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December 7, 2023 48 mins

Brittany’s early life is defined by the road; she and her mom are vagabonds of sorts, never settling for too long in one place. But at least they have each other. That is, until they don’t.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Family Secrets is a production of iHeartRadio. This episode contains
discussion of sexual assault and drug abuse. Listener discretion is advised.

(00:20):
Trying to follow a specific memory to any kind of
conclusion is like driving toward a semi blinded by its headlights,
compelled by survival instincts to swerve away. No amount of
holding the steering wheel and place can keep you on
the road. If part of you, however small, wants to survive. Thankfully,
there's a lot of me that wants to survive. That's

(00:44):
Brittany Means, writer and editor, an author of the recent
memoir Hell If We Don't Change Our Ways. Britney's is
a story of extraordinary resilience and ultimately the triumph of
an indomitable spirit trapped an impossible circumstances. It's an object
lesson in the idea that as long as we're alive

(01:05):
and breathing, anything is possible. I'm Danny Shapiro, and this
is family Secrets, the secrets that are kept from us,

(01:26):
the secrets we keep from others, and the secrets we
keep from ourselves. The place that I always begin, and
in your case, it's particularly complicated and rich. I think
to talk about is. Tell me about the landscape of
your childhood and that could mean anything to you. Your

(01:49):
childhood had a lot of landscapes. Yeah, well landscape I
think of Cornfield literally. But for the most part, it
was me and my mom. We lived in a car
a lot of the time. We were always on the move,
and we stayed if we weren't in the car, we
were in shelters or with friends or with family. You know.

(02:15):
We stayed all sorts of different places, like a biker community,
we stayed on an ostrich farm, we stayed with distant family.
In Mississippi, there's always something new and people who were new.
Did it feel like an adventure or what was that
like for you? It didn't feel strange to me that

(02:36):
we were moving so much because that was what I knew.
So I didn't really think to ask like when are
we stopping or where are we going to stay? Because
to me, like being in the car and always being
somewhere new, it was just how things were, and the
most important thing to me was just that I was
with my mom, So I didn't I didn't really care

(02:58):
too much about the instability because it didn't feel strange
and she was there, My mom had me when she
was nineteen, so she was fairly young when she started parenthood.
And my conception was the result of a sexual assault.
I think she was just a very traumatized person from
her upbringing and from what had happened, and from being

(03:21):
a single mother and then being in an abusive relationship.
And I'm aware of all of those things now because
I have a perspective. But when I was a kid,
she was like the sun to me, and I loved
her more than anything. She was like the source of
all warmth and happiness and affirmation. You know. She could

(03:42):
be very energetic and verbally loving, and we would like
go on trips and go play laser tag and put
putt and all these fun things. And then the next day,
or maybe even later that same day, she would be
like very emotionally just regulated. She would sleep for days,

(04:04):
she would scream, she would have outbursts. So yeah, just
in another way, not a lot of stability. How old
were you when you knew that you were the result
of your mother having been raped? I honestly don't really
remember a time when I didn't know that. I wish
I could remember the exact moment and how I felt

(04:26):
about it, but it feels like something I just always knew.
When I picture her, the first image is you know
how I saw her When I was a kid. She
had like brownish reddish, like rusty brown hair, and it
was always a little frizzy, which is where I got
it blue eyes. When I was a kid, she had

(04:47):
like a gap between her two front teeth, and she
ended up getting dentures later in life, and I remember
my uncle actually crying because he was like, I loved
the gap between her teeth. It gave her a personality
like fit her very well, and she had a very
pretty smile. She has like dimples and eyes that are

(05:07):
really bright. One of the moves Brittany and her mom
make is precipitated by Mark, her mom's ex boyfriend at
the time, but now they're running away from him. They
flee to Britney's grandparents' home just off Indiana State Road
sixty seven. Britney's grandparents are Pentecostal, and life there is

(05:28):
extremely different from the life Britney is used to. The
main thing was the contrast. When we first got there,
my mom and I used to love going to horror movies,
we watched TV. We really loved like unsolved mysteries and
watching like the Rose Red series. And then we also

(05:49):
had no rules. We just kind of did whatever out
on the road. And when we were with my grandparents,
they were like, no TV because that's the sin. So
suddenly this huge thing that we shared together was gone
and I couldn't even really talk about it without getting
a speech. And there were all these rules like about

(06:10):
when we could come and go and the things that
we could say and what we had to wear and
cutting our hair. And it was really hard at first
because I was so aware of the alternative to that,
Like I knew there was a world out there with
like beautiful, delicious television, and then there was this world

(06:34):
where I only really got to listen to Bible stories.
And the reason at that point that you were staying
with your grandparents was because your mom had pretty much
run out of gas. Yeah, we didn't have money, and
my grandparents would send money sometimes, but I think it
was the situation was that they were like, we're not

(06:55):
sending any more money. You need to come here and
figure things out, and so that's what we did. I
think that was around like kindergarten age. I have a
really hard time pinning down exact ages, just because we
were moving so much, and we went back to some
places a lot at different ages, and so sometimes if

(07:18):
I'm comparing a story with someone, I'll talk about a
memory and they'll be like, oh, yeah, you were like
nine when that happened. And I'm so shocked because I
remember being very little in the same place, and the
memories that I think I remember happening at one age
happened at another. But I'm pretty sure when we were

(07:38):
living with my grandparents in the house by the highway,
it was some time before I started school. My earliest
memories of going to church include just feeling well, one,
really aware of how my mom and I didn't fit in,
because you know, all the women were in like very
long jean skirts down to their ankles or like long dresses.

(08:01):
They all had very long hair, either hanging down their
back or piled up on their head, and the men
were in suits, and everyone was very clean and buttoned
up and smiling and calling each other brother and sister.
And my mom was wearing blue jeans and like a

(08:23):
T shirt and had makeup on, and her hair was
cut pretty short, and I was wearing the dress and
my grandma gave me, but I just felt really out
of place. It felt like way too nice of a
place for us to be dressed the way we were,
and I was embarrassed, but I was also kind of
irritated because I didn't want to be there and I
didn't have this language then, but now I understand, like

(08:45):
I just didn't want to be judged on terms that
I didn't care about. And my grandma, I remember people
asking her like is she adopted about me? And my
grandma telling at least one of her friends like, no,
she's a rape baby, and you know, people telling my
mom like, I'm so glad you came back. But also

(09:06):
I could see the way they were looking at her,
and you know, her pants and her hair and the makeup,
and yeah, it was it was just a lot to
take in and try and understand at a young age. Yeah,
do you have any memory of what it felt like
to hear your grandmother describe you that way? I don't
remember feeling any kind of emotion about it, because I

(09:30):
already knew the circumstances, So to me, it was just
a fact. I didn't really have the concept that I
should be insulted or embarrassed or anything like that. So
when we first got there, I had this feeling like
my mom and I were kind of in cahoots and
that we were both like, yeah, this sucks, but we'll

(09:51):
get through it. It didn't occur to me that everyone
else there knew her as someone who used to be
very involved in the church and seeing in the and
very you know, like godly and innocent. I never met
that version of her, so I didn't know that that
was something she would go back to. And then she
stood up to give testimony and basically said she wanted

(10:14):
to come home, which to her meant like come back
to the church and feel that community that used to
make her feel safe and loved before so many things
went wrong. I think she just wanted to get back
to that and feel like all of the missteps that
she had taken and all the things that had happened
to her could be washed away. I imagine was an

(10:37):
irresistible feeling. And to me it was a shock because
I was like, what do you mean you're buying into this?
I thought we were gonna leave, and yeah, I just
felt really alone because I didn't have my partner in
crime anymore, and I also like I didn't connect with
this church setting. I didn't feel what it seemed like

(10:59):
everyone else was feeling. So I also had a lot
of guilt like why can't I go there with her?
And again, just a lot to try and implement into
my way of thinking as I was forming a sense
of self well. And also the message that God sees
everything and knows everything doesn't help with the guilt, yeah, exactly.

(11:22):
For a while, Brittany and her mother live with her grandparents.
Her mom has been saved and is accepted back into
the fold. It seems like life may continue to proceed
this way, a new Pentecostal life. But Mark, the ex
boyfriend they'd been running away from, he finds her. He
shows up at the house on Indiana State Road sixty seven,

(11:43):
and he takes her mother away. This is something I
didn't actually know about for a long time. I learned
when I was an adult and my mom told me
this story. He had found us, and he showed up
in the middle of the night and he had a
gun and he threatened to shoot my mom if she

(12:04):
didn't come with him. He basically forced her to come
with him, and they didn't take me. I don't really
know why, because I really wasn't aware that all of
this was going on. I just knew that I woke
up and my mom was gone, and I was alone
in this place I didn't want to be, and didn't
have the context for why any of that happened for
a long time. I mean, it strikes me that your

(12:26):
mom probably was trying to be protective of you by
not bringing you in a situation where she's basically being abducted. Yeah,
but I imagine that to be a kid like so
young and to just wake up and your mom's gone
and you don't know why, and nobody's talking, nobody's really
filling in the blanks for you. Yeah. Brittany is left

(12:52):
with her grandparents for a few months before Mark and
her mom come back for her. During these months, she
and her grandparents move from the little house by the
highway into a barn. So the barn was an old
carriage house. There were horse stalls in it. It was
an actual barn, had a black wood sighting and these

(13:16):
two big silhouettes of rearing horses that were like bright white.
So they stuck out against the barn and my grandpa
converted it into He called it a mansion. It had
thirteen bedrooms all together, and even put up a sign
at the end of the driveway that was like, come

(13:37):
see the thirteen bedroom mansion, and then people would show
up and be super confused. It was like way out
in the middle of the country, like surrounded by cornfields
on one side and woods on the other. And then
inside the barn itself, like it had this really lush

(13:58):
red carpet with all kinds of vines and flowers on it.
There was like a giant chandelier when you came into
the dining room in front of this huge window, and
it had these octopus arms. That's how I always thought
of it. It looked like a giant octopus like holding
a bunch of little moons. And he put all kinds

(14:21):
of furniture imported from I want to say France, but yeah.
It was like there was so much nice, expensive stuff
in it. And then my grandpa really loved cutting corners,
so then in between these really beautiful elements would be
pretty cheap linoleum and Christmas trees from like big lots

(14:45):
that were on sale or something, and missing arms. It
was a bizarre place in part because of how beautiful
and decadent, and the fact that it was converted from
a barn, and also that my grandparents were hoarders. There
was I mean, when we very first got there, I
didn't really think that that was going on because everything

(15:07):
was in boxes and it took forever to unpack. So
I just assumed that that's what it was like when
people moved. And then as I got older, stuff accrued
and this long, beautiful hallway was just so full that
you had to walk sideways to get through it. So
your brother been three and a half years younger than you, Yeah,

(15:31):
and was the product or relationship that your mom had
with someone other than Mark? Was his father someone that
you knew when your mother was with him? What was
the background of that. It's basically my uncle's friend. So
you was just hanging out with all of them all

(15:51):
the time, and they were young, so they were like
why not, and their condom broke and they got pregnant
and the rest of Ben's history right, So it wasn't
the result of a serious relationship. No, no, not at all.
We'll be right back. Ben comes and goes during Brittany's childhood.

(16:33):
He lives with his father some of the time and
other times he spends with Brittany and her mother wherever
they might be. Another on again, off again presence in
Brittany's childhood is Mark. He and Britney's mom get back together,
and Brittany even begins to think of him as her dad.
But then their lives slide into a very dark place

(16:55):
when Mark puts Brittany's mother to work as a stripper,
and while Brittany's mom is out doing this, Mark begins
to sexually abuse Brittany. In a grim parallel, Brittany and
her mom are both doing things with their bodies that
they don't want to be doing. It's a harrowing time,
and at a certain point, someone reports the family to

(17:18):
child protective Services. I believe it was a family friend,
is what they guessed at the time, but I don't
think we ever really got exact confirmation. You know, it
could have been someone out of school, It could have
been someone near one of the motels where we were staying.
Really could have been anybody. So the thing that I

(17:40):
was so struck by is that your mom and Mark
essentially coach you in terms of what you should say
to child protective services. So that certainly implies that your
mom knew that there were things that you could say
that would have you taken away from her. Yeah, Mark

(18:01):
knew exactly what they were going to ask and anticipated
how I could answer without sounding like I had been coached.
And I remember going through that coaching and just being like,
I don't want to do this. I'm bored. I want
to watch TV because I you know, so many awful

(18:24):
things had been normalized. I wasn't thinking like this is
going to keep me from getting help. I was thinking like,
I got to get the answers right so that we
can stop doing this boring thing and do something fun.
And you are at this point around how old. I'm
almost positive this is also before school. I might have

(18:46):
started kindergarten, but I was homeschooled for some of kindergarten,
so it's really hard to say. You also try to
tell other people and really bravely try to talk to
Mark's sister Dana, and she doesn't believe you. No, she
did not, So there's there's no protection at that stage

(19:09):
in your life. I mean, you try, and you I
would imagine that would have felt like well, and there's
just no point trying because no one believes me. Yeah,
like I remember the conversation pretty vividly, and her telling me, like,
you shouldn't make things up. And even though I knew
I wasn't making anything up, and if people told me

(19:31):
I was lying about something, when I was a kid,
I would get mad. If I knew I wasn't lying
about this thing, I wasn't mad. I just felt immediate shame,
like I had done something wrong. And I didn't have
this language then, But now I think it was that
I understood that it wasn't so much that she thought
I was lying, but that saying it out loud to

(19:52):
someone was somehow as bad as a lie. Now I understand.
I think she just couldn't or didn't want to believe it.
And it was easier to assume that, like a kid,
was making something up, because then you don't have to
do anything. You can just scold the kid and walk away.
Whereas if she had believed me, her whole life would

(20:14):
have been upended and it would have led to a
lot of hard conversations. And that's not totally understandable, no problem,
just more that I can see how someone makes a
really bad decision. I can understand all of the even
subconscious things that are happening to lead to them doing
something that creates ripples for the rest of someone's life.

(20:40):
Along the way, there are people who reach out to help,
who try to intervene and offer sanctuary, including Britney's mother's brother,
her uncle John, but their situation is constantly too much
for friends or relatives to handle. Britney's mom and Mark
are on the outs again, so when Brittany is ten

(21:00):
and Ben is six, they moved back to the barn
with their grandparents. Brittany a door's Ben and Relish is
the time they get to spend together, but this time
there's nothing but fear and worry. My brother and I
were staying with my grandma. I believe my mom was
at a doctor's appointment, and he went out to play

(21:23):
and I was playing on my game boy, and my
grandma asked me to go check on him, and instead
of going outside, I just looked out the window and
I saw him playing. He really liked building forts out
of stuff, and my grandpa had all kinds of materials
from his business, so he was building a fort. He
had like a little plywood roof on some saw horses,

(21:46):
and then you know, I sat back down and I
remember my grandma sighing because I was being lazy and
she wanted me to go outside and ask. But rather
than tell me, like hey, I wanted you to do,
this was just sighing so I would feel bad, which
I did. But then sometime later I had a friend

(22:07):
who lived in a little house at the end of
the driveway, and I went over to see her, and
then when I came back, he was gone. I assumed
that he was inside with my grandma, but when I
got in, she was panicked and she couldn't find him.
So we looked all over the barn. We looked in
the backyard, and again there were cornfields on one side

(22:31):
for miles and then woods on the other side for miles.
It was just very quickly, like this horrifying thing, like
did he get lost? Did someone take him? And honestly
I didn't have any reason to think that he had
been taken, but that's where my brain went because when
we were kids, I think, just because things were so hectic,

(22:52):
we were always hearing, you know, don't talk to strangers,
don't get anyone's car, kids get taken all the time,
don't walk for me in the store, And that always
felt like someone taking you away. Whether it was CPS
or a stranger or the boogeyman, it was like the
worst thing that could happen, and so my mind went

(23:14):
to the worst thing, and I just built this story
in my head that someone had taken him, and that's
what happened. And I eventually saw an ambulance down by
the highway and ran to it, and he was in there,
and the police took us to the hospital, and my
mom showed up, and they did all kinds of tests

(23:36):
on him, and he ended up going back with his
dad that night, and I didn't see him again for
a while. But what had happened was that a man
who had been kind of infamous in the town called
the Reverend, had sexually assaulted other young boys in the community,
but he hadn't ever gone to jail for it. He'd

(23:56):
been in treatment after committing arson. But he told these
boys that if they told anyone, he would kill their families,
and so of course they didn't want to testify against him.
And then he took my brother. He threatened him with
the same thing he assaulted him, and they ended up
finding him and he did end up going to prison.

(24:19):
It was a big shifting moment in our childhoods, because
like things were already hard, but then there was this
huge evil event and then my brother was gone, and
then I also got moved away. Where did you get
moved to? I moved back with Mark, so the barn

(24:40):
was deemed not suitable for kids, so you were moved
back to Mark because that would be more suitable. And
where was your mother? I really, I don't know. That's
also a time that I really have trouble tracking because
it was in a series of traumas. It was like

(25:04):
the big trauma. I think a lot of older sisters
understand this feeling like it's it's your job to keep
your little siblings safe. And even if you punch them
in the face sometimes or force feed them soy sauce,
which I did to the end, you still always, when
it comes down to it, you think like you would
do anything to protect them from someone who wanted to
hurt them. And it was like I failed the ultimate

(25:29):
test of being a big sister. And then and then
he was gone and I couldn't even talk to him
about it or apologize or make sure that nothing else happened.
And then I was in this new place with Mark
and Mark's new family, and I didn't even really understand
that that was upset for myself being back with this

(25:50):
person who had abused me, because I was like completely
distraught about Ben and it felt like he had died
and I would never talk to him again. Her grandparents
drive to Indianapolis to essentially to rescue you. You know,
it's so interesting about your story, Brittany, because there's so
much in it that is, you know, people behaving in

(26:11):
some of the most difficult ways that human beings can.
And also, I mean, your grandparents were not easy. Would
it be fair to say they were trying to be
protective of you? Yeah, I think that's exactly it. I
think they were really complicated people, and they didn't always

(26:31):
know exactly what would be the healthiest for a kid
because of their age and their backgrounds and their own traumas.
But yeah, when it came down to it, they really
did want to keep us safe. You know, my grandma
had guilt for a really long time, I think, honestly,
probably until she passed away about what happened with Ben

(26:51):
because she was watching us. But it's not like she
could get up and down the stairs to check on him.
That's why she asked me. And they never wanted any
of the things that happened to us to happen to us.
They loved us. In a fractured and constantly shifting life,
the Barn continues to be a strange and gothic home base.

(27:14):
Britney wanders far. At one point she lives in a
biker camp with a boyfriend of her mom's, but inevitably
she returns. Rural Indiana isn't an easy place to be,
not for a brown girl surrounded by a landscape of whiteness.
Nobody in high school wants to be different, and so
Brittany tries to maintain the image of the white girl

(27:36):
who at the time she wants to be. She avoids
the sun, she dyes her hair, she tries to blend
in just a very small town. And you know, it
was the nineties and then early two thousands, and yeah,
I didn't have basically any exposure to people who looked

(27:57):
like me. You know, my mom had blue eyes, my
brother had blonde hair, blue eyes. A lot of my
family they were you know, blonde, blue eyes, pale. And
I knew on some level that I was different, and
I understood why at least the basics of why. But

(28:17):
I was kind of in denial. At a certain point.
I was embarrassed of how I looked, and I avoided
the sun. I saw a magazine in the store and
I picked it up and there were tips on how
to lighten your skin if you have dark spots, and
translated that too, Okay, I'm going to add lemon juice
to my bath and I would dunk my hair and bleach.

(28:39):
And the thing is, I'm biracial. My mom's white. And
it's not like I looked incredibly different, you know. I
just looked different enough that I was aware of it
and ashamed of it, and I really wanted to change it.
And you kids will find any reason to make fun
of you if you're a little bit different at a

(28:59):
certain age. And yeah, I had kids who made fun
of me. I had the nickname Mexico, which is like,
at least be creative. You know. It was hard and isolating,
but everything felt hard and isolating, so it was like,
why not this too. Eventually, Brittany does see Ben again.

(29:21):
He resumes his rhythm of going back and forths between
his dad and mom, but at some point he emphatically
wants out. Brittany's sad about it, but she understands why
Ben wants to leave. Their mother has become addicted to drugs.
She's always used, but it's not until now that her
addiction really comes to define her. When Ben says he

(29:41):
wants to live with his dad full time, their mother
reacts with horror and fury. At this point, young Brittany
assumes the role of the parent, the mature adult. She
polices her mom, even confronts her about her addiction. She
used through most of my child I wasn't really aware

(30:02):
of it, and it's hard to say how much of
her behavior can be attributed to drug use and how
much of it was you know, she was struggling with
her mental health and with emotional regulation, like my uncle.
I tried to explain it to me when I was
younger that my mom had an addiction. Other people had

(30:24):
tried talking to me about it, but I never wanted
to listen. I just wouldn't accept that, you know, she
could do anything wrong. And then when I was in
middle school, it started to become undeniable. I don't know
if it was just that I was more aware, or
more self possessed or that she was using something different,

(30:46):
or struggling more with how much she was using. May
have been a combination of all of those things. I
just know that I found some of her paraphernalia, and
I tried kind of her about it like one time,
and it basically broke the biggest rule, which is, like
it was never a spoken rule, but it was an

(31:08):
unspoken rule, which is, don't acknowledge this thing and don't
challenge me on it. Just love me back and go
with me wherever, and be okay when I'm not here.
To be okay when I'm not here turns out to
be a prescriptive sort of warning. When Brittany is a

(31:29):
freshman in high school, she and her mom move into
another little house by the highway, a property owned by
her grandfather. One day, her mom leaves without any indication
of how long she'll be gone or where she's going.
A week goes by, then another Britney is running out

(31:49):
of food. Yeah. I spent many years in denial about
things and just kind of avoiding the conversation. And then
suddenly I was alone in the house, waiting to see
if she would come back, and feeling like maybe she
won't this time. And maybe it's because I addressed things
and it was like being trapped in a bubble of

(32:12):
actually acknowledging that things were as bad as they were,
and that led you to call this guy named Clay. Yeah.
We had dated in middle school through the beginning of
my freshman year, and we broke up. He wanted to

(32:32):
date another girl. I was a kid, and I was devastated.
And then we stayed friends and we would talk on
the phone sometimes and it was usually just me feeling
really sad that we weren't still together, but happy that
he still talked to me. And so it was also
close to his family because we had dated for I

(32:54):
think a year. And then when my mom left, I
called him because it really know what else to do,
and I told him what was going on, and then
he told his mom, and his mom came and picked
me up and said that I could stay with them
until my mom came back. I was staying with them,

(33:15):
I want to say it was for two weeks, and
they realized that my mom had already been gone. I
told them it was a week. I was trying to
know Doll the edge a little bit of the situation,
but it had been two weeks by the time I
called them, and then it was two weeks at their
house and they were like, she's been gone for almost

(33:39):
a month. Does this happen often? And the truth was
that it did. She was never gone for that long.
She would leave for like a few days sometimes and
I might be alone, or I would stay with someone else,
or she would stay gone for longer, maybe a few
months if I was with my grandparents. But yeah, I
told them that it was it's fairly regular for her

(34:01):
to leave, and so they were like, well, that's not
a good situation for you, and what do you think
about staying here indefinitely? Which was like a dream come
true for me. We'll be back in a moment with
more family secrets. Living with Clay's family, the Smiths, is

(34:36):
life altering. Clay's older brother Luis has been deployed to
Iraq and Brittany stays in his room. The Smiths are
like guardian angels to Brittany. They've offered her the kind
of sanctuary that has eluded her all her life. But
her relationship with Clay becomes complicated because we had dated,

(34:58):
we had a history, he had a girlfriend, and so
my assumption was just that's done. I'm going to try
to like not make my heartbrokenness to a parent. I
just want to be good and not make trouble in
the house and you know, keep clean. And I wanted

(35:19):
to feel like I was worthy of being in a
place that felt so nice. We were teenagers and living together,
and even though the Smiths had told us like you can't,
I think the exact phrase they use was no hanky
panky while you're living under the same roof, which is
what any responsible person would say in that situation. But

(35:41):
we were young and we had a history, and so
we ended up fooling around and secret and it turned
into well, for a while, it was fooling around and
me not being sure, like why is he still with
his girlfriend? And am I a bad person? And then
even after they broke up, it was still a secret

(36:02):
because we knew that I would have to leave. And
then it's hard to say that there was any one
moment where things turned. But he would get very mad
at me, and you would say really awful things to me.
At the time, I just thought of it as rough housing,
like he would hit me on the arm, or hit

(36:22):
me on the leg, or do this weird crimping thing
to my finger that hurt really bad. It was always
some little thing to just hurt me a little bit,
and it didn't feel I was like, well, he's not
hitting me in the face, or he's not like pushing
me on the ground and wailing on me. And I
had seen that in my life, so I didn't think

(36:42):
that it was anything exceptionally bad, just you know, playing around,
and if I would say, like stop and get serious,
I was ruining the fun. It got to be a
really bad situation. But I didn't feel like I could
tell the Smiths because I knew that I would have
to leave. And it was the first time I had

(37:03):
had like a clean, stable, otherwise loving environment, and I
was finally getting good grades, I was taking ap classes,
and I just didn't want to risk all of that,
And even if that meant living in this terrible situation
where I just had no self worth. I never knew

(37:24):
what version of him I was going to get. It
was hard. And then your mom eventually does show up,
and you're also in this situation where she wants you
to come back. You do not want to go back. Yeah,
you know, one of the worst things about that time
was that I just blocked everything out because I was

(37:46):
in this all consuming relationship. So I didn't even know
if my brother, who I loved and had been through
so much with, was like back with my mom or
with his dad or just visiting, or like what was
going on in his life. Had tunnel vision. Well, you
were trying to save yourself. Yeah. In the meantime, Britney's

(38:08):
mom signs over a third party custody to the Smiths,
making it legal. Brittany has another very real family. Others
continue to try and help her too. More guardian angels appear,
more hands reach out. Many are from trusted and supportive adults.
At school, you know, I was like a kid from

(38:28):
a movie who eats lunch in the stairwell crying because
things were bad and I didn't feel like I fit anywhere,
and everything was hard. And I had an English teacher,
mister Wagner, who would let me eat lunch in his classroom,
and I had my guidance counselor mister Brown. He would

(38:49):
let me come in and just vent and cry, and
then he was the one who really pushed the idea
of college. And until then I just never felt like
a possibility. So I didn't know why I would bother
thinking about it. And then I joined the Academic to caathlon,
and my coach for that one encouraged me to go
to college and helped me figure out how to write

(39:10):
things for applications and how to do interviews. And I
had a creative writing teacher, Kenneth Barrett, who was the
first person to tell me that I was talented writer
and that I should take it more seriously. So I
had all of these people who created space for me
and made sure that I knew that I could get

(39:32):
out and that they were there for me through that,
and I'm endlessly thankful for them. The encouragement Brittany receives
in school inspires her to really focus on getting out,
going to college, and starting a new life for herself.
She cobbles together grants and scholarships, she works a bunch

(39:53):
of jobs, and soon she's admitted to Ball State. Ben
too has successfully gone and out and gets a full
ride to another university. These are impressive achievements for anyone,
but ones that had previously seemed impossible for Brittany and
her brother. For some of college, Brittany and Clay continue

(40:14):
to have a romantic relationship, but eventually they end things.
She is still very much part of the family though,
and when she comes back for visits, Louise is home
from Iraq now and she's able to get to know
this big brother figure in whose room she has lived.
Some years later, Brittany is in graduate school and she's
found her person, a man named Jeff. She and Clay

(40:38):
have lost touch, but one day Clay calls with terrible
news Louise has died from a drug related overdose. Britney's
phone rings again soon, this time from missus Smith, Diane,
and she's calling about Louise's ashes. So the Smiths were

(40:59):
in Indiana and at the time, I was in Iowa
in the graduate program, and Diane called me and said,
Louis's ashes are in this car and it's been impounded
and they're going to basically destroy the car with the
ashes in there. And I asked if they would mail
them back, and they're refusing. And this was in San Diego,

(41:22):
so I got a ticket and I flew there, and
luckily I just happened to have a friend who lived
there and picked me up from the airport and drove
me straight to the impound lot and I went in
and kind of I felt like tearing the place apart
with my bare hands, but I just explained and I'm

(41:44):
really sorry. I know this is an inconvenience and all
of this, and eventually they let me go in and
look around the car and I found his ashes. And then,
you know, because my flight was the next day. Oh,
it was Thanksgiving also, so like everything was closed, and
I had a friend who lived there and was letting

(42:05):
me stay at his place, but he was out of
town for the holiday, so I was just alone on
the other side of the country. I had never flown
before that, I had never been to California with these ashes.
And then yeah, I brought them back and I had
them with me in Iowa for a little while until
I went back for the holiday and I took them home,

(42:26):
and yeah, it was it was a wild trip, and
it was like a brief journey. Yeah, well in a
journey of a kind of repair in a way. Yeah,
I mean, to the degree that repair was possible. I
think before I wrote the book, it all felt like
just something that I was holding all the time, and

(42:50):
it was overwhelming and it was loud, and I couldn't
stop thinking about certain things, and I was having panic
attacks and nightmares, and I wrote the book and part
to process it, and I went to therapy and like
actually committed to therapy rather than what I'd done when
I was a kid, which was lied to the therapist

(43:11):
because I didn't want I heard like CPS will take
you away. And so I finally I started going to
therapy and telling the truth and really committing to taking
care of myself. And I talked a lot to Ben,
like we just like delved through everything that had happened,

(43:32):
which the more I think about that lately, it's like
when you go through a lot with someone, it would
be completely understandable. If I had tried to call him
one day and say like, hey, you remember that time
this awful thing happened. If he had responded like, I'm
out of that now and I don't want to talk
about it, I would have understood. But the fact that

(43:52):
he immediately was like, yeah, let's let's talk about it.
How messed up was that I was huge just having
someone who like understood it intimately and could confirm things
and deconstruct them with me and affirm like, oh, we're
both here now, and it's not like perfect but we're

(44:12):
making it. Indeed, they are making it. Brittany is a
published author living in Albuquerque with her partner Jeff. She
gives public readings to large audiences, some of which include
the very teachers from her past that made this journey possible.
Ben is a family counselor. Britney's relationship with her mom

(44:37):
is okay, but continues to be fraught when she tells
her she's going to write this book. Her mom tells
her to do what she needs to do. I feel
like I've kind of exercised it in a way. It's
not like anything will ever be completely easy, or like
those things didn't happen a that I've written about them,

(44:58):
But I feel like I'm not so obsessed with thinking
about these things, and I have way fewer panic attacks.
I can't say I have none, but mostly I just
feel like I processed it. I did what I wanted
to do. And now when I have people who will
come to me and say your book gave me context

(45:20):
for things happening in my own life or helped me
find ways to talk about it, that means the world
to me, because I didn't just write it to process it.
It was a huge part of why I wrote it,
but just the idea that it can go beyond me.
It's like everything. Near the end of her memoir, Brittany

(45:42):
also includes a moving scene in which she shares draft
after draft of her manuscript with Ben. She hopes and
praise that he won't feel she has somehow usurped his
story by telling her own. She writes, is that what
I'm doing to you? I ask Ben after he reads
my latest draft, I'm telling your story too. Someone had

(46:03):
to tell it, he says. I'm glad it's you, and
so are we. Here's Brittany reading one last passage from
her powerful memoir, The truth is. I spent so long
imagining a perfect future so I could get through a
profoundly imperfect present. I'd close my eyes and build beautiful

(46:25):
houses where nothing could ever go wrong. I needed that
to hold me up. But now I have to let
it go. The world will never be entirely safe. Troubles
will come, loved ones will die, and landlords will reject
my offer of free eggs in exchange for an exception
from the terms of my lease. Now I'm the clattish

(46:46):
adult who controls my life, so I have to stop
waiting for perfect conditions and trust that I can handle
what comes. Planting a seed is easy. Tending to it
so it can grow is the hard part. Family Secrets

(47:25):
is a production of iHeartRadio. Molly Zaccur is the story
editor and Dylan Fagan is the executive producer. If you
have a family secret you'd like to share, please leave
us a voicemail and your story could appear on an
upcoming episode. Our number is one eight eight eight Secret zero.
That's the number zero. You can also find me on

(47:46):
Instagram at Danny Ryder. And if you'd like to know
more about the story that inspired this podcast, check out
my memoir Inheritance. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, visit the

(48:24):
iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your
favorite shows.

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