I’m in LA for work this week, so while I was here, I met up with a few of my local clients for dinner. I shared with them a confidential story, I normally keep to myself. In fact, I’ve only told it once before, on my 40th birthday, in front of 200 of my closest friends and family. There is still a lot of shame for me in telling this to you, but I realized over dinner with Katie and Natalie and Mary, that we are only as shameful as our secrets, and sometimes, the right thing to do is to break our silence, even when the truth is complicated and the cost of telling it can feel scary. It’s a long story, but there’s a pretty shocking pay-off if you stick with it to the end, so I encourage you to do that and then let me know what you think.
I had only been an exchange student for a few weeks in 1989 when the first death threat came.
I was 15 and I’d left an incense burning in my bedroom and I’d burned the bed. To punish me my host mother drove me to the edge of a cliff and stopped the car.
She explained that while she thought I was a good person, she now wasn’t so sure. She said the only way she’d know for sure is if I answered 20 questions correctly. She set a timer giving me 5 minutes.
“If you do it wrong,” she said. “I’ll know you are a shallow and immature girl and I’ll either send you home, or, who knows, maybe there will be a terrible accident.”
My mind raced as she handed me the clipboard with the questions. How can I answer all 20 questions in 5 minutes? Is she going to kill me?
I glanced at the purple mimeographed paper. They looked like essay questions. “This is impossible,” I thought to myself. “I’ll never get through all these questions in 5 minutes.” Resigned, I decided to read through all the questions.
“Did I think my family was better than hers?”
“Did I believe you can take the girl out of the city but you can’t take the city out of the girl?”
“Was it true that I came to Australia to lose my virginity?”
My heart-rate quickened. How was I supposed to answer these? Everything felt like a trick. Should I get out of the car and make a run for it? But what about the dingoes? Then I reached the final question.
“Answer only question #1 but think about the rest.”
Question #1 was “Write your name in the right-hand corner.”
And so, thoughtfully and carefully, I did.
My host mother was overjoyed I did the “test” right. She practically leaped out of the right-side driver’s seat onto my lap.
“I knew it! I knew I was right about you. You are a good girl!”
I was invited back home and given a second chance. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and also confused and guilty. I had burned the bed, I’d written mean things in my journal, I wasn’t social with my host family and they were doing so much for me. I wrote in my journal:
“God, I am so bad at being perfect!!!!”
The second death threat came with a meat cleaver to my neck.
My host mother had been butchering a lamb while my host brother was outside shooting birds and lighting a live rat on fire.
I had been grounded and prohibited from going to be big football match because of my bad attitude and my propensity to kiss my older boyfriend in public.
After a morning of sulking, my host mother came to my bedroom and threatened: “The longer you are rude, the longer you will be punished.”
I conceded my host mom had a point – her house, her rules. And so I joined her in the kitchen. I sat down, back to her, pulled out a 17 Magazine and asked how she was doing.
Bloody cleaver in hand she walked towards me. Placed the blade to my neck and said “Don’t go hot and cold with me young lady”
My host brother walked in at that exact moment.
“What’s going on mom?” he asked.
She replied coldly: “You got one rat outside, I’m taking care of the one in here.”
I pushed back from the table hard. Grabbed my magazine and fled to the hills – dingoes be damned.
I escaped from Swifts Creek on the milk truck the next morning, never to return. But Swifts Creek had become a big part of me, it was the town where I narrowed escaped my own murder.
Life went on after my year as an exchange student. I went to college, got married, had a baby, and nearly 18 years later, I got an email from my host mother….
“I am writing to apologize for the way I treated you when you were an exchange student. When you lived with us, I did some horrible things to try to get you to leave.
I couldn’t tell you why. I couldn’t even tell myself. But I was afraid if you stayed, your host father was going to do something to you that I could never forgive myself for.
I was dependent on him and I couldn’t leave, but I had to get you out to keep you safe.
I know I was wrong and that it must have been scary for you. I just couldn’t think of any other way. I hope you will forgive me.”
I had lived nearly 20 years with the story that my host mother had tried to kill me. My host mother had lived that same period of time with the story she saved me from being molested by my host father. Were both things true? Were neither?
This was the magical moment I realized truth was subjective, and in any moment, we have the power to choose our thoughts. And when we choose our thought, we choose our own reality. I choose the reality my host mother almost killed me and made decisions according to that belief, I didn’t see any alternative interpretation, but it was there all along. In her own way, she was my guardian angel.
Do you have people like this in your life — angels you thought were devils or vice versa? Let me know in the comments.