When We Were At Your Mercy

My brothers and sister. Some of the children at the mercy of systems built by neglectful adults

A few years ago, I found a file on our family’s computer labeled “Preface.” While I was sure I had toyed around with ideas for the preface of my book, “When We Were At Your Mercy” as yet unpublished, I didn’t recall such a file. I clicked it open and read it.

“Sometimes I think I could tell this family’s story and do it some kind of justice. Other times, I am pretty sure I’m not equal to the task, and shouldn’t bend in my reluctance to take it on. If I did, the story would surely be about the savage effects of untreated mental illness on a poor family in the Midwest; about all of the crazy, harrowing experiences that have marked their lives; about their tragic place in the large-scale disinvestment in poor and disabled families in the U.S. over the last 30 years; and, finally, about their resilience, capacity to forgive, and the moving occasions when they can be corralled under one roof and you get a chance to feel the improbable bonds between them and hear them tell some of their stories.”

At first, I wondered if I had written it. But only for a moment. It slowly dawned on me, this made more sense coming from my husband. Had he seriously considered tackling a book about my family? He knew I was struggling to tell our story. Maybe he was preparing to finish the job in case my poor health got the better of me? Either way, his preface sounded better than anything I had or possibly would put together.

The file was quite a few years old. I am writing this story now. I want to live up to his preface, capturing all that he promised he could narrate. There are many motivations for writing our family’s story. First, there is always the need to be understood. When you grow up as the odd family or the outsider in your community, there comes a time when you want to explain what was happening behind the scenes. Our family was frequently in the local newspaper, and occasionally, the statewide paper.

In the rural communities of Iowa where we resided, the rumors and myths about our family are rampant. During my 5th grade year, my teacher publicly announced to my class that my parents did not do drugs after I complained to her that I was tired of telling students individually about how we were actually Mormon, and Mormons don’t do drugs. And in fact, my parents didn’t even drink alcohol.

Second, my original motivation for wanting to write this story was because I wanted to tell our family’s story of unemployment that led to living off the land which in turn led to the State splitting our family apart unjustly. The 1982 Des Moines Register article about our family says that I want to write a book about our family to explain what was happening versus what should have happened. Even as a ten year old, I felt I could do a better job of planning an intervention for my family than the child protection workers involved. Now, with the benefit of time, wisdom, and education, I want to raise awareness of mental illness and talk about all the things that interventions got right for our family.

Third, I want to highlight how the conservative family values that my mother and father grew up with were actually the opposite of family values. Instead of a loving family life, they imposed judgment. Instead of support, they returned silence. I am named after one of the greatest judges in the Holy Bible. This is fitting, because judgment has been the nemesis I have faced most in life. I come from the sort of people who loudly state that only those who work should be able to eat. Since my parents spent most of their lives struggling with jobs — finding them, keeping them, and getting enough out of them — I always wondered if my relatives wanted me to die rather than access the social services they so loudly denounced. That ghost has settled into the attic as the chronic fear that others think it would be better if I were dead. This book is my side of the story. My chance to defend my existence.

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