Monday, October 28, 2013

A Writer's Response to Domestic Violence with Guest Author Sandra de Helen

Writers are in a position to cast light on social problems, and many of us find ways to do so while entertaining our readers as well. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and several of my guests this month have addressed the topic from different perspectives. Today I welcome author Sandra de Helen, who talks about how the spectre of violence can haunt a writer and what she can do about it. ~ Sheila

A Writer's Response to Domestic Violence

by Sandra de Helen

Domestic violence is everywhere. It hits us where we live. In my writing, I am always aware of the pervasiveness of domestic violence. I lived with it for the first twenty-one years of my life, first at home, then in my first marriage. I know how sometimes words can hurt as much as physical blows.

In my next book Till Darkness Comes, I introduce a serial killer who preys on those who prey on children. We visit domestic violence up close and see its effect on some of the victims. We also see justice done, which isn't always the case in real life.

One thing I know for sure is violence doesn't always beget violence. I'm not a violent person, and my daughter was born a pacifist. She's never hit another person or animal or even a wall. She trained me to change my language to stop saying "shut up" for example, and to never call anyone (even myself) "stupid." I do acknowledge that most people who are violent to others have been abused themselves. Children learn from experience. Whatever they hear, see, and have done to them, they are likely to perpetrate on others. Just not always. We have to break the cycle somehow.

One of the ways we as writers can help break the cycle of violence is by writing about it. Tell our stories, and tell the stories of our characters. End the silence, end the secrets, share the love. We can write about forgiveness and how that doesn't mean the acts/words/deeds we forgive were okay. It means we are healing ourselves. I learned these lessons from reading what others wrote, from hearing others' stories.

And if I see something, I say something. I don't go around putting myself in danger. I do speak up for others, I call out "do you need help?" when I hear a scream. I offer to help busy mothers in grocery stores or shopping malls. Especially when they are yelling at their children, or spanking them (which I rarely see any more here in Portland, Oregon). I go up and say: "May I help you? You look like you have your hands full." Or words to that effect. I try to stay non-judgmental, and more than an arm's length away when asking. I've been told off a few times, but more often my offer has been accepted. I help by carrying groceries, quieting a child, carrying a baby, or whatever the mom needs.

My first two books are set in and around Portland. Here's a link to a site about the Willamette River, which features in both books. 

The second book also features a mega yacht, similar to Seattle's Paul Allen's Octopus. You can read about Octopus and see photos here.

If you live in Portland, or come for a visit, please visit our indie bookstores, like Powell's, Broadway Books, Annie Bloom's, and especially our feminist bookstore In Other Words.


Chapter 1 of THE ILLUSTRIOUS CLIENT by Sandra de Helen

OCEANE LEANED HER head against Zaro’s left shoulder, laughing as she continued to sing a French lullaby to the giant panda she carried in her left arm. The night was cool as they strolled along Portland’s waterfront away from the Rose Festival City Fair, and toward the privacy of Zaro’s yacht. The bridge lights cast their rainbow colors on the water behind them as they passed the condos and strolled alongside the shop windows. Seagulls roosted on mooring pylons, letting her know it was probably later than she thought. She pulled her cashmere sweater a bit tighter as a breeze came off the Willamette River. Still, it wasn’t raining as her friends had warned her it would do everyday. Instead the days had been sunny more often than not for her visit to Rose City. She and Zaro enjoyed their relative anonymity here. Hardly anyone had recognized her as the European pop star she was. Not yet. Her performance would come on the last night of the festival, which meant she could remain relatively unknown and enjoy Portland as any other tourist would.
            That was days ahead. Tonight they went to the carnival, rode rides, played games, and drank local wine.
            As they approached the dock where Zaro’s yacht, the Freja, waited for them, Oceane squealed a bit, and ran ahead. Zaro laughed and ran to join her. Together they raced up the stairs to the main level. Zaro’s man Khalil opened the door and took their wraps, the stuffed bear, and asked what he could bring them. Zaro dismissed him for the night, and Khalil retired to his own quarters below decks. Zaro and Oceane hurried to the master suite, glancing at each other every few steps, smiling as if keeping a secret they could share with no one.
            Zaro shut the door behind her. The king-size bed filled most of this quiet, lush cabin. The floor was overlain with Turkish rugs, the bed covered in silks and satins of grey and cream, with black, red, and orange pillows of various shapes and sizes. Oceane picked up the tiny remote and found a playlist of instrumental jazz to suit their mood. They met at the mirrored bar and Zaro poured wine for each of them from a bottle of Oceane’s family’s own vineyards. Tonight it was Chateau des Ouches’s Special Selection, a sparkling white known as Cremant.
            As the music played in the background, and the bubbly tickled their palates, Zaro and Oceane shed their clothes. Oceane chose a satin robe to match her eyes, the color of espresso. Zaro slipped into silk pajama pants. The pale ivory against her cafĂ© au lait skin never failed to excite Oceane. She walked up to her and stood with her breasts against Zaro’s as her fingers found the nape of her neck and felt her blue black mane. The short hairs on her nape were as soft as the plush on the panda she won for her at the carnival. She tilted her head up, gazing into Zaro’s eyes, opening her lips, touching her tongue to her upper lip. With a groan, Zaro kissed her deeply, and lifted Oceane from the floor into her arms.
            As Zaro gently lay Oceane onto the bed and pushed the pillows out of the way, Oceane never took her eyes off her. She couldn’t believe this gorgeous woman was really hers. One of the most eligible lesbians in the world, with a fortune of her own, and bone structure any model would kill for–she knew Zaro had been with at least a hundred women before her. But ever since they met at the Rose Ball in Monaco, they were inseparable. That was nearly three months ago, and she had gone with her to every concert she had since. She had never had a woman cherish her the way Zaro did, cater to her every need or desire. She wasn’t experienced like Zaro, of course. She was only 20 years old. She’d had boyfriends in high school, had even given up her virginity to one of them. And she dated women now and then since becoming so busy. But it was difficult to find anyone who was interested in her for herself in the music business, or so it seemed. They all wanted a piece of her–of her contracts, that is.
            Zaro was different. She was protective and generous. She showed her love every day in ways big and small. She said she didn’t care about her being famous, in fact she said she’d rather she weren’t. She loved her voice, of course. It was what drew her to Oceane in the first place. She had asked Prince Albert and Princess Charlene to introduce them. But she would be happy if Oceane weren’t famous, didn’t have concerts booked, wasn’t working on a new recording. To prove how generous she was in spite of all that, she had her yacht fitted with a recording studio so Oceane could work while they were abroad, and wouldn’t have to leave at all.
            Oceane touched Zaro’s face, and gently pulled her head toward her own. Their mouths sought each other out, and their tongues played together as if they had minds of their own. When Zaro lifted her mouth from her, she slid under Oceane on the bed, and lifted her on top of her lithe body. She pulled her upright so she could tease her nipples, gently biting them through the robe, while cupping her behind with her hands. They both became aroused. Inside, Oceane felt a melting, a loosening of the muscles, a solid core of heat running from her breasts to her inner thighs. She wanted badly to pull down Zaro’s pajamas and straddle her, but she let her take the lead as always. Zaro liked to keep her waiting until she was practically begging her to enter her. As she moved ever so slightly against Zaro’s heated thigh, she moved her off, onto the bed. Zaro untied the belt of Oceane’s robe, pulled it open, and began kissing her body. First the breasts, and under her arms and down to her wrists and hands, sucking a finger of each hand. And her neck, and down her chest to her flat belly, which she gave tiny licks. When she reached her pubic area she turned to her thighs and gave them bites as well as kisses.
            Oceane was moaning with desire and ready for more when Zaro suddenly stopped what she was doing and sat up.
            “What is it?” Oceane asked.
            There was a sound outside the bedroom window. They both heard it this time. Zaro jumped up, threw back the drapes, opened the window and climbed out.
            “Come back here, you!” She was actually chasing someone.
            “Zaro, wait! Let me call the police. See, I’m calling them now.” Oceane was dialing 911 on her cell phone when she heard Zaro scream. She climbed out the window, pulling at her robe with one hand, still holding the phone in the other. Khalil came running from somewhere, yelling “Stop her! Stop her!”
            Khalil and Oceane reached Zaro at nearly the same minute. Zaro was screaming and writhing in pain. She couldn’t tell them what had happened, but it was clear she’d been attacked. Khalil took the phone from Oceane and spoke with the emergency dispatcher asking for both police and an ambulance.
            “It looks like acid.”

Sandra de Helen’s books as well as two of her plays and several short stories are available at Her monologue Switchblade was published in “Singular Voices” by JAC Press in July 2008. Her libretto Alberta was published in the July 2006 issue of Oregon Literary Review. de Helen is currently part of the multi-cultural playwriting group Penplay. Samples of her works are at de Helen is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and International Centre for Women Playwrights.



  1. Terrific, Sandra! Portland is proud of you. And thanks for the encouragement to speak up when you see those frazzled mother/child teams. Your approach is so humane and generous.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, Ellen, and thank you for stopping by and commenting. I know how busy you are!

  2. Sheila, thank you for hosting me. You're doing a fine thing here by shining a light on domestic abuse awareness. All best in all your endeavors!

    1. Sandra, it's a pleasure to have you here!

  3. Wonderful blog, Sandra, and how exciting to see an excerpt from this book! You are right; the writer's response is often to tell the story... and it's a story worth telling - and sharing.

  4. Thank you, Annie. You are a great source for all of us writers. I appreciate your stopping by!