Author and Advocate, Michael Gabel
Born and raised in St. Louis, MO, Michael G. Gabel studied English and Fine Art at Dartmouth College. He now lives in Los Angeles where he works as a writer and artist. His original work and criticism has been featured in Hyperallergic and Trendland.
I am often impressed with the books and films and projects that I cover. I am inspired by the authors and filmmakers and advocates that I get to talk to feature on DanaRoc.com, but Michael Gabel has newly impressed and inspired me. His selfless dedication and commitment to change lives for the better, to support women in escaping abuse is incredible to me. He works hard and really expects nothing for himself in return, while intending and hoping that his efforts will make a difference in saving even one woman's life.
DR: Michael, one of the things that I like about She Can Fly is that it feels to me like the book is really part of an overall project or like the beginning of a movement. Is that a fair assessment?
MG: Yeah, I mean the concept to start She Can Fly was very novel in the way that we approached the writing and the way we wanted to approach releasing the content when we were ready. It never really felt like pure memoir or fiction or "Who is the author", "Who is the subject", "Is it a book", "Is it a resource" or "Is it a non-profit"? It's kind of just been this work in progress since we started and it has just sort of evolved as we went along. We're really happy about where we ended up. You know, it is a book. It is a free resource. It is a website and a non-profit. It's all these things but at the root of it is just a really incredible story and one that we hope people can relate to and benefit from.
DR: Can you tell me about the story?
Listen to the audio version of this interview
MG: The story revolves around Kerry Keyes. She is the subject of the story. She is the nanny who raised me. That's how I came to know her.
My parents were two doctors that had very busy lives. They had trouble managing the home and me (I was kind of a terror-of-a-two-year-old only child). They decided to bring in some outside help, a nanny, to work full time taking care of me and the house. They hired Kerry Keyes and within a week she had our entire house running like clockwork. She won me over and very quickly became my best friend. She taught me manners, taught me discipline, taught me how to cook and clean and I followed her around and was her little buddy from the age of two to ten.
At that time my parents were splitting up. It was really a tough period for me and Kerry was my rock. Then one day she just didn't show up to work. We didn't know why. About a month later we came to find out she had been arrested on a fugitive warrant from a different state and taken back to Colorado. We lived in St. Louis at the time. That's where I grew up and where Kerry grew up.
We were floored when we found out that this was all because of a past relationship that was very abusive. While she was living with us, Kerry was living under a false name. No driver's license. No bank account. No social security number. She was just flying completely under the radar. We paid her in cash so she was able to pull this life-style off. She just kind of fell out of our lives for a while, as we slowly found out the details.
It was a very difficult time for me. I was a confused ten-year-old boy. It didn't make sense for a very long time.
Eventually Kerry was exonerated of all her issues and came back to St. Louis and resumed her lifestyle of living in her little apartment and raising kids and taking care of people. She always stayed in my life. It wasn't the same intensity, but our bond was very strong. She was my second mother.
I was in college at Dartmouth in 2008. I was on a destructive path myself. I was not focusing on my academics. I was focusing more on my social education. I ended up getting suspended from school. When I came home I didn't know where to go or what to do and I ended up at Kerry's apartment, the same little apartment where I used to build blanket forts and hang out with her on the weekends while my parents were getting divorced. She cooked for me and let me cry on her shoulder and did all the things that I mother would do.
After I settled down she told me that some really terrible things had happened to her in the past. I sort of nodded along because my parents had offered some vague explanation back when it all happened in 1997 when I was ten-years-old. I knew "domestic violence" and I knew "prison" and I knew all these words that were way beyond the purview of my life and my world-view.
Kerry said to me "I saw this woman being bullied in this parking lot. I knew exactly what was going on. I knew all the signs. It was so obvious that her husband was abusing her. She had sunglasses on and she had all these bruises around her eyes. Something clicked in me. I tried to help. I tried to get her in my car. I tried to call the police. Nothing worked. She was too trapped. She couldn't help herself".
When Kerry was going through this domestic violence situation back in the '70s and '80s, there were no hotlines and no shelters and no resources. Domestic violence wasn't even a crime. The cops would show up and say "What did you do to make him so mad?
Kerry didn't understand why women were not leaving these relationships. And what it boils down to is that they are trapped. They are psychologically and emotionally and physically trapped in these relationships and if you can't see that it's not going to get better and if you keep convincing yourself that if you love him more he'll change, it's never going to get better. It's just a slippery slope that continues until it devastates your life like it did with Kerry.
Kerry realized that the only way to help women who were the victims of domestic violence was to share her story and to show the progression of an abusive relationship so that women might have the foresight to get out before they get in too deep. The longer you stay, the harder it is to leave.
Hopefully by sharing this story we can reach women at the early stages of abuse and try to give some sort of perspective.
A Domestic Violence Survival Story & Nonprofit Awareness Project
A young woman's harrowing journey across state lines to escape an endless cycle of abuse. Raised in a comfortable middle class neighborhood in America's Midwest, Kerry Keyes' seduction by a master manipulator plunges her into a world of deceit and violence. Forced to perform illegal acts to keep herself alive and her family intact, she spirals downward, ending up behind bars. The web of deception only worsens and Keyes' relentless quest for freedom takes her from prisoner to fugitive as she seeks to reunite with her children. Living under a false identity buys her time, but luck runs out...
From St. Louis to Denver to San Francisco and back, Kerry's story grabs and won't let go. Ultimately a testimony to resilience, courage and love of family, She Can Fly is a frightening adrenaline rush that reads like true crime - a poignant cautionary tale, culminating in redemption, justice, and hope.
DR: Let's talk a little bit about this societal notion that an abusive relationship is something that should be easy for a woman to remove herself from. I don't happen to be one those people that thinks it's as cut and dry as "If someone hits you, you have to leave". I think that it is much more complicated than that and I think that women are judged harshly because the conclusion is that "She deserves the abuse if she isn't willing to walk away". Can you share your thoughts on this?
MG: I think that there is a big societal tendency to blame the victim and people think that the woman is getting what she is asking for if she is being abused. There are a million ways to blame the victim. Meanwhile the victim is making up all of these reasons in her own head to justify staying: "We have kids together", We have a mortgage together", "He still loves me" or "He's going to therapy". There are a million excuses that are victim centric. But it is really all about the abuser.
An abusive mentality comes down to two things. It comes down to control and entitlement. For one reason or another whoever is doing the abusing thinks "I am entitled to control you because of x, y and z". And the tactics that they use to exert that control range from emotional abuse to physical abuse to financial abuse to isolation to dragging their partners name through the mud to humiliation – so that the abuser has complete control. When you are on the outside looking in you conclude that it's easy to just walk away but there are all of these other factors and tactics that go beyond black eyes and bruises going on that prevent that from happening.
People need to realize that there is so much more going on and that there are so many subtle ways to abuse and that it is easy to trap women in abusive situations.
DR: Has it been your experience that you can merely suggest to a woman that she is being abused without triggering a defensive response? I ask that question wondering if there are times when a woman is in an abusive relationship but really doesn't identify it as such, do you know what I mean?
MG: Yeah. In Kerry's own story she says that she just lost the ability to think for herself. You begin to believe all of the lies and manipulations. "If I didn't love you I wouldn't take the time to beat you", "Look at my hands. They are bruised and bloody because you didn't listen".
Once you get deep into the mindset of a victim you start to believe that it makes sense that it is your fault. You start to blame yourself and believe that it is your fault. "It's not abusive. It's just our relationship. We're just working through some things". That is when it becomes so dangerous. When someone isn't thinking for themselves and becomes a puppet.
DR: How did you come up with the title She Can Fly?
MG: When we were working on the main text of the book, along the way we had a few different working titles and I'm an artist so I would always think of covers just to keep myself motivated. When we got close to publishing and we needed to nail down a title I discovered that Hemingway took a lot of his titles from Bible verses. I thought that was interesting because Kerry is religious.
I started looking through the Bible for relevant quotes and topics. I started searching for suffering or pain or redemption or freedom and I came across a passage in Genesis about the birth of God talking about how when this woman was impregnated with God, not Jesus, the evil forces of the devil were out to get her and corrupt that child. An angel came down and gave the woman wings so that she might fly into the wilderness where she would be protected. I took that passage "so she might fly" and kind of analyzed each verb and what it meant and changed it from "she might fly" to "She Can Fly". That is kind of the mission statement of the whole book that no matter how deep you are in or no matter the situation, if you just take the leap, you can fly. That's where it came from.
DR: How do you see the book evolving? It really feels like it has legs.
MG: Well we knew from the start that we wanted to offer the book for free. We knew that right off the bat. That was one of the reasons that we wanted to publish it ourselves and not go through a publisher.
People in a dangerous situation, like a domestic violence situation, don't have a lot of access sometimes. Usually their finances are controlled like their credit card receipts are checked or their Internet activity is being controlled. They can't have a book in their house about domestic violence because of the abuser. So, by offering it online in a way that is completely free in a non-intrusive way, we knew we could reach the people who couldn't afford it or who would otherwise be denied access to the book. That was a big thing for us. And then building a non-profit around it to accept donations which allows us to keep he website going but to also donate physical copies of the book to shelters and schools and centers all over the country has been a big initiative.
The majority of donations go toward getting the book into places like that so they can pass the book on to people coming in looking for help.
So that's been kind of the plan from the start and that's been going well. In terms of it generating more exposure? I mean, people read books and people go to the library and people research things but more people go to the movies. So there has been some interest in a screenplay adaptation, which we are working on as well so that we can get the story to a larger audience.
We are also working with a school in Brooklyn to get the book included as part of their curriculum at an inner-city public high school that has a lot of kids that are in dangerous relationships. We are trying to move through the States book approval process. So, getting the story to schools and to a wider audience is where we are right now. We are just trying to share this story.
DR: Wow. I think this is amazing.
Do you have advice for someone who, like Kerry, observed abuse and just really felt passionately about trying to advocate somehow for the victim? Or perhaps you might have advice for people who suspect that a friend or family member is in an abusive relationship. What kind of advice do you have for this kind of touchy situation?
MG: I think the best tactic is to listen. If you see the signs or have an inclination, remind them that you are there to listen and that you are willing to hear their story. The last thing that a victim wants is to be told what to do. So the number one thing to do is to listen. Obviously, if you think their safety is being threatened then you might want to inform the authorities.
As a result of The Violence Against Women Act, domestic violence is illegal. If there is proof that a partner is being abused by a significant other, the authorities can take action. My fiancés father knew that one of his employees was being abused. It was very obvious and they eventually took action. They set the woman up in one of their spare bedrooms and took legal recourse against the husband. He lashed out and threatened to kill everyone in the office but at the end of the day they broke the cycle and the woman was able to rebuild her life free of his influence. You have to be very careful how you handle something like that but the system is working.
The third way, I'd say, is if you are a victim who was able to leave the best way to help is to share your story. To have that relate ability is invaluable.
DR: I think that the story and what you are doing with the story is really very impressive. I am very moved that someone would dedicate themselves to something that is so incredibly important and in such a selfless way. To have the whole objective be to get the book in the hands of the very people who need the support and who would probably not otherwise be helped is – wow. I think it's incredible.
MG: It was never about making money. It was about sharing. Kerry is not a wealthy woman. She struggles to make her rent and pay her bills and I'm kind of in the same boat but when we started this project, I promised Kerry that we would get one email from one woman saying that the book helped her leave an abusive situation. And, just to have that email on the board makes it all worthwhile. For all of the hours and dollars we spent getting the book out there, that makes it all worthwhile.
What we are up against is staggering. The statistics are horrific. One woman is abused every nine seconds in the United States and three women a day are murdered by their significant other. Why is this a problem in 2014? Why is this going on? Why is this not getting more attention? We are just trying to get as much exposure to this issue as we can and it doesn't hurt that Kerry's story is so riveting.
DR: Beyond going to your website and donating, how can people participate?
MG: Just sharing the word. Go on FaceBook (She Can Fly) and share the page. Give us a Twitter (@shecanflybook) shout out. Buy the book and give it to someone. Direct them to the website (www.shecanfly.org) where they can read it for free.
Just spread the word.
DR: Well I'm happy to play a part in that.
MG: Thank you.
DR: A hundred years from now, Michael, what do you want to be remembered for?
MG: I just want to be remembered for creating things that helped people enjoy their own lives in a meaningful way. That's the meaning I want to assign to my own life. It sort of just fulfills itself in a circular way for the rest of time – hopefully.
She Can Fly
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