“Empty Chairs” by S Burke writing as Stacey Danson. My life … my book.
“Empty Chairs” More than a story of Child Abuse. (Standing Tall and Fighting Back 1.)
“Physically and emotionally, everything that made me who and what I was was destroyed. But, they never got my soul. They didn’t break me. Something in me refuses to be broken. I don’t know what the hell you call it, but it’s strong. It burns inside me with a life force of its own.”
“Powerful and Unforgettable”
How lucky I am to have had that said about my book, “Empty Chairs”
Just Two of the 300 plus reviews for Empty Chairs
Bill Kirton rated it 5 Star..
Some of my friends have said of this book that they want to read it but, knowing the pain and horrors it chronicles, need to get themselves into the right frame of mind to do so. Others have admitted that they doubt whether they’ll actually get round to it. They should and must – for several reasons.
It’s an autobiographical story, written under a pseudonym, which reveals how a 3 year old was subjected to gross sexual abuses at the behest of her own mother, and forced to continue servicing visitors to the house until eventually, at the age of eleven, she ran away. Thereafter, life on the streets proved equally stressful, threatening to confirm all the negatives she felt about how people behave.
Perhaps that crude synopsis has made you join the ‘I’m not sure I could read this – it’s too horrible’ camp. If it has, it’s deprived you of an astonishing experience. Because this is a page turner and, bizarrely, a sort of celebration. I know that’s a cliché beloved of Amazon reviewers, but here it’s a fact. The story is relentlessly riveting. There’s tension, hidden (and not so hidden) forces at work, powerful characters, and observations of social interaction that are penetrating insights into what lurks behind the facades of sunny, happy-go-lucky Australia, where families picnic in the sun and glory in sights such as the fabulous Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The abuse inflicted on the infant Sassy-Girl (let’s use the street name she earned) was not at the hands of social low-lifes, but ‘respectable’ middle class professionals. When she eventually rebels and runs away, she has to find places to sleep, clothes to wear, ways to get food, and simultaneously avoid the pressure from pimps to recruit her into their stable. She experiences some kindnesses but her whole life seems to have been a denial that trust is possible between humans. When groups of girls at the zoo mock her for the clothes she’s wearing, she asks ‘why do people do those things? What was it that gave those girls the right to make fun of something they didn’t understand?’ adding that ‘It would take a very long time to discover how common that trait was in humans’.
It would have been so easy (in theory) to succumb to prostitution to earn her keep, but the abuse she suffered makes her determined never to allow her body to be used again. As she says ‘I knew my soul would die anyway if I made a conscious decision to sell the child’s body in which it was housed. I wasn’t being brave, or strong. I simply knew that all of me would survive – or none of me would. What point would there be living without my soul and my spirit?’
An author’s note at the beginning speaks of the compulsion Danson had to write this, the promise she’d made to someone to do so, but she also admits that it’s taken longer to get round to it than she thought it would. And that’s part of the spell this narrative weaves. We’re getting the intimate day to day experiences of a 12 year old – the encounters, the threats, the violence, the alienation – but they’re all being recounted by the mature woman she survived to become.
And the narrator herself is aware of this, of course. This is a woman who knows how to write, how to use language, sometimes simply, always directly, to engage the reader, a woman who has come to know that friendships and trust are possible, and yet who’s re-entering the mind of her pre-teen self and reliving those years, with their innocence and ignorance. Because Sassy-Girl is uneducated (in formal terms). She thinks everyone speaks Australian (except Americans, whom she’s seen on TV and who speak American). ‘If someone had told me we all spoke English,’ she says, ‘I would have been even more confused.
At times, the mature narrator lends her voice to the girl. When she makes her way to the War Memorial, for example, she says she ‘spent the rest of the night in the company of the spirits of people who had died in a nightmare as well’. And there’s an awareness of the power of simplicity in sentences such as ‘I wanted to laugh and mean it’, or ‘It reminded me of the way I cried, back when I still could.’
But these aren’t intended to be criticisms. The moment Sassy-Girl suspects she’s feeling self-pity, she forces herself out of it. She’s a survivor and, despite all the torments she’s endured in these early years, what remains is an affirmation of her spirit, a confidence that, despite the enormous forces ranged against her, she won’t be a loser. It’s a compelling read, a reminder of the deepest evils of which we’re capable, but also a celebration of our ability to overcome.
If you’re the victim of child abuse, know someone who is, or work with victims of child abuse, Stacy Danson’s autobiographical account of the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of her mother from age three until she ran away at eleven is the book for you.
Empty Chairs is, as the subtitle says, “much more than a story about child abuse.” It is about the resilience and triumph of a girl whose street name was “Sassy”, who not only survived the horror of sexual abuse and her mother’s sadism, but survived life on the streets of her native Sydney, Australia as a tough-as-nails, don’t-take-no-crap runaway. At age of eleven, she made a mature decision about her life: “No one was ever going to force me to do anything again. Such are the thoughts of a child whose experience of the world started in hell.”
Living on the streets at any age is no walk in the park; living on the streets as a young girl can be fatal. Stacy Danson learned its lessons quickly: Trust no one, stay out of the way of the pimps and other predators that prey on attractive girls, make yourself invisible. In spite of all the precautions, it doesn’t always work, and didn’t for Stacy. Key to her survival was running into a tightly-knit group of fourteen street kids who took her in, provided her a home, and protected her.
Why does she tell her story some forty years after her life on Sidney’s streets ended? Simply put, it was time. “Recent events in my small world have caused me to think deeply about the responsibility I have, that we all have, to make people aware of what can and does happen in a home that may well be right next door to you.”
In her case, the neighborhood was an upper middle class one where her abusers were respected members of the community. One of her steady abusers was a family physician. Another was a sadistic cop. If she cried, her mother beat her, sometimes viciously. Did anyone hear her screams? If they did, no one said a word. It ended at age eleven when she beat her mother up, stole her money, and left.
The central tragedy of childhood sexual abuse is the damage it does, physically and emotionally, to the victim. Here is what Ms. Danson says about it: “Physically and emotionally, everything that made me who and what I was was destroyed. But,” she continues, “they never got my soul. They didn’t break me. Something in me refuses to be broken. I don’t know what the hell you call it, but it’s strong. It burns inside me with a life force of its own.”
“I firmly believe that everything that happened has helped to make me who I am, and I am kind of fond of who I am these days. It has taken half a century to get here, but here I am.” Indeed, here she is: from an abused kid who trusted no one and wouldn’t let anyone touch her, Stacy Danson has grown into a compassionate woman, loving mother and fine writer. I look forward to reading more from her