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 Fl  y , 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

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. 

The Numbers DO Add Up

by Michael G. Gabel

I'm no stranger to how horrific facts and anecdotes about domestic violence can be. But I still find myself saying, as one reviewer put it, "This really happened? This is a true story?" It often feels like this is a problem for a previous time, one that should have been vanquished decades ago. And yet the sheer magnitude of cases and data prove that it is not. Still, I've learned to take statistics with a grain of salt. 

During the Kickstarter campaign to launch She Can Fly, I outlined a series of what I thought were basic facts about domestic violence as proof of the need for this cautionary tale. Let's play two truths and lie:

1. A woman is beaten or assaulted every nine seconds in the US.

2. Three victims die at the hands of abusers daily.

3. Domestic Violence is the leading cause of injury to women.

Number three, it turns out, is untrue. Though the fact was touted by high-level pundits and still appears in many reputable domestic violence resources, according to the CDC, Unintentional Injuries (which is a larger umbrella term that encompasses all murders and then those by intimate partners) falls sixth on the list after heart disease, cancer, strokes and other diseases. So, the fact doesn't check out, and I have since tried to correct the claim whenever I hear it made, but it's still pretty darn horrifying. 

Then, in an Associated Press story on on Oct. 1, Gloria Steinem said this: 

"If you added up all the women who have been murdered by their husbands or boyfriends since 9/11, and then you add up all the Americans who were killed by 9/11 or in Afghanistan and Iraq, more women were killed by their husbands or boyfriends."

Before I could raise an eyebrow, the internet was already double checking her claim. And guess what?

It's true. 

According to Pundit Fact, "Since Sept. 11, 2001, more women have been killed by 'intimate partners' than all of the victims in Sept. 11 and the American victims in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan" combined.

This one had even me speechless. I saw the numbers. I saw the sources. I simply couldn't wrap my head around it. Being a visual person, I decided to graph the data. I even literally painted the facts into a mixed-media oil painting, hoping to make things look prettier, more optimistic...

It didn't work. 

No chart in the world could make this situation look good. 

Though domestic violence resources are slowly starting to see federal budgeting increases after the 2013 sequestrations, the reality is they are all vastly underfunded. The National Network to End Domestic Violence reports:

"Across the country, domestic violence programs and shelters are operating with less funding and fewer resources and staff. When victims take the difficult step to reach out for help, many are in life-threatening situations and must be able to find immediate safety and support. Stable funding is now more essential than ever to ensure that programs across the country can keep the lights on, answer crisis calls, and provide essential services for victims fleeing violence."

I don't feel qualified to comment on the fact that we've spent $1.2 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while, on a single day in 2013, nearly 10,000 domestic violence victims could't get the help they needed. I can't analyze the spending breakdowns. I have trouble even comparing the two situations in my mind.

But I can bring them to your attention. And tell you, yes, this really happened. This is a true story. 

A Very Special Teacher's Perspective

by author Michael G. Gabel

A few weeks ago I sent my favorite high school teacher a copy of She Can Fly as a thank you for igniting the love of literature in me. For it was while reading James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Ms. G's English class that I first realized the power for personal resonance in the written word. Diving into the main character Stephen Dedalus' fictional world sent me down my own path of artistic self-discovery, a path that came full circle when I released She Can Fly to the real world of today. 

I didn't expect a response, but in true teacher fashion Ms. G sent me a typed up letter outlining her reactions to receiving the book. Thankfully there wasn't any red ink in sight, and it felt nice to have this tangible tether to my literary roots. But as I read her comments I realized Ms. G may have one of the most unique perspectives of me as a writer. She saw my early voice take shape from my freshman to senior years. Despite my attention-seeking class clown antics, she even saw potential in my writing, granting me one of her coveted college recommendation letters. Then I went off to fight my own creative battles. And fight I did. 

I thought I learned a lot in the six years it took to complete She Can Fly - about writing, about myself, about Kerry, and about domestic violence - but Ms. G's insights blew me away, shedding new light on this story, this project, and this process. A process which Dedalus describes as "to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life."

So thank you, Ms. G. Thank you for your teaching, your tolerance, your letter and your thoughts.

Reproduced below for your enjoyment. 


Dear Mikey,

Hi! I am so happy to be writing to you about such an incredible accomplishment!! I apologize for the formality of typing a personal note, but my penmanship has actually gotten worse (which no one believes possible, but it's really true).

Anyway, your book has been the highlight of my summer. Not to make this all about me, but you have no idea how happy I am to see you produce something so important and well done. For starters, I hope you see the gift of story you possess. Yes, you nailed the grammar and mechanics and complex sentence structure and all that - stuff an English teacher would notice. But what's really impressive is that you managed to tell another person's story, one so dissimilar from your own, and I couldn't detect one hint of your voice in there. You captured someone else's spirit and suffering and did so without an outside editor to keep you in check from slipping into your own way of seeing and saying. Crazy impressive. 

As a woman, I've been fairly aware of domestic violence as an issue that belongs in the front of my brain rather than the back. The problem, though, is that I so often don't know what to do about it, even as a teacher who has access to hotlines and social workers. What I like about your book is that Kerry's first-person account made me really reflect on what she needed, not just what she'd been through. In what ways did the rest of the world let her down? How could any one person have made a difference sooner? How many of the obstacles she faced still exist? Those are the kind of questions that will resonate for a while.

I think one of my favorite parts of the story is Kerry's time in California. It's like you gave her a well-deserved rest from some of the brutality. In your telling of that time, you could have let loose her anger and pain, but as a reader, I desperately needed to see something happy for her. While you're beholden to chronology, you were clearly in command of the telling of the story. 

You should know that I really had to stop myself from reading too quickly. When I found that I was plowing through the book, because I was so engaged, I forced myself to put it down since Kerry's story deserves better. She deserves to have her life - sufferings, betrayals and accomplishments, sink deeply to a reader's core. I'm not sure I've ever had that reaction to a book, and your deserve credit for telling her story in such a way to invoke that battle within a reader.

Most importantly, I couldn't also read this book without thinking of it as your journey as well. The fact that you would even choose to take on this woman's story shows so much about your good character. Embedded in that choice is your empathy and compassion. To tell her full story in her voice demonstrates how internally you heard her and how much you respect her. I hope you see yourself as one of Kerry's accomplishments in life, proof that her suffering wasn't without purpose or direction. I know I'll be thinking how that's true for a long time. Well done.

Thanks again for the copy of the book. I will treasure it always!! Take care and best of luck on your next project!!

Sincerely,

Ms. G

 

 

Inspiring People

Dana Roc produces programs that empower people to be productive, powerful, successful and happy. Her weekly content highlights courageous, creative risk-takes - a spirit she not only admires, but embraces - and author Michael G. Gabel is honored to be featured in this week's "Inspiring People" section. 

Dana said, "I am often impressed with the books and films and projects that I cover. I am inspired by the authors and filmmakers and advocates that I get to talk to feature on DanaRoc.com, but Michael Gabel has newly impressed and inspired me. His selfless dedication and commitment to change lives for the better, to support women in escaping abuse is incredible to me. He works hard and really expects nothing for himself in return, while intending and hoping that his efforts will make a difference in saving even one woman's life... Wow."

Dana and Michael's conversation explored how She Can Fly came to be, where it's headed, and how you can join the fight against domestic violence. Click here to read or listen to the full interview.