Walk Away, a memoir
The past lives in our skins, our synapses, our laughter, our scars. It lives in places where our best and worst memories happened: warm meadows where we nested in long grasses, rooms with blood-stained plaster walls, empty beaches where we walked away.
I’d walked away from a violent love affair, and then from a series of less toxic relationships with men who left me feeling diminished. Each time, I promised myself, was the last time.
Then I met another man, who was tall and questioning and brilliant, who had his own dark places. I was fifty years old by then, and no one had hit me in thirty years, yet the thought of leaving my job and my home to move West with a man I loved terrified me.
I cried uncontrollably, I raged uncontrollably. I didn’t know what to do, and my impulse was to walk away.
Instead, I decided to have faith, and that’s how I ended up living in Moscow, Idaho, and attending a small party at a house near Paradise Ridge. I was one of six middle-aged women who ran outside to see a great horned owl. Our host told us the owl arrived each day at dusk. The other women were avid birdwatchers who carried field glasses. I borrowed a pair to watch the owl perched on the triangular yellow Yield sign at the place where two farm roads met. “He’s magnificent,” said one woman. “He or she?” asked another. The ornithologist among us told us it’s difficult to tell the females from the males.
Back inside, we took our seats again. Talk turned to the murder of Sarah Parks, a twenty-eight-year-old woman, pregnant with her first child, a substitute teacher in that small Idaho town. Dental records were used to identify her remains because in the fire that burned her house to the ground, her flesh was consumed by flames. The autopsy revealed she was dead before her body burned. Her husband, Silas Parks, was the murder suspect. There was a history of domestic violence.
I closed my eyes. It was the second time I’d heard people speak of this murder, the second time the image of Sarah Parks’ charred corpse rose up behind my eyelids, her body blackened but draped in pale linen, levitating in midair like the hypnotized body of a magician’s assistant.
“I just don’t understand that sort of thing,” said one of us, a long-necked woman whose field glasses rested in her lap like two dead blackbirds in a nest. “Why would any woman stay in a relationship like that? It’s so unhealthy.”
Yes, I thought. It’s so unhealthy that Sarah Parks is dead, especially for Sarah Parks. So unhealthy that we do not ask what impels us to cast Sarah Parks as the one who cannot be understood. So unhealthy that no one says, I just don’t understand that sort of thing. Why would any man beat or kill a woman he loves?
I knew it was wrong, but my impulse was to slip into the sweet release of rage and slap the stupid out of that long-necked woman, out of all of us. Even though I’d facilitated writing groups for survivors of intimate partner violence, even though I’d served for many years on an anti-violence organization’s board of directors, that question that placed the blame on the victim — “Why would any woman stay in a relationship like that?” — brought back my old feelings of being powerless to explain and my old impulse to lash out instead.
The ornithologist saved me from myself by beginning to tell her own love story. She’d lived in an abusive marriage for many years, she said. And yet, the beginning of her marriage was a fairy tale. Her voice fell softer and softer, became inaudible to everyone but the long-necked woman, but I could guess she was explaining how even unhealthy love starts tenderly, how tenderness twists, how love and power entwine like two colors in the same flame. Or maybe she tried to explain how she bought a lovely pair of shoes that blistered her heels, but they had cost so much, she kept wearing them anyway. I was a newcomer there, trying to make friends, and I changed the subject to less fiery topics, like whether I could clear anyone’s dessert plate. I circled the table and stacked the plates and silverware neatly into piles.
I could have told the same story as the ornithologist, because the story is almost always the same. I could tell you I was dealt a certain hand. I could tell you I grew up in a violent home. I could tell you I come from a culture that still encourages women to be subservient to men. I could tell you I read too many fairy tales, watched too many Disney movies, listened to too many love songs, that I longed to be pursued, over and over again, because women are prey. I could tell you love and power twist together, indistinguishable, two colors in the same flame. That whatever burns gives off some warmth. That his hands were artist’s hands. That months passed before his hands became his fists. That tenderness twists. That he had a certain predatory grace. Why did I stay? Why did Sarah Parks stay? I could tell you that’s the wrong question.
I couldn’t sleep that night. My legs twitched, and my feet insisted on cuddling each other. Images blinked like flash cards, in no particular order and without regard to time or geography: my grotesque, 16-year-old face in a bathroom mirror, Sarah Parks in a charred shroud, my high school janitor’s snicker when he asked whether my boyfriend beat me up, the tree of my determination to make love work being cut down again, again, again. The lovers who came after and how I fell for them, then cut them down because I was still filled with rage against the man who annihilated my dream of love. Blood dripping from my nose onto the seat cushion of the Greyhound bus that took us from New England to California. The ornithologist explaining to the long-necked woman. The advice a convicted killer dropped like a sack of gold in my lap: Do whatever it takes to make sure you are the one who walks away. The owl. The tree of my determination. The sack of gold I could not spend. The lovers who came after and how I cut them down.
I took a pill. It did its work. In the morning, I sat on my deck and looked out at the strange, treeless hills of the Idaho Palouse. I missed the green density of the South. It was summer in Idaho, but the morning air chilled me. I went inside and slid back into bed with my husband.
Moscow is a university town of about 20,000 people, a speck of a human settlement wedged into a vast, undulating landscape of wheat and rapeseed fields. Sarah Parks was from Texas, but her husband persuaded her to leave her family behind and make a life with him there.
I taught in the English department at the university, and shortly after Sarah’s murder, the department leaders asked me to do a public reading. My reputation as a writer was less than modest and mostly about poetry, and my colleagues assumed that’s what I’d read. Instead, I collaborated with the victims’ rights advocate at the law school. I read an essay about my own experience with intimate partner violence, and about Sarah’s murder. Two other survivors shared the stage with me, and we held a brief panel discussion. A poster of Sarah stood near the door where people could donate to a scholarship fund her family set up in her name. More than two hundred people attended, including my husband, who sat in the front row. When a faculty member came up to me after the reading and said, “I would never have come here if I’d known what you planned to do,” I knew I’d successfully hijacked what was meant to be a purely literary event. The old friends who’d tried to teach me self-defense would have been proud; I’d kept my intentions to myself until everything was in motion.
On Halloween, I walk my dogs down to the park at dusk. Inside a fringe of tall grass gone gold with the season, the lawn glows green after a week of rain. Children dressed as princesses and fearsome creatures play on the jungle gym, screaming and rehearsing terrors their parents must hope will never come to pass. The full moon shines through gauzy clouds, casting the right light for ghosts.
A broad shape wings past my peripheral vision. I flinch, and my breath stops midway to my lungs before my mouth hangs open in astonishment. A great horned owl lands like ash along the bough of a weeping birch tree. A few yellow leaves hang on like tattered flags below the fierce talons. He or she? I cannot say. We are bound together anyway, only a few arm-lengths apart. The owl turns round eyes down at me and the dogs, keeping us in visual range while swiveling those tufted ears to catch the chipping of a sparrow, the clucks of quails, the rustling of a rabbit in the thicket, the children’s make-believe screams.
My stepdaughter tells me that in the full moon she sees a rabbit from stories her Japanese mother has told her. Some women say they see a goddess: Diana or Artemis, goddess of the hunt. Try as I might, I see neither the rabbit nor the hunter when I look up, neither predator nor prey. I can see only an ordinary woman’s face: her hollow eyes, the scars on her face, her mouth held open in what might be fresh astonishment at joy, or what might be constant ache. Or both. I love her either way.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * The End * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
This is Chapter 8, the final chapter of Walk Away. Earlier chapters are collected here.
Supportive, clear-eyed friends spoke up and saved my life at a time when domestic violence was considered a “private family matter.” Thank you, dear ones.
Walk Away was originally published in 2016, with some differences, as part of the Kindle Singles program under the careful eye of editor Carly Hoffman. Thanks also to sister writers Mary Clearman Blew, Brittney Carman, Joy Passanante, Kathrin Seitz, Rochelle Smith, and Sandra Gail Lambert, who offered valuable feedback on various sections, some of which first appeared as essays in journals and blogs including Hippocampus, The Journal, The Humanist, and Apology Not Accepted. I thank the supportive editors of those publications, too.