Angela M. Carter is a survivor. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, a lifelong battle against depression, and an imposed repression of her voice. Carter is also a published poet, a mother, a college administrator, a Southerner, and a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University’s Adult Degree Completion Program (ADCP). On her left shoulder and bicep is tattooed: “don’t listen to the lie.” It is a quote from her therapist, to remind her that the lies imparted by sexual abuse and depression do not define her: that she is good enough; she is lovable.
Her experiences with the ADCP and poetry have helped Carter develop confidence in her identity, voice, and story. Sexual abuse affects a person for life, and Carter shares her story to connect with other survivors and break the silencing stigma around trauma. She points out that about one in six people is a survivor; and both their suffering and humanity need to be acknowledged. “We wear red lipstick, we have nice clothes, and we’re absolutely hurting inside,” she says.
Overcoming a childhood of silence
Growing up, Carter was told that depression did not exist, and she should not talk about the abuse, sparing others discomfort. That silence was much worse than the abuse itself, she says. “It’s a heavy burden to carry.”
She has had hospital stays for depression, and takes six to nine pills a day. But she is also a loving mother, wife, writer, employee, and student, and wishes to be seen for both her accomplishments and her hardships. “I’m here, and I’m a happy person who just happens to have a mental illness,” Carter explains.
When in community college years ago, Carter says that she experienced crippling social anxiety, fearing people might think her crazy because of her depression. She moved to England, which she describes as fleeing her fear of people. She found her fears followed her across the Atlantic. “I was in London and I still couldn’t run from it.” Realizing that her inner narrative was more caustic than anything others said was “very liberating.”
She met and married her husband in England, and while on a late honeymoon through Harrisonburg, they decided to move and raise their family here. Carter sought stability – “a place to belong, a place to be.” But moving to a strange city without friends or career connections prompted her to seek further education. She found the ACDP, and “everything aligned” with scholarships and enrollment.
“There was never a moment when I thought, ‘this isn’t right.’”
Carter joined the program as a mother of two daughters – now ages 10 and seven. “It was not easy, whatsoever,” to be both parent and student. Her classmates, however, understood.
Carter was deeply depressed in this epoch of life, yet she never missed a class. Her classmates were a diverse collection of people, but through meeting weekly, they developed a camaraderie – “I haven’t encountered that kind of friendliness outside the program,” says Carter.
Professor Terry L. Whitmore particularly noticed her psychological battle. After one class, he called to ask how she was doing. Carter says that just hearing the phone ring was heartening – and it is often small gestures like that which mean the most to someone who is depressed. A simple card or cup of coffee “might be their saving grace,” and communicate that they are worth friendship and healing.
Through moments of connection like these, Carter began to gain confidence in herself, and a sense of personal identity and worth. “I became ‘me’ while I was there,” she says.
Finding a voice through poetry
Two and a half years ago, another portion of her identity manifested, as Carter began to publish the poetry she’d written secretly, throughout her life, about personal subjects. “It was giving me a voice,” Carter says. She found that writing about the past helped her to process the trauma she’d experienced.
Her first book, “Memory Chose a Woman’s Body,” was published in May of 2014. A poetic memoir, it focuses on the abuse she endured as a child, and the true effects of the silence endured, while offering hope in the end. “There’s a desperation in it,” says Carter, “and I’m proud of that.”
While having been compared to Sylvia Plath, Carter says her style is distinct, and not academic. “I write for normal people.” An excerpt from one poem in the anthology, “Moths,” illustrates this style:
I remember the phone call weeks later,
expected by my ears, unprepared by my blood,
your arm broken,
your scalp without its hair.
And I, in tears,
of sympathy and jealousy
that your pain had a name, a color, a face
and you chose not to see the face of my culprit until
he beat you black and blue.
Reviews have said that her poetry is “hard to read” because of the subject matter, but Carter counters that “the truth is beautiful, even when it’s not fun and games.” Nominators of the Pushcart Prize and Virginia Literacy Award agree. She also works as a visual artist, often combining art shows with poetry.
Carter plans to get a tattoo of the words “I was the secret keeper,” which harkens to a line in her poem “Woman Child.” After a lifetime of being told to keep secrets, she is now “so open that it scares people.” Her family has rallied around Carter’s work. Her mother, with whom Carter did not have a relationship as a child, was originally “dead against this book coming out.” But after reading the manuscript, she told Carter that “she now understands why the caged bird sings.” Her mother is now one of her largest supporters.
“My husband supports me and my children look up to me,” says Carter. “If the whole world treated these topics the way my chosen family does, I doubt there would be a need to me to do all that I am.”
Sharing poetry as a means of empowerment
A full roster of speaking engagements speaks to the significance of Carter’s work. “It’s a dream come true,” she says. If anyone had told her four years ago where she would be today, “I would have never, ever believed you.”
After each reading, Carter has received an outpouring of emotional feedback. Often, people approach her in tears, unable to speak. She recalls young adults who have “a gleam in their eyes” after a performance, saying they would start writing because of her.
The message she hopes to impart to her listeners is, “there’s a lot of solace in knowing that you’re not alone.” Carter encourages anyone who is dealing with depression and trauma to read about mental illness, and learn about the societal prevalence of their struggle. Breaking the stigma around mental illness is paramount to healing, she explains. Writing and sharing her work provided Carter with a means to overcome that stigma. “Poetry overall saved my life many times.”
— Randi B. Hagi