I have just finished reading the expat memoir 'Harvesting Stones' written by Paula Lucas. It's an autobiographical expat tale like no other I have read.
The story begins slowly, almost too slowly, on a farm in California with the rather uneventful childhood days of Paula. The relationship between her parents is functional, and Lucas' upbringing is Catholic and rather dull. With every page that I turned the tale snowballed into an even bigger, more unreal story. Only it is far from unreal - it is an honest, brutal account of real life events. And that is why as each chapter progressed my sense of urgency to reach the end of the book grew, I wanted out of the nightmare that Paula Lucas was living. I couldn't sleep another night without reaching an ending, that whilst not exactly happy, was at least an exit.
Paula met a man, like so many of us have, and the relationship went from wining and dining to living together, from San Francisco to a life in the Middle East. There were signs early on that Ty (not his real name) was somewhat of a social chameleon, that he was hellbent on moulding Paula into his vision of a wife. I found myself willing her to get out whilst she could, say no to his plans for the future. I screamed in my head at her. But Paula got caught in the spiral of their relationship, like a whirlpool that whisked her helplessly deeper and deeper into a bottomless hell. They married and after their first child was born, Paula began to see the true beast unleashed upon her.
As the years went by, and with two more sons to protect, Paula went through a living nightmare. She was physically and mentally abused. She was locked in her house, locked out of her house, her children punished for hugging her, she was beaten, financially paralysed. Her three children were physically, sexually and mentally abused. Her life was threatened on more than one occasion, once in a car accident and another time with a knife whilst her son was forced to look on.
He told her, "I will hunt you down and slaughter you like animals no matter where you are in the world."
Her American passport, as well as those of her sons, were hidden by Ty. The American Embassy could not issue new ones without the consent of both parents. Her husband's family turned a blind eye. Nobody could or would help. She was trapped, convinced the only way out was in a body bag.
It took a superhuman burst of courage and determination to get out. And a thief in Germany. Paula got her three boys to the United States, but the battle didn't stop there. Thousands of dollars of legal fees later, after numerous court hearings and evaluations, restraining orders, a temporary life on the move and in shelters Paula and her boys finally started afresh. She was lucky to have the help, love and support of good family and friends. Not all victims of domestic violence are as lucky as Paula (and yes I know how ironic that sounds) so Lucas made a covenant with God that if she should escape the hell that was her life in the Middle East with her tyrant husband she would help other Americans overseas in a similar situation.
And that is exactly what this remarkable woman did. Whilst living in a women's shelter, she founded the Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center (AODVC). Last year she set up the Sexual Assault Support & Help For Americans Abroad Program (SASHAA). She wrote this book, put her own story out there, to highlight a little known or cared about issue. And this is not an issue that is constrained to the Middle East, American women in Europe can also find themselves trapped, in the impossible situation of needing permission from a child's abusive father to take them back to the safety of the United States.
I have gasped, held my breath and shed tears whilst reading this book. It is harrowing. I can only imagine the daily terror that Lucas went endured to keep herself and her three sons alive. This book is a chilling account of life as the victim of an abuser. It is a tale of extreme bravery, courage and the love of a mother for her innocent children. It is written in a wonderful style that makes it very readable but this book is by no means an easy read. It is a memoir that will continue haunting, long after the last page is turned.