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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