A Letter to Mohawk

Below is an email that I wrote to Mohawk Trail Regional High’s superintendent and co-principals. I am posting it publicly because I think that it is critical to remind the community that the latest accounts of abuse by Colin Garland are actually not unusual. Unfortunately, he is the third in a string of predators affiliated with Mohawk to have such testimonies brought against them in recent years.

Together, we must reevaluate the policies in place and hold our community accountable for the safety of our children.

Note: One former teacher’s name has been redacted, though not in an effort to protect him. Unfortunately, addressing my experience with him more explicitly than this requires more emotional labor than I able to invest right now. If you are from my small town, you can probably guess to whom I’m referring. You’re probably right.

 

Superintendent Buoniconti and Co-Principals Dole and Mendonsa,

I am writing to you in regards to the recent publicization of the abuse perpetrated by Colin Garland, owner of Raven Adventures and Global Classroom. I, like many other students at Mohawk, was introduced to Colin via Will Kiendzior, who allowed him to come into the classroom and tout his trips to remote parts of Africa and Central America. If you have not heard the accounts that recently came to light, I highly encourage you to do so, if only to understand the type of person that has been allowed not only into your school, but permitted to take your students to secluded areas of the world. I truly hope that this man is no longer affiliated with Mohawk, or if he is, that you will immediately cease allowing him contact with your students. Although I did not personally experience assault at the hands of Colin Garland, I can attest to his other manipulative and abusive behaviors. I detailed them in my personal blog here: https://lustyglutton.com/2016/09/11/shaman/   Included in that post are links to two other testimonies of young women who were groomed, manipulated, and raped by Colin Garland.
There is no question that these accounts are disturbing. However, it is not as alarming when one realizes that allowing this is not the first time Mohawk has allowed these type of predators close daily interaction with their students. As I said to [former teacher]after he confided in me that he had slept with his third former student: this is now a pattern.
I have grown increasingly concerned when considering Mohawk’s relationship with Colin Garland, especially as I took into account the past actions of [former teacher] and of the recent news regarding Ivan Grail, the former social studies teacher who is under investigation for his inappropriate conduct with his students. I am puzzled as to why the amount of predatory men allowed such close contact with your students has seemed to remain consistently high under your watch.
I was personally groomed by both [former teacher] and Colin Garland as a student at Mohawk and it has taken me years to realize the severity of these situations. Although it was common knowledge that these two men would meet with students outside of school hours or property, their actions were never questioned and certainly never put to a stop. It is disturbing to me that it was only my guardian, a lawyer and former social worker, who seemed suspicious of [former teacher]‘s actions. She believed that he was ultimately interested in developing a sexual relationship with me and the other young girls to whom he paid such special attention. Unfortunately, she was right. How can an institution charged with the welfare of so many children overlook so many warning signs?
I ask you to seriously consider the manner in which you are vetting your prospective teachers, faculty, and chaperons. It appears that whatever systems you have in place at the moment are simply not working to the extent that is necessary for the safety of your students. Furthermore, I ask that you make public a written policy regarding appropriate conduct for your staff and chaperons in terms of their interactions with students, including any revisions that may be needed. I also ask that you write and make public a list of what  constitutes these inappropriate behaviors to be distributed to students so that they may understand what is unacceptable and unethical coming from staff. Additionally, students should know their rights and resources should they ever encounter such issues.
I am hoping that you take these suggestions to heart so that we may see a change in the environment at Mohawk and change its reputation. It has been truly heartbreaking to realize that although I was initially dismayed that my little sister did not attend the same highschool I did, I believe she was ultimately safer for not doing so. Please: attend seriously to this issue.
Sincerely yours,
Marie Billiel
Class of 2007
Superintendent Buoniconti has invited me to call him with my proposals for policy revisions. I urge you to address this grievous issue as well and to make your suggestions and concerns heard. Matters like this reach much further than just a few; their effects bleed into the entire community. Let the reflection of who we are come from the steps we take to mend.
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The Shaman

I recently came across an open letter to a man I once thought I knew. His name is Colin Garland, the owner of Raven Adventures/The Global Classroom.

The letter, written by a woman only two years my senior, details the multiple encounters she had with Colin, all of which were manipulative and abusive, and many of which involved rape.

It was a challenging read. However, the difficulty did not lay in struggling to believe the author’s account of her experience with Colin. Instead, I was forced to sit with the pain that came with remembering my time with this man and how all of his actions fit so neatly into the pattern of abuse described by the author. There was no relief in the realization that my gut instinct over our last few interactions had been correct.

I met Colin through my highschool ecology teacher Will Kiendzior. We dedicated a class to showcase the myriad adventures Colin had been on in Costa Rica and Mexico. We were invited to embark on his annual trip with students from my highschool to Central America to explore and learn about his conservation efforts.

Yesterday, before his website was taken down, I scrolled through all the pictures of former students, all about 16 years old. Some I knew personally. I wondered how many have had similarly alarming and abusive experiences with him. I felt sick to my stomach.

Admittedly, it was not my time spent with Colin in Mexico that makes me uneasy. Though tainted now, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Still, I have a distinct memory of affection and praise with which he showered my best friend. He marveled at the symbols she drew in the sand, saying they were rich with meaning and that she was clearly in tune to something greater. After we got home, she spent weeks corresponding with Colin through email. I was envious of the attention she received. I was frustrated that he didn’t see that I too felt I had something deep, primal, and attuned to something beyond myself.

Six years later I was in Israel when I received a message from Colin, telling me that I had been on his radar. He told me that he had been thinking of me for a long time but had hesitated to reach out. We made plans to see each other the next time he was back in Massachusetts.

In the time before he made his return I began to confide in him about my history of depression and the difficult childhood that had led me there. In fact, I later posted a short series on this blog entitled “Letters to Colin” that I copied from those letters that unreservedly and unapologetically detailed my disjointed upbringing and early introduction to mental illness. It was clear that I sought to heal in some way and Colin appointed himself the one who could do it.

It wasn’t long after that that he told me I was a woman coming into my power. He told me tales of my psychic ability. He urged me to travel with him, to allow him to teach me the ways of a healer. He spoke of Native American customs, of the medicine wheel, of shapeshifting. He told me that I simply hadn’t made love until both me and my partner had shifted into the form of a dolphin. He of course, was the one to teach me.

I remember that he was hesitant that I wanted to bring my boyfriend the night I agreed to come to his house for a healing session. I remember that up to that point, and for some time after our messages on Facebook somehow made me uncomfortable. In nearly every message he told me how much he loved me and how beautiful I was. I pushed my misgivings aside. After all, Colin was a Healer and wanted to help me. I was certain that the issue lay within myself; I wasn’t used to being loved so purely. I wasn’t being open. I needed him to heal me. I thought of the time I had heard that Colin had slept with a former classmate of mine, nearly 30 years his junior. I pushed the thought out of my head, convincing myself I did not understand the experience or the depth of Colin’s love and shamanic powers.

Now, when I reread our messages and see how I exposed my vulnerability to him I am uneasy. I realize now that this was not a safe place; his intentions were more sinister than I initially knew. While I thought I was seeking solace in a wizened old friend, I was playing squarely into the grooming tactics of a well-rehearsed predator.

I believe that as humans, we all have a deep-seated desire to be seen. We feel that there is something more we can offer the world, if only we had the means to let that part of us out. And I imagine this is particularly true of women, as we frequently have to prove ourselves as worthy and capable in ways that men do not. Colin Garland, pseudo spiritual leader, has found the perfect way to prey on young women and girls via this innate human condition. He fancies himself a shaman and uses his influence to create a harem of women to exercise his manipulation, abuse, and assault.

There are countless women who have had similar experiences with this wannabe cult leader. I am fortunate that my own did not escalate past this degree. Please consider the ties you have to this man and others who exhibit this behavior within your community.

 

A page has been set up as a platform for other victims and their supporters. Please share widely.

UPDATE: Another woman has written of her abuse at the hands of Colin Garland. TW – sexual assault

 

Letters to Colin (4)

Part 4:

In eighth grade I got depressed. Hardcore in-your-face depressed. I specifically remember that it was in March, right before I turned 14 that the heaviness started to hit me hard. I remember because this was at the time that we went to war with Iraq and I was furious. It was the first time I really paid any attention to politics and although I wasn’t particularly well-versed, I knew that I was unhappy with what was going on. I remember nonchalantly mentioning something to my mom about how stupid I though George Bush was and being horrified to learn that my thoughts and opinions had veered off the path of my family’s. It’s not that I ever considered changing my opinions, but at a time when I was feeling pretty disillusioned already, it was a hard lesson to realize that you are a black sheep in your family, even more than you initially thought. The entire experience was very distressing to me, and although now I know it wasn’t the real problem, I kept telling everybody, “It’s the war. The war is making me depressed.”

I found solace in a friend I met in a Lord of the Rings chatroom, back when chatrooms were still a thing. His name was Seth and he was 32. It’s weird for me to think about that now, because Miguel is nearly 30. I’m not sure what I would think if he was conversing daily with a 13 or 14 year old online, and truthfully I don’t know what was going on in Seth’s head, but he was a great source of comfort to me. He lived in New York and had been depressed basically his whole life. He told me I needed to “learn to embrace the things [you] cannot control,” and told me I was wise beyond my years. I felt like, for maybe the first time, someone was really seeing me. My friendship with him felt profound. He gave me music recommendations. I printed out most of our conversations and reread them when I was feeling on edge. I was once having a conversation with my mom and how miserable I was feeling. I don’t think I ever told her I was depressed. I didn’t trust her. I don’t remember the specifics of our conversations about it, but I do remember that they were jerky. There were no connections; no understanding or empathy. She could see my angst as clearly as the day, but she did little to help it. I was barely allowed to see my friends outside of school and although I was 14 my bedtime was still 8 or 8:30. One time I tried to wear pajama pants to school and my mother grounded me for three full weeks. I spent most of my eighth grade year not allowed to use the phone or leave the house. I don’t think my mom had any real interests and hardly had friends anymore, so I was also condemned to her house-bound lifestyle. Anyway, we were once talking about how “angry” I was or something and I quoted something that Seth had said to me. “Where are you getting all of these quotes?” And then she forbade me from speaking to him anymore. It was devastating.

Sometime during this, I developed a pretty hardcore anxiety disorder. A compulsion, really. This isn’t something that I’ve ever really told anybody, but it’s very important to the story. Miguel doesn’t even know this (yet). Do you know what trichotillomania is? It’s basically compulsive hair-pulling, especially in situations of extreme stress. At some point during this terrible year I noticed that some of my hair is a very different texture then the rest of it and began pulling it out. I don’t know why. It was just a thing. But it got really, really bad. I had a really huge bald spot on the top of my head and another behind each of my ears. I didn’t even notice that I was pulling so much hair until much later. By then there was really nothing I could do about it. I always wore my hair up, but as the hair began to grow back it would poke through in these weird clumps of short hair. It was so humiliating and terrible that even now (a full decade later) when I wear my hair down I check the mirror before leaving to make sure I don’t have a bald spot.

This is incredibly important for a couple of reasons:

1. This is one example of how damaging my experience was at the time, even though the effect was mostly superficial.

2. When my hair was growing back my mother would make super mean comments about it. She never asked me if I was okay or what happened or what was going on with me so that that had happened. Instead, if my hair would part because of the regrowth she would sneer, “Oh, I see you have your SPIKES OUT tonight.”

3. Soon, my mother also had a bald spot. For a little while I wasn’t sure if she was just sick and so her hair was thinning, but I’m pretty certain that she also started pulling her hair. This was the first real evidence of my mother’s mental illness, although I have never said this out loud. I really, really believe that she saw there was something wrong with me and that she mimicked my behavior. She’s supposed to be the sick one, you know. More on that later.

As the last few months of the school year went on my disposition grew progressively worse. I was close friends with Delilah at the time and she was in a similar state of angst. Admittedly, I think we worked off of each other. At first we thought it was funny to wear all black because we were essentially becoming the people our families had warned us about. We already felt so detached that it seemed like a good fit to just go for that. We were unhappy and pale and wrote angsty poetry. We questioned the concept of normalcy and listened to Rammstein. I threatened to shave my head or dye my hair pink and my mom told me she’d kick me out.

Towards the end of the year I had my eye on a cute boy named Will. Delilah had the same idea. She moved faster than I did and they “dated” for about three weeks. I was jealous and felt betrayed but said nothing. I still remember the note that she wrote when she broke up with him. It said, “I do know that I don’t love you. How can I love you when I don’t even love myself?” I don’t know what he said.

Around the same time I had to stop speaking to Seth, I began to seek solace in my Uncle Adam, my mother’s brother. There was no particular thing that happened to lead me to this, but he was amused by my 13 year old self tromping around in combat boots and we somehow we connected. My uncle was perhaps also the black sheep of the family, and although we never discussed it outright, I gathered that we aligned ourselves politically. I met Adam’s girlfriend, Emily, and her three children. She lived in the white house right next to the elementary school, where my childhood friend had lived when we were much younger. Emily also took a liking to me and from time to time I would babysit her kids, all of whom were witty and interesting. Emily also introduced me to her friend Alena, who lived on Conway Street on the Buckland side, right next to that old reservoir and down the road from Cricket Field. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Towards the end of my eighth grade year, Delilah and I took a turn for the worse. I don’t know if that’s fair to say. We took a significant turn. One night Delilah smashed a bottle and dragged the jagged pieces against her forearm. We had never done this before. Hearing about it chilled me. I decided to follow suit and began scratching my wrists with safety pins. I wore long-sleeved shirts in the hot June air and was constantly terrified my mother would see. I was uncomfortable with the whole experience, really. It was fun to listen to angry music and be bitter and wear all black, but self-injury was a new line to cross. Finally, I decided to talk to Delilah’s sibling, Aubrey, about it. I called them up and confessed what I knew. They were receptive and concerned and I spent the rest of the night feeling sick to my stomach.

To my relief, Delilah quickly forgave me and life continued as normal. I felt like I had talked her off a cliff and although there was maybe a little residual tension, it was negligible. My cuts healed up, as did Delilah’s. On the last day of school we and a bunch of other friends piled into a van and rode to the house of our friend Jeanne to celebrate the start of vacation. Halfway through the afternoon Delilah took her leave and sat outside in the yard. When I went to her, she refused to speak to me. She barely spoke a sentence to me the rest of the party and soon it was time to go home. Hurt and confused, I left. For weeks and weeks she screened my calls and returned none of them. I was utterly devastated.

My already-shaky mood plummeted. My mother met some guy named Jeff and we spent most days at his house somewhere near Barton’s Cove. He was a fairly standard redneck from what I remember; exactly my mom’s type. He had a son just a little older than my sister, who would have been only four at that point. I resented the time we spent there, but truthfully I would have resented time spent anywhere. I was miserable. I don’t know how aware my mother ever was of this. I think she was so interested in Jeff that she didn’t notice. Or maybe she was just too unequipped to really deal with it or even understand the depth my of unhappiness. I remember that we were on the way to Jeff’s house once and she asked me if I was okay. Or what was wrong. Or something that only barely touched the tip of my iceberg. I’m sure I brushed off her question, unable to properly express myself and also certain she would not understand. I wasn’t so far off: she never asked again. By the end of the summer her relationship had fizzled. He told her they were better off as just friends and she was pretty heartbroken. Although I’m well aware of my mother’s own dysfunction, I wonder how much of a damper it was to their relationship to have an angry teenager around all the time. I actually feel really sad for my mother about this one. I remember that she had this cattail thing we found on a walk that she had carved “Jeff #1” into one day. It’s really painful to have to throw stupid little things like that away and in hindsight I really do feel for her. She stayed in bed for a couple days after they broke up. I think my grandmother may have come to the house and sternly told her to get herself together. I feel for her.

I spent most of my time sitting in a tree and listening to music. I had discovered Nirvana and Tool and Stabbing Westward and the melodies and lyrics spoke to me like nothing I had ever experienced. I wrote endlessly: mostly lyrics to the songs I had fallen in love with, but also a few terrible songs of my own. I also kept a journal on the family computer and I wrote in that pretty avidly. My friends had grown weary of my constant lamenting and one or two of them also began to detach from me. I had little social life at all, save for one friend who lived down the street from my grandparents. We shared poetry we had written and talked about books. One time, in a fitful need to speak to someone who would understand me, I emailed Seth. I had no time to write a proper email, as I was fearful my mother would catch me. Instead, I attached the word document that held all my journal entries from the summer. I spent the next three days in a heightened state of anxiety, terrified my mother would somehow find out I was writing to Seth and using my email, which had also been forbidden. What happened instead was at least as bad.

One day towards the end of summer I got the call I had been wishing for, for months. A missed call from Delilah flashed on my grandparents’ caller ID. I was elated. Hurriedly, I called her up. My heart pounded. “Hey, what’s up?” I was tentative, afraid of exposing my excitement. It became clear that this was not a social call. Her voice was hard; steely. I asked her if she was angry with me, annoyed, furious. In reply: “I hate you.” Her words hit me in the gut. They sat with me and sank me. She told me to check my email and hung up. Frantically, I got on the computer when I got home. I was anxious in all directions: afraid of what the email would say, afraid of getting caught, afraid of learning what I had done to deserve this hatred. In truth, I don’t remember what the email said. I don’t think it answered any questions. Certainly, it didn’t justify the sudden disposal of our friendship. I recall only that Delilah had decided randomly to check my email and saw that I had recently corresponded with Seth. She read my entire journal. She knew everything. She knew my pain and still loathed me for a reason I could not find. What’s worse was that she knew I was going against my mother’s word by speaking to Seth and I spent the rest of the summer paralyzed by the fear that she would sell me out. I was so blinded by my hurt and fear that I hardly even noticed how invasive and terrible it was for her to log into my email. But then, we never notice these things until much later, do we?

Letters to Colin (3)

My mother was in a healthy state for a while after Michelle was born. We lived together in Buckland and Michelle’s father came to visit every Friday. My own dad was still out of the picture, although he did call me to let me know when his father died the year I was in fourth grade. I was young and barely remember the funeral. although I do know that it was the first I ever attended. I also remember that despite having no previous relationship with him, my father hugged me warmly when I saw him there. This was not the start to a newfound father-daughter story. This was just him performing as he was expected. I actually didn’t see him for years after this.

At the time, my mother held a job doing payroll at Lane Construction in Northfield. After my grandfather died my grandmother made an effort to see me from time to time. On days off from school I would sometimes join my mother on her trip to work and my grandmother, who also lived in Northfield, would pick me up and I’d spend the day with her. Truthfully, I don’t know or remember a lot about her. I can see her face clearly, and sometimes it makes me sad to think about her. I wish that I had known her with some adult perspective. Or really, any perspective at all. I wish that I could have known her when I was old enough to know to call her more or to have been able to drive over and visit her on my own. As it were, she died only a few years after my grandfather. But before that, I would go out to lunch with her. I don’t know what we talked about. She used to tell me she had all these records of my family’s genealogy. I didn’t care at the time, but I’d be interested in looking at them now.  One time we ran into my father when we were going out to breakfast. I don’t know if it was awkward then, but the memory is very uncomfortable for me. He hugged me and acted happy to see me. But how strange to see your estranged daughter with your mother one morning when you barely talk to either of them. Actually, now that I think about it, before we moved to Buckland, my dad visited a total of two times. He gave me a playstation for Christmas, as I was always struggling to get my old nintendo to work. I think that’s the only present he ever gave me. By the time I bumped into him with Grandma, it had already been a significant amount of time since that.

In sixth grade I started struggling. I was definitely still unpopular, but I had friends…I was just never cool. This is when the effects of my depression started to become clear, I think. I just randomly stopped doing my homework, particularly if I found it uninteresting. I wasn’t busy, and I had no real reason for not doing it. I just stopped. My grades suffered, in part also because I landed in Ms. Marshall’s class, and she was known for being a tough marker. Maybe that’s true, but I can say that she was exactly who I needed to be taught by, although I didn’t know that until later. Everyone pretty much thought she was a whacko, and not usually in the fun way. But man, that woman knew what she was doing.

Truthfully, nothing particularly eventful happened in those first few years living with my mother and sister. But like I’ve said, my mother is mentally ill and although I had no way of knowing at the time, something was brewing brewing brewing.

When I was in either sixth or seventh grade Mom developed kidney problems. This woman took terrible care of herself.  Granted, I don’t think anybody ever really taught her how to eat well and how to prepare food or that boxed food from the dollar store isn’t actually food. In some ways, it’s not really her fault. I can’t blame her shitty nutritional choices on much other than ignorance. (I say this as I write at 2 in the morning eating IHOP. God help me.) When my mother was in her prime (and indeed, these years were her prime) she cooked us shepherd’s pie (made from boxed mashed potatoes and canned corn) and hamburger helper (that shit out of a package that you add hamburger and water to) and “chicken with that pink sauce” (something vaguely Asian. Who knows.) For herself, my mother prepared a steady diet of coca cola and cigarettes. She supplemented this with a box of cheez-its, little debbie’s snack cakes, or maybe just nothing at all. A screwdriver here and there or sometimes a Hershey’s bar. The point is that she should have been constantly ill and the fact that she developed a legitimate health issue is really no surprise.  She also suffered from intense migraines and often had to take shots to cope with them. So, she got these kidney stones, got them blasted, and all went back to normal. Briefly.

Suddenly there was a new problem at work: her boss, who she had been friends with for years, was out to get her. There was some sort of unspecific problem between them and this woman was being horrible to my mother. I don’t know what the issue was, or if there was ever a real issue, but I do know that one time my mother saw her at the grocery store and flipped her off and that my sweet grandmother referred to her as “a dried up old cunt.” I suspect she was undeserving of this, but my grandmother sided with my mom in nearly everything. Blood was always very thick in her mind.

Soon after, my mother left her job. She did not delay so as to find another source of income. I guess she didn’t have to, really. She always had my grandparents and government funding on her side.  I think that she immediately filed for unemployment and disability. Food stamps too. To her credit, she did try to find a job for a little while. I remember her having interviews and never getting hired. It makes me really sad, because even though she’s out of her fucking mind, she does really have good streaks. I think she did want to get another job and that she did want to provide for her children. I mean, it’s not like I was ever going to have a college fund or anything like that, but I think she was content for a while, being able to buy our clothes and throw food in the crockpot and play mom the best she knew how. It wasn’t great, but it was what she could do. She had just paid off all of these bills that she had had left over from her heroin days and things really could have been on an upswing; she had good momentum. For whatever reason, she couldn’t maintain it.

She was flat out rejected for disability. As you might guess, they don’t really see having kidney stones as being debilitating, least of all in the long term. At this point she hadn’t worked for months and months. For as long as I had lived with her, I had had a list of chores to complete. This is pretty standard, even though I was the only one among my friends who did not receive an allowance. Actually, I’m pretty sure I also had the longest chore list. Sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming the house were all my jobs. So too were scrubbing the tub, loading and unloading the dishwasher, and feeding the cats and cleaning their litter boxes. (Yes, boxes. We had three or more cats at all times. Super functional.) One morning I had no school and I was going next door to babysit for the triplets who were the same age as my little sister.  The night before I had fought with my mom about the amount of chores I had to do while she spent all day at home. The next morning, I apologized, ashamed at having insinuated she was lazy. At this point, although it had been a significant amount of time since her procedure to take care of her kidney stones, she was still consumed by the role of the ailing patient. Angrily, she told me that while I babysat I was to research in depth the side effects and long term effects of having kidney stones. I was to print these out and bring them home.  At the time I thought that this was just an elaborate guilt trip and punishment, and that’s probably true. But I only realized later that she was using these printouts as evidence in her appeal for disability.

Letters to Colin (2)

There wasn’t really a lot else that happened during my middle childhood. My mom eventually got off the smack. I asked her about it once when I was older and she explained that my grandparents always assumed that once they took me away my mom would realize that she was destroying her life and get clean so she could have me back. Apparently it did the opposite; once she lost me she lost everything and there was no point to getting back on track. She told me that we used to high five or cross our little fingers together or something because we were a team. I don’t remember that, but I believe it and it makes me sad.

When I was in second grade I noticed that my family wasn’t normal. We were young and basically everyone had a standard nuclear family at that point. Plenty of divorces and hardships came later, but when we were only 8 I felt like I was the odd one out. Although I hadn’t seen my father in years, I was in touch with my grandparents on his side of the family and they gave me his number. I’m not sure what they expected to have happen…they were also only barely in touch with him. I called him up one night while I was still living at my grandmother’s house. He answered and as I didn’t recognize his voice, I asked for him by name. I told him who it was and he asked me, “Marie who?” “Your daughter,” I told him. He mumbled, “I’m sorry,” and hung up. Wailing, I tried to call him back. My grandmother stood nearby and furiously got on the phone. His roommate answered and told her that my father wasn’t there. She shouted at him and I don’t remember the rest. That was my first heartbreak, I think. And the first time I can distinctly remember feeling unwanted, although I don’t think I could have put words to it at the time. And that became a pretty rampant theme in my life.

I didn’t really know it until about a year ago, but I think I was a pretty unhappy child. I remember crying a lot. Too much, I think. I wrote a song in fifth grade about my fire burning out or something, which is sort of standard adolescent angst, but it got to me sort of young. I “ran away” when I was little too. Basically that meant that I would pack a bag of cookies and a box of bandaids and go sulk under the tree across the street. Otherwise, when I was feeling heavy, and I have felt that way ever since I was quite young, I would climb a tree or sit on a big rock and just feel the sun and the wind. I liked to imagine I was Pocahontas. One time I heard someone describe someone else as being a “free spirit” and I wanted so badly for someone to see that in me too.

My mother was around, eventually. She visited me and took me along on her trips to the methadone clinic. Sometimes she lived with my uncle in Colrain. Sometimes he lived with me and my grandparents and cleaned the house for money. She might have had friends. She worked a night job and eventually got her own place in Shelburne Center. I visited on weekends. I remember that I told her once I only wanted to visit every other week. I’m not sure why I decided that. It must have broken her heart.

She had a dumb boyfriend at the time. His name was Bill and he was a straight up cliche redneck. He was dumb as rocks and drank too much beer. He knocked my mom up too, which was a surprise to everyone because he had declared himself sterile. Turns out he just thought that because he wore really tight jeans. The two of them broke up before my little sister was born and I was sad to not be able to go to his brother’s farm anymore. After Michelle was born my grandparents relented and let my mother have me indefinitely. I don’t think the custody was officially changed for another year, so I still had to have my grandparents sign all my permission slips for school, and I think my mother is still bitter about that.

I think it was only about 5 months later that we moved into the house in Buckland. I remember that it was on one of the very first days I was in fourth grade that we moved and I couldn’t find the right bus and I cried. We moved into a ranch house off of Elm St. It was a tiny dead end street called Harmony Lane. It was like some kind of terribly ironic foreshadowing. You can’t make this shit up.

Letters to Colin

Have I ever really told you my story? Grab a coffee; it’s a long one.

My very oldest memory is from when I was two years old. I’ve since figured out that it was probably in December of 1991. My parents were getting divorced. We lived in a condo in Turners Falls and I still remember where we had the kitchen table, the bookshelf, the couch. The kitchen, the second bathroom. This night I was playing next to the bookshelf that stood against the wall between the dining room and the living room. My parents were at the kitchen table across from each other and the light was dim. My mother stood up, I think she was crying. My father stayed seated. She walked towards me and I remember that I must have been very small, because as she came to me I remember only seeing to her thigh. In my memories she was wearing shorts, which doesn’t make sense if this was happening in December. Maybe it was just an earlier fight. They are dysfunctional people. Likely, they were fighting all the time.

I don’t have really any memories of my dad after that. I’ve tried and tried for years to come up with something. Sometimes I think I remember playing with him in the big raked-up pile of leaves in the fall, but as I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware that that memory is fabricated from a certain set of photographs I’ve gotten my hands on. The pictures didn’t wake anything up; they just put an idea in my head. I can remember one other time I saw him as a small child and it was after he moved out. He came by to visit me and read me a bedtime story. I was being difficult, as kids always are at bedtime, and I remember him scolding me with my full name: “June Marie Billiel!” This has stuck with me all my life and I’m not sure if it’s because it’s the first time I understood that that was my full name, which is sort of strangely profound in itself, or if it is the first time the tone in which my name was being said was harsh enough to stick with me. Maybe both.

I’m pretty sure that my mom used to tell me that my dad never ever came to visit me after he moved out. She’s close to right, if my memory is to be trusted. But I remember this one time pretty clearly. But who knows, maybe he was just there to pick something up or to fight with my mom or to sign a divorce paper. I guess I always just assumed he was there to visit me, even though I don’t have any real reason for thinking that.

Next I remember going to the courthouse in Greenfield. I think that was the official end to the marriage.

Somewhere along the line my mom met this guy named Eric. My grandmother told me that I used to call him Dad. We drove down to Florida with him and a cooler full of sandwiches and lived there for almost a year, I think. I have no idea what he did for work or how my mother met him or anything like that. I remember very little about him, really. I vaguely remember his face and I remember that he used to take me fishing out in back of the condo we lived in. Sometimes we had to run back inside the house because there was an alligator that would come by and hang out on the beach from time to time. I’m pretty sure we never caught anything. One time I was holding a cracker in my hand and a duck came over and bit my finger. Another time we walked along the beach and I found a coconut and took it home and painted it. I kept that damn thing for years, even after we had moved back to Mass and even after I moved to my grandparent’s house. Now that I have to be careful about acquiring too many things it seems insane to me that my family let me keep packing it and bringing it everywhere.

We were in Florida for hurricane season too. Eric and my mom duct taped up the windows and the sliding glass door but somehow my mom still thought that she should bring me to preschool the next day. Of course my school was closed, and I still have the image of her running up to the building while I sat in the car so that she could read the sign on the door. Seems stupid to me now, and dangerous too. Who knows what she was thinking.

Anyway, things were fine with Eric as far as I knew as a four year old, which is admittedly not very far. One day he and my mom got in a fight. He threw her through the screen door and I was standing right in the room. She got back up and came inside and told me to call the police. As she got back up Eric shoved her into this little desk my grandfather had built for me. I asked my mom what the number to the police was because I didn’t know about 911 yet and Eric came over and ripped the phone straight out of the wall. Next I remember my mom checking out the huge gash she had up her legs from being thrown into my desk, but it was days later. Did the neighbors call the cops? Was Eric arrested? Why else would we have still been in that house? I don’t know. I don’t even remember sound from that time. I remember only that I was supposed to call the police and I imagine that my mom yelled it at me. But I’m sure there should have been screams and that Eric would have been shouting too but I can’t recall a damn thing. Was I afraid? I don’t even know what I felt, although I’m sure it’s in my head somewhere.

We left after that, although I don’t know how quickly it happened. When we got back it was winter. My grandparents owned the place we had lived in Turners and apparently it was just the same as we had left it. I don’t remember having to move any furniture back, although that could just be a flaw in my memory. I do remember that as soon as we got back we had to shovel all the snow off of the deck and I had this little red shovel that in retrospect was probably useless, but I helped my mom all the same.

Eric showed up again around my 4th birthday. I was sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner or cake or something and my mom had gone upstairs when he peered through the window and waved at me. I ran over to let him in and then I have no idea what happened. I never saw him again though, as far as I can remember.

Next my mom became a junkie.

There was this guy named Russ. I don’t know where he came from, but my mom always pegged him as the one who introduced her to heroin. I’m not sure when or where or how it started, but I learned later that my mom has always had a thing for painkillers, although I don’t actually think she’s entirely aware that she abuses them. Anyway, she used to tell me that even the first time she shot up she had a high tolerance, and I suspect her previous opiate misuse was to blame.

Our lives quickly descended into madness. I can’t even really piece together everything that happened in a real timeline, but I know that for a couple of years our lives consisted of driving to Holyoke late at night and sometimes crashing on random people’s floors. We bought groceries with bad checks I wasn’t allowed to answer the phone anymore because there were always bill collectors and maybe even cops calling. I don’t know if the police part is true, but as a little girl that’s what I thought was happening.

There were always people in our house and sometimes I’d come downstairs in the morning and my mom and a bunch of people would just be passed out on the living room floor. One morning I came down and the news was playing while Russ and my mother dozed in front of the tv. I woke my mother up and asked her if I could change the channel. After she said yes I changed the channel to cartoons and Russ abruptly woke up. He snapped that he had been watching the tv and smacked me across the face. Hard. Truthfully, I don’t remember his hand connecting to my cheek, but I can say with complete certainty that that’s what happened. I have a memory that immediately proceeded this: my mother running with me up the stairs trying to get away from him. There was yelling and when we got to the top of the stairs and Russ was still behind us so my mom turned around and pushed him down the stairs. My mother is a small woman, especially on an opiate binge, and Russ was not a small guy. I think this was the kind of adrenaline-fueled Mama strength you hear about. Mom locked us in the bathroom and although I don’t know how we got out or we got Russ away, I can remember her sitting on the toilet, just peeing and crying.

The next time I saw Russ his arm was in a sling and he told me he was sorry for what happened. But just because Russ was gone doesn’t mean the smack was.

Everything else is a bit foggy. I have mostly glimpses: my mom shutting her bedroom door in my face with a syringe in her hand; driving hours and hours back and forth from New Hampshire to buy cartons of cigarettes and back down to Holyoke to sell them for enough profit to get a fix. We had something like 100 tag sales to help with this new found expense too. A few lovely pieces handmade by my grandfather were lost this way.

I had some shitty kids to play with nearby. There were two kids whose dad sometimes went to jail who lived next door to me. The girl was a little too old to really care about me, but the son, Matt would often play power rangers with me in the woods behind our houses. There was a little frog pond across the street too. There was this super old tiny graveyard and then down behind it was the pond. Sometimes I would catch frogs and then bring them home and put them in my kiddie pool. One time I came home and couldn’t find the frog that had been happily swimming around when I left. I asked Matt if he had seen my frog and he led me to two cinder blocks. He lifted the top one up and showed me the remains of my frog that he had crushed. To this day, this makes me feel sick to talk about. I’m still not sure if this was just classic destructive boy behavior or if this kid was a little sick, but if I listen to my gut I have to say it’s the latter. Maybe it’s that I’m older and jaded now, but when I look back i just think the whole cul de sac was poisoned.

I also made friends with an elderly lady at the end of the row named Margarite. After I lived with my grandparents sometimes we would go to the condo and do work on the house. I went to visit her each time and then one day someone told me she didn’t live there anymore. I don’t think anybody explained to me that she, or really that anyone, died. But somehow I am sure I knew. Maybe I could smell it. Maybe it was just the air. Too still.

There was also a lady right next door who I befriended. Her name was Gina and my mother hated her. I learned later that she was a social worker. Go figure. She was a good one though.

One weekend I went to my grandparents’ house while my mom went off to party. I’m told that she asked when she should come pick me up and they told her that I was going to be living with them from then on. I don’t know how I felt about this. I have a vague idea that I asked my grandmother a few times when mom was coming back and she kept telling me I would be with them, “a few more days.” Then I was meeting the principal at BSE and he gave me a stuffed panda bear to hold overnight before my first day in kindergarten at my new school.

I don’t believe the whole transition could have been as painless as I remember it, but who knows. During dinner one of the first nights there I confessed to my grandparents about some of the goings-on with my mother in the previous week. I guess they must have been quizzing me, but I only really remember talking to my mom on the corded kitchen phone after dinner and telling her, “I told Gram and Gramp about Wednesday,” and apologizing. She told me it was okay. I guess she must have known it was a lost cause at that point.

That’s enough for tonight.