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Transcending time

Atlanta author Colleen Oakley wins hearts with first novel ‘Before I Go’

This article was originally published in the Jan./Feb. print issue of The Atlantan. Written by Kirsten Ott.

before-i-go-book-cover-colleen-oakleyThe looming threat of mortality is inescapable in our lives, but most of us can shrug off thoughts about it. But for Daisy, a witty Athens, Ga., graduate student who is lucky enough to have found lasting, meaningful love early in life is also painfully unlucky enough to have twice developed cancer before she turns 30. The protagonist for debut author Atlanta author Colleen Oakley’s novel Before I Go (Jan. 6, 2015, Simon & Schuster) is faced with a heartbreaking challenge when she learns that her breast cancer has returned, it’s in stage four, and she will not survive the year. Daisy’s husband, Jack, is a devoted guy with terrible life skills when it comes to pulling together the four basic food groups into an assemblage of a healthy meal, and unsurprisingly, Daisy’s more concerned about Jack’s future than she is her own. Putting his needs before her own health, Daisy starts looking for a replacement wife for him before she makes Jack a widow, employing her best friend Kayleigh to scout out potential suitors for her husband on dating sites and in coffee shops. Naturally, hilarity and hijinks ensue.

 

 

Colleen Oakley

Author Colleen Oakley Photo: C. Noel

Oakley expertly woos readers into Daisy and Jack’s love story with well-woven story arcs and characters you can root for. Her career as a former magazine editor and current freelance magazine journalist make Oakley a natural narrator, and it was one particular subject who sparked the creative juices for this book. “The inspiration for Before I Go hit when I got an assignment from an editor to interview a woman who was dying of metastasized breast cancer. It was a powerful interview for many reasons, but what struck me the hardest was the fact that she was around my age — late 20s at the time — so I couldn’t help but put myself in her shoes. I was a newlywed, and it surprised me that my first thought wasn’t ‘what would I do if I was dying?’ but ‘what would my husband do?’”

 

INKWELL

KO: What have you learned from this experience of writing (and publishing) your first book?

CO: “I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I can actually do it. Writing a book is one of those things that I always vaguely said I’d do — like becoming fluent in Italian and moving to Capri — but I’m not sure I ever really believed I could. You type that first sentence, or first page, and realize you still have 300+ pages to go. It seems impossible. But then there’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment when you write those two little words: “The end.” I imagine it’s a lot like running one of those ultra 100-mile marathons, but with less sweat and blisters. (Probably the same amount of cursing though.)”

BEFORE I GO LAUNCH PARTY

Benefitting Susan G. Komen for the Cure

WHEN: Jan. 6, 2015, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

WHERE: Room & Board, 1170 Howell Mill Road NW

COST: Free; raffle tickets and book available for purchase at event

RSVP: colleenoakley.com

Articles, changes, pain, recovery, relationships, writing

Why We Stay: One Woman’s Lens Into Psychological Layers of Suffering Abuse

The country is abuzz about abuse again, and the talking heads and twittering fingers are asking why people stay in abusive relationships. Why is Janay Palmer Rice standing by her man even though he punched her in an elevator and dragged her body out? (And then she proceeded to marry him one month later.) Why did Rihanna have such a hard time leaving and subsequently going back to Chris Brown, even after the world saw her blood-crusted, bruised face after Brown crunched his knuckles into her eye socket? Why did Tina Turner take Ike Turner’s slaps and punches again and again?

Guess what? You’re not the only person to wonder this. People currently in abusive relationships and those who have successfully escaped them ask themselves that very same question. Why do/did I stay?

In order to truly understand the answer to that question, it’s helpful to think of abuse, whether it’s physical, sexual or emotional, as a series of tiny subconscious extensions of permissions. Each time he hits you or she tells you you’re worthless and you—for whatever reason—don’t take a stand right then and there that you will not tolerate such abuse, you’ve made a docile statement that it’s OK to treat you this way. Of course, it’s not OK and you don’t want it to happen—you never did and you never will. But each time it happens and there is no serious repercussion for the abuser, they are granted more permission and you’ve given them more rope to tug you around with, much like a master with a dejected mutt on a leash.

For victims of abuse, the internal question often is “How did I get here?” and one part of the puzzle is all of those tiny permissions.

So there you are, a scared, frightened pup on a leash, right? But that’s not all of who you are. You might be brave at work, pumping your fist in the air and demanding your employees follow the rules. You might never lead on about the troubles at home when hanging out with your girlfriends, and possibly even telling elaborate stories about what a good man you’ve got, how he spoils you like a princess. Or you’ve been so desecrated for so long that you no longer recognize your former spirit and you walk around with empty eyes, shoulders slack, wondering when you’ll have the courage to just walk out into the middle of the street and let a bus hit you because that would be easier than leaving.

Not everyone being abused is suicidal and not every survivor would agree with being likened to a gnarled stray dog, jerked around on a chain. In fact, the abused can get downright defensive about their situation, telling you things like, “You don’t know him like I do,” “You don’t know the whole story,” “I made him do this to me,” or “She’s a good person; this only happens when she’s stressed.” But in the quiet darkness or in their quick trips out alone, they’re lost in a reverie at the red light, wondering how their life spiraled out of control and what can possibly be done about this. If you leave, he’ll come looking for you. Maybe she’ll take the children and hurt them instead of you. Maybe he has all the financial control and you don’t have a dime to your name. Oh, and then the bone-crushing shame of admitting to anyone that your life has fallen apart—that you chose an abuser. There’s that, too.

We still exist in a world where the victim is blamed: A rape victim’s experiences of consensual sex are paraded in front of her in a courtroom as if an experience of forced sex isn’t as big of a deal if the victim wasn’t a wholesome virgin. A child molested again and again by an adult is outrageously asked what he did to encourage the abuser. An emotionally abused middle-aged woman is asked if she’s just being too sensitive. Talk show hosts say you must have provoked him. Friends say there’s no way that he could be so different behind closed doors—it’s you who is failing to see things as they are, not the friend.

And, then, if there are emotional ties between the abused and the abuser, it’s a thick, tangled web of thorny branches and it feels like no one can escape unscathed or at all.

***

But then, there’s hope.

Even prisoners of war, locked in dank cells for years, beaten routinely until they’ve lost both health and self, are miraculously able to retain hope.

And survivors of domestic abuse know that feeling all too well. The abuser doesn’t always abuse you. Oftentimes he’s sweet as pie, reminding you of why you fell in love with him. It can even feel like you’re being courted, receiving flowers, chocolates and poetic texts. And you wonder—for a moment, albeit fleeting—if you shouldn’t take the bait this time. But your sense of danger is warped now. He’s successfully convinced you that you’re not a victim, this isn’t abuse and you two are madly in love, and you can make this work. So you bite the apple, and ingest more of this charmer’s poison, waiting with hopeful baited breath for things to get better. But they don’t. And they won’t.

***

It’s a bit like falling down a rabbit hole when you choke down the forbidden dry, crusty cake, which turns everything upside down and suddenly you don’t know what is normal or OK even is anymore. It’s all an illusion. Is everyone laughing at you? Have you hidden the bruises—internal or external—enough? Is that a trick mirror you’re looking into? Is this really your life? Is your partner your friend when he says, “Come here, love. You know I can’t live without you.”? Or is he a foe, when he says, “Why do youmake me so angry? Why are you so fucking slow? Get out of my fucking way, you fat bitch!” as he kicks you to the ground, causing the plates in your hand which you couldn’t put away fast enough to collapse beside you, clattering in slow motion, sharp pieces flying. “Jesus, you’re so fucking clumsy!” as he takes one last swing at your head, rearing his leg back like

Beckham and pointing his toe right into your temple, making you so dizzy you’re unsure if this is even happening, and why, oh, why is it happening again? “Clean this mess up, bitch.” And he walks out the door while you hold back your anguished moan because between two bloody clumps of your hair you can see your children standing solemnly in the kitchen entrance, holding each other, curious, scared and masking their fear with false bravery at their tender ages, seeing too much, learning the wrong thing. And yet. You’ll stay for their sake.

***

As for those asking the abstract victim the inflammatory question of why stay, know that the very inquiry places blame on the struck, the raped, the broken.

“Why did you let him do that to you?” The haughty superiority in this question is enough to make us want to choke you, not the abuser. You think you could have done better? You think you would have fought back, run, gotten away, gotten help? You. Don’t. Know. Anything.

When are we going to start hashtags such as #handsoff or #wewillhelpyou or #leavethemcomehere? Instead of gnashing our teeth at each other on social media, how about extending your hand to someone in need? You don’t have to know them. Send comforters and comfort to women’s shelters. Show up for the soup kitchen line. Say something when your friend is entering into an odd relationship where she is giving up all power. Say something when that kid who used to have light dancing in his eyes is all burned out, can’t look you in the face and is struggling to hold his life together. Step in. Step up. Show up.

It is not enough to just tell a victim to “just leave.” It is always complicated. And she (or he) needs your help. We need your help. #helpusleave #wewillhelpyou #wecanbestrongtogether

Kirsten Ott Palladino is an award-winning editor and writer working on a memoir about surviving repeated gang rape, emotional and verbal abuse and child molestation. She’s the co-founder and editor in chief of equallywed.comthe world’s leading digital LGBTQ wedding magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @kirstenop.

This was first published on The Manifest Station.

Articles, Portfolio

Why my wife and I had to create a gay wedding magazine


By Kirsten Ott  for The Huffington Post

I’ve never been ashamed of being a lesbian, no matter what society has attempted to make me feel with its laws set up for my relationships to fail. I was born to love the girl next door, who preferably would have bigger muscles than me, exude a quiet confidence, make me fall to the floor laughing and love traveling, creating, exploring new cultures and gastronomy as much as I do.

Though I’ve certainly not been immune to discrimination for being a lesbian, I was naïve in my understanding of what modern-day society felt about my “kind.” Sure I’m aware (and angry) that we don’t have the 1,138 Federal rights that are naturally afforded to my straight co-citizens, but I didn’t realize just how unequal some of the basic components of life — like having a wedding — are for the LGBT community.

I dreamt of having a romantic lush wedding since I was a little girl. Yep, I’m one of those. And when I realized that it was a woman I wanted standing at the altar waiting for me, I never thought it wasn’t possible. Not once. You see, to me, a wedding is a wedding, whether a government legally recognizes it or not.

I finally met the woman of my dreams in 2003: She easily ticked off all the items on my checklist and then some. Maria and I began dating in 2004, and she proposed one frosty winter day in 2008. I was over the moon with elation, and quickly started the perhaps-tad-excessive planning process.

I settled in with my strong cup of joe and my self-made mountain of wedding-planning insanity in our living room, and I began flipping through the magazines, the glossy pages of beautiful brides and their handsome grooms. I didn’t mind seeing straight couples, of course, but page after page I didn’t recognize myself in these magazines. Where was I? And more importantly, where was my soon-to-be-wife, with her short hair, her masculine figure, her men’s clothing, most notably the wedding suit she’d soon purchase. The lack of information for gays and lesbians bothered me, but I also felt that not being included translated to rejection and what I could only imagine to be homophobia in the wedding industry at large.

It was at that moment that I knew what I was being called on to do. Don’t for a second think I have any delusions of grandeur or celestial inspiration. But I’ve always had an insatiable appetite for helping the underdog, even when that dog is me. So I did what any writer/editor who was about to marry a talented graphic designer would do. We decided to launch our own online magazine for engaged LGBT couples.

I still didn’t even know how much our kind of magazine was needed. When Maria and I started calling vendors to interview for our own wedding in the city that The Advocate named the No. 1 gayest city in America in 2010, I was shocked to have multiple phone calls and emails unreturned when I made clear in my initial message that it was two women getting married. When I spoke to some vendors, I felt rejected and unwanted. At one bridal salon, a saleswoman disappeared on me after I told her my fiancée was a woman.

As a credentialed magazine writer, I even pitched the honeymoon department of a popular bridal magazine known for its more modern presentations of weddings. The now-defunct magazine’s travel editor told me politely that they weren’t ready to run a lesbian’s honeymoon story in their magazine.

Every homophobic wedding vendor or wedding-industry professional Maria and I dealt with when planning our wedding rained on our gay parade. It was a light drizzle compared to the horrific stories I’ve heard from some gays and lesbians. But I was more determined than ever to try to help the members of my family, the LGBT community, be able to plan their weddings — enormously important days when we officially begin our lives as two, not one, with the person we love — without this hate and judgment.

After an intense nine months of research, writing, designing, coding and developing, we launchedEqually Wed, the nation’s premier online same-sex wedding magazine, in March 2010.

At EquallyWed.com, we showcase a myriad of gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and transgender weddings to serve as inspiration to those planning their own nuptials. In addition, we also offer Local Resources, a marketplace of gay-friendly wedding vendors across the United States, Mexico, Canada and parts of the Caribbean. We now have a team of editors and writers working at EquallyWed.com, bringing same-sex couples the latest in fashion, beauty and grooming for every wonderful sector of our diverse community of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and genderqueer, from the butchest of butch to the most feminine; honeymoon articles written by gay travel journalists who visit destinations to aptly review them for being gay friendly (who wants to worry about getting arrested or beaten on their honeymoon?); a plethora of wedding-planning inspirations for ideas and trends for each special moment on the Big Day and everything surrounding it. Because politics and marriage do mix when you’re gay, we cover the latest news in marriage equality, as well. We produce new posts daily, and later this month, we’re taking our quarterly magazine to monthly issues. Also later this month, we’ll debut our own wedding tools to further help our readers enjoy planning their weddings in an accepting and inspiring environment.

As we continue to grow our company and attract investors, we’ll be able to do more, but I’ve gotta say, I feel pretty good already. Not a week goes by that I don’t get a note of thanks in my email inbox from someone planning their own wedding, a relative of theirs (usually a parent) or a wedding vendor who just wants to say what we’re doing has helped them in some way.

Follow Equally Wed on Twitter: www.twitter.com/equallywed

Published in The Huffington Post: Jan. 25, 2012

Photos: Our Labor of Love