Sometimes they’re angry and sometimes they’re sad. Many times they simply want to ask if I’m happy now. Or say they hope I am.
These are my readers, and they are men. They are the men who read my memoir, Sister of Silence. Not a few of them were once gangly teenage boys, on the verge of manhood but not quite there. We covertly passed around contraband—outlawed Raisinets and other candy—in class, chatted together on the school bus, or acted opposite each other in stage plays.
None of them were my boyfriend, not for lack of trying. Nor did a single boy ever cross the line so as to honestly claim some kind of physical contact. I was all prim and proper, and that wasn’t in my nature.
Well, one boy did try. He was that ornery—albeit very cute—kid I passed every day in the school bus aisle my senior year. He pinched my backside, probably because he wanted to know if all the rumors were true about the “snow queen” with the long blonde hair.
We’ll call him Norm. I still remember it. I didn’t even think. I just reacted. The slap that was heard around the school actually came from my hand making contact with his cheek, and brought us instant celebrity. Norm’s daring antic and my no-nonsense response made for great hallway, locker room, and even, years later, high school reunion fodder.
While I gave Norm the evil eye for the rest of the year, by the time I graduated, he was forgiven. I realized he meant no harm. We’ve rarely seen each other since high school, but that adolescent episode never fails to entertain all our friends when we do, and it’s accompanied by good-natured teasing and lots of laughter every time.
The biggest reason those high school guys never tried to touch me, never came close to being my beau, however, is because I was taken. Not by a boyfriend, although at the time I thought he qualified—but by the family friend who made sure no one else could have me. He wasn’t some pimply-faced youth; he was an adult.
This most recent inquiry didn’t come to me via email or Facebook. It was from someone parked somewhere in New York state, and when my phone vibrated, I found his text message while parked in my car outside a local deli last week.
I just finished your book. I have a lot of feelings, but I am happy that you were able to gain control of your life. I hope the rest of it makes up for some of the horrors that you had to endure.
At first, I thought it was a random female reader—until I realized I hadn’t updated the contact list on my new iPhone. Then I realized: it was Roger Castle, the fellow who was practically a neighbor back then, but who really had a major crush on my sister, Lisa. Not me.
I had given him a copy of my book over lunch recently, when he, my husband, and I chatted about our native Preston County, our weird-yet-shared connection to county surveyors there, our families and . . . the proper way to barbecue. Turns out, Roger is quite the grill master, and his homemade sauce is the best I’ve ever tasted. (He also said it was fine to share his comments with my readers.)
I could tell Roger was troubled and needed to tell me why. So I called him, and as my carryout dinner grew cold, I listened. He began by saying he was surrounded by a very large group of men, barbecuing and doing the outdoor things men do, and he couldn’t put my book down until he turned the last page.
Roger told me he couldn’t understand how I had survived everything I did, and what was particularly troubling to me, at least, is how he seemed to blame himself. And wished he could have helped me, all those years ago.
They always apologize, these men who write. For not knowing the sins of one of their own, for not seeing the signs, for not being able to protect me or stop the abuse. Sometimes, they tell me they would have beat up my boyfriend, who later became my ex-husband, if they had known. If only they could have. These words bring tears to my eyes and fill me with comfort. They provide a small measure of solace in a very large way.
And sometimes, they leave me wishing for the way things weren’t. For that boyfriend who would have acted like I was the center of his world, who could have treated me with love and kindness, who should have been more concerned about my health and happiness than his own sexual gratification.
I know good men still exist. The words men like Roger and others write confirm this. But none of those men were my boyfriend. Yes, I had a few crushes, only one of which went even to the point of a chaste kiss. But once I was molested at age thirteen, by the man who claimed me as his property, there was no other boy. No other boyfriend.
I now realize there were many boys I smiled at or even spoke to every day in school who wanted a chance to be my beau, if only I wasn’t already taken. This is what I would tell them: it wasn’t your fault, any more than it was mine. If I couldn’t see what was happening to me, couldn’t comprehend it until years later, how could you? That was a job for the adults in our lives, not one that we as immature teenagers were equipped to handle.
So please, let yourself off the hook. Forgive yourself, for you did nothing wrong. Neither did I. That is our common bond, one we could all do well to remember.
Life has a way of working itself out and if what happened to me hadn’t, I would not be where I am right now, speaking up and warning other women not waste a single breath being a doormat for any man who is so selfish he cannot love himself, much less anyone else. Life is too short, and there are plenty of good men out there. I know this, because they write to me. Or their wives do, telling me wonderful things about them.
All you have to do is open your eyes and look for them, because sometimes they’re sitting right beside you wanting more than anything to be your boyfriend. These are the men who will protect you and fight for you—not with you. They really will.
* * * *
My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”