Women publish book of poems about physical, sexual abuse

| March 28, 2019 | 0 Comments

From left, Annette Gagliardi and Laura Lanik include their own poems about experiences of childhood sexual abuse in a book they are publishing called “Upon Waking: 58 Voices Speaking Out From the Shadow of Abuse.” DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

The abuse started when Laura Lanik was between 6 and 9 years old. An older man at the end of the St. Paul block where she grew up made her feel “special.”

“All the little kids went to his house,” said Lanik, 51, who belongs to Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul. “He was a nice old man, in my definition. I’d come over, we’d play games, we’d have ice cream, we’d go to the store, we’d go to the movies, he’d give me $5, I’d get presents.”

Mixed in with the gifts and attention was inappropriate sexual touching. As time went on, the abuser pressured her into wearing a dress and carrying a purse whenever she came over. Over time, she felt more and more shame, to the point where she grew her bangs so long they covered her face.

The abuse lasted until she was 13. The pain, she said, will never end. What is ending — now — is the silence. She is speaking up in the form of poems she has written in a book to be released April 6. It’s called “Upon Waking: 58 Voices Speaking Out From the Shadow of Abuse” and published by Bookmobile in Minneapolis.

Lanik met the creator of the project, Annette Gagliardi of Annunciation in Minneapolis, in 2017 at a fall conference for the League of Minnesota Poets. Gagliardi, too, had been abused as a child, and at the conference the two talked about their experiences. Gagliardi had written verses since high school and said she felt God calling her to do something more with poetry. Lanik responded enthusiastically to the suggestion of working together to collect poems from victims/survivors of sexual and physical abuse.

In so doing, the women found healing. For both, there are lots of wounds.

“I think it really changed my entire life,” Lanik said of the abuse. “I didn’t even feel comfortable carrying a purse until I was 30. I didn’t wear dresses (after the abuse ended), which I had to wear when I went to his house.”

It wasn’t until her late 40s that she finally had a desire to wear a dress. Around that time, she started writing poems. One of them, “A Child’s Prayer,” won an award in 2017 from the League of Minnesota Poets. It appears on pages 40 and 41 of the book, and incorporates the Hail Mary.

“I’ve always prayed the Hail Mary,” said Lanik, who is married with two adult children. “It gives me strength, and it takes me away from whatever pain I’m having. I remember my grandma always prayed the rosary. I always wanted to do a poem with (the) Hail Mary in it. For me, it’s powerful. I actually collect rosaries from where I travel around the world.”

Gagliardi’s abuse started when she was invited to spend a summer at her grandparents’ resort in South Dakota at age 12. She spent summers there until she was 17. During that time, her family moved from Lead, South Dakota, near the Black Hills, to South St. Paul.

Sleeping in a room alone, Gagliardi remembers regularly being awakened in the morning by her grandfather, who sexually abused her. In later years, the abuse took place in the afternoons when her grandfather invited her to play cards with him. Like Lanik, she felt shame, but was reluctant to offer any opposition because she was earning money working as a waitress at the resort’s restaurant.

“I bought all of my school clothes every year,” said Gagliardi, 69, who is married with four adult daughters. “What I was doing was saving my tips to get enough money to have clothes for the next year.”

She also was told she was the “favorite grandchild” of the couple’s 48. That honor, and healthy attention from her grandmother, kept her coming back until she was 17. That’s when she finally told her parents about the abuse. They did not allow her to return to the resort after that.

The impact, however, remains.

“I don’t know if I can describe the pain,” she said of the way her grandfather, now deceased, treated her. “There was a lot of pain from his touch. He was not gentle. And, it’s hard (now) because I have a problem with my husband touching me and breathing on my neck. If my husband breathes on my neck, I just want to slug him. He knows that. He’s such a kind, sensitive man, but he’s had to put up with a lot.”

Gagliardi started writing poetry about her abuse when she was in college. During an English class, she decided to compose a poem about it. The emotions bubbled to the surface, leading to a suicide attempt “just before I was 30,” she said.

She tried to overdose on over-the-counter medications, but didn’t take enough. Instead, she spent the night wide awake, and finally told her husband about the abuse. She eventually told her daughters, and circled back with them when it came time to publish the poetry book.

“I went to my girls, my four daughters, when I started this project in 2017,” Gagliardi said. “I said to them, ‘I’m going to do this, and I want you to be OK with it, and I want you to tell me it’s OK because if you don’t, I won’t do it because I don’t want to hurt you.’”

Three of her daughters are married with children, and she wanted to be sensitive to how a book about abuse with her name on it and her poems in it could affect them. All four of her daughters had the same response, Gagliardi said.

“They were all like, ‘Mom, do it. We’re behind you 100 percent. Do it,’” she said.

Gagliardi and Lanik began collecting poems last summer with help from the League of Minnesota Poets. Most of them — about 250 — were submitted for consideration by people in Minnesota, and most were written by women. The league helped narrow down the list, and 83 made it into the book, including five by Lanik and four by Gagliardi. They have met some of the book’s other 56 authors and have read all of their poems. Authors’ names appear below their poems, and brief biographies appear in the back of the book.

“It was hard to read” the poems, said Gagliardi, who authored the first and last poem in the book. “It kept me in that place of vulnerability.”

It also led to a deepening of her faith, and reliance on God and her “spiritual sisters” at Annunciation.

“I have had somebody praying with me about this book from the beginning because when we decided to do it, I said, ‘I can’t do this by myself; I need God’s help,’” she said. “This is my guts being pulled out of me.”

At the same time, as she and Lanik both pushed forward with perseverance and prayer, they also found healing, especially as they saw their own voices go into print.

“I definitely feel that writing these poems has helped me heal,” Lanik said. “After I wrote that Hail Mary poem, I couldn’t say the Hail Mary without crying — for a long time. It was really hard. It’s almost like I would say it and then I would cry myself to sleep. So, it brought me back to that little girl that was still here and hurt inside of me. It basically healed her.”

In publishing the book now, the women acknowledge its relevance to the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Church, though they are not aware of any of the writers having been abused by a priest.

“I’m Catholic, so I feel the angst and the pain that the Catholic Church is going through right now,” Gagliardi said. “I think that it’s an ongoing problem. The thing with the Church is one example of how prevalent sexual abuse is. I think it’s been with us throughout history. But, the fact that people can actually speak out about it — that’s new. I just feel that the pope is listening.”

As the stories in their book come out in print, the two women hope it will bring healing to all of the writers — and to readers, too.

“One of the prayers that I’ve been praying for the last two years is, ‘Lord, I want this to be hope, I want there to be hope in this book, that it isn’t just grief and anger and trauma, that I want it to have a ray of hope,’” said Gagliardi, who plans to donate books to women’s shelters in Minnesota and nearby states.

Her desire to spread hope is reflected in the book’s final poem, “You’re Not Heavy.” It’s about her own healing, and it includes these verses:

“I’m strong enough to forgive,

to move beyond you, and to live.

I’m strong enough to rise above;

strong enough to choose to love.”

Beginning April 6, the book will be available at local book sellers, including Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis and Artista Botega in St. Paul. The two women also plan to release an online version on Amazon.

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