The following story, unfortunately, echoes the experience of too many Americans. Although Arkansas was not Marie’s intended destination, this story has a happy ending: she and her children have fallen in love with their adopted home.
Photography by Brandon Markin
[dropcap]Despite[/dropcap] and/or because of what she overcame, Marie* never lost her faith in life. The seeds of Marie’s inner strength grew from the time she was a young child, when her own mother fled an abusive husband and relocated across the country to begin anew.
“My mom never gave up,” Marie said, recalling. “She was in school from the time I was 5 to 11 years old, getting a master’s degree in business.”
When Marie was 13 years old, a 23-year-old man who worked at a neighborhood movie theater began flirting with her. One day, when Marie was at the movies, he approached her at the concession stand and convinced her to follow him up to the projection room, where he raped her.
“My mom took me to the police station to do a rape kit. The police didn’t believe my story, although my clothes were torn and bloody,” Marie said.
Ultimately, evidence obtained from her clothing would convict him — but only after her mother kept insisting the police confront the young man. He confessed.
While she doesn’t remember the specifics of the legal proceedings, the rape definitely had an effect on her — she suffered from PTSD.
“I dabbled in drugs for a while. I had friends, but I never talked to my friends about what happened,” Marie said. A boyfriend once described her as “losing it” at times. “I’d become very angry. I had flashbacks and ‘flipped out.’ I was failing classes. For a time, I sought out attention in the ‘wrong place,’ but I quickly recovered from that.”
Marie began the road to recovery by seeing a psychotherapist. The therapist became a source of great support, and the two maintain contact to this day. “I can pick up the phone and call her any time,” Marie said.
A decade later, Marie was moved to call her therapist long-distance when the father of her children began exhibiting dangerous mental instability.
“My boyfriend and I had been dating for three months when we found out we were pregnant with twins,” Marie said. Ready to give her all and make the situation work, Marie focused on safeguarding a healthy pregnancy, which resulted in the birth of beautiful twins. As a new father, her boyfriend started confiding in her about his own childhood.
“He spoke of his father returning from the Vietnam War with PTSD,” she recalled. “He said his father beat his mother constantly — the whole family lived in fear.”
Marie approached her boyfriend’s mother about his increasing moodiness, but her answer was always: “Just ignore him.” Marie worked fulltime and would come home to have her paycheck taken by her boyfriend, who remained stubbornly jobless. He began obsessing over Marie’s every move. He would grab her as though he owned her body, she said.
“For a week, I had been hiding supplies and packing things, preparing to leave,” Marie said. “He was convinced I was cheating on him.”
One night, her boyfriend posed a question: Didn’t Marie think cheaters should be killed? As she stammered no, her boyfriend suddenly announced he was going out, and left.
“We kept a gun in a hiding place, for protection,” Marie said. “I ran to get the gun and take the bullets out.” The gun was gone.
It was now or never. Waking her sleeping toddlers, she hurried to dress them, whispering that it was time to play the quiet game. She feared he would return at any moment and shoot them all. Two things were in Marie’s favor: a fresh paycheck and an ideal parking spot in back of the apartment building.
“We lived on the third floor,” she said. “I lugged trash bags full of clothing, trying to get the kids down the backstairs quietly.” Upon exiting the building, Marie and the children sprinted to the car. One of the twins tripped, sending a piercing wail into the night. Marie’s cellphone began to ring — her boyfriend was calling.
“I got the kids in the car and took off,” Marie said. She drove for hours, stopping at a roadside motel when she couldn’t stay awake. The next morning, she resumed her flight. Her goal was to reach a family member in Arkansas and from there continue on to family in a neighboring state. “Then my car started overheating,” she said, with a sigh. It took three days to travel just a few hundred miles, but she made it.
The car became an instrument of serendipity, overheating and stranding her and the kids. After spending time with her family member, Marie moved with the twins into a women’s shelter, ready to start over. She found the residential shelter welcoming, even homey, with comfortable rooms, shared chores, art classes, group therapy sessions, babysitting — even a backyard playground.
Determined to land a job, Marie spent every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. filling out applications and sending out resumes. After a month, she got a job.
The shelter staff, concerned about her safety and her transportation needs, arranged for a mechanic to overhaul her car, but it was irreparable. The first day of her new job loomed, yet Marie had no reliable transportation. “I was down to my last dollar, crying, and the mechanic said, ‘You know something? My mother took me and my brother in the middle of the night to escape our abusive father.’”
As Marie watched in disbelief, the mechanic found an old junked car on the station lot, fixed it up, and told her she could pay it off over time. She thanked him and went off to begin her new career.
Marie thrived at her new job and after six months had saved enough to move out of the shelter. She went in to thank her boss and share her excitement about her new home, which she found just in time for the holidays. Over the course of the conversation, her whole story came pouring out. Her boss was thunderstruck. The next thing Marie knew, he was making calls to the state headquarters and regional offices, setting off a flood of donations.
“We moved in to our new home, and they brought us beds, furniture, gift certificates — even a Christmas tree!” Marie said. “I called my therapist. She burst into tears and said it restored her faith in humanity.”
That Christmas, Marie purchased gifts for women and children who were living in the shelter. Then, she and the twins went home, baked cookies and shared the best Christmas gift of all: peace.
*“Marie” is a name chosen to help safeguard her identity.