I have known about Erma Steppe’s book, I’m Nobody: My Mother Said it; I no Longer Believe it, for a couple of years now, through her sister-in-law, and my dear friend, Missy Beattie.
I was recently at Missy’s house in Baltimore visiting, and I was finally able to get my hands on a copy. I am given many books, some I read, some I leave in cabs, some I throw on the pile for later—but few that have been as riveting as Erma’s little (100 page) autobiography.
If I had to describe the book using one word, I would say, “honest,” but since I am not limited to one word, I can say “brutal,” “touching,” “sad,” “funny” but, above all, “honest. “
Missy has been filling me in on the book’s progress for a while now. There has been interest in movie rights and talk of having it used as a teaching aid in college classrooms. After I received the book, I made a vow to start reading it on my flight home and to review it if I found it worthwhile, but what started as a chore and a favor for a friend soon turned out to be a pleasure.
Erma was born in Ohio near the end of "Double-U, Double-U Eye Eye" in 1944. Her first memories are of hiding behind a door in what she later discovered was an aunt’s house. Her aunt was caring for her while her mother did one of her many stints in jail. Erma remembers being stepped over, stepped on, or jostled by this large human—so behind the kitchen door was her refuge, and she thinks her bed.
Erma’s mother, Agnes, was an abusive, mean, and cold alcoholic who goes through men like some people these days go through computers—one every two or three years. Erma later discovers that her aunt’s husband, Pap, is her father. This fact explains why her aunt hates her so, but why does her mother hate her? Is it because Erma suffers (alluded to in the book) sexual abuse from every one of Agnes’ boyfriends or husbands? The physical, emotional, and sexual abuse causes Erma to retreat from life and become what she calls a “Shell.”
Erma’s writing is simple and direct, but every so often she turns a phrase that takes the breath away
Describing the first instance of sexual abuse by one of Agnes’ men: After he began the abuse, I felt like an old can, rusty and dirty with nothing inside me…Sexual abuse is the death of a child. It rips out what makes you want to be close to other people…it never goes away, it remains in the crevices of your mind (p11).
Erma and her siblings are eventually taken away permanently from Agnes and sent to a strict children’s home where “fostering” seems to be just a cover for child labor in the homes or fields of the foster parent.
Reading Erma’s book, I was struck by several things.
The first is her resilience and the resilience of humans in general. She survived the abuse (one of Agnes’ men even gave her a “jail” tattoo that became severely infected) and eventually married a good man with whom she gave birth to two sons and one daughter.
Erma used the experience of her own upbringing to try and be a better parent to her children. Even though her husband, Frank, was a good man, Erma never spoke of her horrible upbringing to him, yet he never really asked. After 28 years, Erma felt that Frank was too demanding and not very understanding, so she did another brave thing—she left him. Erma raised her children, worked and was able to achieve a college degree.
The next thing I was struck by was the fact that I was under the impression that I had a horrible childhood: Abusive parents, alcoholism, poverty—the whole nine yards. But my upbringing was Leave it to Beaver wonderful compared to Erma.
And, finally, I found myself feeling inexplicably sorry for Agnes: A woman who found her men far more important than her children. Maybe my sympathy comes from the fact that over the years I have been able to gain a little sympathy for my own parents, Dennis and Shirley.
There is no test for parenting and back in the 40’s and 50’s abortion was illegal and reserved for women who could afford a secretive one and dangerous for the poor. Sex Ed was non-existence and birth control was spotty. Women, who had intercourse, whether willingly or not, had very few options. Maybe Agnes and Shirley, growing up on the edges of a society recovering from a Great Depression and War with rampant racism and sexism, knew only one path: marriage and motherhood, ready or not?
You’ll be shocked, stunned, maybe grateful, but definitely inspired by Erma’s tale of perseverance and victory over her substantial roadblocks—one of which appears to be a severe learning disability.
In the beginning of her book, Erma says:
Maybe this book will help me understand myself. Maybe I can learn to use my strengths, accept my faults, and understand my feelings. Maybe there are other daughters and sons who will understand my story and know they are not alone. I wish for them to find peace in their heart.
I started writing very soon after my son, Casey, was killed in Iraq, and I know Erma is correct.
I highly recommend this book.
Erma self-published, so to obtain a copy, send $12 (check or money order) to:
101 Cross Keys RD, Apt B
Baltimore, Maryland 21210.