Like many readers, I held my breath as Kelly Sundberg recounted one of the most painful moments of her life in her essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” named after the healing process she was told to expect for the bruises her ex-husband left on her body. The popularity of her essay landed her an agent and a book deal. The result, Goodbye Sweet Girl (HarperCollins), follows the trajectory of Sundberg’s early relationship and marriage to the man who became her abuser.
Intimate partner violence is a heartbreakingly common experience. Sundberg writes about her relationships with lyricism and a stunning emotional honesty. She investigates critical moments from her childhood and past relationships to illuminate the trajectory that brought her to this relationship. She reveals both his broken humanity and his sickening manipulation. The result is a stunning portrait of what it’s like to live inside the signature abuse cycle of love, violence, attraction, pain, and dependency. Goodbye Sweet Girl makes no excuse for its abuser, but reveals how abusers (like rapists) often cover their monstrous brutality by appearing charming.
Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, Slice, and others. “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays 2015. Sundberg has a PhD in creative nonfiction from Ohio University and has been the recipient of fellowships or grants from Vermont Studio Center, A Room of Her Own Foundation, Dickinson House, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
—Marissa Korbel for Guernica
Guernica: After “It Will Look Like a Sunset” went viral, you asked all remaining mutual friends to cut off contact with your abuser. What were their responses?
Sundberg: I would say most people that I had to reach out to were not supportive. I think when people found out that Caleb had abused me, the people who were going to be supportive, immediately cut off contact with him. They had this kind of natural, “Why would I want to talk to him?” reaction. And, so, a year later, after I had published this essay, people started reaching out to say, “Wow Kelly, gorgeous, thanks for sharing.” But at the same time, they were commenting on Caleb’s profile photos. So I cut off contact with them, and I think that is symptomatic of a culture that still doesn’t think that domestic violence is real violence because it happens in the home.
Guernica: Right, or that it’s like a thing between you two.
Sundberg: I want people to know that violence that happens in the home is just as savage and brutal as violence that happens on the street. And when my ex-husband assaulted me, he was arrested for assault, he got the charges dismissed based on writing me a letter of apology. But if he had assaulted a stranger in a bar, he would’ve done some jail time. We don’t hold the same standards to family violence that we do other kinds of violence.
Guernica: One of the things that was so unflinching about your memoir was how you spoke about desire and the sex you had with Caleb, and the way that it sort of acted as a glue that formed the foundation of your cycle of abuse.
Sundberg: That was the most painful part of the work. Writing about the bad parts or about the abuse was actually not emotionally difficult. The highs in an abusive relationship become a drug. And so the sex that I had with my ex-husband or the affection that we had was really euphoric. I have never connected with anyone else sexually like that before. And on some level, I don’t believe that I will again. So reliving those moments was hard because there is a part of me that still misses that stuff, and that makes me feel, well, not ashamed. I don’t really grapple so much with shame anymore, but it makes me feel stupid. What kind of person would I be that I would miss any part of that relationship? But I do. Even now.
Guernica: That’s the shadow side, or the thing that people don’t want to talk about it because it’s uncomfortable to think about the really intense sex or the deep connection that can be formed between an abuser and the abused. People want it to be a black and white story where they say, “This person’s bad. This person’s good. This relationship is terrible.” I think you did a really good job of revealing the complications.
Sundberg: Having a sexually charged relationship with an abuser does make people uncomfortable. They see it as deviant. Since the relationship ended, I’ve really grown to realize that I’m actually a lot more progressive about sex in general and don’t judge other people’s sex lives. Sex is so complicated. As you know from the book, I was raised in a conservative Lutheran household, and I definitely had internalized a lot of those values. We spend so much time policing it but we’re really just policing people’s emotions and who they are.
Guernica: This discussion of how society tries to control people’s responses or emotions reminds me of how your ex-husband tried to control your emotions. He kept saying things like, “Stop crying. Don’t be sad.” You were not even allowed to have a negative feeling because he couldn’t tolerate it.
Sundberg: He tried to control my feelings more than anything else. I didn’t feel that he controlled how I spent money or if I wanted to go out with my friends. I could go out with my friends. He didn’t control my behaviors. That was really insidious because if he had said, “No you can’t spend that money,” I would have rebelled. That would have been an overt act of control. But things like, “Stop crying,” were harder to identify as controlling. I just saw it as, “My crying is stressing him out,” and so therefore, I need to stop crying. I was always thinking about the impact my emotions had on him.
Guernica: Women particularly are socialized to feel a lot of responsibility for how we impact other people. You also explored that when you wrote about making things okay for him. After your ex-husband said, “You made me punch you in the face,” you said, “I’m sorry.” Or after he chased you through the dorms where you were residents, you said, “I can fix it, I can fix it.”
Sundberg: It wasn’t just that I felt responsible for his behavior. It was also that I really believed he had lost control. I thought I was the one who still had some semblance of control, so it was my responsibility to fix whatever circumstances arose because of his abuse. What I’ve learned since leaving the marriage is that abusive men are absolutely in control of their actions and Caleb was no different. He never hit me in front of someone else. That shows me that he hadn’t lost control, he chose to hit me.
Guernica: When you were writing “Sunset,” were you thinking of writing a memoir or did the memoir come because of the public’s reaction to the piece?
Sundberg: I hadn’t thought of myself as a memoirist. I thought of myself as an essayist. Even after the response to the piece, I just wanted to write a book of essays that dealt with the various aspects of abuse. I had this collection of essays I’d written about my childhood and I sent it the woman who ended up becoming my agent, and the first time we talked on the phone, she had the idea to turn it into a memoir and to include the childhood stuff with the marriage. It made so much sense. I realized that was really the only way to fully tell the story.
I think there’s a certain comfort in essays because you can always leave out what you don’t want to deal with. I knew that writing a memoir was going to require telling the entirety of my story, or as much of it as I could.
Guernica: It was so resonant for me that you did weave the abuse and your childhood together. All of us are formed in this crucible of childhood. You have this sentence that I relate to so much: “The truth is that I never told my mom the whole truth about anything. I only gave her fragments but those fragments were enough to earn her trust.”
Sundberg: I think when I hit my twenties, I started to have a lot of problems relating to my mother. After high school, I did everything I could to put distance between us because I didn’t remember my childhood fondly at that time. The more distance I had from my mother, the more I was able to see her as someone who had been formed by her own circumstances, and the more I was able to feel compassion for her. Now with my own child, I am a very different mother than my mother. I think I’m a better mother in some ways. But I’m also not the mom who goes to the International Fair, or has a clean house, or does the things that we think of as being the hallmark of a good mother. My son and I eat take-out on the couch in front the television.
But when I was married to Caleb, I very much wanted to be a “perfect” mother. It was the same kind of “perfect” that my mother tried to be. And it was making me miserable. I don’t know that I ever would have left that side of myself behind if I hadn’t left Caleb. When I look at my mother now, I realize how much she was trying to be what people expected her to be as mother, and how limiting that was. And it’s not that she was unkind or didn’t love me; she was just also really trapped.
Guernica: You definitely captured her humanity. Talk to me about your father’s response when you told him about the abuse, which was the basis of your “I don’t know what to believe” chapter.
Sundberg: In 2015, I took a writing workshop with Joy Castro. She gave us this prompt: Write about the most painful thing that anyone’s ever said to you. The first thing that popped into my mind was Caleb saying, “Everything bad that you believe about yourself is all true.” But then, right after that, I remembered my father saying, “Kelly, I just don’t know what to believe.” And that was absolutely the most painful thing that anyone had ever said to me. And I realized that what was lacking in the book at that point was that I didn’t want to write about my father, and I needed to. I didn’t want to write about him not believing me, because it was really shameful. But it just hit me that I could not possibly tell my story fully if I didn’t include that. I had forgiven my father and I love him, but I still often hear that mantra. It’s not something I’ll ever be able to forget.
Guernica: Do you believe in forgiveness?
Sundberg: I believe in forgiveness but I don’t believe in what so many people conceptualize as forgiveness. I don’t think forgiving someone for something means that we have to forget what they’ve done or make allowances. I don’t believe that the only route to healing is through forgiveness. I think that’s a very dangerous notion that if we want to heal from something, we have to forgive first. It puts a lot of pressure on women particularly to make a lot of allowances for the behavior of men.
Guernica: Forgiveness is one of the hardest subjects for me. People that I really respect have said you’re supposed to, at some point, forgive the person for your own good. And I just reject that so wholeheartedly.
Sundberg: Yeah, I despise that notion. I think forgiveness feels wonderful when its earned, when they have taken the steps to make amends and to try to repair the damage that has been done so we can both move forward. But do I forgive my abuser who expresses no remorse at this point? No. And if I did, I think our culture would say, “Oh, look how beautiful it is that she can forgive this man.” I don’t think that’s a beautiful thing. I think there’s something very wrong with that.
And let’s be honest, I don’t see people telling men that they need to forgive in the same ways that we tell women that they need to forgive. It’s just a complete double standard.
Guernica: So the very last line, and the title, of your book is, “Goodbye, Sweet Girl.” In that scene, you’re saying goodbye to the self that you were with Caleb. Do you feel like you really did lose her?
Sundberg: Yeah, I feel like I lost the self that I was with Caleb. I feel like I lost the self that I was before Caleb. For the most part, I don’t get angry at Caleb anymore, just because it’s useless. The only person who gets damaged by that anger is me, he doesn’t care if I’m angry at him.
But I sometimes still get angry when I think about the person I was when I met him, and she is is definitely gone. I like the person I am now and I think I actually like the person I am more but I do feel some grief for that person who existed before Caleb. I call it BC Kelly and AC Kelly, Before Caleb and After Caleb.