Poet and domestic violence survivor shares her challenging journey
Santresa Harris is the Solo Mom of four children, a domestic violence survivor, and a poet. Her first book, Layers, was published in April 2018 by Show-Up Press. Today she shares with ESME her struggles, her triumphs, and how she came to be the woman and poet she is.
Q: Can you tell us about your experience as a domestic violence survivor?
A: My abuser was the father of my four children. We had been together since I was 15 years old, and I stayed with him for 15 years. Growing up, I had a rough home life that I wanted to escape. When I met him, he was exactly what I wanted—someone who would care about me and would take care of me. This turned out to not be true at all, of course.
Q: How did you decide to leave?
A: It was a very difficult situation. He severely beat me and left me to die on the street. Witnesses say that even after I was unconscious, he stomped on my face. I was hospitalized. When I was released from the hospital, I didn’t go back to my mother’s where we were previously staying. I lived with my friend temporarily—hiding from my abuser because the police couldn’t find him, and I knew he was out and about. Finally, he went in to pay his parking tickets, and his warrant popped up. They arrested him on the spot. It had taken three months for them to arrest him. Once they caught him, I was able to press charges, so I did. That day set me free.
Q: Did you find the justice system to be protective?
A: Absolutely not. The system isn’t in the victim’s favor at all. It’s set up to discourage women to go away by making us feel like it’s our fault. They say, “Here goes another one who deserves it because she didn’t leave.” It’s so unfair. My situation only worked out because I didn’t give up. When they told me they were going to let him go or give him six months at most, I said, “Oh, nooo.” I had to do something. I had to try. I rushed to get my hospital records myself because the detectives in charge refused to. I talked to everyone who would listen to me. I told my story without hiding anything. It worked out only because I spoke up and spoke out on what was going on. I’m not saying that effort guarantees anything. I knew then that even if I did everything I could, he might just walk out. But I also knew that I had to at least try. So I tried, and it worked.
Q: Would you share some details?
A: The system is broken. At first, I was assigned a good detective who said he would do whatever he could to get my abuser in jail. But then it took so long for them to find my abuser, by the time they did, my detective had gone on vacation. The case got reassigned to two detectives who did not take domestic violence seriously at all. These detectives were extremely dismissive of me. They said my abuser would only get a few days at most because I looked too good. This was because, over the span of three months, my face had mostly healed. When I told them there were hospital records to prove the damage he had done, they told me there was no time to look at that because the court hearing was set for the next morning. I asked if I could get my report and bring it to them before the hearing, and they shrugged and said I could try. When I showed up at the police station the next day, I was lucky enough to talk to another detective. She was a survivor herself, and she was appalled at the way I was treated by the other detectives. She was high up in the system and personally took over my case. My abuser ended up spending five years in jail.
Q: Is he out now?
A: Yes, he’s been out now for several years.
Q: Does this scare you—to know he’s out?
A: No, not at all, and he knows it. I talk to him because he’s still the father of my kids, but he can’t do anything to me anymore. I just wish he could be a better father to the kids, but I can’t do anything about that.
Q: Can you tell us what it’s like being a Solo Mom?
A: One thing is for sure: it definitely makes you a stronger person. You learn to survive and not depend on anyone. It is very difficult and hurtful to be a Solo Mom. Being alone and not being able to count on anyone is emotionally and mentally breaking. In my case, I don’t have family support, so I’m really on my own—in the traditional sense. On the brighter side, being a part of the Solo Mom community is the best thing to happen to me. It’s amazing to know there is a group of selfless women who step up and have each other’s backs—even when they barely know each other. In this sense, I am not alone. There are others like me. I’m proud to be a part of this great movement.
Q: As a poet, you write about your experience as a survivor, a mother, and a woman. How did you begin writing?
A: I began writing by accident. I have always been good at expressing myself with words, and I wrote poems as gifts or in cards—for occasions like birthdays. It was just a hobby. It was my best friend Nicole who encouraged me. She said, “San, your writing is a gift. Start writing and keeping your poems.” She bought me my first notebook to write my poems in. She was the first to believe in a vision. It wasn’t apparent to me before she showed me. My book, Layers, came to be because of other friends who believed in my vision and executed it. Everything all happened by coincidence.
Q: I’m going to challenge the idea that it was coincidence. It sounds like you were very open to positive support and didn’t waste opportunities presented to you. Women tend to be too humble and credit good luck for their accomplishments, dismissing their own hard work and talent. I feel compelled to point out that it wasn’t just luck for you.
A: Thank you—that means a lot to me.
Q: What do you hope readers will get from reading your poems?
A: I hope readers feel the many dimensions of my emotions as well as the struggles of life. These aren’t all my personal stories, but most of them are. They are all stories of the real—the grit, the pain. I want to be the voice that’s bold enough to shout the truth. I want the readers to feel my words, and for someone to feel, “I’m not alone.”
Q: Is there a poem you would like to share with ESME readers?
A: Yes, I want to share “Soo Sorry.” I think this one would be perfect because it’s directed at my abuser. He tried to break me, but here I stand, stronger than ever:
I’m sorry that you hit me with your best shot, and I’m still here.
I’m soo sorry that when you look into my eyes you no longer see fear.
I’m soo sorry that I refuse for my cheeks to feel anymore tears.
I’m sorry that all the times of you hurting me—physically, mentally, and emotionally—didn’t break me.
I’m sorry that you left me to stand all alone to face the world by myself.
I’m even sorrier that I get up every day, accomplish all my victories: with no help.
I’m sorry that every time I fall I get back up.
I’m even sorrier that when I walk, it’s such a strong and sexy strut.
I’m sorry that I’m now everything I wanted to be.
I am happy, full of peace, and truly love myself.
Sorry you couldn’t break me. Better luck next time. . . .
Mika Yamamoto, ESME's Guide for Public Assistance, has successfully nurtured two children as a Solo Mom and now hopes to achieve the same results as a plant nanny.
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