Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sweet dreams and flying machines

Her coppery hair shone like a new penny in the raw light streaming through the open window. The brilliant color clashed with the pale purple blotches along her cheekbone and under her pretty eyes, lasting remnants of beatings that run together in her memory.

In the background, a tinny radio plays James Taylor softly.

"...sweet dreams and flying machines, in pieces on the ground..."

One hears plenty about the "sickness" of the abuser, how they deserve our help, how they are the victims of societal pressures. It has been my experience, having known several, that what they suffer is an inability to grow up and treat other people like human beings.

I wonder if we haven't lost sight of who the victims are.

This woman's image haunts me still - one of many. There is a lot of joy in this job, but done right, it requires some sharing of pain as well.

"...sweet dreams and flying machines, in pieces on the ground..."

I have interviewed a 16-year old rape victim who had to squeeze her hands white in her lap to control the shaking. I have interviewed a woman with Alzheimer's Disease going through the pain of knowing that any day now, she will not recognize her grandchildren. I have interviewed people who have been robbed of their most precious possessions, have had their bodies shattered in accidents, have been the victims of nightmarish eating disorders, sexual harassment, racial discrimination.

"sweet dreams and flying machines, in pieces on the ground..."

The natural impulse is to become hardened and withdrawn, to build a scab over the tender wound of inhumanity. That, I am told, is the journalist's role; to see but not to feel.

When a local teacher tells us her story of years of anorexia nightmares, I find it hard to ignore. Remember the compulsive gambler who told us of how she had lost her children's college money? The woman who tells of her childhood and a drunken father who traded her to his friends as a sexual plaything in exchange for fifths of whiskey?

The story I did of an old dog standing beside the bedside of the dying master who adopted it as a stray still affects me. The death of a good man from AIDS leaves a hole that will never be filled.

And this woman with the penny-bright hair and the battered face pulls at my heartstrings no matter how much I would like to forget. Every time an abuse arrest crosses my desk, I see her face. I suspect I always will. Perhaps you have heard the sounds coming through the walls in your neighborhood at night. If so, you know what I mean.

"... sweet dreams and flying machines, in pieces on the ground..."

I interviewed her at the CADA shelter house. She had been a virtual captive in her own home deep in the countryside. After a beating, he always promised to treat her better. And he always did, for a very short while.

The light streamed through the dancing dust particles in the sitting room as her story unfolded. Other women in similar flights passed through the room like ghosts, looking down at the floor. Each story of this copper-haired woman being brutalized by her neurotic husband hits like a fist. For those of us who only see such pain from a distance, the scars are comparatively small and invisible, but real nonetheless. It is unfortunately all too common. You may hear of one in 100 cases.

" ...sweet dreams and flying machines, in pieces on the ground..."

And as she finished her tale of brutality and pain, something I didn't expect happened. Her slightly swollen lip and bruised cheekbones slowly, slowly spread into a beautiful smile.

That is the golden thread that runs through the dirty fabric of so many of the saddest stories. Through the worst and most unfair trials, people often discover the best and strongest in themselves.

This shining penny of a woman has finally found the strength to escape her brutal situation, and is experiencing a kind of physical and emotional freedom she has never known before. She will be just fine.

Like the others I have described, she told her story not for her own sake, but in the hope that it will help someone else. If, over the years, one person has been inspired to stop an abusive situation, report a rape, seek treatment for an eating disorder or find dignity within a discriminatory situation, their sacrifice has all been worthwhile. At least that's what I tell myself.

"Journalism will kill you," Horace Greeley once said, "but will keep you alive while you're at it."

For all those who have shared their most difficult and personal stories with us, I think of you often. In many cases, I have quietly kept watch and am proud of what you have done.

Shiny Penny, I wonder where you are tonight. I hope freedom is treating you well. God knows you deserve it.

"Sweet dreams... to all those with the courage to pick the pieces up off the ground.