Road to Recovery
Shirley Christie bikes across country to bring attention to domestic violence and sexual abuse
By Sheila Mendes-Coleman 09/05/2014
On Saturday, Shirley Christie will culminate her therapeutic cross-country bike ride to bring attention to sexual abuse at a welcoming reception at 2 p.m. at the Allendale Branch of the Pasadena Library.
Christie’s solo journey, dubbed “Cycling to End the Cycle,” is both a labor of love and a cathartic means of dealing with the long-term consequences of growing up in an unsafe and abusive household in Pasadena in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
“With all these people around me suspecting something, I just wish that more had been done,” Christie told the Weekly when contacted by phone in Santa Barbara.
The abuse began as a toddler at the hands of her grandfather and his brother and continued with frightening intensity by her father. The eldest of six children, she was raped repeatedly by her dad for years, beginning at age 9.
Considered the “mouthy” or “headstrong” child by the family, Christie believes the sexual and physical abuse she experienced became a way for her father to control her and dampen her spirit. The family cowered in fear when her father was angry and felt anxious when things were calm, never knowing when he would explode in a rage.
In junior high school in Pasadena, a special relationship with a teacher who mentored and cared for her left her devastated when she shared her story of abuse and no action was taken. A social worker once noticed Christie’s file that contained previous allegations of abuse against her father, but again, nothing was done. By the time she was a student at Pasadena High School, and then later at Pasadena City College, Christie was dealing with the heartbreaking realization that she’d have to deliver herself to emotional health and physical safety.
Even as an adult, Christie was still prey for her abusive father. At 18, he raped her in her family’s vacation trailer. Her sister’s boyfriend reported the abuse, but with the laws and attitudes toward domestic violence at the time, coupled with the fact that Christie was 18, and thus an adult, again, little was done and her father spent only a few days in jail before being released back to the family he’d been victimizing.
After that incident, her father held a loaded gun to his head as he blamed Christie for the turmoil the police intervention had caused the family. This incident, along with many others, only served to reinforce the notion that Christie would find no safe haven from her father’s abuse, even within the supposed safety of law enforcement professionals. Although he passed away at age 59, the emotional scars her father left continue to this day.
“I used to write letters to him, but I’d never send them. Sometimes I wish I had” she said.
Even as Christie began to heal and seek justice for the pain inflicted by her father, she was thwarted by statutes of limitation and legal restrictions on prosecuting him so many years after the childhood abuse.
“You know, being friends with Shirley in the ’70s, I knew things weren’t great in her house,” said Pasadena Librarian Terry Cannon. “But I just had no idea how bad it was. It’s unimaginable what she’s had to endure.”
The abuse has left Christie with a desire to educate the public about sexual abuse in families, but also to dispel notions that often prevent those on the outside from recognizing the signs of a family in crisis.
“A lot of people still feel that this kind of abuse is because of addictions, but you don’t have to be on drugs or an alcoholic to have a problem with domestic violence,” Christie said. “My father had a beer every now and then, and he didn’t do drugs, but he still abused us.”
Domestic violence looms in all walks of life and every socio-economic level. Yet, despite those facts, it goes largely unreported to police. Only one quarter of all physical assaults and one fifth of all rapes are reported to the authorities.
“If we can send people to the moon and develop smart phone technology, why can’t we change our culture?” asked Christie, whose cross-country ride is an attempt to heal, but also to connect with others. Plus, as she puts it; “There’s something very attractive to me about living by your wits and not planning too much.”
On May 20, Christie began her trek at Boston Harbor, averaging 21 miles per day, but sometimes biking as much as 50 miles in one day.
At one point, the rigors of life on the road and emotional fatigue became so great that she called her daughters for support — and to express her desire to abandon the mission. Her oldest daughter’s words of wisdom still ring loudly in her ears: “Mom we’re proud of you and we love you no matter what, but if you quit now you’re going to be really angry with yourself.”
This encouragement seemed to provide Christie with renewed vigor, and she biked on through bouts of intestinal problems due to a stomach virus, torrential rain on the East Coast, dangerously high winds while biking through North Dakota, inadequate shelter on long, solitary stretches of road and crushing loneliness. There were times she biked through the night because she was unable to find a proper rest stop, shelter or park to camp in. Despite the occasional hardships, she says she felt the experience was a positive one. She feels fortunate to be able to see the country in this fashion.
Despite her tumultuous childhood and painful past, Christie sees her cross-country bike ride as an important step in furtherance of her quest for emotional healing. Her Facebook page; “Cycling to End the Cycle” helps keep her connected with friends and well-wishers who follow her on her journey.
Even with the occasional splurge of a budget motel or good friend to lend a bed, there were still times Christie slept in parks, behind churches and was often forced to a diet of convenience store food to meet her nutritional needs.
At a quiet moment on most evenings, Christie was able to utilize her trusty laptop and share pictures and thoughts on the day’s adventures via her Facebook page, sometimes with brief posts, but at other times going into great detail about her various experiences biking through the country. Her very personal mission is also a lesson in the myriad of ways one can heal after significant trauma. What works for one might not be therapeutic for another, she said.
“Traditional therapy just didn’t work for me, but I found that working with victims of domestic violence was very healing, so that’s what I’ve done for many, many years,” she said. “And I’ve always wanted to see the US and biking just seemed like a great way to do that.”
Even though her childhood abuse has left her with emotional scars, she still remains the dutiful daughter. Christie continues a relationship with the mother who loved her but failed to protect her, often traveling from her home in Augusta, Georgia, to visit her in the Lancaster/Palmdale area.
How, one has to ask, was she able to move past the childhood neglect and trauma and not only maintain a relationship with her mother but also posses an ability to philosophically reflect on her father’s positive contributions to her upbringing?
“He wasn’t all bad, and I’m grateful to him for giving me a love of nature and the outdoors,” she said.
A reception for Shirley Christie will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Pasadena Public Library Allendale Branch, 1130 S. Marengo Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 744-7260 or visit cityofpasadena.net/library.