this is not a review: ‘in this house are many women’, by sheree fitch

 

When you hear the name Sheree Fitch, you may think children’s books, Mable Murple’s creator or simply one of CanLit’s most beloved player of words.

You’d be right, of course, on all counts, but there is also her adult fiction and poetry and if you’ve missed that, you’re missing a lot.

In This House are Many Women  came to me in a most magical way (what I call the Sheree Fitch effect) and I’ve been reading and re-reading it for months so that it’s pretty much found a permanent spot on my coffee table and sometimes bedside table. Poetry combined with story in poetic form, about and from the perspective of women in both difficult and joy-filled situations… motherhood as a homeless woman, daily rituals, escaping domestic violence, finding connection in friendship, and learning to trust oneself. There aren’t enough books from these perspectives, that of women in shelters, and women ultimately helping women.

It’s the kind of thing, thankfully, most women will never know first hand, but … if you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to leave your house in the dead of night while someone is threatening to kill you if you leave and you keep leaving anyway, keep running out the door because it’s become apparent to you that your chances of living are much slimmer if you stay (chances of living happily are nil), so you keep running, not sure to where or to what, all you know for now is why...

… if you’ve ever wondered what happens next, then this is the book to read.

It’s Milk and Honey  for grown ups. Only better, and in a league of its own.

First published in 1993 and reissued in 2004 by Goose Lane, In This House are Many Women is a collection of poems that read like prose, a journey through the life of women. Women in peril. Women as community. Women as resilient survivors. While there is plenty of gritty reality, there is much humour, love, hope and, ultimately, the message that women helping women is how it’s always been, and that  is no small potatoes.

In other words, it’s a gem of a book and I’m stunned that I haven’t come across it before. Since discovering it I’ve made a list of people I want to give it to, not the least of which are women staying in shelters.

The first of four sections opens with a suite of poems following the journey of escape, beginning with ‘The Runner’—

She runs:
past women with drawstring mouths
women with wombs puckered out
from plum to grape to raisin
women who have never known
what wetness means

In ‘What Rhonda Remembers About the First Five Minutes’ there is arrival at the shelter, the sound of a buzzer, strangers, lights, attention, the imagined chorus of:

someone new is coming
someone new is coming
someone new is coming

— giving the sense of entering a prison. That this house of many women is safe and nourishing takes time to discover. At first it’s only not home. The windows are bullet proof, there are security cameras everywhere. The doors are locked, everyone is a stranger, the police are on speed dial. At first there is the matter of safety, then how to simply function, how to deal with the impossibility of emotions running through you while, at the same time, you are numb to all feeling.

In ‘Edna’, the narrator looks at her swollen face in a mirror “wishing I could see the wrinkles”.

Each poem is another woman’s story. You can almost imagine the conversations as women feed their children or sit in communal areas, drinking coffee, smoking, biting their nails as they listen to one another.

In ‘Valerie Listens to Gwendolyn’, the narrator explains how the leaving went for her:

I did not leave because of his violence
I left because of mine
I got another phone call
from another woman
I went in and watched him sleeping
saliva like dried chalk
made a rim around his open
mouth
a perfect target

I had a gun
I placed it on his pillow
then I left.

There are poems about the NIMBYness toward shelters, revelations about the homeless, the roles women play when they share a space, who mothers the others, who is most in need of what and who will provide the whats. Unsurprisingly, from a writer who understands the child mind, there are meditations and revelations from a child’s perspective too (as in god wears flannel shirts).

One of my favourites is ‘Advice’, which is a list of exactly that, beginning with:

Read everything Gloria Steinem ever wrote
her last book first

and ending with:

The best answers will always be questions
You can always call your aunt.

Another, ‘Grand LaPierre, Newfoundland’ tells in pure Fitchean style, the essentials of writing a poem as if one’s life depended on it:

...it doesn’t have to rhyme
but it must always have a beat
a finger-snap
a toe-tap

Fitch is writing here from the inside and the outside. One has the feeling she is both part of this world and an observer at the same time.

The thread running through the book is that words are a lifeline, the writing of our lives, the sharing of our stories, that through kindness and connection with others (including Peter Gzowski’s voice), all kinds of hurdles can be overcome, that we are not alone. It’s not only about women in dire straits, but about women being strong in the way of women…

So you can understand why I can’t bear to shelve it. When a book like this crosses your path it’s good to keep it close, to open it often.

♦♦♦

On any given night in Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters because it isn’t safe at home.
On any given night, about 300 women and children are turned away because shelters are already full.
‘Why She Stays’

why she stays?

 

So why did she marry him, move in, have kids? Why, when the feel of his fist is still fresh on her face??

Or maybe the abuse is not physical, but only emotional. Or financial. Maybe she’s only allowed to do what he says, go where he says, see who he says.

I met a woman once who said she came to this country with her husband in good faith… until, once here, he said she was to go nowhere without him. She didn’t know anyone else here so she became a virtual prisoner inside her home for six years.

Why didn’t she leave sooner? She and she and the other she and her and the hundreds and thousands of ‘she’ everywhere… why doe she stay?

It’s always the first question. Sometimes the only question.

And the answers…  not so simple.

She stays because she’s afraid, isolated, shamed. Because it’s her home. Because she’s given away her power, been told she’s stupid and worthless one too many times. Because she’s been told her whole life she’s stupid and worthless. Because she believes she’s stupid and worthless. Because there are kids and pets and threats to harm them or take them away.

Because there are threats. Always threats.

Because she is deflated, broken, and because he threatens suicide if she leaves. Always threats. Because to leave is failure; because she came from a broken home and doesn’t want her kids to come from the same place. Because she will be seen as pathetic for having stayed so long so it’s better to stay even longer and not let anyone know. Because people blame the victim. Because people blame the victim… Because people blame.

She stays because she’s fought this fight ten thousand times and hasn’t got the strength it takes to fight back anymore much less start a new life, no matter how right and good and sensible she knows that would be.

She stays because she doesn’t even know she’s being abused. It started small. It was only emotional. He has a temper but he loves me, the kids, he always says he’s sorry. Because this time is the last time. Because this black eye is the last black eye, he said so. He promised. He cried, he begged. He’s really just a teddy bear underneath… he needs her, he said. And she needs to be needed. What else does she have?

She stays because he is her family. Because of For Better or Worse. Because even though she looks fine and manages to function, she is so messed up emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically, she can’t even see straight. She stays because it’s easier at this stage to hope… so she hopes he will be in a good mood today and when he isn’t… it’s too late again.

She stays because she doesn’t want to be seen as weak, or overly dramatic. No bones broken, just a little scuffle. He’s got a temper. I mentioned that, right, the temper?

She stays because the most dangerous thing she can do is leave. It’s bad enough under normal circumstances but if the guy has money, that danger is multiplied. He can have her watched, followed, hurt or worse. And he almost always does.

And where is she supposed to go? Family? Friends? He’ll find her. A hotel isn’t safe. So you tell me… where does she go?? In this weakened state. Where?

That she leaves at all is extraordinary. It takes monumental courage.

And the women that manage it should be applauded and protected. They aren’t just ‘leaving’, they’re fighting for their lives. I see them at the women’s shelter where I volunteer. They land on the doorstep not because it’s an easy fix but because, for a short time at least, they’ll be safe. The windows are bullet proof; there are cameras at the door, you have to be buzzed in. The police are on speed dial.

Sadly there are never enough beds, never enough shelters. The problem of abuse is only getting worse. Sometimes women are sent out of town, wherever a place can be found. Imagine leaving your home with nothing, your abuser’s voice still ringing in your head, screaming that if you leave he’ll kill you or someone or something you love, and it will be your fault he says. If you leave, he won’t be accountable for what he does. It will be your fault.

What now?

The shelters are a place to breathe and think and get some help with what to do next. They’re a place that reminds women they aren’t alone, that their problem isn’t unique to them.

Why does she stay?

Because until she finds the strength to do anything else, it’s all she can do.

And even if she finally musters the courage to leave, she may very well go back at some point. For all the same reasons.

She wants things to be better. She really does. That’s part of the problem.

Factor in a situation where names and faces, celebrity and corporations and big money are involved and you can be sure there are those that will do their best to convince her staying is to her advantage, in order that those others save face. And money.

Her face for theirs.

Now factor in having nothing.

Or being somewhere in-between.

Because it doesn’t matter, rich or poor, abuse is the same.

So…

Why does she stay?

Here’s a better question: why does he  stay?

But you’ll notice no one’s asking that.

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(Note: The woman who was a prisoner in her home for six years, finally escaped. I met her at the shelter she ran to, where she found safety and community for the first time since coming to Canada and where, in a writing workshop, she wrote about the taste of mangos, the memory of a tree outside her childhood window. As she read aloud it occurred to me that she will heal, she will survive and maybe even thrive, not in small part because she was careful to leave at the right time. When she was ready, when she knew where to go, when she had enough courage. So many factors to consider.)

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
For further information and assistance, including a list of shelters in Ontario, and across Canada:

OAITH

Public Health Agency of Canada