Statement of Record

On the Other Side

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[Note from the Editor: This post originally appeared in Kelly Sundberg’s Facebook Page in lieu of a blog post. She recently published a book, Goodbye, Sweet Girl. To say it is a memoir about her relationship with her abusive ex-husband oversimplifies the gestalt of the book. You can read Melanie Bishop’s review.  Bishop’s review will make you want to read her grocery list. Sundberg’s work provokes only because she puts herself in a position of the author of her story and not the victim of her story.]

 

When I was in Chicago, I received a message from a woman whose sister had been murdered by her husband. This woman had read my book and felt that she understood her sister more. I didn’t respond at the time because I was traveling, and I wanted to take the time to respond thoughtfully. I receive messages almost daily, and I respond to every one of them, but this one was hard.

When I got home, I wanted to write her, but then, Caleb wrote that awful Tumblr post. That day was so hot and humid. The heat seemed to match what I was experiencing. It was brutal. I went to my dude-friend’s house, got out of my car, and immediately stuck my face in my hands because I was ugly crying. He had never seen me cry like that before, had told me shortly before that he knew I was a happy person–that he only ever saw me as strong.

He hugged me, and I wanted to sob into his shirt, but I kept my face in my hands instead because that felt safer.

I said, “He is never going to accept accountability for what he has done,” and my dude-friend said, “No, he’s not. You are never going to get that from him.”

We were outside because he’s a woodworker and had to load his van for a job. The sun was so angry. I could feel sweat dripping down my back, but it was still better than being alone in my air-conditioned house.

When I got home, my new friend, Grace, called to see if I was okay. She sent her husband to pick me up and bring me to their house. In her kitchen, she said, “Please know that I am not questioning you or blaming you at all, but where on earth did Caleb get those stories?” I was glad that she asked because it gave me the opportunity to explain that I could back up my account, and he could not back his up–that I had always known that something like that was coming, but that hadn’t made it any easier.

Also, that he was following the exact pattern of abusers, which is DARVO: “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” (Thanks, Alice Anderson for this new knowledge).

Grace held me again while I cried in her kitchen, then her friend who I don’t even know came in, said, “Can I hug you?” and he held me while I cried too.

It was an emotional day.

I slept on Grace and her husband, Mike’s couch that night, and I knew that I was not alone.

When I got home, I saw the outpouring of support that I had received from my friends but, also, many strangers. Caleb took down his Tumblr post, and the experience shifted from feeling re-traumatizing to validating.

The woman who first alerted the Morgantown music community to Caleb’s abuse (it was not me) was accused of breaking up their band (as though her speaking out about the abuse was worse than the abuse itself). I told her today that I was glad she had spoken out, that it was painful but necessary.

We chatted about the kinds of folks who enable abuse. Punks often make great allies, and hippies often make great enablers.

(Sorry, hippy bros, but your calls for “peace” and “love” aren’t helping all of the women who know how it feels to be held down by your “peace-loving” friends.)

I spent the past two days traveling with Grace. We saw Ween two nights in a row. We went to an art museum. We visited the graves of two of Grace’s friends. We lunched with her friends. We discovered that we make very good travel buddies. We both like food, art, cocktails, and friendship. And we talked a fair amount about how nice it feels to be able to afford to travel comfortably because both of us have known in the past what it feels like not to have that kind of financial security.

My dude-friend called me tonight to see how things went. I told him that they went great, that I’d had a wonderful time. I said that it was nice to just be on a vacation with no work involved, that it was nice not to be asked about my book or have to talk about my experience. That it was nice just to be normal for a change.

I hadn’t realized before how tired I am of being my story.

My dude-friend and I are very close emotionally. We are not a couple for a lot of reasons, but it often feels like we are. I recently started having sex with someone else. Being the person that I am, I told my dude-friend. He got grumpy and shut me out for a few days, then apologized. My poly bestie said to me, “I know that you’re generally monogamous, but you’re being kinda poly about this situation.”

Maybe I am. I’m tired of sacrificing my own needs in service to the needs of others.

I came home from my vacation happy. For a few days, I was free from my role as a trauma centerfold.

I am not my story.

I finally sat down and responded to that woman who messaged me while I was in Chicago. I told her that I had wanted to respond thoughtfully, but had been traveling and that I realized she needed to know that I had received her message, that I cared, and I would respond more fully when I could.

She wrote back that I could take my time, then said that she had started crying when I messaged her back because reading my book and feeling like she knows me had brought up so many repressed tears for her sister. I started crying then too because I know that, to women like her, I represent the possibility of the other side, but her sister will never have that.

At my book event with Maggie Smith the other night, I said that my mom had said it wouldn’t be better on the other side. Then I said, “But it is definitely better on the other side!” Everyone smiled because, of course it is. After all, there I was sitting on a stool talking about my work with a famous poet

And also, here I am eating my way across New York City, going to Ween concerts with new friends, and being “kinda poly.” I am living on the other side, and it’s so much better.

Do I have sadness? Yes.

Do I still reflexively put my face in my hands when I cry in front of a man? Yes.

But I still love with all of the fierceness that I loved with before. I just have boundaries now. Boundaries left unchecked can become walls, but my boundaries aren’t walls. My boundaries are just a different kind of hope.

But I also have to acknowledge that it is only better on the other side if he doesn’t kill you first

About the author

My essays have appeared in Guernica, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, Slice, and others. My essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays 2015, and other essays have been listed as notables in the same series. I have a PhD in creative nonfiction from Ohio University, and I have been the recipient of fellowships or grants from Vermont Studio Center, A Room of Her Own Foundation, Dickinson House, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The American West is my first love, and I return whenever I can. My writing is heavily influenced by the landscape of the region I grew up in, and I’m particularly interested in environmental writing and the uneasy relationship between people and place. I now raise my son in Appalachian Ohio—another magical, complicated place. In 2018-2019, I will be a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Ohio University. For more information go to Kelly's website: https://kellysundberg.com/

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