When my husband was a little boy, according to court documents, his mother, a widow, left him and his sister in the care of “vicious and immoral people, without proper food or sanitation.” Due to her neglect, the county removed her youngest two children—my husband and his sister—from the residence and she lost all parental rights. The older daughter, thirteen-years-old and pregnant, was sent to a state school for girls, where her baby was born and placed for adoption. An older son, age sixteen, joined the army. My husband and his sister were ultimately separated from each other. When he was two and a half and she was five, they were adopted by different families. They never saw their mother again.
The tragedy of his situation, the desire to know why the circumstances occurred in the first place, and a personal concern for the role poverty and illiteracy play in the destruction of families prompted me to write my first novel, The Velvet Bridge. The book is fiction, a creation of my imagination, inspired by the facts found in the court papers preceding my husband’s adoption. Using all the extravagance and opportunity that fiction writing allows, my tale offers the happy ending I wish had been possible for my husband’s birth mother.
I created Mattie Featherstone, and placed her in the same environment, during the same period of history. The character-driven book reveals the stark consequences of poverty and illiteracy in the lives of a young widow living in Dallas, during WWII, and her children. Mattie, poor and uneducated, was too unbalanced psychologically and emotionally to hold her family together. However, Mattie and her daughters overcome the humiliation and indignity they suffered, and are eventually re-united because of the compassionate associations and gentle friendships extended them. This kind of intervention by caring, charitable people in real life can be just as effective and powerful as it was in my happy ending story.
I find myself exploring, in most of my writing, circumstances where people are in conflict with their own environment and their need to escape—no matter what. I am drawn to the conditions of poverty and ignorance, and the injustice and the absence of dignity found there most often for women and their children. Most people do not choose to live in poverty, or in ignorance. Too often, they simply lack the physical, emotional, or mental strength required to rise above the daily grind of it, in an honorable and noble way. The very nature of poverty and ignorance keeps people, most often women and children, trapped by it, enslaved in a curious way to its degradation.
But sometimes, not often, I read or hear about a mother running away, abandoning her children. The powerful influences that would trigger such an unnatural act intrigue me. In the case of Mattie, in The Velvet Bridge, she had been a loving mother. She and her husband, poor but hardworking, were managing, little by little to move out of the Great Depression, and to build a better life. But, when suddenly widowed, everything changed.
The neglect did not happen all at once. It began as a gradual downward spiral she seemed powerless to control. She did not actually make a premeditated decision to leave her girls, permanently, for Mattie did not think long term at that point in her life. She lived in the moment, much the way a teenager does, when at some point she simply stopped caring about anything other than self-gratification. Her neglect was more an act of carelessness fed by her own frustrations and fears, tempered with childhood trauma that had always pressed her ‘escape’ button, rather than a case of calculated abandonment.
Mattie shirked her responsibility by going to the bars, where she picked up men. Later she would describe herself as having gone “haywire”. When her older daughter, Judith, expressed fear of boys from school who were stalking her when she went to the outhouse, not even her pathetic pleading could persuade Matte to stay home with them. She would leave them alone and frightened in their ramshackle shanty house on the far side of West Dallas without enough food. Toward the end, she stayed gone for days. During one of Mattie’s absences, the authorities came to the house and took custody of her daughters. Mattie was later arrested and charged with child abandonment.
Mattie’s case is an example of the consequences of living in isolation, without any kind of family backup system or community support. She had no family, for she had been an only child, her parents both dead. No friends, and no contacts, other than the men she met in the bars. Her husband, much older than she, had been more of a father figure. Mattie married him as a teenager, needing even then to escape her abusive home life. He became her caretaker, her protector, her provider. When he was killed, she lost her anchor, and like a ship adrift in an unfriendly, foreign sea, she became more isolated and lost.
Had there been a helping hand, some loving intervention offering a dignified respite, a safe haven for her and her children, a place where she could receive physical assistance and sociological and emotional guidance, the consequent maladies, including the near fatal physical abuse Judith later suffered, could have been avoided. In the book, there was no one, just as there was no one in the real life situation that prompted me to write it. My fictitious family splintered, each fending for herself in the war-absorbed society of the early 40’s where self-preservation, class and gender distinctions, and foreign affairs dominated. It is from the reality of that environment, that the telling of my story begins, with the characters in The Velvet Bridge following parallel paths as each searches for happiness and a better life.
Fate intervened—in the novel—offering new pathways and opportunities. Through the compassionate generosity and loving natures of strangers, poverty and illiteracy were overcome, empowering Mattie and her daughters with opportunity and a subsequent sense of obligation. Mattie and Judith go on to establish privately funded shelters for abused women and children in need. The Velvet Bridge is a story with a happy ending, one I wish I could create for all women and children living in poverty, abuse, and illiteracy today.
Women—poor, uneducated, and without assistance—like my husband’s mother, living out their lives during the first half of the 20th Century, rarely raised themselves above such a low position, affecting the quality of life for their children and grandchildren. In that real life situation, there was no positive intervention for her. She lost her children, and that was it. She died of regret and a broken heart, her family destroyed, her children separated, their names changed.
Reports show, even now in the 21st Century, as many as one out of five adults is illiterate, unable to read most of the writing on their own paychecks. When that adult is a woman, alone, or in an abusive situation, with children, the urgency intensifies. Add drugs, and alcohol into the mix, and you have, in too many cases, near hopeless catastrophe. Children are growing up illiterate and abused more today than ever, patterns of family violence repeated, generation after generation, affecting us all as a community, as a nation.
Government can only do so much, but the human touch—the helping hands and caring hearts of gentle people in every community—can change lives, strengthening families for generations to come. Friendship, offered in a thoughtful, non-judgmental way, can give a woman, like Mattie in The Velvet Bridge, the guidance and support she needs.
Early childhood abuse contributed to Mattie’s inability to cope with her husband’s death, or the subsequent rape of her daughter, and sent her into mental and emotional upheaval. Mattie’s salvation came from strangers, before it was too late, through a random act of kindness.
Judith’s case (Mattie’s daughter in the book) presents the classic battered wife abuse pattern, with all the visible injuries. The same is true for Karen, the young mother introduced in the epilogue of the book. Both these young mothers finally reach out for help. Judith contacted a distant cousin, while Karen went to the authorities who worked in conjunction with a private shelter. Only tender and genuine concern from gentle people can provide the dignity so necessary when anyone is feeling victimized, and too often, demoralized.
During the process of writing The Velvet Bridge, I became aware of women shelters’ need for volunteers in so many areas. I am now an advocate for individual support and volunteerism. In my area, application is made through the East Texas Crisis Center. You can contact whichever center holds jurisdiction over your area, for acceptance into their program as a volunteer worker. Of course, common sense must always be applied, as you work closely with professionals trained in social services.
Each case is unique, with its own set of circumstances to be considered, and respected. In my husband’s case, his mother’s need for help should have been obvious to anyone who cared to notice, in the fact than her children were left home alone for extended periods. In her case, apparently nobody cared. And it was a time and place where people minded their own business, taking care of their own, too apathetic due to personal poverty and defeat to take notice of anyone else’s. A time when school attendance was not closely supervised, and a student’s difficult home life of little concern to the system. Just one instance of neighborly concern might have changed the course of events for her.
According to data collected from professionals and compiled at http//thesafetyzone.org. I offer the following information:
Indicators for domestic violence present themselves in various ways, including:
- Visible physical injury:
- bruises, lacerations, burns, human bite marks, and fractures— especially of the eyes, nose, teeth and jaw;
- Injuries during pregnancy, miscarriage, or premature births;
- Unexplained delay in seeking treatment for injuries; and
- Multiple injuries in different stages of healing
- Stress-related illnesses such as headaches, backaches, chronic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, sleep disorders, eating disorders, and fatigue;
- Anxiety-related conditions such as heart palpitations, hyperventilation’s, and “panic attacks; and
- Less common indicators, depression, suicidal thoughts or attempts, and chemical abuse problems.
- Problems presenting themselves because of domestic violence include:
- Marital or family problems
- Alcohol or drug addiction; and
- Mental health problems
In the work place:
- Lost productivity, chronic absenteeism or lateness, or requests for excessive time off,
- On the job harassment by the abuser, either in person, or by phone; and
- Poor employment history, or loss of employment.
If you suspect someone you know is being abused, ASK.
Directly asking her in private, without judgment, pressure, and expectation that she will trust you enough to disclose, will relieve her of the burden of coming forward on her own, and can tell her a lot about your concern, caring and willingness to help.
Some suggestions and advice to consider if you are interested in lending a helping hand, loving heart, and listening ear to a woman you suspect is in crisis, although she has not asked for help, are as follows:
- If you ask, be prepared. Educate yourself about domestic violence.
- Talk to other advocates and professionals in the field, and read materials dealing with the subject.
- Initiate a conversation in private when you have plenty of time to devote to her at length, if she chooses to talk to you about it.
- Let go of all the expectations you have that there is a ‘quick fix’ to domestic violence or to the obstacles she faces.
- Understand that a woman’s inaction may be her best safety strategy at any given time.
- Challenge and change any preconceived notions and attitudes that you may have about battered women.
- A woman is not battered because there is something wrong with her.
- Rather, she is a woman trapped in a relationship by her partners’ use of violence and coercion.
- The better able you are to recognize and build on the woman’s inner courage, resilience, resourcefulness, and decision-making abilities, the better able you will be to help her.
Ways you can provide support and empowerment:
- Believe her.
- Let her know that you do. If you know her partner, remember that batterers most often behave differently in public than they do in private.
- Listen to what she tells you.
- If you actively listen, ask clarifying questions, and avoid making judgments and giving advice, you will like learn from her what she needs.
- Build on her strengths.
- Based on the information she gives you and your own observations, actively identify the ways in which she has developed coping strategies, solved problems, and exhibited courage, even if her efforts have not been completely successful.
- Help her to build on these strengths.
- Validate her feelings
- It is common for women to have conflicting feelings—love and fear, guilt and anger, hope and sadness.
- Let her know that her feelings are normal and reasonable.
- Avoid victim-blaming
- Tell her that the abuse is not her fault.
- Reinforce that the abuse is her partner’s problem and his responsibility, but refrain from “bad-mouthing” him.
- Take her fears seriously
- If you are concerned about her safety, express your concern without judgment by simply saying, “Your situation sounds dangerous and I’m concerned about your safety.”
- Offer help
- As appropriate, offer specific forms of help and information.
- If she asks you to do something you’re willing and able to do, do it.
- If you can’t or don’t want to, say so and help her identify other ways to have that need met.
- Then look for other ways that you can help. Direct her to safe shelter for her, and her children, where professionals in the field are available.
- Be an active, creative partner in a woman’s safety planning effort.
- The key to safety planning is taking a problem, considering the full range of available options, evaluating the risks and benefits of different options, identifying ways to reduce the risks.
- Offer ideas, resources, and information.
- Support her decisions
- Remember that there are risks attached to every decision a battered woman makes.
- If you truly want to be helpful, be patient and respectful of a woman’s decisions, even if you don’t agree with them.
In closing, I want to encourage you to volunteer at your local shelter, or at any agency where you can play an important, positive role in a woman’s life. There can be no greater service than to provide hope and possibility for a better life for women and children in crisis due to domestic violence. Every community must address the problem up close and personal for it will not go away.
Statistics are alarming, and the need for volunteering your time, if not your money, is great. No child should have to live in an abusive environment, just because he or she may have been born into it, or helplessly introduced into it. When the mother lacks the ability to remove the children, for whatever reason, outside help is required, and often because of governmental bureaucracy, a dignified approach is lacking. A caring friendship with a mother in crisis can make such a difference in resolving the situation in a positive way.
Children in need are everyone’s responsibility, and the safety, well-being, and self-esteem of their mothers is the first step in breaking the pattern of poverty, abuse, and illiteracy. If your town has no shelter for women, become active in advocating the need for one.