Sandra Brown is happy these days. The 53-year-old now lives in St. Catherines, Ontario. She has three children, eight grandchildren, a circle of good friends, and a few years ago she met a man she describes as wonderful.
But that’s not how life has always been for her. Brown, who grew up in Peterview and Norris Arm, spent her entire childhood in the hands of parents who starved her, ignored her, neglected her, and beat her.
In November, Brown released a book about her experience through Canadian publisher Daisy May Publishing called “Justice Prevails.” In it, she recounts her childhood at the hands of abusive parents, from the time she was returned to them at around six years old after a brief foster-home placement, until she left home at age 18, eventually taking them to court years later.
According to Brown, the book took her several decades to complete.
“I had this story in my head all these years…and I always had a thought one day I would put it in a book,” she told the Advertiser. “For years after (the abuse) I was seeing different doctors, I was up to 13 pills a day and I was living my life like a zombie. And I said, ‘you know what, this is not the way I want to live.’”
Brown said she struggled with writing her story on many different levels
“I had to educate myself because I didn’t really know how to read and write. I knew enough to write my name, but I couldn’t even do out a grocery list,” she said. “I had to (learn) by picking up words here and there, and asking my friends how to spell words.”
She also said reliving all the points of her dark past was emotionally trying.
“When I sat down and actually started writing I relived things, and I went through a deep depression,” said Brown. “I stood my ground, I had my friend I would call four or five o’clock in the morning and talk to her, and I got through it.”
Meeting her family
Brown doesn’t remember much about life before being introduced to her family by a social worker when she was about six years old.
When Brown was about four, she was found hours from death in a milk box near her parent’s home. She said it took her nearly six weeks in the hospital to recover.
“I don’t really remember being in the hospital, I was probably too close to death,” she said. “After I was nursed back to health at the hospital the doctors recommended I go into foster care.”
Brown said she found out later in life that her foster parents lived in Grand Falls-Windsor. She doesn’t know exactly how long she was there, but she suspects it was between six months and a year.
“I was so young, I just have flashbacks of happy moments with my foster home.”
One thing Brown said she’d never forget is the day she was brought home again.
“(The social worker) brought me to this old shack, we walked up (my parents’) long driveway, and I can picture it like it was yesterday,” said Brown. “As we got closer I kept thinking, why is she bringing me here? She had my things in the car…I was so confused.”
Brown said she remembers being brought into the house and seeing who she would soon know to be her mother standing by the kitchen cupboards.
“I don’t know this woman but I’m frightened to death of her, and (the social worker) introduces this woman as my mother,” said Brown. “And within the first few days, the beatings started.”
The dark room
Brown describes a life of brutal twice-a-day beatings, emotional abuse, a constant empty stomach, and what she calls the “dark room.”
“I can only describe it as dark and cold…I don’t even know what size it was,” she said. “I couldn’t understand why I was locked away and wasn’t allowed out,” she said. “I would only come out at night when the house was quiet, because I knew everyone was asleep. I would tiptoe out to try and find a crust of bread to eat.”
Brown had nine siblings, of which she is the second oldest. She said while her brothers and sisters did receive some level of physical and emotional abuse, it couldn’t compare to what she went through.
“They weren’t locked away, they got their meals. I was a castaway,” she said. “I was thrown away and given barely enough food to survive.”
“One time they were beating me, I was around eight years old, I remember that for sure, and I looked up at her and said ‘just kill me this time,’” said Brown. “I just didn’t want to live there anymore. I wanted out.”
Brown said she was always too afraid to ask why she being treated the way she was, but her young mind drew the conclusion it was somehow her fault.
“In my mind I’m thinking I must be really ugly, and that’s why they don’t like me,” she said. “Then I’d think, if I’m doing something wrong, why don’t they just tell me what I’m doing wrong. Going to church the way we did when we were young, you’re always taught to honour your mother and father and you’re convinced if they’re beating you, you’re the one doing wrong.”
Even though she had a child of her own at 17, Brown was still a prisoner in her own home. She said her parents still controlled her emotionally and financially. Finally, at age 18, she was able to leave.
“My sister, who lived in Toronto at the time, called home and we had time to talk because Mom was in the hospital,” she said. “She asked me if things had changed around the home with my situation…and we planned an escape. She said she had a job up there waiting for me, so Mom had to give me my money so I could get a plane ticket and get away.”
Going to church the way we did when we were young, you’re always taught to honour your mother and father and you’re convinced if they’re beating you, you’re the one doing wrong. - Sandra Brown
Though Brown tried to live her life the best she could despite her painful past, the scars ran too deep. In her early 30s, Brown had a nervous breakdown.
“I ended up in a mental health ward,” said Brown. “I told the doctor everything, showed him the scars on my body. He got me to see a psychiatrist, went to the police, and it all happened from there.”
In the late 1980s, Brown took legal action against her parents, without the support of her siblings. Both her parents went to jail for under two years for what they did.
Brown’s parents have since both passed away, her mother just this past April.
Brown said she doesn’t blame her parents entirely for what happened to her – she thinks some of the responsibility must be placed on the shoulders of a system that put a scared little girl back in the hands of abusive parents.
“I remember the social worker coming for visits. One of (my parents) would haul me out of the dark room and threaten me not to say a word. I would sit in the chair and fear for my life,” Brown starts to cry. “Not once did the (social worker) check my body for marks, not one time did she request to be with me alone and ask me questions.”
When asked about the name of her book, and if she thinks justice did prevail in the end, she was quick to answer.
“I feel like my book is my justice,” said Brown. “It’s my justice and my healing.”
“I feel a lot better today. I think the most important thing is I had the freedom to write, because back then I didn’t have a voice. I wasn’t allowed to cry when they beat me, I wasn’t allowed to say I was sick, I just had to bear the pain and I cried in silence. But now, I have a voice to speak and tell what happened.”
Despite the hate and anger she experienced as a child, Brown said she’s grateful for all the love she has found in her life. She said she hopes no one will ever have to experience the kinds of things she did when she was a little girl.
“I hope this story helps other people out there to be strong. I could have gone down the road of drugs and alcohol. I could have ended up a serial killer, because I was mad enough at the time,” she said. “But you can take something bad and turn it into something good.”