Author Guest Post

Behind the Book: The You I’ve Never Known and Breaking New Ground

January 24, 2017
Ellen Hopkins
Author of The You I've Never Known

My newest book, The You I’ve Never Known (Available today, 1/24), is my thirteenth young adult novel, and I think that’s portentous. I’m not really the superstitious type, but in researching the symbolism of thirteen, you find it representing upheaval so new ground can be broken; death to the matter, birth to the spirit, passage to a higher level of existence. And at this exact moment in time, that feels vital.

the-you-ive-never-known-9781481442909_lgThe story is about a girl whose father has moved her around the country her whole life, never settling down long enough for her to experience friendship or love outside of what he provides. Everything she believes, including the fact that her mother deserted her when she was a toddler, has been force-fed to her by an abusive man who she relies on for sustenance and emotional support. She is a fledgling, not seeking flight, but rather the comfort of a permanent nest.

When at long last Ariel’s dad puts down tentative roots, she has the opportunity to make friends and is allowed connection to the wider world. But then her father’s lies begin to surface, shaking her embryonic confidence, and when her mom makes a surprise appearance the ensuing upheaval compels them to break new ground.

I have mentioned the fact that this story was inspired by a very real chapter of my own life—how my ex-husband kidnapped my three-year-old daughter from daycare and traveled the country with her for three years, thwarting my efforts to locate her. When he finally settled in near his hometown, with the aid of his grandmother, I was able to get her back.

I have also talked about his physical and emotional abuse. On more than one occasion, his violent outbursts left me bloody and bruised. What I have neglected to discuss was how some people viewed and/or reacted to that. One might expect sympathy, offers of help. But, with a few exceptions, those things didn’t happen.

One night is seared into memory. My ex’s eruptions were always alcohol-triggered. It didn’t take much, and on that evening he’d had three or four drinks. I don’t remember what I said to encourage his anger, but he beat me hard enough to break my nose. Fearing for my life, I stumbled out of our house and ran to a nearby fire station. It took several rings to rouse the guy on the other side of the door, but when he appeared at last he took one disgusted look at the condition of my face. “Did your boyfriend do that to you? What did you do?” he sneered. Then he pointed. “The Sheriff’s office is that way.” And he shut the door.

The police station was a half-mile away, but distance wasn’t the reason I made the decision to turn around and go home. It was the man’s attitude. He made it clear that he believed I deserved the abuse, and if he thought so, the next guy would, too. More importantly, my children were still in that house, and I had to make sure they were safe. Even if it meant more abuse. They were sleeping soundly when I got back. We escaped the next day and I filed for divorce.

It was a few weeks after the final papers were signed that my ex spirited my daughter away. As soon as I learned he’d taken her, I went to that police station for help. The cop who took my report asked a whole lot of questions, scribbled a whole lot of stuff down on a legal pad. Then he looked me in the eye. “You run your own business, don’t you?”

The community was close-knit. I owned a video store, something most people knew. I nodded.

“Then you’re not a very good mother anyway. I’ll see what I can do.”

I’d been dismissed. He did nothing, or if he did, I never saw a sign of it. And it made me question myself. Was I a good mother?

Okay, this happened thirty years ago, but while things have progressed up to a point, there will always be people who, like that fireman and that cop, firmly believe women deserve what they get. That they’ll never be equal to men. Never deserve equal protections, let alone equal pay. Worst of all, too many women think that way.

Two days ago I brought my three young grandchildren to downtown Reno, where ten thousand people (men, women, children, babies) joined together in solidarity with more than two million people around the world, and we marched in support of equal rights for women, for people of color, for people with disabilities, for people of different faiths. We also marched for personal reasons—in favor of choice, out of worry about our floundering planet, in protest of the new administration and political machinations designed for private gain.

It was an incredible experience, and engaging my grandkids in activism at an early age allowed them broader understanding of issues they, too, will face. We had great discussions before and after.

There have been many negative remarks about the march. One woman’s public post gave all the reasons why she would never have participated: I can speak my mind. I can earn a living. I can practice my religion. I can travel freely. I am safe. The list was lengthy, and what I came away with was, “Well, good for you.”

Because thousands of women in this country cannot speak their minds, or earn a decent wage, or practice their religion unimpeded. Thousands live in poverty, anxious about how they’ll clothe and house their children. Thousands more are forced to fight for equal pay, the right to walk alone without worry. And many, many, many more live in constant fear of their partners. Yet one of the first acts of the new administration was to eliminate funding for domestic violence programs.

Today I can speak my mind, and do. I earn an excellent living. I can practice my religion and travel freely. I am safe. I didn’t march for me. I marched for others—for marginalized people, and those who walk daily in fear. I marched for the viability of this planet, because without constant stewardship, our future is uncertain. I marched for my children, their children, and theirs, to come, and for the frightened woman I used to be. I marched for the upheaval that will finally break new ground.