Alice Whitefeather credits the strength of the Jaguar in helping her escape both her captors—her pimp and her addiction. Though she was free, Alice couldn’t sleep and she couldn’t feel her life. She could only stand outside of herself, wakeful and observing.

She came to her therapist, Natasha, to ask for help with these two things. These days, Alice felt only in flashback. Flashbacks came in a trinity of terror: images, pictures and a stomachful of fear. Childhood’s sexual violations were a cold floor where she and the excrement lay, the degrading names were the curling iron that burned her and the physical assaults were the stones thrown at her eyes and head as she curled in a ball to hide.

Soon after Alice had escaped her childhood home as a teen runaway, she met Scott. He understood her. Scott shared her dreams of a better future in a new city. He paid her way. When they arrived, Alice met his new face and all the other girls whom he controlled as his prostitutes. There the girls all lived on the cold floor, nursed their burns, curled themselves away from the hurtling stones. Scott brought something new to her life, however. He made all the girls take drugs; they were easier to control that way.

Natasha helped Alice get Social Security Disability Insurance and housing for her new life. She taught Alice how to soothe herself, to manage her feelings, to find a life story with many more rooms than those that imprisoned her. Alice learned to sleep. Alice felt her way into a plan. She went to school, found work.

Only after many, many months of working together did Alice Whitefeather speak once and sparingly to Natasha of the sacred spirit of the Jaguar that had helped her. The Jaguar was the spirit of waiting and ferocity. He killed with one bite. He was not afraid to walk through humanity’s darkness; his endurance was unmatched. Alice Whitefeather said the night she took the money and ran, the Jaguar ran beside her, slipped in and out of doorways for months, helped her live on courage. Alice told this story to Natasha, gave her a white feather and did not return for fifteen years.

Upon her return, Alice brought Natasha pictures of her wife and children. The kids were independent enough now that Alice was thinking of returning to school so that she could work with troubled teens. Together, they reviewed the turns in her path that had brought her to this place of ever increasing fulfillment.

“I honor your Jaguar,” said Natasha. Alice Whitefeather looked at her.

“The Jaguar does not offer comfort or reassurance, only his strength. The turning point for me was when you cried for me. No one had ever cried for me before. I began to think that if you were crying for me, maybe I was actually someone who was worth something—someone who was worth crying for. I thought you knew this. I gave you my feather.”

“I did not understand,” replied Natasha, and she cried again.

“We cannot live without fearlessness; that is true. And we cannot live without love’s tears. Do you understand now?”

She did.

 

 

“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” Sam sang the words to the classic children’s book as he struggled to put on his baby sister’s shoes.  “I see a little girl looking at me!” He reached up and tickled his almost-three-year-old “Sister” ‘till she laughed. She was tired and he couldn’t fix that. Tired made her grumpy, but he could often fix grumpy.  And sometimes he could fix hungry. Sam was only four, but if he climbed up on a chair, he could reach the sink to fix her a bowl of cereal and water. He’d never seen the Brown Bear book, but once when he was in the doctor’s office waiting room, he listened to a mother read it over and over to her son.

Their mom, Cassie, did what she could. Years of struggle with mental illness had taken its toll. There was just enough food to skinny by. There was often heat when it was cold in the small, rent subsidized apartment. The Department of Children and Families knew how hard Cassie worked to keep these children. Cassie was in therapy and trying a new combination of medications that seemed promising.  One of the conditions of the Department of Children and Families’ service plan was that the kids had to go to preschool.

When the teachers met Sam and Sister, he stood with his hand on her back, silently reassuring her. Sister looked excited to be around the pretty toys. Sam looked exhausted.  The  teachers consulted with Sam. They learned from him that at home there was no such thing as regular bedtime, bath time or meals in their house.  Clean laundry was a rarity. Still, it was better than  when there was more food and heat and a raging father who filled their days with fear.

For days, Sam stood to the side of the room and watched the teachers like a hawk. After the first week, the  teachers let him know that they felt it was their turn to take charge of Sister. Sam nodded quietly. For seven hours during the days, they would tend to her. They would wash her face, comb her hair, put socks on her feet and find clean clothes for her if they were soiled.  They sang to her and read to her and taught her games. When she burst into rages with emotions so much bigger than her little life knew how to handle, the teachers came close to her; they held her and they would not let her go. Sam and Sister and the other children ate and rested together on a regular schedule. And for the first time in his life, Sam played.

On Monday mornings, Sam would wake Sister up early, excited for the week at pre-school ahead of them. When it was time to go to Kindergarten, not only did Sam know his colors and his letters, he knew “Sister” would be loved at school. His teachers had read them Brown Bear so many times that he knew it by heart. At the end of the Going to Kindergarten Party, Sam gave a long hug to his favorite teacher.

“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” she whispered to him as they rocked in their hug.

“I see a Teacher looking at me,” he answered.

 

Leave A Comment, Written on March 14th, 2014 , children and violence

“He always said I was crazy.” Debbie cradled her head in her hands, waiting for her mental health crisis clinician Robin to come back with the cup of water she had asked for. Debbie’s mouth was dry with fear. The truth was, she couldn’t see a way through this slow heavy darkness that seemed to press down on her. Tonight, dying seemed the only way to escape its intolerable press. She couldn’t breathe. Nothing seemed to make it better. There was nowhere to turn, so she came to Crisis. “That makes me crazy, doesn’t it?”

 

When Robin handed her the water in a white mug, Debbie thought of her husband Andy holding up the coffee mug that had been her mother’s.

“Is this the one? Oh—too-bad,” he said, as he let it smash to the floor. When the kids rushed in to see what the noise had been, he explained, “Oh, your mother’s so uncoordinated, she is just dropping things again. You know how she is. Be careful you don’t step on any chards.”

When they left, he explained to her, “You see, no one will ever believe you. They know how crazy you are. I make sure they know you are a liar.”

 

And they didn’t believe her. Many years later, when their father died of a heart attack, the kids, now adults, mourned Andy deeply. After awhile, she tried to tell them just a little bit about the abuse she had endured from him all of those years. She tried to tell them that they didn’t deserve it when he would hit them or scream at them, but they wouldn’t, couldn’t, hear one word of it. When a person is intermittently loving and scary, we are bound to them even more tightly than if they were simply loving. It was one of the terrible barbs of her husband’s abuse that the children were bound so much more tightly to him, even in death, than they were to her. And he was charming. He’d charmed the pastor, the sheriff, the couple’s counselor and the neighbors. There was nowhere to turn.

 

Decades ago, Andy had stopped being even the slightest bit kind to her when not in public. The one benefit of this was though she had felt trapped by him, she hadn’t felt attached to him in the end. Today was the anniversary of his death. She and the kids had gathered at his gravesite, the way they have done for the past seven years. Today the kids were cold to her in that old, familiar Andy way. They left the cemetery and went their separate ways. She thought they might be gathering without her. Debbie’s thoughts turned darker and more painful as the evening wore on, until she reached out to the Crisis team.

 

“What’s on your mind?” asked Robin. Debbie held the mug with the water. She looked at Robin carefully, and then decided to try. It took awhile. She told about her life with Andy and the kids. She told about his death. She said the thing that she had not been able to say to anyone:

“I’m not sorry he died. I am so relieved. I am so grateful. I am so—happy—he’s gone.”

Debbie cried through a smile that grew wider as she spoke those words. Then, after a very long pause, she told her truth. She told story after story of the humiliations small and large, of the threats and the assaults.  She didn’t rush. She deliberately opened every door and every window in the airless house with Andy where contempt had reigned. She talked and no one stopped her.

 

It was unlike any Crisis intake Robin had done, because sometimes–this time—the primary intervention is being the safe person in the safe place where the truth can be told and honored.

“And I don’t have to punish myself anymore,” laughed Debbie as she sipped her water. “I don’t have to die because I feel so glad he’s dead or because I’m telling you what happened. And you believe me?”

“I believe you.”

“I can tell.”

 

 

 

At seventy-six years of age, it took Rosetta a while to glue each tiny plastic pearl in its place on her sturdy shoe-sized cardboard box. For weeks, Rosetta had been gluing small pearls and painting the tiniest of cornflower blue flowers, so many, in fact, that she dreampt of fields of blue flowers at night. Dreaming of flowers was better than the nightmares she usually had. Nightmares about the restraints from the hospital stay long ago, or what her brother had done to her when she was just a young teen, when her eyes were clear and brighter blue.

If this was therapy, this was great. Rosetta loved her Art Therapist. They didn’t sit awkwardly in chairs, looking at each other, waiting for words to untangle something that wanted to stay tangled. They talked about the feel of these sturdy materials, about mixing color, and about making a Comfort Box. What would a Comfort Box for Rosetta look like? What would it hold?

Rosetta found beautiful pictures and soft materials—a kind of white fur and even satin–to grace her box. Inside it were things that said everything, without demanding words. There were the pine needles that reminded her of the soft and forgiving bed under her feet that awaited her in the woods, even if she couldn’t get there much now. There was birch bark, a love letter from her favorite tree, which reminded her of her mother’s white skin, their shared love of the water and how it is that this tree, and her mother, would weaken and die under too much battering stress. There was water in a jar, with seaweed. Sure, that would have to be changed often, but so too do we have to often freshen and change the way we care for our always changing self. There were seventy-six years of reflections in this box. Every time Rosetta opened it, there was something new to discover.

Like the young woman on the cover. Her Art Therapist had shown her how to use the materials that made the picture shiny and stick permanently among the flowers and the pearls. Rosetta had labored especially over this picture she’d cut out of a young woman. She added tint, found the right brightness to surround her with, making sure she was ensconced in beauty. For many weeks she had labored over her art and, once complete, for many weeks more she sat at home with this breathtaking box.

“I know who she is,” Rosetta said with surprise and some finality in her voice. “She is my daughter.”

And so Rosetta told what she had not told to her many helpers over the decades and what she could tell with the grace of that box and all its months of comforts filling the place that opened in the telling. “When my brother forced me, I went to that hospital where the attendant forced me, too… I became pregnant and they made me have that operation…I think this is what she would have looked like.” Rosetta sat with her Art Therapist.

Together, they mourned. Together, they found more ways to paint and cut and color and move and hold the many things this shining face had to tell them.

Leave A Comment, Written on June 18th, 2013 , Sexual violence

This is a testimony a reader asked me to share.

“In 1963, I was thirteen years old. That’s when I met Peg. She was my therapist.

I wouldn’t be here now without her. I have tried suicide. Things got really rough for me. You see, I was one of eleven kids, and I’d been sexually molested by both my Dad and my brother. Back then, people didn’t talk about these things.

I was down and out when I had to go to court and when… it hit the papers. People in my own family were so hard on me. I wasn’t even going outside anymore. I wouldn’t want anybody to go through what I did. My brother went to jail for it. And things got worse in my family for me, because when he got out, he was killed by a drunk driver and somehow everyone laid the blame for it all on my shoulders. But there I was, thirteen and I had to testify and I was all alone, except for Peg, and my sister, Sharon.

I saw Peg for nine years before she retired. And then I would go and see her in the nursing home. There’s just never going to be enough I could say to thank everybody who helped me. After Peg, there was my Sexual Assault Advocate and my Outreach Worker. People were there for me 24/7 when things got rough. They helped me. They made me believe in life. They made me believe that there is something out there for me. They helped me try.

If you can believe it, I went into the service and learned about electronics. That’s where I learned a lot about life. I met a world of different people from everywhere and you ask yourself, ‘What are you doing for your country, for others?’ I saw there was more out there than me. There’s more to life than dwelling in the past. When I got out, I worked on putting parts into electronic games—making prototypes for the handhelds in Research and Development at Milton Bradley. I was the only female. I had my own desk and a phone. That’s when I started to feel worth something, like what Peg had always said about me was really true. I met some wonderful people there.

My sister Sharon worked in people’s houses for eighteen years. She was put in for Employee of the Year and she won it. The day after the ceremony, she died from pancreatic cancer. All those years, people wanted her to go into management, but she wanted to be with people, not paper. And no one even knew her own husband had schizophrenia. My sister knew how people struggled, and she spent her life helping them. Sharon believed in me.  There wasn‘t a day she didn’t stop by or call. I want to be like that.

When Sharon died, some of the old bad feelings came back. My advocate was there for me. I had phone numbers to call her. She taught me to be around other people. Hibernating will get you in a heap of trouble. Once I start getting depressed, I’m like, ‘Get your butt up and move!’ And you know what I say now? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You know, there is so much stigma. You know, it’s not fair that people think bad things about people who need help—there’s nothing they could have done. It’s not their fault.

I’ve got all my positive thoughts to fall back on. Good people gave me the momentum to keep on going. Now I will do anything possible not to get depressed.

It is 2013. I am going to be sixty in July. I want to be an advocate myself. I have gotten to the point where I know I am worth it and I want other people to know they are worth it. I don’t want everything they have done for me to go to waste. They have helped and I want to give back. I want people to know they are worth something.  Now I am getting to be like Peg was, like, my sister, Sharon was, like my advocate was. I thought it was all lost for me, but it’s just getting going. All because of one woman’s determination to make a place for people who struggle.”
–Barbara.

Leave A Comment, Written on April 3rd, 2013 , Sexual violence

A girl I knew, a friend of a friend, nudged me awake to safety. She told me to be careful where I crashed now that the party was over. I opened my eyes to the sneering contempt of the guys who had descended upon me, and a lament that they didn’t have a camera and they didn’t have time to “get it.” Then they detailed how repulsive I was anyway, so it didn’t matter. It was the mid-eighties. I found out later that the young woman who had awakened me had also woken up a few weekends earlier, in the middle of the Steubenville style assaults against her. In fact, her boyfriend was watching and laughing as his friends assaulted her. Other friends spoke to me about things like being forced by their boyfriends to get on the scale naked while he shouted how disgusting she was, or having her faced shoved into his crotch or having his friends jump out from under the bed to mock her after she had had sex with her boyfriend in what she had thought was privacy. The young women needed to talk, but also insisted I not say anything to anyone else because it was clear that safety and justice were goals that would have to paid for, over and over by the victims. They navigated the social strata safely and ably—saying ‘hi’ in the hall on Mondays to the assailants and protectors when necessary. This was thirty years ago.
There is a branching off, around fifth grade, for the boys and the girls. The boys are stuck facing the guys who are telling them how fucking hilarious it is that their older brother was having sex with this slut on the beach—his dick fell in the sand—and he shoved it into the bitch anyway. What will the rest of the boys say to him? And the girls are stuck facing those guys, too—we are wondering which way you will go, what will you say? What will you do? What will nudge you—shove you—awake? What have you taught your boys to say and do?

Leave A Comment, Written on March 19th, 2013 , Sexual violence, Steubenville

Bibi, one of a pair of Galapagos giant tortoises has left her mate, Poldi. After one hundred years, Bibi had had enough of the relationship, and took a chunk out of Poldi’s shell to signal her step into freedom. Keepers at the Reptile Zoo in Klagenfurt, Austria, say that now whenever they are brought together, Bibi remains firm in her conviction, hissing at Poldi, who violently lunges at her.
“They are both 115 and have been together since they were very young,” said zoo owner Helga Happ.
Bibi remains entirely uninterested in reuniting with Poldi, moving on to new daily routines.
“I just wanted to be absolutely sure that I’d tried everything possible to save the relationship,” said Bibi in an interview, “but I finally realized that though he claimed he was working on changing, it was all talk and the same lunging at my lettuce at dinner and apologies in the morning. I’m not as naive as I was in my fifties–if you can’t keep up with me, then I’m not waiting around for you to change.”

Be my valentine. Be the kind of person my son would invite
into his puce room to show you his five story dollhouse  filled with spiky heeled dolls and diva
intrigues, while he wears the dress and heels he slips into after school and
before karate. If you don’t get it, just don’t spit on it. Today he is Barbra
building Monticello.

As for my daughter, you know how a mother is, I’m going to
have to insist on a few details before the candy hearts get passed around today
at the party—no acid throwing in her face, no stalking, no governing her uterus
or sticking parts of your body and things into her without permission in order
to teach her she’s really not a sovereign being. She is.

As for me, I am thousand birthing rooms today. I am the
first touch of my husband’s hands fifteen years ago that full-stopped me into,
“Oh.”

I bow to touch the feet of the dancer teacher, Heidi, who unlocked the cell of my own body so I
could live in its open air courtyard. I place my life’s paper on Mr. McGillicuddy’s desk because he reads for love and courage.

I’m sending valentines out all day, even to the jerks, the
kind of jerks and the total jerks. It’s good for me and it helps me dance and
they probably don’t care, but I think it helps things along, really.

And,  thank you for
reading this. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Leave A Comment, Written on February 14th, 2013 , relationship, Valentine's Day
After a ski in the wood and cold, as I soak in the heat of the tub, this sometimes occurs to me:
How I soaked once on such a day long ago at the old hill farm in Vermont, when my former husband leaned against the doorway of the bathroom and asked me this:
“Do you really think you are that smart?”
The tenor of his voice was so even that I thought to be jovial, even chatty, in my responses–
Yes, I… do. That was never an undiscovered and uncelebrated aspect of my being—the much praised, much lauded Brilliant Young Girl/Woman Story. Writing awards, special projects, fellowships and prizes. Professorial stamps of support and approval. But I had already traced that story for him —how the city and suburbs were both energetic and protective, in their own ways, but never my place. And academia was an ill-fit as well, with even the very best telling me, “You don’t need our small, plastic chairs. You don’t need us.” That I had come to the hill farm in the Northeast Kingdom to learn the things I needed to know from the land and, as it had become clear, to also build the spiritual retreat center there.
“And do you think that you can really take on this project with Maggie for the Coop?”
“Yes,” I slowed, more curious than wary, “It’s going really well.” I didn’t see how my working with Maggie on the Food Coop’s Board restructuring could be so unsettling to him.
“Well, sure it is, now that you two are totally disagreeing with me. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t move into a place and just jump in to something this size without knowing anyone. I guess I’m not that smart.”
His eyes flared, his face turned red and he began to shake as his voice opened to bellow, “You are So Smart, then! You are Just So Smart, aren’t you?” He came close, looming over me as I clenched my wet knees, realizing with an immense disappointment that this is what the careful tone had masked. I didn’t yet know the ins and outs of this kind of cruelty. I didn’t know its pattern and cut, the way I do now. I couldn’t imagine any of it was more than a mistaken moment that could easily be overcome.
I began to shake in the water.
“Look at you! Shaking!” he shouted. Not yet fully tutored, I hoped, for a split second, that my quaking had awakened him to his fuller senses. “Look at you!” he shook his head and twisted his mouth into a smirk of contempt. “Look at what you do to yourself,” and then he retreated with a heavy foot.
One of the many things he said when I told him much later that I was leaving him was this, “Don’t leave. You know how you changed that feral cat you found? It was working with me, too. Don’t give up.”
Of course he could never hold on to the concept that he was in any way like that feral cat, or that I had anything to offer him; this would be ultimately as unacceptable to him as the notion that I was “smart.” But he did know that to offer this vision to me at that juncture could be effective and enticing, just as the mask of the gentle spiritual warrior had been so attractive for so many.
And still is. He still runs the retreat, and would recoil at being faced with the unadorned facts that he emotionally, physically and sexually assaulted the woman who challenged the reign of his private kingdom.
Together a few experienced advocates and I offer retreats for women healing from destructive relationships. I always begin by saying in welcome, “My goal is to help you become women who are hard to fool.” Women who come for help and support are often surprised that we can anticipate and bring to light what they thought was hidden, that we know the paces of outrageously violating storms that stir in the smallest of spaces. When we look together, we can see what is not so clear to the untutored eye—we leave with much to teach our daughters and friends about power’s sleights of hand—minimization and blame; context stripping and typecasting; fear, isolation and the hint of kindness and hope that forge the traumatic bond.
I came to the hill farm with a request of the earth to show me the gifts I did not possess. She told me these things:
You cannot pull out the roots to check on their growth; there is a place for light and rain, but give the roots the darkened mystery they crave. Let yourself unfold. You will root over time.
A hundred seasons exist inside one season—how could you be bereft of blossom?
And this,
The earth erodes all superficial cover. All will be revealed in time.
Peace for us all this new year.

“Suzanne” is a domestic and sexual violence advocate, working in a rural county. She also works part time in the downtown liquor store. It was pretty late in her shift at the store when a woman came in looking to buy a nip. The woman’s hands were shaking as she rummaged in her bag for her i.d. Suzanne noted to herself the woman’s disheveled appearance; her clothes and hair were soiled, her eyes, bloodshot. There are a few people who come into the liquor store like this. Suzanne felt put off. She didn’t want to turn her back on the woman, in case she would try to steal from the store. “What is wrong with her? What a wreck,” Suzanne thought to herself.

 When the woman showed her identification, Suzanne felt stopped in her tracks. As part of her work as a Civilian Police Advocate for her town’s Police Department, Suzanne receives referrals from the police as a follow-up to any domestic violence incident. Suzanne recognized the name and thought of how many times the woman’s name had appeared on that referral list—and how many times Suzanne had called to offer support and information, yet she had never heard back from her.

 Because of her work as a domestic and sexual violence advocate, everything for Suzanne changed as she held the i.d. in her hands. She was reminded again how important it is to stop asking ourselves, “What is wrong with her?” and instead to consider what might have happened to her.

 Suzanne decided to just start talking—about how hard it is to be a parent sometimes, how tired she could get—how relationships can be a strain. And the woman began talking to Suzanne. She bought her nip and she stayed to talk. Eventually, Suzanne told her about her job as an advocate. She and the woman met and talked together on and off over the next few months. She learned how the woman had endured humiliations we couldn’t imagine, as when her husband refused to let her get up from the couch as he hit and threatened her. He made her stay there even as she begged to go to the bathroom. Once she soiled herself, he called in their children to witness “how disgusting” their mother is. He had control of their finances, and he made sure he paid all the things that were in his name. Anything that was in her name, he would be sure to skip payments, so that her credit would be systematically undermined. He monitored all the calls and most of her contact with others, so that she had never received any of Suzanne’s initial calls. Her drinking was her way of “self-medicating,” of finding a way to bear the unbearable.

 Suzanne hadn’t heard from the woman in awhile when she came into the liquor store one evening. Someone else in the back of the store needed her attention, but Suzanne didn’t want to turn her back on her, she was so happy to see her again.

“You look so—healthy!” exclaimed Suzanne.

“Yeah. I stopped drinking. I moved out with the kids. I just—I just wanted you to know,” she paused, “that you were the only one who didn’t spit on me.”

Leave A Comment, Written on December 20th, 2012 , relationship

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JAC Patrissi is a Communications Specialist who uses writing, performance art, training and collaborative facilitation in order to support healing for women who are questioning the health of their relationships or who are healing from destructive relationships. This is her blog.