“Hell, And How I Got Here” by Brenda Medina and “Puzzle Pieces” by Barbara Parsons Lane are two short stories from the book Couldn’t Keep It To Myself by Wally Lamb. Medina and Lane are two women who are serving time in a maximum security prison. Brenda Lane is serving time for homicide and Barbara Parsons Lane is serving time for manslaughter. Brenda was involved in a gang-related killing while Barbara was convicted of killing her abusive husband. Each of these women lived their lives being subjected to abuse, yet each woman portrayed themselves differently.
Brenda was determined to gain power and not feel like an outsider in her own life. She was determined to take control and she was longer going to be the “odd girl out” (148). Barbara was living life as a victim and saw only one way to end the abuse. She was victimized in a way that made her feel as if she had no way of escaping her nightmare. Brenda found ways to empower herself in order to find a place in the world as Barbara was belittled to the point where she felt she was too weak to be able to walk away . In “Hell, And How I Got Here,” Brenda went through life finding ways to gain power.
Brenda felt like an outsider for much of her childhood. She spent many unhappy years at a private school, feeling that she didn’t belong. It was not until her high school years, that she finally felt liberated. It was at this time of her life when Brenda started trying to find ways to empower herself and gain the status she was dreaming of. During high school, Brenda started dating Manny, a member of a local gang, The Unidad. Brenda recalled that from the age of fourteen until she went to prison at the age of seventeen, “Manny ran through my veins” (152).
Even though her mother disapproved of Manny, Brenda dated Manny, the boy with the “outlaw aura. ” Going against her mother’s wishes made Brenda feel powerful. She was going to run her own life from now on. As a child, Barbara was a lost little girl, just like Brenda. Her life was full of disappointments. At the age of four, Barbara was molested by a man she trusted, her grandfather. Looking for support and comfort, Barbara was finally able to find the strength to confide in her mother about what her grandfather had done to her.
Instead of comfort, Barbara was told by her mother to never mention the molestation to anyone. “Don’t you ever say a word” (218). So she didn’t. Barbara became a quiet but a very angry little girl. Barbara’s mother was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and later hospitalized. Barbara was left to tend to the house she still shared with her alcoholic father and her two siblings. She had no one to go to and no one to talk to. Barbara resented her mother’s illness. She said the “illness had freed her brother and sister and made me a slave” (220).
Barbara was the one left after her brother and sister moved out. Many years later, Barbara’s mother committed suicide. While dealing with her mother’s death, Barbara confided in her Aunt Ruth about her grandfather molesting her at a young age. Aunt Ruth told Barbara was molested by the same man, her father. Barbara did not understand why her mother just stood and watched while Barbara walked away, hand in hand, with the man she knew all too well. Two years before her mother took her own life, Barbara got married for the second time. She married a younger man named Mark.
The disease she resented earlier in life was about to resurface and, once again, make her feel trapped. During their relationship, Manny grew to become controlling and abusive towards Brenda. He began to dictate the people she was allowed to see and what she could wear. Screaming at her after he ripped the skirt off of her, Manny yelled, “No girl of mine’s gonna strut herself like a little slut! ” (161) Manny also became physically and started cheating on Brenda as well. Anytime Brenda threatened to break up with Manny, he begged and cried for her to stay.
Brenda always stayed and she always forgave him. She loved to hear Manny tell her how much her loved and that he only wanted him for herself. Brenda loved the feeling she had by hearing Manny beg for to stay. She felt powerful. Feeling anything but powerful, Barbara was beginning to live a life of being controlled by an abusive husband. Mark became abusive emotionally and physically towards Barbara. The things he said to her were intended to make her feel insignificant and make her feel that she had no choice but to stay. “Some days he drinks from noon until late at night.
If I challenge him or question him, I’m told I’m an ‘inconvenience’—his code for: watch out” (225). Being told she was an inconvenience by her husband happened on a regular basis. Mark was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, just like her mother. He drank alcohol in order to medicate himself and began having an affair with a fifteen year old girl. Mark openly talked about it to Barbara, adding to her feelings of inadequacy. She ended up having to quit her job because of the abuse and the unpredictability of her home life.
Barbara was once again feeling imprisoned, just as she did as a hild. Brenda’s relationship with Manny was everything she was looking for. She had found her place in the world. However, Brenda was still feeling left out when it came to Manny, the gang, and their secrets. Brenda had never thought about joining a gang until she talked a “sister” of the gang. Erika persuaded Brenda to join because of the feeling of “family” the Unidad gave Erika. Brenda liked the idea and also knew she would no longer feel like an outsider. Brenda longed for the feeling of belonging and knew that her being a member of the gang would bring her and Manny closer.
There would no longer be secrets between them. Barbara was living the life in which she was subjected to verbal and physical abuse from her husband. She had to listen to him talk about the affair he was having, being completely humiliated by it. Barbara even contemplated suicide at one point. Barbara lived her life feeling as if there was no way out. Mark’s belittling words were etched in her mind. Those words had the power of making Barbara believe she was destined to stay. If she chose to leave, he would kill her. Barbara felt as if she did not have any options at all.
She felt completely powerless. Brenda was feeling anything but powerless. Manny, being a member of a gang, had power. Brenda felt that by being his girlfriend gave her power. Despite the fact that Manny was abusive, Brenda felt empowered knowing that she had found her place in this world with Manny. She believed that without her boyfriend, she would not have a place. The one thing Brenda always wanted was to belong. She longer felt like an outsider when she was with Manny. At the beginning of their relationship, Manny told her “I’m safe with you.
And you are safe here” (156). That was precisely what Brenda was looking for. She was no longer the “odd girl out” (148). She was Manny’s girl. She was a member of the Unidad. She had power. What Brenda decided to do with the power she had obtained with the joining gang would be a life changing decision. The only way Barbara had the power to remove herself from the abuse was to file for divorce. Taking the step to file was a huge and terrifying decision for Barbara to make. It was so worrisome in fact that she tried to stop the process.
After Mark was served the papers, he took Barbara to a secluded cabin in the woods, making sure she was fully aware that he had brought guns along on the trip. The trip that Mark planned had one purpose: he wanted to remind Barbara that her only option was to remain a devoted wife. If she tried leaving him, he would “terminate” her. Mark made it clear many times how easy it would be for him to do. During the trip to the cabin, after Barbara asked him if he went to cabin just to target shoot, Mark replied with, “No, I came all this way to show you how easy it would be to make you disappear” (230).
Barbara knew divorce was out of the question. He would kill her before he granted her one. Although the trip put a divorce out of the question, it made Barbara realize there was only one option left. In order for her to free herself and to escape the trap of an abusive marriage, she would have to kill Mark before he killed her. Brenda and Barbara were both victims of abuse. That is where the similarities end. All Brenda wanted was to become someone other than the “outsider. ” She was abused by her gang member boyfriend. She used that to threaten her boyfriend of leaving him.
Brenda felt powerful when would hear Manny beg for her to stay. She finally felt like she was somebody. She was no longer an outsider of the “odd girl out” (148). Barbara was abused and belittled to the point where it made her think of herself as a weakling. She felt it was impossible to free herself from her nightmare. Brenda tried to escape but she always backed down because of how her husband made her think she was weak. Feeling empowered and feeling victimized are at the opposite end of the spectrum, yet they sometimes end up meeting at the end of the same road.
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