Writing as Healing: How writing The Patience Trilogy helped me move beyond a history of childhood abuse
I was eight years old the first time I wrote about being sexually abused: “Sssh!!!!!! He likes to squish my boobs! Last night in the green chair…”
I wrote those words in a small diary—the kind with a little lock and key—but anyone knows the lock can easily be ripped away. I don’t know why the secret I felt compelled to commit to paper was safe within that cardboard cover.
I hid the diary in the back of my desk drawer
and carried it with me when we moved from the house in rural Texas—the one with
the green chair in the den where I’d nearly fallen asleep in my stepfather’s
lap and he’d felt me up for the first time.
I was so shocked, I’d pretended to be asleep, and the next morning, when
he called me outside and told me to “slap his hands”, I acted like I didn’t
know what he was talking about. That
experience became this scene in my first book, Courage in Patience
(this is the revised, 2011 version; the book was first released by a
now-defunct Canadian publisher, Kunati Books, in 2008):
Less than a year after they married, he gestured to me to sit on his lap. I did so, enjoying the idea of having a daddy like my friends did. I got so relaxed and content there, I dozed off. He started rubbing my brand-new breasts. I wasn’t actually all the way asleep, but it freaked me out so much that I pretended I was.
The next morning, a Saturday, my mother told me to go outside because Charlie wanted to talk to me. I approached him like I would come up on a King cobra, full of dread and feeling like a tightly wound spring. His back was to me as he bent under the hood of our car, changing the oil.
"Mom told me to come out here. Said you want to talk to me," I spoke to the sky as I watched a black vulture circle over something dead.
He mumbled something and I said, “Huh?”
He backed out from under the hood and took a deep breath. “Kiddo, slap my hands.” He paused as if waiting for my response.
"What? Why?" I played dumb, hoping that none of what happened in that chair had really happened. I was nine years old, and I already knew what he was doing was wrong.
"Last night … in the green chair …" Now it was his turn to stare somewhere else.
I tilted my head and my voice was so high it didn’t even sound like me. "What chair? When?"
He smiled that closed-mouth smile from his "model" picture. “Never mind, Kiddo. You can go back inside now.”
My heart pounded in my ears as I walked away from him. The morning sun was blinding and felt hot on my hair.
When I was in high school, I pulled the diary from its hiding place and burned it in the fireplace when my parents weren’t home. Couldn’t risk anyone learning the truth about what my stepfather had started doing to me when I was in fourth grade. The abuse escalated from touching to rape by the time I told, and that was the physical part. In addition, he played mind games with me and controlled me through threats to leave my mom.
I became angrier and angrier the longer the abuse went on, and when I was fourteen, I told my mother what was going on. She neglected to do anything about it. I drew on this experience as well when I wrote Courage in Patience—because even though twenty-odd years had passed since the day I told her, the feeling of numbness and disbelief were just as raw and overwhelming for me at age 40 as they were when I was 14. Unlike me, the protagonist of The Patience Trilogy, Ashley Nicole Asher, tells a teacher and CPS acts on her outcry. She is placed with her biological father in a tiny East Texas town, and her life begins anew.
After the day I told my mother what was going on and she did The Big Nothing, I endured about six months of her seeming angry and my stepfather ignoring my existence before a switch flipped inside of me and I became The Perfect Daughter. I did the housework, laundry, ironing, cooking, worked for the family business, began calling my stepfather “Dad”, aaaaaaaaannnnd developed an eating disorder that to this day vexes me. I also kept writing, especially poetry. I don’t have any of the pieces I wrote. Like the diary, I destroyed any evidence on the chance that my mom might find it and be upset. My whole life was about keeping her comfortable.
Fast-forward to 2004, when I was 38 years old, 100 pounds overweight, on an express train to Crazy Town, and taking four other people—my husband and three daughters—along for the ride. Simply put, I could not cope with the secrets anymore. Committing them to paper and burning them hadn’t done jack-shit to deal with the past.
I entered therapy and, true to form, tried to process the agony I was experiencing by putting the pain on paper. About eighteen months into the recovery journey we were on together, my therapist suggested that I try writing a novel. It took me about four months of stopping and starting and being stuck on the question of “WHY?” Why did this happen to me? Why didn’t my mom act on my outcry when I was fourteen? Why has she turned her back on me now? Why does she refuse to know the truth?
One day, I decided to imagine what it would be like to be someone else having the experience of recovering from childhood sexual abuse from one parent, and deliberate indifference on the part of the caretaker parent. That’s how Ashley Nicole Asher came into being, and Courage in Patience, my first book, was written. I never even planned to have it published; once I finished it, though, I realized that I had been helped so much by the experience of writing it that it might give hope to others on the same journey. Even though I was thrilled to become a published author, I was so afraid of upsetting my mom and ruining any chance that she might still come around and be willing to know the truth about what happened to me that I asked my publisher to not be completely forthright in my bio. He came up with the story that I knew what it’s like to be an abused child because I’m a teacher and have worked with abused kids in the past. But, honestly: nobody bought that story, because anybody who reads The Patience Trilogy can tell that the person who wrote it has lived it.
I thought I was through with putting my pain on paper. I wasn’t.
I was still in therapy and trying like hell to accept the way things are
with my mom: we have no relationship, and I couldn’t wrap my mind around the
fact that she didn’t love me with the same fierceness I feel for my three
daughters. Through writing Hope in Patience (WestSide, 2010), I came to
acceptance. It was excruciating to
write; I wept when I wrote the scene in the hospital room, when Ashley’s mom
tries to get her to admit that her stepfather, Charlie, who has just been
killed in an accident, was a good man. AND—
I no longer allowed my fear to silence the person I had become. I publicly identified myself as a SURVIVOR of
childhood sexual abuse on the book jacket of Hope in Patience, as well as everywhere else.
At the end of Hope in Patience, Ashley begins dating a boy she’s had a crush on. I explored what it’s like to be a person trying to move on with her life and experience normalcy in the third book in the Patience trilogy, Truth in Patience. I also gave Ashley the gift of a face-to-face confrontation with her mom about Truth and what it means to her in the life she has carved out for herself. I have not experienced this myself. Truth in Patience is not yet published.
I still have off-days once in awhile, but I made it through the recovery process. It took six years of intensive therapy; a kick-ass support team comprised of my husband, daughters, and therapist; iron-clad determination to make it through the journey to hell and back; and writing the trilogy of a fifteen-year-old girl who finds Courage, Hope, and Truth in a tiny Texas town called Patience .
Hope in Patience is a 2011 YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers.
I have a platform and a following in the young adult literature world and also among survivors of sexual abuse because of my work with victims' advocacy groups. I was the keynote speaker at the National Crime Victims' Week Commemoration Ceremony at the Hall of State in Dallas, Texas. I was a presenter for Greater Texas Community Partners--I addressed a group of social workers and foster children on the subject of "Hope". I used the launch of Hope in Patience as a fundraiser for the East Texas Crisis Center, and I continue to use my time and talents to reach out to those who share with me the journey of surviving abuse.
I was a panelist at the inaugural YAK-- Young Adult Keller (Texas) Book Festival, along with Ellen Hopkins, Charles Benoit, Kelly Milner Halls, and several other YA fiction authors.
I am going to be on a panel at the YALSA Conference in St. Louis in November with Ellen Hopkins, Jo Knowles, Selene Castrovilla, Shannon Delany, and Deborah Heiligman!
The topic of our panel is: "A Fickle Future: YA Authors Discuss Trend-spotting and Timeless Keys to Literary Success when Facing the Disconnect of the Digital Age": With so much at their fingertips, how can we grab and connect with teen readers? What’s more important: content or flair – or should we blend both? Can the next big thing be predicted – or carefully created? Authors Selene Castrovilla, Shannon Delany, Ellen Hopkins, Jo Knowles, Deborah Heiligman, and Beth Fehlbaum discuss past teen literature trends, their personal experiences, and debate what the future holds. What does the future hold for the story and the personal connection we all strive to make with readers in a digital age, and how can we make reading more appealing and accessible to all young adult readers?"
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and I worked for six long hard years in therapy to overcome my past; thus I have a unique perspective to write Ashley Asher's story of recovery from childhood sexual abuse and how she learns to cope with a variety of disorders that she has as a result of her abuse.
The Patience Books, Courage in Patience, Hope in Patience, and Truth in Patience, are the story of Ashley Nicole Asher, who is sexually, emotionally, and physically abused by her stepfather, from the age of nine. Courage in Patience begins Ashley's story. When she at last tells a trusted teacher what has been happening to her, Child Protective Services steps in, and Ashley is removed from her mother's home. She is then reunited with her biological father, who has not been a part of Ashley's life since infancy. Through the summer school English class taught by her stepmother, Ashley learns to face her greatest fears and, along with other teens, discovers just how strong she is. Ashley's story continues with Hope in Patience, as Ashley continues her rocky road to recovery, wonders what it would be like to have a boyfriend, and faces the ultimate betrayal. Truth in Patience asks if it's possible for Ashley to have a relationship with the boy she has a crush on, and also has her reaching deep down to find out who she really is, when her mom tries to reenter her life.
This is not 'an abuse story'-- it is a survival story, as evidenced by the bravery shown by all the teenagers in the Patience books, who face life-changing events head-on. A huge part of Ashley's ability to begin to heal comes about by witnessing acts of profound courage, all around her. Ashley's story is anyone's story-- anyone who has ever overcome what they thought they never could; anyone who has ever known what it is to want to be loved and accepted as-is.
Watch a television interview with Beth Fehlbaum, where she talks about her life growing up and what inspired her to write the Patience books:
I was inspired to
write this story by my own recovery from childhood sexual abuse. In the process
of working through my own grief, disbelief, and anger, I was writing poems and
short stories, and sharing them with my (
long-suffering) therapist. One
day, he suggested that I try writing a
It took me about four months of starting and stopping, always ending up in the same place: stuck inside myself-- until one day I became so sick of the scenery that I decided to try to imagine what it would have been like if I had been able to get out of the abusive situation I was in at age 15-- instead of remaining in it much longer. What if a young girl in that situation had a father who had allowed his own shame at being a lousy dad to keep him away for her entire life, as Ashley's father, David does? AND- what if he was able to come through for her in a way he never thought he could, when she needed him the most?
In the process of knocking down the walls I had built
around myself, I found Ashley Nicole
Asher, age 15, and Patience,
I was born in Dallas, Texas, and I have one brother, who is a police sergeant. My husband and I were high school sweethearts, and we married young. We have three daughters who are amazing and brilliant. My oldest is getting her doctorate in Sociology; my middle daughter is getting her MFA in Publishing and Creative Writing, and my youngest child is studying to be a neonatal nurse.
When my youngest daughter started Kindergarten, I went to college to be a teacher, like Ashley's stepmom in the Patience books. Bev Asher and I share a passion for teaching, social justice, and insisting upon authenticity in the classroom. I have a B.A. in English, minor Secondary Education, from the University of Texas at Arlington, and an M.Ed. in Elementary Education, specializing in Reading, from Texas A & M -- Commerce.I still teach. I taught middle schoolers for the first part of my career, and now I teach 5th grade students in a bilingual education program in