By Michelle Oppenheimer
- Poetry Workshop in a Domestic Abuse Shelter
On Tuesday there will be a poetry workshop. Flyers taped to the kitchen cabinets, posted on the bulletin boards that line the front hallway announce it. Some of us sign up. Some of us want something more, something to do with our time, something to release us from the hamster wheel of the present. One of us drags a cracked plastic bin from under her bed: the poems she’s written for years that she hides still.
We show up for the first meeting, not knowing what to expect. The poetry lady is young, wears a funky dress and red-plastic framed glasses. She begins by lighting a jasmine-scented candle, asks us to focus on the flame as we calm our breathing. She reads aloud a poem about a diver exploring a sunken ship. She asks us what we think it is about. A woman in a crisp ironed blouse and floor-length black skirt says it is about finding our own truth. The poetry lady, making eye-contact, nods. A woman in plaid pajama bottoms and broken purple flip-flops says it is about women being silenced. The poetry lady agrees and suggests it is also about salvaging what is ours. She invites us to write a poem, perhaps inspired by what we have just heard. Some of us begin scribbling right away. One of gnaws her pencil eraser. One of us gets up, banging into furniture, and leaves the room.
After waiting patiently, the poetry lady asks if anyone wants to read what she has written. One of us volunteers to read her poem first. It sucks, she says. The poetry lady says gently, No, it’s important that you let us hear it without the disclaimer.
The woman in the skin-tight pink tank top, says: What was that line: the wreck and not the story of the wreck? We have to start telling the truth, so our sisters will know they are not alone. She reads.
Sticks and stones can break my bones
on the corner of the block.
Little girls, hands on hips,
our chins and butts stuck out.
911 dispatch always asks:
Are there any weapons in the house?
I want to scream
Why the fuck do you think I’m calling?
The gun, the closet rod,
the kitchen knives I hid.
We were wrong
when we sang
but words can never hurt me.
Some of us clap, one of us leans over and hugs the poet, one of us covers her nose and mouth, snot escaping between her fingers. The poetry lady thanks the woman in the pink tank top for sharing, for her courage and honesty. She asks if anyone else wants to share her poetry. Some of us do. And when we are done, the poetry lady cups her hands around the candle flame and blows. One of us asks her how soon she’ll be back.
I have spent my life living between pages, tucked in like a child at bedtime, warmed by the author’s breath, hiding behind fiction. Hoping I would not be called on in elementary school, too shy to speak in class, I literally hid behind novels. I read to escape, first my childhood and then the isolation of boarding school. I hid behind the fiction of the dutiful daughter, although I once did not speak to my father for seven years, something I deeply regret; the contented wife, although in retrospect I wanted out even before we married; the devoted mother, although that was not enough to protect my daughters from their abusive father.
I have written reams about my experience, but always in the form of fiction. In the aftermath of leaving my abusive marriage, I wrote the vignette you have just read: “Poetry Workshop in a Domestic Abuse Shelter,” part of my novella, Shelter.
The backstory: I did not take my daughters to a shelter for battered women and children. The one and only time I called The Mid-Peninsula Support Network for Battered Women, desperate to escape, to find shelter and safety for my daughters and I, I was put on hold, where I listened to an endless loop of The Police’s “I’ll be watching you.” I threw the phone across the room, shaking.
I have been told, amid expressions of horror, disbelief, and raucous laughter, that I could never include that in a work of fiction, that it would not be credible.
- Writing my way into the story: The Children
Some of us stand our ground, planting our feet wide the way we’ve seen cops stand when a neighbor, a sister, our mother, calls them. Some us are brave, or put on a show of bravado. Some of us flinch at shadows, a raised arm, the clatter of pots. Some of us hide under beds, in the narrow spaces he can’t get to, in closets, behind our mothers. One of us writes hate poems on the closet wall behind her clothes where her father would never look. One of us, a four-year-old, cups her hands over her mouth when she hears keys jingle in the hallway. Her big sisters run, grab her hair into a rough ponytail, race to the bathroom with her, turn away while she vomits. No one mentions it afterwards, ever. One of us cuts her arms, Just making the scars visible, she says, grinning. One of us becomes mute, refusing to speak until a therapist tells her mother, The girl can speak for herself. Some of us hold our breath, waiting until we grow bigger and stronger than him and can take him on. We know we will have to win or he will kill us.
We plot our escapes: leaping over balcony railings and running in broad daylight, sneaking out the back door on a cold grey morning, growing up and leaving home and never looking back. Some of us want to take our mothers with us when we run. Some of us fantasize taking the baby. Some of us daydream of doing to him what he does to our mothers, to us. Three brothers sit in a tight circle and take turns telling how they’ll do it: I’ll punch him to death, the oldest brother says. Nah, I’ll shoot him with a gun, says the littlest, lisping through a toothless gap. We hide our treasures, planning to take them with us, or we cry over broken toys, ripped dresses, a shattered plate, planning to take nothing that will remind us of home, of him, when we leave.
Some of us sleep in our mother’s beds, our arms wrapped around her neck. We pretend we’re too tired to climb out of her bed and into our own. We say I can’t sleep by myself. It’s cold. It’s dark. Some of us are afraid she won’t sleep without us. Some of our mothers don’t sleep. They wander the house checking the locks. One fourteen-year-old girl wants to stretch out in a bed instead of on her mother’s bedroom floor, where she sleeps on rough carpeting guarding the door. Some of us sleep soundly knowing he can’t get to us at the shelter. Some of us are afraid he will find us here.
- Telling the truth as nearly as I can.
Fiction allows me to create and enter another world. Memoir and the personal essay invite me to mine the world as I’ve experienced it. It was my middle daughter who wrote “hate poems on the closet wall behind her clothes where her father would never look.” My youngest, who vomited at the sound of what might have been her father’s keys in the hallway. My oldest daughter self-mutilated, and with her inimitable, heartbreaking awareness, explained it by saying: Just making the scars visible. It was my middle daughter who became mute, until a therapist reminded both of us that she could speak for herself. It was me who walked the house nights, checking the locks.
- The world split open
I workshopped “Children,” an excerpt of my novella, Shelter, with Dorothy Allison, the author of Bastard Out of Carolina, who I assumed would and did understand what I was writing. There were eleven of us in workshop; nine women and two men. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, one of the two men chose not to offer any feedback on my writing, failed even to return the manuscript; the other scrawled across the front page of the manuscript he returned to me: “Who elected you spokesman?” I stopped writing for a year.
Abuse is insidious. It doesn’t spring full blown. It begins with moments that you want to understand, that you want to overlook, that you want to see as momentary, excusable aberrations. It begins with: The opportunity to move across the country is too good to pass up, as a way of explaining accepting a job offer without discussing it with me, my two-month-old baby in my arms and my dissertation in progress. It begins with: We only need one car. You’re home with babies, anyway. It begins with wanting to believe he is doing the best he can, working long days and having no time for you and the babies. It begins with believing: It will be different when the babies aren’t in diapers any longer, when then can talk, when he can play with them. It becomes: You don’t need access to our money, you have what you need for groceries, why would you need more? It becomes finding yourself waking to the sound of someone crying before you realize that it is you. It becomes your decision to go into therapy, and his response: If you go, I’ll destroy your dissertation notes (in the days of hardcopy). It becomes you, running down the apartment hallway to the sound of your daughters screaming, knowing that they will guard your files with their lives. It escalates to neighbors calling the police the last time you left your daughters alone with him. Being told afterward that he wrested her keys from your oldest daughter’s hands when she attempted to leave. Being told afterwards he broke every one of the walking sticks and divining rods your middle daughter had harvested over the course of her ten-year-old life when she picked up a stick to defend herself. It becomes understanding the trajectory of abuse: he will eventually kill you if you stay. It is relief when the bailiff walks you out of Family Court to the parking lot, checks behind the car seats, and lays belly first on the asphalt to make sure no one is beneath your car, before standing, hands on hips and watching you drive safely away. It is the mix of relief and shock when, after a two-year court ordered evaluation involving a flotilla of mental health professionals, you receive the document in the mail that awards you custody: There shall be no orders for re-unification of [insert names of two oldest daughters] with their father. Plans were set in place for supervised, therapeutic visits of father and youngest daughter – because in the court’s wisdom, having not been physically abusive of her, he was entitled to visitation. Ultimately, my former husband was allowed graduated, unsupervised visits with our youngest daughter on the first and third Saturdays of each month. It is sitting in the dark in a McDonald’s parking lot, sweating and praying, each time he is late, and he is always late, bringing her back.
- Girl Groups [An excerpt of a novella of the same name]
We sang on the drive to school in the morning, the drive to locked wards, the drives to nowhere.
Please, let’s not go home, we would plead, unable to forget what it was like before he left: chasing us into corners, broken treasures scattered on the floor, him patting the phone out of reach in his pants pocket. And because our mother felt the same, she would pull into and out of the apartment driveway, turn the car around and drive, miles and miles into the night, to San Francisco, Morgan Hill. It didn’t much matter where. It didn’t matter how long. What mattered was that we were not home. We were safe in each other’s company, girl groups on the cassette player, girls in the car.
- Broken Treasures
Unpacking my storage space recently, I opened a box I’d forgotten. Fragments of a Staffordshire Calico teapot, something I had once coveted for years. I don’t remember which of us, my then husband or I, shattered it, only that it lay in shards on the linoleum kitchen floor as I had wept, barefoot. Those were years when I stood in the bathroom, the only moments I was alone and fantasized smashing my wrists against the vanity. Was I mistakenly contemplating directing my anger at myself? Did I wonder what would happen if I couldn’t do all that the use of my hands allowed me to do: the cooking, cleaning, childcare? Was it that I really wanted to break my husband’s wrists, disable him, a software engineer and Irish fiddler?
I carefully lift and examine the contents of the box: sharp, colorful shards. The only pieces of the teapot that are intact are the lid and the spout, and I laugh: I’m a little teapot, short and stout, echoes in memory, my young daughters standing in a row, hands on hips for teapot handles, their other wrists curved away from their bodies in imitation of a spout. A favorite Marimekko snow flower mug, a reminder of a long-ago boyfriend. A delicate pink tea cup, a Valentine’s gift from a beloved student. And I fantasize what I would do with this box full of broken: Kintsugi, the Japanese art of golden repair. In rewriting my past, eschewing the fiction I have hidden behind, I can rewrite our history, and join the fragments with gold, with the truth, giving new life and beauty to our survival, our strength.
Michelle Oppenheimer grew up in New York City and currently lives and teaches English at an independent high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and an MA and is ABD in American Studies, Brown University. Her work has appeared in the Bennington Review, Enizagam, and Four Chambers.
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