“Somebody Helped Me”

Whew, I hardly know where to begin, but I think I’ll begin by focusing on the precariousness of Ms. Burton’s life. Her living situation changed radically. She was abused multiple times, and gang-raped once. Caroline has written about the inadequacy of reentry treatment. I am wondering: What do you think was the crucial variable in causing Susan Burton to get on that merry-go-round of incarceration? Did it begin with drug use? Was it the abuse? Was it her mother’s treatment of her? Was it that her life taught her that as soon as you start to rise, something causes you to fall? Why can’t we treat Black children for trauma? I wanted you to hear her voice and see her, so I attached the Trevor Noah interview below.


21 thoughts on ““Somebody Helped Me”

  • April 3, 2020 at 8:53 pm

    The crucial variable in Susan’s recidivism involved her lack of treatment. Throughout her entire life, she experienced domestic abuse from her family members and then in her romantic relationships. When she entered the relationship with James as a prostitute, she endured physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. So much of that trauma built up to the point of thriving in carelessness. As a prostitute, she understood frequent arrests to be “part of the job”, common occurrences that she just had to put up with. One could say after going through so much pain for so long, Susan began to care less and less about where she ended up. She began to feel numb. In my opinion, numbness does not signal an end to pain, yet a different mechanism used to cope with the pain. What else could Susan do? She does not mention any alternative offerings, besides drugs and alcohol. She does not mention any outside programs geared towards therapy and treatment for trauma that she willfully turned away from. It is almost as though Susan was losing her own sense of humanity.

    In addition, I believe that her surrounding environments and the people in them, and her family’s behavior were just as discouraging as the abuse she experienced. In Chapter 5, “The Sacrifice”, Burton wrote about one of the rare times she went to therapy— not for the sake of her mental and emotional health, but for the stutter she had developed. The speech therapist, who was a white woman, told Burton’s mom that she was going to grow up to be a criminal due to her surrounding circumstances. Apparently, the therapist believed things were not looking too good— virtually hopeless— for Susan’s future. Any kind of negative speech over a person’s life, especially a child’s, can be detrimental to the ways they perceive and pursue success for themselves without ever even realizing. The therapist’s words may have been more harmful than intended, which caused for Burton to internalize them. Similar life predictions had been made over her brothers during their youth, so Burton never really got the opportunity to hear something different, to hear encouragement.

    To an extent, I agree with the belief that as soon as one rises, something or someone can cause them to fall (the keyword here is “can”). It is possible for obstacles to come in anyone’s way. We read that Burton had faced a multitude of obstacles that had the possibility of taking her out. However, possible stumbles do not make for a definite fall. Burton had endured cycles of being taken advantage of sexually, emotional abuse, discouragement from outsiders and herself (self-doubt), and imprisonment. If Burton was truly destined for doom, she would not have been able to write even the half of her book that we read.

    • April 6, 2020 at 5:08 pm

      I would definitely agree that Susan’s trauma is the key variable to talk about. My only thought would be to ask if even treatment is suitable? In prison abolition texts like Captive Genders, we discussed how prison was a way to ‘punish’ people who were really victims of injust environments, e.g. poverty, racial discrimination, etc. I think it is important to also ask not just how do we treat ‘battered women,’ but how do we prevent this from happening in the first place? I am stuck thinking about how in Captive Genders one of the authors talks about addressing the issue to intergenerational abuse, and why it is still so prevalent in the modern world. I feel like it bothers me that there is a hyperfocus on treating survivors and punishing perpetrators of domestic violence, but not enough research and action on how to prevent these women from suffering in the first place.

    • April 6, 2020 at 8:41 pm

      I like your last comment: “Stumbles do not necessarily lead to fatal falls.” I am hoping as I go through the comments, someone will venture to point out the elephant in the room: RACE.

      • April 6, 2020 at 10:09 pm

        When I read the first chapter, the very first thing that stuck out to me was RACE. Especially if we are talking about childhood trauma leading to adulthood substance abuse. Not to say that all women do not experience this but Black women really catch the bitter end of the stick because of the way society has viewed us since slavery until NOW. crazy

  • April 5, 2020 at 11:26 am

    As Regenia described, I believe that Susan Burton’s recidivism was in part caused by the lack of access to treatment and counseling, but I am a firm believer that experiences in childhood/adolescence greatly impact a person’s later behavior. As I am taking Child Development for one of my psychology classes right now, we learn in-depth about child maltreatment and neglect; unfortunately, this is one of the saddest stories I have had to read, but it has taught me so much about the relationship of trauma (sexual, physical, emotional) and incarceration. Susan endured more trauma and abuse before the age of 18 that anyone should experience in their lifetime– within her family, in romantic partnerships, and from strangers. Susan was raised in a catalytic environment where her mother acted nothing but disgusted with her, her brothers physically tortured her, and her Aunt Elizabeth’s boyfriend Curly sexually tormented her. Starting from a young age, Susan was treated as if she had no worth and was doomed to end up like her parents. I thought an extremely powerful quote illustrating this was when Susan said, “Every adult in my world was so tired and beaten down they couldn’t think about life in a way that was beyond how to get by day by day.” (Burton and Lynn, 36). Paired with the lack of access to treatment or counseling– other than the shameful Booth Memorial Maternity Home– AND the abusive environment Susan grew up in, I believe contributed to her incarceration. When she entered a dangerous situation (e.g., prostitution or drug-dealing) and it fell to the ground, she had nowhere to turn because her mother and daughter resented her for her behavior. She was constantly reminded she was worthless and the only way to navigate through the pain were her body/sexuality and drugs/alcohol.

    This was truly a heartbreaking story but certainly one of the best books I’ve read for a class. Becoming Ms. Burton tells a story of such an intelligent, strong woman enduring events more painful than I could imagine. Like I said above, I think one’s childhood and parental figures have a HUGE influence on the remainder of a person’s life, as we saw with Susan throughout her 20s and 30s. However, as Regenia said “possible stumbles do not make for a definite fall,” and this book was crafted in part to tell the story of overcoming obstacles and oppressive systems. I am so looking forward to reading more of her story and seeing how Susan brings her passions and experiences to found A New Way of Life.

    • April 5, 2020 at 11:42 am

      Also, when I say “she was reminded she was worthless,” I am not saying she WAS worthless, I meant in her lifetime she was shamed with that narrative. I think she’s anything but worthless. Just wanted to clarify that!

      • April 6, 2020 at 9:17 pm

        Yes. I understood that you did not mean that she was worthless. This is an amazing story. I am hoping that it makes us think about how hard it is to pull oneself up “by their own bootstraps”–especially if they have no boots. Burton kept trying, even as she failed. I find it inspiring. I offer this for you to ponder: If parents and an idyllic childhood are impossible, should we, collectively, try to ameliorate any damages?

  • April 5, 2020 at 12:48 pm

    I agree with various points posed by Regenia and Anna.
    I think that Susan’s recidivism was largely influenced by a lack of treatment and resources. On top of that, I think the myriad of abuses she suffered all before the age of 18, especially left untreated, can lead even the most wealthy, advantaged White woman to incarceration, let alone an African American girl with little to no resources.

    Starting at a young age, Susan witnessed abuse between her mother and father and was sexually abused by Curly, later gang-raped which subsequently led her to be a mother under the age of sixteen, and then later, with nowhere else to turn, fell under the influence of a pimp and became a prostitute. To some extent, how does the current system with its numerous shortcomings expect a woman in this position not to become incarcerated and frequently return to prison?

    So many parts of this book are worth quoting and discussing, but then we would be here for days. I tried to compile some of the ones that caught my eye in regard to this question:
    On page 16, Susan writes that she and her siblings were “the collateral damage of my parents’ histories.” I think the sad truth is, that upon birth Susan was set up for failure. She grew up in a tumultuous house with constant abuse surrounding her. On page 50, she describes how she had acclimated to the violence and it became a norm. She writes that getting roughed up was part of her world, from early childhood witnessing her mom with busted lips and bruised eyes to her later job as a prostitute where she was consistently battered. She poses the question: “Why would you think anything was so wrong when all around you, this is how it was? With no other examples, it was easy to believe this was normal” (50-51). To me, this spoke volumes. And, I think if there was earlier intervention or treatment, Susan could have had a much better chance, instead of (quite literally) every odd against her. Her later incarceration, drug addiction, prostitution, etc. all seems inevitable when you look at it this way.

    The lack of treatment for Susan began early on. When she is gang-raped, she discusses how she never received treatment and, instead, people told her she would forget it. The fact that a child who is so young, and who has a child as the result of rape, never received counseling is horrifying to me. With a system that fails to treat abused children, how can we not expect what happened to Susan to occur? Maybe if the system took the most consequential step of helping disadvantaged and abused youth from the start, there wouldn’t be so many people addicted to drugs, struggling with alcoholism, and incarcerated.

    I think this class teaches us to not be shocked by the systematic wrongdoings that occur in America. But, all I can say is wow. Susan’s story shook me to my core.

    • April 6, 2020 at 9:24 pm

      I think that one of the most serious problems we face as a nation is that most Americans have no idea how poverty affects the lives of children. Things have not changed at all. People are living like Ms. Burton, and worse, right here in Richmond, Virginia. If they understood the conditions that permeate generations of families, they would support different policies. I hope everyone also understood that a life of crime is not an easy one. So, the idea that the poor are lazy is not justified. I would not have the mental or physical stamina to be a prostitute and to recover from such a profession.

  • April 6, 2020 at 10:52 am

    I completely agree with Regenia, Anna and Avery.

    In this memoire, we can see how Susan struggled growing up, with little help from the adults within her life. She was raped beginning at a very young age, and this continued into her adult life because no body intervened. Her son was killed by the police, and they offered no apology or even an acknowledgement of the incident, which turned her deeper into drugs to try and soothe her pain. On top of this, she was surrounded by people in her life that promoted this drug use and promoted her prostitution, while emotionally and physically abusing her. Growing up and living in poverty, she had no resources to be able to help herself.

    Susan Burton’s recidivism is due to many factors, mostly her trauma. However, this trauma surfaced as part of the cycle of poverty. Thinking about Susan’s relationship with Mr. Burke, we see this coming into play. Her mother knew that Mr. Burke was raping her and giving her money, but her mother did not care, and, as Ms. Burton states in her memoire, she was also happy about the money. The money she made from this helped her support her family and gave her monetary freedom. If her family had enough money to survive and live comfortably, then she would likely have never been in that position. In addition, due to growing up in poverty, treatment for trauma is often hard to find.

    I feel as though her recidivism is complicated. She has various different kinds of trauma, grief, and addiction, but all of these stem from the situation she was raised in. She grew up in a poorer community where drugs were rampant. After her mother and her dad split up, she had an extremely difficult time at home because her brothers and her mother were emotionally and physically abuse her. No one was in her corner – no one would be there to help her receive the counseling and treatment that they needed. For example, when her son was killed, no one mentioned grief counseling, no one tried to help her through the pain, so she turned to drugs. Similarly, she likely turned to prostitution because she felt thats all she could do – no one told her any differently. This mixed with her long history of sexual trauma, and the way her family, specifically her mother, treated her due to the gang-rape that caused her pregnancy, likely made her feel like that’s all she can do.

    Our government does not help those stuck within the cycle of poverty. Susan Burton could have likely avoided being incarcerated time after time if she had inexpensive, or free, access to counseling and drug treatment. In addition, her family played a crucial role in this as well. They did not try to help her, they just left her to live her life and used to words in a way to verbal abuse or upset her. However, this cannot be blamed on her family. We do not know the full extent of the trauma that they faced. That being said, this is a cycle. People in communities like Susan Burton grew up in live in an unbreakable cycle because no one from the outside wants to break it.

    Therefore, I believe her recidivism stems from a life of not being helped, of not receiving treatment and of not being supported. Once she entered the CLARE program, with the help of her brother, she began to turn her life around. We must remember how she described CLARE as a program that symbolizes white and rich privilege in the justice system. Therefore, we can say that her recidivism comes from life-long trauma with no treatment, but we also cannot select the racism embedded in our justice system that did not give Susan Burton an equal chance because she was a poor black woman with priors.

    • April 6, 2020 at 9:27 pm

      Alright, alright, alright–this is the response that I was hoping to read. However, ALL of the responses are wonderful. Abby, thank you for touching the third rail of class discussions: RACE.

  • April 6, 2020 at 12:25 pm

    I completely agree with what everyone has already mentioned. The compounding effects of ACEs, poverty, addiction, and grief (there are so many factors that could be highlighted) created circumstances in which I believe someone experiencing significantly fewer those circumstances would have found it difficult to holistically alter. That hypothesis can even be seen in her daughter Toni’s experience – despite the disgust and disappointment she expressed at the cycles of incarceration and drug usage she witnessed in her family, she herself was so burnt out trying to get out that she fell into those circles herself, resulting in a teen pregnancy. Toni was framed from her youth as someone who committed to getting out, but even she stumbled.

    I think the comparison between Sue and Toni demonstrate the role of systemic factors beyond the personal experiences of one individual that undermine their commitment to changing their circumstances. (1) The spread of crack cocaine was systemic – it was designed to be shockingly addictive and purposely embedded in certain communities to generate profits. Sue Burton’s access to it was not coincidental and the drug worked on her the way it was designed to by the US government. That is not an individual failing. (2) The introduction of mandatory minimums and sentence reform removed any nuance in sentencing. When all folks in possession of drugs must go to prison regardless of the circumstances, it erases alternatives that may address the reasons behind the drug possession in the first place – namely, addiction as a result of grief or trauma. Sue Burton’s addiction meant that she could not avoid prison no matter how hard she tried. (3) Both structural and interpersonal racism converged with class (perpetrated overwhelmingly by law enforcement) led to many of the events Sue mentioned. Her son was killed and the police officer responsible didn’t even bother to slow down. She was sent away for a “crime” she did not commit because police designated her an easy target that no one would question. Her treatment as child in school She was time and again never allowed space to be seen as a victim. (4) Her status of formerly incarcerated locked her out of an enormous range of economic opportunities, especially trade occupations. Even Toni’s status as incarceration-adjacent denied her job opportunities. Once entering the system, it is designed to be nearly impossible to escape.

    I could go on in listing systemic conditions that shaped and reinforced the circumstances Sue was in. Her personal experiences meant that she had a snowball’s chance in hell to escape a system intentionally designed to incarcerate, impoverish, harm, and erase certain communities (specifically low-income and of color). Her personal experiences are not less important than these systemic factors, but the systemic forces contextualize them and help explain the depth and breadth of their effects. If Sue Burton had been upper class and white, less under them thumb of the systems designed to oppress particular communities, would her story have been different?

  • April 6, 2020 at 4:21 pm

    I would like to focus on not what led to Susan Burton’s incarceration, but what led to her healing process. She describes a pinnacle moment in her life while she was incarcerated when she was in the sergeants hall, and she stopped an instructor and began to tell her about some of the things that had happened in her childhood. The instructor’s response was to not worry about passing her class, as Burton had “enough to deal with”. That was the first time anybody had actually verified that something had gone very wrong in her life.

    I think the reason that this country fails to treat black children for trauma is that their trauma is rarely validated in the first place. As a society, we tell black kids that they will be sent to prison. While we may not always tell them directly in words like Burton’s therapist, we tell them through our actions and the environment created around them. In a historically rooted system of hopelessness, children at a young age internalize whether or not society has deemed them worthy of investment. Stories of sexual abuse, violence, murder, perpetual fear, etc. are often met with expectations of unreasonable resilience by society. Rather than listen to these stories with compassion and a resolve to make the structural changes needed to ensure their immediate halt, we often point to cases of those that rose up from similar circumstances to become the “heroes” we idolize. Those dwelling on the past are labeled as complainers and accused of making excuses for misdeeds resulting from personal decision making.

    However, this paradox ignores every step of what we know to be the process of introspection and healing that Burton says she is still working through. It was the continuous compassion and understanding she had never felt before that built the hero we see today. When life has so often been tough on individuals prior to their incarceration, it is illogical to cause them further harm with tough on crime/criminal policies. Those in power (as a matter of race, gender, sexuality, or class), much too often place blame and responsibility on the individual, while comfortably ignoring their responsibility for the system they created. When we have the compassion to listen and help, trauma survivors realize that their strength to have survived to this point has been overshadowed by a false narrative of weakness.

  • April 6, 2020 at 4:48 pm

    I definitely agree with Kate that they are a lot of systemic factors involved in Ms. Burton’s decisions. Furthermore, I do side on the fact that her reoffenses were due to lack of care and resources. As I said, in my post last week, often the prison systems fails to address issues that even our society as a whole can’t address, so why should the prison system be subject to solving them. I think the reason we can not treat Black children for trauma is because racial inequality still exists. She does admit this still exists at the beginning of the book, “It’s estimated that 85 percent of locked-up women were, at some or many points in their lives, physically or sexually abused, or both. Disproportionately, these women are black and poor. I was born and raised in those statistics.”

    Based on Chapter 3, it seemed her dad loved her a lot. He use to cook, play in the park, and go to the movies. But, the loose of a job can change a man and when his work at the metal factory closed and he had nowhere else to work. He took it out on Sue neglecting her, drinking endless, and fighting with her mom. The actions of the unemployment market effected Susan too as she felt she was Daddy’s girl, while he didn’t physically abuse. He emotionally did, definition of devotion. “Daddy would punish my brothers by ordering them to strip and endure a switch or razor strap. They were whipped until they fell to their knees, or until my father tired,” she states while her mom’s temper was harsh (16). She later found out that her father had a daughter named Celeste who was white as snow, making her jealous and feeling envied. She found out that Celeste actually felt jealous because Sue got all the time with him. On the other hand, Sue is not the only one who suffered abuse as she later met her half sister LaRonda Burton in prison who was their on drug possession charges. This proves that her family had a historical nature of reentry. This can be summer up best by this quote, “we kids were the collateral damage of my parents’ histories” (16).

  • April 6, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    I very much agree that childhood trauma and abuse is what caused Susan Burton to enter into a recurring loop in the carceral system. I think an important emphasis on this point is that it was not only the abuse and hardship, but the lack of treatment or even acknowledgement for it.

    This idea is one she acknowledged herself at a young age. On page 22, after describing her very complicated relationship with her brother Michael, she writes that she understood even as a child that “when you treat people mean, they become mean.” Nothing was ever stable or steady in her life–her relationships with family, who family was, her and her family’s financial situation.

    She talks about the programs her mom enrolled her in to try to help her–charm school and the Woodland Rangers, then speech therapy at school, and even juvie. But these programs were far too little, and too late. They addressed symptoms, not the problem. Years later when she pleaded for help in court, she was repeatedly sentenced to prison until she advocated for herself to be placed in an addiction program that proved useless. It was eventually a treatment program designed for wealthy, white addicts that actually made an impact on her life.

    .There is a lot of underlying multigenerational trauma related to slavery as well, expressed in very tangable ways. She talks about the way her father whipped her brothers being like the way a master would whip a slave, and emphasizes that she couldn’t talk back to her Aunt Elizabeth not because she had to respect her elders, but because of the lasting idea that, no matter what, you could not talk back to a master. She also writes about her experience witnessing family dynamics in Ghana, and feeling robbed.

    I’m glad we’re reading this book at the end of the semester. It wraps a lot of ideas together in a very personal way. She talks about how the white girls at the teenage maternity home were considered misguided or fallen, but the black girls were considered whores. She talks about turning to prostitution and drug crime because of poverty and the mistrust and violence of the police. She talks about being pushed out of the school system, and discusses the extreme shift in the prison environment with the start of the war on drugs and mandatory sentencing. This memoir puts together so many of the concepts we’ve discussed in a tangible and accessible way.

    • April 6, 2020 at 9:38 pm

      I’m so glad that this book brought it all together for you. I felt the same way–the systemic inequalities that plague generations of people along with the human costs of being devalued by family and authorities are driven home in this book.

  • April 6, 2020 at 6:55 pm

    Susan Burton’s story is incredible to me because it is a highly individualized account that reflects the widespread systemic experience of so many black women who become incarcerated. Burton is both an anomaly in her ability to escape the cycle of incarceration and an illustration of what happens to those that can’t. Adverse childhood experiences including abuse, neglect, food insecurity, and family run-ins with the police were present in her household. These ACEs contribute to depression, addiction, struggles in school, and lower life expectancy for children who endure them. While these traumas likely contributed to her addiction, the death of a child always deals a blow to even the most well-adjusted parent’s wellbeing. I would mark the death of her son K.K. as the moment in which Burton turned down the path that would lead to her incarceration. She turns to alcohol and drugs to numb her pain, entering “a place devoid of thoughts, empty of feelings, a respite from the debilitating anguish.”

    I think the predominance of incarceration and carceral attitudes has contributed to the struggle of treating black children for trauma. While young white children who act out are referred for help in school or supported by their parents, discipline disparities in majority black schools mean that black kids are about 4 times more likely to receive an out of school suspension. Racial discipline disparities seem to offer proof of black criminality because the school to prison pipeline borne from zero tolerance policies disproportionately affects black students. Income disparities also mean that the child’s parents are less likely to be positioned to support them through behavioral problems. I think we still struggle to treat trauma in black children because those children have to work harder to garner sympathy from the authority figures in their lives. The line between a “bad” kid who will end up incarcerated and a “troubled” child who gets help is thin and drawn by teachers, juvenile judges, and law enforcement with a disproportionate racial impact.

    The reason Burton returned through the revolving door of prison so many times is because re-entry and rehabilitation programs are lacking. As Burton cites at the beginning of chapter 14, “only around 15 percent of those serving time for a drug-related offense are given access to a drug treatment program with a trained professional.” She writes that the average time for an addict to relapse upon leaving prison is only three days. This is a stunning failure. Where the justice system could be leveraging its authority to get treatment for addicts (or diverting them to alternative programs in the first place) it instead puts people in prison with little recourse for seeking help. Even the treatment center in California that Burton attended (called the California Rehabilitation Center) lacked counselors and mostly consisted of a class taught by a prison guard. The prison system is confusing in that it blames the individual for the crime without catering its “rehabilitative” measures to be individualized at all. Instead of a systemic issue made worse by racism, poverty and addiction, carceral logic views crime as the result of a single perpetrator.

  • April 6, 2020 at 9:48 pm

    Sara–great post. We know that more Black children are suspended from school than White children are, and that there is a police presence in inner-city public schools.

  • April 6, 2020 at 10:06 pm

    Susan Burton’s story highlights the untold story of thousands of Black women in America’s Carceral system. Many women that are incarcerated are in prison for non-violent crimes. They are arrested on possession charges, prostitution, and drug abuse. Most women turn to drug abuse and prostitution because they have not been given the proper resources, treatment programs, and coping strategies to deal with the physical, sexual, and mental abuse they have endured over their lifetime. While all women in prison do not receive the help that is necessary, Susan Burton’s story specifically exposes the narrative of the Black women in the carceral system. Black women are at an even higher risk to their white counterparts. While it is important to understand both sides we cannot ignore race because this plays a major role of treatment before prison, in prison, and when women are released from prison.

    The first three chapters describe Susan Burton’s childhood. Her childhood is only one of many factors that are important when understanding why Susan began a cycle of incarceration. Susan grew up in a very poor Black community. Susan’s sexual abuse began with a “trusted” family member. Her aunt found out after several occasions that she was being raped and she blamed Susan for the horrendous events calling her a “dirty little girl” and telling her she better not tell her mother what was going on. Often, in Black families (especially in the 20th century) rape was kept as a family secret. There wasn’t a big story told and the innocent black girl was often blamed and forced to grow up waaaaaay too fast!!! I want to put emphasis on this narrative because it is so important when understanding the traumas of a young black girl. They really never recover because their pain is ignored and they never receive help. This automatically starts a cycle of mental abuse that causes major behavioral issues for a child later in life. Now once that ‘little black girl’ grows up she is deemed promiscuous. Later, we find out that this wouldn’t be the end of Susan’s physical and sexual abuse. Susan was raped on several different occasions and she was never provided with the help that was necessary after being sexually abused. After a very abusive childhood, her son was killed and she felt like everything she had to live for was taken away. Her childhood and the death of her son is so critical because it leads her to substance abuse which ultimately lands her a ticket in prison. Now we have to ask ourselves the question why was she constantly returning to prison? Well, I think this answer is obvious, especially after watching Susan’s Burton interview. America would rather spend thousands of dollars locking women up, abusing their rights in prison, and providing VERY FEW opportunities when they are released over cost-effective methods like spending money to implement programs that will treat the physical, sexual, and mental abuse women have endured from children. Women deal with traumas that have followed them from adolescents to adulthood and they do not receive any help. How can society even begin to believe that the reason women are reentering prison is a result of their own decision? Women simply cannot get the help that they need and they are suffering from lifelong traumas and this is why they are reentering prison at such high rates.

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