How singing helped me recover from an abusive relationship

I’m sitting in front of a campfire in the middle of the woods in Northern California, bundled up in a heavy sweater, taking sips of bourbon from a bottle that’s making the rounds. Surrounding me are women: women ranging in age from 20-something to 60-something, women who are artists, who are radicals, who are parents, teachers, writers, social workers, hippies, actors, lawyers, landscape architects. And they are singing. The songs burst out spontaneously, one woman offering the first line, the others quickly jumping in. When the group begins their much-practiced rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” a cover I haven’t yet learned as I’m new to the group, (and therefore must shoot a pickleback for my “initiation,” which, in case you don’t know, is a shot of bourbon followed by a pickle juice chaser) I look into the fire, the sparks flying up towards the black outline of trees, and I’m so moved I start to cry. Even though I hate crying in front of other people, I feel unashamed. The tears are fitting. And besides, it’s dark.

I always thought I could sing, just not when anyone else was around. I still harbor fantasies of blowing everyone away with knockout high notes no one would ever imagine coming out of little ‘ol me. That fantasy has yet to be realized. Instead, I’ve plodded along from one musical milestone to the next. It started with voice lessons, a way to overcome my shyness. It seemed absurd to me that I could speak with ease in front of 200 people yet freeze up when I had to sing a simple melody in front of only four. It’s my philosophy that most things worth doing in life are going to scare you, and singing in public definitely scares the bejesus out of me.

I moved from group classes to private lessons, wanting to hone my skills and let go of my reserve through more intensive study. At that point, singing was still a hobby, a means of entertaining myself. It wasn’t until after I became trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship, which turned into an emotionally abusive marriage, that singing became a source of solace. My voice lessons turned into rare moments of escape from an oppressive and all-consuming relationship with someone who kept me under watch at all times. He questioned what I said to my therapist, to my mother, and to my friends, but by the grace of God(dess), he did not see singing lessons as a threat to his hold on me. Though I often spent more time venting to my teacher than actually singing, or doing Ethel Merman impressions combined with my own take on the Charleston, complete with jazz hands, voice lessons still gave me something to look forward to each week. I had songs to practice, and I had time set aside that was just for me and existed outside of my hellish relationship.

Toward the end of my marriage, I sat in on a rehearsal of Conspiracy of Venus, a women’s a cappella group in San Francisco that performs unique and highly complex covers of songs by musicians like Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, David Bowie, The Pixies, Bjork, Stevie Wonder and, yes, Joni Mitchell. I learned about COV through a good friend of mine who’d been a member for several years and urged me to consider joining. The group just released their first album this month, (recording started before I came on board) and will be touring NYC in May.

At that time, I didn’t know my marriage was about to end. I hung back during rehearsal and watched this group of women laugh and joke and create communion through song. But I felt nothing. I felt entirely apart from them and their ready smiles. Deep down, I knew I couldn’t join the group. I couldn’t make a big commitment to something outside my marriage because that relationship monopolized my time. I couldn’t invite new relationships into my life because my spouse would’ve viewed them as a threat. So I thanked my friend for bringing me to the rehearsal, thanked the director for letting me sit in, and left with no intention of ever returning.

I’ve been asked many times when the exact moment was that I decided to leave my marriage, but there is no one moment of clarity I can describe. All I can tell you is, there was fighting. And then there was more fighting that crossed a line I hadn’t thought would ever be crossed, and it wasn’t so much that line that worried me, but the realization that there were no lines and never had been. Boundaries were entirely an illusion, as was the sense that I had any control over this marriage, and by extension, my life. So when he told me in anger, as a punishment, to leave, I did. Once I was outside the apartment, it was like the birdcage had been left open. But I had no job, no home, no nothing. I had to start from scratch. I was terrified.

Soon after separating from my husband, I auditioned for Conspiracy of Venus and was accepted as a first soprano. I’d only been part of the choir for a month or two before taking off into the wilderness to spend a weekend retreat with twenty or so new choir mates, most of whose names I didn’t yet know. My divorce had begun a painful rending. I felt raw and exposed, but also ripe with possibility. If you’ve ever been in an abusive relationship, you know the freedoms most people take for granted are scarce. I was used to having to account for where I was, and with whom, at all times. I hadn’t been trusted to ever go anywhere overnight, except to visit my relatives, and even that had required careful choreography. To drink, eat, dance, and sing in the woods like some kind of modern maenad—without anyone knowing or demanding to know where I was or what I was doing or with whom—felt incredibly liberating. It felt like a whole new life, which is why the tears flowed when my choir—my fellow goddesses—began to sing “A Case of You,” a song that’s always moved me, written by a woman whose life and music I admire. (A gifted jazz singer once told me never to trust anyone who doesn’t like Joni Mitchell. Solid advice).

Since that weekend in the woods, I’ve come to feel part of this raucous community of women. I imagine this is what it’s like to belong to a church, only with a lot more wine and revelry. I’m not going to say that the choir saved me—no one, nothing will save you; you have to save yourself. What I will say is that I found in myself through the choir something I didn’t know was there: a certain gumption. Conspiracy of Venus helped me realize that, yeah, I’m a pretty brave bitch.

I’m not alone in that feeling. My choir mates like to say that you don’t find the choir, it finds you and, more often than not, it will come just at the moment when you really need it, whether it’s a time of illness or grieving or some other overwhelming change. We COVers don’t just sing together, we look out for each other. If I need a ride, a recipe, a hug or advice, my choir mates are there. They are the first to champion the work I’ve published and to commiserate with my struggles. It’s the music that brings us together, but it’s our sisterhood—as hokey as that may sound—that unites us.

In December, before the album’s release to the general public, we gathered at a member’s house in Oakland for a “listening party.” After feasting on a potluck dinner, accompanied by assorted cheeses and wines we had brought as offerings, we sat on the floor and on any and all available furniture, and listened in silence to the album in its entirety. As I sat there sipping homemade eggnog and heard those first few notes, I began to cry. I listened for the voices I knew and could pick out, for my favorite songs I had until then only heard live, and as the music went on, I looked around the room at the women whose voices had turned these notes on a page into sound and I was struck again by the thought that if I had not left my husband, I would not have been there in that room. I am lucky to be here, I thought, to be a part of this, to be able to add my voice to the chorus and know that my voice is valued. For that, I felt profoundly grateful.