08 November 2010

As the Sycamore Grows, by Jennie Miller Helderman

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.


Visit Jennie Miller Helderman's site by clicking 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.

Happy Reading,
Coffee and a Book Chick


  1. OMG! this was downright scary. I HATE this guy. I feel for Ginger, there are so many women like Ginger here. I have heard about them.In our culture too, women are supposed to be subservient to there Hubbys - in older times, but it was definitely there, and is still there.

    About Private Practice, I think I agree with your views definitely.

  2. I think slowly this topic is getting the exposure it needs. Baby steps. Kinda crazy when it is an epidemic in this country (the world?) but there are generations of people that believe that what goes on behind closed doors between a man and wife are private and of no concern to us. This sounds like an excellent book, and you have certainly done it justice with this review!

  3. Is this based on a true story? Having lived in Alabama twice, I know divorce is pretty common there and a lot of it is because of poverty and/or abuse.

  4. FTC Disclosure -- I received this book at the SIBA Trade Show in Daytona.

    Veens -- It is striking how similar cultures can be, no matter what part of the world you live in. In this book it is definitely the case, and subservience was standard. Scary!

    Sandy -- I agree, I think it is getting the spotlight that it needs to in order to truly get the word out. I still am speechless when I read about domestic abuse and where family and friends know about it, but don't step in, simply because it's "not their business." Scarier than any Halloween horror movie, that's for sure.

    bermudaonion -- Yes, this is a true story (I should have been clearer about that, sorry!), and it's probably what frightened me even more so!

  5. wow, this sounds like a difficult but valuable book. it's sometimes easier to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, but books like this force readers (and society) to confront the issues head on.

    kudos to you for reading it, ginger for getting through it, and the author for exposing it.

  6. It sounds like both the show and the book were very powerful, and though I don't watch Private Practice, I applaud the writers for bringing this issue out into the light. Abuse in any form is a terrible thing, and for some people, it's everyday life. I have had abusive relationships in my past, and though it's hard for people to understand, you just get used to it and deal with it. Even now, when I think back to that time in my life, I find myself making excuses for the man. I know it's wrong, and fortunately for me, I have broken the cycle, I can understand how it goes on in a woman's head. I am happy to say that I am now in a wonderful relationship with an incredible man, but boy, it took a long time to get there. Thanks for sharing this review with us. It's an important topic that needs to be addressed.

  7. It breaks my heart to think that a girl or woman growing up with this kind of violence would come to think of it as normal - and I know that sadly it DOES happen all the time. Thank you for this review - this is a hugely important topic, and I'd definitely like to pick up the book.

  8. This sounds really sad. I can only read books like this every so often without getting too down on myself.

  9. i think sometimes we, as modern women, forget how much things have changed for women in just the past 50 years. obviously there is still a long way to go, as this book clearly identifies. but not very long ago (and still in many parts of the world) women were still literally thought not to be as smart as men. things like this actually make me feel blessed sometimes to think about how far we have come and to be so grateful that i never had to live with any of that kind of discrimination or abuse.

  10. Wow I don't know if I could read this book. I mean, I think I should but it seems like it would get under your skin and keep you up at night you know?

  11. The reality of this woman's story is the reality of many more women than any of us realize. While women have certainly "come a long way, baby," we have not come nearly as far as we need to in the area of woman as human being/sexual being. Where I live even well-to-do women live their lives to please their husbands. That's what they've been taught is their role. If they enjoy that role, more power to them. But, many times they are the ones left behind, cheated on, taken advantage of, etc...so I have to wonder whether or not they really "enjoy" that role. The mentality that a woman exists simply for the benefit of man is age old...supported by religion but even more so by societal norms. Until we can change that mindset, women will continue to be abused...and a certain amount of abuse will be accepted by society as the "norm."
    Gives me shivers.

  12. These stories are not fun or entertaining, but they are important to tell. I think it's wonderful when we can use literature and television to convey important truths that might encourage people who are suffering from these kinds of abuses.

    I saw the episode of Private Practice, and thought it was extremely well done. Oddly enough, I was feeling like the show had been extremely frivolous all season, and was getting sort of disgusted with it. They've remedied that complaint in a huge way!

  13. THIS book went straight to my wishlist as soon as I saw the first few reviews! Thanks for sharing; I think it's so important that women see that OTHER women are going through similar situations. I think too many women are so ashamed of what they are going through that they just pull more and more into themselves instead of reaching out and away.

    Julie @ Knitting and Sundries

  14. This sounds like a very interesting--albeit difficult--read. The whole idea of one gender being subservient is so foreign to me and it's sad that it's not that way for a lot of women. I have to thank God that I was raised in a family, and by a father, who taught me that I am no better or worse than anyone else.

  15. This sounds like a difficult book, but one worth reading. I think it's good IMHO that TV explores these topics in a sensitive manner- it opens up discussion around dinner tables, between friends that may never have happened.

  16. Thanks for visiting my blog, I'm now following yours :)
    I really enjoyed The Historian too, I couldn't put it down when I was reading it. I thought the research was very good and I enjoyed the slow-paced descriptive writing style.

    The book you are reviewing sounds interesting. I think domestic violence is a far bigger problem than most people realise. And there are still lots of people that think rape can't happen within a marriage or steady relationship.

  17. Thank you for this review. I don't know if this would have been a book on my radar had I not seen your review. It's amazing to me there are still people who can use their skewed version of religion the make another feel "less then". Shedding a light on any abuse is so important, whether it be in book or on t.v.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful review.

  18. Wow, this sounds like a very scary/moving/important book. I hadn't heard about it before, but I'm interested in it after reading your excellent review. Thanks!

  19. Sounds like way too tough a book for me to read, but I agree that it is a topic that needs discussed, brought out into the open.

  20. I don't watch PRIVATE PRACTICE so I didn't see the episode but I did read an interview with Shonda Rhimes about it. She said on most TV dramas, you see a woman raped but then the focus shifts to law enforcement trying to solve the case. We never get to see what the victim goes through as she tries to recover. That's why Rhimes did the storyline.

    If people find it difficult to watch, they have the option to not tune in, but I think, like you, that the show might have done some good for women who feel alone or find it hard to talk about their ordeal.

  21. hope is a good thing, and so is making a difference. great review.

  22. What an excellent, excellent review! This book sounds utterly fascinating. I do think this book, along with others that "tell it like it is", will help raise awareness of this epidemic.

  23. She spoke at several conferences I've been to about child abuse and is just as amazing in person as she as an author.

    I did not see the episode of Private Practice but you are most definitely correct in saying if it gets people to talk about the crimes against women or helps one woman out there feel not so alone then the episode is definitely worth the controversy. Your review is amazing and sensitive. Awesome job!

  24. nat @ book, line, and sinker -- Thanks! It is definitely a book that provides a valuable opportunity to discuss a tough topic.

    Zibilee -- Thank you so much for sharing your story, too! It's important to get the discussion out there -- and I applaud you for your strength in breaking the cycle!

    Nymeth -- It is heartbreaking to know that many find this life part of the norm -- I hope that many find even more courage to escape this prison.

    Brenna -- It is a very sad book, and like you, it's sometimes difficult to read topics like this all the time. I also found a lot of hope in this book, though, as well.

    a whole lotta love --It is definitely one in which strides have been made, but we still have more ground to cover, you are right.

    Amused -- I agree -- when you really think about what someone has gone through, something that is so foreign to others, it can keep you up, and make you leave the light on.

  25. Peppermint, Ph.D. -- It certainly makes me shiver as well. I hope we can continue to talk about this type of topic, and make sure that we teach our daughters and granddaughters, everyone, that no one ever deserves to live like this.

    Juju -- Thanks so very much!

    Becca -- Like you, I was sort of done with Private Practice this season -- now I finally feel that the show has some substance to it!

    jewelknits -- I completely agree -- I hope that others will continue to see that women have gone through this before, and that there is always hope!

    Connie -- Well said!

    samstillreading -- It does give an opportunity to talk about it, and that is the most important thing. From talking about it comes the chance for education and change.

    Sam -- Thanks for stopping by! It is an important topic and you're right that there are still people who think that rape can't happen between a husband and wife. Disgusting and shocking, isn't it?

    marthalama -- Thanks! The more conversation that can be generated, the better we can all have to educate others!

    Christina -- It is a very scary and important book, I hope you get a chance to pick it up!

    carolsnotebook -- It can be a very tough book to read, I agree.

    Pop Culture Nerd -- Yes, I agree! If people are uncomfortable by a show, they can easily not watch it. And kudos to Shonda Rimes for the episode! It's quite an Emmy-award winning one.

    Marie -- Many thanks, and I will always be hopeful!!

    Suko -- Thanks so much! Yes, more discussion can only be a good thing!

    Stacy @ A Novel Source -- Thanks so much! And I enjoyed talking with the author at SIBA, so I can only imagine hearing her speak at a formal lecture on these issues. The more conversation, the more chance for change in the world!

  26. What a powerful book this sounds like! I am one of those who thinks that books and tv shows about violence against women are important and can provide a community service to others out there experiencing similar things. I've worked with families where domestic violence is "normal". Many of these families learned the behavior from their own families and their children are yet learning it again. It's heartbreaking.

  27. I think you are right about the TV show helping someone who might not get the information any other way.