Edited by Judith Skillman and Linera Lucas
Exposit Books, 2021; 221 pp., $23.99 (Paperback)Buy Book
Anthologies so often hold one subject up, turn it this way and that, show us crevices and winks of insight, make connections we haven’t before perceived. Judith Skillman and Linera Lucas’s recent anthology about domestic abuse does just that. When Home is Not Safe: Writings on Domestic Verbal, Emotional, and Physical Abuse is a collection of nonfiction and poetry from survivors of domestic abuse in varying situations. Domestic abuse is common yet often silenced; it can manifest in ways difficult to pinpoint or confront. Thus, we’re all, in some way, touched by it, whether it has directly affected us or not. This is a book of collected truths, a conversation about the facets of abuse. Domestic abuse is a world; when you’re immersed in that world, it’s nearly impossible to reserve a ship off the planet. You can’t hover above this world, or perceive what’s spinning below, when you are constantly on alert. Editors Skillman and Lucas clarify the nuance of abuse from the beginning, through the title, and their introduction defines and describes how it can be loud or quiet. Their purpose in this exploration is, as they write, “to give voice where voice has been stifled, forgotten, overlooked, or denied.”
The editors organize the essays into four sections: “Home,” “Trauma,” “PTSD,” and “In Retrospect.” This is a rather hopeful organization, in that it suggests that there is a way through for survivors, from the immediate intimacies of home to the space and capacity to leave that world and gain introspection. In a poem titled “Weather,” Heidi Seaborn delivers the first two chilling lines of the anthology: “Suppose you wake up to his weather / and find yourself bruised by his weather.” Across every piece in the anthology is this understanding of the climate of abuse, the control of “weather” in one’s home, body, and mind, and the resulting feeling of being trapped. Many of the writers convey what it’s like to be constantly alert, to weigh every small interaction for its potentially disastrous consequences, and to feel utterly alone in such risk calculations. As Jennifer Jenkins writes about an encounter with her husband in “Hit Me”: “All the self-righteous statements of female empowerment will not protect me now. In this moment, I am on my own.” Those who suffered abuse from parents in childhood also offer poignant insight. In “Ever Closer,” J. Flynn Doncaster meditates on a playwright father whose work is only slightly veiled autobiography: “To call his love language performative would be an understatement.” Across this and many of the pieces in this anthology is the keen insight that abuse can be both furtive and performative; additionally, it’s common for the abuser to rewrite the story as a sort of ode to self, or, at times, as a form of ineffective atonement.
The second section, “Trauma,” is a set of visceral pieces, often showing the survivor’s keen perceptions about the traits of the abuser. For instance, in “Kintsugi,” LeeAnn Oliver’s abusive ex-husband leaves a chilling altar for her after he has moved out, consisting of items that would have been meaningful in their marriage. When others seem surprised that he left a neat altar rather than a mess, her mother reminds them that an action from an abusive person that causes hurt can be more effective than one that results in anger. Oliver writes later about the emotional abuse her ex-husband was capable of: “The effects of narcissism permeate, poison, and pollute every aspect of your being so that a virtual exorcism is required for any healing to occur.” Other writers in this section tell compelling stories about how appeasement and conflict avoidance result in the opposite of their intentions: they allow abuse. Still, many of these writers have been able to get out.
This escape leads into the third section, “PTSD,” where writers often reflect on the aftermath of physical violence and emotional pain. H.M. Clark’s “Fire Line” meditates on the anxiety that resonates for survivors: “Trauma is a continent, a place so big and wide with edges so far it feels like nothing else exists. It’s a belief structure; a reality.” And so writers such as Marjorie Maddox, in “The Truth of Lies, the Lies of Truth,” question even the most admirable of traits: “I am the only one I know accused often / of being ‘honest, faithful, kind,’ as if you could mix the three / and drink them down like poison.” In this third section, writers capture what it is to experience the reverberations of abuse.
In the fourth and final section, “In Retrospect,” many of the writers narrate moments of violence and fear while indicating that they are more distanced from those events. As Mary Zelinka writes in “Last Supper”: “Years from now, after I have discovered domestic and sexual violence advocacy work, I will come to realize I hadn’t been worthless or crazy.” With other survivors, Zelinka will “grieve the time we lost.” She knows this as she writes, even as she manages to capture what it felt at the time to eat dinner with her son before she sent him off to his father, for she had lost hope, in an abusive relationship, that she was healthy for her son. While all four sections contain elements of home, trauma, PTSD, and retrospection, they are collected to show a trajectory.
After finishing this book, one thing that strikes me, especially as a person who recently went through a pandemic divorce, is the trope of women doing the work and being resilient. The pieces in this anthology are not moralistic or tidy, which I’m grateful for as a reader; no one in this book is claiming that everything is on them. But I’m struck by just how much everything is on them. How much survivors and women are expected to carry. A person who wants to be out of an abusive situation must deliberate, must plan, must find new and other ways to respond to a situation that has already exhausted them through and through. Survivors are the ones who have to figure it out. They have to comprehend the nature of their abusers while being immersed in a life with them. When they name the problem, many of their abusers twist their words and make them question if they are right. The abusers act wounded, the “hurt little-boy face . . . which always has me rushing to retract whatever I’ve said,” as Gayalene Carbis writes in “This is what happened.” Survivors are the ones who must change and come back to themselves. Survivors recognize this in each other. So, perhaps, this is what I am most struck by: more than sadness about the extraordinary burdens on marginalized humans, I’m amazed at the hard and clear power of the language of many of these writers and stories. These writers have not only endured abuse but offer psychological clarity for those who need it.