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CW: brief mentions of domestic violence

Kelly Sundberg’s Goodbye, Sweet Girl is the memoir I’ve been both waiting and dreading to read.

If you are a survivor of domestic violence (or any kind of abuse), and especially if you aren’t silent about what you’ve endured, chances are you have at some point felt like your survivor status is consuming your entire identity. That it defines you now. That everything is about the abuse. Maybe you’ve been told, you sure talk about it a lot or why don’t you try focusing on the future instead of the past? Maybe you’ve been attacked, accused of being addicted to drama, to attention, to sympathy, to being a victim. Maybe you’ve internalized some of those accusations and, on your bad days, considered that they could be true. Maybe even on good days, you think, I’m so sick of being a survivor, then realize with an even more sick and sinking feeling that the alternative is to have not survived at all.

See, we didn’t choose any of this. Remember that. These identities were beaten or screamed into our skin and bones and synapses. We’re all doing our best to recover, in our own ways.

Speaking about them, writing about them, is a release valve for some of us.

For some of us, un-silencing is how we move from victim to survivor.

I first “met” Kelly on Facebook after reading “It Will Look Like a Sunset” shortly after it came out in Guernica on April 1, 2014. That is to say, I read it right after I left my abusive ex on June 15, 2014. It was the first survivor narrative I read in my own aftermath. I remember that I looked Kelly up on FB and messaged her right away to say how much I identified with what she’d written, and to thank her for writing it. I remember she wrote back immediately and was characteristically sweet, gracious, and empathetic about what I shared with her.

I follow Kelly. I’ve read her social media posts and her brave blog, and have celebrated her successes as they’ve come, both personally and professionally. I’ve been put on lists with her. I’ve hearted photos of her son on Instagram. I’ve gotten to know the self she shares with us online, and I respect and admire her greatly. I was thrilled to meet her for real in 2017 at AWP DC, to attend one of her panels and walk with her to an evening political demonstration at a park near the convention center.

All of this is to say, 1) I believe, revere, and applaud Kelly, and 2) I’ve had a long time to prepare for the release of her book and it was still incredibly difficult for me to get through.

To recognize yourself and your worst experiences so vividly in someone else’s trauma narrative is both comforting and maddening. I’ve learned that what my ex did to me, what Caleb did to Kelly, is textbook domestic abuser shit. What I once thought was unique to our relationship—the persistent sexual connection that confused me, the habitual throwing/hiding/breaking my phone when I tried to call for help, the futile ways I fought back and how they further emboldened him, how it was always worse on holidays or special occasions, how any whiff of my professional success threatened him, the predictable cycle of hellish fights and euphoric make-ups, the gaslighting, the projecting, the escalation—was in fact standard operating procedure for the entitled narcissistic sociopath who tries to make himself larger by making the woman who loves him smaller, more fearful, less sure of herself and her identity.

Knowing that (that the behavior is textbook) doesn’t make it easier to answer the other questions survivors are frequently asked: Didn’t you see it coming? Why didn’t you just leave?

Goodbye, Sweet Girl is a book of leaving, of what it takes to leave, a literal if crafted response to that vast and suffocating why didn’t you just leave? crowd crowing their victim-blaming disapproval of our attempts to try to save an important relationship, try to work things out, try to better ourselves, try to support our partners even as they hurt us, try to have hope, try to stay for our kids, try to hold it all together.

You know, the way women are conditioned since childhood to do, and believe we should do, in service to others. (Translation: don’t hate the victim-survivor players, hate the patriarchal game.)

There is a scene in the book shortly after Kelly gives birth to her son, when she’s nursing him and tries to commit to memory all the little sensory details of that moment “so when I felt as though I had made the wrong decision in marrying Caleb, I would have it to return to.” Yes, I breathed into the page when I read that. Some sensory details, like the curve of a crib’s headboard or the smell of a favorite candle lit for me just before I returned home from a long PM shift of breaking news, are forever burned into my brain, whether I still want them to be or not, because of moments just like that.

Goodbye, sweet girl, she says to her sweet, perhaps naïve and conditioned former self who believed an abuser could or would change, could or would be capable of loving her. To the self that was susceptible (is that the right word?) to being abused by a man, which Kelly deftly explores and characterizes by looking back to her adolescence in rural Idaho. To the earliest belief of a young girl that she is bad and perhaps deserves to be mistreated. I have had to say goodbye to a similar self. Domestic violence cleaves you into Before and After selves. Goodbye, sweet girls.

To Kelly the memoirist, I say, hello, strong woman. God, is your son lucky to have you. He will read your words someday, when he’s old enough to see you not just as his mother but as a person in your own right, a complex human being who was knocked down and got back up (one display of strength), and has every right to speak openly (another display of strength) about what it took to do so. He is already learning from you every day how to be strong. When he reads your book, he will know in part where that strength came from, or rather, the most critical moment you drew upon it. He will know that people can change their own lives, can rely on and save themselves, completely and epically. He will know that no one has to take that shit.

I hope my son learns the same from my own words and story someday.

Thank you for being here, Kelly—for your big heart and great courage, and for showing us all that what defines a survivor doesn’t have to be what they survived, but what they turn their survival into, what they do with it, how they alchemize it into empathy or art to help others or just continuing to put one foot in front of the other every day, even if one foot is temporarily swollen and bruised and broken.

This memoir is textbook for how you turn something ugly, painful, frightening, traumatic, into something beautiful, healing, positive, redemptive.