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.
Whenever Kerry expressed doubts about putting her life 'out there' as a book, I made a promise to her. I promised we would get one message from one woman saying the story gave her the strength to leave an abusive situation, to get out before the cycle became inescapable. And on March 4th, 2015, one year to the day after publishing She Can Fly, I delivered on that promise.
A woman reached out to me after I made a post offering free paperback copies to anyone who wanted (or needed) to read Kerry's story. I sent the book and she texted me a thank you. Then the conversation took a turn:
The urgency of her situation didn't allow time to explain, but she didn't need to, and, recognizing her Atlanta area code, I was able to give her the contact info for local support network, the Women's Resource Center to End Domestic Violence.
A few days later, she checked back in:
I have stayed in touch with this woman over the past week, offering encouragement as she continues to prepare for her escape. Her bags are packed, the authorities are aware of her plan, and she has a support network in place. The final step out the door still needs to be taken, but she wont be taking it alone.
For too long women have been systematically controlled, manipulated and threatened into a life of fear and isolation. And from that single point of reference, domestic violence quickly becomes a life sentence. Indeed, for any one person the global pandemic of violence against women seems insurmountable. But together we are strong. Together, we share the power of our collective experiences and support. The resources are available. There is only one step you need to take alone, just one word you need to say: "Help."