Saturday, March 5, 2011

Empty Chairs - Interview with Stacey Danson

My son cried and cried as I tried to rush home. I wanted to run through the
stop lights as I cursed myself for not leaving earlier. He was only four months.
When I arrived home, my son looked at me teary-eyed as if I were the worst
parent in the world – and I felt like it.

Then I read Empty Chair by Stacey Danson.

When I read A Child Called It, I couldn’t believe that the narrator was only the
third worst case of abuse in the area. What could be worse, I wondered. 

Reading Empty Chairs gave me the answer.

When I read I Know Why the Cagebird Sings, I thought there couldn’t be anything
worse than being sexually abused by a relative.

Empty Chairs taught me things could be much worse.

Even Sister Rose’s pamphlets about the saving teenage prostitutes off the
streets for the charity Covenant House seemed like child’s play in comparison
to Empty Chairs.

It’s hard to imagine any parent being so evil as Stacey Danson’s, aka Sassy. The book shone a light into a dark corner. It’d be difficult to read such horrors if it wasn’t for Sassy. She makes reading this book a pleasure. While terrible things are happening all around her, she somehow finds a way to make it through. Certain scenes, like school and with Animal, I laughed. Other times I cringed. It’s hard to imagine another book that packs a stronger emotional punch. 

I couldn’t help rooting for Sassy. This, more than anything, is a story of an eleven year old girl surviving on the streets.   I found it very moving.  If I didn’t, I would have questioned my own humanity. 

I wanted to ask the author a few questions and was glad she let me.
KJ Kron: I imagine this was a difficult book to write. What inspired you to tell your story?

Stacey Danson: I made a promise to Jenny. Jenny is the 8 year old that you meet at the end of Empty chairs. We remained friends for over four decades. I promised her years ago that one day..some day I would write it; all of it including her story. Jenny commited suicide on September 1st 2009. I hadn’t kept my promise. Her death and the resultant guilt I felt at somehow having let her down, caused me to finally write it all down.
KJK: Have you read any influential memoirs that helped you decide to write yours?
SD: I have never read one. The diary of Anne Frank was as close as I have ever come to reading of someone else’s life story.

KJ: Where did you get the title for your book?

SD: The Don Mclean song Empty Chairs... it's about lovers I know but the refrain and the words "Empty clothes that drape and fall on Empty chairs" chokes me up every time I hear it..I keep seeing my friends sitting laughing and hunched forward in conversation over these many decades, and I know that this year on December 1st there will only be Jamie and I. The song is a guaranteed trigger for flash backs with me, I love it but I avoid listening to it these days. Same goes for 'Those were the days" 

KJ: Have you noticed any changes since you've gotten your book published?

SD: If you mean changes in the way friends treat me, yes initially...but I sorted that out.{I hope} one very dear male friend suddenly stopped hitting on me, and he's been doing it for twenty years. So I had to tell him you know  "Hey I'm the same female you tried to get into bed only last week. Nothing has changed except the fact that you are now aware of my history, so lighten up already." I have needed to make it clear to all my friends that didn't know a thing about my past, that the book is about me, and my life and what helped make me who the hell I am...If they don't think they can deal with the hard stuff, then don't read it. Like my darling daughter, she is immensely proud of me, and is tooting my horn every chance she gets, but we have discussed it and she can never bring herself to read the book. It makes her too angry, and so sad,that I had to go through that sort of shit. My online friends have been amazingly supportive, they only know me as I am now, a smart ass with attitude and a marshmallow center. It's easier to relax and joke with them, perhaps the fact that we are all writers, KJ. As writers we need to be sensitive to cause and reaction, I think that in turn makes most of us more understanding and hopefully more able to deal with each other's flashes of insecurity.

KJK: At one point, you mention that you went to school beaten up and the teachers ignored it. Do you believe the same thing would happen today?

SD: NO!..Thankfully. This is a long way from the 1960’s when abuse was never discussed. Please bear in mind the time frame this occurred in. “Leave it to Beaver’ was a close as anyone got to reality TV in those days; even the news was whitewashed, until Vietnam, and that’s when the revolution truly began…no innocence left intact after that: but prior to that monumental event, sex was never discussed. Many young women reached adulthood knowing nothing about menstruation, childbirth, or any of the things that are easily discussed today. These were the times of television only ever showing the married couples in single beds. Barbra Eden in ‘I dream of Genie’ had to cover her navel rather than shock the masses. That is the type of world I was born into, sex was a taboo topic, that was giggled about in shame, and never ever openly discussed.

KJK: One thing that’s frustrating when reading your book is your lack of trust.  I can understand it, of course, but was frustrated by it. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if you just told the truth to a teacher, cop, or someone else. Looking back, do you feel there would have been a better way to handle it or do you think you had no choice and did the best thing you could have done.
SD: Cops..that’s a laugh. One of main abusers was a cop. I was threatened with death if I told anyone…anyone at all about what was going on. At that age I wasn’t about to put it to the test. Teachers made a point of not looking at me when I showed up bruised. It was none of their concern. The powers that be of the day simply pretended this type of thing did not happen. What would have happened had I spoken up? I wouldn’t be here having this interview KJ. No doubt about that at all.

KJ: Another thing that just floored me was your age. Eleven! My god, I just wanted to tell Paulie and the pimp and even her employer (more or less) at the bakery – she’s only eleven years old! Do you think it would have mattered if they knew?
SD: Not for a second. Paulie had his own agenda. Mrs McDowell got free workers in exchange for food and the odd packets of smokes. You are dealing with folks that lived on the edge of the crime underground here. They probably suspected I was younger that I sounded, but what point would it have made to have told them, KJ? Where were they gonna send me? Home? No thanks.
KJK: At one point you said you scared runaways that were new to the streets – the ones that looked you in the eye. You said others took advantage of them but you felt like you were doing them a service by scaring them away. What did you do specifically?
SD: It wasn’t just me, the other street kids I ended up with all did it. You could pick the kids that were the “Circus freaks”. These kids were on the streets for one maybe two nights. They weren’t tough, they mostly stayed in groups of at least three…and they made repeated eye contact;  the only thing they were doing was trying to prove to their parents that they would run away if they didn’t get their own way at home. We all knew what would happen to these idiots if they stayed. A street kid that is genuine, will not make eye contact. They will not be wearing clean and modern clothing. They will not have clean hair and be walking around paying radios and trying to look tough. These kids were gonna be pimp fodder…so we used to scare the living shit out of them. I pulled a knife, the other kids all had their own way of dealing with the blow-ins. If they were genuine, we would soon see. Most of the time we were right, and they ran on home to folks that genuinely loved them.

KJ: I love the way the book ends but it leaves the reader hanging. Please tell
me you’re planning to write a sequel.
SD: I have already begun book two. Only just.
KJ: I’m curious. On one hand, I wouldn’t want to see your mother again. On the mother hand, she’s your mom and you must have been curious. Did you ever see her or hear how she’s doing again?
SD: She ceased to exist the day I walked out that door. I heard she died, ten years or so ago. Died of natural causes in her sleep, of old age. I am afraid it didn’t thrill me to hear that.

Some folks will think me a savage for saying that. That of course is their prerogative; I do not have a belief system that includes an afterlife. If I thought of her at all over all those years it was usually to hope she was suffering in some way.

Not a charitable thing to do, but that’s simply the way it is. She was evil. No if’s but’s or maybe’s about it. I firmly believe she was a sociopath. No conscience whatsoever.
 I have had well intentioned folks say to me that perhaps she was abused herself and that’s why she abused. That I am afraid makes me very very angry.
My child came into this world with a mother who would kill to protect her. I was abused horrendously, it made me even more determined that my young one would never know the meaning of a harsh word, a body blow or sexual abuse.

I know that statistics say that the abused child often becomes an abusive parent.
 Not in my world. I knew and still know many many adults that were abused as children, without exception they are wonderful, loving and proud parents. The few who doubted their ability to love a child without causing harm decided very early on NOT to have children at all, rather than risk something in their past causing them to harm a child of their own.

Why would the fact that she gave birth to me make a difference KJ? She was not a mother in any sense of the word, apart from the act of birthing me.

KJ: One of the characters I just loved was Animal. He was probably one of the  nicest people you meet – generous, etc. Do you think he should have done even
more? Did you ever see him around after the book ends?
SD: Animal became a close friend. I lived on those streets a long time KJ. Should he have done more? No. He did what he could at the time, given his own lifestyle and his marital circumstances.
KJ: Paulie ends up not being such a great guy. Did you ever confront him after
or find out what happened to him?

SD: Paulie was always going to be around. He was an established presence on the streets, and he had links to some of the big guys. But yeah, he was confronted. Not only by me but when Animal found out about who had set me up for the guys that raped me, Paulie was paid a visit. Jamie and  a few of the male crew at ‘The Palace’ also paid Drew the pimp a courtesy call.

KJ: Life on the streets can’t be easy. You’re about as tough as they come. How long did you end up living out there?
SD: All up I was out there for Five years. I hit the streets at eleven and I left them at just on sixteen. I don’t know about tough though KJ, I am resilient, and extremely pig-headed.

I had a dream of something better, and nothing and no-one would take that from me.
KJK: I've seen websites where they list sexual offenders. I’ve heard one case where a sexually offender has to wear a T-shirt claiming he is one. There’s also a law in Florida that doesn’t allow sexual offenders / pedophiles within 200 meters or so of a place where children live / go. Do you think that these laws are good or enough?
SD: No. I’ll say no more. I’m afraid that there is NO punishment that satisfactorily addresses this obscenity against the innocent.
KJK: I followed one of your tweets about a ring of pedophiles being
caught. Are you currently helping out with teens? Any suggestions you’d like
to make – such as things to be aware of, etc.

SD: I help anywhere and anytime I can. I am not well physically and have been on a disability pension for a while, but whatever time I can offer is taken up with talking to young folks who need to discuss this stuff with someone that has lived through and beyond it. Or adults that are still struggling with the aftermath.

Things to be aware of or on the lookout for in different areas of abuse…
Physical abuse vs. Discipline
In physical abuse, unlike physical forms of discipline, the following elements are present:
  • Unpredictability. The child never knows what is going to set the parent off. There are no clear boundaries or rules. The child is constantly walking on eggshells, never sure what behavior will trigger a physical assault.
  • Lashing out in anger. Physically abusive parents act out of anger and the desire to assert control, not the motivation to lovingly teach the child. The angrier the parent, the more intense the abuse.
  • Using fear to control behavior. Parents who are physically abusive may believe that their children need to fear them in order to behave, so they use physical abuse to “keep their child in line.” However, what children are really learning is how to avoid being hit, not how to behave or grow as individuals.
Child sexual abuse: A hidden type of abuse
Child sexual abuse is an especially complicated form of abuse because of its layers of guilt and shame. It's important to recognize that sexual abuse doesn't always involve body contact. Exposing a child to sexual situations or material is sexually abusive, whether or not touching is involved.
While news stories of sexual predators are scary, what is even more frightening is that sexual abuse usually occurs at the hands of someone the child knows and should be able to trust—most often close relatives. And contrary to what many believe, it’s not just girls who are at risk. Boys and girls both suffer from sexual abuse. In fact, sexual abuse of boys may be underreported due to shame and stigma.
The problem of shame and guilt in child sexual abuse
Aside from the physical damage that sexual abuse can cause, the emotional component is powerful and far-reaching. Sexually abused children are tormented by shame and guilt. They may feel that they are responsible for the abuse or somehow brought it upon themselves. This can lead to self-loathing and sexual problems as they grow older—often either excessive promiscuity or an inability to have intimate relations.
The shame of sexual abuse makes it very difficult for children to come forward. They may worry that others won’t believe them, will be angry with them, or that it will split their family apart. Because of these difficulties, false accusations of sexual abuse are not common, so if a child confides in you, take him or her seriously. Don’t turn a blind eye!
Warning signs of child abuse and neglect
The earlier child abuse is caught, the better the chance of recovery and appropriate treatment for the child. Child abuse is not always obvious. By learning some of the common warning signs of child abuse and neglect, you can catch the problem as early as possible and get both the child and the abuser the help that they need.
Of course, just because you see a warning sign doesn’t automatically mean a child is being abused. It’s important to dig deeper, looking for a pattern of abusive behavior and warning signs, if you notice something off.
Warning signs of emotional abuse in children
  • Excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong.
  • Shows extremes in behavior (extremely compliant or extremely demanding; extremely passive or extremely aggressive).
  • Doesn’t seem to be attached to the parent or caregiver.
  • Acts either inappropriately adult (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile (rocking, thumb-sucking, tantruming).
Warning signs of physical abuse in children
  • Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts.
  • Is always watchful and “on alert,” as if waiting for something bad to happen.
  • Injuries appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt.
  • Shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home.
  • Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days.
Warning signs of neglect in children
  • Clothes are ill-fitting, filthy, or inappropriate for the weather.
  • Hygiene is consistently bad (unbathed, matted and unwashed hair, noticeable body odor).
  • Untreated illnesses and physical injuries.
  • Is frequently unsupervised or left alone or allowed to play in unsafe situations and environments.
  • Is frequently late or missing from school.
Warning signs of sexual abuse in children
  • Trouble walking or sitting.
  • Displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to his or her age, or even seductive behavior.
  • Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person, without an obvious reason.
  • Doesn’t want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities.
  • An STD or pregnancy, especially under the age of 14.
  • Runs away from home.
Child abuse and reactive attachment disorder
Severe abuse early in life can lead to reactive attachment disorder. Children with this disorder are so disrupted that they have extreme difficulty establishing normal relationships and attaining normal developmental milestones. They need special treatment and support.
Risk factors for child abuse and neglect
While child abuse and neglect occurs in all types of families—even in those that look happy from the outside—children are at a much greater risk in certain situations.
  • Domestic violence. Witnessing domestic violence is terrifying to children and emotionally abusive. Even if the mother does her best to protect her children and keeps them from being physically abused, the situation is still extremely damaging. If you or a loved one is in an abusive relationships, getting out is the best thing for protecting the children.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse. Living with an alcoholic or addict is very difficult for children and can easily lead to abuse and neglect. Parents who are drunk or high are unable to care for their children, make good parenting decisions, and control often-dangerous impulses. Substance abuse also commonly leads to physical abuse.
  • Untreated mental illness. Parents who suffering from depression, an anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness have trouble taking care of themselves, much less their children. A mentally ill or traumatized parent may be distant and withdrawn from his or her children, or quick to anger without understanding why. Treatment for the caregiver means better care for the children.
  • Stress and lack of support. Parenting can be a very time-intensive, difficult job, especially if you’re raising children without support from family, friends, or the community or you’re dealing with relationship problems or financial difficulties. Caring for a child with a disability, special needs, or difficult behaviors is also a challenge. It’s important to get the support you need, so you are emotionally and physically able to support your child.


Attachment is the deep and lasting connection established between a child and caregiver in the first few years of life. It profoundly affects your child’s development and his or her ability to express emotions and develop relationships. If you are the parent of a child with an attachment disorder, such as reactive attachment disorder, you may be physically and emotionally exhausted from trying to connect with your child, only to be met with opposition, defiance, or, maybe hardest of all, indifference.
A child with insecure attachment or an attachment disorder doesn’t have the skills necessary to build meaningful relationships. However, with the right tools, and a healthy dose of time, effort, patience, and love, it is possible to treat and repair attachment difficulties.
Create a secure environment
Children with attachment disorders or other attachment problems have difficulty connecting to others and managing their own emotions. This results in a lack of trust and self-worth, a fear of getting close to anyone, anger, and a need to be in control. A child with an attachment disorder feels unsafe and alone.
So why do some children develop attachment disorders while others don’t? The answer has to do with the attachment process, which relies on the interaction of both parent and child.
Attachment disorders are the result of negative experiences in this early relationship. If young children feel repeatedly abandoned, isolated, powerless, or uncared for—for whatever reason—they will learn that they can’t depend on others and the world is a dangerous and frightening place.
What causes reactive attachment disorder and other attachment problems?
Reactive attachment disorder and other attachment problems occur when children have been unable to consistently connect with a parent or primary caregiver. This can happen for many reasons:
  • A baby cries and no one responds or offers comfort.
  • A baby is hungry or wet, and they aren’t attended to for hours.
  • No one looks at, talks to, or smiles at the baby, so the baby feels alone.
  • A young child gets attention only by acting out or displaying other extreme behaviors.
  • A young child or baby is mistreated or abused.
  • Sometimes the child’s needs are met and sometimes they aren’t. The child never knows what to expect.
  • The infant or young child is hospitalized or separated from his or her parents.
  • A baby or young child is moved from one caregiver to another (can be the result of adoption, foster care, or the loss of a parent).
  • The parent is emotionally unavailable because of depression, an illness, or a substance abuse problem.
I have a very long list of services available to anyone concerned that a child in their immediate vicinity, street , school, neighbor, church etc. is being neglected or abused
I have compiled the list taking in as many sites as I could locate both in the USA the UK and Australia. It is not yet fully comprehensive but I add to it daily. You can find it on my blog

KJ: I just loved this book and hope you give it a try.  Thanks for the great interview and best of luck with Empty Chairs.


  1. Excellent interview! Sooz is by far the bravest person I know, and I think everyone should read Empty Chairs. If they did then, perhaps, there might just be a little less cruelty in the world.

  2. Brava, Soooz. Your book shook me to my core, and I admire you for everything you're doing to help the children of this world.

    Excellent interview. Thank you for the insight.

  3. I'll say it again SD you are one helluva woman. I can't find the words but you know me well enough to know my thoughts - of and for you.

    Having read and reviewed Empty Chairs I look forward to the 2nd in the series.
    Tee x

  4. Superb interview and great information. A great blog post from both the blogger and Sooz. A lot to think about. x

  5. Great interview S and K. I must say I agree with your sentence: 'I have had well intentioned folks say to me that perhaps she was abused herself and that’s why she abused. That I am afraid makes me very very angry'. Abuse is wrong. Full Stop.

  6. Wow, now that was a thought provoking blog post if ever I read one!
    Thank you both very much.