Writing on the Wall

Nikki Burdine wants to be my Facebook friend. Nikki Burdine is something of a minor celebrity; she’s an occasional news anchor and frequent reporter for one of our local television channels. Just this morning she popped up on the morning news show, covering for an absent colleague; I watched her on the small screen hooked up to the elliptical machine at the gym as I struggled through half an ungodly-early-hour of going nowhere.

I don’t know why she wants to be my Facebook friend. I’m in Starbucks when the request pings in on my phone screen; I’d managed to grab one of the few comfortable chairs and I’m alternating between research, writing, and knitting. Mostly the knitting wins; it’s late spring and my motivation for research died along with the end of the semester.

***

Among other things, I’m supposed to be researching violence against women. Hanna Rosin, the author of the hard-backed book (The End of Men and the Rise of Women) currently stuffed down the side of my chair and gathering crumbs from other people’s cookies, chirpily tells me that crimes against women are lessening. She places, amongst the neatly cherry-picked statistics, a quote from a noted criminologist who firmly believes that women “might as well be living in Sweden, they’re so safe” (Rosin, 2012. p. 17). It was this line that prompted me to stuff the book between the chair cushions. I’m knitting with angry energy while Rosin’s book presses against my thigh. So safe, I think, that one of the girls in one of my classes was raped less than a year ago by some guy she met in a bar. She wrote about it in a reflection piece for the class. Our instructor—with the girl’s permission—read out loud her description about being pinned down and penetrated while her housemates sat just yards away, on the other side of her closed bedroom door.

***

I accept Nikki Burdine’s friend request. A few minutes later, a message flashes onto the screen. She’s researching for a news report and thinks I might be able to help her. Is there some way she can meet me, that day, if possible? I type back that I’m in Starbucks, is that any use? She tells me that she can be there in half an hour, if I don’t mind waiting. I ask her what the news report is about; I’m sure she’s contacted me by mistake.

“I’d like to talk to you about Leigh Anne Kinder.”

***

Kelsey isn’t feeling good. She has 926 Facebook friends, and in her profile picture she’s smiling out at them from beneath a black and white beanie hat. She’s dyed her red hair black since I last saw her, and it looks like she’s had her lip pierced, but the picture is grainy and I can’t quite tell. She looks pale, though, and her smile is shallow, barely turned up at the corners. Last Saturday, she posted a status about the trial. It’s seven weeks and one day away, and she’s terrified.

Kelsey regularly goes to counseling. Sometimes, she posts about it, but usually it just remains unsaid, the only clue being her weekly headaches, near-constant insomnia, and a vague, general feeling of malaise which she communicates to her absent friends via the news feeds of Facebook. I often think of posting some kind of reassuring comment on her Facebook wall, but always hesitate to the point of cowardice. I belong to a different time in Kelsey’s life, and watch now from the sidelines as she tries to put the pieces back together.

***

In fact, we learned about Leigh Anne via Facebook. It’s confusing, at first — Facebook’s new security settings toss up all kinds of things in my news feed, and it seems I’m suddenly bombarded with notifications about people who have been posting on Leigh Anne’s wall.

I haven’t spoken to Leigh Anne in person for maybe two years, not since she moved back to West Virginia to be with her not-quite husband and his family. He had struggled to find decent paying work here, and was going back, I was told, to the mines. They were going to live in a trailer up the road from his family; Leigh Anne would have more support and her not-quite husband would have a job. Things would calm down.

But she and her not-quite-husband split up not long after. They shared custody of their young daughter, and Leigh Anne kept her eldest daughter from a different father. She emailed once or twice to tell me how she was doing. Her ex-not-quite-husband had turned into quite a different man, acquiring a temper and loud voice. She couldn’t bear it, and they parted. She met someone new — new to her friends at least — an old high-school sweetheart, and she was infatuated. They were married within the month.

***

The girl in my class was raped by a man she met in a bar. She complains in class, with as much bravado as she can muster, about the police response. She’d been drinking; that alone should suggest what happened was non-consensual, but they questioned her relentlessly as if maybe she’d said yes in some kind of drunken haze and had simply forgotten about it. They asked her about other sexual encounters — did she make a habit of picking up men in bars and taking them back to her apartment? She told them that he had offered to walk her home, that he seemed like a nice guy. No, she didn’t know his full name. She had bruises on the inside of her thighs. They ignored the bruises and asked her again about her last boyfriend.

***

It’s almost 10 p.m. when the text alert sounds. A female colleague of my partner has been arrested. The woman has been accused of slashing another woman’s face to ribbons on a Tuesday afternoon outside a dress shop in our local mall. It’s been all over the nightly news, which we never watch, but tonight we turn it on to find out more. The victim’s face was criss-crossed with what police believe was some kind of razor blade, and she’s lucky to be alive — one centimeter lower and her jugular would have been severed. The news report tells us that the victim half-knew her attacker, that she had dated her attacker’s ex-boyfriend. The attacker apparently took a friend with her to pin down her victim and hold her still while she carved up her face.

***

Nikki Burdine arrives. She’s petite, well-dressed, and incredibly perky, with a bright smile and perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth. Despite the humidity, her hair is immaculately coiffed and falls in rich waves onto her tiny shoulders. She’s wearing stiletto heels and a short skirt, and she has a healthy, perpetual tan.

As she clicks across the tiled floor, the men huddled in the comfy chairs next to mine stop their conversation to look at her. She scans the coffee shop and settles on me as the most likely person to be me, before introducing herself with a confidently outstretched hand, and a light, made-for-television voice that matches her appearance.

When she asks me about Leigh Anne, her voice slips into a practiced, pacifying tone, the same tone I adopt when I’m soothing an upset child. My voice lowers in unconscious mimicry.

“Did you know Leigh Anne’s new husband?” she says. “Did you ever meet him?”

I answer in the negative. The only thing I knew about Leigh Anne’s new husband — now, I suppose, technically her ex-husband — is that they once were high school sweethearts. She said on her Facebook wall (or maybe it was in an email) that he made her smile. There’s a photo of the two of them on her Facebook page. It was taken the October they met, not terribly long after she moved away. He’s sat on a dirt bike, and is pulling her in close, with his arm around her waist. The sun is shining directly at them. They’re both squinting slightly, and one of his eyes is closed, as if he’s winking at the camera. She has her hand protectively on his thigh, and her dark blonde hair is pinned back from her face by a pair of sunglasses.

The first comment on the photo calls them an “adorable cute couple.” The second comment says: “Its fuckin sad to see how he fuckin killed her.”

***

Hanna Rosin believes that feminists are “irritated” by the latest statistics from the White House, which claim that “women today are far less likely to get murdered, raped, assaulted, or robbed” (2012, p.182). She writes of women-turned-poisoners, women who plan and plot and scheme “unprovoked, premeditated” attacks on their husbands and boyfriends, and girls who shatter the windows of drive-through fast food restaurants because they can’t get their preferred junk food fix exactly when they want it. The woman, who has been accused of slashing another woman’s face in a busy mall, purportedly planned her attack to such a degree that she took a friend with her. There is nothing opportunistic about having a friend hold down your intended victim so that you can disfigure her for life. Hannah Rosin states that “what looks like warped logic in one context can look like empowerment in another.” I look at the woman’s mugshot on our local news-station’s webpage and wonder if this is the face of the empowered woman.

***

Kelsey has been enrolled at five different schools in three different states in the last eight months. She’s lived — or so I gather from a careful perusal of her Facebook — in five different houses with five different families, and she’s been in foster care just the once. The couple that she lives with now has permanent guardianship, and Kelsey seems happy. She calls Laura her second mom and wonders what she would do without her. But Kelsey’s half-sister, possibly her nearest blood relative, no longer lives in the same state. Her Facebook wall hints that she’s only seen her sister for maybe three or four days in the last eight months.

Kelsey has 58 profile pictures. After three of her in the black and white beanie is one of her new tattoo. It’s on the outside of her calf, and takes up most of her lower leg. She has a large anchor, wrapped around a rope-edged heart. In the center of the heart, there’s a lighthouse, and waves crashing onto a beach. Below the rope-edged heart, the words “the sun embraces the darkest shadow” wind their way around the base of the anchor. There’s a date tattooed at the very bottom, and at the very top, above the anchor, the words “In Loving Memory Mom & Mawmaw” are indelibly marked on Kelsey’s skin. She says it gives her a little more closure.

***

Leigh Anne’s mom, Gloria Sue, had been staying with her for a while. Leigh Anne’s dad was terminally ill, and Leigh Anne needed both the emotional support and practical help of her mom. Gloria Sue was in the house when Leigh Anne’s new husband slit her throat.

News reports say that Gloria Sue hadn’t seen her daughter for two days. Leigh Anne’s new husband told her she was sick with the flu and didn’t want to be disturbed. Gloria Sue checked on her anyway, only to find her daughter’s lifeless body lying in an upstairs room. Leigh Anne’s new husband slit Gloria Sue’s throat too, and left both the bodies bleeding out onto the upstairs carpet while he (allegedly) raped Leigh Anne’s oldest daughter, Kelsey, his step-daughter. His trial is in seven weeks and one day.

***

Nikki Burdine wants to film an interview with me. We go outside to the parking lot where her cameraman is waiting, and in front of the coffee shop and a chi-chi cupcake store she asks me the same questions she has already asked me. I try to be articulate, but the sun is in my eyes and I’m squinting. The cameraman stops the interview and asks me to turn in a different direction, but then the cupcake shop is in full view and somehow that doesn’t seem appropriate. Eventually, we settle on a position where, over Nikki Burdine’s shoulder, I’m watching people pop in and out of the shop to buy their chi-chi cupcakes, but only the traffic whizzing past on the busy road behind me will be seen by the audience, who will watch my interview on the local evening news.

***

Timothy Parsons (allegedly) showed Kelsey the dead bodies of her mother and grandmother before he (allegedly) raped her. (Allegedly), he told her he would kill her too if she didn’t have sex with him. After he (allegedly) raped Kelsey, he left the house leaving behind two dead bodies and an (allegedly) raped teenage girl. It was 24 hours before Kelsey was able to free herself from the ties that had been used to restrain her during her (alleged) rape. Timothy Parsons was found the following day and arraigned without bail.

***

Kelsey doesn’t talk about the rape, at least not on Facebook. Those details only came out in the subsequent news reports. When she talks about the events of last year, she talks of how much she misses her mom and her mawmaw, how much she wishes they were still here to help her, and how she’ll make them proud of her. When she talks about the upcoming trial, she talks about justice for them, and “even” for herself, as if she’s decided that being tied up and raped is somehow less noteworthy than death.  

She has an album on her Facebook page of photographs from the funerals, filled with pictures of the shiny white coffins containing the bodies of her mom and mawmaw, and close-ups of the pink and purple floral displays, elaborate sprays of roses and carnations that dripped from the top of the coffins to the ground. The funerals took place on a sunny, green day. The trees in the background were heavy with foliage and the grass still retained the neon vibrancy of spring, unmarked as yet by the brutal summer sun. The photos show family members dressed in bright colors, smiling at the camera, squinting when the sun hit their eyes. It looks like almost any other happy family event, apart from the two shiny white coffins in the background.

***

After we’ve finished the interview, Nikki Burdine hangs around for a little while; her cameraman needs a cigarette and she needs a cold drink. She orders some kind of iced tea from Starbucks, which they mess up, so she waits with me while they make her another. Curious about my British accent, she asks what brought me to Kentucky, and we talk for a little while about immigration rights. Neither of us mentions Leigh Anne. Her iced tea is finally ready, the cameraman has finished his cigarette, and she has to head back to the studio to edit the piece for that evening’s news.

When I watch the report that night all I can focus on is my large, pink face, like a disembodied head, floating above Richmond Road as the traffic flies past and the people I know I can see over Nikki Burdine’s shoulder buy their expensive cupcakes. My 16-year-old daughter, once a good friend of Kelsey’s, makes fun of my voice, which sounds plummy and pretentious alongside Nikki Burdine’s soft Kentucky drawl. We don’t talk about what happened to Leigh Anne and Gloria Sue. We don’t talk about what happened to Kelsey.

That summer, I sit in Starbucks every morning. Instead of researching I knit Kelsey a shawl. It’s a gesture that brings only me comfort. It’s pink, and soft, but pink, I now realize, isn’t really her color, and a shawl isn’t really her thing. I knit it anyway, and send it the mail with a note telling her how sorry we all are, and that the shawl is the closest thing I can manage to a hug. I wonder if she ever got the shawl … she never mentions it and I don’t want to ask.

***

Nikki Burdine moves on to new stories. Such is the nature of her job. Her news station picks up the story of the woman with the slashed face, and then, doubtless, the story of someone else. There’s always a new story, always another woman who has been murdered, raped, assaulted, or robbed, and the stories of Leigh Anne and Gloria Sue, of Kelsey, the girl in my class, and the woman with the slashed face, are quickly subsumed beneath more stories of more women, quickly forgotten, quickly reduced to statistics.

Those statistics report “plummeting rates of completed rape, assaults, attempts, and threats” (Rosin, 2012, p.183). Criminologists report that women are “a lot harder to victimize,” claiming that “people don’t admit these trends because there is a lot of discomfort … about girls succeeding so well … while boys are on a destructive decline.” I think of the women I know who, in the last year, have been murdered, raped, and assaulted, and ponder the meaninglessness of this statistical decline.

***

Leigh Anne’s Facebook page is still active. Every so often, my news feed will show that she has received a horoscope or inspirational quote. Her wall is peppered with daily Bible verses and images of her with “R.I.P” photo-shopped in alongside clip-art red roses and hearts. Sometimes, Facebook suggests that I should accept Gloria Sue’s friend request and tells me that we already have two mutual friends; one of these is Leigh Anne, the other is Kelsey. All three of them defy the statistics.


This essay is a nominee for the Flounce Non Fiction Writer’s Award 2015. Reader feedback in the comments section will be taken into consideration by the judges. Contest runs until Dec 1, 2015. 

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Catherine A. Brereton
Catherine A. Brereton is from England, but moved to America in 2008, where she is now an MFA candidate at the University of Kentucky. Her 2014 essay, "Trance," published by SLICE magazine, was selected by Ariel Levy and Robert Atwan as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2015. More of her work can be found in Literary Orphans and Graze, and is forthcoming in Pankhearst: RAW, The Indianola Review, The Watershed Review, and The Spectacle. Her “Dead Bird Vignettes” are featured in an anthology of ekphrastic writing, forthcoming from Wind Press, and her work will appear in Turn : Turn : Turn, an anthology of short shorts from ELJ Publications. Catherine is the current Editor-in-Chief of Limestone, the University of Kentucky's literary journal. She lives in Lexington with her wife and their teenage daughters.
  • botenana

    I loved this. Best of luck to you!