Kristen Chapman Gibbons – In a Tiny Office

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 college48-Words 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.

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Kristen Chapman-Gibbons – Beginnings

Tenx9 regular Kristen Chapman-Gibbons shares her story “Creating a Space Where There Was None,” about–among other things–creating a feminist collective only to get thrown out. Our theme was “Beginnings.” 

Big Blue Dot Y'all

Tenx9 Nashville hosts monthly storytelling events in Nashville and around the world. I am deeply honored to be a part of this community of people. Our motto is an Irish saying, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” The joy, insight and beauty of true stories leaves my heart larger every time I go. Find an event. Start a satellite Tenx9 in your city. The theme this month was, “Beginnings.” I tried to make this one “NPR-friendly.”

You hear it all the time in some drippy social media post — it’s not the destination…it’s the journey. And yeah, sometimes that is true – like when you want to be a Human Rights attorney when you are 8, but then you grow up and share classrooms with others wanting to practice law and you fear for your soul. So…you shift, you adapt and you allow…

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Kristen Chapman Gibbons – Show and Tell

Enjoy this story from Tenx9 regular Kristen Chapman Gibbons at May’s event “Show and Tell.”

 

Taking Steps: The Story of how an Iranian Feminist Pushed Me to Take Back My Life

Big Blue Dot Y'all

This video is from the latest Tenx9 Nashville storytelling event. This was our first time at Douglas Corner Cafe and the topic was “Show and Tell.” You can find more information here, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Big thanks to my fellow storytellers and to our hosts Michael McRay and Cary Gibson.

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KC Gibbons – The Journey of Coif: From Aqua Net to Bettie Page Bangs

From “Journey” – September 16, 2013. Check out Kristen’s blog at www.kchapmangibbons.wordpress.com.

“The higher the hair, the closer to God.” – Karen Gillespie

 

It started simple enough, when I was about six, I asked my Mom, “What color is my hair?” Her answer, “Dishwater blond.” Not honey blonde or brownish blonde or dark blonde or even dull blonde — but honey your hair is the color of leftover food and grease in the sink. Thus my journey toward hair acceptance began.  

Age Six

To appreciate this story, you have to know I’m a preacher’s daughter. You have to understand that my parents were and are Southern Baptists and any sort of attention-getting was imprudent. From Ecclesiastes 1– Vanity, vanity…all is vanity. I wasn’t supposed to be preoccupied with my hair…God only cared about my soul right?

It wasn’t until high school that I felt free enough to experiment with my hair. I loved Stryper (yes, Stryper — Google it youngins), U2 and what was playing on the radio — Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. It is important to realize that until the age of 13, the only music sanctioned was Christian music and 50’s music — everything was new to me or came under “contraband.” I was a straight-A student with church friends — my big rebellion was sneaking in cassettes of Queen.

The hair began its ascension though, modeled by what are now called “hair bands” — the big hair product at that time was mousse. I had what you might generously call a mullet for girls. Tall hair damage party in the front — curly hair damage party in the back. Bono had it too (1983 baby…look it up!). Although I’m fairly sure Bono did not use a curling iron and sleep in pink foam rollers…not that there would be anything wrong with that of course.

The middle of my junior year of high school, my parents moved us outside of Nashville to Hendersonville. My perception of Nashville wasn’t generous. I was so incensed by this heartless decision that I barely spoke to my parents for six months. I went from an urban high school with a population of almost a thousand to Beech High School – population: Hick, tiny and oh so white. It was dreadful. Almost everyone at the new high school had grown up together. I knew I was in for it when they rescheduled prom because it fell on the same night as a Hank Williams Jr. concert. Big hair was everywhere.

The only kids that really accepted me where my peeps in Chorus and Drama. It was here that I fell in with the Goth kids. One of my closest new friends had hair like Siouxsie Sue (emo before emo was cool) and the full embrace of LA Looks with a side of backcombing and an Aqua Net finish began in earnest. It was 1988 in Nashville…it was then I heard the Karen Gillespie quote and there that I began to believe it.

Bottom row, 2nd from right

By the time I finished high school, the top of my hair went up about 3 inches and the back became straight. I was now listening to Sisters of Mercy, Janis Joplin, Patsy Cline and Led Zeppelin. The flood of new musical influences had the impact my parents feared…sort of…I was crazy about Michael Hutchence, but I really wanted to be the one to share the Gospel of Christ with him. There were other less saintly thoughts mixed in, but we won’t go there.  

By the time I started college at a small Baptist college, my hair was as confused as I was. What exactly was I? A hippie? A goth? A punk? Could a Christian be any of these things?  I was tired of trying to understand where I fit…truth was, I had no freakin’ idea who I was or what it meant for my faith.

College Freshman

In college, thanks to British Lit and REM, my experience ran ahead of faith…and I embraced my inner flower child — with a punk sensibility. The hair grew long, flat and straight and the boots became Doc Martens. My Christianity was changing fairly radically too. I went from a Fundamentalist designated driver, to a Marxist Christian who didn’t deny any of the Earth’s pleasures. I became a protesting-about-hunger-and-housing kind of gal — making many trips to DC and arguing publicly with Al Gore about the immorality of the Gulf War — the first one. (Another true story for later — years after this I had breakfast with then candidate for VP Gore & he remembered me taking him on!) I took a job as a live-in night and weekend manager at a homeless shelter ran by my college. I lived there for my last two years of college. I was a radical for Jesus man. All hair product was suspect — it took precious time away from raising hell.

This state of affairs continued until I went to graduate school. Now you have to understand context to understand the next hair evolution. I graduated from college with two majors and two minors at the top of my class. I had been so hopeful. And then the only work I could get was at the same mall that employed me in high school.  Demoralized and broke, I chose grad school out of desperation. I chose it the way I make most major life decisions, I threw a bunch of crap in the air and waited to see what would come back to me first. I applied to law school, a Master’s program in Social Work, a position teaching English in china, a Master’s program in Political Science, and lastly a few Theological schools–I had no real intention, other than moving out of my present state of destitution…whoever gave me the most money — that’s where I’d go.

The biggest offer came from a Theological school in Northern NJ on a full scholarship because I was a minority…I was “Appalachia.” (Who knew, right?!?)  I never visited (which I generally don’t recommend), I just showed up with a trailer full of my crap — covered w/a blue tarp. I was quite a site on this ivy-draped campus. I loathed New Jersey pretty much instantly. Grad school was also a nightmare – I was wholly unprepared to study with a diverse group of students who had almost all attended prestigious colleges. I was also unready for the intense stereotyping about southerners as dumb, racist inbreds.

Another thing was happening…the more I studied religion — the less I believed in it. I no longer cared a whole lot about being close to God. I discovered a more radical feminism around this same time and Ani DiFranco came into my life. I went Pixie in one fell swoop, donating my elbow-long locks to Locks of Love without any regret.

It was years after grad school before my hair even got near my shoulders. By this time, I was working as a Social Worker and frankly didn’t give a flip about hair and makeup — I was working with people getting out of prison and still incarcerated. I didn’t really want too much attention for obvious reasons, but also because I was a MASSIVE martyr. How could a person be so shallow when people were struggling to survive? I enjoyed looking down at well-coiffed women. It made me feel more pure.

Around 1997, a hairdresser friend, who knew I was a sexual assault survivor, pulled me aside one day and asked me if I was intentionally sabotaging my appearance because I didn’t want to attract a sexual glare. GUT PUNCH.

So I let her do my hair –she dyed it eggplant and gave me lots of layers. The positive attention was empowering and I didn’t feel as if my activism was compromised. My feminism had softened and I even started wearing eye makeup again! I was fighting the patriarchy with red lipstick now. And although I wasn’t sure at this point if I even believed in God…I sure as hell didn’t believe in a God that would call basic self-esteem, vanity.

Maybe I didn’t have to be miserable, feel miserable and have miserable hair to be a good person after all! About this same time, I discovered BR549 and Patty Griffin. All of a sudden, I had permission to merge my love of all American music with my Appalachian heritage. What a liberation! I could twang like Emmylou AND love the Butthole Surfers (Again millennials…Google is your friend). The push to be in one genre/style had disappeared and my hair & I felt free — for the first time,  to evolve without need for definition.

Any hair I have must be fixable in less than ten minutes. Thankfully, I live in an age where “disheveled” is considered a style. I even have product to make it look more piece-y to exacerbate the chaos and some to make it behave when I need to look more sleek and sophisticated. If God doesn’t like it, he or she can suck it.

All sleek and cool
All sleek and cool

Hair color, style, favorite product and means of preparation — all are used to classify, to help us understand ourselves…to find our spot. For me, hair has always been a reaction against something…a symbol of what I am rebelling against at any given point in time. But insurgence gets exhausting after a while. At some point, you just get tired of reacting.  

Thankfully, in my 40’s I am much more interested in my hair telling you what I am for — a woman with an insistence on ease & style & a lifetime affinity for all things Retro. The bright red is bold and assertive — an external expression of a hard-won internal confidence. Becoming comfortable in my own follicles has closely mirrored me getting okay with me.

Self-acceptance and hair acceptance are related, particularly for women. I’d like to think I’ve made a lot of progress making peace with the not-so-pretty stages of my life and my hair. The only thing I cannot yet abide? My cowlicks. But my Bettie Paige bangs cover them up quite nicely. 

Taken two weeks ago at my hairdresser's