Whether or not the reader has first-hand experience with violence and other types of abuse, there are lessons to be learned in this collection of stories and poems designed to "celebrate the lives and experiences of women who have struggled with challenges, and yet live rich and joyful lives."
It's easy to be judgmental of women who appear to allow emotional domination and physical injury by men, though their conditioning, in many cases, began in childhood. It's also easy, in this new millennium of enlightenment, to scoff at the reasons they choose to stay even after repeated attacks. As a shocking testament to the seclusion and isolation in which some abused women were raised, one of them states, "I didn't know I had rights."
In deciding which of the many submissions to include, Linda Goyette - an award-winning Edmonton journalist and writer - has wisely made her selections with a backward glance over the decades, although the stories are not in chronological order. Back in the 1950s, for example, there were no women's shelters, so that was not an option for escape. Even marriage counsellors were considered a last resort, and a humiliating one, at that.
It's a fairly daunting read. From one literary snapshot to the next, the reader is deluged with stories that are basically the same: Women in Alberta programmed early to accept male domination and brutality; those who "stumble" into their cycle of abuse, completely unprepared, experience a kind of culture shock that seems to numb their brains. Many of the women are first nations, but Caucasian and other women are included, too, lending strength to the fact that every woman is susceptible.
The common bond among these women, for the most part, is emotional and financial dependence on the male partner. I'm not altogether sure this tendency toward dependence is not permanently ingrained in their characters. Many go on to substitute religion, counselling and even their own children as crutches once they get rid of their abusive partners. I suppose this is the general idea behind "standing together," but a bigger problem seems to be that they are incapable of "standing alone," often resulting in a succession of bad relationships.
The more cynical among us will concede these women eventually came to their senses, initially through the discovery of women's shelters (those that didn't have waiting lists) and perpetually compassionate counsellors. As well, quite a few unexpectedly gained the financial means to attend and graduate from university, despite their poverty-stricken history. Self-esteem, though not something you can just go and buy at a store or through a 12-step program, rears its beautiful head just in the nick of time for this group.
I don't mean to denigrate these women's success in turning their lives around, but the sad reality is that there are many other stories where the end result is not a happy one. There are at least 500 aboriginal women in Canada currently listed as "missing or murdered." Who will congratulate them on their "escape"?
Quite a few of the writers in this book are naturally eloquent in conveying the day-to-day aspects of being a battered wife, offering new insights to change society's perception of their circumstances. These women make the book a worthwhile endeavour. Others recite a bewildering litany of repeat offences committed against them and their children, while at the same time making the most outlandish excuses to pardon the perpetrator, for example, "The children needed a father." No one needs a father like that.
For those who have never experienced domestic terrorism, the descriptions of physical and mental abuse might seem overwhelming from the sheer volume, but that was most likely intentional. Still, it's only a fraction of the total sum, limited to only one province in Canada. To the experienced, the narratives are relatively tame, offering only a superficial glimpse of the writer behind the story or poem. Still, they do have happy endings. Standing Together was not created to sensationalize the horror experienced by these women, but instead to focus on their successful recovery.
Although editor Goyette states that certain stories are excerpts from more detailed autobiographies, I found a few of the entries here difficult to follow, apparently because pertinent sentences or paragraphs had been omitted, resulting in gaps in the narrative flow.
Goyette does provide an interesting introduction, I Am Someone You Know, in which she assumes the role of each and all of the "thousands of women in Alberta like me," of any age, location, origin, profession or social status, who have a triumphant story to tell.
While the contributors' subsequent accomplishments were interesting to read about, some great poems are included, too. I particularly enjoyed Renewed Life, by Ky Perraun. It was uplifting without being either maudlin or militant.