I don’t usually have the energy for internet dating, but I mustered up the energy to write a reply to this guy.
I don’t usually have the energy for internet dating, but I mustered up the energy to write a reply to this guy.
I knew you both way back when. The hot-shot lawyer and his beautiful girlfriend, the social worker. Soon to be your fiancé.
You were both so young and new in your careers and ready to take on the world.
I have to admit. I thought you were an odd pair. There was a little bit of me who thought you were gay. Just like me. Soon you were married, and we were all happy for you.
Late one night there was a knock on my door. There she stood on my porch. Tears in her eyes. There had been a fight. You called her a cunt and told her to get the hell out. I opened my door and let her in. She spent the night on my couch, and when I woke in the morning, she was gone.
We all remained friends through the years. Eventually we moved in different directions but still stayed in touch. But then we lost touch.
Fast forward several years. I find her on Facebook. You have 2 children together and you are divorced. She and I reconnect like no time has passed. You and she have two beautiful children. A boy and a girl. I hear horror stories about the drinking and the abuse. Emotional and physical. Now I hate you. How can you do that to three beautiful souls?
Five years after reconnecting on Facebook, she and I are married. You are living your life alone. Bitter and unhappy.
I have been through the tears and the anger. The depression and the anxiety. Counselors and psychiatrists. Therapy and medications. All to combat the damage you caused.
I may not be a man, but I am ten times the man you are. I love my family and I will do anything to protect them. From you or anyone else. No more Christmases hiding in a hotel because you are drunk and raging and feeling sorry for yourself. Do you remember that?
We’re all doing well now. Life is good and we are a family. An unconventional family, according to some, but a family nonetheless. We are not looking back. We are full of love and a bright future and happy endings.
The first time that Caleb hit me, he pounded my head with his fist.
He yelled, Is this what you wanted? Is this what you wanted? Is this what you wanted?
By then, it was what I wanted.
It was what I wanted because I wanted him to stop berating me, stop scaring me, stop backing me into corners. I thought that, if he hit me, then he would realize he had gone too far because I thought that everyone knew that hitting your wife is wrong.
I can be so fucking smart, but I am also so fucking naive.
Getting what I have wanted has been accompanied by so much loss.
I dreamed about having sex with Caleb the other night. It was the most amazing sex, but even in my dream, I knew that it was wrong.
No one has ever made me feel like he made me feel, and I still miss that.
I have never had better self-esteem than I do right now.
What does that say about how I used to feel about myself?
Because I still feel pretty shitty about myself.
I had a really wonderful evening with a friend tonight. She is so easy to talk to, and I just connect with her. We talked about someone who used to be a really close friend of mine, but is no longer.
My friend asked what I thought had happened to cause this rift, and I responded that my book deal happened.
I got what I wanted–a book deal with a major publishing house.
When the final offer for my book came through, my agent called me on the phone. She was initially in a cab. She then spoke to me from the first floor of a hotel lobby.
She said, “Don’t tell people what you were paid. Writers get jealous, and advances are arbitrary and mean nothing. When people ask you what you got paid, just say ‘Enough to write the book.'”
Writers get jealous.
I got what I wanted, and I lost a friend–or many–in the process.
Just to be clear, I only received enough to write the book. It actually wasn’t even enough to write the book. I’ve recently had to borrow money from my parents.
We all need to talk more honestly about money, okay?
Faculty members keep telling me that they hope I’m “investing” my book advance. I want to say to them, Do you realize my TA salary is $15,700 dollars?
My rent is $16,800 per year.
I love y’all who think I can “invest” this windfall, but I’m still barely keeping my kid off of free lunch.
I have moved into the elite school district. Reed and I went to the open house, and the “feminist” moms from my English department who supported the sexual predator all snubbed me.
My heart was broken because I feared that my outspokenness would harm Reed, but he is doing fine. He has already made friends and fit into his new school. He is so resilient.
No one matters more to me than Reed.
I saved myself from dying for that kid.
Maybe I should rephrase that.
That kid saved me from dying.
I am very good at getting things that I want, but they do not usually turn out the way that I wanted.
I wanted River Guide.
I still remember the first time I talked to him on the boat ramp at Corn Creek. He made prolonged eye contact, and my coworker laughed and took a swig of his beer because he saw what was going on.
For the rest of the summer, I exerted my energy on River Guide. I am not a good flirt and not very forward, so instead, I was just nice. I would make him coffee in the morning and take it to his boat, then he would make coffee and bring it to my A-frame.
I finally ran into him in town and invited him to go to the Blues, Brews, and BBQ festival with me. My hand shook as I entered his number into my phone.
We were there for hours. He does not drink, so neither of us had liquid courage, but we ended up going back to my parents’ house (they were conveniently camping). He said that he wanted to watch the dry lightning storm play out.
We lay in the grass and watched the dry lightning storm until we were no longer watching the lights above us.
I got what I wanted with River Guide.
It went on for two years.
He broke my heart, but a heart that has already been firmly broken is less easy to damage.
There is so much I have wanted.
I want you to love me.
You, random stranger, I want you to love me.
When will I love myself?
I have been pursuing a particular man for a long time. It has been a joke with my friends. Finally, he said, “I really like talking to you. We should get a drink sometime.”
It’s a very long story, but we got a drink. We got more drinks.
Things ended badly.
He said, “I don’t want to cause you pain.”
I said, “You don’t have the power to cause me pain.” (I wasn’t trying to be a dick. I was trying to reassure him because I had taken his words at face value.)
He said, “OH, I GET IT.”
And I said, “Well, I like you, but I don’t care about you to the point where you could cause me pain.”
And he said, “OH, I CAN’T CAUSE YOU PAIN. POINT TAKEN.”
So I guess that he really wanted to cause me pain?
There were other things that I don’t want to discuss here for fear of violating his privacy.
I had thought that I had a good read on him, that he was “a mess” but basically harmless.
He is not harmless.
I got what I wanted with him though, didn’t I?
What do I do if my wants are not congruent with my needs?
Caleb, too, was what I wanted.
I pursued him. I made him mine.
And then he destroyed me.
His fist connected with my scalp. Is this what you want? Is this what you want?
It was what I wanted.
I honestly don’t know what I want.
I just want my heart to be whole.
I think a lot about rivers because I grew up near one. Rivers are a recurring motif in my memoir.
Rivers are a recurring motif in my life.
Every man that I have loved has been connected to a river in some way.
What is love, and how do we define it?
People keep telling me that Caleb didn’t love me, that his love wasn’t love, yet I felt that he loved me.
I know that he loved me.
I know that I loved him too.
I have been sifting through my many emails with Caleb. He loved to lunch with me. To nap with me. We were both so kind and thoughtful to each other in the beginning.
I read our early emails back and forth, and they are loving, considerate of the other person’s feelings, needs, and desires.
The other night, I had a beer with a male friend, and I told him, “I will never again meet a man who writes to me in that way because guys just don’t usually do that.”
Maybe I have just not known enough men who have loved me.
There was a day when I was floating the river with River Guide. He was in his hardshell kayak, and I was in an inflatable.
I flipped and swam in a rapid. I dropped my paddle. It should have floated, but it was cracked and sunk. River Guide caught my boat, guided me to shore, and then, we had to calculate what to do.
I had no paddle.
He grabbed a big stick for me. He told me to use it as a rudder.
Then, he followed me as I floated along in that big, inflatable kayak. At one point, I floated into a rapid backwards. “Am I okay?” I asked.
He nodded yes.
He didn’t look like he believed it.
Caleb and I didn’t have engagement photos taken, but my friend, Jen, took some unofficial ones for us.
We were standing next to the river.
We were standing on a rock in a stream that flows into the river.
We were on the river in a driftboat. Me rowing, Caleb leaning back and drinking a beer.
Caleb once tried to throw our car keys into the river as a way of terrifying me. We were on a deserted highway with no other keys.
They landed on a rock instead.
He once stretched out on to ice to save our dog who was trapped in the river.
I thought that I was going to lose them both, but I didn’t.
When Reed was a baby, I used to fantasize about throwing myself into the river.
Once, there was a man who sat on the bridge in my hometown without his shoes on.
Who would try to kill themselves from that bridge? It wasn’t even that high. Maybe a hundred yards, max. He was sitting above the shallow end.
He jumped off.
He survived, but broke both legs.
I never threw myself into the river, but I, too, am broken.
I am broken, but I hide it well.
The man I am involved with says, “I am afraid of fucking things up with you,” and I say back to him that I am magnificently fucked up myself.
Still, we both know that I am not as fucked up as him because, though I am broken, I hide my fractures well, and like the rest of the men I have dated since I left Caleb, he does not read my writing (which is where the fractures are revealed).
When I was in high school, my male friend jumped off the bridge during high water. He challenged me to do the same, but I wasn’t a strong enough swimmer. I made it–almost–to the side, but I couldn’t quite get there. I grabbed on to a branch. My face surfaced, then slipped back under the water. I could see the fear in another friend eyes. She was standing on the shore and couldn’t help me.
I finally managed to pull myself in.
That branch was stronger than I was; it pulled me to shore.
Wait, no. I pulled myself to shore.
There is no branch that is stronger than I am.
I have been scared of the river ever since, have dreamed of drowning, of being swallowed by dark water.
This summer, I had another frightening experience in a river, mostly due to my own panic. A new friend calmed me and guided me to shore.
I have dreamed of being swallowed by dark water, and while some of those dreams are terror, others are fantasy.
At the end of my marriage, I fantasized about killing myself every, single day. I knew how I would do it. I am not going to tell you how I would have done it because I do not want you to get any ideas, but I did not kill myself because of Reed.
Last summer, things ended for real between River Guide and me, and it was hard. I could have loved him, but he did not feel the same way about me. Still, shortly after that end, I went backpacking with my father and brother. We climbed, and climbed, and climbed. The landscape was rugged, and beautiful, and it was the first time that I had climbed a mountain with my father and brother in years. I never dreamed that I would be nearing 40 and single, but in that moment, I was so grateful to be in those mountains–with my father and brother–with the same kind of freedom that I had in my twenties before I met Caleb.
And as I climbed that mountain, I thought, River Guide taught me so much. River Guide taught me how to not fall in love with someone.
Because in my twenties, I fell in love with everyone, you see?
I am no longer that woman who loves every man I get involved with. I like them, and I respect them, but I have not loved anyone since Caleb, and because of how that ended, I am going to be cautious with my love from now on.
I am a sentimental person, an open person. I wear my heart on the outside of my body, and I can love so hard, but I will never love as hard as I once did, and that is a good thing.
I have not given up on love, but I am trying to give up on loving those who are not good for me.
I no longer love everyone I get involved with.
The man I’m involved with tells me that he doesn’t see me as a hook-up. He sees me as serious relationship potential, but he’s not sure that he really wants that either.
I want to say, But what if I don’t see you as either? Isn’t there something in-between?
I should probably give up on him. He is not afraid of hurting me. He is afraid of getting hurt himself.
I am not afraid of getting hurt because both he and I know that I am more likely to hurt him.
Maybe I am naive.
All I know is that, the other night, while I was walking home, just after having run into the man I’m involved with, River Guide sent me a text.
He wrote, “How is your summer? How is the book?”
And I wrote back a pleasant response, and that was it. There was no more.
I could have loved him, but I did not love him.
Though many would say that I gave up on him too late, I think that I gave up at just the right time. Only I knew when I was ready to let that dream go.
When I think of him, I do not think of heartbreak. I think of walking towards him as he walked back up from the river, of how he smiled and held out his arms, of how he kissed me. I think of how I felt that kiss all the way into my toes.
It was not yet the right time to give up.
We both knew when it was time to give up.
And though I undoubtedly should have given up on Caleb sooner, there are other times in my life when my persistence saved me.
The time to give up was not when I wanted to throw myself into the river.
The time to give up was not when I wanted to kill myself.
I never fantasize about killing myself now.
I no longer want to be swallowed by dark water.
I now want to surface the dark water.
Today, Buzzfeed reported on the ongoing situation in my English Department.
“Ohio University said it strives to finish investigations within 60 days, but it can be tough booking witnesses for interviews. That’s why the probe of Escobedo’s behavior took nearly nine months. The president then took almost three months to weigh in on how to punish Escobedo. Escobedo then had 30 days to request a hearing before the faculty senate to challenge the firing recommendation, and another 60 days to prepare his defense. Escobedo’s hearing is scheduled for Sept. 1 — nearly 18 months after Adams and Hempstead formally complained about him.
After the hearing, if the faculty senate agrees Escobedo should be fired, the university’s board of trustees will have to approve his termination, possibly at its October meeting, but it has no deadline for making such decisions.
Nearly two years after the night when two women say Escobedo put his hands all over them making unwanted sexual advances, a year and a half after they told the school about it, and nearly a year after a university investigation substantiated their claims, the case could still be far from over.”
I’ve been thinking about this article all day–about what it can’t begin to cover, about how Andrew Escobedo’s nickname was “Handy Andy,” about how I was warned about him in my first week in the program, about how certain faculty members said, “Oh, that’s just the way he is,” about how other faculty members said, “We didn’t know” (even though there is no way that lack of knowledge could have been possible), about the sense of betrayal that all of the graduate students (and not just the survivors) have felt because of this systemic neglect, about how certain women in the department voted for Handy Andy to keep his tenure, then went and marched in the Women’s March in DC, about the way that I looked at the photo of them in their pink hats and felt grief for the world that I live in where women sometimes have to claw their way to the top on the back of patriarchy, about the ways in which the larger Athens community tried to silence us by calling upon our senses of “compassion” for the family, about how messed up it is to ask someone–anyone–to prioritize compassion for an abuser’s family over their own safety, about how I feel that my own graduate experience has been tainted so I cannot even imagine how the survivors must feel, about how this situation has damaged so many interpersonal relationships, about how I am thinking of my own family–my own child–and of how I can raise him to be the kind of man who respects women and works to keep them safe.
About how the community that wants me to have compassion for Handy Andy’s family doesn’t seem to have compassion for my family.
About how the community that wants me to have compassion for Handy Andy’s family doesn’t seem to have compassion for my son who first witnessed his mother be battered by his father, then, years later, watched his mother be triggered into near-complete breakdowns by the situation in her workplace.
About how the community that wants me to have compassion for Handy Andy’s family doesn’t seem to have compassion for the families of my friends who were sexually assaulted by their professor.
About how I know that assault never really goes away.
About how I know that assault can be moved past, but it cannot be surpassed. It becomes a sort of ghost. A memory that is felt in the skin. A haunting.
About how I am so proud of my friends–these survivors–for doing what so many people before were not willing to do.
For speaking out.
For being the change that all of us were looking for.
I’m sifting through old emails–I have 7,792 emails in my inbox, and I found this letter to my dear friend, Kelly.
It is so painful, so heartbreaking to read the voice of my younger self, but what I see in all of these communications, whether with Caleb or anyone else, is that I was always kind.
I was kind to Caleb too.
I am not so kind now.
I have an edge now.
But I was raised to be kind.
There is so much I could write about this subject. Re-reading all of my emails has been like sifting through rubble, but I am newly in love with my friends. With the people who have been there for me through all of this.
I’m typing this because I have writer’s block, and I realize how impersonal it is to type letters, but I’m sitting in front of my computer willing myself to write, and this voice in my head is insistently telling me how inadequate I am, but I can’t bring myself to close my laptop and acknowledge defeat, so instead, I’m writing you a letter.
I’ve been working on this essay about mothering and the fear that accompanies it, and how the body transforms into something bigger—something immutable—that is not quite animal, not quite human, and in my head, I’ve had this metaphor of a house—somewhat like that ramshackle house we (Caleb and I) lived in—where the beauty was decaying, and the ivy had a stranglehold on the bricks, and the inside was haunted by the previous tenant who had lost his mind, but I was living in this house trying to coexist with these spirits while forging a new life, and it was just so damned hard.
So I wrote the first 3 pages, and they are really quite beautiful, but on rereading them, I realize that they read more like a prose poem, and although my intention was to continue in that vein and write the piece as “experimental,” I now understand that I don’t know how to finish it or connect the various threads.
Annie Dillard says that if you find that you can’t go back to a piece—that something in you is just resisting—then you need to admit to yourself that maybe that piece has a fatal flaw, and in that case, it needs to be scrapped, which of course is extremely painful, because no one wants to kill their darlings.
And maybe the fatal flaw is that the issues I’m bringing up in this essay are still present. They are still part of me. That previous tenant who lost his mind—he lives inside of me—except that it’s me—I’m the previous tenant.
How interesting is it that you and I have been having these talks of forgiving your previous self, and I’ve been thinking of the same things on my own? I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to fully accept my role of mother, because I haven’t forgiven myself for my youth, which, in no way, said “mother”.
And maybe it’s not even the issue of mothering that is at hand. Maybe it’s just an issue of maturity, of being an adult, and of realizing that I wasn’t spending my youth preparing for the self-awareness of adulthood. I squandered so much of myself. Sometimes it feels like I squandered the best of myself. I know it’s clichéd to say, but I had potential, and what did I do with it? I slept with men who didn’t love me, who didn’t even like me, who didn’t even know me. I befriended people who didn’t fulfill or understand me spiritually. I spent countless hours in bars, but very few hours nourishing any talent or artistic expression.
And, of course, after I write all of that, my rational voice says that I’m too hard on myself—that I did many wonderful things—forged many meaningful relationships. I met you, after all. And Caleb. And I had experiences that were uncommon and wonderful. They didn’t all revolve around the Neurolux. Otherwise, I would have nothing to write about.
But somehow, I need to forgive myself too. Maybe I need a ritual. I wish that you were here. We could get together, build a fire, write all of our regrets on a piece of paper, burn them, and forgive ourselves—have a rite of forgiveness.
But of course, we smudged that room once to rid it of your previous roommate’s bad energy (I forget her name), but that only helped temporarily. We really needed to smudge ME to rid me of all that pain and loss, but I didn’t know how, and if I did, I would have done that long ago.
Don’t misunderstand me. I know that I’m in a good place now. Perhaps that’s what makes my past all the more shameful. Getting into graduate school has been this culmination of all of this work, but it’s really just a new beginning, a stepping stone. It’s now that the work really begins. And I’m terrified that I’m not up to the task.
I don’t know what I would do without you to talk about these things. Maybe that palm reader at the fair was correct. Maybe we were sisters in a previous life (except that we’re both going to be rich and happy in this life, and we take care of each other).
Certainly, no one understands me like you—except maybe Caleb (but he understands a different side of me). I’m so lucky to have two people in my life to really know me. Some people have no one. I’m fairly sure that Caleb only has me, and that’s not enough, but Ab, at least, comes pretty close.
I feel calmer after writing this letter—still wracked with insecurity, but at least filled with a new sense of purpose.
I’m so glad to hear how well things are going for you. I hope you get that job, and love, and cute clothes. Yes, you really can have it all. You just have to trust yourself.
I miss you terribly, and I hope we see each other soon.
Reed texted me, “Can we talk?”
I could tell it was important. I texted back, “Sure, call me right now.”
He called, and I saw his forehead pop on to the screen, but not his face. I heard a gasp.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Not okay,” he said, though I still couldn’t see his face.
What’s going on? I asked.
And his voice came into view, his sweet face upset, and he told me everything, which was nothing. He was crying, which he rarely does at his age.
His dad was mad because he didn’t feed the dog. His dad took away his allowance. His dad threatened to take away his iPad.
All of this seemed to be normal parent/child conflict, but Reed’s level of being upset was not normal. I have primary custody of this child, and I cannot remember the last time that I have seen him cry, yet he was sobbing.
His dad expects perfection.
His dad’s bar for perfection is ever-changing.
I intervened. I poked the bear. I asked Caleb to be kinder with Reed.
Caleb was a jerk to me. He said that we could revisit our parenting plan if we wanted to. I was confused.
Was this hubris?
Or parenting suicide?
Caleb has to know, at this point, that revisiting our parenting plan could only result in reduced custody for him.
One friend suggested that Caleb wants to start over with his new family, but wants to be able to blame me when he loses time because he is so attached to his idea of himself as the perfect dad.
Still, after giving it some thought, I don’t think it’s parenting suicide; it’s hubris.
Caleb genuinely believes that he is an amazing dad. He genuinely believes that he could get more time with Reed if he tried.
I don’t even know where Caleb will be working or living in a month, though he is legally required to tell me.
Caleb is in arrears on his child support payments.
I don’t know when I will get my next child support payment, and I am not getting paid during the summer. I will not receive the next installment of my book advance until September, so I am flat broke.
Caleb works under the table during the summers so that he doesn’t have to report his income to the child support enforcement office. He already underreports his income by at least 15,000 dollars a year, and I know this because I still have a West Virginia State Employees account and can see the salary of all of the state employees, but I do not have the energy to pursue an income adjustment to our child support.
Caleb is vicious, and I would rather be flat broke than have to see him in a courtroom.
I can never again see his face without seeing it in front of me while he strangled me.
The world grew blurry around him. It was like looking through a prism, but only one thing remained clear.
Caleb takes Reed with him during the summers while he paints houses. Reed paints alongside him for one dollar an hour. This summer–and last–he painted the outside and inside of a house that belonged to one of my former professors.
When I reached out to her to point out to her that what she was doing was unethical, she wrote back to me, Don’t tell me what to do.
I told a friend tonight that so much of my anger after I left Caleb manifested against other people. I told her of how a writer friend of Caleb’s had posted a thing about being a feminist for his daughter, and I wrote something sarcastic about how he only cared when it was his daughter. He commented back, then I commented, and it turned into a very heated exchange.
This man is somewhat famous in literary circles, and I was a nobody who was bickering with him on his Facebook post.
It was potential career suicide for me.
This man is close to some of my favorite women writers, and though he, himself, is not an abuser, those women have also supported someone who is a known abuser in the literary community.
It has been a wholly disheartening experience. I do not want to reach out to those women to support my book, though they have so much influence within the feminist writing community.
People are complicated.
I, too, cannot be everything to everyone.
Sometimes, women reach out to me with their stories about men in the literary community, and it is as though they want me to take on those stories, to do something about them, even though they, themselves have not done anything about those stories, and I am tired.
I am tired of call-out culture, though I am not tired of call-outs.
I am tired because people seem to assume that it is easy for me to participate in call-out culture, so I am often asked to call-out for people.
And I can’t. I can’t speak for you.
If you have a story, speak it, and I will happily spread it. If you are not ready to be public, I will give my blog space as a place to write anonymously.
But please don’t ask me to speak your story for you.
I only have one story to tell.
I can repeat the stories of others, but that will never make them my own.
When I told Caleb, “I think that you withholding your employment information is an abusive tactic to make me feel anxious,” he said, “Yeah, just go fuck yourself,” and hung up on me.
He said that in front of his now-wife.
She must be used to that kind of language.
Most likely, she’s been brainwashed by now.
I used to think that kind of language was normal too.
Her time is coming.
No one will ever talk to me that way again.
The other night, I was out with a friend. I described to her that the man I’m currently involved with looks nothing like Caleb, and that is probably the appeal. I told her that Caleb is very unattractive.
She didn’t believe me, so she looked Caleb up on Facebook,
“Oh my,” she said.
“I know, right?” I said.
But then, she said, “You and his young wife look nothing alike, but can I say this?”
And I said yes.
“You both have the same look,” she said.
And I already knew this.
I said, “Yeah, he replaced me with a younger version of me.”
And I believe this, but the difference is that the new wife wants to be a stay-at-home mother. She wants to homeschool their child. She has no professional ambitions that I can tell, and because of that, I hope that she will be safe.
In my own experience, the quickest way to threaten Caleb and incite his violence is to be successful at the things he wants to be successful at.
He must fucking hate me now.
A friend recently posted an article about perfectionism paralysis. Basically, perfectionism often causes people who would otherwise be high achievers to fail because they’re so afraid of not being perfect that they can’t complete normal tasks.
I flunked out of undergrad twice.
Yesterday, I talked to my therapist for the first time in a long time. She is the same woman I started seeing when I was married to Caleb, and she hasn’t charged me since I’ve left him.
At that time, she told me, “I don’t want you to stop seeing me because you’re afraid of money.”
Now, she tells me, “We’re just ‘catching up.'”
She is my friend now. We haven’t exchanged money in years, and this time around, we both cried.
I asked her if it was okay that I use her real name in my book, and she started crying. She said, “Just to see how much work you’ve done, and you’ve done it all on your own.”
And then, I started crying, and I am crying right now as I type it because I DID THIS ALL ON MY FUCKING OWN, AND IT HAS BEEN SO HARD.
I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS ALL ON MY OWN.
I hate Caleb. I hate that the man I loved so much hurts our child. I hate that the man I loved so much keeps trying to hurt me.
And I loved him. Do you know that?
Sometimes I think that he was the love of my life, and I just want to crawl under a rock and die because what the fuck is wrong with me?
When Reed called me the other night, and we were talking, I felt this weird sense of relief, then I realized that I was just so glad not to be living with Caleb anymore, and I had survivor’s guilt because Reed was still there.
Tonight, Reed told me, “Mom, quit messaging my dad.”
“Why?” I asked. “Did he take it out on you?
“No,” Reed said. “He made you out like the bad guy, and I don’t want him to hurt you anymore.”
I said, “Buddy (because I call him that), it is not your job to protect me. It is my job to protect you because I am the grown-up. I do not care what your dad says about me. I care how it affects you.”
But it was obvious that my email to Caleb had not helped–had only made things worse for Reed–and what am I supposed to do?
I am wrecked, but I am trying.
I work really hard not to badmouth Caleb to Reed, but this time, I explained gaslighting to him. “You know when see your dad drink three beers, but he tells you that he only drank one?” I said.
Reed nodded because he had told me that himself.
“That’s gaslighting,” I said.
He said, “My dad thinks that you just want to turn me against him, that you want to take me away from him.”
I enjoy my time on my own. I have no desire to take Reed away from Caleb. I wish that Caleb was the kind of dad who could be a 50% dad because I am tired of doing this all on my own.
And I am exhausted by the notion that a “be kinder to our kid” email could somehow be perceived as me poisoning Reed against his father, but it is clear that Caleb has turned himself into a victim.
Though I have tried so hard to avoid it, Caleb has set into motion this “he against she” dynamic.
And Reed was clearly lost as he was translating this all to me, so I finally said, “Have you ever caught me in any lies?”
And he said, “No, not at all.”
And I said, “How about your dad?”
And he said, “Yeah, my dad is kind of a liar.”
I don’t want to have to tell this eleven year old boy what gaslighting is, but what am I supposed to do?
How do I be a good and supportive mother who doesn’t badmouth my co-parent when I know that my co-parent is doing that to me?
I hate this.
For all of our faults, Caleb and I have generally co-parented well, but there is too much change now.
Caleb has a new job, likely a shitty job. A job that he couldn’t even ask his own chair to write him a letter of recommendation for.
A friend of mine at WVU described it as “he just fled.”
He has a new baby, and a wife, who, according to Reed tells Caleb, “Stop treating me like a kid.”
He has an ex-wife who is doing the things that he wanted to do.
He is angry and escalating, and I don’t know what to do.
So, I write this blog post. I sob. They are sobs that come all the way from my stomach because I am utterly powerless in this.
I have no power over Caleb.
I have no power over that male writer who initially supported him.
I have no power over those feminists who don’t denounce abusers in their communities.
I have no power over myself.
My therapist tells me that, what I’m doing with this man I’m involved with is trying to find some control.
Maybe if I change this thing about my own behavior, then that will affect his behavior.
Maybe that will give me some control over this situation.
In her final comments on my book manuscript, my editor had said, “The reader is still going to want to know why he was so violent.”
I was annoyed by that. Though my editor is supremely feminist and wouldn’t have bought my book otherwise, it was an implicitly victim-blaming statement.
How could I know why he was so violent?
I finally wrote a chapter that is full of theories. A list of reasons he might have been violent. I concluded that I could never know.
The truth is that I spent so many years thinking that, if I could pinpoint the cause of his violence, then I could stop it.
I was trying to gain some control, just like my therapist said I’m doing with this new guy.
And let’s be honest.
I am a perfectionist.
I wanted to make the marriage work because I didn’t want to fail.
Ultimately, though, it’s about control. I want to have control over my life, my heart, my behaviors, my responses, my urges, my sex life, my parenting, my PTSD, my career, my education, who I love, and most of all, everything.
But I am powerless over so much.
I cannot make Caleb be nicer to Reed. I cannot protect Reed from the father that he loves. I cannot change the abuse enablers. I cannot make the guy I’m involved with less scared of committing to me.
There is so much I cannot control.
The only thing that gives me any semblance of control is writing about it, so that’s what I’m doing now. I’m telling you my story.
My own. No one else’s.
I can’t control my story, but I can reclaim it. If you have made it to the end of this long post, then you are with me on this journey. Thank you, dear reader. How about we reclaim our stories together?
“I don’t believe you”
“Sure, but you weren’t exactly blameless”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t that big of a deal”
You never explicitly said any of these words to me. You didn’t have to. The fact that you remained silent after your friend’s abuse became known spoke for itself. One by one, as more and more survivors stepped forward with eerily similar stories about your friend’s pattern of behaviour, your continued silence became more and more deafening.
You didn’t have to say it, but I still heard you loud and clear: “You don’t matter to me. I don’t believe you. You can’t be trusted”.
Can you imagine what that was like for me? Do you know how hard it was for me to overcome my fear of your friend the abuser, and come forward publicly about the harm he did to me? Do you know how scared I was those first few days, as the story broke, as I silently watched, a helpless mixture of horror and relief that I wasn’t alone in this shameful thing that he did to me? Can you imagine how much I wrestled with myself trying to find the courage and the words to come forward with my story too, with the faint hope that perhaps now that there were other descriptions of similar patterns, I might be believed?
You see, for the longest time, I didn’t realise he was an abuser either. Even after he and I stopped talking, I didn’t think he was the ‘A’ word. I made so many excuses for him, and I blamed myself for everything that he did to me. Because the particular flavour of his abuse was seasoned with gaslighting and manipulation, I was absolutely convinced that it was my fault; that my behaviour was the root cause of everything that went wrong. The mindfuck was so effective that for years, I truly believed his brainwashing narrative that an assault was an affair, that flirting meant I owed him a relationship. The shame of my ostensible complicity ensured my silence, and worse, his impunity. Even now, I am scared to say any of this because I know he will see it, I know he will deny it, and I know that some people, like you, will believe him over me.
It’s difficult for me to understand your public silence and tacit support for your friend the abuser, given how vocal you are about feminism and standing up against bullies. Your outspoken tweets following the election of President Trump particularly stung, because the hypocrisy of your words was made all the more obvious. What makes me, and all the other survivors of your friend’s abuse, so unworthy of your compassion and empathy? What is it about us that make it so easy for you to dismiss our experiences? Why do you find it so hard to believe us?
Have you even tried?
At first, I thought you just needed time to process the fact that your friend is an abuser. After all, it’s not easy to admit that your friend could have harmed so many people. Cognitive dissonance is very powerful, and I understand the instinctive urge to deny accusations against a friend you care for. I have seen first hand how much easier it is to be a coward and choose comfort over complications. But now, almost a year since this all blew open, you are still silent. As far as I am aware, you are still friends with him, you still don’t believe us, he still believes that we were the ones who wronged him, and I am unaware of any accountability on his part – and on yours for giving him a pass with your silence.
I write this not as an attack on you, or to berate you for your behaviour. I don’t expect my words to have any effect on you. But I wonder if you have ever paused to consider that by implicitly supporting your friend the abuser, you are signalling to other women that you too are not a safe person to be around. How? Because you have chosen to prioritize superficial politeness under the excuse of “we must be kind, people are complicated” over protecting the well-being of abuse survivors. Because even though it is hard, being kind actually means helping our friends break abusive patterns. You are essentially putting up a neon sign saying “Don’t expect me to believe you. Don’t ask me for help if you’re scared. I am not willing to put myself out there by saying anything negative publicly about an abuser. Your safety matters less to me than having a pleasant rapport with my friend”.
See, here’s the thing. When you refuse to ostracize abusers like him, or act to make them take responsibility and help with their public accountability, you’re helping them pull other people into their orbits. You may not want to admit this, but you are part of the problem. You are the leafy branches camouflaging the pit full of snakes and skeletons.
Because if there were more actual tangible consequences for abusing women, maybe someday we might actually see abusers stop abusing.
I have no answers, and I am not sure how much I can disclose about dating after abuse without sabotaging myself because no one wants to date someone who discloses everything, and I still want to date.
I do want to date.
I don’t want to date.
I do want to date.
I don’t want to date.
I want to not want to date.
I have done a good job of finding men who aren’t available to me.
I am a genius at that.
A while ago, a friend of mine who is a counselor recommended to me that I make a list of everything I want in a man. She recommended that I make it as specific as possible. I included such things as, “Likes television” and “Doesn’t mind when I sleep in.”
But the first thing on my list was, “Available.”
My best friend, Kelly Morse , joked to me when I told her that. She said, “Sundberg, your ball is rolling on the floor.”
But let’s be honest–my ball has been rolling on the floor for a long time.
I spoke today with someone important at my publishing company who had read my book. She said that, as a reader, she had kept wanting to say to me (the narrator of the book) “Why don’t you see this?”
But also that, as a reader, she was right there with the version of me who didn’t see it.
I think this means that, as a writer, I accomplished my goal, but as a person, it is hard to separate these identities from one another.
I don’t know how to write if I’m not writing honestly.
I want to tell you all about the man I’m involved with, but I can’t because that wouldn’t be fair to him.
I want to tell you all about the man I ran into while I was walking up the sidewalk to the man I’m involved with’s house, and how the man I ran into was someone I had previously had a crush on, and that was obvious to all of us.
I want to tell you all about how I recently wrote an essay about hooking up with a younger-than-me firefighter, and about how I sent the essay to him and asked if he would have a problem with it being published somewhere prominent, and he said that he wouldn’t, but if it was, he was going to share it with everyone he knew and tell them that he had hooked up with a writer.
I want to tell you all about how that firefighter has been nothing but a positive experience for me.
The night that we “hooked up,” he looked at me and said, “I like your body. You have a good body.”
My body feels like ruins.
I want to tell you all what it feels like to be ruins.
I want to tell you all what it feels like to be rubble.
I want to tell you all how it feels when someone who I thought only saw me as a potential hookup says to me, quite earnestly, “Kelly, I don’t think of you as a hookup. I think of you as someone I could be serious about.”
Then says, “I know that we have hung out at night, but you’re someone I’d like to do daytime things with too.”
I want to tell you all how getting what I want is such a double-edged sword because what I want is not really what I want.
I want to tell you all how I don’t even know which of my wants is the real want.
I want to tell you all how this man articulates to me that he is afraid of fucking things up with me, and all I can think is, “You have no idea how gloriously I can fuck things up.”
I want to tell you all how I know that I am fucking things up right now. That this, right here, is me fucking things up.
I want to tell you all how scared I am–not of this man, but of myself. Of my history. Of all of the ways in which I can gloriously fuck things up.
At this point, I know that I can handle a man. I am no longer scared of a man.
But how do I handle myself? My own ghosts?
I want to tell you all how I had to review my correspondences with Caleb yesterday–how I had to re-read email threads that included his messages and my replies.
I want to tell you all how present-day Kelly can see what a mind-fuck Caleb was always presenting me with.
I want to tell you all how abused-Kelly couldn’t see the mind-fuckery.
I want to tell you all how present-day Kelly is always terrified that she is still just abused-Kelly.
I want to tell you all how the mind-fuckery was not temporary.
I want to tell you all how the mind-fuckery has altered the way I see the world. The way I see other people.
More than anything, I want to tell you all how the mind-fuckery has altered the way I see myself.
But I also want to tell you all about how my friend says to me, “Look how far you’ve come.”
I want to tell you all about how I pursue this man who doesn’t see me as a hookup because I like myself, and all along, I think, “If he’s not interested in me, then it’s his loss.”
I want to tell you all about how I can hook up with a younger firefighter, and it’s fun, and we become friends.
I want to tell you all about how I tell my friend at dinner tonight that I’m worried I’ll get into a relationship and discover that I haven’t really grown in the ways I’ve thought I have, and she says, “No, that’s not how growth works. You will not just lose all of the progress you’ve made when you’re in a relationship.”
I want to tell you all how Caleb is remarried and has another child, but Reed tells me that they argue, and the new wife says, “Stop treating me like a kid.”
I want to tell you all that the argument Reed describes to me sounds pretty harmless, that Caleb and his new wife don’t appear to fight like Caleb and I did.
I want to tell you all that Caleb never treated me like a kid. He always treated me like his equal.
He always treated me like a woman.
I want to tell you all that I think that was the problem.
I want to tell you all how I need a man who is okay being with a woman.
I want to tell you all how I need a man who is okay being with a force.
I want to tell you all so much, but I guess I just did.
Most of all, I want to tell you all that I don’t have any answers, that dating after abuse is hard. I am fucking terrified, and I should be.
Caleb is remarried and has a new baby because he didn’t do any work. He didn’t try to change. He didn’t need to. Why should he have to change?
Abuse only benefits the perpetrator.
And it sucks that I’m in this situation, that I’m the one who has to heal, who has to try and move forward, who has to change.
But I will not let him destroy me. I will change in the ways that I need to change. I will move on. I believe that I will love someone in healthy ways, and maybe that person will only be myself, but I also believe that there is a person out there who will love me in all of my brokenness, as well as all of my togetherness.
Most of all, this is what I have to say about Caleb: I will not let him break me.
I am not broken.
Also, FUCK HIM SO HARD.
We told ghost stories at the residency I’m at tonight. Some of them were funny, and some of them were actually very creepy.
The idea of ghosts is a recurring theme in my memoir.
I am not saying that I believe in ghosts, but I have some very good ghost stories.
The building that this residency is housed in is known to be haunted, and I am in the room that is supposed to be the most haunted.
At my last residency, we had a writer’s salon one evening in the house I was staying in. One of the other writers said, “I have heard this house is haunted.”
I replied, “It’s not. I’m very sensitive to ghosts. If it was haunted, I would know.”
Then, I realized that I sounded like someone who believes in ghosts.
I have sleep disturbances.
I have had two sleep studies done. I was still married to Caleb at the time, and I was at my most miserable in my marriage.
The sleep doctor asked me if I had ever felt a sudden loss of strength in my limbs. I told him that I had when I was an adolescent.
He said that loss of strength afflicts adolescent girls more than anyone, and it is connected to sleep disturbances.
I thought, So do poltergeists.
When I think back on adolescence, I can think of nothing but sadness and ghosts.
I couldn’t sleep back then because there were too many fucking ghosts.
During my sleep studies, the technician Todd would take my blood pressure, which was always high. Then, I would sit on the bed, and Todd would scrape a paste on to my head. He would attach wires to the paste, and though he was trying to be gentle, it hurt.
Soon, there would be wires all over my head.
Todd seemed fond of me, and I appreciated his tenderness.
Then, I would sit in the bed and watch television until ten pm when Todd’s voice would come in over the speaker and tell me that it was time to sleep. I would lay down and not-sleep.
During my first sleep study, I slept for less than an hour. It wasn’t enough time for them to get any conclusive evidence, but the doctor’s theory that I was narcoleptic turned out to be unfounded.
Caleb picked me up, took me home, and I slept all day in the bed that we shared together. I remember that he crawled in around 1pm when Reed went down for his nap–that I was still so sleepy, so groggy, but I wrapped my legs around Caleb, pulled him into my arms, and we had this almost psychedelic sex before falling asleep while wound together.
I remember that my dreams during that nap were disturbing, and I felt terrible when I woke up around 5pm.
I remember going downstairs to Caleb and Reed. Caleb was making me a fancy dinner, and he said to Reed, “Look, Mommy’s awake!”
I remember thinking, This is my family, and I can never leave them.
I used to scream and thrash around in my sleep. Caleb would wrap me in his arms so tightly. He would whisper into my ear, “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
My eyes would open. Heart racing. Then I would relax into his chest.
He would whisper, “You’re safe. You’re safe.”
After I left Caleb, I stopped seeing ghosts.
I can’t attribute the ghosts to Caleb because they predated him, but why did they disappear when I left him?
Maybe, all along, they were just trying to warn me.
Maybe, all along, they were friendly.
I have a ghost in my room here. A friendly ghost.
And suddenly, I am also feeling that loss of strength in my limbs again. I stood up from a couch the other day, then walked into a hallway before I felt the weakness, almost sunk to the floor, but held my hand to the wall and steadied myself until it passed.
I can’t help but feel like the ghost and loss of strength have something in common, but the truth is that I know the loss of strength is likely tied to my blood pressure. I am on blood pressure medication, and I need to ask my doctor to lower my dosage because my blood pressure is now, not only normal, but low.
During my second sleep study, I talked to Caleb a lot on the phone. I wanted to leave him, but I was conflicted. I didn’t know what to do. We talked for hours. I told him how miserable I was, and he tried to talk me out of being miserable. I might have cried.
Todd’s voice piped in at 11 pm to tell me that I needed to sleep.
I realized that he had let me stay up an hour later than he should have. I realized that he had heard my end of the conversation.
The next morning, Caleb brought me breakfast. Reed ran in, shouted, “MOMMY!” and hugged me.
I knew that Todd was not supposed to let Caleb in to see me, but he did, and I could see Caleb’s desperation. I knew that I wasn’t going to leave Caleb for good yet, but he didn’t know that yet.
I stayed at the sleep lab until noon. I slept for something like three hours during the entire 12 hour period. It was enough for my sleep doctor to diagnose me with apnea. My tonsils are oversized, and I have probably struggled with this since I was a child.
This is likely where my ghosts came from. They were a manifestation of my sleep disturbances.
They were never real.
When I wake in the middle of the night, it is so hard to tell what is real and what is not.
Is it a ghost, or a dream, or just my own fears?
The truth is that I am always haunted.
Sometimes I still find a bruise on my body and think, When did he give me that?
After my last sleep study, I went to see the sleep doctor for a follow-up. Todd took my blood pressure. “It’s normal,” he said to me. “What did you do?”
“I left my husband,” I said.
“Looks like you made the right decision,” he said.
He stared into my eyes. I knew that he was thinking of that night when I had been on the phone with Caleb, when I had said, “I don’t know how to do this anymore. I can’t do this anymore.”
“The doctor will be in shortly,” he said, then left the room.
I sat on the same bed where I had talked with Caleb on the phone.
The ghost of the woman I had been only months earlier was with me while I waited.
The second night that I was in my haunted room here at the residency, I woke up to a knocking sound. I was in a sleep delirium. I thought it was a ghost. I shouted out, “GO AWAY.”
Then, in the same sleep delirium, I thought, Yelling will not fix this problem.
I said, “I’m sorry, but I’m really tired. Would you please just let me sleep?”
The knocking stopped.
Why am I haunted again?
I had a very detailed dream last night where a friend was being abused and I wanted to support her, but also to keep her safe.
I kept trying to leave the house where her abuser was, but I couldn’t.
Finally, in this dream, I backed the abuser into a corner. I wasn’t as tall as him, but I grabbed a foot stool, stood on it, then towered over him.
I said to him, “If you ever hurt me, you will die.”
He grew larger, stared down at me, then bellowed, “Are you daring me?”
I stared back up at him. I said No.
The man cowered. Backed down.
But there’s more.
In my dream, I grabbed my friend, and I told her that we needed to leave. Then, she told me that she believed in her abuser, that she trusted him, that she didn’t want to leave him.
She made herself grow very small and climbed into a baby stroller (this was a dream, after all).
I told her, “I am not going to tell you how to live your life, but I think that you are making the wrong decision.”
I left my dream-friend in the baby stroller, and I walked away.
Then I woke up.
I used to be the friend in the baby stroller. I used to make myself very small.
Now I know how to make myself large–how to say, If you hurt me, you will die.
Sometimes, I still wake up and see a bruise. Sometimes, I still think, “When did he do that?”
But he didn’t do it.
And he never will again.
The ghosts didn’t do it either.
I am still haunted, but the ghosts don’t scare me anymore.
They’re friendly ghosts now.