The Courage to Take Care of Ourselves: On Kelly Sundberg’s ‘Goodbye, Sweet Girl’

June 22, 2018 | 2 books mentioned 5 min read

I first read Kelly Sundberg’s work in 2015, with her publication of “It Will Look Like a Sunset” in Guernica; the essay gained a lot of attention online, circulating through social networks, and was later included in that year’s Best American Essays collection, for very good reason. It’s a stunning piece that chronicles Sundberg’s decision to call the police when her husband abused her for what would be the last time. “From that point on, everything changed,” she writes. She first regretted the decision to call 911 and stayed with him for two more days, even helping him find a lawyer. But with the encouragement of her friends and mother, she went to a domestic violence shelter where she talked to a counselor who helped her decide to leave. The title of the essay comes from the urgent care doctor who looked at her ankle, which her husband broke. He told her that the bruise would “take a long time to heal,” that it would change color over time and would “look like a sunset.” This signals the end of her marriage and the beginning of her journey to healing, with her son beside her.

This essay becomes the 18th chapter of 21 in Goodbye, Sweet Girl, and I found myself eagerly reading toward it, not only because I knew that was her pivotal moment but also because I was stunned by Sundberg’s writing again, this time by how beautifully she paints the complexity of her marriage to an abusive man. One of Sundberg’s accomplishments in the book is her ability to illustrate all of the moments that led her to fall in love with Caleb and to rationalize away the red flags she saw early on, so that by the time we get to the more violent physical abuse toward the end of the book, we understand why she stayed under the misguided belief that she could help him.

coverAt the end of Chapter 8, which is about the somewhat pleasant summer she and her husband spent working for the forest service, she writes in italics, “But wait. I missed something,” and goes on to tell the story of how months before, she and Caleb fought and he threw a chair at the wall above her head, making a half moon in the plaster. “[T]he hole watched over me like a twisted sentry. It told me that I was not safe. Caleb never had to say a word.” That “but wait” illustrates how thoroughly she tricked herself into believing she should stay with him, how and why she moved through the warning signs that things were getting worse, that Caleb was getting more and more violent—and we, as readers, were lulled into a false sense of security along with her.

Later, when the couple takes a trip to the mountains, Caleb veers onto a service road in an attempt to take a shortcut. Sundberg tells him that the road won’t lead them back to the highway. He gets angry with her for trying to correct him and angrier still when they dead-end at a meadow; she was right. Back at the road, he realizes he needs to pull over to discharge the gun that was (unbeknownst to her) fully loaded in the back of the car. When he gets out and realizes it’s jammed, he warns her before attempting to fire into the woods, in case it backfires and kills him. Finally, when he gets back in the car, safe, and having forgiven Sundberg for her supposed misstep, she writes, “I was relieved he was alive. Maybe even more than that, I was relieved that he was no longer angry at me. I could breathe again…I realized that my expression of concern had felt like criticism to him. I knew that I could be overly critical; Greg had said the same thing about me, and he, too, had so often been angry with me…I held Caleb’s hand, grateful for his forgiveness.” Much of the book’s power comes from Sundberg’s ability to relay to us how she felt with Caleb, how she believed, back then, that his anger came as a reaction to her supposed faults, how relieved she felt when their relationship was peaceful again. And this is why, for so long, she makes sense out of her decisions to stay. She always thinks she needs to help him get better, to heal. We understand, even when we’re frustrated by her choices and worried for her, why she keeps deciding to stay.

“By the time Caleb first hit me,” she writes in Chapter 16, “I no longer understood where right ended and wrong began.” Now years into the marriage, Sundberg is in graduate school and winning awards for her writing; her husband at first seems supportive of her and her accomplishments. In one of the pieces she shows him, she’s written about their marriage and closes the essay with “the importance of forgiveness,” which she believed “was the key to our healing.” Caleb supports her telling their story, even though he says, “it hurts to read.” Sundberg says she “felt valued. As a writer. As a wife. As a person.” But her husband’s feelings of envy and incompetence eventually surface in his physical abuse of her. “Soon he was hitting me. Each time an acceptance letter arrived, he would brag about how proud he was of me, and there would usually be a delay of a day or two, but then he would find a reason to beat me. I didn’t make the connection because I believed his words [about being proud of me]. Still, my body knew better. Without realizing it, I stopped submitting anything for publication.”

Her ability to appease him, her forgiveness of him is so frustrating and at the same time so compelling, as I can see in her choices all the choices people I love have made in the past, in their own damaging relationships, as well as the choices I’ve made in some of my own, too. I read her book so voraciously to better understand each of our nuances and complexities, how any of us rationalizes our decisions, and how we find the courage to take care of ourselves and to speak our truths. But the book left me with an unexpected gift, and that’s how she told her truth with a deep sense of compassion. Sundberg makes no final assessment of her husband, leaving that, perhaps, to us.

At the end of the story, she turns to her life with her son, writing in her house with its dreamy office loft. Because she does return to writing. She does send out her work again. She does leap and find her own new life with her son. The book ends with the hope of her own passage forward, rather than the darkness of condemning her ex-husband; even though part of me wishes she would roar at him for all he did to her, in the days after I finished the book, I found myself grateful for her big-heartedness. The focus isn’t on him, after all, but her. We leave the story focusing on her strength and her beautiful work.

is the author of a book of creative nonfiction, An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family & Slavery (Pegasus, May 2018), as well as The Benedictines, The Experiments, and Quilting with a Modern Slant, which was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and Amazon. Her work has been published in Michigan Quarterly, Meridian, Indiana Review, LARB, and she's been awarded residencies at the VCCA, The Millay Colony, and The Vermont Studio Center. She's currently an Assistant Professor at Northern Michigan University. Find her at http://www.rachelsmay.com.

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