Daddy rides while Mother watches “Hollywood Squares”

Krista Lukas on Rebecca Evan’s Tangled by Blood, A Memoir in Verse
An image of the book cover of Tangled by Blood, a memoir in verse by Rebecca Evans

Editor’s Note: This piece depicts sexual assault and abuse, and may not be appropriate for everyone.

Rebecca Evans’s Tangled by Blood is the author’s debut memoir in verse, a book whose cover art by Amber Helton hints at the content. The front cover features a drawing of a pregnant woman in a modest bra and underwear holding hands with a young child who is kissing her belly. The image evokes a question of mother-child boundaries, yet the viewer can’t help being attracted to its beauty, a feeling that holds true in the reading: some of the content is horrifying, all of it told in masterful language. On the back cover we see a delighted child reaching upward, playing with an out-of-view ball or dancing in unbounded joy. Both children appear to be safe. They are free. Safety and freedom: two things among many that Evans lacks as a young girl herself.

Evans describes herself as a writer, poet, essayist, memoirist, observant Jew, single mother, and disabled. True, hard-earned achievements, all built on the most important evolution she’s undergone: the upward spiral of healing from her childhood trauma. Before the first poem, we see “TW Content – Childhood sexual trauma, domestic violence, suicide”. A warning called into question by the first poem, a personal poem, “I wanted to be your womb” spoken by Tina, Evans’s older sister. It’s clear from the first sentence that the girls are young, as they’re taking a bubble bath with skinned knees. Tina is first, when their stepfather, Daddy arrives, “‘helping’” her, his fingers “‘disappearing,’” her cry “‘That hurts’” heeded only by Evans, who offers what help she can when she 

your scabbed knees
into me, like tiny fire-

fly caresses. 

Breaking the line and the stanza after the word fire, a word divided in the perfect place to reflect the simultaneity of Tina’s experience: sexual abuse by Daddy, juxtaposed with light — in the tactile and visual sense — caresses by Evans. Yet Evans, perhaps too young to understand, needs reassurance.

you’d say, you wished
for his attention first,
you’d wonder why
you were chosen last 

This is the only reference to the misplaced pleasure a child might take in sexual abuse, something that makes it egregious: the child, young as she is, is sexually aware and perhaps even aroused, and the abuser takes advantage of that, even after hearing one child say “that hurts,” continuing on to the next child who believes she wants his attention.

In “Pretending to Swallow,” Evans pretends, her mother pretends, everyone in the household pretends. Evans even pretends to absolve her mother when she writes:

At least Mother didn’t restrain me 
while he rode. She remained one room 
away, watching Hollywood Squares 

It’s worse that Mother watches Hollywood Squares, a game show version of tic-tac-toe, where Mr. X (her child-rapist husband) squares off with Ms. Circle (her innocent daughter), an unfair match in the bedroom, even with the additions of zingers and bluffing, Evans stands no chance. She concludes:

Mother was worse than Father.

Using reverential terms, Mother and Father, “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” and “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” belies how the two individuals treat the children in their care. 

As Evans matures, she grows ashamed of her body, hiding in a middle school toilet stall, listening to girls in the locker room talk about their periods, admitting to herself that she’s been bleeding a long time, just not that way. She develops bleeding ulcers, anorexia, bulimia, and suicidal ideation. Perhaps Mother has justifiable reasons, but rather than escape with her daughters from their stepfather, she focuses on surface appearance. In “How to Cover a Bruise,” she teaches Evans, age 12, how to apply different colors of foundation to conceal a bruise: 

First, tap on white
it covers purple

Instead of teaching Evans that pain means something is wrong, an indication that you need to get away from its cause, Mother says, 

Any man
is better than no man, and
It’s far worse to live
alone than face abuse

It’s both a worry and a relief when Evans decides to leave the house at age 14. She moves into an apartment above a gym, paying the rent by teaching fitness classes and cleaning equipment. She chooses styles for a fashion boutique getting paid in clothes; she makes additional money by developing film, trying to continue dance, cheer, and school, eventually forced to drop out. When, to get college paid for and get away from her family, she decides to join the Air Force (high school diploma required) she goes to night school and earns her GED. She spends eight years in the Air Force, including serving in the Gulf War.

In “Seedling,” a poem whose title represents the speaker’s vulnerable beginning, she contrasts her mother as a parent and herself as a parent. Evans portrays her mother riding a train to work, singing She Loves You, by The Beatles. The poem states only the title, but I looked up the lyrics: “You hurt her so…She almost lost her mind…she knows you’re not the hurting kind.” These words foreshadow Mother’s future, in which she denies that her husband rapes her daughters and she herself denies Evans her true feelings. On the train, Mother is clad in fashionable rolled up jeans and a sheer pink scarf, while Evans considers.

While I grew,
I wondered if she’d any thought of me. 

A commentary on the chasm between them, and a contrast to her reflection on her own pregnancies: 

I grew my first 
son behind a wall of muscle 

Physically true, as she competed on the world circuit of Sport Aerobics, and metaphorically true, as she had grown emotionally muscular — or callused, by her past and continuing trauma. In the penultimate stanza of “Seedling,” Evans writes of another son who remembers growing in her belly. 

He repeats 
this story when he is three or five while curled 
into my ribs on his top bunk, the moon
grinning through the panes as if hearing my boy’s 
chatter of those dark-warm-baths-without-toys-
but-better-than-bubbles-and-a-blanket place.

The setting personifies Evans as a mother: she sacrifices for her son by climbing to the top bunk. The moon grins through the panes (homophone of pains, something inescapable in any childhood), but pains Evans soothes by listening to her son when he describes being in her womb, something a different mother might have dismissed as an impossibility.    

Evans gives us comedic relief, at least her titles, “Lost in the Dryer Vent,” “The Non-Standard Parenting Plan for Turning Boys into Men,” and “Batman Doesn’t Pack a Piece,” in which her son asks her to come and play. She’s torn between what she is already doing — writing — and keeping her promise to play. The poem ends:

I’m a writer.
A mother.
I’m a princess.
I gather star-points.
I leap strawberries.
I run to the finish line.

Evans portrays child rape and its fallout in Tangled by Blood in gorgeous, poetic language. I read it closely for the purpose of writing this review, and each time I found myself distracted from the content by certain matters of form: the occasional mystifying dash in the middle of a word; too many italics; the number of different placements of poems on the page — some poems and their lines centered, some hugging the right margin, others hugging the left.

Yet nothing can ruin this masterful memoir in verse, a story of resilience and courage. Evans ends with this: she wishes for her story to add the other works about victims of similar crimes, many of whom can’t speak for themselves. She issues a call to action: “Keep the conversation going.”

Rebecca Evans is a memoirist, poet, and essayist. She teaches Creative Nonfiction, empowerment workshops, and mentors high school teens in the juvenile system. She co-hosts a radio program, Writer to Writer. She’s also disabled, a Veteran, a gardener, a mother, a worrier, and more. Evans earned two MFAs, one in creative nonfiction, the other in poetry, University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe. She lives in Idaho with her sons, her Newfoundlands, and her Calico. Her poems and essays have appeared in Narratively, The Rumpus, Entropy Literary Magazine, War, Literature & the Arts, The Limberlost Review, and a handful of anthologies. She’s co-edited the anthology, WHEN THERE ARE NINE, a tribute to the life and achievements of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Moon Tide Press. 2022). Her full-length poetry collection, a memoir-in-verse, TANGLED BY BLOOD, (Moon Tide Press, 2023) is available wherever fine books are sold.

Krista Lukas has prose published in Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, The Sun, and Los Angeles Review of Books. She is the author of a poetry collection, FANS OF MY UNCONSCIOUS, poems from which have been published in The Best American Poetry 2006 and The Writer’s Almanac.

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