Here’s Kristen’s moving story from our August 2017 theme “Words.”
I was seventeen the last time he left a mark. It was the summer before I left for college and I’d been working at World Bazaar in Rivergate Mall for about a year and a half. I don’t remember how or why he hurt me that day. I can’t recall if it was his hands or a belt or a stick. I have no memory of my wrongdoing, although it could have been because I wore too much lipstick or missed curfew or “talked back.”
It doesn’t matter. I showed up for my shift at work badly shaken and unable to stop crying. It took me almost an hour to admit what was wrong to my boss Karen. It is her words that day that altered my course.
Karen and I weren’t particularly close. She was a stickler and I was conscientious, so we got on well enough. She was in her mid-40’s at the time, a thin, muscular woman, who always wore her hair in a ponytail and wore very little makeup.
When I arrived for work, she immediately took me into her office to try and find out what had happened. She told me I didn’t have to work that day, that I’d still be paid. She knew I was saving for college. She said that I didn’t have to go home, at least until the store closed that night. In that tiny office, I eventually divulged a long-hidden truth, that my father, a respected Southern Baptist minister, was violent and cruel at home. Saying it out loud for the first time felt like a dive into icy water.
She then told me that lots of women are hurt by men who are supposed to love and protect them. She told me that her Assistant Manager was regularly beaten by her husband. Karen said she had given up trying to convince her to leave. She said she had prepared herself for a phone call that she knew would one day come, telling her that Tammy had been murdered. Her husband was a rich and powerful car dealership owner, who was often on television. She told me if she was ever alone in a room with him, that she would hit him so hard he wouldn’t be able to go on tv for a week.
Karen sent one of my co-workers to get me something to eat. She got me a pillow from her car. She set me up in her office, turned out the lights and encouraged me to just rest. About an hour passed before I heard banging on the back door. I heard my father’s voice saying, “Please open up. I’m here to apologize.” Karen met him at the door. She told me later he was carrying a dozen red roses.
I couldn’t hear everything that was said, but after about ten minutes of escalating voices, I heard Karen clearly say, “She is not your property. You don’t own her. And if you ever touch her again or step one more toe in this door, I’ll have you arrested and call your church.” He left soon after, throwing the roses at her.
It was the first time in seventeen years that an adult both knew what was happening to me at home and stood up for me. My mother was not in a position, financially, emotionally or spiritually to challenge him. One time, when I was 14, I asked her why she stayed. She told me that she had only considered leaving once, when I was about five. She went to another pastor for advice. He told her that God wanted her to remain in the marriage. That it was her Christian duty to make sure he kept preaching. She then told me that if people knew too much, I’d be endangering countless people’s faith. Did I really want to be responsible for leading others off the path of righteousness? People did not need to know their shepherd was a wolf.
No one in the various churches we had served had any clue, or if they did, they chose to keep their suspicions to themselves. I learned from a very young age how to hide the evidence and keep a smile plastered on my face. I believed that was what God demanded. I also believed that if I revealed my father to anyone, he very well might kill us all in a fit. But, as long as we were there to soften him, to support and cover for him, he could continue doing the Lord’s work.
I never saw the roses. Karen had thrown them out the back door. She told me what happened and asked me who I could reach out to for help. There wasn’t anyone to call. She reminded me that my time in his home was almost over, that a new life awaited me in a few months time. Karen told me to hit back if he ever attacked me again. She told me to stand up and showed me how to hold my feet and body to maximize the impact of a punch. She told me to practice on the pillow. She said, “He’s no angel, he’s a devil wearing a suit. Just imagine his face here and let him have it.” She doted on me the whole day, even after her shift ended.
I don’t know what happened to Karen. I continued to work at the store for the next four years, every time I came home from college. She was still Manager when I worked my last shift. What she did for me that day has only grown in significance in the years that have followed.
She intervened. She probed for the truth. She got in his face. She threatened his charade. But most critical, she gave me the words I would use with him the next time he raised his hand to me. I said, “I am not your property. You don’t own me. And if you ever hurt me again, I will destroy you.”
It stopped him. And started me.
Kristen Chapman Gibbons is a survivor, who knows the power of telling the truth of one’s life. She writes, teaches, and works with organizations and communities to elevate story. She is the force behind True Stories Let Loose and Story Booth Nashville. This was her 20th story at Tenx9.