Faith—along with plenty of perseverance—took Christine Lincoln from the pits of addiction to the top of her college class, a major literary award and the endless possibilities of her life.
Hers is a life that flies in the face of logic. At 34, Christine Lincoln has just graduated from college with a perfect 4.0—the highest grade point average a student can earn—but years earlier, she had all but failed high school. She is a single mother raising her 7-year-old son, who was born despite a doctor's prediction that Lincoln would never have children. And she is an award-winning fiction writer whose stories chronicle the struggles of young black children—though for years it looked as if her own struggles would kill her.
Lincoln was only 4 when a family friend began sexually abusing her. "I would mentally take myself out of my skin," she says of the molestation that continued until she was 7. As a teenager, she sought refuge in drugs and alcohol—anything to shield her from reality. And for nearly two decades, she was lost in an abyss of addiction and depression.
But eventually, Lincoln's propensity for fantasy and escape led her to write short stories. Soon she was creating characters through whom she could at last reveal herself: Pontella, who feels she is not seen; Wheat, who is in so much pain she says that even her skin hurts. During her senior year at Maryland's Washington College, Lincoln completed a collection of these stories. The collection won her the school's annual Sophie Kerr Prize, named after a 1930s fiction writer and presented to the graduate deemed to have the most literary promise. It came with a $54,000 endowment. Her writing also caught the eye of a well-known New York literary agent who represents such acclaimed authors as Susan Sontag and Jamaica Kincaid and who plans to sell Lincoln's collection, Sap Rising. "The truth is, I should be dead," Lincoln says. "I am living proof that it is never too late to save yourself."
Growing up in a middle-class Baltimore neighborhood, Lincoln and her two younger brothers were raised by her mother, Sharon, an accountant, and her father, George, an information systems manager. Her family gathered on Sundays, alternating between the homes of Lincoln's two grandmothers, for lavish meals and long conversations that stretched into the twilight. Lincoln often sat cross-legged on the floor, listening to her father's mother tell folktales and family legends.
At her other grandmother's home, Lincoln met her abuser, her uncle's best friend. She remembers him taking her into a bathroom, sitting her on his lap, and stroking her thighs with his callused hands. Though as many as 20 people were gathered at the house, no one, it seems, noticed the young girl's absences. "I began to think, Is this actually happening?" she says. "I started to feel invisible."
To make herself seen, Lincoln became a model student at school. She earned good grades, stayed after class to clean chalkboards and, in fourth grade, daydreamed that her teacher, Mrs. Kearney, would adopt her. Once, as part of a writing assignment, she handed in a story about a haunted house that had human qualities. Impressed, Mrs. Kearney knelt down beside Lincoln's desk and said, "Chris, you're a writer."
Lincoln was also an avid reader. Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiographical account revealing sexual abuse by the boyfriend of Angelou's mother, made a deep impression on her. "It told me that another person had gone through what I was going through," she says. "I wasn't alone."
Still, Lincoln was so distraught that by the time she reached adolescence she had tried to kill herself twice. In both cases she overdosed with prescription pills and hid the attempt from her family by pretending it was an accident. "I didn't know what I was doing," she says. "I was tired and I just wanted to sleep."
Her mother, now 50, says she hadn't known how to decipher her daughter's messages. "I thought I knew what was happening with my daughter," Sharon Lincoln says. "But I was so wrong."
Her mother also didn't realize that Lincoln had begun using drugs at 13. "When I was high, I felt I could do anything. I was confident and strong." And at 16 she was pregnant, by a 20-year-old who lived down the block. "I decided to keep the baby. I thought it was the mark of true womanhood," she recalls. "But by the sixth month of my pregnancy, I started having second thoughts." She had a late abortion, an excruciating experience that left her scarred both physically and emotionally. "I was told it was a boy. I remember the nurse holding him and turning around quickly so I wouldn't see," Lincoln says. "But I did. And I'll never forget that image."
Weeks later, the teenager developed a serious infection, and the doctor told her she'd probably never be able to have children. Her mother stood by, horrified by everything. "Of course, I was devastated. When I found out Christine was pregnant, I couldn't believe it," Sharon Lincoln says. "This wasn't supposed to happen to my daughter."
Vowing to change her life, Lincoln entered the Air Force when she was 18. For the next two years, while she trained to be an X-ray technician, she stayed off drugs and alcohol. Then she got engaged to a decorated military man. As the wedding approached, however, she had a nagging feeling something was wrong. She considered backing out, but the idea overwhelmed her. "The invitations had been sent out," she says. "Everything had already been paid for. I couldn't cancel."
Next: "After years of silencing pain with drugs, I had finally found a voice"
A week after the wedding, Lincoln's husband beat her for the first time. The violence escalated during the five years they stayed together. "At one point, he took to stripping me and locking me out of the house," says Lincoln, who at that time was still in the military. Yet she couldn't bring herself to leave him: "It was a sick cycle, I know, but I could cope with it. I understood violence. Plus, who was I to leave such a well-respected man?"
Instead, she started drinking again. The more fear and pain she felt, the deeper she sank into addiction. Toward the end of the marriage she was drinking a bottle of tequila a day, and when she saw lint on the floor, she'd throw herself down, thinking it was cocaine. "I was trying to destroy myself," says Lincoln, who would attempt suicide a third time (using prescription pills and alcohol). "In a way, I thought it wasn't me I was destroying."
In 1992, at age 26, Lincoln voluntarily entered a drug rehabilitation program and confronted what had led to her addiction. She finally realized that the anguish that had been consuming her, the desperate desire to disconnect from reality, was a result of years of ignored anger and pain. She was angry at her abuser, angry at her parents and angry at herself, because she believed she had done something to deserve all that had happened to her.
For the first time she also spoke openly about the abortion and the guilt that had haunted her over the years. One day, on a hillside behind the rehabilitation center's main building, Lincoln held a funeral for her unborn child. She asked both God and the baby to forgive her. And then she forgave herself. "I released everything inside me," she says. "And I felt completely different."
When she left rehab, Lincoln found the courage to leave her husband. He threatened to kill her unless she returned, but she refused to go back. Within a year, she started dating another man and soon learned she was pregnant. "It was a miracle that I was even pregnant," she says. "I couldn't give up on this life—not when mine had been saved." The father and Lincoln stayed together for about a year, then broke up.
Lincoln struggled—she pawned jewelry to pay bills and eventually wound up on welfare—but she managed to scrape together enough money to enroll in community college courses. As one of her first assignments in an English class, she was asked to write about a treasured family heirloom. Lincoln described a tattered photo of her late aunt Rose, whom, she wrote, she had loved dearly.
"I can see her," the professor wrote in the margins. No, you can't, Lincoln thought—because Aunt Rose didn't exist. The class had been asked to write a true story, but Lincoln, not wanting to mine her past, had made something up.
With the exercise came an epiphany. "After years of silencing pain with drugs, I had finally found a voice," she says. "Mrs. Kearney's words—'Chris, you're a writer'—echoed inside me."
When Lincoln announced to her family that she wanted to study creative writing at Washington College, a tony liberal arts school two hours from Baltimore, no one took her seriously. Even Lincoln, who at the time was working and studying at a community college in Baltimore, wasn't sure she could make such a drastic change—until the day she accidentally got on the wrong bus to school. "It took me to the other side of town," she recalls. "I had to get on another bus to go all the way back. I made it to school two hours late. I asked, 'God, why did you take me so far out of my way?' And then it hit me. The point was that sometimes you have to take the long way." That day she started planning her move, without even knowing how she would pay the school's hefty $20,000 tuition. "But I knew this was what I was meant to do," she says.
In her first classes, Lincoln wrote about characters of no specific race. "I just wanted to be a writer—not a black writer," she says. "Now I look back on those stories and realize how bad they were. The problem with them is that I don't know colorless people. It was when I started writing about characters I understood, who I shared a past with, that I started to go deeper."
When Lincoln's grandmother died days before her graduation, Lincoln realized just how deeply the stories ran: "I was standing at her bedside when it occurred to me—my writing had come from her, the family storyteller. All of a sudden I had so many questions for her."
Lincoln has turned to her writing, her inner voice, to try to answer those questions. As of this printing, she's sharing a one- bedroom apartment near campus with her son, Takii, and working at the school's Center for the Study of Black Culture, which she helped found. But in December 2000, she and Takii headed to South Africa, where Lincoln worked toward a Ph.D. in African Literature and taught creative writing to troubled teenage girls. "I believe what happens to me happens to my brother and my sister," she says. "I want to share my life with them, and hope I can help transform theirs.
"I have gone from living in fear to living in faith," she adds. So perhaps there is a logic to her journey. "When you realize who you really are, you understand that nothing can stop you from becoming that person," she says. "I was a writer all along. I just had to open my eyes and see it."
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Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, March 7, 2014
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