Month: August 2017

Bienvenidos a Pilsen

By: todd Gastelum

One

I was used to rebooting my life: CTL+ALT+DEL and voilà, tabula rasa.

About to turn thirty, it was time for me to move. Once again, I was leaving a boyfriend I’d taken up with in a previous life. Once again, it was me who fucked things up. Now I needed my own place. I was hoping for the top floor of a brick three-flat, preferably with hardwood floors, a bay window, and crown molding. Somewhere near the 18th Street stop on the Blue Line with a view of buckled chimneys, waltzing antennas and the Baroque twin towers of St. Adalbert’s.

That’s not the apartment I found.

My new place was the rear unit on the top floor of an architecturally featureless building, whose ground floor taquería would eventually add another ten pounds to my frame. The apartment had been recently remodeled with a coat of white matte and cheap beige linoleum that still reeked of glue. There were just three rooms: a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen/dining/living room too cramped to qualify as open concept. All the doors were standard-issue Home Depot as were the kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures. The tiny window over the kitchen sink gazed into a narrow air shaft, and the double-paned windows behind my futon framed an alley with a backbone of splintered utility poles and drooping cables. If I lived a dozen floors higher, I’d have been able to see the lake, but I didn’t and I couldn’t. I had no link to the natural world—only the constant rumbling of big rigs speeding toward the Stevenson Expressway.

I moved to the longest street within the city limits: Western Avenue. It cut a wide swath across a patchwork of urban neighborhoods that went from south to north affluent Black, middle-class Black, poor Black, working-class Black and Latino, poor Black, working-class Latino with white gentrification, middle-class mixed and, right before you cross into Evanston, working-class Indians and Pakistanis, with a spattering of Russian Jews. My stretch of Western sat in the middle, inside a tourniquet of railroad tracks amid derelict brick factories and social service agencies. My block was halfway between Flappers, an adult bookstore, and Fairplay, a dismal supermarket where shoppers bought dented cans and two-liter bottles of Faygo soda pop. My neighborhood also housed dollar stores, the city kill shelter, and Fun Wash, a 24-hour laundromat best avoided after 10 p.m. to prevent violent run-ins with bored teenagers.

It was neither a stylish apartment nor a great neighborhood, but none of that mattered. I was just happy to have moved to the barrio, Pilsen.

Two

I’d come to Chicago in 1997 after an aborted attempt to live the good life in Nashville. My boyfriend Andrew was from Tennessee, and he’d sold me on the charms of the South. Said it was so much cheaper than Seattle, that we’d live like kings.

Instead, we became paupers on Music Row, where we rented a roach-infested apartment that could’ve doubled as a crematorium during the smokehouse summer. Just six months in, I was already plotting our escape north. I would’ve settled for any big city north of the 40th parallel, but a long weekend in Chicago sold me on the City of Big Shoulders.

I counted down the days to the end of our lease, drunk on bourbon while studying a map of Chicago. I spent hours analyzing statistics to find the best neighborhood, and since social scientists have been studying the city for generations, there were mountains of qualitative data I could play with. I used highlighters to color census tracts by poverty and homicide rates. Starved for diversity after a year among Nashville’s two-tone population and its perplexing racial codes, I established where immigrants clustered. I crossed out areas that were too far from El stops or that didn’t have a decent grocery. I plotted the locations of Starbucks—that poster child of late-90s gentrification—and made sure that there were no mermaids in any of the places I shortlisted.

The winning neighborhood was Logan Square.

It was unlike any other place I’d lived, and I fell for it the same way I’d fallen in love with Thai food a decade earlier. Why hadn’t it been a part of my life sooner? Andrew and I were elated to find a comfortable two-bedroom in a solid block of flats along a tree-lined boulevard, just a thirty-minute El ride from the Loop. Sure, the neighborhood was scruffy, with tagged storefronts up and down Milwaukee Avenue, litter blowing around the namesake square, and too few places for late-night eats—but none of that mattered. I fell in love with my new home because, for the first time in my life, I lived among Latinos.

The neighborhood was home to an established Puerto Rican community, and the corner bodegas sold jíbarito sandwiches and stocked yuca, plantains, and every Goya product known to humankind. But there was more to the neighborhood than Boricua pride—it was a microcosm of all of Latin America’s people and commerce. Cubans sold stringy ropa vieja in a dancehall-cum-restaurant that attracted middle-aged men in fedoras. Guatemalans sold long-distance phone cards in tiny storefronts blasting techno-cumbia remixes of the Spice Girls. Colombians sold bandejas paisas piled high with fried pork, beans, and eggs served on broad wooden platters. Mexicans sold everything else: fruit, second-hand clothing, pan dulce, cell phone accessories, garish chrome rims, tamales, pirated DVDs, and pink cushioned toilet seats.

Logan Square’s in-your-face ethnicity mocked my non-identity. My Latino-ness rose to the surface, emerging from my skin like a cicada crawling from the earth after a lengthy slumber. Until now, I looked into a mirror and saw nothing more than short black hair atop a freckled face.

I never saw Latino.

I never saw Hispanic.

I never saw Mexican-American.

But Logan Square swapped out my mirror while I slept, and when I awoke, my reflection was dried beans and corn husks.

Three

Home was suburban California, and although my mother was Mexican-American, I’d never applied that label to myself. After all, Dad was a blend of English and German. I identified more with the natural environment of my home state—poppies and sourgrass, lizards and toads, sycamores and coyotes—than with a marginalized ethnic group. Me Mexican? Not a chance.

What are you? The interrogation begins. I’m eight years old.
American, I reply. God, I hate this schoolyard question, but those of us with black hair, dark skin, or almond eyes are used to this game.
No, you know what I mean. Where are you from?
California, I say. I’m from San Jose.
Your family. He presses on. Where’s your family from?

I think for a minute. I can continue, explaining that my family’s lived in the United States for generations, or I can end the interrogation and tell him what I know he wants to hear.

My great-grandparents are from Germany, England, and Mexico.
Beaner!

Beaner.

This slur never wounded me; it only left me perplexed. God knows my mother tried to cultivate a strong ethnic identity in me, but it never germinated. It’s not that I was ashamed of my Mexican ancestry; it simply seemed irrelevant. Though my childhood friends mirrored the Benetton rainbow, none were Mexican.

Besides, I was just a half-breed who didn’t understand Spanish, let alone speak it. Mom’s forebears were pioneer settlers from a beach town barrio near San Diego, but I’d never lived there. And while I loved the flour tortillas Grammy made from scratch, there was nothing particularly exotic about Mexican food. This was California after all, where my junior high school served tacos, burritos, and churros in the cafeteria; it was hard to find anyone who didn’t douse their food with hot sauce.

All I knew about Mexico was what I’d gleaned from my family’s road trips to Baja. My dad behind the steering wheel of our boxy Volvo, we passed the exit for Camino de la Plaza —LAST USA EXIT—and crossed into Mexico without ever having to speak to customs officials. It seemed a land with no rules. We traced the border fence, driving past Tijuana’s vertical shantytowns until we reached the security of the coastal toll highway that would deliver us to the beach rental where we’d rendezvous with the Wojtkowskis. We’d spend the weekend eating homemade pierogies and guacamole, us kids buzzing from chugging Mexican Cokes out of chipped glass bottles while our parents surrendered themselves to blender margaritas the color of disinfectant.

Four

The white walls wouldn’t do. My new apartment screamed for an extreme makeover. Inspired by a coffee-table book on hacienda interiors, undeterred by clashing color palettes, I painted my apartment the most garish, tropical colors I could find. I splashed the walls of the main room with sunflower yellow, which brightened the dark shoe box. My turquoise bedroom suggested the Sea of Cortez, whereas the bathroom screamed lime and cilantro. I delighted in my home improvement efforts, though I never did like looking into the bathroom mirror because the green walls appeared to reflect pond scum onto my face.

The Mexican handicrafts emporium on Ashland became the depository for most of my paycheck. Desperate to purchase my identity, I bought Talavera pottery, punched tin frames, tiled mirrors, hand-woven serapes, and jeweled pendant lamps that reflected a galaxy of tiny stars onto the ceiling. I pinned a massive street map of Mexico City above the TV. I hung antique photos of my immigrant ancestors from Sonora and Guanajuato, while purposefully ignoring those who hailed from Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Even my pantry shelves screamed Mexico, laden as they were with bags of dried masa, cans of pickled jalapeños, and tetra paks of Doña Maria mole. I blasted Café Tacuba singing roc en español while downing shot after shot of cut-rate tequila. My Anglo inhibitions on the floor, I’d dance alone beside the dining table, mistaking my drunkenness for Mexican pride.

I felt proud almost every night in the faux-fiesta atmosphere of my Pilsen apartment.

Five

He approached me with a flyer in his hand.

Oye, he said as he handed me the paper. Soy Oscar. Quiero invitarte a una party el próximo sábado. ¿Te gusta la música house?

Um, I stammered. ¿Qué?

Oh, you speak English.

Yeah.

Well, I’m Oscar. He smiled.

Yeah, I got that.

I never seen you around here. What’s your name?

I loved that he first spoke to me in Spanish. It made me feel authentically Mexican instead of the North Side poseur I was, with my white boyfriend and white-collar job. He was striking—his shaved head topped by a backward Sox cap above cocoa eyes. An Ecko jersey drooped over his sagging khakis. He was street, and I was smitten.

Imma give you my number in case you want to come. You got a cell phone?

I passed him my Nokia, and he punched in his name and number. Then he disappeared into the shadows of the bar just as the first notes of a Selena song began. It raised cheers from the crowd.

Girl! What the fuck? Armando had been watching the whole thing go down, and he was thrilled to have caught me in the act of flirting with a random guy. Now, I know you didn’t just give your number to that thug. You tell him you have a boyfriend?

No, I said. He’s cute. Why the hell would I tell him about Andrew?

Don’t go cheatin’ on your man just ’cause you want to get a taste of some verga mexicana. Whore, you know that all dick tastes the same.

He invited me to a party. I’m never gonna see him again so just chill. I need another beer.

My friend Armando had brought me to the Chesterfield, a South Side bar where you got frisked at the door. I’d never been to a gay bar like it. The clientele was 100% Latino—working-class Mexicans drinking buck-fifty MGDs in a dank cavern an hour’s drive south of the phony glamour of Boystown. There were construction workers and meat cutters, coked-out drag queens and scowling chola dykes with painted eyebrows ready to throw down. No one spoke English it seemed. Why hadn’t I come here before?

Six

Though my apartment was on a shitty stretch of Western, I was only a ten-minute walk from 18th Street. I’d set out with my backpack and Discman as I headed into Pilsen’s bustling commercial heart. My feet took me past revolutionary murals, record shops blaring tubas and accordions, and fruterías atomizing papaya, mango, and lime onto the sidewalk. The foreignness of the neighborhood mesmerized me, and I could spend all afternoon wandering, taking photos and notes to document everything I encountered.

I was in my second year of college, and I’d switched my major from sociology to geography. This was a natural progression from childhood, when I poured over back issues of National Geographic and never missed an episode of Big Blue Marble, a PBS program that featured biopic shorts about real children in exotic places, like Bophuthatswana and Prince Edward Island. The show promoted the utopian ideal of world peace and understanding, which I believed to be perfectly attainable. Together is a word we must learn to understand, went the theme song, if we ever want to get to know each other better.

There was no better place for fieldwork than Chicago. The cliché was true—it was a city of neighborhoods, most of them as distinct from one another as the Midwestern seasons. On Saturdays, I’d ride the El to distant stations, where I’d surrender my feet to the pavement, melting the rubber from my soles as I walked five, six, seven miles through ethnic fiefdoms that transformed with every major arterial, viaduct, or bridge. My curiosity led me to Georgian bakeries, Vietnamese supermarkets, and Pakistani gift shops that sold plastic mosque alarm clocks that chimed five times a day.

Pilsen was as foreign to me as Little India or that stretch of Milwaukee Avenue that smelled of kielbasa and kolacky. I approached the neighborhood as a geographer, as I’d done with Chicago’s other immigrant enclaves—the only difference was that here, it looked as if I should speak the neighborhood’s lingua franca. My newly purchased Aztec calendar T-shirt, and primitive Spanish language skills, however, weren’t enough to grant me insider status, though I hoped that with time, I’d crack the Pilsen code. I had Mexican blood, so, wasn’t it my birthright to claim Pilsen as my own? 

Seven

In the beginning, the fact that he smelled of potato chips was a plus. He arrived at my apartment in his blue work shirt, name embroidered upon his chest. He wasn’t fat—not exactly—but a diet of junk food and pop filled out his short frame. I could taste the salt, the rancid oil, and his sweat as he wrapped his arms around me and placed his fat lips on mine. I loved that he was a forklift driver at the potato chip factory. A union forklift driver. It was so authentic, so unlike my prissy legal secretary job in the Sears Tower.

Him: Hey, Papi.

Me: Butter in a hot skillet.

In the beginning, I lapped up his smell—pure South Side—and I’d tell him to fuck me before he showered. He pulled away, embarrassed by the fact that he smelled of hard work, but I’d always get my way. I’d strip off his uniform and surrender to the fantasy that exists only in the minds of white middle-class gay men. Naked, he’d pummel away at my ass, shaking his head back and forth as he tried to delay his orgasm.

Oh, Papi! he’d scream as he tensed his muscles and lubricated my insides.

I was somebody’s Papi.

He lived with his mother in a brick bungalow in the East Side, a city neighborhood so far south it hugged the Indiana state line. He spent his Sundays with her at a floating casino, where the poor flushed their earnings into Lake Michigan. He smoked Newports and drove a blue Pontiac Sunfire with a massive dent on the passenger side. He’d bought the car new with money he’d won in an insurance settlement from yet another car accident. In Oscar’s world, lawsuits, like gambling, were a toehold to the middle class.

In the beginning, I thought we could bridge our class differences. I spoke Standard American English and was raised by parents who understood the power of reading and education. Oscar spoke a vernacular language, with muddled verb tenses and rough slang that would have felt unnatural in my own throat. He believed more in social capital than saving money and relied on a long list of friends he’d hit up for cash whenever one paycheck didn’t make it to the next.

After a few months, his conjugation, like his greasy scent, grated on my nerves. It was a constant reminder that our differences were tangible and irreconcilable. The class divide was real. I wanted to move forward in life. He wanted to keep it real.

Not that I left him.

Being desired by a tough from the wrong side of the tracks was too delicious a sensation to throw away. I may have considered myself a progressive Mexican-American, but I was no different from those despicable colonialist white boys who wanted to fuck an exotic trophy.

Eight

It’s midnight when I step off the bus at Western and Blue Island just a few blocks from home. The abandoned railroad viaduct casts a shadow onto the cracked asphalt and the corner of a Hennessey billboard flaps in the warm wind. June often brings strange weather to the Midwest. Just a few hours earlier, the moist air now embracing me collided with a cold front over Wisconsin, causing an outbreak of deadly tornados. There are no storms predicted for Chicago, but it feels like it could rain at any moment. My anxiety rattles as I move past the adult bookstore and walk down the alley away from these crossroads of post-industrial blight.

White people won’t come here after dark. The men who cruise the alleys are Mexican immigrants who don’t speak English. They work jobs I’d never do and live in too-small quarters in neighborhoods worse than mine. I crave sex with these men. They offer me something I need—a link to my Mexican identity. I’m not even Catholic, yet I view the act of taking their bodies into my mouth as a sort of Holy Communion. I may be imperfect yet they love me. I know their love is real because they flood my throat with their cum. I don’t believe in God, yet here I am, again surrendering to desire—the only higher power I know.

The alley is lit harshly to stave off perverts like me. I see him standing in a shadow under the eaves of a vinyl-sided garage. He’s attractive enough, but that doesn’t matter. As long as he fits the profile—dark eyes, black hair, nut-colored skin—I’ll suck his dick. I walk past him two times, returning his stare, but I don’t linger. On the third pass, he nods and mutters ¿Qué onda? We both know why we’re here, so I move into his shadow and lay my hand on the buckled crotch of his jeans. There’s no need for small talk or games.

¿Qué onda?

We kiss.

We grope.

We moan.

I drop to my knees and take his cock in my mouth.

The body of Christ. Amen.

When I’m especially anxious or horny, I set out sober from my apartment. Usually, though, I’ve numbed my senses with tequila and weed before stumbling downstairs to prowl for Mexican dick. Sometimes I drag my prey into my home. Sometimes I suck them off against an alley dumpster. Sometimes we fuck among the broken glass and cinder blocks of the abandoned factory across the street.

I should probably fear for my safety.

I never do.

It’s not about love. It’s not about desire. I’ll have sex with anyone—even the homeless. All that matters is that they speak to me in Spanish.

Nine

I lived in that apartment on Western Avenue for two years. I felt certain that living in a real Mexican neighborhood would help me find my true identity—the one I’d backshelved my entire life. Instead, I faced surging anxiety while pursuing a life of drinking, drugs, and risky sex with strangers. By the time I left, I didn’t feel particularly Mexican. I hadn’t even learned how to speak Spanish. Chupé tanta pinche verga, pero aún no podía hablar español.

 A year after I left Pilsen, I went to Toronto for a month-long teacher training course. I loved being out of Chicago and in a foreign metropolis, with new neighborhoods and immigrant enclaves to explore. One evening, I arranged to meet up with a guy I’d met online at a gay bar on Church Street. His name was Iksandr, and he was a Sudanese physicist who’d been in the city for a couple of years. As we drank our pints, Iksandr poured a small puddle of ale onto the table and began to explain the principles of fluid mechanics.

Look at the pattern of the splash, he said, still holding his glass. See the coronet? Tell me what you see when the droplet of beer hits the surface.

Aside from diving cannonballs into our backyard swimming pool as a kid, I’d never thought about splashes or drop impact, but his discussion held me rapt as I dabbed at the edge of the puddle with my index finger. He was intelligent and engaging—so unlike my unlettered boyfriend back in Chicago. Several pints later and our conversation paused when we brought our faces together to chew on each other’s hoppy lips.

Arm in unsteady arm, we left the bar and were making our way to College Street when his cell phone rang.

Walaykom alsalam, he answered. He spoke quickly in Arabic—a series of raspy consonants and glottal stops.

When he finished his call, Iksandr apologized, explaining, That was my brother. He wanted to know where I am.

What do you mean? I asked.

I honestly didn’t get it. Here was a grown man living in Canada, choosing to report his whereabouts to his older brother. He saw that I found this confusing and a bit unsettling.

This is Canada! You can do whatever you want here!

You don’t understand, he told me. You can take a man out of Sudan and put him in liberal Canada, but he does not stop being Sudanese. You inhabit a different city than I do. When I go home to the apartment I share here with my brother and mother, I am not in Toronto—I am in Khartoum. Our identities are not as fluid as you think.

Our identities are not as fluid as you think.

His words have stuck with me to this day.

As for my old apartment on Western, it was destroyed in an electrical fire just a couple of months after I’d moved out. Faulty renovation. My past erased. I was free to try and reinvent myself once again.

 

Todd Gastelum writes memoir and nonfiction that explores place, ethnicity, sexuality, social class and mental health. He was a 2015 Lambda Literary fellow in nonfiction and has published essays in LuminaThe James Franco Review, and Emerge: 2015 Lambda Literary Anthology. He lives and works in Mexico City, where you can usually find him walking the streets and dodging traffic, in his kitchen, or making comics.

Book Review: Kendra Tanacea’s “A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees”


BY: Catherine M. Darby

A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees by Kendra Tanacea is a haunting first collection of poems released this year by Lost Horse Press. Tanacea is a master of the moment—not straight-on moments, but rather, ones full of visuals and emotions that transport the reader into Tanacea’s world. In this world, the reader becomes a lover, beloved, betrayed, friend, child, and want-to-be-mother, all while ruminating about life and the fullness it can offer.

Her poems intelligently meander on corners of braided rugs and peep through keyholes to see what life is beyond that usual existence of life, her words intoning the mysteries and science of the universe.

In “Keyhole,” the narrator looks through the keyhole of a locked door, straining to see “what is out of sight.” The words deliver full sensory experiences of an ever-widening life:

There is the scent of man, of woman, of cedar.
The eye shifts, straining in its socket.
French doors open onto a veranda
overlooking an ivy-walled garden.
The round moon is rising, giant and yellow.
Star jasmine, star jasmine!
An eye can see far beyond
its scope: solar systems, galaxies,
the Milky Way’s skid of stars.
All atoms, revolving around one another.

In many of her poems, such as, “Perspective,” “A Strange Explosion in Scorpio,” Tanacea evokes celestial and astronomical phenomena, as if looking through a telescopic eyepiece; but she brings the reader light years closer to her concentrated images by connecting the intimate and infinite space while life is lived passionately through her language.

The temporality of life is another aspect of her poems. In “The Past: A Working Hypothesis,” the narrator wrestles with this concept and the weight of analyzing life and decides not to return to the past:

Getting to the bottom of things assumes a bottom.
Just getting to the heart of things assumes its fixed position.

The narrator has discarded “shovel” and “trowel,” as she is not “even sure where the heart is located anymore.” She has decided not to go back to places

where my heart expanded
and the places where it staggered.

Because distance is always divided in half, you get closer
and closer to the threshold, but ultimately, never reach it.

And I’m not going back means circling overhead,
some say like a bird, but I say like a Blue Angel.
There are high speed loops and sophisticated stunts.
And no purpose or mission whatsoever.
Just white circles temporarily scraped in the air.

The simile of the temporary contrail depicts an aimlessness as “scrap[ing]” one’s way through life for meaning.

Another aspect Tanacea expresses in her poems is the tension of energy and love, like in “Photosensitive” or “Instructions from the Sun.” In the latter poem, it is the winter sun’s “slant-light” warmth, not a direct summer heat that the narrator expresses. Although the lover’s time is waning, there is still heat and muscle memory that seem to extend far beyond the human body:

          but remember the eclipse?
We stood facing each other,

 on that narrow path of totality, a new moon
          between us. Even then my corona

 streamed. And my returning flash, a perfect diamond.
            But who knows how long we can

 withstand the forces of this love?
           Some say it’s my death, but even then,

 stay with me, an exploding supernova.
         So bright, momentarily outshining

 the galaxy. Then, no light, just the pull
          of gravity. Still recognize me?

 Spiral in, my companion star.

Yet, there is poetry of the earth, of dirt, of death. In “Thunderstorm,” the narrator surmises before she dies that

After the rain,
everything rises: rocks are bared, seeds
visible. Snails stretch their necks,
are bold enough to cross
my path. The grass is vibrating,
birds feast on named worms. Everything
just under the surface, now exposed.

A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees
delivers poetry of heat, of flame, both scorching and freezing, of life, full and wanting, as in the promised title. Tanacea’s poems release emotional tension, exposes the hidden, explores what is forbidden and what will be remembered after the last page is read.

the wild tiger lilies are opening,

Tangled in the forsythia,
          just where the woods begin.


Kendra Tanacea is an attorney in San Francisco, holds a BA in English from Wellesley College and an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees was a semifinalist for the Washington Prize for Poetry. Kendra’s poems have appeared in 5AM, Rattle, Moon City Review, The Coachella Review, Stickman Review, and Juked, among others. Visit her online at kendratanacea.com.

Catherine Darby holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside, Palm Desert. Her work has been published in The Muse Strikes Back: A Poetic Response by Women to Men, The Temple, The Long Island Quarterly, The Sniper, The Salmon, San Diego Writers Ink Anthology, and 5×7: A New York Anthology. A Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference participant and an Italian-American Foundation grant recipient, she was an editor for Vox Populi Anthology/Seattle Poetry Festival and poetry editor for The Coachella Review. Darby, a freelance writer, and gallery owner, lives in San Diego.

 

 

Book Review: Alice Anderson’s “Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away”

By: Kaia Gallagher

In Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away, Alice Anderson proves she is a survivor no matter what life throws at her. Her memoir recounts a decade-long battle to protect her three children from a vengeful, violence-prone ex-husband. The courts provide little help, encouraging family reunification rather than assuring the safety of an abused spouse.

Anderson is no stranger to hardship. Early in her writing career, she recounted her determination to overcome her father’s sexual abuse in an award-winning book of poetry. Human Nature is a harrowing description of a young girl’s fight for a future despite a childhood filled with incest and violence. It won the 1994 Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Emerging Writers.

Despite her early success as a poet and international fashion model, Anderson is haunted by her past: “Something about [being a model] made me feel used up, consumed, like I was the little girl my father gobbled up all over again, his sexual abuse consuming in a drunken, hungry rage all the best parts of me until I was nothing, but a pretty, performing doll.” She becomes ripe for a relationship with Liam, her ex-husband whom she sees as someone trying equally hard to escape his family demons. Her spiral down into acquiescence is gradual, with an ever-tightening noose that threatens to erase not only Anderson’s very identity but also her life.

After a courageous escape, Anderson finds that the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina mirrors the displacement and chaos in her own demolished life. She hopes for protection from the Mississippi Family Court only to discover that if she reports her husband’s violence to the police, her children will automatically be placed in foster care. Her husband warns her, “If you leave, I’ll have you good ol’ boy’d right out of Mississippi so fast you won’t know if you should scratch your watch or wind your ass.” More ominously, he assures her he will kill her without a second thought.

Despite evidence of her husband’s attempt to strangle her and a psychologist’s assessment of his predilection for violence, the court continues to allow her husband visitation rights. It’s a grueling story as the court battles never cease and the threat that Anderson might lose her children is ever present. Victims of spousal abuse will recognize the familiar themes of domination and control; the linkages between mental illness, alcoholism, and violence; and the difficulty abused women have in enforcing protective orders and protecting their rights.

The personal cost of the struggle is high. Anderson second-guesses her lifestyle choices relative to how they might be perceived by the courts. She wants to fly away, but through it all, her desire to protect her children keeps her determined to fight, “In some ways, I gave up on life. I certainly gave up on the idea of love. I felt like I’d come so close to the edge so many times I couldn’t take that risk again. Every time I tried to have a little something extra, things went terribly wrong. So, I finally accepted that custody of my children was perhaps the only thing I got. And that was enough.”

It’s a cautionary tale of the emotional and legal costs of battling a relentless spouse who is more determined to seek full custody of his children for revenge rather than any fathering instincts of his own. Anderson shows what it takes to rise above it all, despite the odds, despite the discouragement, living with her scars and getting better each day.

Her prose is lyrical, written with a poet’s sensibility as she writes a story she hopes might be an inspiration for other families experiencing the same type of struggle, “I imagined somewhere in the endless crowd there was someone just like me, who carried the ghost of fingerprints around their neck. Somewhere was a mother who’d taken her children and run. Somewhere was a trio of siblings who knew what cruelty meant. Somewhere was a family who’d lost it all.” Through this survivor’s story, Anderson demonstrates the grit that helped her rise above it all and live again. In the end, her memoir is an inspiring tale of determination by a mother whose three children become more important than her own life.

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