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House on Fire

Updated: Jun 29, 2021



*Before you begin reading, please know that this blog is an extension of Dark Side of the Moon, which you can find on my website.*


Reflecting on my art and reflecting on my past are often two vastly different experiences, however, it’s almost impossible to discuss one without the other-the two are intertwined. They co-exist and work together in order to manifest what my reality and my art look like today. Painting, in particular, was never really in my line of vision. Of course, I always imagined how I would paint something and I definitely had a desire to. At an early age, I locked and sealed the door to that level of creativity, believing (as my sister and mother had made me feel) I was not good enough and that pursuing art would have been a waste of time. This narrative continued to plague my thoughts up until very recently, but I still hear my sister’s belittling voice from time to time. Luckily, painting has helped me work through this false belief that was constructed in my childhood. Alongside this false belief, painting was also very intimidating to me-this sophisticated, magical mystery, but one that I learned more and more as time went on that I needed to explore. All I ever wanted to do was go to art school, but the series of events which led me to that dream were...a bit turbulent and chaotic, to say the very least.


During my time at Humboldt State University, a huge part of me was just going through the motions. My family wanted me to go into math and science and expected me to pursue a career in engineering. While I enjoyed math and was rather good at it, a career in engineering never felt authentic. During my sophomore year, I met a man at school who became my first husband. For the purposes of keeping his identity anonymous, I will refer to him as Gerald. Truth be told, the reason that I married him was to try and keep my mother from dying. She had suffered a severe heart attack and blamed me for it because I was living with Gerald out of wedlock. We got married a month later, my mother was too weak to attend. Soon after, my mother passed away and I learned that my father had no clue how to take care of himself. To help my father out, Gerald and I moved in with him to help fill the void that my mother had left. Though this did not last long.


For months Gerald and I helped my father with household chores and cooking, things my mother used to do. Then, one night, my brother Luke, who had been diagnosed at the early age of 17 with paranoid schizophrenia paid us a visit...and not the welcomed kind of visit. One late night while sleeping, I was awoken by a loud banging on the garage door. It was Luke with a baseball bat in a rage that terrified me, because I knew that when Luke got like his, his actions were completely unpredictable. This tyrannical incident led me to call the police, for fear of what would happen if Luke was successful in breaking into the house. When they arrested him, they gave me the option of taking him to jail or letting him go, I called my sister who came to get him.


In hindsight, I could see this behavior being triggered by the death of my mom. She was the glue of the family and Luke might have been jealous (on some level) that I was living with Dad-I’ll never be entirely sure. After that incident, Gerald in an effort to “protect” me convinced me to cut off all ties with my family. The University of Washington was opening up internship positions with coaching, so we moved to Seattle, two states away, and isolated. This isolation from my family and friends is when his controlling behaviors really gained momentum. Almost immediately I was able to find work at Honeywell, designing offshore oil rigs. Gerald on the other hand was unable to find work, since he had been fired from Lockheed for manipulating data. With only one income, I had to pick up the slack and got another job stocking socks at REI. My new life in Seattle left me very little time for myself. I had a strict schedule of getting up before sunrise to coach, then off to my full time job at Honeywell, and also squeezing in my REI job on the spare blocks of time that I had. Fortunately, I was still able to take photos while coaching rowing, which became a fourth source of income when I started selling them to USRowing.


My second year at the University of Washington, I was able to go to school because I gained residency and in state tuition...but the way I was able to get into art school was not how I had imagined it, not at all...


One evening, after working all day, Gerald picked me up from work and told me that our house had burned down. Of course, I was in complete shock and struggled to believe the reality behind it. That reality became harshly real the moment we pulled up to the house. When we arrived at the scene, the fire marshall aggressively split us up and berated me with questions in an almost accusatory way. It was later determined that the fire had been deliberately started with gasoline that was drenched all throughout the house. My possessions, deliberately destroyed. The idea that this was my life, in flames, was something I did not have the capacity to manage at the time, so I stored it away as far back in my subconscious as possible.


Shortly after the fire, I could not help but to start putting some of the mysterious puzzle pieces together about the man I had married, and the reasons behind some of his odd behaviors and requests. The more I uncovered, the more stressed, anxious and fearful I became. One of those odd requests he made shortly after moving in together, was that he had asked me to take pictures of all our belongings. He made this request in a nonchalant way, framing it around my being a photographer and perhaps it would “make a good art project.” Another odd discovery that I made after the fire was the unique and strategically selected items that were removed from the house before the match was lit. One of these items being a single yellow box filled with some of his childhood photos and momentos. Unfortunately, none of my art or personal belongings were removed from the house before it went up in flames. In the days following the fire, finding it seemingly odd that some items of his were spared from the fire, and the fact that the photographs I had taken years before were now being used to collect seventy-thousand dollars in renters insurance, I now had a crystal clear understanding of the truth. My husband was not only a liar and manipulator… he was also very dangerous.


With this new awareness and severe levels of stress and anxiety, I lost my voice entirely (literally, but also figuratively). This lasted for about a week and had to take that time off from coaching. What may possibly have been the most difficult part of all of this is that Gerald made me promise not to tell anyone that our house burned down and we lost everything as a result. I was expected to continue a level of “normalcy” after my life had been completely burned to ashes. It killed me to not be able to open up to my friends, athletes, and co-workers when they’d ask me where I’d been or how I was doing. I was living a lie, because I had to, but the alternative seemed far worse at the time.


At this point in our relationship, I had already gotten used to our nightly fights that would leave me exhausted the next day, and his OCD tendencies that I would fall victim to when I didn’t fold my clothes or tidy up to his standards. What I was not prepared for was how the fire would propel his controlling and abusive behaviors. I knew I needed to get out of this bad situation somehow, I needed to reclaim my life and salvage what I had left of who I had been before this person infected another inch of me.


With my voice restored and a new dedication to make decisions towards my autonomy and happiness, I decided that my first big decision would be something that always made me happiest, art. In the fall of 1986, I took the few pieces of artwork that I managed to salvage from the house fire into the Dean’s office at the University of Washington, I explained my situation and how being accepted as an art major may possibly save my life. I was accepted with only a few scraps of burnt life drawings and a dream. I couldn’t believe it, that my life drawings, burnt on the edges and all are what got me accepted into this prestigious art program. Upon my enrollment, I quickly found the escape that I had needed, the photography darkroom and art classes.


While I found a deep enjoyment and safety in escaping my relationship through my obsession with art, the heaviness of the relationship loomed over me like a dark cloud unpredictable and unsettling, knowing that at any moment there could be a storm. I needed to get out before I felt the first rain drop. This became very apparent when I fell ill with mono, leading to my having to drop out of school.


Now faced with losing my only sense of escape, I knew there was no way I could continue to live like I had been. The minute I felt well enough and had saved enough money, I left him. This man took years of my life, made me feel insignificant, unloved, and damaged, and yet it only took a few moments to fill out and file the divorce paperwork. I was free, I was finally free!


Life after you leave an abusive relationship is not easy, especially when you walk away with nothing. Luckily, I reconnected with my dad and he helped me with first and last month’s rent for an apartment of my own. During the semester I was out, I was still able to coach here and there. I also managed to sneak into the dark room as often as possible, and while it was no longer an escape from the life I was living, it continued to be an escape from the life I had lived.


So there I was; on my own in a little apartment with the only piece of furniture I owned, a wrought rod iron table meant for outside use, and living off cereal. With little income after being laid off at Honeywell, and my REI salary barely supporting me, I had become skinny and malnourished, but it was worth it...it had to be.


For years I have avoided this part of my life, buried it behind my many layers. Somehow, after all this time, I have held onto that small box of Gerald’s personal items, though I am not certain how I ever acquired it. I tried once, to return his small yellow box of childhood memories, but wound up with a fist to my face. I’m not sure why I have kept this box, maybe someday I will understand. The story of my first marriage is a very dark one...but also one of survival and strength. I went through hell and back to get there, but I eventually graduated from the University of Washington with a BFA in Art and a minor in Photography. I still came out on the other side doing what I love the most. There are MANY other adventures, both good and bad, that take up space in between all of my other stories and have yet to be told.


More to come...



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1 Comment


Unknown member
Mar 12, 2021

I don't know what I can say. All this history behind the crew coach I knew that was buried beneath the water. Just visited Susan Wood Art. So happy for you to have been able to live your passion. Love your smile on your FB cover pic.

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