Author: Jennie Miller Helderman
ISBN: 9780982773208
Publisher: The Summers Bridge Press

When we hear about wife battering, we are most inclined to associate it with physical abuse. However, as revealed from Jennie Miller Helderman's As the sycamore grows, there are several other ways to exert abuse without being physical such as isolation, economic, verbal and intimidation.

Helderman has advocated for women and children from the grassroots to the national level. In 2005-2006 she presided over the Alabama Department of Human Resources, the agency which oversees all issues of abuse. It was also in 2005 that she was assigned to write a fifteen hundred word magazine story concerning poverty in Alabama. And as she informs us, this is how she became acquainted with Ginger McNeil that eventually led to her writing as the sycamore grows- a riveting account of a woman who had suffered extreme emotional as well as physical abuse at the hands of her second husband, Mike.

As we follow Ginger's journey through hell, we discover that she and her husband Mike along with their two children lived in a cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere, too poor to afford electricity and a phone, and too petrified to leave her husband. Ginger informs us that she even made her own soap and participated in a number of unbelievable manual tasks enabling her and her family to make-do with whatever could be caught, grown or bartered. In addition, she home-schooled her two children.

Ginger was raised in an extremely conservative Christian home, where her father Claude was a tyrant and would not put up with any misbehavior from his children. Helderman, who interviewed Claude, describes him as “boastful of his misdeeds while swaddled in self-righteousness, but full of feelings, a veritable bundle of nerve endings, all encased in cement.” According to Ginger, during her teen years, she was under very strict control by her father who forbade her to join social clubs, no cheerleading, no baton twirling, very few movies, no dancing, even at school, and certainly no mini skirts. It had to be whatever was sanctioned by the church and only what it sanctioned. Divorce might be permitted under very narrow circumstances, but remarriage was certainly a no-no. Women were to be treated as chattels and even in church if they had any questions to ask the minister, they were to ask their husbands. Ginger most aptly sums it up: “I wasn't given freedom of space to develop. I felt like a Chinese girl with my feet bound.”

At eighteen, Ginger met her first husband, Turner, who raced cars and had a reputation for partying hard on the week-ends. She was swept off her feet by Turner, whom she believed to be a hard worker, good provider, stable man who would protect her-just like her father, and within no time the couple married. After their son Trent was born, Ginger experienced bouts of depression and on a few occasions found comfort in the hands of other men. The marriage deteriorated and eventually the couple divorced. Ginger agreed to give up custody of Trent to Turner, knowing that she was in no position to properly take care of him. Her parents disowned her and her father told her she was no longer welcome in their home. They also had the church withdraw from her or to put it bluntly, she was booted out of her church because of her divorce and giving up custody of her son.

As Helderman writes, “cut off from her baby, her family and her church, Ginger drifted in a sea of despair.” Once again Ginger found solace in the arms of an older man, Mike, whom Ginger describes as strong and mature. She goes on to state: “I'd been trying so hard on my own, and faced with a protector telling me what to do, I backed into my familiar corner.” Unfortunately, as in the case of her first marriage, this one likewise ends in divorce, but not before Ginger endured for several years extreme abuse at the hands of Mike.

Despite the emotional weight of the subject matter, Helderman's curious and searching journalistic style refrains from resorting to passing judgement and moreover she seeks out balance with her interviews with Mike and others who were close to Ginger. The result is a spellbinding narrative that reads like a chilling soap opera, constantly reminding us of the horror of wife battering and its repercussions. No doubt, this painful and heart-wrenching account will anger some readers, while others will cry in sympathy for Ginger and the many victims who have been unfortunate to suffer similar harrowing experiences. In the end, it is a book about process, where Ginger is able to understand her own story through the act of recounting it. It is also about hope, which is beautifully summed up by Ginger when she points out to the author a tall strong sycamore tree she planted comparing it to herself and stating: “It came out of a compost pile.”


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