Harvard instructor and author Dr. Elisabeth Sharp McKetta and fiction writer Kerry Garvin had an idea, a vision, to collaborate on a book supporting an important social issue of our time: to open up the private lives of 60 resilient women through a series of essays.
Fueled by the Me Too Movement, American voters elected an unprecedented number of women to Congress, giving rise to more women’s voices being heard. As a result, we live in a motivational period in our history. The result of McKetta and Garvin’s dream, What Doesn’t Kill Her, Women’s Stories of Resilience, is an array of stories by some of today’s empowered women who are survivors.
In 2018, McKetta and Gavin began their journey, seeking personal essays written by women who had “bottomed out” in life but had made their way back through pure resilience. Both writers were looking for stories of those who loved and lost, experienced abuse, death, or dealt with secrets, with major or minor achievements in overcoming adversity to which anyone could relate.
After sending out a mass emailing request, responses poured in. The pieces McKetta and Gavin received were raw. Responders came from all walks of life, including mothers, financiers, authors, and accountants. The showcased women represent various races. The wide diversity of stories proved no one goes through life unscathed; we measure our lives in different depths of pain or acceptance.
McKetta and Gavin did little editing so the original words from each writer would shine through; the narratives draw readers to 60 individual stories encompassing a broad range of topics meant to be shared with friends, families, and colleagues.
Patricia Chamburs’s “To Love and Be Loved” is a story about a mother’s love, but it reveals emotions that define the word love, like self-preservation, guilt, and forgiveness. Her prose exposes our need to love another human being and let them love us back.
Chamburs was suffering in a toxic relationship and concluded self-preservation was more significant than saving someone else, even her children. However, she showed the act of running away from toxicity could be a lifesaver and life changer.
“For the first time in my life, I sat alone with only my thoughts, relieved to be free from fear, wondering what to do next,” Chamburs wrote. “Being alone helped me to be aware of myself, helped me to relax, to breathe easier, and to let my mind rest.”
“The guilt of leaving my children never left me.”
In the end, Chamburs fell in love again, and the power of love brought her children back to the fold. So many people believe it’s hard to walk away from an unpleasant situation, but Chamburs acknowledges a mother’s love has limitless strength.
Financier Rebecca Andrew’s “Sometimes You Need to Walk Away” proves abuse comes in forms other than physical pain. Andrew, trapped in a relationship with a man “who had an obsessive-compulsive desire for every aspect of his life to be regimented and controlled,” wanted her to live and think the same way. It was hard to feel self-worth when she let a man treat her poorly without fighting back.
“Could it be he was the only person who understood me after all these years?” Andrew wrote. “He used this proof to chip away at me–subtly but steadily.”
“Gradually, the edges between his thoughts and my thoughts blurred.”
Andrew stayed for years, fully capable of leaving, but paralyzed for some unknown reason. Then, one day, out of the blue, she read the following empowering quote “Sometimes you need to walk away. Not to make someone else realize how worthy you are. But for you to understand and realize your own self-worth.” She packed her bags, left her apartment and boyfriend behind, and never returned.
The boyfriend claimed Andrew had ruined his life. But she came to understand she was the culprit who stagnated her own life, not his. Finally, Andrew accepted the responsibility of her self-made prison and had to be pushed to the edge to leave, enduring relentless abuse. Only then, on her own, could she evaluate her strengths and worth.
Readers can relate and agree they have felt trapped in relationships, yet it can take a single moment, a simple phrase, to unlock us from our self-imposed prison, as Andrew did.
Isla McKetta’s “The Legacy of my Great Grandmother’s Diamond” exposes how great relationships can build over time, even when there is financial inequality between the partners from the start. Some love alliances have to deal with financial strengths and responsibility, and conflict.
The overwhelming sentimental and monetary value of McKetta’s inherited diamond solitaire from her grandmother results in grief spending as an act of defiance towards her partner Clayton, who could never afford such a ring. She realizes she must access her passive, aggressive expenditures and challenges with him.
McKetta, entitled to what her grandmother had, a ring purchased in the early 1900s for a $1,000 now worth more than $33,000, was not entitled to spend freely and jeopardize the financial security of her new beginning.
McKetta learned she can treat Clayton as an equal, but it will require responsibility on her part to accomplish that. She changes and softens, willing to see Clayton’s hard work and dedication to making their coupling work, something she took for granted.
“The months following the memorial service were months of learning to treat Clayton as a partner,” McKetta writes. “Months of using the benefits of our divergent backgrounds.”
This story presents a lesson that couples should discuss finances and expectations before marriage, plans that helped McKetta’s grandparents survive a marriage of sixty-seven years.
Partnerships don’t always start on an equal financial basis. Still, readers will take away from McKetta’s story that building a future together means understanding those differences our grandparents found so easy to accept.
The dark secret of close family sexual abuse is the background for Liz Nance’s powerful story “Our Secrets Keep Us Sick.” Women from previous generations were told to be strong, handle sexual abuse, and keep it quiet in the past.
When Nance’s mother committed suicide for an unbeknownst reason, she uncovered the family secret in her mother’s private journal. Like so many similar stories in the news, everyone in the family and community knew about the sexual abuse but kept it a secret.
Women who lived in the past bore the pain, the guilt, the shame. Why, we all ask?
“I shared it with people that I thought would tell me what happened. I shared it with people that I thought would tell me why it happened,” Nance wrote. “I shared it with people that I thought would tell me it wasn’t her fault.”
“I didn’t expect the fear, the blame, or being told to keep quiet.”
Thanks to the Me Too Movement, women are no longer quiet. But Nance struggled with the reality that still exists; people prefer to sweep secrets under the rug. For those battling in this dark place, Nance’s story proves we must end the generation after generation of blaming ourselves for the sexual abuse at the hands of others and draw attention to and punish the abusers.
McKetta and Gavin’s choices of 60 stories should urge not just women but all people to share their stories. Both editors celebrate how powerful words can be. McKetta and Gavin agree “the act of listening to and truly sharing others… has gained much-needed significance, as well as life and death stakes.”
Sharing stories can alter the world for the better.
What Doesn’t Kill Her will encourage once silent voices to speak up.
What Doesn’t Kill Her: Women’s Stories of Resilience is available at elisabethsharpmcketta.com and Amazon.com. Edited by Kerry Garvin & Elisabeth Sharp McKetta, Ph.D. H & S Books. 314 pages
Readers might also enjoy our reviews of My Moment – 106 Women on Fighting for Themselves, and Artwork at The Players: 50 Selected Essays. Women Running in the Mountains, and Gold by Rumi.
My projects in the works include an organizing book for the soul called Edit Your Life; a middle-grade novel in verse called Ark, which was honored with a Covid Cultural Commissioning Fund Award; and a novel about sisters called Rose Child, White Nights, an adaptation of the 1001 Nights frame story.
I have literature degrees from Harvard (B.A.), Georgetown (M.A.), and the University of Texas at Austin (Ph.D). I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the intersections between memoir and myth, a concept that informs my teaching and writing (and my entire way of looking at the world, as detailed in this Harvard Magazine article). Since 2012 I have taught writing at Harvard Extension School, where I won their 2018 James E. Conway Excellence in Teaching Writing Award. I also tutor for Oxford University’s Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing and teach private and community workshops.
I spent my childhood living in Austin, Texas and the majority of my adulthood so far living in Boise, Idaho, with a lovely detour in Cornwall, UK. I live with my husband and two children. In my free time I love to make up stories with my young, hike, travel, read, make vegan soups, make new friends, and drink tea with old friends.
Books by Elisabeth McKetta are Available at Amazon
Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela / Rattle · Berliner Philharmoniker