Story of Survival

Cornell sisters finally talk about lifetime of abuse in Jean Hebert’s book

Abi Zimmer, photos by Andrea Paulseth

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.”