Part of Michelle Wing and YWCA Sonoma County’s Changing Hurt to Hope Writers series, this anthology beautifully brings to light the voices of people who have suffered from domestic violence. Using the metaphor of the nightbird who learns to fly again after being battered, Cry of the Nightbird is divided into 4 parts which symbolize the stages of surviving domestic violence: night, when things are darkest; dawn, when sufferers gather the courage to leave their abusers and begin to recover; noon, when survivors speak out; and twilight, when survivors acknowledge both how much they have healed and the scars that still remain.
Each section is prefaced with an evocative photograph and quote. For example, “Night” is introduced by a black and white image of bare tree branches against a stormy sky and the quote “The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived” (1). This Robert Jordan quote is an interesting choice that suggests we refrain from judging victims of domestic violence for not leaving their abusers sooner, a common criticism and form of victim blaming, for they had to endure a certain amount of abuse to escape safely. In contrast, “Dawn” begins with the hopeful image of light shining through the top of a tree and an Anais Nin quote that poignantly captures the moment of transition from enduring to escaping: “And the day came that the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” (39).
What I like most about this anthology is the diversity of the voices and stories it shares. This heterogeneity highlights the devastating scope of domestic violence and refutes the stereotype that victims are always women and their abusers always men. In addition to the familiar cases of women battered by men, Cry of the Nightbird features the voices of men, children, and women abused by same sex partners. Michelle Wing herself falls into the last category and she poignantly reminds us in her poem “Even a Woman” that though her girlfriend stood at just 5 feet 4 inches and 115 pounds, “even a woman can make you run” (78). Besides bafflement—“I didn’t know a woman could be the bad guy too”—victims of atypical domestic violence often feel ashamed as the husband of “Tainted Vows” does: “He felt ashamed and less of a man. Who would even believe him? Who would believe that he, six feet tall and a hundred ninety pounds, got attacked by a woman five feet four and a hundred thirty pounds?” (85). By including their voices, Cry of the Nightbird validates their experience, making it easier for other victims to come forth.
It is also important to remember that domestic violence hurts more than just its immediate victims. Meta Strauss “Cinderella Tale” is told from 3 perspectives—an abused woman, her friend, and her daughter’s boyfriend—to show how domestic violence hurts onlookers as well as victims. Some of the most heartbreaking pieces of this anthology relay the experiences of children growing up in a violent household. Zara Raab’s poem “Victim Witness” tells of “that baleful existence the child must own before she dies” which Juliana Marie Van Guilder and Robyn Anderson elaborate on through their own personal experiences. Juliana, who goes by Julie and is the anthology’s youngest contributor at only 13 years old, tells the story of her abusive father with a grace and insight far beyond her years. One of the biggest challenges of her life was learning to reconcile her love for her father with the reality of his abuse, to reconcile memories of police and ambulances with memories of Christmas. Her father passed away in jail and while Julie finally feels she has found “some kind of peace” about it all, the ambiguity of growing up with an abusive parent remains: “I don’t know if it is right or wrong. But I loved my dad, and I love him still. I don’t like what he did to us. I just know that there was something terribly wrong with him that nobody could change” (114).
While the causes of domestic violence are complex, manifold, and often inscrutable, one of the anthology’s 3 male contributors, Joshua Byrd addresses the larger socioeconomic and cultural contexts that influence domestic violence in urban neighborhoods. Raw and gripping, his poem “I Want Out” narrates a confluence of tragic events, including multigenerational verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, that culminate in a ghetto boy shooting his friend for raping his girlfriend. With gritty lyricism and the refrain “I want out,” Byrd describes perpetrators and victims of abuse alike as victims boxed in by larger social constructs. A young boy disrespects his girlfriend because “even though his spirit screamed…he couldn’t let his face know/’cause peer pressure was on his back/his reputation couldn’t fold/so he call her a ho/the one he loved with his soul” (19). The girlfriend’s abusive father feels similarly constrained as he “wanted out of the relationship/that he and his baby mama had/but no one was there to listen/so he’d beat her when he got mad” (24).
While the causes of domestic violence are manifold and its effects devastating, Cry of the Nightbird offers hope by closing with stories of healing. Through therapy, art, activism, and, of course, writing, survivors reclaim their old selves and support others in their communities. For many, contributing to this anthology itself was a powerful step in the healing process; as Kitty Wells expresses in one of her haiku affirmations, “Sharing my story,/I speak my truth and survive/Life has more color” (127).
Heartbreaking and sobering but ultimately life-affirming, I urge you to experience Cry of the Nightbird for yourself. It is necessary reading for anyone wishing to educate themselves on the complex realities of domestic violence. As you move through the anthology, you will gain an illumined understanding of the bravery it takes for the nightbird to fly away from the darkness, broken wings and all.
The proceeds from Cry of the Nightbird go towards a local domestic violence shelter. Please order here.
Cry of the Nightbird: Writers Against Domestic Violence was edited by Michelle Wing, Ann Hutchinson, and Kate Farrell as part of Wing’s Changing Hurt to Hope Writers Series sponsored by Sonoma County’s YWCA. A survivor herself, Michelle Wing founded Changing Hurt to Hope: Writers Speak Out Against Domestic Violence in 2010, coordinating this annual series with the YWCA Sonoma County. Another survivor, Ann Hutchinson joined Michelle Wing with Kate Farrell and participated in the Hurt to Hope series for two out of the past four years. In this anthology, thirty eight writers from all walks of life speak out against domestic violence in more than fifty prose and poetry pieces. All proceeds benefit YWCA Sonoma County, where domestic violence affects one in four families.