“Grace – def. Free and unmerited favor. Divinely given blessing. To be regarded with favor.”
New Oxford American Dictionary
This conversation happened accidentally. I was supposed to talk with another resident who at the last minute couldn’t keep our appointment. As I was walking out the front door of Journey House, Sister Gabe walked in with Grace, a woman she had picked up at Journey to New Life. (JNL is a social services agency in Kansas City that oversees Journey and Peace House). Grace needed immediate shelter and someone to talk to, and I was the one available. I know only that Grace and her twelve- year-old daughter are homeless and had been living in the ER Waiting Room of a nearby intercity hospital.
In moments Grace and I find ourselves sitting across from each other in the dining room while the staff organizes a bedroom for her and her daughter. She is a large woman with no light in her eyes. I bring her water and Kleenex. Grace has no idea who I am or why I am here with her. I feel clumsy, unprepared, and out of my league. It is by sheer coincidence that we sit together.
I hand her the contract stating she agrees to talk with me. I am instantly captivated by her perfect, calligraphic penmanship. Her signature is a work of art! She slides the paper back to me, folds her hands on the tablecloth, looks up at me and says through tears…
I truly have a good heart, a big heart, but everything is working against me. I must protect my daughter. She’s only twelve! So vulnerable. I checked her phone and found someone I think is a sexual predator corresponding with her - saying vulgar things and warning her to not tell anyone she is talking with them. But I believe a twelve-year-old has no privacy. I read everything, thank goodness.
You are fiercely protective of your daughter. Where is she right now?
At school. Middle School. She is not missing school. Her father lives in Texas.
How did you and your daughter become homeless?
Well…. (sobbing) everyone in my whole family uses and belittles me. I’m the black sheep. Every time I try to get on my feet, they knock me down.
That’s awful. Why do you think they treat you like that?
I know why… The reason is because I was conceived by… rape.
(Grace closes her eyes. Breathes deeply. We sit silent for a while. She looks miserable. I imagine her “truly good heart” beating wildly because of fear and pain).
How did you learn this?
I found out when I was seven. It was Christmas time and my mother and I went to my family’s house. I learned that day that the man I thought was my father wasn’t. We were at his mother... my grandmother’s - house! Everybody got a toy but me. I asked grandma why don’t you like me and she simply told me that her son wasn’t my father and so she did not accept me as her granddaughter. I was the black sheep. When I asked who my real father was, she just came out and told me how I was conceived... rape - and who I was conceived by. When I got older, I got a copy of my hospital birth certificate from the Health Department. His name is right on there. He is a family member - my mother’s first cousin. He raped her. DNA tests have proved it. But he didn’t pay child support or anything. He refuses to meet me. The whole family brushed it under the table - they knew but looked the other way as families do to keep their reputations up. I have never seen him or spoken to him. Everybody in the family protected each other from the crime. It was a family conspiracy. They protected everyone… except me.
So, he is off the hook. Are you saying that this is why they reject you?
Yes. That is exactly what I am saying. I have a lot of mental health issues. (Crying and rubbing her face) With me moving around so much being homeless and couch surfing, I haven’t stuck with my counseling plan and my meds. I am diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression and PTSD and I’m not even sure what else. (Grace spreads her arms, sighs) I am just so grateful to be here.
Okay, Grace. Let’s stop for a moment and go back. Could you share some more about your early life? Your childhood? Your mother and family?
My mother went to prison when I was ten.
What was her crime?
Murder. She is still in there. Nineteen years.
What were the circumstances of that?
I really don’t know. From what she has said, she got in a car with a man who tried to rape her. She killed him.
You are speaking of someone other than the rape by her cousin.
Yes. I was nine years old when it happened. She got her case (conviction) August 19, of 1999. She is in prison in Chillicothe, Missouri.
Who did you live with from the age of ten?
Various family members who were very emotionally and physically abusive. I was shunned. They never really dealt with me. I have three sisters and a brother. My brother is in the psychiatric hospital in Fulton, Missouri. Two of my sisters also have severe mental health issues. I graduated from high school here in Kansas City. There was terrible bullying. I was always fighting and battling within myself. …then I was in county jail and then prison.
What were you incarcerated for?
Second-degree assault. It was actually… uh… I was involved with a man who sold drugs. Me and him were arguing. A guy who worked with him tried to intervene and I cut that person.
Yes. His face. I wasn’t trying to cut him. I was just trying to back him up. I did four years in prison. Actually, my mother and I were in the same prison, but we didn’t live together. We were in the same housing block but not in the same cell.
How was it being in there with your mother?
I enjoyed it. I loved the time spent with her. We just had each other. Her sentence is twenty-five years to life. She will have to serve 85% of it. It was hard for my mom to have me leave. If it wasn’t for my daughter, I wouldn’t have wanted to leave her. She is struggling but she is going to make it.
When would her earliest release be?
I don’t know. She hasn’t seen the board yet.
What was your experience in prison?
Prison woke me up. I found myself in there. I was in for almost four years. I do things differently now. I think before I react. I have learned better communication and parenting. Until I went to prison, I didn’t know other women who had a story like mine. It was my first time meeting other people with extreme life circumstances. If I had come across somebody like myself who had a similar story, I wouldn’t have felt so isolated and in my pain. Embarrassed by it. Ashamed. I have heart for other girls like me.
It sounds like prison was a place you could be totally honest. You opened up to the plight of other people. Was it sort of a relief not to worry about protecting each other from hard stuff?
Yes. Because there are people in there whose mothers sold them for drug money and worse. I shared my story starting from the day my grandmother told me about my real father. That realization. It’s like being interviewed by Oprah or Doctor Phil! (Smiles).
What else woke you up in prison?
Self-evaluation. Looking back on my mistakes. Classes and programs like ICVI (Impact of Crime on Victims) and Pathways to Change. Parenting Programs. I made the choice to participate and learn.
In prison you took advantage of the programs and you were careful about who you hung around with. Did you receive health and mental health care?
I saw a psychiatrist both in the county jail and in prison. That’s where my mental health services started. You cannot be prideful in prison. I saw a lot I didn’t agree with in prison. Especially people who would come to me - the outcasts. I don’t look down on them. I’m a safe person to talk to - give them a Ramen Noodle package. I saw people willing to have sex for a package of noodles. The dog-eat-dog world is worse in prison. I’d help especially vulnerable people get around other women to create a safety net. A woman in there talked to herself. I liked her, but she would be sitting right next to me and she’d say, You are ugly. You are awful. She wasn’t talking to me. She was battling with herself. The woman had a life sentence and she was suicidal. She needed to go to the State Hospital. But the guards walked in her room and put her in the hole (solitary confinement) instead. Mostly, we didn’t know each other’s charges. It’s not safe to tell your business. Someone with a DUI and a serial killer might room together. But there are definitely some amazing women in there who have amazing stories. People respond to a story. I wanted to know their whole story, like a biography.
So, prison can be both a horrid and a stabilizing place?
Prison is what you make it. Some people treat it like a game and for other people it is life-altering. Like if you say I am ashamed of what is going on with me then maybe I can help you if you open up. Keep you from bad choices. Since I got out, I’ve had two great Parole Officers. I have been honest with them about everything.
What was your homestay plan when you got out of prison?
I went with the family member who had been keeping my daughter, so I could be with her. But that family member put us out several times. (Crying). I can’t ever go back there. We won’t ever go back there. I’ve been out of prison for two years, but I have been so unstable I haven’t focused on myself.
What do you mean by unstable?
Bouncing around. Worried about the next meal. My daughter. I can’t keep a job. Housing. I feel in pieces - fragmented. I have scars and scabs on my face now from where I pick little bumps - a nervous condition. I don’t act out my anger on other people anymore, but I still turn my anger onto myself. I feel hell in my mind.
What was it like staying in the hospital emergency waiting room? Did the staff know what you were doing?
The first night they didn’t but after that I’m not sure. There was also an older man sleeping there. He made me nervous. I haven’t slept in days - keeping an eye on my daughter every time she went to the bathroom.
How does your daughter get to and from school?
I take her on the bus. But I think now the school district is going to provide a cab from Journey House to school and back.
How did you end up here this afternoon?
I got my homeless letter from Journey to New Life but…
What is a homeless letter?
Authorization that you are homeless. Housing resources need this proof that you are truly homeless. I received authorization of homelessness from Journey to New Life. (Journey to New Life provides emergency assistance for people who are reintegrating into the community when they are released from prison.) They called and called all over, looking for a place but there was no availability. They made the decision for me to come here to Journey House even though I am not coming straight from prison.
You took the right step coming here.
I mean, how long am I going to treat myself like I’m cursed?
Do you have drug issues?
Marijuana. It’s a safety net to calm my nerves. It helps me not think of things.
What else gives you relief?
When I work, I feel 100% better. Short term, I will probably do fast food - customer service. Eventually I want to help troubled teens. I was one. I want to write about these experiences like you are doing. I have two friends who are wonderful for me. They have my back. They show respect. We are connected, but I can’t live with them. They have their own situations. I do not want to end up back in prison. I also have a beautiful relationship with my daughter. One of my family members actually called her school and told them we were homeless and that they should call DFS on me. My daughter said she wanted to stay with me, and that if we are going struggle, we will struggle together. I am so relieved to be here today.
This place is a resource to you. A safe harbor.
I can breathe here. Undo the knot in my chest.
You have been wonderful to talk with. I have learned a lot. Thank you.
Thank you! Now I am going to see our new room and get settled. Finally.
The Drive Home:
My interface with Grace forced me to face a reality I’d barely considered - the plight of people who are conceived by rape. She is still with me long after our conversation.
Like all the Journey and Peace House women I have interviewed (except staff and a few others) I am required to change their names per our contract - although many don’t care one way or the other. I decided on the name Grace in this case because it implies blessing, intrinsic favor and merit.
According to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology over 25,000 rape-related pregnancies are estimated to happen in the United States every year. By its very nature this is a very difficult statistic to nail down. Children born of rape are the vulnerable, invisible, and often forgotten victims of a crime.
Paraphrasing Andrew Solomon in his book Far from the Tree, - out in the world there are few thriving “horizontal” communities or support groups for people conceived by rape. A survivor of endless un-kindnesses, Grace put her big heart to task in prison and found an identity group with other women who have experienced extreme life circumstances. She also found her way to the safe haven of Journey House and the services she needs.
Our encounter sensitized me, started me on a path of understanding instead of labels and compassion instead of silence.
Grace is a blessing,