by Vanessa Hooper
[Vanessa was a Pongo mentor and Assistant Project Leader in juvenile detention.]
The moments, in the chill of the cement walls of detention, have been the most powerful, heartbreaking, challenging, and inspiring moments of my life. I have been with Pongo Teen Writing for the last two years. Each Tuesday morning I felt a complexity of anxiousness and excitement wash over me. Unsure of how the voices in detention would color my life, I walked cautiously through the halls, aware of my own sound and energy.
With my Pongo colleagues, I waited patiently as the youth filed in, wondering how and what their days had brought to them. It was at those times I could feel the warmth and splattered paint their pain and passion conveyed against the cold colorless walls. Their words held the weight of the ocean and the lightness of a feather, full of regret and heartache, hope and courage, and confusion and enthusiasm for the future. There are painful stories that haunt me, leaving me dismal and disgusted by the malice and cruelty still breathing in this the world; while others leave me speechless from the undaunted vitality after years of trauma.
Two girls in particular, I was privileged to work with, left me paralyzed after hearing the harsh realities of their young lives. Both pregnant before fourteen, both raped more times than they could count, yet both smiled when we worked together as if they were royalty. “I was a kindergartener with dreams of being a stripper, and I know there are other girls like me,” said one girl, who grew up in the same town where I have my roots. Her poem was a letter to her son, a letter of truths and fear from a young mother who underestimated her own strength, a teenager who after homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution, rape, and abuse still believed in a dream of finding happiness. The other girl came into the Pongo world quietly, expressionless. She sat with poise and beauty, a pregnant twelve-year-old. Living in foster family after foster family, she had been ripped away from her siblings after her mother disappeared. As she began to open up through her poetry, her eyes grew wide with emotion. In contrast to the unthinkable acts she had endured, she held herself like a princess being groomed to be queen.
When I helped both girls create their poems, and as I read their words aloud, I could feel their confidence grow, and the colors of their lives shine. Each one left the room with a smile, as if she had begun to shed the cracked scales of a lost childhood. In a world of bars and barbed wire, with the sounds of echoing fears and the crescendo of doors slamming, where rock bottom feels ice-cold and isolated, there is a pulsating rhythm of hopefulness in the hearts of these youth, a thirst to be more than the label around their wrist and the file that confines them. Their eyes show the innocence of a child in a world where anything is possible, they just need someone to listen, someone like Pongo to see them for so much more than the mistakes in their past.
Pongo Project JournalSharing stories of our work with teens
by Vanessa Hooper
Friends, in 17 years of doing Pongo's work, of helping young people write poetry after terrible childhood trauma, I have continued to learn and grow, to the point that I feel a kind of awe for the power of poetry and for the resilience in the poets. There is brilliance in the young people's accomplishments, and this is not hyperbole.
Among the things I've learned...
I've seen that life's worst experiences can exist as strangers in us, separate, like people we don't know and don't want to know. Yet these worst experiences remain our passionate life companions.
I've seen that our emotions after life's worst experiences can be sealed in a variety of containers, some buried, or in a black hole, some that explode unexpectedly, some that exist only in the public realm, some that exist only in private, some that exist in one part of ourselves and not in others.
But I've also seen that through poetry, people can open these containers, and move their contents, these painful emotions, into new frames that are more open and repurposed for a meaningful life.
In the poem below, a young woman from the "Hearts Out Loud" group uses poetry to reframe her emotional life after years in foster care and after her brother's murder two years before.
I attended a reading last week where this poet and her colleagues read with incredible joy, pride, and purpose, in celebration of their lives.
Poetry Saved My Life
by "Bad One," a young woman, age 14
See just before fire was sent to the rain
Before I even saw a glimpse of the pain
Before the arrow was shot through my heart
Before people's words could tear me apart
There was hope! Yes, little but there was Hope.
Before deceiving lies, foster care, love in disguise
Before tears of hunger bellowed in my brother's eyes
Before cries and pleading to survive
There was a gift from God
That hadn't yet been received nor forgotten!
So here I stand with no gun, only a pencil in hand
And in that drawer no bullets, but paper in store
But still the idea in mind is murder
Not the murder of a person, but the murder of emotions
And the only casket is the notebook that binds the faces together
At last I write about the sins within me
At last I speak of the unknown terror of my life
At last the emotions that keep the devil in me are released
Finally the burden of my brother's death can
Be resurrected with only one soul knowing! ME!
All 3 of my parents have a piece of my heart
So now it's time to give the world a piece of my mind
But instead of a massacre and a life sentence
I write poetry and spit flows within me
All I can say is Poetry saved my life.
["Hearts Out Loud" is the first poetry group that was started on the Pongo model. It runs weekly at Friends of the Children, a mentoring agency in Seattle. The group was started and is led by child therapist Robin Brownstein. Here is more info, more poetry, and more credit to the volunteers and staff behind "Hearts Out Loud."]
In March, at a Friends of the Children poetry reading, an 11-year-old called Mimi (a pseudonym) performed her poem “Face Your Fears.” In her performance, Mimi was helped by an adult mentor, who recited the lines that Mimi repeated. The result was a litany that included these lines:
Face your fears
Face your fears
Face your fears
Face your fears
It is the main event
It is the main event
Imagine what it means for a young person to understand that truth, that facing your fears is the main event. And imagine how significant it is to be courageous, like a litany, in response to these fears.
Here’s another poem by different young woman, a 16-year-old called Mary (a pseudonym) who used the Pongo fill-in-the-blank activity “Lessons of Courage and Fear”:
Lessons of Courage and Fear
by Mary, age 16
In my life I’ve known Courage.
We met when I had my baby boy.
Nowadays Courage is standing by my side.
I find Courage when I face my fear and speak my mind.
In my life I’ve known Fear.
We met when I got sexually abused.
These days Fear is the nightmares that don’t let me sleep.
Fear finds me when I see those guys that have hurt me.
I’ve learned that Courage and Fear are different.
When Courage tells me that I am strong and I don’t have to look behind,
Fear says I’ll never be me again.
Usually I listen to Courage, Fear, and my heart.
I wish no one may know my fears and only see my courage and strength
So that I can be me again.
I wish I was Courage and not Fear.
In her poem, Mary writes about Fear in the form of sexual abuse. So imagine Courage, in this context, like a litany, to face your fear over and over again – maybe every single night and every single day – whenever you have a nightmare or see your abuser.
I am happy to award the latest Pongo Poetry Prize to Mary’s poem about Courage and Fear. And here is a link to Mimi’s poem. Please read the following three wonderful poems that received Honorable Mention:
Nightmare (about a terrible nightmare that plays like a movie)
Sometimes I Feel Like (how sometimes we all hide from the dark)
Trapped Inside (about a feeling, after a loss, that you're tightly bound by vines overgrown with thorns)
Starcia Ague’s public story is inspiring in itself – the story of a young woman, now 23, who spent 5 ½ years in juvenile jail for a serious crime, but who worked her way to an education, a Governor’s pardon, and a research position at the University of Washington where she addresses juvenile justice issues. She earned the support of mentors and guides who helped her. She found God. And along the way, Starcia went public with her own history of growing up with addicted, sometimes homeless, drug-dealing parents. Her history includes abandonment by her parents and terrible abuse from an acquaintance of her mother.
But I want to add to Starcia’s story here. There are unrecognized qualities and strengths in people who are resilient after childhood abuse. I’m finding that these survivors…
* Make fiercely independent decisions in order to change and survive
* Engage in deep and private processes of emotional and intellectual growth
that empower their change
* Go it alone in significant ways, as they are forced to leave behind family and
old friends who are often destructive and rejecting
* Are the objects of prejudice for their past suffering and survival behaviors,
even from significant people in their new lives
* Are purposeful in their desire to help others
* Suffer always from the effects of the childhood abuse they once endured,
even as they survive and thrive
* Are happy with their lives
* Don’t always know how extraordinary they are
Here are a few instances from Starcia’s life…
Starcia’s pardon is a wonderful gift to her, but it’s also a mixed blessing. In a fiercely independent and purposeful decision, Starcia has chosen to make her history, and her crime, part of the public record. Anyone who searches her name on the internet can find out about her past. But Starcia has made this choice so that she can work for other youth. The pardon enables her to work on juvenile justice issues. Today she is advocating for legislation that would seal juvenile records.
While Starcia has had tremendous help from mentors along the way, there was a time of deep and private thought for her that facilitated change and growth. It began when a woman visited the church service at juvenile jail and told her own story of childhood abuse and recovery. Starcia saw a possibility for herself, and she spent time with her Bible then, reviewing her life, and seeking answers to difficult questions about meaning and forgiveness.
Like many survivors of childhood abuse, Starcia has had to make painful decisions – enduringly painful decisions – in relation to family and old friends. She would like to help people she cares about. At the same time Starcia is criticized and rejected by many of these people for the new life she has created. And some people from her previous life would not be safe for her. In important ways, Starcia has had to go it alone.
Many survivors of childhood abuse and its consequences make their own decisions about whether or not to share their histories with others. But with her openness and her work in the juvenile justice field, Starcia spends time with people every day who know about her past and her record. She understands that sometimes people are suspicious of her.
For survivors of terrible childhood traumas, there is a continuing ordeal into adulthood, in spite of their accomplishments and satisfactions. Starcia said to me that if there is one thing she could change about her life it wouldn’t be the time in jail or anything like that, it would be the continuing emotional and physical effects of childhood abuse.
So, coming back to Starcia’s public story, she is someone who suffered a terrible childhood, committed a crime in adolescence for which she served time, achieved an education, and attained meaningful work to help others like herself. But in addition she has shown an independent spirit and sense of purpose that fueled all her current accomplishments (with significant help from wonderful people along the way).
And, importantly, she has experienced a private world of ongoing challenge and growth that is extraordinary. She has my best wishes and admiration.
by Richard Gold
A personal summary and organization of ideas on this issue. I am not a trained clinician, so some of my descriptive words may be inexact as terminology.
1. Abuse is an overwhelming experience that creates fragmented states of being for the child (and for the adult survivor of childhood abuse). A person may function very capably at times after abuse, but may also revert internally to being a child who is overwhelmed, which I’ll describe as a child in a state of terror. As opposed to the capable state, a person in the terror state feels trapped, unable to benefit from his or her own cognitive skills to reflect, problem solve, or gain perspective.
2. Very importantly, the fragmentation is a response to traumatic experiences that are often not remembered, not acknowledged, or not understood.
3. The fragmentation, in response to unremembered experiences, places a person inside a chaotic universe of powerful and unattributed emotions/conditions, such as anger, numbness, anxiety, and depression.
4. This fragmentation is a survival technique, the best a child can do to wall-off the terror of abuse. Sadly, the walled-off terror is also “preserved” in this way.
5. Because the different ways of being (for example, of capable functioning and of overwhelming terror) don’t really “know” one another, a person can flip back and forth between these states, sometimes for self-protection, in a way that limits understanding and makes healing difficult.
6. Abuse is more devastating for the child when the victim is younger, when the abuse occurs over a longer period of time, and when the abuser is in a close relationship with the victim.
7. A child is especially vulnerable to abuse when there is a destructive parental system (which is often the case). Instead of having parental bonds that provide a sense of wholeness, of comfort, and of being an acceptable person, the victim feels a particularly strong sense of personal failure and defectiveness after abuse.
8. This inner concept of defectiveness is an organizing principle for an abused child. It preserves the goodness of the parents in the child’s eyes and helps the child make sense of its world. It is a survival technique, but terribly painful.
9. The fragmentation and the sense of personal defectiveness reinforce one another.
10. There are biological factors in an abused child’s states of terror, in addition to emotional factors, that determine the child’s experience and reaction to trauma.
11. Beyond these circumstances of fragmentation and a sense of personal defectiveness, there are other powerful factors within abuse that reinforce the traumatic conditions. Two such factors are blame and shame.
12. A child is blamed. It’s important to understand that abuse is not a “simple” hit or sex act. Abuse is coercive. The victim is blamed for the victimization. In the process, the abuser exerts control in ways that are torturous and terrifying.
13. A child feels ashamed. It’s important to understand that the failure of kindness and protection in the family is a profound wound to the child. The victim is deeply ashamed at this loss and carries the burden of feeling unlovable.
14. Beyond the circumstances of fragmentation and a sense of personal defectiveness, that reinforce one another and are further reinforced by blame and shame, there are powerful factors within abusive family systems that reinforce trauma.
15. Here are some of the factors in abusive family systems that reinforce trauma. Within a family, the abuser may not only be dominant, but idealized. And everyone in the family may measure themselves by the abuser’s moods. It is a condition of abuse that victims identify with the aggressor, and will sometimes judge themselves and others through the eyes of the aggressor (which can be a source of guilt for the victim). Often there is an enforced isolation for the family, where the abuser passes judgment and controls outside contacts. This isolation limits the child victim’s opportunities for understanding and healing. Often in an abusive family there is a parent who is a passive enabler of the abuser, and this role is significant. The enabler makes it possible for the family to be a self-contained system. The enabler may support or justify the abuser. The enabler may allow or even encourage the child to serve as a target for abuse. The enabler is frequently suffering from his or her own history of abuse. Ultimately, the abused child may carry a responsibility to mollify the abusive parent and to protect the enabling parent. In this environment the abused child may also feel protective of siblings and pets, and may feel terrorized by, or implicated in, abuse directed there. In the end, the abused child may carry the huge burden of preserving the family as an ideal – and therefore may carry a huge burden of guilt for failing in that impossible task.
16. It is my observation that although the abuser sometimes wants an abused child to appear successful in superficial ways to the world outside the family, the abuser doesn’t really want the child to be emotionally accomplished. In addition to messages from the parent that the child deserves blame for family problems, there are also significant messages that the parent doesn’t want the child to be happy or to succeed as a person beyond the abusive parent’s limited capabilities. So the child feels guilt and failure for its successes, as well for its victimizations.
17. Beyond the family system’s own talents for submitting to the abuser and isolating itself, there are also societal factors that preserve the traumatic family system. Society is afraid and avoidant – ultimately in denial about abuse. The helplessness and terror of abuse creates feelings of vulnerability in its witnesses. As a result there is anger and a stigma that are part of society’s reaction to abuse, and this anger and stigma falls most heavily on the victim. (This anger and stigma may be witnessed in society’s failure to recognize mental health issues among the homeless and incarcerated.) Unfortunately, the victim of abuse is the easiest person for society to blame and repress, because of the victim’s own sense of confusion, feelings of failure, acting-out behaviors, and desire to protect the family. Also, the social system is set up so that once a family’s failures are identified, a family may be dispersed and destroyed. In this eventuality, the victim of abuse is the easiest person for the family to blame and repress. It is sometimes the victim who is isolated by the family. In this eventuality, in which a family is dispersed, the victim of abuse suffers particularly, because it has always been the victim’s goal to keep the family intact.
18. One powerful theme throughout circumstances of abuse is the theme of secrecy. There are secrets that the child victim keeps from itself. There are secrets that the child victim keeps from the abuser, from the enabler, etc. – and vice versa. There are secrets that the abusive family keeps from society. The abusive family sustains itself with falsehoods.
19. The victims of child abuse may suffer many problems in life, including forms of self-harm (such as cutting), eating disorders, intimacy difficulties, substance abuse. Particularly horrifying to friends and observers is that some victims have a recurring pattern of recreating childhood abuse by entering dangerous situations or abusive adult relationships.
20. The victims of child abuse may have notable areas of resilience, including being self-sacrificing and empathetic, with a strong desire to help others. They may have perfectionist qualities, intellectual strengths, and creative talents. Victims may have many extraordinary gifts that are the product of their extraordinary efforts to save their families and themselves. They may be driven by a strong sense of moral purpose.
21. In the world of the victim of child abuse, there is a very special role for creative writing as a tool for healing. The primary way to counteract fragmentation is to cognitively and symbolically integrate feeling and experience – in other words, to write openly and in a feeling way about personal experience. The sense of defectiveness, blame, and shame are all mitigated by personal writing because writing externalizes and objectifies experience, thus removing it from intensely self-critical internal processes. And then there is the fact that creative accomplishments can be publicly shared, which builds self-esteem, facilitates further communication, and alleviates isolation. Eventually the impact of abuse can be lessened by expressing oneself honestly.
When we experience great hurt, it’s in our human nature to blame ourselves, often.
And when we experience great hurt, it’s in our human nature to generate great emotion, often, that we can use in the cause of insight, connection, and purpose. This emotion is a tremendous strength.
And, as I witness this strength in so many Pongo writers who have experienced childhood traumas, I appreciate these young people, and I believe it’s important for all of us to appreciate them. They are showing us how strong we can all be.
With this journal, I am announcing the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize, a poem called “Strength” by a 16-year-old young woman whom I’ll call Evie (a pseudonym). Evie sent me three poems over the internet on Christmas day, using Pongo activities of I Am, Ten Reasons to Love Me, and You Don’t Me. In these poems Evie wrote about feeling uncared for and wretched, and she wrote about her need to cut herself. But she also wrote about the power of her words and dreams. I thanked her for these poems and expressed my reaction that they were about difficult feelings but also contained the voice of a sensitive, articulate, strong, and creative person. The next day Evie sent me her prize-winning poem, which is included below and is based on the Pongo activity Strength.
And after “Strength,” I have included another poem from Evie, one that she sent me a few days ago, called “3 thoughts in that one voice.” In this brief poem Evie imagines cutting, but then describes the decision not to cut, and finally shows the strangeness that fills her after making that decision.
So, I hope you’ll recognize and celebrate the strength in the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize. Following Evie’s poems, there are links to three great poems by other writers that received Honorable Mention. Cheers!
by Evie, age 16
I can be as strong as concrete, a solid brick wall,
like the ones that I have build to surround me.
Ready to lock myself within the walls, protected, and unhurt.
I can be as strong as the ocean's waves,
that swallow me up whole.
Pay attention to my craving waves, the ones that come after you,
not giving time to breathe.
I will overcome this fear.
I can be strong in ways you don't expect.
I can be as strong as the stone heart that I carry on my sleeve.
Able to stay strong and stable,
through all the hurt that is thrown at me.
My strength can be gentle.
I can only be as strong as myself, my weakest link.
Ready to crack under all the pressure.
I can be strong and change the world.
And I will.
3 thoughts in that one voice
by Evie, age 16
the thought makes my skin tingle, my hands go numb, and my mind swim.
I can't control the hunger of the pain anymore.
while my mind and heart scream to stop and forget, my hand goes ahead thinking on its own, slicing and revealing my insides.
letting the red emerge from my flesh, hitting the floor, drop by drop.
the usual smile appears on my face. I don't know who I am anymore.
I reach for the steak knife, hiding in the nest of spoons.
the black handle is warm.
as I pull it free, the blade slices the air, dividing it into slivers.
I can see the shadow of my old self.
the girl I don't wanna be.
here stands a girl clutching a knife, with blood in the air, angry words piled in the corners, we are trained not to see this way of life.
the knife silently slithers its way back into the block with only a whisper.
and for one moment,
we are not failed tests, or broken hearts, or liars.
we are crayons and lunch boxes, and swinging so high our sneakers punch holes in the sky.
for one breath, everything is better.
then it all melts away.
Honorable Mention, January 2011
Letter After a Time
Captured in Hiding
Lessons of Courage and Fear
It would be easy to celebrate Maggie as the 25-year-old young professional she is, a stunning young woman with long brown hair, dedicated to her job, about to defend her Masters thesis, proud of her apartment and independent life.
(“Maggie” is a pseudonym, and some of the facts in this story have been changed to protect her anonymity.)
But I would like to celebrate the whole Maggie, and bring Maggie’s accomplished life together with her other life, the second life that she always kept secret from “good” people. Maggie would like that, too.
Maggie’s earliest memories, to age 7, are of being sexually abused by a brother who was 13 years older. After her parents’ divorce, she was neglected by a deeply troubled mother who kept a squalid house, left rotting food sitting out for Maggie (if she fed her at all), and openly engaged in sexual adventures. Then when Maggie objected to her mother’s behavior, she was kicked out of her house at 14 and afterward lived under bridges through adolescence, while she was alcoholic, anorexic, drug-addicted, and battered. She wintered in the apartment of a murderous and philandering boyfriend who was 11 years older.
Yet Maggie always went to school and always earned A’s. Her intellectual effort gave her purpose and self-esteem. Teachers were her nurturers. And Maggie measured her mental health by her ability to have at least five people in her life who didn’t know about her suffering.
And Maggie always sustained herself with an appreciation for the things in this world that are enduringly beautiful, like the flowing river beneath the bridge where she slept.
Ultimately, there were several events that helped Maggie make a significant change in her life at age 19. An intervention was scheduled at Maggie’s apartment to help her with her coke addiction, and no one showed up (not even the flighty friend who had arranged the intervention), except for Maggie’s abusive brother. Maggie’s abuser broke down that evening, beat himself bloody in a hysteria of guilt, and for the first time acknowledged what he had done. For the first time, Maggie could truly accept the reality of her hurt and feel sane.
About this time, at a vulnerable moment for Maggie, she was violently raped. Then she moved in with her father, who loved her, fed her, played cards with her, and made sure that she was always warm. Maggie completed college at this time, while she battled addiction and eating disorders.
Today, Maggie knows the legacy of her life. She is convinced that she will never have children, for example. But Maggie also doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her or think she is a sad person. In her intellectual way, she describes human emotions as existing along a continuum from -10 to 10. The worst pain, the -10, is felt equally by everyone. But if life pushes you, if you feel your -10 from child abuse, for example, then nothing you experience will ever be that bad again.
And when life pushes you, when you feel a -10 from child abuse, for example, then the joy that you feel, the +10, is correspondingly greater. Maggie thinks that when she runs on the beach with her dog that no one is happier than she…
I began by describing Maggie’s accomplished life today, as an independent working woman and student. But isn’t the whole Maggie, to include the life in which she suffered, an even more remarkable person?
In a future article about Maggie, I’d like to discuss the nature and consequences of secrecy in her life.
Two of Maggie’s poems are enclosed below: “Drugs” from the time her mother kicked her out when Maggie was 14, and “Petals on the Floor” from the time her brother admitted his guilt when Maggie was 19.
Maggie, age 14
Because you never taught me that I was supposed to love myself.
Because you are jealous of me, your child, for every accomplishment I’ve fought for.
Because I want to show you that I am as low as you are. Then maybe we’d have something to talk about.
Because you abuse me with no shame.
Because self-mutilation has been glorified so many times by your lips. It is the only thing worthy of your attention.
Because you never expected any more of me.
Because I am definitely your child.
Because the people that you care about are the people that are more f***ed up than you.
Because I don’t know how to heal the pain you bestowed upon me.
Because you never wanted me to amount to more than you are.
Because I am confused and young and you offer me no guidance.
Because you taught me how to.
Because I see how you don’t have to care about anything while you’re high.
Because I want to be just like you, mother—painless, soulless.
Because maybe hurting myself will hurt you too.
Because this is the way you planned it.
Because if I hit rock bottom, I don’t have to fall in panic anymore.
Because I want you to love me.
Petals On the Floor
Maggie, age 19
Tearing each petal from its origin
…He loves me, he loves me not…
shooting pain, doubt, a hitchhiker
from the back of my eyes, down.
destination: The Achilles Tendon
Anxious now. No sleep, only to feel
within my once shallow blue waters,
an unclean, terrifying depth. I sink in.
fear between his touch, my skin.
Hurt is warm, slow, blazing red.
the poisoned berry in starvation
and, I, the starving child. the juice drips
dangerously, anxiously, slowly from my lip
I’m walking now,
my left eye a clouded mirror, my right
an antiquated magnifying glass
the path, undoubtedly, unclear
He holds me then, dripping with false apology
his desperation, his relief, onto me
the weight of his burden, his hate.
…He hates me, he hates me not…
As I pull the last petal, hate
and love forgotten. I think.
this stem in my hand, naked, humiliated
the only fact undoubted:
this wildflower is in pieces on the floor.
With today’s journal, I’d like to announce the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize. In “Watching Her” you’ll hear the voice of a strong young woman. It makes me think about the resilience that we see all the time through our Pongo work.
The experiences of abused and neglected youth are terrible when you read about them in the teens’ Pongo poetry, but I always encourage readers to think beyond the sad content - to celebrate the resilience it takes to write and heal. Writing exposes a wound to light and air. After they write, the Pongo teens are proud, feel capable, and gain control in their lives. Instead of being merely reactive to pain, a person who writes can integrate that painful experience into a multi-faceted and cognizant personality. There is still sadness, and sometimes struggle, but a person’s losses can be mourned and a future envisioned.
And complementing the role of writing itself is the ability to be heard, which breaks down the walls of isolation. At Pongo we sit with our authors and listen to their stories as an important part of what we do. An awful reality of abuse and neglect is that the hurt often contains terror, blame, coercion, control, guilt, and helplessness. Abuse and neglect are a pointed injury to a person’s soul. And abuse and neglect throw their victims into terrible isolation. Yet we can help people to heal when we’re strong enough to listen to their stories and to accompany them out of their solitude.
So please read “Watching Her” and watch the author, too. Celebrate the latest winner of the Pongo Poetry Prize. Following the winning poem, there are links to three great poems that received Honorable Mention. Cheers!
by a young woman, age 16
i've watched my mother all of my life
i watched her let my father beat her till her skull broke open and bled across the hardwood floor
i watched her recover from that incident, return to my father, and become pregnant with yet another child whom she'd always ignore
i watched her struggle in chaos and self punishment while she filled her 135lb body with vodka, beer, and rum
i watched her get so angry at my older sister that she'd beat her till her fragile 98lb body was forced to become numb
i watched my mother live the life of an addict, an abuser, and a manipulator
i watched her try and hide these things that she'd always reveal until the day i walked down the street and watched her do something she couldn't conceal
i watched my mother do these things till the day she had successfully pushed everything, including her children, out of her life
i watched her unconsciously toss and turn in a dirty sleeping bag on the rainy seattle sidewalk of lake city way
yes, i watched my mother all of my life
but sixteen years into watching i choose to no longer watch her strife
Honorable Mention, October 2010
My Best Friend Is in Love
Shannon spent most of seven years as an inmate at Mission Creek Correction Center, from the age of 30 to 37. For the last three years, since her release, she has returned to Mission Creek with Pat Graney and the “Keeping the Faith” dance project, to help her friends. (I mention Mission Creek and “Keeping the Faith” in an earlier blog post on February 7.)
I asked Shannon to have coffee and tell me her story. I admire her strength. I was surprised in three ways by our conversation: the profound suffering she endured as a child, the sense of fragility she has about her new life, and the depth of compassion that drives her to help other women like her.
Like many women now in prison, Shannon was sexually abused as a child. In her case the abuse occurred between the ages of 3 and 7, perpetrated by a family friend. She was introduced to drugs by her family at the age of 9. Her father used drugs to sexually abuse her when she was a teen. She was a cutter, engaged in suicidal behaviors, was hospitalized. She became an IV drug user at 26, when she also entered an abusive relationship with her girlfriend. Her long history is dominated by stealing and drug dealing to support a drug habit.
About her current life, working with Pat, Shannon says she stumbled upon success, “Nobody wants to succeed when you’ve always failed. It’s scary as hell.” Shannon talked to me with her hands sweating. She says it’s a fight every day. A slip up last Christmas, drinking with an old friend, reminded her that she’s 48 hours away from returning to her former life. Shannon rejected her old friend. That friend did return to the former life, abandoning a young child in the process.
When I asked Shannon what had changed for her, she pointed to writing and dance with Pat Graney, but mostly to simple things – the passage of time, the wish not to return to prison, the desire to survive. The biggest difference in Shannon’s life now is that she has a whole new set of relationships, where caring doesn’t mean being partners in self-destruction.
Like many survivors of abuse, Shannon has deep compassion for others. Making a difference for them is an essential part of healing. Inside Mission Creek today, facilitating writing and dance, Shannon does not think about herself, her own struggles. She is also very uncomfortable with her own accomplishments. Instead, Shannon is often close to tears, dealing with the inmates’ suffering and hoping for a better life for her old friends.