Battered not Broken (How ‘Jane Eyre’ Saved Me)

Tucked away in the functional ruins of a dilapidated motel room, my adoptive mother, brother and I spent 62 nights huddled on a queen-size bed, watching sitcom reruns. A donated black and white television, thread-bare throw rug, and mildew covered window shade decorated our shelter abode. Outside our room, beyond the shiny mansions and pristine beaches of South Hampton New York, a monster lurked, waiting to hurt us.

In each room of the one story dwelling, resided a victim of domestic abuse. Some women were burned, some children black & blue. All of us were frightened and finally free. Most of us came from suburban homes with shiny kitchens, large playrooms and green landscapes.  We were African American, White, Hispanic and Asian. Abusers, I discovered at eleven years old, did not discriminate.

Days at the shelter were filled with fun activities for the younger children. Coloring contests, and trips to the playground transformed wide-eyed fright into the delightful laughter of freedom. Lifting the spirits of broken children was the task of shelter volunteers, and they undertook our sorrowful cases with the same gentle touch one might use to mend the broken wing of a sparrow. Children, who had left behind every precious belonging of childhood; pretty pink tutus, shiny yellow Tonka trucks, beloved story books- flourished in the safety of our secret shelter.

I was the oldest motel child. The glee exhibited by the younger children pleased me, but I was not a participant. Daily responsibility for protecting my family from constant abuse had made me older than my years. I spent unstructured days at the shelter watching television, and playing Andy Gibb records on my portable record player. Three records, and a plastic turntable were all I had salvaged from my lacy pink bedroom.

That summer fell into a humdrum routine. Despite having escaped the calloused fists of my father, I spent every afternoon standing guard in the rusty mental chair outside our room. I never took my eyes off the road, for I was sure that his truck would reappear, and re-ignite our nightmare.

That summer would have remained stagnant and useless, had no one observed or intervened. I had no idea that an angel watched my afternoon shifts as family sentinel.  During the second week at the shelter, the angel approached me. She pulled a chair close to mine, and sheltering her eyes from the sun, stared down the gravel drive.

“Hi”, she said, “I’m Lisa. What’cha looking for?”

I eyed the pretty, dark-haired woman with cautious curiosity. “Just making sure,” I answered respectfully. It was essential that I not be rude, or say anything that might get us kicked out of the shelter. We had no place else to go.

“Where are Mom and Peter?” she asked.

I was anxious, thinking that she would tell me the monster had located us. “Mom’s taking her GED course, and Peter went with the other counselors to the playground.”

A cloud of dust rose in the wake of a passing car, and I shuddered at the idea of being left alone. I asked, “They OK?”

Lisa smiled and I relaxed. Putting her hand on mine, she said, “They’re fine. You are safe now Vicki. Want to talk in the office for a bit. It’s awful hot out here.”

I followed Lisa to the makeshift office. She offered me a cola and I drank it down too quickly, burping out loud and apologizing. Lisa let out a belly laugh, and I found myself smiling for the first time in years.

Lisa and I talked for an hour that day, and nearly every day after. We talked about the abuse, my family’s brave escape, the newfound opportunities my mother would have due to the high school diploma she was earning. Lisa told me about college, and explained that she was a volunteer and had seen many families leave the shelter to create wonderful lives.  She asked me what I liked to do, and I told her about my record albums, and that I had read every romance novel in the stash of paperbacks in the motel laundry.

Lisa made me her summer companion. I met her fiancé at a dinner prepared for me at her apartment. The normal tones with which they communicated were foreign and when they hugged, I thought I would die of embarrassment.

Lisa taught me to view our shelter stay as a stepping stone to happiness.  Our daily conversations cast me as a survivor, rather than a victim. She said that I was strong, and that I should be proud of how well I had cared for my family. She told me that I would be a great woman someday, and that I would be the best kind of Mom when I grew up, because I had learned compassion. Lisa’s keen listening skills, simple words of encouragement, and rosy outlook altered the path of my life.

One day, after I plopped down on the couch of the cool, welcoming office, she smiled and said, “I have something for you.” From her purse she pulled a slightly worn paperback and handed it to me. A sad looking woman wearing a bonnet and gown stared at me from the cover.

“It is Jane Eyre,” she said, “and this was my first copy. I think you’ll like it better than those romance novels.”jane-eyre

I flipped through the pages. Miniscule print, and more words than I had ever read in a single book made the book seem daunting. Because I had grown to trust Lisa more than anyone before her, I accepted the gift and read Jane Eyre every night.  The book accompanied me on afternoon watches. My rusty perch no longer a dreaded guard post, had morphed into the hopeful place where I awaited Lisa’s arrival.

In the precious pages of Jane Eyre, I learned that survival takes on many forms, and that suffering did not have to be a lifelong curse. I learned that adversity could be overcome. Lisa’s gift gave me a newfound freedom to view myself, not as a lonely victim, but as a formidable resident of a world fraught with women who suffered and survived. Lisa, my kind, generous volunteer unlocked a lifelong love of literature, and turned my shelter summer into a lesson of love.

I never saw Lisa again after my mother earned her GED, and found a job. We moved from the shelter to an apartment at the end of that summer. Autumn arrived, along with new schools, new friends and a peaceful knowing that like Jane Eyre, I would survive.

This story is for Lisa, and all the volunteers who give hope to the hopeless, and love to the unloved. They are angels, every one.

Blessings for angels to guide you,

V.L. Brunskill
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