When I was 22, I was roughly the same age my mother was when she gave birth to me. To mark this, she gave me my baby book, which was more like a baby box crammed with newspaper clippings, and cards, and pictures, and bits of things no one else on the planet would find remotely interesting except for me.
Among the clutter was a letter addressed simply,
To: Jessica Nicole
and the date it was written was scribbled across the top corner, “January 19th, 1987.” (I was about to turn 4 that May.) This wasn’t a short little note either, it was a six-page letter, front and back, detailing our lives around the event of my birth.
She didn’t write to the toddler she had running around, she wrote to this 22-year-old me, like we were already the same age, and her words will haunt me forever.
My recollection of how my parents got divorced was pretty much centered around my courageous mother standing up to a bully and leaving. I was very aware of how unhealthy their relationship was even at an early age. I remember constantly hearing them fighting, watching them argue and throw things, nail polish splattered on the wall… you name it. I remember finally leaving and I remember busting my lip on the playground of the battered women’s shelter we stayed at after.
Now, there had been a time, before my brother was born, where she threatened to leave him and, in return, he threatened to kill her, then waited until she left for work and made off with me for a year. It was a miracle my mother ever found us again, but she did. Luck would take her along the same road we were broken down on, one random morning, and for some reason I never understood, she took him back.
Through everything, I don’t ever remember her backing down or being afraid.
My mother never cowered from him. She was bold and fearless and stubborn. She lived like a wild bird, spreading her wings, and letting the wind take her anywhere she wanted. She was the only person I ever actually remember going toe to toe with him. Most people would give up and let him win, or they would just try to shoot him. I remember at least two of these occasions, one being his own brother, my uncle Danny- who didn’t care I was in the line of fire. (Luckily, we escaped, thanks to some mechanics in an auto shop.)
After the divorce, she worked in the city at a fancy job with fancy friends. (She worked as a hair stylist and later as a rental car manager, but to a poor kid, anything in Atlanta or Buckhead was fancy) She was always laughing and happy. She took us places, my little brother and I, and tried to show us how big the world truly was.
She got offered a job that required her to go away for training for 6 months, so she had to leave us with my father. At the time, he had never shown any abusive tendencies towards us, so she though it was safe. She was wrong and her opportunity fell through. She spent the remainder of my adolescence fighting with him to give us back to her, which he never did, until the state took us and put us into foster care, years later, and she had to fight them for us. She eventually won.
I was a brand-new teenager before my life ever settled down the way it should have been all along.
Having the experience I had with my parents, made me hyper-aware of dangerous relationships. I vowed never to make the same mistakes my mother made. I summoned her strength and independence and if ever I suspected someone of manipulation, or deceit, or violence, I cut them out of my life faster than the speed of light.
I refused to be anyone’s punching bag or to put up with non-stop drama.
My mother is one of the strongest women I’ve ever known. She’s conquered everything that came her way, head on, without faltering. She is a pillar, a titan, a warrior.
She enforced me with wisdom and power and independence.
That is why the letter is so significant. The woman who wrote to me was a very different woman than the mother I knew, the mother I remember, the mother I thought I saw so clearly.
January 19th, 1987 came alive in grave detail and played out across the paper in a very sad, very real way. Her intentions were to give me advice on how to treat “my man” and how to be submissive in order to live a happy life. She wanted to teach me how to avoid making the same mistakes she had made and shockingly I realized I held the words of a broken, brainwashed woman.
Everything she tried to tell me was everything my mother stood against. How could they possibly be the same person?
How on earth she ever found her way to the heroic woman she is now, is a mystery to me- One I hope to understand, ten years after having first opened the envelope. I recently turned 33 and the words in that letter from 30 years ago still ring out in the back of my head. My father is long dead, my mother is happily remarried, I am happily in a committed relationship, but night after night, my mind wanders to the letter in the box at the bottom of my closet and the woman trapped inside.
I need answers. I want to know who she was.
It has occurred to me, that not only was my mother a survivor of BWS (Battered Woman’s Syndrome), but three of my dearest friends were as well. These are the most beautiful women I have ever met, inside and out, and all three are strong and vivacious. It breaks my heart to think of them having gone through something so damaging, but I’m also in awe of them.
I have been through so much in my life, there isn’t much I can’t empathize with or relate to on a very personal level. It’s unfortunate but it’s made me who I am.
However, being inside an abusive relationship, and not just watching one unfold, is not something I can relate to, and that is now my mission. I want to understand, I want to know how they made it out alive, how they found such strength.
Finally, I want to sit with my mother on January 19th, 1987 and have a real conversation with her, which is what she wanted.
This is Part One- the start of a journey back through time to find the woman in the letter and what it means for other women trapped the same way.