by Jesse Ren'e Gibbs
Echoing among the Blue Ridge Mountains were the cries of newborn babies that disappeared into the night. The screams of children nearly drowned out by the sound of crickets. A girl, hidden and waiting to be found, terrified, and confused. The fireflies sparkling in the woods, bringing light to darkled places.
The bulk of Jesse’s memories were of growing up in the farm country of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. The farm folks stayed pretty much outside of town, except for visits to the feed store causing random tractors to travel down Main Street. There were beatings and abuses, manipulation and terror carried out in spaces breathtaking in their beauty. There were twenty-seven Baptist churches, three non-denominational churches, and one Catholic Church.
There were annual Ku Klux Klan rallies on the street where they would walk right by all the black families who came out to watch and the white folks who came out for moral support—whether of the blacks or the whites, no one knew for sure. Black people did not marry white people in a civilized society, and so were rarely seen socializing. There was a young woman who was pregnant with a black man’s baby, so her parents disowned her. Jesse’s family was accused of killing the child and burying it on their property.
There was the Berkley House Bed and Breakfast toward the end of town, with gold plated silverware and hardwood floors, rumored to be the local sex worker house. There was a mansion up on a hill that overlooked the other humble houses in the town. In the local cemetery, there was “Will B. Jolly” carved into the graves used by bootleggers back in the twenties. Everyone had some form of thick southern drawl, though the length of the “aw” would extend the further south you went. There was a tiny baseball field and a tinier fire department. There was an old lady in the foothills that let the family raid her garden during the summer. And in exchange, Jesse’s family helped her husband bring in the hay for their animals every year.
There was a black snake in the attic—the door opened inside the closet next to Jesse’s bed. She would find his shed skins left behind in the summer months measuring close to seven feet in length. There was a creek with crawdads and a moss-covered bridge. There were mulberry and pecan trees that filled her and her siblings’ aching bellies as the weather turned.
There were hot summer days and freezing cold winters. There were dogs that were best friends, cats that kept her warm at night, and a cow that committed suicide. There was red clay instead of dirt, hayfields instead of grass, and a favorite swimming hole: Lenny’s Mill, the local grain mill on a glacier-fed creek where you could take a dip if you were brave enough to challenge the frigid waters.
Girl Hidden is the story of an unwanted child, born nonetheless and forced into servitude, desperate to protect her siblings and find her way out from under the vicious, manipulative abuses heaped on her by the one person who was supposed to love her unconditionally: her mother.
Spring came to Rockwell, North Carolina. Now that it was settled where Jesse would stay, life began to return to its own form of normal for the Taylor family. The garden plot that Robert had been working on every evening after work was starting to show some of the fruits of his labors. The days were hot, not stifling, but definitely hot. The kids played wild, climbing trees, racing to the back fence, picking flowers, and creating whole worlds out of nothing. Adventures chased the summer breezes, and Jesse and her little brothers roamed free, or at least as free as the property lines would allow.
Leah the black lab had another litter of puppies and accidentally squished three of them, including the little brown one with the pink nose that Jesse loved. She mourned the loss of life far deeper than her siblings. Life, at its very essence, was so fragile to her. She did not understand why she should hurt so much over something that she had known for such a short time… but it wasn’t just creatures that she had known. Funerals were held for butterfly wings. Hours would be spent mourning for a dead cat passed on the way to church. Jesse would sit among the wild roses on the shaded side of the house and wonder at the sadness of it all. While her imagination could create whole worlds out of nothing, it would also torment her with the losses of friends that never existed in the real world.
The Taylor family was soon joined by Daniel, Tiffany, and Bradley – three brutally abused children of a man who was rumored to be the head of the local motorcycle gang. The children were completely traumatized, and moving in with the Taylor’s was a step up. They called Jesse’s mother “Momma Dolores.”
At age five and struggling with ADHD and severe trauma, Daniel wet the bed nearly every night and was the same age as Luke. Daniel slept with a towel and a plastic bag under his bed sheets. Tiffany had been abused in every way possible and was terrified of going to the bathroom, so she also wet the bed every night; at age three, she was still small enough for diapers, and matched Ezra in age as well. Ezra was also struggling with potty training. Baby Bradley was a year old, which was just a little bit older than Noah, and happy for any positive attention that he could get. There were so many diapers to change in a single day that Jesse started making a game to beat the grownups.
One warm and cloudy afternoon Dolores had all of the kids packed into the van with the windows rolled down, and off they went to the grocery store. Jesse heard Bradley choking and heard Tiffany’s tiny voice constricted with fear over her shoulder. “Sissy!” She turned around in the van seat and saw that Bradley’s car seat harness had somehow been wrapped around his throat and was retracting. He was slowly being choked to death. His eyes bulged with fear and pain as his lips turned blue.
“MOMMA!” Jesse screamed as she released her seatbelt and lunged over the seat. “Bradley can’t breathe!”
Dolores slammed on the brakes and pulled over into a gas station. She jumped out of the van and ran around to the side door. Climbing into the backseat, she yelled at Jesse to go find help. Dolores grabbed Bradley’s tiny blond head, pushing it as far back as she could into the faux leather padding of the car seat to open up his airway. She wrapped her fingers into the harness, pulling it away from his tender neck and holding space for him to breathe.
Jesse scrambled out of the van and ran into the gas station, her feet slapping hard on the pavement. Three elderly southern gentlemen, passing their time at the local five-and-dime in their matching John Deere baseball caps, stared at her.
“Um…” she began, frantically trying to catch her breath and wondering how she would get these men to believe her. “My little brother’s choking. Please help.” They stared at each other for a moment and then the man behind the desk reached for the phone. “I’ll call 911,” he said in a very southern drawl.
Minutes ticked by in slow motion. None of the men moved towards the door. Jesse stood for a moment and then walked back to the van, terrified and unsure of what to do. “A knife,” she heard her mother screaming. “Get me a knife!”
She ran back in the door to the gas station. “My mother wants a knife,” she said. The three men stared at her and then at each other. The fear threatened to take her into an unspeakable place: a place where she had let her little brother die. It would be all her fault. “LOOK!” she screamed. “He has a harness wrapped around his neck and you guys won’t help! PLEASE HELP HIM!!”
Understanding dawned on their faces. Not choking, no: he was being strangled. This they could help with. Two of the men rushed out, one of them pulling his pocket knife out as he ran. The fire alarm three doors down at the fire station began to scream, blocking out all other sounds. Jesse stood outside the door of the gas station. Rain sprinkled from the sky, chilling her skin. Bradley was pulled from the car seat and sat on Dolores’s lap as he sobbed. Jesse stood there in the rain and shivered.
Jesse felt so responsible for her siblings that even an accident made her feel flooded with guilt and fear. She longed for safety for herself and for the children for whom she felt like a mini mom. Dolores and Robert counted on her to care for them, and she had very nearly lost one.
Bradley was bruised but okay. The firemen came running down the street. They took Bradley from Dolores and carefully checked him out. Eventually, they handed him back to Dolores and the family continued homeward, shaken up but whole. And Jesse never stopped feeling responsible for her siblings’ safety and well-being.
About the Author:
My name is Jesse René Gibbs and I am the author of Girl Hidden. I am an artist, designer, dancer and survivor. I am a stepmother to four, Amma to four more and blessed beyond measure with the family that I chose.
This book is based on the true story of my life, gleaned from years of my mother’s writings, my grandmother’s journals and my own experiences. I did my best to showcase the depth of damage that growing up with a narcissistic parent can have on a person, and how hard it is to come to terms with the amount of gaslighting that comes with that life. My siblings all have their own stories of being played against each other, bullied and even emotionally tortured by our parents. We were trained to not trust our own intuition, raised in a life of poverty, a lack of privacy and the endlessly traumatizing purity culture.
I was hunted in my own home by the man my mother married and escaped at nineteen only to land in an intentional community in Chicago that did nearly as much damage. My best friend in the book is also real, and she did more to walk me through my trauma, and she is the main reason that these stories were finally published.
My new life in Seattle didn’t start until well into my thirties, and I’m still working on deconstructing my life up to that point. I wrote this book to organize my life in my own mind and to undo years of lies. I also wrote it because others need to know that they are not alone.
Q&A With the Author
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
I loved writing from the perspective of my mother; she was extremely abusive to me and my siblings, but I had all of her letters to reach into her mind and try and create a character that was honest about the abuse but also humanized her.
So often memories can be subjective and influenced by our own biases, and I was also deep in the well of the perspectives of my narcissistic mother, so research was one of the most important aspects of this book. My best friend June and I dug through boxes, did interviews, along with a lot of extraneous research to make this book come about.
June both collaborated with me and provided me with the support and encouragement that I needed through the entire experience. It can be challenging to organize and write about personal experiences, but having someone who believes in you and is willing to help can make all the difference. Writing a memoir can be a cathartic and rewarding experience, but it is also emotionally taxing. And she was my rock through the whole experience.
Do you have any other books you are working on that you can tell us about?
I am not currently planning to continue writing; it took me twenty-five years to complete this book and it was a lot of work. However, I am interested in sharing June's story in the future, but I have not made any definite plans yet. I may need to take a break before deciding to write again. Ultimately, writing is a journey, and this one was a long one.
Can you tell us about what you have planned for the future?
I have a fulfilling and joyful life, surrounded by loved ones and pursuing a successful career in graphic design. With an amazing husband, four wonderful stepchildren and four grandchildren, I am surrounded by a lot of love. Creativity is a big part of my life, and I get to express it every day through my work. Taking time for myself is also important, and I find peace in activities like gardening and bird watching. I prioritize self-care and living my life to the fullest, cherishing every moment with my family and loved ones. And I continue to pursue my passions and am always looking for new opportunities for growth and learning.
How long have you been writing?
I have always had a natural talent for storytelling, which I attribute to my mother's charismatic personality and my grandfather's love for fishing and fish tales. Writing is one of my may passions, and I take on the challenge of making my stories real, interesting, and engaging. Choosing to write my memoir in the third person adds another layer of complexity to the process, but it provides a unique perspective to the story. To make my memoir feel authentic, I incorporated sensory details to bring the reader into the scenes, added dialogue to bring the characters to life, and emphasized the key themes and lessons that emerged from my experiences. Staying true to my own style and voice is crucial in crafting a memoir that resonates with readers.
Anything more you would like to say to your readers and fans?
The story of how I met my best friend June is often asked about; June is an important friend in my life and someone who I consider my rock. Our connection was immediate, and it made me believe in the concept of love at first sight.
June was only seventeen years old when she visited her older brother at the inner-city commune where I lived. Her father, who was getting remarried, was no longer interested in being a parent, so he provided her with a one-way ticket to Chicago and essentially left her on her own. June's older brother was friends with my ex-husband, so I did him a favor and picked her up from the airport on her arrival. By the time we got to baggage claim we were best friends. We later discovered that our grandparents had been friends for over thirty years, but we had never met until then. It felt like we were meant to find each other.
Jesse Ren'e Gibbs will be awarding a $25 Amazon or Barnes and Noble GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.