I usually see where I'll be teaching when I arrive for the first session, and I seldom meet my students beforehand. So on Monday night I took advantage of an open house at Polaris, a shelter for battered women, to change that usual pattern. I'd biked over seven miles that day despite a chill factor of thirty below, and I suspect that's why the women thought I looked young, healthy, and creative, their romantic image of an artist. They're excited about next month's workshops
Milly, who sings, would love to write songs. Juanita has no interest in writing or drawing, however she likes sewing and crafts. Yvonne is unusually talented and already is writing, painting, and performing. She's also, I'm sure, the client diagnosed with multiple personality (dissociative disorder). Her demeanor was childlike, and her room's a child's room, high bed piled with dozens of plush stuffed animals and shelves filled with expensive toys. She invited me to come back up sometime to play with her.
I'd wavered, considered using excerpts from my own journals, and finally settled on my usual poems and my introductory comments about everyone having something of value to say since every person is unique. Then I'd have them write the history of something special to them, a non-threatening assignment that often brings out unexpected material. And it did last night.
Beverly, the staff person, knew immediately what she wanted to write: Material things don't matter to her. What she cares about are Jesus Christ, her dog, and her child.
Milly was stymied until I suggested music, and she soon filled the page, music as memories, music making her feel powerful, music bringing back her childhood. I indicated the lines I particularly liked, then suggested she tell what songs bring back what memories. Again she wrote with intensity. She could write "a whole novel" about songs and memories.
I'd heard so much about Yvonne's talent that I figured she'd jump right in, but she too seemed stymied at first. I mentioned the stuffed animals in her room, just to start her thinking. When I glanced at her a bit later, her head was down on the table, and I thought she was taking a nap. I peered around: her pencil was moving nonstop. And what came out in the end was a poem of startling intensity about her heart, exactly the same age she is, and each piece she gives away causes pain. "Wow," I exclaimed, "You're a natural poet." She said she'd been through a lot, and I told her that's why she can write so beautifully, that you have to go through a lot of shit to know what life's about. Everyone heartily agreed, Milly commenting that otherwise you have no depth. And Yvonne said, "You have to go through S.H.I.T. to be able to smell a flower."
Juanita reluctantly took a piece of paper, divided up the space, and did little drawings in each slice. When I asked about the results, she said she did them just to do something. She grabbed more paper, divided that up, and did an exercise from grammar school, writing SIX, then drawing six apples. After complimenting sections of her drawings, I said, "Everyone has his own way of being creative, and I know what you like most is making clothes. Have you made any recently?"
She hasn't, not in three or four years, but she was seated about ten feet away from a sewing machine masquerading as a night table. So Juanita might get a chance to sew.
Shantelle had just taken a new job at a homeless shelter, 10:30 PM to 8:30 AM, and she sleepwalked through the evening.
That leaves Lalicia. She was shy and spoke only when spoken to. I was surprised that she had no trouble whatsoever deciding what to write. She handed me her paper when she finished. It was about having babies and how good it was to know she could do something right. I told her that her work was very moving, and that for me, too, my children are the most important part of my life. She then gave the paper to Beverly who also was clearly moved. It was intense, direct, exposed a lot of herself, and Lalicia felt it was too personal to read to the group. Suddenly she grabbed more paper, again wrote intensely, then handed it to me. This one was still more personal: she feels like crying when people talk about her without even getting to know her, without even knowing all the things she's been through. She wished she could understand why she gets so angry. Sometimes she thinks that death might be better than life.
I felt close to tears. I told her it was wonderful that she could express herself like that. A lot of people feel the way she does and can't say it. This was an important step towards understanding herself. She shoved the paper at Beverly, who was visibly upset as she read it, "We'll have to talk about this later."
Lalicia had been sitting with her shirt pulled up over her mouth, as if to make sure she didn't read what she'd written to everyone else. In fact, no one was willing to read aloud when the time came. Then, for a split second, Lalicia removed the shirt from her mouth and looked at her paper. I thought, wow, she's going to read it, that takes guts. But then Yvonne began to read, and everyone gasped at her fluidity and raw emotion. I figured that would intimidate Lalicia; I was wrong. She read from her second piece, and I think everyone felt like crying. I commented that most people keep their feelings inside when it's important to talk about them; in large part that's what life is all about, communicating your feelings. Her shirt stayed away from her mouth for the rest of the evening.
Which didn't last much longer. For Adolph came to pick me up, and when Yvonne saw him, she asked if he's a grandfather. I said he would be, in May, and she ran out of the room and hid in a closet.
Beverly had a serious toothache, and Juanita had the flu; that left four students last night. Shantelle was there and awake, for she'd quit her job when she learned she'd be working alone all night, in charge of the homeless shelter for ten hours.
Yvonne gave a moving performance of one of her poems, and the others all said she should be famous. I said I wish it was that easy, and anyway Yvonne still has some of her own issues to resolve.
That was an understatement. Despite her brilliant performances, her child-side dominated. She was obsessed with getting her money back from a demented store-owner who sold her a broken bow and arrow. I insisted we discuss that later, for we didn't want to also lose our workshop to her bow and arrow.
I read Maya Angelou's Phenomenal Woman to them. It's an important poem for women to know, especially black women (Milly is the only white woman in the group). I told them to think about the positive aspects of being a woman. I'll wait till the final session to have them write self portraits; that's when Artreach is sending a photographer. Last night's assignment was to write a conversation between two people who care about each other. After commenting that she'll never be a playwright, to which I replied that she probably never wanted to be, Shantelle showed us how she used to wake up her daughters, singing and all. Yvonne wrote a poetic, and confusing, conversation. Milly's affectionate phone conversation with her mother, they love and miss one another, was a complete contrast to Lalicia's conversation with her mother, asking her why she doesn't love her as much as she loves her sister when Lalicia tries so hard at all times to please her. All Lalicia wants from her is love. Her mother tells her that she never wanted her, for she didn't love her father.
Then she took more paper for a conversation between herself and her sister, who refused to be supportive because Lalicia continued to live with a man who hit her. All Lalicia wants from her is her friendship.
Lalicia's writing does more than show what's going on within. It has an air of reality, as if she'd taken the conversations down verbatim. Once again I found it moving. Beyond writing and reading, our discussions ran the gamut of politics, religion, faith healing, committing suicide (two of them have tried). Yvonne asks whatever questions pop into her head, whether I believe in God, in Jesus Christ, in heaven and hell, whether I like African-Americans, whether I've ever been in a mental institution. She lay on her belly across the seat of a chair, as a small child might, while she discussed mental institutions.
She joked about my husband's name, Adolph, asked if he liked Adolph Hitler. Someone reminded her that we're Jewish, and she was aghast at her mistake, apologized over and over, though I told her I wasn't upset.
Lalicia has been writing in her journal. I don't know about the others, so I think I'll give this to them tomorrow:
What was today like?
What did you dream about last night?
What was the first thing you saw when you opened your eyes this morning?
Did you look out the window?
What did you hear and smell when you woke up?
What were you thinking about?
What did you see, hear, and smell when you walked outside?
Was there something you wanted to do, but couldn't do it?
Did anything make you happy?
Did anything make you angry?
Did anything surprise you?
Did anyone speak to you?
Did you overhear any conversations?
Did anything make you laugh?
Did you see anything you never saw before?
Did you talk to someone you never spoke to before?
Did you forget anything you should have remembered?
Did you learn anything?
What was the hardest thing you did?
What was the easiest?
Is there something you'd do differently if you had another chance?
During the week, think about other people's habits, and your own. Watch other people. How do they sit? How do they use their hands? Their eyes? What gestures does each person have that are unique to him or her? What about you?
When I arrived last night, Milly was making her dinner, two cheeseburgers, and was heavily drugged for a painful toothache, Yvonne lay on her belly on the living-room floor, complaining of a migraine, no one else and no supplies were in evidence.
"The music awards are on tonight," said Milly. I suspected they'd never forgive me if I deprived them of that.
It required some organizing, but eventually we all, except for Beverly, were seated around the table, writing materials on hand, TV at a very low volume in the next room, each woman with a copy of my list of questions. Shantelle had a bad stomach ache. She hadn't eaten since breakfast.
I suggested they think about the questions, pick one or more for today, and use some during the week for their journals.
Yvonne asked me if they'd told me what kind of a place I'm at and whether or not my husband has ever hit me. We discussed various kinds of abuse, like ignoring what your partner has to say. "Yeah," someone commented, "A lot of men think they own a woman."
Michael Jackson was nominated for a music award, and everyone screamed. Since he didn't get it, he didn't interrupt our workshop.
Yvonne wondered if she could ask me a very personal question. I told her she's been asking me personal questions for two weeks already without getting permission, so why start now? This time she wanted to know if I still have sex. Shantelle told her you can keep on having sex till you're very old, if you want to, and everyone thought of examples. Shantelle commented that Sarah was over 100 years old when she conceived, to which I sang, not quite hitting my Paul Robeson stride, And Methuselah lived 900 years....
Once everyone's favorite subject comes up, it takes a while to settle back down. Yvonne wants to get married and have children, but not have sex. "You and the Virgin Mary," said someone. "You'll need a very unusual husband."
This brought Yvonne to her first yeast infection. A friend gave her an applicator and a great big pill, and neglected to explain it was a suppository. It took even longer to calm down after that; no one could imagine how she'd managed to swallow. Everyone finally started to write, even Juanita. She copied down each question, answered with a yes or no, then got another piece of paper and drew a house and figure.
I'd expected Lalicia to pull her sweater over her mouth, but she didn't. She was relaxed and open. Her first piece was about the joy of sex.
Shantelle wrote about her love of dancing, fixed herself something to eat, and ended up with still more severe cramps. Milly wrote an animated description of taking the bus to work when feeling deathly ill. Yvonne wrote her usual flowing poem, this time about a man she'd met the day before, a smooth man with diamonds in his teeth. While she was writing, she got a phone call and went skittering across the room. Lalicia screened it, and Yvonne disappeared, to talk in private. She came back screaming, "I can't stand this pressure," seemed almost literally to be climbing the walls, as she reached up and hammered at a nail with the eraser of her pencil. Lalicia sent Shantelle to talk to her. Once she was somewhat calmer, I asked Yvonne what she'd been writing, and she returned to the table to finish her poem.
Milly felt Yvonne gets away with too much, that the others cater to her, yet once she leaves here she'll be responsible for herself. If she wants to go to the store across the street, why should someone always go with her. "If she gets hit by a car, will you pick her up?" snapped Lalicia, "You just don't understand."
Milly mentioned that the store-owner is nasty, has two different personalities, and Yvonne asked, "Are you talking about me?" That's how Yvonne's diagnosis became the topic. Lalicia has read several books about dissociative disorder since Yvonne moved in. "People think she's putting on an act, to get attention. They don't understand it's real, that's the way she is." Milly thinks you can change Yvonne by disciplining her and making her do things she may not be emotionally ready to do. The others are more attuned to her illness. They all seem to love her and look after her and try to build her self-esteem.
Being abused is a trauma you never get over, Lalicia explained. You can only learn how to handle it.
Multiple personality is an extreme method of doing just that. Lalicia said to Milly, "You weren't here when she first came, or you'd understand her better." She was extremely emaciated and withdrawn, so she's come a long way. It's hard to imagine the road remaining.
Since I'd looked forward to last night's session, I was surprised to notice a twinge of apprehension as Adolph drove me there. I guess it's the unknown. I know the house, I know the women, I don't know what I'll find when I arrive. At least Artreach canceled the photographer and observers after I mentioned it would be like sending outsiders to a therapy session.
What I did find when I arrived was Lalicia, Yvonne, and Juanita watching a video of "The Color Purple," which Lalicia immediately turned off. Anne was in her office several rooms away. Milly was in mourning. The step-father who raised her had just died. Shantelle and Beverly weren't around. Yvonne grabbed my hand, dragged me to Anne's office, and made me promise to perform my poems for her at the end of the workshop. When she realized that this was our last meeting, she exclaimed, "We should have had a party, you should have brought something."
"I did." I told her we'd better get started since Adolph was picking me up at 8:30.
We finally settled down, my treats of dried fruit, nuts, and pretzels on paper plates. Juanita said she couldn't eat them. She doesn't have enough teeth.
I told them to think about Maya Angelou's Phenomenal Woman and write or draw a self-portrait, emphasizing what they like about themselves.
Lalicia got right to work. Juanita took some paper and wrote, filling the whole page, I FEEL NOTHING, then took more paper, divided it up, and wrote numbers and drew little drawings in each section. Yvonne said with unusual somberness that she didn't like anything about herself, which of course triggered a discussion of her talents and charm. Suddenly she snapped, "Who are you? You come here and you don't introduce yourself. That's not very courteous."
It took me a minute to realize she'd taken on a new personality, not her loving, child self, not her sophisticated poetic self, but a tough, swearing, street-smart woman. Lalicia sent Juanita to get Anne.
"Let's see," said Anne. "Who would be the best person for tonight?"
"The one who writes those beautiful poems, that poem about her heart and that poem about no more crying," I replied.
"Yes," said Anne, "Yvonne, can you bring her here?"
"Why the fuck do you call me Yvonne?"
Anne tried again to get her to switch, but Yvonne barked at her, "Go on back to your office, I'm taking care of my business."
"I'm not Yvonne, don't call me that."
Anne told her to come to her office and she could come back whenever she was ready. So the workshop continued without her.
"I feel like a good woman inside," was the first line of Lalicia's self-portrait. If people knew what she was really like, they'd like her. "I care about people, and I have a lot of love." Her dream is to help other women, especially those who have been abused. Women have to realize that it's normal to want to share your life with a man, but they don't need a man in order to be whoever they are.
I told Juanita that I'd noticed last week that her handwriting is clear and easy to read. I wondered whether it was the act of writing or what she wanted to say that made her hate to write. What if she had someone else write down whatever she wanted to say?
Lalicia jumped in. Yes, you and I talk a lot, Juanita, I'll do it. And she questioned Juanita, taking down her responses. She was looking for her dreams and desires, whatever it is Juanita wants out of life.
She asked about Juanita's children. Her son "didn't finish school. He like to beat up women just like his daddy...None of them had no children before their eighteenth birthday. That was something full of joy..."
How many grandkids you got? asked Lalicia.
Juanita said she'd lost count, then figured it out. It came to seven.
You like going to school, don't you? said Lalicia.
Not really. I just do it to pass the time of day.
You want a home, don't you?
I don't want no home. It get broke into too much. I get flashbacks.
You got to want something, so when you get out of here you don't want to be back out on the street...You want to have a place to bring your grandkids to, don't you?
Then you want a home.
This was partly semantics. Juanita would live in an apartment, but is afraid to live in a house.
Lalicia insisted that she had to want something more.
Peace and happiness. Peace and happiness, and prosperity.
I told Juanita that she'd thought she had nothing to write, but she had a lot to say that's really interesting. I wanted to know what it was like to be homeless.
How did you end up homeless? asked Lalicia, who also has lived on the streets.
Lost my job.
Yes, that's how it happens, said Lalicia. Then the landlord kicks you out right away.
I had some money saved, paid rent for two or three months, then was on the streets in September or October. It took two more months before I heard about the Hope House. Sometimes I was staying in hotels for $45 a night.
Where did you sleep when you were on the streets? I asked.
Catnapped on the bus, stood up against the door of the Greyhound Station and slept. Went to Hope House about a month then left because they was throwing everyone out at 6:30 in the morning seven days a week.
Yes, early in the morning you see everyone at McDonald's sipping coffee, mused Lalicia. They all have the bag lunch the shelter gives them.
I was working swing shifts, continued Juanita, going through different temps, so I'd work any hours, like three days a week twelve hours a day.
She worked for the Salvation Army during the winter.
Did you ever stand in front of Kohl's in Shorewood? I asked, though I suddenly was sure she had stood there in some sort of sweat suit in the bitter cold, ringing her bell.
So you've seen her before, said Lalicia. A lot of people remember her.
She worked at County Stadium in the summer cleaning up after games. She slept outside the library where the vent was, slept in elevators, was out on the streets for about a year. Then she went back to Hope House for a month...
Then I met that guy, and he said let's get a place together.
What made you trust him enough to do that? asked Lalicia.
I just wanted to get out of the shelter, so I moved in with him The first year was okay. We argued sometimes.
How long before the abuse started?
Fourteen months. He wanted to have female company in the room. I wouldn't stand for that.
Did you love him?
It wasn't no strong relationship. But there wasn't no hitting or nothing.
So how did you get to Woman to Woman?
When he jumped on me. I didn't like what he done to me.
Juanita really liked living at Woman to Woman and wasn't ready to move when her time was up. Nor will she be ready to move from Polaris. Neither will Lalicia. That's the problem, there's nothing out there for them, and they don't want to live alone. Lalicia and I agreed there should be group apartment houses so everyone can have her own space, yet can also have company and support.
The women in Polaris form a family, a family with no men allowed, a family in which they can discuss whatever happens to them in the outside world and get feedback.
Lalicia said that when she was married, "I sat up there for weeks for months for years, up there by myself. I had no one to talk to. I was up there thinking I was the only one getting abused."
I keep thinking about the women at Polaris. It's not an experience to shake off simply because my grant has ended. Yesterday I updated Anne on our final workshop and asked if I'd said something that might have set Yvonne off. She said, no, Yvonne was low on medication and hadn't told anyone. I found out that Shantelle's mother is dying, so she was at the hospital Monday night; and Monday was Beverly's day off. I said I'd be back to see them all.