Story of Survival
Cornell sisters finally talk about lifetime of abuse in Jean Hebert’s book
Walking into the home of Joyce West, one is struck by the overwhelming theme of wolves – on posters, calendars, figurines, even sweatshirts. When asked why this choice of décor, West says they are a symbol of freedom, and freedom is what she and sister Jane McDaniel now have since the death of their adoptive father in 2003.
At his funeral, West turned to longtime friend Jean Herbert and said it was time to tell her story. For the next three and a half years, Herbert listened to stories of severe abuse, writing them down and traveling over 6,000 miles to substantiate them. Talking to others, Herbert discovered that the sisters’ stories were worse than even they had remembered. Now published, their book, Beyond the Open Well, spans six decades, chronicling how the two sisters were physically abused, sexually molested by their adoptive father, secluded from public life, and endured difficult marriages, depression, and suicide attempts. When their adoptive father died sixty years later, they knew it was finally safe enough to open up.
“It’s completely set us free,” says McDaniel.
The title comes from the first paragraph of the book, where the sisters recall how their brother Alan almost fell into an open well, representing their constant danger. “Throughout our lives, we’ve hit these open wells,” says McDaniel. “People say ‘You survived it!’ and I think, what else are you going to do?”
Originally, the project started off as a pamphlet, some written account to explain their failings to their families. “I didn’t realize we would have enough for a book,” says West. But the more Herbert listened, the longer the project became.
The story was new even for Herbert, who had attended high school with McDaniel. “I had no clue that all this was happening,” says Herbert. “They could go to church, go to school, and go home. That was it.” Her impressions of them were as, “the holiest women on earth.” McDaniel replies, “We were! We had to be.”
Early on, their adoptive father kept them from the town. “He set us up as liars,” says McDaniel. “No one would have believed us.”
When West became pregnant with his children, he forced her into marriage where her insecurities continued. “When my husband died, he didn’t leave me nothing. I had to put myself together,” says West. She moved to Milwaukee where she attended a women’s conference. “I learned I was not stupid,” she says, leaning forward intently. “I could say yes. I could say no.”
Beyond the story of abuse lies a story of hope. Herbert describes how shy and quiet the sisters were three years ago. Now they smile all the time and their bubbly optimism and hugs are contagious. When the book was finished, West said, “I feel like I have a thousand pounds lifted off.”
Since then, McDaniel’s children have accepted what happened and stopped blaming her. “They love me and I love them,” she says. West’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren are more supportive of her and the whole town has changed in attitude towards them.
Even Herbert was affected. “I notice things now,” says Herbert. “I’m less judgmental than I used to be.”
The book, available at the Eau Claire Borders and on Amazon.com, has been widely received. “I thought we’d maybe sell 20 books, but they’re flying off the shelf,” says Herbert. “People can’t put the book down.”
“I’d like to reach as many people as I can, especially young girls,” McDaniel says. “Just reach them and let them know they can do something about it. They don’t need to be ashamed.”
Jean Hebert: Beyond the Open Well book signing. Tuesday, Sept. 2, 6:30-7:30pm, at the Chippewa Falls Public Library. 723-1146. www.beyondtheopenwell.com.