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Empty Chairs, by Stacey Danson, is a remarkable piece of writing. This autobiographical insight into the early life of a girl subject to physical and sexual abuse is honest, frank and characterised by a refusal to hide unpleasant detail. That the abuse was initiated by her mother, who acted as her pimp, when Stacey was the tender age of 3, makes the revelations all the more horrific.
It is natural to expect that an account of this type would be driven by bitterness and revenge but the author manages to tell her story without undue hostility. And that, in itself, is an amazing feat. If ever a woman had just cause to resent the world into which she was born, Stacey Danson is that woman. But she simply lays out the facts; emotional, physical, mental, spiritual and rational. There are places where the text is almost too hard to read. I have been kept awake nights by some of her descriptions. This is, as you would expect, a difficult book to read. But I urge you to read it simply because it is hard.
The prose style is simple, yet eloquent. She writes pretty much as you would expect her to think and spares none of the expletives that, for her, have been an integral part of her upbringing. There is no attempt to deviate from the truth for effect, no attempt to embroider or exaggerate the facts. The simple truth is enough here, and Stacey has recognised that and allowed integrity to describe her experiences.
I am, by nature, an optimist and a lover of women in general. The experience of this book has caused me to question some of my beliefs about people more than any other work I’ve read; and I include such classics as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Town Like Alice as examples of man’s inhumanity in this comparison.
Men and women, authorities and victims, the respected and the reviled, all feature in this book as adults. And all are shown as flawed, many of them seriously so. There are those who simply looked the other way and thus allowed the terrible abuse to continue. There are those who worked in trusted occupations and yet tormented and harmed the vulnerable child they should have been protecting. There are those who exploited, or wished to exploit, a girl who so distrusted people that even those who might have been her friends could not win her trust. And, in the end, it was the children, the other victims, who rescued her from what might otherwise have been a violent and untimely death.
There is no sentimentality, no attempt to rouse the reader’s pity, in the words on these pages. What you get is the simple truth of a life damaged and abused. Yet, through it all, the spirit of the writer rises and grows to become aware of the greater world and, as the book ends, to begin to wonder if there are, after all, some good people in the world, after all.
Stacey wrote this account to alert the world to the reality of child abuse; to tell those complacent souls who blind themselves to facts, by blaming victims, that sometimes children have no choice; to educate those in authority about the reality of life on the streets for the abused. But she has achieved something more than that. She has made a work of such integrity that the reader emerges from the experience both wiser and more compassionate. And she has earned the unbounded admiration of this reader for telling it exactly as it is.