For ten years, Polly Mitchell was imprisoned in her Nebraska home, abused and kept under lock and key by her obsessively jealous husband. Just two months into her marriage, Mitchell’s husband installed deadbolts on the doors of her home that locked from the outside, and soon after nailed the windows shut and covered them with tinfoil to obscure his wife’s view of the outside world. After surviving a decade of rape and abuse, Mitchell finally escaped with the help of her mother and an advocate at a local domestic violence shelter. For Arisa White, this horrific narrative was a chance to explore larger themes of captivity, violence, and resilience through poetry.
White’s latest collection, A Penny Saved, is an interpretation of Polly’s struggle reimagined through the story of her own captive protagonist, Penny. Told in three parts, White’s fictional account of captivity moves deftly between varied narrators, carefully rendering the voices of child, adult, and home; of the abuser and the abused. Each of these characters illuminates a different perspective of Penny’s experience in captivity and the violence she endured. Even the house itself is an empathic narrator, quietly bearing witness to Penny’s abuse and chronicling the rules that dictate her limited movement. Through these voices, the reader intimately experiences both the violence and repetition of Penny’s captivity, her “extraordinary crawl from yesterday to arrive at the same damned thing.”
Penny’s daughter Elizabeth seeks solace amidst the chaos of her home in her imaginary friendship with Jewelie. “This imaginary friend became another voice in the manuscript—a voice that allows the younger person, witnessing all this violence to speak and articulate their fears and concerns. As a child who grew in domestic violence, it was important for me to have that voice involved, because it is a voice that is seldom heard or listened to,” explained White. Penny’s narration describes watching Elizabeth speak “quiet jibberish” into her palm, piecing together her daughter’s fictitious friendship: “She lives in your hand? / Yes, it makes it easy to keep her safe.”
White’s multifaceted narrative even embraces the perspective of Penny’s husband. “For the husband’s voice, I had to step out of my judgments about violence and aggression and masculinity. I had to step out of the place of seeing this person as wrong, but step into his story and share it because it too is one that needs to be heard,” said White. This exercise is a challenge for both author and reader – given the perspective of Penny’s husband, we are asked to extend ourselves to him as well as to Penny, in spite of the pain we feel for her throughout the text.
Following Polly Mitchell’s escape and the prosecution of her husband, one question pervades the interviews she gave: why stay for so long? This is the complex question that initially spurred White’s writing. “It is a question that is not particular to Polly’s story, but to women who are in abusive relationships, period,” said White. “Why do we stay? What keeps them there? I was really curious about that internal thing inside that says, ‘stay a little longer.’ It is the same question I posed to myself about my mother.”
With Mitchell’s story, White’s inquiry evolved beyond the why: “I came across this situation with Polly where she couldn’t leave, so then the question became how does she stay? What are the internal resources she’s tapping into?” White’s poems work to answer this question, and in doing so artfully reveal Penny’s strength, her love of her children, and her will to survive.