Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story Of Domestic Violence and Survival
By Kelly Sundberg
Harper, 272 pages, $26.99, available Tuesday, June 5
Kelly Sundberg gives one of the most brave and beautifully written accounts of a marriage gone wrong in her new memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl.
Sundberg looks at both the tenderness and the violence of her abusive marriage, while also analyzing why women remain too long in dangerous relationships.
This memoir is born out of Sundberg’s viral essay in Guernica, “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” which was collected in the Best American Essays of 2015. She sheds light on an incredibly important subject, intimate partner violence, which affects one in four women aged 18 and older in the United States, but is not spoken about as honestly as it is in this work.
Sundberg looks at the joys and terrors that accompanied her difficult awakening, and presents a haunting, heartbreaking glimpse into why women do not give up on troubled relationships.
To understand herself, Sundberg looks back on her childhood in Salmon, a small, isolated mountain community known as the most redneck towm of Idaho. Like her marriage, Salmon is a place of deep contradictions, where Mormon ranchers and hippies coexist. It is a place where magical beauty is riven by severe brutality, and a place that takes pride in its individualism and rugged self-sufficiency, yet is beholden to church and communal standards at all costs.
Sundberg’s husband, Caleb, was a funny, warm and supportive man and father to their little boy, Reed. He was also vengeful and violent, which she did not know about him when they fell in love.
After Caleb’s true nature was revealed, she tried to convince herself he would get better, but after a decade, she realized that the partnership she desired could not work with such a broken man.
Sundberg writes in a very unique style, where you can get a sense of what was racing through her mind at a given time, such as this part about dealing with her parents about her troubled marriage, “When my father told me that he ‘just didn’t know what to believe,’ I felt the same ice in my hands that I felt when I left Caleb. ‘Dad, that Portland stuff happened fifteen years ago, and Kelly M. is still my best friend.’ He was silent. I don’t think that he even realized that the Kelly who was my best friend, who had introduced me to Caleb, who was one of my bridesmaids, was the same Kelly I had roomed with.
“That was how little he knew about my life.
“When my father told me that he ‘just didn’t know what to believe,’ I started sobbing. Wailing, in fact. I hung up on my father and called Megan.
“‘Honey,’ she said, ‘I can’t understand a word you’re saying. I’m going to need you to calm down enough for me to understand you, okay?’
“And I calmed down enough to say, ‘My father just doesn’t know what to believe,’
“When my father told me that he ‘just didn’t know what to believe,’ the truth was that I didn’t know what to believe either. I knew that I was leaving Caleb by then, but I still loved him.
“I wanted to say to my father, ‘Do you know how hard it is to leave someone you love?’
“When my father told me that he ‘just didn’t know what to believe,’ there were days when I still wished that Caleb would beg me to take him back, promise to change, actually change.
“Sometimes, when I was cooking dinner by myself, I could feel the way he would lay his head on my shoulder while I stirred a pot, the way he would turn me around and kiss me, tell me how much he loved my cooking, how beautiful I was, how lucky he was.
“When my father told me that he ‘just didn’t know what to believe,’ I fantasized about ways that Caleb and I could reunite. Still, I knew that, even if he never hit me again, my body would always remember that fist on my back.
“When my father told me that he ‘just didn’t know what to believe,’ Megan took over for me. Her own mother’s death had brought her closer to my parents, so my parents loved her. She was also a counselor, and she first e-mailed my parents articles and statistics, but when she didn’t get a satisfactory response, Megan, the most nonconfrontational person I knew, picked up the phone, called my parents, and said, ‘You are going to lose your daughter if you can’t support her in this.’
“When my father told me that he ‘just didn’t know what to believe,’ my mother called me. She said, ‘Your father wants to talk to you.’
“My father apologized, and he wept. My mother later told me that was the only time during their marriage that she had seen him cry. ‘He didn’t even cry when his own mother died,’ she said.
“I cried, too, but there was this new hardness in me that couldn’t fully let my father, who had been my hero, back in. I thought of the man I had admired so much when I was growing up – the man who had worked so hard to protect the forests. I thought of how brave I had always considered him to be, and I thought, Why weren’t you brave for me?’
The honesty from Sundberg comes through in the times that she takes the blame, and does not solely play the victim. She questions if she had a desire to reform her husband or if it was his dark streak of violence that attracted her to him in the first place.
Sundberg presents what can be a harrowing topic to read about in a way that you can empathize with her for trying to make her difficult marriage work, why it is hard to walk away, and ultimately understand the plight of women in these very hard situations.