If you watch the TV show Private Practice, then you recently saw one of the most popular characters on the show, Dr. Charlotte King, brutally assaulted and raped. In the most recent episode, the follow up of what a victim goes through is documented, and it's pretty tough to watch, especially powered by Emmy-award acting by KaDee Strickland. On the Facebook fan site, a little argument blew up around those that felt the TV network used a terrible crime to drive drama in a storyline. Some argued that it was too graphic an episode and that they would never watch the show again. Others instead, felt that the show simply did what most people are afraid to do -- generate dialogue and discussion around an incredibly sensitive topic.
As the Sycamore Grows, by Jennie Miller Helderman is one of those books that brings forth openly and honestly the dialogue about violence against women, documenting one woman's life's journey through domestic abuse. The author started out writing an article about poverty in Alabama, and the story spilled over past the short word count and seemed to beg for more -- and she complied. The life of Ginger is thus documented in this book, a woman who is motivated, smart, sometimes flawed, and stuck in a revolving door of varying degrees of abuse and control.
Neutral and focused, As the Sycamore Grows reads like a narrative. Helderman has documented so many different elements that are attributed to domestic abuse, particularly the ability to control another by just playing with their mind. The book tells of Ginger's life in an abusive marriage, but it goes so much deeper -- Helderman roots out how each person got to where they are as an adult. It's a story with two sides, and unlike a lot of other books dealing with abuse or a crime, sometimes the reader only gets to know one side, and the other side is represented by lawyers, court cases, and other paperwork. In As the Sycamore Grows, Mike, the husband (now ex) is very much involved with the story in a series of one-on-one meetings that Helderman arranges. And as he says it, he will "have his say."
Ginger grew up in a small town in the South, in a family that followed the Church of Christ (not to be confused with The United Church of Christ). Women were subservient to men and would wear head coverings, deferring to their husband on any decisions. It's just the way it was. Is it this upbringing that helped her to excuse certain abusive moments later in life? Or was it a little bit of change over time that made her slowly get used to it? Could it be a little bit of both?
What stunned me is this: If it's all you're ever used to, why would it seem abnormal?
And let's be honest -- Mike's father is a jerk. Mike grew up watching his Dad do the same to his Mom. He never realized that playing mind games with his wife just wasn't normal. He holds no remorse today in his actions against Ginger, and there's such a twisted psychological element to the often used term of the "cycle repeating itself" and it clearly fits here. As Mike tells Helderman:
God made women to be subservient. That's why there're more women nurses than men nurses. It's their job. It's what God put in their nature. God put men in charge." (Ch. 18)I felt chilled reading this -- the casualness of this abuser's perceptions is downright scary, and Helderman doesn't hold back.
Jennie Miller Helderman documents the chilling reality of one woman's strength and resilience in the midst of abuse with startling honesty. There is no hiding under the covers with this disturbing reality. But I was proud of Ginger's ultimate defining strength that can and should be discussed in order to educate -- she put one foot in front of the other and continued to be strong and bring herself out and away from something that no one ever, EVER deserves to be in.
I think about the show Private Practice, and I wonder about the people that had a problem with the show. I then think about the people who live in areas of our big country and the world who don't have access to a lot of things, who are afraid and feel alone. Who knows, but maybe one night they stumble across the show and see what a fictional character went through on Private Practice and maybe they don't feel so alone and maybe they talk to someone.
Besides, if it was okay for the NYPD Blue character, Sipowicz, to parade around with his backside exposed at 10 p.m., which provided absolutely no value to the storyline, then I don't see why we can't openly discuss via a TV show's tough episode the very gritty reality that violence against women is not sunshine and rainbows. It's real and it's bad. There's just no other way around it.
And maybe Jennie Miller Helderman's documented story of Ginger, who is a real live flesh and blood woman, may find its way to someone in a remote part of the country or in a big city. Maybe they will realize that domestic abuse is never okay, and that there are resources available that may be able to help, to give them strength. Am I being a little hopeful or naive that something like that could happen? Maybe. Or maybe not. But I'm okay with hope.
here. Jennie Miller Helderman has advocated for women and children from the grassroots to national levels. From 2000-2006, she presided over the board of the Alabama Department of Human Resources, the agency which oversees all issues of abuse. She is also a Pushcart Prize nominee who writes both fiction and nonfiction. As the Sycamore Grows is her third book.
Coffee and a Book Chick