There are hundreds of them, plastered to the walls of the Korean Cultural Center in the mid-city neighborhood of Los Angeles. Some are as large as ostrich eggs; others are petite and demure. They announce themselves in shimmering metallics and matte pastels; uneven clumps of glitter and plastic flowers, glued on with young hands.
Barbara leads me to a circular display case in the center of the gallery where the women lay, split down the middle. Tokens spill out their insides. Silver bullets and tarnished wedding rings. Miniature bottles of vodka, rum and bourbon. The needle of a syringe, snapped in half.
“These are their irritants,” Barbara says. “Gathered together, they form a pearl.”
“Pearls of Wisdom” is an unusual exhibit, one unfit for the walls of nearby LACMA. The artists here are women — and, in many cases, their children — who hail from domestic violence shelters throughout California. They are white, black and Hispanic. They are young, middle-aged and elderly. They are poor, rich and middle class. And when they wrap their irritants in bandages dripping with glue, burying the rum and bullets and wedding rings beneath half a dozen paper mache layers, their details begin to overlap.
I am not like the women in this room, in this art, in this shelter. I am not like the women in this room, yet they say I am one of them.
There are certain clubs you join without applying. The application process is exhausting, yet you’re unaware you’re in contention until you receive the letter, which comes neither typed nor handwritten. Most would be flattered by an anonymous nomination, but this is a backhanded type of honor, one that deserves little cause for plaudits or celebration.
This is not a club with meetings or cocktail hours. There are no roll calls or Facebook invites. Interaction is not a priority. In many ways, it’s a club that takes your membership away from the rest of the world.
I don’t know how I joined this club nor do I know how to deactivate this membership. Once I think all is taped and glued and hardly fragile enough to be labeled, I meet a woman who does not mistake my resistance for vanity. Who looks at me and says, “Yes, welcome.”
A woman in flip-flops and one rolled pant leg nails the women to the wall with care, but not necessarily precision. She loops a thick red ribbon through each woman’s midsection, connecting them from the floor to the ceiling back down to the floor. When she’s finished, there ares nearly 1,000 women looking down at her.
Kim is a local artist who calls herself a survivor, but she didn’t always see herself this way. Before, it was just Kim the artist, who crafted installations out of recyclables and snapped self-portraits of discontented motherhood. Now, it’s Kim the survivor, who describes some of her most recent work as “Charlie Manson and love lockets.”
Kim didn’t want to revisit her own scarring. She was a mess for a long, long while. She took lacy white dresses and burned them until they were dotted with black holes. There was never a place for her anger.
Even in this space, there is little room for that. Visitors to the gallery want to see what they want to see, not what they’re given. “People talk about domestic violence survivors all the time,” she says. “But no one listens to what we have to say.”
Barbara nods her head in silent recognition as the details in my notebook begin to overlap. I don’t have bruises any more. My skin now is tan and freckled and smooth.
Still, Kim asks how long ago it was.
“Five months,” I say, almost embarrassed by it. My friends had told me it was more than enough time to get lost in final papers and 2 a.m. last calls, unlock my door and move on.
“Five months,” Kim says. “That’s not very long at all.”
I am not like the women in this room, tethered to the past. I am not one of them, even when they take my hand and give me that sad, soft nod. I like to think I did not nod back.
I read Play It As It Lays while crouching behind the couch as he slammed his shoulders into my front door. He would succeed in his break-in only once, ripping the chain-lock from the door frame around the time Maria is lying on a newspaper-covered table in an unfamiliar Encino motel. I would turn off my lights, turn off my phone. I would think about changing the locks or moving across state lines, but I am not that kind of woman.
A month later, I find myself making Maria’s trek across the Sepulveda Pass, spiraling into the San Fernando Valley for a procedure that’s legal now but wasn’t then, in Maria’s time. Every young woman with a headache and bachelor’s degree wants to be Joan Didion, but now I was the novel, not the novelist, and I would stop reading then.
The woman with the bundle of clipboards wants to know why it happened. I tell her I don’t know. She says I seem like a smart girl. I tell her I’m not. She persists — it’s her job, after all — and I tell her I remember some things, maybe. Being pushed outside, asking to leave — I don’t know why he wouldn’t stop, I tell her, I know I asked — walking through the city barefoot with the newspaper deliveryman trailing behind me.
“You’re too nice,” she says as she hands me a hospital gown, a cheap linen blanket, and a key dangling from a safety pin. She asks if I understand how to attach the pin to my gown, to take everything off except for my boots, that this is not OK, and I nod. When she says she wants to report him to the police, I stop nodding.
“He drove me here,” I say. “He’s out there right now.”
The woman with the clipboards looks at me in a way that, I’m sure, she has looked at hundreds of other girls. She’s silent as she leads me down a hallway to a windowless room lined with uncomfortable chairs. A small plasma TV sits in the corner, playing Keeping Up with the Kardashians on loop. The women stare straight ahead, never making eye contact with Kim or Khloe or each other. The women here are teens, middle-aged and somewhere in between. They are white, black and Hispanic. They are poor, rich and middle class.
The women in this room take me in. I am just one of hundreds of other girls.
Kim is the first person to tell me about The Outside. Nobody tells you about that. The story doesn’t end with you leaving or him fleeing. “I kept telling my story to everyone who was sick of hearing it,” she says. “But I never was.”
At nine months, I break down in the green labyrinth of Laurel Canyon beside a dead man in a Jeep. At 10 months, I have panic attacks and lock myself in my room. At 12 months, I’m fired. They say abuse is a cycle and I broke it. At 14 months, I break down, this time in a supermarket on a Tuesday night.
“You have to place that damn story somewhere or it’ll drive you insane,” Kim had told me back then. “You just sucked it up and all you see yourself as is that story.”
At 36 months, I’m writing the police report I never filed — a missed opportunity. I’m reminded of the stats, that it wouldn’t have mattered, but I continue to write it while driving from the 10 to the 110 to the 101 to the 405. It would have made my story legitimate, they say; without it, I’m simply unreported.
Nobody wants to hear about The Outside. It’s not as triumphant as the image of a woman walking out the door with packed bags. A woman survived.
At 48 months, I gather my savings, move across the country, and think I see him outside my workplace even though I haven’t heard from him since he fled to Oregon. I wonder if he’ll be adding more women to this room.
Take care of yourself and don’t expect someone else to do it.
You are only as sick as your secret.
Oh, they need another opportunity we think. There’s no opportunity.
You need to turn that corner and not look back.
I go back to my apartment, extract some soundbytes and file my story. When it’s published, people send me emails saying, what a beautiful message! or how sad, those poor women. I don’t respond, but change the locks and sit in front of my door and wonder if the women made it past The Outside. Or if they, too, have never left this room.
This essay originally appeared on Medium.