An Inconvenient Truth

How facing up to, and publicizing, a painful history resulted in a little bit of grace.

September 2010

There, but for the grace of God, go I. I love that phrase, and I love what it implies, which is a certain type of humility. It’s a declaration that had things gone a little differently, had the world not twisted in just the right way, had a moment of grace not descended, things could have turned out in a different and more painful way.

And so it was for me. As a teenager, I was a spirited, smart, straight-A kid. I traveled to Europe by myself, dug latrines in Mexico, learned to hike and ski and loved to be alone. Perhaps I was just a little too confident, a little too overachieving. And then, when I was 20 years old, something happened. Brain chemicals, depression, hormones—who knows? A switch flipped. I entered a dark and strange land.

I was in college, friendless, and unsure of how to make friends or become engaged in life. I became shy in the extreme; I never left my dorm room except for class and jobs. I skipped my meals in the cafeteria, ate cold pizza alone in my room. I was insecure, unsure, and afraid. On top of that, I was broke. I had already pawned what I could for tuition and an unused meal plan.

Then I met a fellow student—a man—who was pretty much the first guy who showed any interest in me, and I chose him because I was so desperate not to be alone. The first time he hit me, he was drunk, and I figured everyone loses his or her temper once in a while. The second and third time, my brain came up with enormously creative excuses. Then he was graduating and moving, and because I couldn’t conceive of being alone and couldn’t pay for school anymore anyway, I dropped out and moved with him. I got a minimum-wage job, cut off most contact with my family, had not a single friend, and learned what it feels like to be slammed into car doors and house doors and the ground.

Unbelievable. At least, it seems that way to me now. Where was my confident, world-traveling, independent former self? The part of me that included words like scholarship, magna cum laude, strong?

Well, the short answer is: I don’t know.

Suddenly—and I can’t account for this, either—a switch flipped again. Simple as that. One day, about a year after I’d met this man, my brain cleared. I picked up the phone, called my younger brother, and asked him to fly from Colorado to the South to help me drive home. I’d saved enough money for his plane ticket.

My brother agreed without question, and once he was standing next to me, I had the courage to tell this boyfriend I was leaving. His face got red and his eyes bright, and I moved closer to my brother. The presence of another human is the only thing that kept my face from the force of his hand.

My brother and I drove across the country in a huge snowstorm. My car didn’t have windshield wipers and we had no money for food, but we laughed a great deal. Somewhere in the Midwest, my brother said, “You’re smarter than him, Laura. I could see that right away. You’re just so much more…human. You are a real human being. He’s not worthy.”

Since then, I have often wondered: What if I had stayed with that guy? What if I’d gotten pregnant? What if I didn’t have a brother? What if I’d never finished college? No Ph.D., no teaching, no writing, no volunteer work, no dreams realized? Perhaps not being a productive member of society, which is, after all, a concept not to be scorned or belittled.

After that, of course, I was changed. And the most important transformation was this: a newfound humbleness and an absence of judgment for those who are having a harder time in the world. When I see a bedraggled woman at a job she clearly hates, or a person glancing fearfully at her partner on the bus, I think of that saying: There, but for the grace of God, go I. And I silently wish that person some grace.