire class. He said, “She told me that no one here is being nice to her. What is wrong with you all?” He said, “She told me that the only person who has been nice to her is Kelly.”

And I felt a deep sadness at that because I hadn’t even been that nice, but I also felt something click in the reward center of my brain. A “look how kind I was!” moment. I felt smug.

And then, one of the guys in class said, “Way to go, Kelly” in a patronizing tone, and the teacher shot me a glance that conveyed that he recognized my smugness, and I was rightly shamed.

Still, none of that involved that teacher accepting accountability for his own behavior. All of it involved conditioning two adolescent girls to believe that they should be kind and humble–even in the face of angry men.

But it’s not just the conditioning. It’s the reward that comes with being a “forgiving” female. When a woman is faced with a situation where an abusive man has hurt a woman, it seems logical that the woman would be angry at the abusive man and feel compassion for the woman, right? But which person challenges our capacity for compassion more? The abusive man or his victim?

It’s the abusive man, which is why I believe that it’s ultimately  more rewarding to be compassionate towards the abusive man.

After all, who is more compassionate than a woman who can find forgiveness in her heart for a monster? That woman is rewarded for her compassion. She recognizes how complicated people are! She recognizes that people can change! She recognizes nuance!

And the abuser is also rewarded for his enabler’s compassion because he is emboldened to keep abusing. After all, if this compassionate woman believes that he can change, then why shouldn’t everyone believe that he can change?

And though statistics show that abusers rarely change, compassionate, enabling women believe that their abuser of choice will beat those statistics. So, in terms of rewards, it’s a twofer–Look how compassionate I am! Look how he changed! 

The person who is not rewarded is the victim–the woman sobbing in her bathroom late at night because she is wondering if what the abuser said about her was real. She is wondering if the fact that he found compassionate female enablers means that her own compassion was the problem.

Maybe her own compassion wasn’t boundless enough.

Another example from my own life. A woman, a survivor of emotional abuse who initially supported me wrote me recently to tell me that she thought I was too angry. She thought I was “hurting the cause.” She thought this because, in the year after I left Caleb, she had told me that a friend of his–I’ll call him “the boatman”–had told her that he didn’t believe me. He had told her that he heard that Caleb and I “beat up on each other.”

She was involved with the boatman at the time, and I was unsurprised by what he had said because he had never struck me as a particularly good guy, but it did give me insight into what Caleb was saying about me, and that was hard. My PTSD was fully engaged for the entirety of that year, and it was awful, and I knew that there were men out there spreading terrible lies about me.

This woman worked very hard to convince the boatman that Caleb had actually, truly abused me, and I will give her credit for that, but still, I eventually confronted him. I told him that what Caleb said had happened was not what had actually happened. And when I confronted the boatman, he turned on the woman because he felt that she had violated his trust in telling me what he had said. I can fully understand how that must have been hard for her because she cared about him.

[For some context, this woman also knew that Caleb had been with a prostitute when we were dating, and she did not tell me before or after the marriage. She told me after the divorce, and when I said, “I would not have married him if I had known that, ” she said, “Oh, I am so relieved to hear that” without, apparently, realizing that she should have been apologizing instead.]

When this woman realized that the boatman, who had implicated me in my own abuse, was mad at her, then she became mad at me. And she wrote to tell me that I was “hurting the cause.” She told me how she had worked side by side with the boatman in order to gain his respect, and she had finally earned it, but that, my confronting him had violated his trust in her, and she had almost lost his respect.

She told me that the boatman had not been Caleb’s apologist, and that he was a good man. Still, one of Caleb’s ex-girlfriends had told me by then that, when she was with Caleb, the boatman had thrown his then-girlfriend off of a hillside and broken her wrist. Caleb, himself, had told me a story of how the boatman’s girlfriend had once driven off while the boatman held on to the car door. Caleb told me that story in a Can you believe how crazy she was? kind of manner, and all that I could think was, “Why the hell was he holding on to the car door when she was trying to leave?”

So, in short, the boatman was Caleb’s apologist, and it’s pretty obvious why.

But what about that woman? Why did she feel so compelled to defend the boatman? Well, let’s break it down.

She said that he was a “good man” even though evidence indicated otherwise, which means that she was really challenging the limits of her compassion: Boom. Reward.

She said that he was not Caleb’s apologist, which means that she was making excuses for him: Boom. Reward.

She said that she had to work really hard to gain his respect: Boom. Extra Reward.

And, ultimately, in all of her commentary, she neglected the ongoing trauma that I am suffering. In her efforts to gain this man’s approval, she shoved my needs (and my story) aside. Her narrative became entirely about her relationship with a man because her relationship with the boatman was where the rewards were.

If I’m being entirely honest, then I have to admit that I think that women’s compassion for abusive men is deeply selfish. We all know that the way to the top is through patriarchy, okay? But combine that with the reward center of our brains that tells us that we’re extra special when we’re being compassionate to awful people, and then, combine that with the reward that we get from earning the approval of otherwise disapproving men, and it’s not so much about the men as it is about how we feel in that moment of approval.

On Facebook, I posted about talking to Reed about the election. I told him about sexism and racism. Someone from my hometown commented, “I respectfully disagree….” then proceeded to talk about how flawed of a candidate Hillary was. I didn’t read his entire comment. Instead, I deleted it and unfriended him, although I basically like that guy and think that he is a decent guy. But how could I make him understand that, to me, it’s not about Hillary being a flawed candidate? It’s about Donald Trump being a sexual assaulter. It’s about me being forced to live with Donald Trump’s voice in my home, even though his voice makes my dog, who also has PTSD ,shake. It’s not about her. It’s about him.

Later, another person from my hometown commented. It was a woman. I never liked her anyway, so I didn’t feel any qualms about not reading her comment or deleting it (she had already unfriended me), but I did wonder why I had more compassion for the man who had commented than I had for the woman? Truthfully, I think it’s just because I really, really didn’t like that woman already, and I did like him. But maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe I’m being harder on her.

But, either way, they both voted for the abusive man, and a vote for the abusive man is a vote against me, and her, and her, and her, and her, and her, and her, and her, and her, and all of the other women who were sobbing in their bathrooms the other night.

And to the 53% of white women who voted for the abusive man: I expected better from you.

On Warmth

Our house was cold today. It is a drafty house anyway, and the air outside was damp and cold. The trees are beginning to drop their leaves. The holler was at its loveliest during this past week, which means that the long, gray winter will set in soon. At a meeting yesterday, we talked about the seasons, and folks were divided. One woman said that the joy of seasons is that, once we’re getting sick of one season, that season changes. A man who had lived in southern California said, “But what if it was always just pleasant summer?”

And I savored that thought: What if it was always just pleasant summer?

This morning, while wrapped in the warmth of my blankets, I had the most pleasant dream. I woke up at the usual time, the time when I would usually take Reed to school, but I realized that I could go back to sleep. I slipped easily back into my dream, and I floated between the dream and wakefulness. Just when the dream was reaching peak pleasantness, Reed opened my door and said, “Mom, can I have a snack?”

“Of course,” I said, then settled back in for more dream.

Then, he was back to the door, “Can I have Goldfish?”

“Sure,” I said (selfishly, because it was too early for Goldfish), then settled back in for more dream.

Then, at the foot of my bed, “Mom, can you open the box for me?”

Finally, I sat up. I struggled with the top of that damn Goldfish box.

“I’m sorry to keep disturbing your sleep, mom,” Reed said.

“Oh, honey. It’s okay,” I said. I said this very tenderly because what I really wanted to say was, Thank you for being the kind of child who lets his mama sleep in on the weekends.

Reed has been apologizing a lot lately. The other day, he asked me to help him open one of those little cheese rounds–the ones in red plastic–because he didn’t know how to do it. I said, “First you pull the string, and then….”

He interrupted me, “Oh, I know now!” he said and grabbed it out of my hands, then he quickly looked worried. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Why? You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said.

“My dad would yell at me about something like that. He would say that I’m being rude,” Reed said.

Maybe it was rude. I don’t know. Maybe I am too easy on Reed. The other night, we didn’t get home from soccer until quite late. I told him that he could wait and take his shower in the morning, and he said, “Don’t tell dad. He’ll think that you are being a bad mom because you let me go to bed without showering.”

And so Caleb and I are at an impasse. I think that he is a bad father because he is too hard on Reed. He thinks that I am a bad mother because I am too easy on Reed.

And Reed? He’s trapped in the middle of two people who think that the other is bad. I don’t see how anything good can come out of all of that bad.

I had a really tough week. There is stuff going on in my department at work that brings me a lot of distress. It makes me want to avoid campus. It makes me feel unsafe there–not in a physical way, but in an emotional way. My emotional health necessarily occupies a lot of my time and care. I am not fragile, but I wouldn’t describe myself as entirely strong either.

Someone in a position of authority dismissed my concerns because that person didn’t feel the situation affected me directly, and maybe that person was right, but all I can say is that my fear, and sadness, and anxiety over the situation are all real, and I hurt, and while I am someone who is maybe more likely than many people to hurt for others, that is not necessarily what is happening here. I am hurting for others, but I am also hurting for myself.

I am hurting because I am realizing the legacy into which I am bound. I can leave the small town that I grew up in, but I can never really leave the men who called me a “fucking dyke” in high school because I didn’t fit into their idea of what a woman should be. I can leave my abusive husband, but I can never really put his voice behind me. I can leave my workplace, but I am bound to encounter all of the same problems elsewhere.

None of it matters anyway because, at night, when I am in my home alone, I will turn on my television, and all of those voices will be right there in my living room. They will be glaring at me from the screen, and though I might have left everyone behind in an attempt to escape, I will still find myself alone with an abusive man.

There is no escape.

The other night, I picked Reed up from his dad. When I got home, my brother called, and we talked for a long time, for over an hour. Finally, when Reed realized that I wasn’t going to stop talking, he came and stood in front of me and whispered, “Mom, Dad’s new wife is pregnant.”

I stood there, looking at Reed, my brother chattering on the other end of the line. I told my brother that I had to go.

I thought to myself, “Well, that’s no surprise.” I thought to myself, “This is exactly what I predicted would happen.” I thought to myself, “It’s like Abuse 101 to impregnate the victim so quickly.” I thought to myself, “Wow, it’s really true that abusers have patterns.” I thought to myself, “That asshole couldn’t even give the son he already has time to get used to the new marriage before thrusting this upon him.”

I reached out and hugged Reed, “How do you feel about that?” I said.

“Good, I guess?” he said.

“You’re going to be a great big brother,” I said.

This morning, I cooked Reed his favorite breakfast. As he was digging in, he said, “This tastes so good.” He said, “Thank you for making this, mom.” Then he said, “I am glad that you and my dad are divorced because you are really nice, and my dad is not, and because he abused you, he probably always would have won, and then, I wouldn’t have gotten to enjoy your niceness except for when my dad went on vacation.”

All of which was a very ten-year-old way of saying, “I remember how we lived, and I know how it would have turned out.”

It was good for me to have the reminder—not just of Caleb’s anger, but that, for as long as I had stayed with Caleb, Reed never really would have gotten to know me because I was eclipsed by Caleb’s anger.

Today, Reed let me write all afternoon in my loft while he read a book on the couch. We have a comfortable pattern. It may not be the most exciting life, but we are happy. Still, the house stayed chilly. Finally, when I needed a break from the chapter that I was working on, I came downstairs. I put on an episode of Bob’s Burgers. I said, “It’s kind of cold in here, don’t you think?”

Reed said, “Yes, but my blanket is so warm. My blanket is so big. There is room for you too. Here, mom. Why don’t you share it with me?”

Reed is not a physically demonstrative person. He hates hugging. He hates cuddling, and he was born that way. He didn’t even like to nurse when he was a baby.

Still, he is very loving. He loves in different ways, like sharing his blanket. I shared that blanket with him, and it might not have been the same as having an ever-present summer, or an escape from an abusive marriage that didn’t somehow involve lasting trauma, or a workplace that felt supportive rather than divisive—but it felt like a lot. It felt like a moment of great significance.

I can’t change much, but I know that, by changing my own future, I changed Reed’s future. As we laughed at a silly show together and shared a blanket, we both felt loved, and we both felt safe.

We both felt warmth.

The turn on our road right before our house.

On Money

I think about money a lot. This is the condition of being working-class. I know that I won the book lottery, but it wasn’t the book Powerball. It was more like the book scratch-off ticket. Someone wrote to me–not without resentment–“you just got this humongous book deal.” I’m not sure why she thinks that I have a humongous book deal, but I have never been anything but working class. I am still working class. I am still driving the same dented car. I am still living in the little cottage in the holler. I am still washing all of my own dishes by hand because I don’t have a dishwasher. My retirement fund recently told me that I will get $300 a month when I retire. It is not lost on me that even this, a retirement fund, is a privilege that so many others don’t have.

For years, I have only worn one pair of shoes per season. In the past few winters, it has been the same pair of black Merrell boots. In this past summer, when I had a book advance, it was a pair of Birkenstocks that I had found on sale. The two summers before were a pair of Danskos that I had found in a thrift shop for two dollars.

I am going on the job market, and while I know that I am stylish, I am not a “professional” dresser. I need to upgrade my wardrobe. I told my friend about my pattern with shoes. My friend was quiet for a long time. She is an assistant professor and has an Ivy League education, but she is not snobby (though we have obvious class differences). Along with my single mother friend, she  is my best friend in this town. I could see her ruminating. I thought that she was thinking of shoe suggestions for me, but then she said, with a certain amount of sadness, “I never realized that you only wear one pair of shoes per season.”

Later that evening, I sent her pictures of a couple pairs of shoes. “Which ones should I buy?” I asked.

She wrote back, “Both.”

I bought one pair.

I posted this article recently by a writer who had written that she had sold a book to “critical acclaim” but then went broke. I’m not going to link to it because it annoyed me, but it can be found easily enough with a Google search. A friend who I trust said that the writer’s novel is great, and I don’t doubt that, but her tone in that article was so off-putting. A summary: though the book was critically acclaimed and received blurbs by famous writers and even musicians, she didn’t come close to paying back her book advance. She quit her job at a nonprofit so that she could focus on writing full-time, but she didn’t have enough left over from the book advance to feel comfortable because she was relying on her husband’s income. Quitting her job put pressure on her marriage, and also, she wasn’t writing anyway. She tried working for the Postal Service but discovered that, at the end of the long days, she couldn’t write.

In one particularly entitled screed, she listed all of the jobs that she could have if she wanted them. They were jobs that many people would kill to have, that I would kill to have, but then, she said that she didn’t want to work one of those jobs. She wanted to be paid $40,000 a year just to write. That was her final conclusion.

The first part of the article resonated with me. I feel a lot of anxiety about not paying back my book advance, about disappointing my publisher (to be clear, my editor seems perfectly happy with the book, and my anxiety is likely unwarranted). I feel a certain amount of anxiety about my second book, but not too much because I am already doing a lot of writing outside of the memoir that will be turned into my second book. I feel no pressure to make any money off of a second book because it has never occurred to me that I could make money off of a book.

Most of all, I feel a lot of anxiety about going broke. Anxiety about going broke is in my bones. In my spine. Anxiety about going broke propels me forward, keeps me taking other work, and keeps me producing.

That is why I’m not quitting my day job, whatever that job ends up being. On my Facebook post, one professor implied that I think of academia as a job rather than a career. She did her PhD in the same program as me, and I do think that there is a lot of tension amongst folks who are getting the PhD in Creative Writing, and folks who have MFAs, and folks who make a living off of their writing (those folks being in the position to just sit back and observe the ongoing conversation), but I disagree with her about how I distinguish a j-o-b, job. I’m getting the PhD because I’m a scholar in addition to being a writer, and I don’t see those two things as being in opposition to each other. I  also think that teaching creative writing is a way of turning my work and love into something larger than myself, and that is the kind of alchemy that a writer cannot find in another profession, like say, the Postal Service.

I recognize that academia throws up obstacles to writing, but it’s also uniquely supportive of writing as research. I’m inclined to think that someone who doesn’t recognize the privileges that academia affords writers has never worked a 40 hour a week job for the Postal Service, or in my case: dishwashing, waitressing, ski lift operating, digging rocks out of streams full of cow shit, etc.

But I’m digressing.

There were a lot of comments on my post, and there was a lot of contention. One friend, also a single mother, astutely pointed out that the writer didn’t talk about improving working conditions for all writers, but only for herself. Another friend, the famous writer who generously let me stay in her gorgeous San Francisco house this past summer, pointed out that, ultimately, literature is democratic, and if one doesn’t sell books, they can’t really expect to make money off of their writing. Still other friends agreed with the writer, and if I’m going completely honest, that peeved me.

It peeved me in such an unexpected way. I was even peeved at my best friend who I love like family. I was peeved enough to give her the silent treatment when she called me (because she could tell from my comments that I was peeved). I ignored her call and texted, “I don’t want to talk to you,” which was really unusual for me. Even then, I realized that part of the reason that I didn’t want to talk to her was because I knew that I couldn’t articulate the source of my frustration.

But I have had more time to think about it, and I realize that I am resentful of people who are partnered. I work really hard not to resent others because I don’t think that jealousy gets anyone anything. The person who sent me that resentful message about my “humongous book deal” is certainly no closer to getting her own book deal because she has spent time resenting me.

It occurred to me that, in the comments on that Facebook post, the people defending the article were primarily partnered women (I think that men were mostly absent from the conversation, as they usually are on my posts). That author was able to quit her job and try to focus on writing full-time because she had a partner who was willing to support her. She discovered that set-up didn’t work, and she was resentful. I get that. But to then propose that the world owed her some kind of monetary compensation anyway?

Do I think that art should be valued more than it is? Of course. Do I think that writers should be compensated more than they are? Of course. Do I think that a successful writer should be able to make a living off of their writing? Of course. But this is not always the reality of the world that we live in. The writing world, just like the rest of the American economy, is capitalist, so we must find ways to work within it, or we must change it.

I’m happy to agitate in an effort to change the entire system, but I am not concerned with the complaints of a disillusioned writer who thought that they were going to get rich off of their book and didn’t.

Ultimately, though, I guess my resentment stems from the fact that anyone who thinks that they can quit their day job and write exclusively must already have a support system in place. Maybe that support system is that they’re actually making enough money off of their writing, in which case, that’s fantastic, and I commend them. Maybe they have an inheritence. Also awesome (I don’t commend unearned money, but I don’t resent it unless it’s treated as a nonentity by the inheritee).

And maybe they have a partner who is willing to assume part of the burden of that loss of income. I get that, and I support that, but having a partner who can assume the burden of part of the bills is a privilege. I call it “partnered privilege.” Do I resent someone because of their partnered privilege? No, not until they start writing essays about how they should get paid $40,000 a year just to write.

Or until they start defending those essays.

Single mothers can’t even entertain the thought of quitting their day jobs to write exclusively.

I will never get to think like that.

When I was in San Francisco this summer, I loved the city. People kept asking me, “Would you like to move here?” My response was always the same, “Not unless I win the Powerball.”

You see, I’m only one person, but I have a little one who is dependent on me. When I divorced Caleb, I made concessions that I probably shouldn’t have made because I wanted so badly to be free. I gave up about $40,000 in equity in the house. My lawyer had put a request in for spousal support, and Caleb threatened me. He said that, if I didn’t drop it, he would file a motion to keep me from leaving the state with Reed. My mother actually said, “Maybe you’ll have to leave Reed for a while,” which frankly, is one of the most progressive and feminist things that she has ever said, but we all knew that I wasn’t going to leave Reed with Caleb. So I dropped the request.

At our one and only divorce hearing, the judge was angry, he asked me why I had dropped that request. He told me that he had been planning on awarding it. I was taken aback, and I said, “Because I wanted an agreement.”

He then asked Caleb why he wasn’t okay with paying me spousal support, and Caleb said, “Well, she’s going to get a PhD, and she’s going to make more money than me someday.”

The judge threw down his pencil.

He raised his voice. He shouted at Caleb something like, “She is the mother of your child. You should want her to succeed. You should want to support her in that. What’s good for her is good for your child.” But Caleb doesn’t care much about what’s good for me or what’s good for our child, so I am on my own.

In San Francisco, a friend took me out to dinner. I told her that I could never move there, that I can’t afford to pay the rent on a two-bedroom in an expensive city. She said, “But don’t you get child support?” And I was open. I gave her the amount. She was shocked. “That’s almost nothing,” she said. And she was right. It’s almost nothing.

I am not just on my own; I am on my own while supporting someone else. Would I like to quit my job and just write? Probably not because I actually like having something in my life besides writing,, but it doesn’t matter because I’ll never even entertain the thought. I’ll never have enough privilege for that fantasy.

The debate about whether one can make enough money off of their writing to pay the bills will continue, but let’s be honest, it will also continue to be by those who can pay their bills in other ways. Those of us who are sitting on a power bill that is three months long will just keep watching, observing, and wondering how it would feel to have that kind of security.

On Power

One of the first blog posts that I wrote was titled On Powerlessness. Today, I barely remember those feelings. I barely remember that tiny apartment on the third floor where the college student below us left us nasty notes on our door because Reed was a second-grader who liked to dance whenever he was excited.

I barely remember having Reed on free lunch at school, or how the kid next door had braces that were made out of fishing wire, or how there was no grass for a little boy to play on, or how when I walked the dog outside to go to potty in the winter, his paws would crust in ice so quickly that I’d have to carry him up the stairs, or how, while I was walking the dog, I would lock the door to the apartment and tell Reed that I would knock three times so that he would know it was me and let me back in, but still, sometimes, he would be afraid, and he would stand on the other side of the door and cry out, “How do I know that you’re my mom? How do I know that you’re my mom?”

I barely remember Caleb calling me and telling me, “I know that you’re the reason I’m not going to jail, and I appreciate that, and the judge told me that I have to write you a letter of apology, and I’m going to take the time to do it right.”

I barely remember Caleb’s sincerity in that moment. He was not all monster. He knew that what he had done was wrong, and that, by that point, he would never get me back, so he had no reason to lie. But the truth is that, although Caleb is not all monster, he is still, mostly, monster. When his lawyer warned him that anything in that letter could later be used against him, he ceded the letter writing authority to the lawyer who wrote me The Letter.

I barely remember never getting that apology that Caleb had promised.

I barely remember that feeling of powerlessness. At this point, I have written about it all so much that it has become narrative. I’m not even sure that my own memories feel real anymore.

What is real is the power that I felt last night when I ran for miles. I realize this isn’t much, but when I left Caleb, I started running as a way of escaping the pain that was inside of me. I wanted the physical pain to obliterate the emotional pain, but I hated working out. My friend Megan advised me to put aside my music snobbery. “I know that you like good music,” she said, “But, to work out, you need to listen to pop music.” She was right. I added a bunch of pop music to my playlist. I ran, and it hurt so much. I could barely make it a mile. Before my marriage, I had been very active, but I lost that completely while I was with Caleb. He preferred to have me inactive.

In the wake of leaving Caleb, I ran, and I listened to pop music, and that pop music was what inspired “It Will Look Like A Sunset” It was the Kelly Clarkson song, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.” I ran, and I cried, and all that I could think was, “I am not stronger. I am not stronger. I am not stronger.”

Before revising that essay, the last line was, “I am not dead, but I am also not stronger.”

But here I am–three years later–and I am stronger. I can also run a lot farther than a mile.

Reed had two friends–twins–stay over last night. It was his first sleepover, but both boys are sweethearts, so the evening was really easy for me. Those boys are part of a wealthy family and live in a humongous house with an in-ground pool and horse stables, but still, one of the twins said to me, “Your house is the perfect size. Not too small, and not too big.” They are so polite. Their parents have raised them well.

The boys were a little freaked out by the bugs in our house, and one of the boys had a bad dream that a man in a black suit with a white face was walking back and forth outside. I’m not going to lie, okay? The house that Reed and I live in is a little creepy. It’s falling apart. The bathroom door doesn’t fully close. There is a whole section of door trim that has fallen off (with exposed nails) resting against the drier. The place is covered in bugs, and the house is in the holler where everything is darker, and louder and also, somehow quieter than everywhere else. But still, this morning, one of the twins said to me, “I wish we didn’t have to go so soon.”

And when their parents picked them up, the mother and I chatted for a bit. Before the boys, she had one of “those marriages,” meaning a marriage like mine, and she gets it. Maybe that’s why she’s had Reed over to her house, and why she lets her kids come to mine, because the truth is that most of the other parents are standoffish to me. It is not easy to be a single mother in this town. I am always the one reaching out. I can’t think of anyone who has reached out to me.

But this mom gets it. She doesn’t judge me, and although she is now in a good marriage, and they are rich (by my standards), she empathizes with Reed and me. The boys were leaving, and Reed asked them if they’d taken their “European money” because I had given them all some leftover Euros that I had. The mom and I then talked about Belgium. We had both been there recently. Telling her that I’d been in Europe for almost a month made me feel powerful. I then told her about my book, and you know what? That made me feel powerful too.

But it didn’t make me feel as powerful as when that little boy said, “I wish we didn’t have to go so soon.” That made me feel powerful because I knew that I was doing everything that I could to create a home where kids would feel welcome and cared for.

For a long time, I put off leaving Caleb because I didn’t think that I could take care of Reed on my own. Caleb had deliberately cultivated a sense of powerlessness in me.

Now, it’s just Reed and me. Reed has never not been on the Honor Roll. He’s run for student council twice and lost twice, but both times, he’s accepted that loss with good humor. He plays soccer, and he just joined cross-country, and well, he’s just a really good kid.

And that makes me feel powerful–that, despite all of the terrible stuff that Caleb has brought into our lives, Reed is still doing fine, and Caleb cannot take any of the credit for that.

Here are some other things that make me feel powerful:

No longer finding it necessary to tell Caleb how much he has damaged Reed and me.

No longer finding it necessary to tell Caleb’s friends and family how much Caleb damaged Reed and me.

No longer worrying about whether it was my fault.

No longer having night terrors every night.

No longer worrying about how I’m going to talk to Caleb about our inability to pay the bills (which always threatened his masculinity when we were married).

My ability to pay the bills on my own without stress.

Being able to watch whatever I want to watch on television.

Knowing that my house is clean because I cleaned it myself, and that, I don’t owe some abusive asshole sex, or penance, or whatever it was that he wanted, because he, maybe, did the dishes.

This. Right now. This moment.

Climbing a mountain with my father and my brother–both good men. I smoked them. Honestly, I hurt my body with that hike. I pushed too hard and didn’t feel it. Abuse taught me how to not feel pain. I could tell that my dad and brother were kind of shocked. My body was only a vessel, but I felt powerful. My knee later told me that I was not as powerful as I had thought, but I still own that moment of power.

When I was grumpy and yelled at Reed, and he later said, “I knew that you were going to apologize. My dad never apologizes, but I know that you’re different.”

When I know that I am, unequivocally, the better parent.

When I realize that I could finish my PhD within the year.

When I stand in a river with my skirt held up around my waist and laugh to a man who will love me in that moment, but not forever.

When I travel by myself in Europe.

When I spend two weeks in San Francisco in my favorite author’s house, and I have a bit of a breakdown, but also write some of the most important stuff for my book.

When I come back to my real life, and am told by the man by the river that he does not want to be a stepparent.

When the man by the river says, “I feel like you could find someone better than me,” and I respond with, “I already knew that.”

When I realize, that for the first time in my life, I know what I want, and I’m willing to wait for it, and in the meantime, I’m okay with being alone.

When I fall asleep with my head on a different man’s shoulder, but I know that I will wake up safe because he is a friend.

When something that has not happened yet.

When the future is not so frightening.

When I open my heart to other men.

On Darkness

The holler is dark at night. The only light is the glow from other people’s homes, but there is only one home near me. I am up the latest. Once, my neighbor said, “Do you work at night? I can see the light glowing in your loft.” I told her that my loft is where my office is, and yes, I work at night. My habits changed a bit when Reed was young, but I have settled back into my routine. I am writing this now while the night sky is black from clouds, and the crickets and frogs moan their nocturnal hum.

Reed woke up and told me that he had heard something banging around outside. I told him that it was probably just a critter.

I locked the doors.

I don’t like locks. I have discussed this previously.

I have been tired for the past couple of days. Drained. Last night, I almost nodded off on the couch. I went to bed at ten, which is rare for me. I had a dream. The arms of a skinny stranger were wrapping around me tightly where I lay. I felt his beard against my cheek. He looked exactly like Caleb, but in my dream, I wasn’t aware that he was Caleb. He wore a plaid shirt. He wrapped me in those skinny arms–an embrace–but the embrace got tighter and tighter. I grabbed his arms and wrestled against them. I pushed as hard as I could. We went back and forth, and then I won.

I dragged him to the door, and I pushed him out of it. I said to him, “Don’t ever come here again.” I locked the door.

Then I woke. My heart raced. My arms were sore.

I had woken myself by crying out.

A friend wrote to me a couple of weeks ago. She, too, had been mistreated by a former lover. We had bonded over that, but in this message, she told me that she thought I was too angry, that my anger was hurting the cause.

I thought about writing back to her, What is your silence doing to help the cause?

I thought about how I could refute all of her points.

I spoke with friends who said to me, This woman does not have your best interests at heart.

When it came down to it, I no longer cared about her enough to respond.

I am getting better at caring less about certain people.

I recently reread a journal entry that I had written during my backpacking trip in August. In it, I had written: “River Guide taught me something important. River Guide taught me how not to fall in love with someone.”

Last night, at Reed’s soccer game, one of the dads asked me if I wanted a little orange. “I’ve already started it,” he said. He handed it to me, and he had peeled off the first chunk, so that I had a place to get a fingerfull in.

My father used to do that for me sometimes, but usually, my father would peel the entire orange for me. He ate an orange every night, and he always asked if I wanted one, and I always said no, but then the smell of the peel would hit me. “Maybe just a bite,” I would say. (Caleb affectionately nicknamed me, “Little Bite,” because I always wanted a little bite of everything.)

Here, take this one,” my father would say, as he handed me his orange. Then, he would peel himself a new one.

I like the sweet juice of an orange, but I don’t like the bitter peel. I don’t like having to work through bitter to get to sweetness.

Little oranges are easier to peel, and that soccer dad had already given me a good start. The juice of the orange was so sweet.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Do you want another one?” he asked.

“Actually, I would!” I said, then I laughed, embarrassed. I am usually polite, but I was greedy for more, so he handed me another one.

“You can’t eat just one orange,” he said.

Then, he said, again, “I started it for you.”

I noticed that his hands were empty. He had given his own orange to me.

I ate it anyway.

A couple of years ago, my best friend, Kelly M. roomed with me at a writer’s conference in Minneapolis. I met her at her train station. I reached over and grabbed the handle of her suitcase, started pulling it behind me. “What are you doing?” She asked.

Kelly M. and I had been roommates. She had been the oldest in her family, and I had been the youngest in mine, and we fit our roles. She was happy to do things for me, and I was happy to have her do them for me. She always would have peeled the entire orange for me. Still, there I was pulling her suitcase because nothing upends old patterns like being a single mother.

I peel every orange now. I pull every suitcase.

Caleb used to drive me to work every day and pick me up. I thought it was a kindness. It felt like a kindness.

I grew fearful of being away from him for too long. When he was angry, I feared that he wouldn’t pick me up. I grew fearful of driving on my own. Soon, he was driving me to the store. To doctor’s appointments. To everywhere.

He was always the one in the driver’s seat.

Reed said to me, “My dad has only treated his new wife like he treated you once or twice, and she told him that she doesn’t like it when he gets angry like that.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Because I was in bed, and I heard him yelling at her, and I heard her say, ‘I don’t like it when you get angry like that,’ and then, I went in and asked them to be quiet, and they both asked how much I had heard.”

“How much did you hear?” I asked.

He rolled his eyes, “Oh, I heard everything,” he said.

“How do you know that your dad has only treated his new wife like that once or twice?” I asked.

“Because he told me so,” Reed said.

“When did he tell you that?” I asked.

“In the car, the next morning, after we had dropped her off at work,” Reed said.

“Why did you drop her off at work?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s just something they do,” Reed said. “Dad just drives her to work and picks her up.”

I called Kelly M. after Reed went to bed. I told her what Reed had told me, and then, I started to cry. I wasn’t crying because of my sadness that it was happening again. I wasn’t crying because of my fear for the new wife. I wasn’t even crying because of my fear for Reed (although that was a huge element).

I was crying because I felt guilty.

I was crying because, in the moment that Reed acknowledged to me that his father had treated his new wife in the same way that he had treated me, I felt relief.

Oh god, I am so sorry, but I felt relieved.

Not for her. Never for her.

But for that part of me that has continued to wonder if it really was my fault? It’s the same part that was triggered when Caleb’s friend wrote to me and asked me to identify my triggers that had caused the abuse. The same part that was triggered when another of Caleb’s friends said that he had heard that we beat up on each other. The same part that was triggered when I recently saw that someone who had claimed to support me had congratulated Caleb on his new wedding.

<Aside> You cannot support me and also support Caleb’s new marriage. In trying to do both, you are maintaining that the issue was mine, and not his. You are maintaining that he will be different for a different woman, as though he wasn’t always in control of how he treated me–as though I had brought it upon myself. <End Aside>

I felt relief, and then, a deep loosening of all of that pent-up anger. It was as though the anger just broke into pieces. It didn’t dissolve, but it became more easily compartmentalized.

And then, my concern for Reed took over. We are clearly hitting a point where he is not going to want to keep visiting his father. When that time happens, I will have his back. For now, I am letting him be his own guide. (Reed did tell me that, to his knowledge, Caleb hasn’t hit the new wife.)

Reed also said to me, “I thought that things would be different for [the new wife] until I heard the things that my dad was saying to her, and they were just like what he used to say to you.”

I have reached out to the new wife in the past (early on, before she was the wife). She wrote back to me, “You are sick.” I’ve sent her my phone number and private email address. She knows how to reach me, but at this point, she can’t be my concern. She has to be the concern of her own friends and family.

I have a beautiful and sensitive ten-year-old who is my concern.

I gave a reading for my department this past weekend. I was a little stressed about it. I spent the past year feeling alienated from my entire department because one person didn’t like me, and I know that’s irrational, but it’s also difficult to describe how insidious the effects of abuse are–how they begin to underly every communication, so that when one person inexplicably, and with no explanation, decides that they don’t like you and don’t want to have anything to do with you, it feels as though no one wants to have anything to do with you again, ever.

But my good friend, Shane, came to visit me this weekend, so I knew that I had my person at the reading, and then, my other people began to show up, and I realized that, during that period of alienation, when I was feeling so sad; instead of falling into despair, I had built a home from the wreckage.

My friend, Kirk, gave me an introduction that was so lovely that it made me tear up. In it, he described me as one of the “sunniest” people you will ever meet in Ellis Hall (our building on campus). I remembered how, in one of my darkest moments, my friend Brad had given me a bracelet that he had engraved with the word, “sunshine,” because he calls me “Kelly Sunshine.”

I thought of how I don’t really have to try to be sunny; it’s just my nature.

But I am darkness too.

I said all of that to Shane, who said, “If I were going to play the game ‘Match the Essayist to the Real Person,’ I would never guess you.”

That means I’ve succeeded. I don’t want to be the sad, dark person. But I get to write sad, dark essays.

All of it is true. The sadness, the sunniness, and the darkness.

In the mornings, while Shane was here, I would wake up, and he would say, “I think there’s still some coffee left.” There was always almost half of a pot.

I can’t remember the last time that someone made coffee for me.

One night, we sat in my Adirondack chairs. We looked at the full moon. We talked about our futures. We talked about our exes. We talked about the ways in which we’ve been hurt, and the ways in which we’ve been healed.

About the new wife, I told Shane, “The words ‘I don’t like it when you get angry like that ‘ indicate a pattern. That’s not a ‘once or twice’ kind of thing.” I paused, then, “She can’t call her mother and vent. She can’t call her best friend and vent. They have all, undoubtedly, heard about Caleb already. What would they think if she admitted that to them?”

She is even more isolated than I was.

And Shane was there to listen, then to make coffee in the morning. The coffee was bitter at first, then sweet. I thought about Kirk and Brad calling me “sunny.” I thought about my other friend saying that I was too angry.

I am both; I am the bitter peel and the sweet juice.

You will not find the sweetness in me unless you’re willing to get through the peel.

Here, I started it for you.

On Wooden Spoons

My former father-in-law had obsessions. His obsessions, necessarily, became his wife’s obsessions. I remember how, when my mother-in-law got her first Facebook account, that, under her hobbies, she listed that she liked to watch her husband and son (Caleb) play the guitar.

What I thought, but didn’t say was, “But how is that your hobby?”

When Caleb and I used to visit my in-laws, my father-in-law would want to show Caleb all of the guitars that he had made, the new chords that he had learned. He would want he and Caleb to go to another room and play together. He never asked Caleb about his life, or his own interests. He certainly never asked me about my life.

Caleb wasn’t very interested in guitars at that time. Caleb, too, had his obsessions, and at the time, his obsession was publishing short stories. He was more interested with publishing short stories than he was in actually writing short stories, and that didn’t work out for him.

Caleb grew annoyed with his father. His father was the type of man who, when you were talking about something, you could see in his eyes that he was just waiting for his opportunity to talk about guitars again. There was no room in his brain for anything–or anyone–else. My father-in-law also had many good qualities. He was the first family member to welcome me wholeheartedly into the family, and I’ll always be grateful for that.

Caleb told me that, when he called his father to tell his parents that he had been arrested for battering me, he said, “It wasn’t the first time. I don’t want you to be mad at Kelly for calling 911. It wasn’t her fault. This has been happening for a while.”

Caleb told me that his father had said, “Well, son, that isn’t right. It’s never okay to hit your wife.”

Caleb told me that his mother had told him to “Put your troubles at the foot of the cross.”

Caleb and I laughed at that. We were on the phone. I had left him and meant it, but I don’t think that he thought I meant it. I didn’t even really know if I meant it.

If he had known that I meant it about leaving him, he certainly wouldn’t have told his father that his abuse had been a pattern. I’ll never even know if what he said that he told his father was true. Still, the reactions that Caleb described from his mother and father both made sense. We laughed at his mother’s response.

It was a very fucked up kind of camaraderie, but it was all that we had left.

From what I can tell, Caleb has given up on short stories and renewed his interest in guitars. I’m sure that his family believes this is a sign that he is re-finding himself after a marriage with a toxic woman. Personally, I think it’s a sign that Caleb is better with guitars than he is at writing short stories.

This summer, while he was at his dad’s, I called Reed once for our nightly visit. He was miserable. He was stuck at Caleb’s band practice. Reed was bored. “He just wants me to watch,” he said. “But that bores me. I think that I am more of a player than a watcher.” Caleb’s guitar playing is not Reed’s hobby.

I wanted to cheer Reed up. I told him that, when he got home, we could have his best friends over for an end-of-summer party. Reed said that we should call the party a “Thank God I Survived My Dad’s Band” party. We both laughed.

It was a very fucked up kind of camaraderie, but it was all that we had left.

Caleb’s new wife seems like exactly the kind of woman whose hobby would be watching Caleb do things. This is good for Caleb, and good for her too. Caleb wasn’t always abusive towards me. His abuse started when I stopped watching him do things and started doing my own things.

I’m at the point in my memoir where the abuse begins in full. It took a lot of pages to get to this point. My editor’s last note read, “Nicely done, but we need to get to the ISSUE.” She was right, but I was too. With Caleb, it took a long time to get to the issue. He wasn’t always an abusive asshole.

Last night, I went to my old Hotmail account and did a search. I thought that I was going to find a bunch of evidence of us fighting, but what I found instead was a tender series of emails. We were very much in love. We treated each other with respect. They were emails that showed us both working to put the other person’s needs first. There was no indication of abuse in 90% of those emails.

But then, occasionally, there would be an email from Caleb with the subject heading, “I’m sorry.” One of those emails had the first line, “You’ve probably received so many emails from me by now with that subject heading.”

Those emails were always apologies for his outbursts, for whatever temper tantrum he had devolved into that morning (he usually sent emails while at work during the day).

I read those emails–the mostly loving ones, punctuated by the occasional angry one–and I remembered what I had loved about him. I have often said to my friends, “Why on earth would his new wife have married him?” But rereading those emails, I remembered; no one could be quite as tender as Caleb.

Tonight, I asked Reed to bring in the rest of the groceries from the car. I had a friend from out-of-town coming for dinner, and our house had been cleaned during the day. When he walked in the door, I said, “Doesn’t our house look clean?”

“Yep!” he said, as he struggled to carry in too many bags. Inevitably, he dropped one. Something broke. It was a mess. He then picked the bag up, carried it to the table, and made a bigger mess. He set the oozing bag on my fabric dining room chair.

And I yelled. I yelled at him.

I try so hard not to yell at him–and I rarely do–but I am imperfect.  My own mother yelled at me during much of my childhood, and then, Caleb yelled at me during my marriage, and I have spent most of my life with someone yelling at me.

I have tried to treat Reed differently, but tonight, I yelled.

He said, “I’ll clean it up,” and I snapped, “No, I’ll just do it!” Then, he went to his room and cried. Immediately, I felt terrible, so I called him back out.

“I’m sorry that I yelled at you,” I said.

He sniffled, “It was my fault.”

“It kind of was your fault,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean that it was okay for me to yell at you.”

“Dad yells at me like that all the time,” he said. “But he never apologizes.”

“It’s not okay for him to do that,” I said. “You don’t deserve that.”

And then, Reed told me that, in the same situation, his dad would have yelled at him, then sent him to his room, then yelled at him again.

What was I supposed to say to that? I said simply, “You do not deserve that, and it’s not your fault.”

Later, after Reed had cleaned up the mess, I gave him a hug, and he said, “I knew that you were going to apologize. The minute that you yelled at me, I thought, ‘She’s going to apologize to me,’ but, even though I know that you are different, I’m so used to my dad that, when you yelled at me, it felt just like when he yells at me.”

I’m so used to my dad that, when you yelled at me, it felt just like when he yells at me

Is there a better description for abuse than that?

When my boss seems upset with me, it’s just like Caleb is yelling at me. When my editor doesn’t like a chapter of my book, it’s just like Caleb is yelling at me. When a friend is disappointed about something, it’s just like Caleb is yelling at me.

“We can’t make a person into someone they’re not,” I told Reed. “But you can keep talking to me about your feelings, and I promise to keep apologizing if I yell at you.”

That is all that I have to offer Reed for now. Judges don’t take kids away from their dads because their dads yell at them too much.

At the end of my marriage, my former father-in-law developed an obsession with whittling wooden spoons. I realize this sounds like Appalachian satire, but it’s true. We had so many misshapen wooden spoons in our house, but Caleb and I both loved to cook, so we enjoyed them.

When I graduated from my MFA program, there was a final reading where the graduates invite all of their friends and family, and the faculty members hood the graduates. I had no one coming to watch me. My parents were coming for my actual graduation, which was actually less important, but seemed more official. Caleb’s mother told Caleb that she and my father-in-law couldn’t make it because my father-in-law was too busy whittling spoons. He wanted to finish a spoon for everyone at their family reunion in July (it was April).

Yes, my then father-in-law skipped my graduation because he was whittling spoons.

Not coincidentally, I skipped that family reunion.

When Caleb told me why his parents weren’t coming, I was hurt. Really hurt. I didn’t tell him that, but he could tell. A couple of days later, he told me that his mom had decided to come on her own, and I knew that it was because he had called her. I was then hurt and embarrassed. Still, she came. That woman drove me crazy in so many ways, but she understood how important that was to me, and she came by herself.

Nonetheless, I have rarely felt so alone.

Last night, I wrote to a friend that I have been lonely recently because I’m single, and she wrote that she understands. I wrote back that it’s okay because I have been far lonelier when in a relationship, and I was being truthful.

Still, Caleb, for all of his faults, was the person who called his mother and told her that he wanted her to come for my reading. In so many ways, he loved me well.

I miss the ways that he loved me well, but I still love myself better. I love myself better than he ever loved me.

When Caleb was arrested for domestic battery (only a short period after that reading), we were evicted from our home. The university let us leave our stuff there until Christmas break, but I had taken Reed to Idaho with me for Christmas break, so Caleb’s mother and his aunts packed up our apartment. It was an invasion for me–having them in our personal stuff. They could have read my journals. Some things that I valued disappeared.

Still, I didn’t have to do it, and that’s something to be grateful for.

When I returned from my Christmas at my parents’ house, it was to a house full of boxes. I don’t remember unpacking them. I don’t remember much about that period, but I know that I packed them again by myself only a few short months later when I moved to Ohio.

In Ohio, in the tiny third floor apartment that Reed and I had moved in to, I unpacked those boxes again. There was not a wooden spoon to be found. Caleb’s mother and aunts had taken away every, single misshapen wooden spoon.

Perhaps it’s for the best, but I still haven’t bought myself a wooden spoon, and I’m not sure why, because I often think of how much I could use a wooden spoon, but then, I think of how I had an excess of wooden spoons in my life, and of how those wooden spoons contributed to a lack in other areas, and I guess that I’m just pissed as hell at wooden spoons.

The other night, I was cooking, while also talking on the phone to my best friend, and I pulled out my only wooden kitchen utensil, which is a salad fork. It was covered in mold because I  had been gone for too long during the summer. “I don’t have any wooden spoons,” I said.

“You mean the spoons that your father-in-law was whittling?” she cackled.

We both laughed.

Screw wooden spoons.

I don’t need wooden spoons.

I have camaraderie. It’s the last thing that I have left.


On Scarcity

My hometown is currently overrun by deer. We call them the “city deer,” and they are mostly mamas with their babies. Skinny and starving, they eat the leaves off of my parents’ trees. They bed in the shade in the front yard. My parents have an electric fence surrounding their garden, and the other day, my father discovered that, despite the fence, some of his tomatoes had been munched, so he put some peanut butter on to tin foil and attached it to the fence.

The deer do not get shocked if they jump over the fence because they make contact while in the air. The foil is a way of luring them in. When they lick the peanut butter, they will be shocked, and once they are shocked, then they are unlikely to approach the fence again. My father thinks that , when the deer jumped the fence, they didn’t know that they could be shocked, but I think that they were desperate and jumped despite knowing that they could be shocked.

Scarcity works that way.

I wrote about Lindsay Lohan and domestic violence at The Daily Dot. The comments on the website’s Facebook post were horrifying and only reinforced my point. Multiple friends reached out to me to ask if I was okay? I wrote back that I was fine, that I had already learned the hard way how awful people can be.

Very little shocks me anymore.

When I was married to Caleb, I kept getting shocked. Just over that fence–always–was the lure of nourishment, and I was starving.

Reed tells me that his father says that he has a “real garden” now. I tell Reed that we had a garden when we were a family. “I know,” he says, “but Dad says that this is a ‘real’ garden.”

Of course our garden wasn’t real. The buckets full of tomatoes weren’t real. The jalapenos weren’t real. The bell peppers weren’t real. The freezer full of pesto wasn’t real.

None of it was real because it happened with me. How can he tell her that our garden was real when he has told her that everything else about me was not real?

His abuse was also not real, right?

Reed also tells me that his father is going to write in Bernie Sanders in the election. I roll my eyes at that. “Your father used to like Hillary. He voted for Hillary Clinton in the last primary,” I say.

Reed says, “I think that he just doesn’t want to vote for Hillary because I told him that he should, and he feels like that’s just you bossing him around.”

It’s not coming from me. I don’t care who anyone votes for. I’m over this election, but Reed is not. He spent two weeks with his CNN obsessed grandparents, and he now thinks that he knows everything about politics.

But the truth is that, when Caleb and I were married, we rarely disagreed about politics, and now I wonder how real that was. Caleb is a master chameleon. He can be what anyone wants–gardener, feminist, Hillary supporter, Bernie supporter….

What was real with him?

Was that damn garden even real?

The city deer are starving because people feed them. How is that for irony?

Deer are meant to live off of a specific diet of grasses, and  people are feeding them apricots and tomatoes, which make them sick.

How many times in my own life have I grown sick from excess?

Too many to count.

When I was in San Francisco this summer, I had brunch with some friends from Boise. They are both such talented and accomplished women. I felt proud to even be keeping up with them. Still, we are all human. We all have problems. Caleb’s wedding was looming. I told them that I already know what Caleb tells his wife. I told them that I am sure that he says that she’s different from me, that she’s special, that he wishes he had only ever known her.

I told them, “I want to tell her that I was special once too. That his love for me was real. That what we had was real.”

I left him, okay? I was the one who left. The leaver. The one who walked out the door.

Still, I loved him so much that I didn’t think I would survive. Do you know how hard it is to leave someone who you love? I have never yet met someone else who had to leave a person that they loved.

So far, I carry this distinction alone.

The other day, I was walking home from my friend’s house, and I walked past a sterile ranch house. The grass was cut to buzz cut length and mostly brown. There were no flowers or trees. There was a tall wooden fence in the back that belonged to the neighbors, and that fence put off a sliver of shade. A fawn and her doe rested within that sliver of shade. I wondered why she didn’t try to find something better. I knew that there were yards nearby with gardens and trees.

But maybe she just collapsed where she ended up. Maybe she didn’t have the energy to get to a better yard.

We find our shade where we can.

My non-relationship with River Guide this summer made me realize that I’m tired of flings. I’m ready to have something real in my life. I found my shade in River Guide, but it was only a sliver, and I deserve to have more than a sliver.

I deserve to have everything that I want.

Today, Reed said, “Summer went by so quickly,” and I thought that, for me, this summer was long.

It was such a long time ago that I was sitting on the couch beside River Guide, and he put his arm around me to test my reaction. It was such a long time ago that I was sitting at a desk on a farm in Belgium willing myself to write another chapter. It was such a long time ago that I was at a sidewalk table in Brussels with a Scottish artist, and we were both drunk on Belgian beer. It was such a long time ago that I first walked into my favorite writer’s house in San Francisco and realized that it looked exactly as I would have imagined. It was such a long time ago that I saw a pod of whales surfacing in the Pacific ocean. It was such a long time ago that I was in the city swimming pool watching my best friend’s child jump off the diving board for the first time.

Time means nothing to a survivor of trauma. It is all so circular, and only other trauma survivors will fully understand what I’m getting at with that.

When I was in my twenties, I used to go backpacking with my dad. All of my close friends know about these trips. They were special to me. I had always put my father on a pedestal. He was calm and kind, and I was lucky to have him.

When I married Caleb, the backpacking trips stopped. The skiing stopped. Everything stopped. Caleb wasn’t really equipped to do that stuff, and we didn’t have the kind of relationship where I could do stuff without him.

I was miserable. Everyone already knows this.

I had a realization recently that I never would have been happy with Caleb, that even if he hadn’t abused me, I wouldn’t have been happy with him. He wants a wifey. He wants someone who wants to garden, and cook, and craft. I was never going to be that person. I am too smart. Too driven. Too ambitious.

Caleb used to tell everyone that I was going to be the successful one. He said that as though he loved my success, yet he always–without fail–physically abused me following one of my publication acceptances. Maybe his new wife won’t be abused because she won’t be more successful than him, but he’ll find something.

There’s always something.

This summer, I went backpacking with my dad and brother again, and it was the best backpacking trip that we have ever taken. Everything worked.

At our final camp in the Sawtooth Wilderness, my brother and I ran into a deer. It looked at us and hesitated. It was healthy, plump even. It stared at us for a long while before bounding off into the wilderness.

I whispered “goodbye,” to it as it left.


It Gets Better

Maybe I don’t say that enough. Maybe posts like my last one don’t fully express how much better it gets, but it does. It gets so much better.

I had some dark days when Caleb got married, but I curled into myself and embraced the darkness, and now, I’m out of it. One thing I’ve learned since leaving Caleb is that, if I love myself and take care of myself, there will always be an end to the darkness.

When I was with Caleb, there was no light.

Now, there is more light than darkness, but there is still darkness. The darkness doesn’t ever fully go away, but, as long as I welcome it as a necessary part of my healing, I am okay.

Because I know now that it gets better.

Sometimes I think that Caleb is my shadow side. Sometimes I think that Caleb was a manifestation of my own darkness, but this is just what he wants me to believe.

When we were married, the intimacy was such that I couldn’t tell where his darkness ended, and my own began.

Sometimes I think about Caleb’s new wife, and I hope that he never becomes her shadow side. That they never live in darkness like he and I did.

But then I think of her in the car when we hand off my son. I think of how she glares at me. I think of what he must have told her about me in order for her to hate me like that. I think of how I have never been hated like that before. I am not someone that people typically hate.

River Guide said to me, “You are so sweet.”

“I am not sweet,” I said. “You just think that because you like me.”

“No,” he replied. “I am not the only person who thinks that you’re kind. I know that you’re kind. I see how you are with other people. I see how they are around you.”

Caleb called me crazy. He called me a “cunt.”

“Don’t say that word,” I begged. “I don’t like it.” I never should have begged. My begging gave him power.

“You fucking cunt,” was his reply.

And soon, that was all that I knew. I knew that I was a cunt. I was a cunt. I was a cunt. I was a cunt.

At what point did his darkness become my darkness?

I think of his wife glaring at me. Still, I believe that she is kind. Reed tells me “She is like you, mom. She is more calm like you.” And I know, from her glare, that she is already living in Caleb’s darkness, that he may not be abusing her, but his darkness is now her shadow.

I can’t change her future, but someday, if she needs me, I’ll be there for her. That is as much as I can do.

Caleb called me a cunt, but River Guide calls me kind.

I’m going to trust River Guide on this one.

I don’t often talk to my parents about what I’m going through because, when I needed them, they weren’t there for me. When I needed them to tell me to leave Caleb, they told me to stay instead.

My best friend, Megan, is like a part of our family. Megan and I have been friends since we were toddlers. She grew up just down the street from me. We have lived through the death of her mother, my divorce, and the birth of three children between the two of us. My parents love her like a daughter.

And when my parents wanted me to stay with Caleb, Megan, who is by nature very non-confrontational, called them. She explained to them how significant Caleb’s abuse must have been in order for him to have been arrested. She explained to them that, if Reed had been present, he would have been taken into child protective custody. She explained to them that my relationship fell into the exact same pattern of abuse that other domestic violence relationships fall into (she is a counselor).

She told them that they were going to lose me.

When I next spoke to my parents, my father cried. My mother later told me that he hadn’t even cried when his mother died.

I remembered when I was  a little girl–only four–and my mom received the phone call that my father’s father had died. I remember my mother crumpling on to the kitchen floor in tears. I remember climbing into her lap. I remember asking, “What happened, mommy? What happened?”

I don’t remember my father crying then, but I will never forget the way he cried when he apologized to me on the phone after I left Caleb.

I forgave him.

Still, on the day of my divorce (which was after that phone call), he questioned if the abuse was really as bad as I said it was. All of my anger resurfaced. I called him a coward. I have never seen him so angry. He pointed at me. His hand shook. His voice shook. “I am not a coward,” he said. “I am not a coward.”

I stared at him. I have never been that cold in my life. I felt nothing. I was moving to Athens the next day. I had the boxes packed. I told him to leave. I told him, I don’t need you. 

I meant it. He knew it was true. When I left Caleb, I did it without their help. I did it on my own.

Still, he and my mother returned the next day. They helped me move to Athens, but once the boxes were in my apartment, I asked them to leave. I told them that I needed some time to myself.

I got what I wanted. I have so much time to myself.

The other day, Megan told me that she’s still upset that my parents didn’t come to Morgantown when I left Caleb. She told me that, at the time, she had sat down with her husband and asked how she could get to me, but he had pointed out (rightly so) that, because she had a new baby, she wasn’t in a position to help.

I told Megan that I’m now kind of glad that my parents didn’t come when I left Caleb because I learned that I could do it on my own.

I learned what I was capable of.

We talked about how my parents had always been there for me–through all of my moves–through everything that I had ever needed, but when I left Caleb, they weren’t there for me.

And even though they have been there for me since (in every possible way that I could have needed, they have been there for me), I still struggle with forgiveness.

Forgiveness is elusive, and I want so badly to forgive.

The other day, I received an email from my department about that awful Title IX situation. I was sitting at the kitchen table, and my mother was nearby. I wanted to tell her about it, but I realized that I had never told her about the situation. I had never told her about the meeting because I don’t talk to my parents, you see?

But I wanted to talk to someone, so I told her about it. I told her how hard that meeting was for me, how it had triggered my PTSD, how I was transported back to the time when Caleb was arrested in the dorm, and WVU kicked us both out of our then-home. I told her how hard it was for me to leave him in the first place, but knowing that I was homeless made it so much harder.  I told her that I know now that the university should have treated me better. They should have offered me alternate housing, or kicked him out, but let me stay. They should have offered me support, but they didn’t. I told my mom how alone and scared I was at that time.

I told my mom how that Title IX meeting, and the situation at work, had put me into such a state of PTSD that I had struggled for a week, but I had gotten through it.

And my mom was kind. She listened to me.

After we finished our conversation, I went into the next room to fold some laundry. My mom came in suddenly. She hugged me and said, “We know how much you have been through, and we’re proud of how far you’ve come, and what you’ve done with your life.”

I was stunned. For the first time, it felt like forgiveness was within reach.

The next day, Megan and I took our kids to the pool. It was absolutely joyful. Reed played so well with her younger children. He is such a kind child, and he loves Megan. At one point, Megan told her son that I was going to go to take the boys to the deep end while she stayed in the shallow end with the baby.

“I like Kelly!” he said.

Megan laughed. “I do too,” she said.

In the car, I told Megan what my mom had said to me. Her face registered shock, then she smiled and said, “Wow. People really can change.”

She’s right. I know that she’s right. Caleb may not have changed, but I have changed. My parents have changed.

Caleb may still be dark, but he is no longer my shadow side. I have shed that shadow.

My dad’s first love is the outdoors. When I was in my twenties, we started backpacking regularly. It was the closest that I have ever been with him. He is an introvert–not much of a talker–but on those trips, he would talk to me. Those hikes, and lakes, and mountains were one of the few things that we shared.

The other day, my mom, dad, and I took Reed for his first hike into a mountain lake. He is blessed to have my parents as his grandparents, and I think he knows that.


I know that too.

Last night, I called a man who I used to date before I met Caleb. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m coming over,” I said.

“I’m kind of seeing someone,” he said.

“So am I,” was my reply.

It was a booty call, of sorts, but it was not a booty call for sex; it was a booty call for companionship. I just wanted someone to sit next to me on the couch.

I am ready for someone to sit next to me on the couch.

After Caleb’s wedding, I talked to my therapist. We talked via Skype. She has a newborn baby, but she still makes time for me. Her baby was sleeping on her chest. I told her how sad I had been. “What do you think was the source of your sadness?” she asked.

I told her that I didn’t know, that I have no love for Caleb. “I don’t think it was about Caleb,” she said.

And then, I talked about how I feel like I’m ready to have love in my own life, and I apologized for that. The truth is that I don’t feel like a good feminist if I don’t wholeheartedly embrace my single status, but I am ready for someone to sit next to me on the couch.

She said, “Kelly, it is okay for you to be sad that you’re single. That is completely normal and okay. In fact, I would be more worried about you if you weren’t sad about that.”

I needed that permission. I needed permission to be sad.

At the end of our conversation, she said, “The past few times that I have spoken with you, I haven’t had to do any work. I will be here for you as long as you need, but I don’t think that you need me anymore.”

I guess I’ve gotten better.

River Guide came through town unexpectedly this morning. He had cut a trip short because of some sad news that he had received, and although he didn’t have time to stay, I met him for breakfast where I met one of his best friends. I saw then what River Guide has seen about me. I saw the way his friend respects him. I saw River Guide’s kindness reflected in his friendship with this man.

My heart felt very open.

River Guide’s friend left, and we came back to my house for a bit. He kept rationalizing his feelings about the situation that he’s dealing with. “I thought that I had come to terms with this,” he said.

Finally, I held his face between my hands. “It’s okay to feel sad,” I said.

“I know,” he said, but his eyes got damp.

He needed permission to feel sad.

Last night, as I sat with my former lover and visited, it occurred to both of us that we could renew our connection. I thought about River Guide. I said, “I am not in a monogamous relationship with River Guide. I can do what I want.”

But, in the end, I didn’t really want to be with that former lover in that way. Still, I felt a connection with him. I felt such warmth.

And then, this morning, River Guide appeared very suddenly. With him, all bets are off. What I feel for him is more than what I want to feel, and sometimes, those feelings cause me pain. Sometimes, they create joy.

But today, I thought of both of those men, of how I have so much love inside of me, and of how that love is available to both of them. I am not in love with either of them, and I may not be getting what I want in return, but I am grateful for the presence of love in my life–love for those two men, love for all of my friends, love (especially) for Megan, love for Megan’s children, love for my child, love for my parents.

I am grateful that people can change. I am grateful that I have changed. I am grateful for gratitude.

And it is okay if I still feel sad sometimes.

It is okay to feel sad. It is okay if I’m sad because I don’t have someone to sit next to me on the couch.

But it still gets better.

I may have to sit alone on the couch, but it is still so much better than what I had with Caleb. When Reed and I moved into the house that we live in now, we laid side by side in the hammock. “Everything is better now,” he said.

And he was right. Everything is better.

On Being Erased

I have a playlist on Spotify titled “Writing,” and tonight, when I started writing this blog, this song came on:

Although I haven’t felt very alive this week, the song seemed fitting. A few days ago, I posted on Facebook that I was thinking of taking a social media break until I finished my book. I have never done that before. I like social media. I don’t see social media as platform. I see it as the way that I keep in touch with friends. For me, to cut off social media would be out of character, but I wanted to cut the plug this week. What I realized later is that my desire to cut the plug to Facebook wasn’t a desire to finish my book; it was more of a desire to disappear.

I wanted to disappear without anyone being able to hold me accountable for my disappearance.

What I mean by “disappearance” is that I would like to be absent from my body for just a short period of time. 

Most writers would say that writing is like an out-of-body experience, and that is the root of the joy. It’s in the transcendence, you see?

But as a memoirist, my recent writing has been too close to my lived experience for me to transcend the reality of my life.

I need a break. Not from social media, but from myself.

I told a friend today that people think that women like me are tough because of what we’ve endured, and then, because of how openly we talk about what we’ve experienced, but for me, my toughness is only armor. I’ve built a steel carriage on the outside that protects the tenderest part of me.

My wounds still beat inside my chest. Always.

I went to a coffee shop last week, and I wrote the chapter of Reed’s birth. I hadn’t realized how resistant I had been to writing about Reed. That resistance does not come from me worrying about Reed’s feelings (Reed knows what his dad did, he lived through it, and he knows that I’m writing a book). My resistance comes from my guilt and sadness.

I birthed him with so much hope. I wanted to do everything right for him, but I did everything wrong.

Then, the chapter evolved. I wrote about my mother-in-law, and how, she told me that she loved me on the phone before she had ever even met me. I couldn’t say the words back, even though I knew that I should have.

Soon, I was writing about my relationship with the words “I love you,” and how those words had both been withheld from me, and how I had withheld them from others. I wrote about how Caleb was the first man I had ever dated who I felt safe with emotionally. He had so many problems, but he also seemed more in love with me than anyone ever had. No one before had ever looked at me in the way that he looked at me.

I know now that this is a huge red flag of abuse, but obviously, I didn’t know it then. All I knew was that I felt so swept up in his love for me. I had never felt so adored.

And as I was writing all of this in my book (in meticulous, painful detail) I realized that Caleb was getting married. That fact has hardly been lost upon me, but it has also not brought me pain–until that moment.The clash of those feelings–of writing about his love for me, his proposal, and our son’s birth–with my knowledge that he was remarrying undid me.

When I held newborn Reed, I whispered to him that I loved him, but I should have whispered that I was sorry.

I’m sorry.

I teared up at the coffee shop, and I was sitting in a window, so I didn’t think that anyone could see me. But then, I looked over, and one of the employees was hovering kindly. He looked as though he wanted to check on me. I packed up my bag and left. I thanked him on my way out.

I texted my therapist and asked if she could talk to me.

And here’s the deal: she couldn’t fix it.

All she could do was listen. And validate my feelings. She knows–more than anyone–that I don’t love Caleb anymore. She knows–more than anyone–what Caleb did to me.

She listed to me the litany of his offenses, and god, hearing it come out of the mouth of someone else always puts it into perspective. He is a genuinely sick man (in far more ways than I have described).

But she also told me that, in all her years of practice, the one thing that all abusers have in common is that they are master manipulators. They’re extremely skilled at making themselves look like victims.

And so, when I question why his family, or his wife, or his friends, don’t believe me, I have to remind myself that–as my therapist said–they are simply incapable of believing me. He is that sophisticated of a manipulator.

Of course, I already knew all of this, but it was good to be reminded of it.

Last week, Reed told me that there were going to be 200 people at the wedding. That news stung. We were Skyping, so he could see my expression, and I saw his face register that it stung for me (he is unusually empathetic for a ten-year-old). I wanted to end the conversation. I found some excuse to end the conversation, but he seemed bummed.

“Do you want to keep talking?” I asked.

“Yes, let’s keep talking,” he said. So I hid my hurt feelings, and we kept talking. He told me that he had to stay at his grandparents’ house the night before the wedding because his dad and fiance were going to stay at a hotel with her friends. He was obviously disappointed. He seemed to feel left out, but I didn’t know what to say. I have determined to never badmouth his father, but how do I encourage him to express his frustrations without badmouthing his father?

I remember when I first left Caleb. A man told me, “My dad was abusive to my mom. The important thing is that you never say anything bad about Caleb because Reed will internalize it. That’s what I did when my mom said stuff about my dad. I thought that I must have been shit if men like him were shit.”

I remember a friend–a child of toxic divorce–telling me that the parent should never tell the child that they “miss” them because that’s just a burden on the child. So I didn’t tell Reed that I missed him, but I later grew to realize that he wanted to hear that, and now, I tell him that I miss him.

He misses me too.

I’ve never said anything bad about Caleb to Reed. I’ve always wanted Reed to feel good about himself, and he does. But I can’t erase Reed’s memories. I can’t change the fact that Reed remembers “Daddy yelling, and mommy crying.” I can’t change the fact that Reed knows his dad abused his mom because Reed lived with that abuse.

I’ll never fully know what Reed saw and heard because, when it happened, I wasn’t present.

I was in my cave.

And I’m sorry for that.

I need to be present for Reed now, but it’s hard sometimes. When he told me that 200 people were going to be attending that wedding, that information hurt, but for his sake, I had to pretend as though it didn’t.

But it did. It hurt. It hurt because all of those people celebrating that joyous occasion were going to pretend that I had never existed. They were going to pretend that I had never happened.

It felt as though Caleb had successfully erased me.

It felt as though I had never existed.

I wrote this piece about Amber Heard and victim blaming at Guernica.

I wrote: We need you to open your eyes. We need you to look at us. I tell myself that, when you see us, things will change. I tell myself that, when you see us, you’ll finally believe us.

What hurts most about Caleb’s wedding is not that he’s happy. It’s not my fear for her future. It’s not own my sadness that I am still single. It’s not some kind of misguided grief for a man I once loved, but who hurt me in ways that can never be undone.

All of those things hurt, but what hurts the most is the people who still don’t see me. All of the people who sat at that wedding and cheered for the man who inalterably changed me.

The man who birthed a child from violence.

The man who stole my child’s innocence.

The man who stole my innocence too.

Do I blame him for all of those things? Of course, but he is sick. That’s his excuse. It’s not a good excuse, but it’s an excuse.

But those people at that wedding? Most of whom know my story?

What’s their excuse?

I couldn’t disappear last week, so I slept a lot. I went for long walks. I watched Grace and Frankie. I talked to my best friends on the phone. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more.

And then, the day came: the wedding.

I had dinner plans with a poet, Donna, who I had met via social media. I took the subway to Oakland, and she took me out to a fancy restaurant. We talked about writing. We talked about violence. And we also laughed. A lot.

I am never always sad. Not anymore, at least.

After dinner, we walked around Lake Merritt. She picked up a rock that she said would symbolize all of my regrets. She told me to throw it into the lake, and I did. For a moment, I thought that it was going to float, but it sunk into that dark water, and I hope it took my regrets with me.

Earlier, Donna had taken this photograph of me.


She said that I looked happy, and I was happy. I was happy to be alive. I was happy to have so much to live for.

I may want to disappear sometimes, but I do not want to be erased. He doesn’t get to erase me.

I’m still here. I’m still breathing. I’m alive.