With the help of inspiration she found at Polk State, student Kathy Leigh Berkowitz has published a book titled, “The Brighter Side of a Darker Thing” — an apt name for a work that has its beginnings in childhood sexual abuse, but that ends with forgiveness and new happiness.
Berkowitz, also managing editor of The Lake Wales News, describes in her book the sexual abuse that began when she was 7. At first, a family member, whom she declines to identify, held and grabbed her in ways that just didn’t feel right.
Then, when she was 9, those touches turned into rape.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Berkowitz. “I remember getting into the bath after that first time I was raped and drawing the water so hot that I could see the steam rising off it. I just wanted to get clean.”
Years went by, the abuse continued, and all the while, a web of complicated thoughts and feelings was forming inside Berkowitz.
She recalls shopping with her perpetrator after each incident of abuse. Even though she hated what he was doing to her, getting new clothes or toys was fun. She also felt trapped, as if revealing the abuse to her parents would undo her family, leaving her responsible for the fallout.
Then at 12, Berkowitz and her family left Indiana and headed south. The abuse and all the emotions that came with it were behind her — or so she thought.
Berkowitz went on to get married and now has four children, two stepchildren and four grandchildren.
She had assembled a life in which she truly thought she had moved beyond the abuse, that it no longer had any bearing on her.
But in 2004, during a women’s Bible study at a church in Fort Meade, Berkowitz shared her story.
“Two other women then told me they had been victims, too. A third woman got up and left,” Berkowitz said.
The reactions her story elicited, and the fact that even in that small group she wasn’t the only victim of abuse, inspired Berkowitz to continue sharing what had happened to her.
“There’s a graveyard in Wildcat, W. Va., where the bodies aren’t buried deeply enough and you can see the lumps in the ground,” Berkowitz said. “I talk about that in my book because all these seeds of pain that I thought had been buried deep started to resurface.”
After that Bible study, Berkowitz began writing her story, which at the time was a collection of journal entries. She would write a few pages, then put it down, stopping and starting for years.
In 2006, after enrolling at Polk State College to pursue her Associate in Arts degree, she found new inspiration to finish the book — in some of the most unexpected places.
In class with English Professor Howard Kerner, who is well known for his lectures on the unsung heroes of the Holocaust, Berkowitz was forced to closely examine the people who had impacted her life — her perpetrator included.
“It impacted me greatly,” she said. “It really made me think about who I am and why I turned out with the thoughts and feelings I have.”
And back to writing she went.
In a class with English Professor CR Junkins, she shared the beginnings of her book, and he encouraged her to keep writing.
And so she did.
Studying under Photography Professor David Woods, she became fixated on the use of black backdrops to define the beauty of the subject — be it a flower, a person, whatever.
Her abuse, she realized, was her own black backdrop. It only served as a stark contrast for the beauty of her life today. She, she realized, is “The Brighter Side of a Darker Thing.”
The idea for a book title began to form.
Then in a Biology class, Professor Joey Maier used the phrase “you can’t undo scrambled eggs,” an expression that stuck in her mind and got her thinking about all the ways she’d changed because of the abuse. She can’t undo the abuse, she realized, and she’ll never be the same for it.
But she could forgive the man who inflicted it upon her.
“I felt like there was a spotlight on me when I heard Professor Maier say that, that ‘you can’t go back and unscramble eggs,’” she said. “I’d been running my whole life. I knew I had to let it go.”
When she heard the same “scrambled eggs” phrase in church a few weeks later, Berkowitz knew it was time to forgive.
Forgiveness wasn’t easy. It took time and prayer, but Berkowitz finally got there, realizing that to do so she had to separate the abuse from the man.
“I had a memory of me and the abuser before the abuse began. I saw him again as the person I knew before the abuse, and me as a kid before the abuse. It was such a contrast, in both cases,” Berkowitz said.
“That’s when I realized how people can forgive their abusers. Whether it was just a choice he made to do this to me, or whether it was mental illness, that’s separate from him as a person. I started praying for the man,” she continued. “That’s when I felt free. Ever since that night, I’ve been able to talk about what happened without anger.”
Another chapter of her book — an open letter to her “darker thing,” and a statement of her victory — followed shortly afterward.
“I danced and screamed and cried in my kitchen when I wrote that,” Berkowitz said.
About a month after Berkowitz finished that chapter, her perpetrator died. A new flood of emotion followed — and so did an unplanned epilogue to her book.
“When I found out, I left my office for a coffee break with a friend. I was walking down the sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon. I felt angry, I said ‘what am I going to do now?’ He’s dead and I’m still here with this,” Berkowitz said.
“But then I realized that all I could do is rejoice because now I really am free. I am going to keep doing what I’ve been doing, telling my story and continuing my healing.
“I also grieved his death. I didn’t know why at first, but now I know it’s because I’d truly forgiven him.”
Berkowitz said she hopes her book will help other victims heal from their abuse.
“Some will run away from my story. I ran away from forgiveness for so long, too. I hope that for others, they can find a thread of hope to continue their own personal healing journeys,” she said.
Kerner and Junkins offered their congratulations to Berkowitz for completing her book.
“Kathy Leigh Berkowitz represents an honest treasure for both our college and our community. I hope she will continue to be a mentor to her fellow students. Imagine — she has not only gone to class and achieved high grades, but she has also survived and triumphed in her personal life and given back to the community by writing a book about her experiences — all while being a student,” Junkins said.
“Kathy shows that a person doesn’t have to finish college to change the world. She has said to me several times that she’s ‘nothing special,’ and in a strange way, she’s saying that phrase differently. Anyone who talks to her will see in a few minutes that she is very remarkable, but at the same time, she represents what any one of us can achieve if we simply stand up and decide to do something. To say Kathy is an inspiration is an understatement.”
“I’m certainly happy for and proud of Kathy that she has achieved this impressive goal. She has always had the courage to turn the ‘lemons’ in life into ‘lemonade,’ and it sounds like she is now sharing her courage in the hopes of inspiring others, a noble and important achievement.”
For more information on Berkowitz’s book, including upcoming signings and how to purchase a copy, visit kathyleighberkowitz.com.