Silver lining to the darkest stories

Her coppery hair shone like a new penny in the raw light streaming through the open window. The brilliant color clashed with the pale purple blotches along her cheekbone and under her pretty eyes, lasting remnants of beatings that run together in her memory. In the background, James Taylor sings softly about fire and rain on a tinny radio.

“… my body’s aching and my time is at hand …”

One hears plenty about the “sickness” of the abuser, how they deserve our help, how they are the victims of societal pressures. It has been my experience, having known several, that what they suffer is an inability to grow up and treat other people like human beings.

I wonder if we haven’t lost sight of who the victims are.

This woman’s image haunts me still – one of many. There is a lot of joy in this job, but done right, it requires some sharing of pain as well.

“… Oh I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end …”

I have interviewed a 16-year-old rape victim who had to squeeze her hands white in her lap to control the shaking. I have interviewed a woman with Alzheimer’s disease going through the pain of knowing that any day now, she will not recognize her grandchildren. The mom of a child who can find no answers or help for a mysterious illness claiming her daughter. I have interviewed people who have been robbed of their most precious possessions, have had their bodies shattered in accidents, have been the victims of nightmarish eating disorders, sexual harassment, racial discrimination.

“I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend …”

The natural impulse is to become hardened and withdrawn, to build a protective layer of scab tissue. That, I am told, is the journalist’s role; to see but not to feel. My professors in college told me to be detached.

When a local teacher tells us her story of years of anorexia nightmares, I find it hard to ignore. A compulsive gambler told of how she had compulsively squandered her own children’s college money. A woman recalled a childhood with a drunken father who traded her to his friends as a sexual plaything in exchange for fifths of whiskey.

The story I did of an old dog standing beside the bedside of the dying master, a postman who had adopted it as a stray, still gets to me. Local people who lost everything in a tornado. The death of a good man from AIDS, leaving a hole that will never be filled.

And this woman with the penny-bright hair and the battered face pulls at my heartstrings no matter how much I would like to forget. Every time an abuse arrest crosses my desk at the newspaper office, I see her face. I suspect I always will. Perhaps you have heard the sounds coming through the walls in your neighborhood at night. If so, you know what I mean.

“… Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned toward the sun … “

I interviewed her at the CADA shelter house. She had been a virtual captive in her own home deep in the countryside. After a beating, he always promised to treat her better. And he always did, for a little while.

The light streamed through the dancing dust particles in the sitting room as her story unfolded. Other women in similar flights passed through the room like ghosts, looking down at the floor. Each story of this copper-haired woman being brutalized by her neurotic husband hits like a fist, and the real scars are ones you can’t see, left to be carried by her children who witnessed it. For every case like this we hear of, there may be 100.

” … Lord knows when the cold wind blows, it’ll turn your head around …”

And as she finished her tale of brutality and pain, something I didn’t expect happened. Her slightly swollen lip and bruised cheekbones slowly, slowly spread into a beautiful smile.

That is the golden thread that runs through the dirty fabric of so many of the saddest stories. Through the worst and most unfair trials, people often discover the best and strongest in themselves.

This shining penny of a woman has finally found the strength to escape her brutal situation, and is experiencing a kind of physical and emotional freedom she has never known before. She will be just fine.

“… Sweet dreams and flying machines, in pieces on the ground …”

Like the others I have described, she told her story not for her own sake, but in the hope that it will help someone else. If, over the years, one person has been inspired to stop an abusive situation, report a rape, seek treatment for an eating disorder or find dignity within a discriminatory situation because of what they have read, the sacrifice of these courageous people has all been worthwhile. At least that’s what I tell myself.

“Journalism will kill you,” Horace Greeley once said, “but will keep you alive while you’re at it.”

For all those who have shared their most difficult and personal stories, I think of you often. In many cases, I have quietly kept watch and am proud of you for what you have done.

As for the woman who survived the horrible beatings and escaped, she eventually became a volunteer to help other women in the same situation. I didn’t want to give out her name, as she still feared that her violent former husband would track her down. Because of her shiny red hair, I called her “Penny” in the story.

Years later, a woman came in while I was out and left a coin on my desk. She left no name, no message. Didn’t need one.

I still have that coin.

Shiny Penny, I wonder where you are tonight. I hope freedom is treating you well. God knows you deserve it.

“Sweet dreams …” to all those with the courage to pick the pieces up off the ground.

Dana Larsen is editor of the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune and a former staff writer at The Messenger.