Eulogy for a Survivor: Kerry Keyes, Dec. 30th 1951 - Mar. 29th 2015

For those of you who don't know me, I'm Mikey. I'm the little boy Kerry takes care of towards the end of She Can Fly. I'm also the author. I suppose that's a spoiler if you haven't read the book yet. I'm sorry, but clever literary devices don't seem all that important right now.

Kerry's high school photo

Kerry's high school photo

Kerry Keyes passed away Sunday night at the age of 63. The staff at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis kept her in relative comfort during her final days, but that's a big 'relative.' Upon reviewing her medical history, Kerry's doctor said, "I don't know how she's made it this long." See, Kerry's entire life has been a case study in the indomitability of the human spirit. 

A decade of tortuous domestic abuse, two prison sentences, a rape and botched abortion - all of this before the age of 28, the age I am today. Then seventeen years spent living as a fugitive before being rearrested and, eventually, exonerated. But the scars never go away, and while the emotional pain may get better with time, the physical pain only gets worse. 

You would think someone upstairs would say, "Okay, she's had enough," but fate had other ideas for Kerry. A necrotic bite from a brown recluse spider nearly killed her, and a stroke left her with a temporary verbal aphasia. One winter she slipped on an icy parking lot, landing hip-first on the curb. She dusted off the snow and went to work, hauling buckets of cleaning supplies up and down the stairs of a wealthy doctor's house. Despite the twisted spine featured on the cover of She Can Fly and a now growing pain in her leg, she had to keep working. Keep surviving. 

Kerry's healed spine and femur

Kerry's healed spine and femur

That weekend she finally went to get an X-ray. The diagnosis? A fractured femur. The radiologist said, "I've seen grown men cry like babies with this injury. How did you continue to work?"

Kerry tilted her head at him. "What else was I supposed to do?"

So when Kerry went in for an emergency surgery last Saturday, everyone, including her, expected a full recovery. She called me in LA from her hospital room to explain the situation: instestinal ischemia, also known as 'dead bowels.' I talk to Kerry often on the phone and the previous time we had spoke, her voice was weak and shaky. She said she'd been having terrible stomach pains, most likely due to an unhealed esophageal tear that had been plaguing her for some time. To raise her spirits I told her about the message we had just received from a woman in Atlanta, saying She Can Fly had helped her leave an abusive situation. The message came in on the one year anniversary of publishing the book, and it more than justified all the hard work and vulnerability we had put into sharing Kerry's story.

The original draft of She Can Fly, written while Kerry was in solitary confinement

The original draft of She Can Fly, written while Kerry was in solitary confinement

As I told her the details of the woman's situation and the steps she had taken to escape with her children, Kerry's voice regained its usual tone, an almost child-like excitement. "Oh, honey, really?! That's so wonderful. I guess we did good, huh?" Kerry's always had the ability to 'shelf' her suffering for others. And this was no exception. Little did we both know, the ischemia was already spreading. While she was living for others, Kerry was literally dying on the inside. 

After a second surgery on Tuesday night it was determined that nothing further could be done. The damage had spread too extensively. They would keep her comfortable while things "ran their course." A day or two at most, the doctor informed us. She would at least have a chance to see her four sons, her sisters and her mother.

I made it to St. Louis on the second day after her surgery and headed straight to the hospital. I was thankful her room was the first in the hallway. I didn't have a chance to lose it emotionally. Now it was my turn to keep it together for someone else. I found her hand under the blanket and her eyes found my face. "It's me, Kerry," I said. "It's Mikey." She smiled, and I stayed with her while the painful grimaces increased. 

It was time for direct morphine. It was time for me to say goodbye. I kissed her head and told her I loved her. "You did good, Kerry," I said. "You can rest now." The nurses said the morphine would put her to sleep until the sepsis took over - most likely that night - but despite losing consciousness shortly after I left Kerry held on for three more days. Giving up just wasn't in her DNA. 

Kerry's son Jermaine and I went to her apartment from the hospital to clear out her fridge. Her power was off due to an unpaid bill. Dwindling health and constant hospital visits made working difficult for Kerry. Proceeds from the book's sales helped a little, but She Can Fly was never about the money. There were more bills shoved into her drawers, surrounded by empty bottles of medication. The only thing that filled her apartment more than her hardships were her memories. We found boxes and boxes of photos. Of her family, her boys, her friends and all the people she's taken care of over the years - all familiar faces to me in the family you become apart of by being one of Kerry's 'adopted children.' 

Kerry around age 10

Kerry around age 10

One photo in particular caught my attention. Kerry couldn't have been much older than 10, but it was her expression that grabbed me, a sort of emotional precociousness. At an age when a person's world should be full of wonder and joy, Kerry wore the face of someone who knew life was not going to be easy. There's a calm resolution present too, however. It makes you question whether some people were put on this Earth to demonstrate just how much pain humans are capable of enduring. But even at that age, Kerry knew her purpose was not simply to endure, but to care for others as well. And she was resolved to do just that. As she might say, "What else was I supposed to do?"

I may not have liked it then, but I still have and cherish the sweater Kerry knit for me

I may not have liked it then, but I still have and cherish the sweater Kerry knit for me

I don't remember my life before Kerry. I don't remember meeting her either, on her first day of work as my nanny. I'm told I ran to the top of the stairs in my footy pajamas and screamed, "IS SHE DOWN THERE?! GET HER AWAY FROM ME!" until my father scooped me up and carried me to breakfast. For an entire week this routine continued. Kerry was always down there. She never got discouraged by my protests. She simply did her job the best way she knew how - with steady love and care - and within two weeks she had won me over completely. An only child who always wanted a brother, I got something better in Kerry: a best friend. 

Hers was the first telephone number I ever memorized, and to this day the first I dialed when I needed someone to talk to. Now I don't know who to call, so I tilt my head skyward and ask, "Is she up there?" 

The answer, of course, is yes. Someone has to take care of the angels after all...

Though the final chapter in Kerry's life has been written, I am confident we have still only seen the beginning of the effect her story will have on the world. It is time to make abuse - in all its insidious forms - a problem of the past. We don't need anymore case studies. We don't need anymore martyrs. Cautionary tales like She Can Fly can show us the way, but it is only through proactive examples that we will be able to lay this pandemic to rest.  

Please don't be a bystander. Share Kerry's story. Listen to those like it. And take a stand for those who can't. Now, more than ever. 

Thank you,

Mikey

What Are We Teaching Our Kids About Domestic Violence?

What Are We Teaching Our Kids About Domestic Violence?

By Michael Gabel

I don't have kids of my own, but since the age of 16 I have worked as an after school caretaker, academic tutor, camp counselor, health instructor, English teacher, and 'manny' (man-nanny). In short, I like kids. I find their creativity and inhibition inspiring. Passing down to them my passions for art and writing gives me great fulfillment. But a recent review of She Can Fly has me wondering: Are we giving tomorrow's adults the education they truly need? 

The reviewer wrote, "I wish schools would make this a required reading for teens.

One Year Later: The Story Comes Full Circle

When Kerry Keyes and I began the process of writing her life story seven years ago we never questioned why we were doing it. Kerry had recently witnessed a man physically bullying his wife at the local grocery story. The woman kept her head down, her mouth shut. She wore dark sunglasses and darker bruises. Her pain - physical and emotional - radiated through Kerry's own body. It was a pain she had escaped, but not forgotten. A pain she hoped women no longer experienced. But in that moment, despite all the advancements in domestic violence support networks and legislation, Kerry knew her story wasn't unique. 

Throughout the vulnerable process of reopening and recording how that story came to unfold, Kerry often expressed apprehension. Her fears didn't revolve around what we were doing. She was resolute in that endeavor. No, what terrified her was how the choices she had made would be received by readers. Would people judge her? Would they think less of her? After all, some of the things she had done were not only morally questionable, they were downright illegal. Kerry went to prison twice for fraud in the 70s, but every bad check was written under the thumb of her abusive partner. Every bad check was one less black eye. 

When presented so clearly, it is impossible not to sympathize with her position. I couldn't imagine a situation in which a reader would come away from Kerry's story blaming her, blaming the victim. Sadly, such perspective isn't always available. Statistics from The Sentencing Project suggest that upwards of 90% of female inmates are victims of abuse. The longer the sentence, the greater the chance of abuse playing a role, until life without parole sentences approach a perfect correlation.

In one way or another, abuse often becomes a life sentence. But it doesn't have to. 

Teri Hatcher Shares Her Story of Domestic Violence

In November actress Teri Hatcher spoke at the Commemoration of the International Day to End Violence against Women 2014, organized by UN Women. Her powerful personal testimony addressed both the unacceptable prevalence of this global epidemic and the urgent need for change. Her story speaks louder than any facts or statistics possibly can. Please watch: 

From her speech:

"I am simply one in three women who is forced to accept violence as a part of their life story. I am one of three women who for the rest of her life battles the voice in her head that accepts blame for abuse, a voice that is antithetical to self-esteem, self-worth, and happiness. 

This is a statistic that has to change. One in three women can no longer have to face a stigma and a fear that prevent them from seeking help. One in three women should NOT feel afraid to come forward and report it, as they so often do, because they think they will not be believed or taken seriously. When society shames the victim by asking, 'Why did you stay?' or 'Why didn't you say something?' instead of asking, 'Why did HE abuse her?' we just continue to foster a society where the abusers continue to abuse. That one in three woman could be your mother, your daughter, or your sister. It is unacceptable to not actively and passionately work to change a society in which ANY woman is violated, injured, tortured, and killed. Everyone everywhere has a responsibility to end violence.

I am one in three, and I WILL BE the one who yells from the rooftops until those numbers change. Until every woman who has faced abuse feels less alone and safe enough to find the courage to have her own voice, until violence against women is no longer a part of any woman's story, silence will not be a part of mine."

The No More Shame Project + She Can Fly

Shame is a way to push down, subvert and hide the truth. It's a way to avoid talking about the real issue. As the philosopher Peter Rollins says, if we talk about the crisis, only then does it become real. So better to just avoid the topic all together, right?

Wrong. 

When it comes to sensitive matters, especially those matters involving the systematic abuse of another person, it is doubly important that we allow the crisis to be brought to light. We need to know what's really going on. And we need to hear it from the victim's mouth, not from those who might have a motivation to bend and minimize the truth. It's why Kerry decided to tell her story. Thankfully, she's not the only one. 

The good people who run the No More Shame Project have begun compiling a list of stories that are "either written by survivors of abuse or are a resource for those who are feeling trapped in an abuse situation." It takes more than a single point of light to illuminate such a dire issue, and we are proud to have She Can Fly featured amongst the other brave voices.

Check out the project here: nomoreshameproject.com/roundup

T: @TraumaRecoveryU  F: /TraumaRecoveryUniversity

The Most Important Play of the Game

In case you missed it during the broadcast of Super Bowl XLIX, the NO MORE campaign released the above commercial during the game's first quarter. Funded by the NFL, the sixty-second spot is the first Super Bowl ad to ever address domestic violence and sexual assault. The chilling dialogue you hear is based on an actual 911 call.

The transcript of the call surfaced a few months back and I applauded the operator for staying on the line and reading the subtext of this woman's hidden cry for help. Now I applaud the team that created this commercial. No heartbreaking statistics or fancy production values can speak louder than a true story simply told. And, as the commercial's message so clearly states, hopefully people listen. 

The Mission Doesn't End With Sharing

Domestic violence survival stories like Kerry's not only need to be shared, they also need to be studied. That way change can be enacted on a personal and policy level. 

This donated copy of She Can Fly is going out to the Institute for Family Violence Studies at FSU's College of Social Work. According to their website, "the Institute strives to contribute to effective responses to the devastation caused by family violence. [They] work to do this by conducting research that increases the knowledge base about interventions that work, providing technical assistance and training for service providers and advocates, and serving as a resource for professionals as well as the general public seeking information."

Hopefully Kerry's account of the absolutely devastating nature of abuse will shine a light on the victim mentality and aid the Institute in their mission.