“A story of heartbreak, hope and healing… Grab a kleenex.”
—Bonnie Gallant, Agora Network Ministries, co-author of The Beautiful Strokes of God
“…Nothing short of an amazing account of God’s love and faithfulness.”
—Toni Schirico Horras, Area Co-ordinator at Safe Families for Children Greater Chicago Area
What happens when a cardinal rule is broken?
What if you’re the one who breaks it?
Can there be redemption?
Is there hope?
The sins of our fathers are long reaching. Joanie Brusseau knows what happens when cardinal rules are broken. As a kid she survived it—barely. It cost her everything.
“Never hurt a child.” It’s a fundamental principle and now she’s broken it. Can she survive this too?
What happens next is unexpected, perhaps miraculous. A chance encounter sets her on a journey of risk and adventure. Joanie’s story gives hope to all of us—people in bad shape, in deep trouble—to accomplish great things in the world.
Targeted Age Group:: 20-30
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I met the protagonist, Joanie Brusseau, while I was in Chicago helping out with a summer camp that she was the director of. I walked into her office to use the printer as she was finishing up a phone call with her psychiatrist. I awkwardly tried not to listen as she bid her doctor farewell. Joanie eagerly began giving me snippets of her faith story, from brokenness to redemption and renewal. While a part of me was fixated with her leaving a renown, multi-millionaire at the alter, I was equally transfixed by her years of mental illness, memory loss, and homelessness, triggered by a sexual encounter as a child. It was an amazing story of grace and hope that needed to be shared. It was only years later, as our friendship grew, that I discovered more of her story, and witnessed her become so much more of an inspiration. I was compelled to share her story with the world, to encourage victims of sexual abuse with the hope of a new life – a life with Jesus.
THE VALLEY OF DARKNESS
Lord, even when your path takes me through the valley of deepest darkness… You remain close to me…
(Psalm 23:4, TPT)
I’VE KNOWN OPULENCE, AND NEED. I’VE KNOWN EXUBERANCE, AND AGONY. SOMETIMES
I’ve even known myself. But now, I only wish to know death.
“Hey, can I make some copies?” I call out, interrupting the social workers standing by the watercooler, thoroughly engaged in their Y2K Labor Day weekend plans. “I have some important papers, and I need to make copies.”
They’re supposed to verify any copies residents make, but they’re usually too busy to actually check. I’ve brought along some medical forms, just in case.
The tall one looks over and waves me on. “Sure. Go ahead, sweetie.” Just as quickly, she turns back to the engaging watercooler conversation.
I hit the print button, smiling wryly as my suicide note prints fifteen copies. Pretty ironic, isn’t it? Copying my suicide note in the office, right in front of the people who are supposed to help me during the year the world is supposed to end? But there is no help for me. I’m far beyond help.
As the printer finishes, I gather my copies, wave a thanks to the ladies in the corner, and go back to my room. I’ve been living in Chicago’s SRO housing for years now. These single-room occupancy units are small furnished rooms aimed at providing affordable housing for the homeless or other dregs of society. Like me.
I live on the third floor, in a tiny ten-by-ten-foot room. Pretty convenient, actually. I can cook, get a glass of ice water out of my fridge, and read, all from the comfort of my own bed. Not that I actually ever do cook, but I could if I were so inclined.
I hop up on the bed, grab the book beside me, and open it up. Right to Die, by Jack Kevorkian. It’s not a big book, only about one hundred twenty pages. I lick my finger as I turn the pages, easily leafing through to find the checklist I’m looking for.
Let’s see. You have to write that you know what you’re doing, that you’re of sound mind. Yeah… like you’re of sound mind when you decide to kill yourself! You also have to date the suicide note, and say that you don’t want to be revived. Check, check, and check. Everything’s in order.
After years of living in utter turmoil, fighting some entity deep inside me, I feel a quiet hush in my life at having made this decision to end my life. Finalizing the plans seems to settle me somehow, like my inner demons have surrendered and there’s nothing more for them to fight for. They’ve won.
Or have they? I feel a calming presence over me. Tranquility surrounds me. I feel strangely protected, but I’m really not sure from what.
The phone rings. I lean over and pick it up.
“Hello? Dick?” I say. “This weekend? A ticket at the Greyhound station?”
My blood begins to boil. I pause, a warmth spreading through my veins to my fingers and toes, up to my flushing face.
Why would you do that? I think. You’re really infringing on my plans.
Richard Gibson was my supervisor back when I worked at a plastics manufacturer in Chicago. He married Marj, the love of his life, while we were all working together. How can I describe Marj? Marj is like Aunt Bee from Mayberry. She’s the sweetest lady you’d ever want to meet.
Together, I call them Dick and Gram. They’re about ten to fifteen years older than me and living in Ohio now. I consider them like my parents. They took me in when I had nowhere to go.
Evidently, Dick has bought me a bus ticket to go out and visit them. Any other time, I’d be thrilled to visit, but this is my weekend to die! I’ve made painstaking efforts to plan this out. I intended to do it over the Labor Day weekend so that by the time the staff find me, I’ll already be dead-dead. My fear is that somebody will find me and revive me, but not quite soon enough, leaving me brain-dead, a vegetable. That just can’t happen.
I’ve carefully selected the date. On Monday, the office at the Major Jenkins apartments is closed. The social workers who would normally check up on me after not hearing from a resident for a while will be gone for Labor Day. There will only be one security guy on the schedule, to open the door, and I know him; he never leaves his office. If I do it Saturday morning, I could be dead by Saturday night. Then there’s all day Sunday and Monday before anyone actually comes looking for me on Tuesday. It’ll be plenty of time.
I really have thought this out, with forethought, intention, and a sound mind, just like the book says. I’ve made copies and everything.
“Do you have plans?” Dick asks.
“Yeah, I do,” I say, the words escaping from my mouth.
“Well, whatever you have planned, you can just do it another time. We really want to see you. There’s a ticket with your name on it waiting for you at the bus terminal for Friday. Marj and I will pick you up on this side.”
He’s always so happy. His voice suggests a great big silly grin and eyes dancing behind his glasses.
“Well, it’s there,” he adds. “Use it, don’t use it, whatever. You’ve got a couple of days to think about it, but we really hope you come. Gram’s making apple pie.”
He knows that’s my favorite.
Dick and Gram were missionaries in Belgium. They can’t afford this ticket, especially since I’m not going to use it.
I’m livid. I could just scream! But I keep thinking about the money. They’ve gone to all this trouble… what could it hurt? I’m still going to kill myself, just not this weekend.
I decide to put my suicide off. I slump back into my pillow. I suppose two days of being dead-dead is as good as three.
The “L” train in downtown Chicago is busy this Friday afternoon. Summer’s winding down and there’s an energy in the air brought on by the sultry saxophone drifting over from the jazz festival in the distance as I walk to the Greyhound station. Everybody’s so happy, yet I can’t muster a grin. I collapse into a seat in the bus terminal and pull my hoodie over my face. I have no joy. I just don’t want to live. It’s all very inconvenient, this trip to Dick and Gram’s.
“Cleveland, calling Cleveland,” the conductor calls out in a booming voice.
I rouse slowly, my red, swollen eyes peeking out and blinking from the light. I pull the ticket from my pocket. Findley, Ohio. Oh joy, can’t wait.
I get on the bus and sprawl out, praying that nobody will sit beside me.
About eight hours later, we’re finally approaching my destination. It’s been a long ride, and I’m exhausted.
Dick and Gram are waving and laughing just outside the window. A smile slips across my lips. Just seeing them lifts my spirits. The fresh aroma of Gram’s rose-scented lotion wafts through my nostrils, and I hold onto her just a bit longer than is generally acceptable.
Beaming, Dick grabs my suitcase, places it in the trunk of the car, and we’re on our way. A second wind rushes over me, I chat frantically all the way to their place, a tiny little gingerbread house in the middle of the woods.
I’m led to the guest room. It’s warm and homey, and though I’ve not visited here before, it’s filled with familiar things. I run my fingers across the books on the shelf by the closet: Hemingway, Austen, Tolkien, Lewis. The bookcase is new, but the books are well- known. I’d read a good chunk of these books when I last stayed with them.
I love books. I love reading curled up under a blanket on a comfy chair with a glass of wine. Okay, a bottle of wine.
A gust of lavender fills the room as I open the closet. The potpourri sachet falls off the hanger as I hang up my jacket.
The smells drifting in from the kitchen are too sweet to ignore… homemade bread and apple pie. They cook! A whole meal—meat, vegetables, and dessert. Comfort food, like a snuggly quilt on a cold winter day.
My lungs fill with the sweet and yeasty aroma. Almost floating through the house, my nose leads me straight into the kitchen.
It’s still a warm summer evening, so we enjoy the meal outside. What a treat. We eat, we talk, we eat some more. I sit back in my chair, puff out my cheeks, and contentedly rub my full belly. I’m so full. Everything is good.
I hear a laugh. Was that me? Am I laughing? Oh, I am… I’m belly laughing! As we reminisce, I lean back into the lawn chair and stretch my feet, the cool grass tickling my toes. Things are always better with Dick and Gram.
After dinner, Gram gets up to do dishes. I stand up to help.
“Oh no,” she says. “We have a dishwasher now. You stay out here and catch up with Dick.”
I don’t want to stay alone with Dick. I want to go in and do the dishes with Gram. But she insists, lifting her chin toward the yard. “Go on, go with Dick. I’ve got this.”
I hang my head, quietly turn, and obediently walk out to the back lawn with Dick. Lowering myself onto the bright green grass, I stretch out and take in a deep breath of the country air. Oh, it smells so fresh and earthy out here.
Through the pink and lavender hues of twilight, the stars begin to emerge. We sit silently for about a half-hour, watching the sky as the stars begin to twinkle.
“It’s really dark here,” I say. “Look at all those stars. There must be a million of them. It’s so amazing, so beautiful.”
I’ve never seen a sky so big and bright, ever. It just doesn’t get this dark in Chicago. Dick looks up, nodding. “It sure is. Psalm 19 says the heavens declare the glory of God. The sky above proclaims His handiwork. Isn’t it wonderful how God loves us so much that He created a universe with the perfect conditions for us to exist? And then He sent his only Son so we could be in perfect relationship with Him.”
That’s it. He’s started talking about Jesus. I guess I knew he would. It always comes up.
Suddenly, I remember the events of the past week, months, years. My head whirls and I feel woozy and nauseous. I wrap my hands around my spinning head. All my secrets… it’s just too much.
I start crying. “I just can’t think about Jesus, or look at Jesus. I just can’t!” “Why?”
“You don’t understand. You’re just not like me,” I stammer. “There are things I’ve done that just can’t be forgiven.”
He comes closer and places his hand on my shoulder. “Joanie, I feel like that every day.”
Sure! I look at him and see a guy who’s got it all together. He and Gram are missionaries, for gosh sakes. What could he have done in comparison to me?
Evidently, I’m not wearing my quiet face as I incredulously gawk at him.
“You don’t think I wake up every day, go to His throne, and apologize?” he asks. “You don’t think I put my sins down in front of Him and know He’s going to help me go on?”
It’s the first time I’ve ever thought about Jesus sitting on a throne. I let that thought simmer for a while.
“No,” I say. “No, I don’t see that at all. I don’t see how you can do anything so wrong you need to go before Jesus’s throne.”
He chuckles a bit behind his warm smile. “Well, I do, because I’m human. There’s stuff in me I need to be forgiven for.”
I want examples. I want to know I’m not alone, that even Dick could have faults.
He starts talking about Gram, and about the lust in his mind. “When I see a beautiful woman,” he says, “my mind strays, and it isn’t holy.”
Oh my gosh! Head cocked, my eyes widen. My jaw drops as the words almost slip out. He’s telling me about stuff he’s thinking of, but he has no idea the things I’ve actually done. I want him to get it. He has no clue about my reality. In my head, I scream back, You have no idea how bad people can be in the real world! The people in the hood… I know I’m white, but whites just don’t get it. I live there! You’ve never lived there. You just don’t get it!
But the words stay inside me.
His head tilts inquisitively. “What do you think you could do that would make Him not forgive you?”
“I’ve broken every commandment,” I spit out. “I’ve been through nine years of Catholic school. I know them by heart.”
“So have I,” he quietly reflects.
“No, you haven’t.” I pause. “You’ve never killed someone.” “And you have?” His voice cracks.
I feel his eyes fixed on me. I can’t look up, but I quietly mutter under my breath. “Yes, I just did.” I gulp. “I killed somebody I’d never met before.”
Suddenly I realize what I’ve said: Joanie Brusseau has killed someone. With a look of terror, I plead, “Please don’t tell Gram.”
Right on cue, Gram walks out. “Are you done?” I wait for Dick to answer.
“No,” he whispers, holding up his finger. “We need a minute yet.”
She smiles and returns to the house to find some knitting to do. Dick turns his attention back to me, trying not to look shocked. He’s comparing his sin to mine, like they’re both bad. We talk well into the evening.
“It’s all sin,” he says. “As long as we repent and turn away from that sin, God is there to forgive us.”
I don’t quite believe it, but a yawn escapes. I’m tired. I thank him for the talk and head back inside. It’s been a long, exhausting day.
Was it only this morning when I folded up my suicide letters, placed them in a clear plastic bag, and hid them in the freezer? It’s been a crushing week.
I walk into my room and notice a small light flickering in the corner. The light on the night table illuminates the book atop the delicate pink and white doily, its glowing gold letters radiating the words HOLY BIBLE. Gram always places a Bible next to the bed, and today it seems to reach out to me.
Turning my head, I crawl into bed, snuggle under the blue comforter, and switch out the light. I’m drained. Today has given me too much to think about.
I don’t even remember my head hitting the pillow.
I stay for a week, laughing and resting. It’s so good to rest. My bus leaves at about 4:00 on Sunday afternoon. Dick once again grabs my suitcase, storing it under the bus, as Gram hands me a brown paper bag; she’s made sandwiches for the ride home, with homemade bread. She then gives me a big hug, longer than is generally acceptable, and we say our goodbyes.
Dick comes over with a gift of his own. “I know you love to read a good adventure.
Get through the first chapter and you’ll be hooked.”
He smiles and hands me a book. He knows me so well.
Tears well up in my eyes. I won’t be seeing them again. I’ve gotten through this week all right, but next weekend’s my weekend to die.
On the bus I take my seat next to a stately looking woman wearing a jeweled cross necklace. My eyes are drawn to the cross. The only thing I like better than books is jewelry, and it’s a stunning piece. She and I look at each other and nod a courteous hello.
I turn over the book. Hmm, Left Behind. That’s what I feel like. I snuggle in and begin to read.
At the beginning of the second chapter, I turn to the woman and ask, “Are you a Christian?”
“Yes.” I’ve noticed her looking over as I read.
“Do you know this book, Left Behind?” I lift the worn book.
“I’ve heard of it, but haven’t read it,” she offers, curiously inspecting the book. “It says here that to become a Christian, I just have to pray this prayer…”
She smiles. “That’s right. It’s easy to do, but to keep it isn’t as easy. It takes a bit more work.”
“But I don’t believe homosexuals are going to be condemned, and I don’t believe a man is over a woman!” I retort. “And apparently, if you can’t believe one part of the Bible… well, you just can’t take bits and pieces.”
“You’re right, ah…” She raises her eyebrows, searching for my name. “Joanie.” I lean in, more interested in her response than her name.
“Joanie… good. All scripture is inspired and useful for teaching.” Carefully planning her next words, she pauses. Then she says something that really makes sense, and it’s something I’ve never heard from Christians before. “But Joanie, God is going to meet you right where you are. You don’t have to believe a man is over a woman. You don’t have to believe God condemns homosexuals. Truth is, we all need God, and all He wants you to do is trust Him, right here, right now. He’s going to meet you right where you are.” Her eyes are bright and full of hope. A glimmer of light dances around her. “Right now, to be His child, you don’t have to believe that other stuff. All you need to know is that He is who He says He is. He’s your Father and He loves you.”
With that, she begins sharing the Gospel.
“Joanie, you and I and everyone else on this bus and in this world have done wrong. We have sinned. We are sinners. God is perfectly good. No wrong, no mistake, no sin can come into His presence, and that’s why we can’t have a relationship with Him. The sin needs to be paid for, wiped out, and we can’t do it because we aren’t perfect. Only Jesus can pay for it. He is God and He is perfect. So God the Father sent His Son Jesus to come to earth as a man and pay the price for our sin so we could come to God without our sin.”
She checks to see if I’m still engaged. I am.
“He is who He says He is,” she continues. “It’s as simple as that. Admit you’re a sinner, thank Him for dying on the cross for your sins, and ask Him for help, through Holy Spirit, to turn away from sin.”
“But I killed somebody,” I protest. “I killed somebody.”
With a little finch, she asks, “Are you going to kill somebody again?” My head retreats in shock. What is she thinking? “No!”
“That’s all He’s asking you to do. To not do what you’ve done. Those sins you know aren’t good for you or others, just don’t do them again.”
Wow. Sounds way too easy.
“He wants to be your Father, Joanie… your Daddy.” Her tear-filled eyes glisten as she reaches for my hands. A warmth overcomes me, from my fingertips to deep inside my soul.
He wants to be my father?
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