Book review by Zinta Aistars
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Kunati Inc., 2008
Publisher: Kunati Inc., 2008
It is apparent author Beth Fehlbaum knows her subject matter - sexual and emotional abuse - beyond study in a textbook (her bio at end of the book confirms this). I applaud her, and applaud her again, for her own courage in tackling such a difficult and painful topic. But it must be tackled. It must. Because abuse such as this is a constant in our society, and it is becoming ever more prevalent. Blame the Internet with all that it makes so readily available (and I am referring to adults here, far more than children, although the latter will someday become those same addicted adults). Blame a society that seems to steadily be veering away from family-based values (e.g. careers and materialism being given higher priority than raising our children, and a general trend toward pleasure-seeking and narcissism). Blame a trend in contemporary society of increasingly objectifying women and girls. Blame ageism and its counterpart of youth-obsession that forces children to be sexualized. Blame an attitude of head-in-the-sand avoidance to domestic abuse in general. Blame what you will, but this problem is not going away. Children are being abused, and domestic violence (and I include emotional abuse in this category) is on the rise at an alarming pace.
Courage in Patience raises the issue of child abuse to the forefront. In the character of Ashley Asher, a girl who suffers the most brutal treatment at the hands of her mother's new husband, Charlie, over a period of six years (age 9 to 15), Fehlbaum explores the inner workings of an abuse victim. With excruciating accuracy, the reader becomes witness to what begins as a water pistol spray to a child's t-shirt, to a rape so violent that it leaves the 15-year old child a ravaged and bloody mess.
We witness Ashley's emotional shutdown. Ashley withdraws into herself. She blames herself. She tries harder and harder to please and appease her abuser. She goes deep into denial, compartmentalizing her emotions and behavior. Until she breaks. In a moment of courage, despite her stepfather's threats, she tells her mother. Unfortunately, as is all too common, her mother minimalizes her daughter's confession, even worries that her daughter may be stealing her man's attention away from her. Surely it is not as bad as all that... surely, Ashley can forgive her stepfather for a few inappropriate touches... and Ashley withers in despair as someone she loves and trusts - her mother - betrays her with her emotional abandonment as cruelly as the rapist.
As the abuse escalates, beside the mother's denial (and the author quite reasonably later brings up the possibility that the mother, too, may well have been abused in her childhood, thus perpetuating the cycle with her own denial), Ashley confides in a girlfriend who will not remain quiet. When the truth begins to surface at last, we move through the frustrating process of legalities, of a crippling law enforcement system that has its own denial issues, of child protective services that threaten to worsen the problem rather than assist the victim. Ashley's savior turns out to be her long-lost father, David, and even more, his sympathetic wife, Bev. Reunited with her father, we at last begin to see the slow and difficult process of recovery.
In part, here begins the one fault line of the novel. Along with the story of Ashley's recovery, a new story emerges of Bev's classroom life as a teacher who takes on controversial books. While the additional topics of censorship and book banning, religious fervor that becomes a gateway to racism, homophobia, teen sexuality, and other issues are inarguably worthy of discussion, it is regrettable that these side issues take up so much space in a book that should have remained on one worthy topic alone. One would have hoped the author would save these other subjects for future novels. As it stands, interesting as they may be, these issues mostly detract and distract from the one of child abuse.
That aside, this is a book that one might hope would be passed out in women's shelters, in family protective services, in churches, in schools, and other places and venues where it might reach out and comfort and give courage to others faced with the same nightmare. No one feels more alone than the one who is so victimized. Abuse of any kind is a very isolating experience. Courage in Patience can serve well to extend a hand to those who would read it and know that recovery is possible.
~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Fall 2008