Department

An Inconvenient Truth

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

September 2010

We all get badgered to do things we don’t want to do. We sigh. We roll our eyes. Our lips start to form the word no.

Being hounded to say yes is a simple fact of life. I’ve come to accept it as a part of my existence. I’ve also gotten better at saying that simple word. No. No, I cannot. No, I will not. No. No. No.

But recently I’ve taken to examining why I don’t want to do such and such, and if, once I examine my list of excuses, the reason has to do with emotional cowardice, I say yes, just for the sheer pleasure of driving myself crazy. I recognize the need to shake up my fairly shake-free life, I suppose. Perhaps I am oddly addicted to anxiety. And I love to listen to the argument that starts in my head the moment I’ve mouthed that word: yes.

Which is why I said yes to the Zonta Foothills Club of Boulder County. Zonta is a volunteer organization that helps women in a variety of ways—by giving birthing kits to poor countries for sanitary childbirth, by offering scholarships to single moms, and by preventing violence against women. All good stuff, obviously. Who would say no? Only a jerk. And yet, when I was asked to give a fund-raising talk for a Colorado chapter of Zonta, I started to say just that.

Oh, you coward…my brain said.

Oh, shut up, I told it. I’m sick of you and your new I-can’t-be-a-coward rule.

I think you’re being a jerk, my brain said.

Leave me alone, I told myself. Fine. I’ll say yes.

I had vacillated because there was something I’d have to face if I accepted the invitation; there was a secret truth I’d finally have to acknowledge. How can you be asked to speak at such an organization, and then sidestep the main issues? Sidestepping is not ethical, not right, not my style. It drags the world down into beige mediocrity and falsehood and appearance for appearance’s sake. It makes us all seem more brave and sturdy than we really are.

So I agreed to give the talk for one reason, a deal I made with my own brain: I would publicly discuss something private. Not to be melodramatic, not to elicit sympathy, not to navel-gaze, but to increase the public discussion that women, all kinds of women, get abused. Which is just to say that I know what it feels like to reach up and touch the sticky warmth of blood, look at the man who just made that happen and, horribly, know that I would stay with him.

Until I didn’t.

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.

We’ve all heard the cliché: “Cream will rise to the top.” We believe people who work hard enough will meet their financial needs, become voters, taxpayers—fully realized adults. And they should. And I believe they want to.

But cream doesn’t rise when the can is being shaken, and there was a time in my life when all I could do was sink. Had I not had a brother to call, or a home to return to, or financial aid, I could have gotten stuck there, in that strange and horrible purgatory.

I sometimes wonder if, back then, I would have had the presence of mind to contact a group like Zonta. I’m not even sure I knew such groups existed. But I like to believe that I would have. Eventually. Somehow, word would have reached my ears, and I would have reached back.

I would have said please.

And they would have said yes.

Not no. Yes. And that is why I agreed to give that talk for Zonta Foothills Club, to tell the There, but for the grace of God, go I story I think we all need to hear. Because I’m grateful to groups that help women like me—women who need the shaking to stop so they can rise. I’m reminded of what Amelia Earhart, who was a huge Zonta supporter, once said: “Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.” Amen, sister. Here’s to trying to be brave, and here’s to hoping grace descends upon us all.

Laura Pritchett, whose most recent book is Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers, writes the “Notes from the Front Range” column for the magazine. E-mail her at [email protected]. For information on the Zonta Foothills Club of Boulder County, please visit zontafoothills.org.