by Kelly Sundberg
“In a town built on a hill, in a state full of sawed-off mountains, where muddy roads curved along polluted streams, metal deposits in the water gleamed like steely rainbows . . .” In the very first sentence of her memoir, Sundberg displays her talent for description and dichotomy. Mountains connote a view, but these are sawed off; roads help us get from one place to another, but these are muddy; streams sparkle, but with pollutants; and metal, we imagine having been wrested from deep within those sawed off mountains, shimmers underwater like a rainbow. Something good or something bad? Enticing? Look closer. Goodbye, Sweet Girl is a beautifully written investigation of an abusive relationship.
Sundberg sets the prologue in the West Virginia landscape, where her husband Caleb grew up. She has followed him there, from Idaho, where they met, conceived their son Reed, and married. The family lives on campus, in the ground floor apartment of an eleven-story dorm. Kelly and Caleb are referred to as the “dorm mom and dad.” Reed, celebrating his 7th birthday in the opening scene, enjoys living in the dorm, being the only kid his age around all these cool college students.
On the morning of Reed’s birthday party, preparation disintegrates into hostility as Caleb resents Kelly for continuing to clean the apartment. “I knew you were going to do this! The apartment is fine as is. It’s never good enough for you,” he says. He hurls a wet toilet brush, hurls and breaks her cellphone, tries to block her from escaping the apartment, and, during the resulting chase scene through the lobby of the dorm, calls her a” fucking bitch.”
“Call the police!” Kelly shouts to the three Resident Advisors, college students at the front desk, who witness Caleb, in sock-feet, running after Kelly.
Very quickly, under the public gaze, Caleb’s rage dissipates. Once he’s calmed down, Kelly worries about the consequences of having asked for the police. Worries Caleb will lose his job. Even if she hadn’t said that, though, this particular cat is out of the bag. The college kids have seen what goes on in their marriage. Kelly moves into salvage mode, comforting Caleb, and assuring him, “I can fix this.”
Explaining the episode as side-effects from medication Caleb takes for mood swings, she beseeches the witnesses to keep it mum. She blames herself, saying she “panicked.” After doing this damage control, she goes back inside the apartment to check on her son.
“Reed played quietly on his bed. It was what he always did during these rages. He stayed there as long as was needed. I went into the hallway and Reed followed me…He reached out hesitantly, put his hands on my stomach, and looked into my eyes searchingly in a way he never had before. He was growing up, and his eyes disclosed to me that he knew. . .”
“I don’t like it when the dogs climb into bed with me because they’re scared,” he said. It doesn’t take a psychologist to interpret this: her son is saying he is scared.
“In that moment, I knew. I knew we had to leave.”
In the first chapter, Sundberg writes about a childhood neighbor named Danny:
“The day before he tried to see my privates, Danny chased me around the house with a knife. He threw my doll in the mud, so I pushed him…then he pulled a knife out of his pocket and said he was going to cut me.”
Later, Sundberg tells us that she felt she had to be nice to Danny because his dad was dying, and his mother had abandoned them. One winter day Danny comes to Kelly, seeking help. He’s accidentally let the family dog out in the snow and now the dog is lost. His big brother will “kick his ass” if anything happens to that dog. He begs Kelly to help him search, and because she’s kind, she does. But the dog isn’t found till the spring thaw, frozen under all that snow.
On the day they find the dead dog, “Danny was standing behind [his brother] crying. He was still the boy with the knife, but he was also the boy who was suffering…I wanted to take away his anger and his grief and replace it all with love. I wanted to give him the hugs he’d never been given. Maybe most of all, I wanted him to forgive me because I couldn’t save him.” Fear and sympathy are blended. Danny is the first broken boy Kelly yearns to fix.
After learning that Caleb has cheated on her during the early months of their relationship, Kelly pushed for more details, and he told her there were three women with whom he’d cheated—a woman from high school, a woman he met at a bar, and a sex worker in a Nevada brothel. Kelly asked why, but never got an explanation. Years later, she would ask again. “…I was still pushing for an explanation and there was no answer that would satisfy me; he exploded and said about the woman he had gone to high school with, ‘She treated me like shit in high school, and I wanted to fuck her.’
He said about the woman from the bar: ‘I don’t know why I did it. She was fat.’
He said about the sex worker, ‘I wanted to be able to do whatever I wanted to her. I wanted to feel powerful.’”
All these explanations have undercurrents of violence—sex as revenge, sex as punishment for being overweight, sex as dominion. Caleb is not unlike Danny, who wields a knife one day and asks to see your privates the next.
When I teach memoir writing, one of the most important elements to convey to my students is self-conviction. When writing a memoir that scrutinizes the behavior of your family or friends or lovers, you must apply the same scrutiny, if not more, to the character based on yourself. You must be willing to acknowledge all the sides of a story, and to own whatever is your part. Similarly, when writing about someone who wronged you, you must paint that person’s character in a fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional way.
Sundberg tells us that Caleb was sweet. “He held me tight. He opened the car door for me. He called me honey…When his mother called…he always told her that he loved her…” People are complex. When we write about those complexities, as Sundberg has, we get at deeper truths.
I was once in a workshop led by fiction writer Amy Hempel. She was talking about narrators and opening lines. She asked us to consider these two opening lines:
I was the sensitive brother.
I am the least lovely one here.
The first narrator asks the reader to swallow this spoon-fed fact, that he is the sensitive one in this family. Already we’re being asked to side with him, sympathize with him, defend him against whatever brutalities he faces.
The second narrator owns up to his own lack of loveliness in the very first sentence. He says whatever else I’m about to tell you, know this: I am flawed.
Who do you want to follow into the world of the story? You want to take the ride with the person who’s willing to be self-convicting. Who isn’t even asking you to be on his side. Already you believe him so much more than you believe the overly sensitive brother. Because when someone is this honest, this transparent, this early on, they earn our trust. We know they are telling the truth.
The same applies to nonfiction: “Trouble wasn’t new to me,” Sundberg tells us on page 11. “I was the difficult child.” I’m ready to follow Sundberg anywhere. I trust her point-of-view.
Over and over, Kelly points the finger at herself. Tries to take the blame. To find within herself some bad seed, some source of ill, some inherent quality that causes Caleb to abuse her. She looks to her childhood, to Danny the mean boy who she felt sorry for, and to her family dynamic. She turns over every couch cushion, shakes out every stray dirty sock, in search of her own culpability. It has to be here somewhere… She tries to believe that she gives Caleb no choice. If she were not this way, then he wouldn’t have to do this to her. And if she can just fix herself, the marriage will be okay. It’s the effect of extended marital terrorism. Stay long enough in the airless lock-down of an abusive relationship, and the abuser’s skewed opinions will replace your own.
By convincing his wife that she was the problem, the difficult one, Caleb was apparently able to absolve himself. Outrageously, even as recently as last week, five weeks after the release of Goodbye, Sweet Girl, Caleb asserted publicly that this was all Kelly’s fault. In a post on Tumblr, which has since been taken down, Caleb conceded their marriage was an abusive one, but named Kelly as the abuser. [Gasp. Snort.]
After Sundberg shared his post with her followers, comments started streaming in:
I believe Kelly.
I believe Kelly.
I believe Kelly.
And this went on and on.
Read this memoir, and you will believe her, too.