Twenty years ago this note was left for me by a Hungarian who participated in a communications workshop I conducted in Germany:
“I am 42 years old, but I cannot imagine that a woman could to learn me something new. You learned me how to have contact with the public. Thank you!”
I framed it and hung it in my den right by my desk. It’s still there today on the wall—not because of its shocking sexism, or remarkable honesty, or stunning compliment—but because sometimes I cannot imagine the woman he is referring to is me…that woman is me.
By most odds, I shouldn’t have been able to achieve much, let alone survive. My childhood was a battlefield that tried to destroy me. There were many enemies—mental illness, domestic violence, and poverty. From childhood into my teens in Chicago, we were so poor that my mother, younger brother and I were homeless for a while. And when we did finally find an apartment, I was relentlessly persecuted by my fears of what life held for me. I lived each moment fearful if we’d be able to pay the rent, or if my mother would be beaten to death if I left her side, or if we’d have milk to drink the next day, or if the bullies that day would torment me about my worn clothes—I went to school with the soles of my shoes flapping as they started falling off because we couldn’t afford new ones.
I lived each day thinking about how to escape my life of fear. Thank goodness for libraries! I think books saved my life. They shared with me stories of other peoples’ lives, showing me there was another world. And, I started to believe maybe I had a chance to live differently. I’d stay up all night getting lost in my reading. I read a range of books by such authors as Phyllis Whitney, Agatha Christie, Gertrude Chandler Warner, and Louisa May Alcott. In my early teens, I devoured Harlequin romances. Their “happy ending” stories filled me with hope.
Action and sci-fi movies were another escape hatch. In the fight scenes, the good guys might get battered and bruised, but they always won in the end. Plus, the movies transported me into new places—and I so much wanted to be anywhere other than where I was. I fantasized a lot about being a female James Bond, a strong woman, kicking ass and traveling the world.
Somehow, as damaged as my psyche was, instead of letting my childhood be a negative burden, I managed to put my desire to escape into overdrive—I could not imagine going back to that oppression. That “I cannot imagine” voice inside me drove me pedal-to-the-metal with a single-minded positive focus.
Fast-forward two decades to the moment when the Hungarian gentleman gave me the “I cannot imagine” framed note at an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) workshop. At the time, Hungary and other Central and Eastern European countries were undergoing the dramatic political change from communism to democracy. This monumental political shift resulted in a significant need for training in communicating with the media and public, which I was fortunate to be able to assist with through IAEA expert missions and workshops. It was a marvelous opportunity for me as I learned to appreciate the richness of other cultures and had the opportunity to meet many remarkable people.
One of the great aspects about being an author is that you can share your life’s exciting adventures with readers. In my international thriller, The Child Riddler, my main character, Zoe, is a globe-trotting operative, who travels to some of the fascinating countries I’ve visited in my career.
But mostly, I want to celebrate strong women, because I know how hard it is to be one. I experienced how my mother suffered raising us as a single-parent on her lower wages. I saw how, because of her lack of self-esteem, she allowed herself to be beaten. When I watch the Bond movies and other action ones, I want to root for a woman, see her winning fights and saving the world.
Also, as an author, I am able to create a character from my fantasy. I did this with Zoe. Like the readers, I get to go on that thrilling ride of discovering what it means to be a badass—a proud, confident, elite warrior.
As I reflect on the gift of my framed note and all that it took to get to that moment, I’m awestruck at how the coarse and frayed threads of your life can be miraculously woven together to create a silk tapestry; a dream that can be hung on the wall and savored as a reminder of the saying that to reach the mountain peak, you have to go through the valleys.
I write in hopes that other women can take heart from my story and know that they are strong. While I still sometimes cannot imagine that woman is me, I quickly dismiss that doubt, because I know a strong woman can overcome anything.
Angela Greenman is an internationally recognized communications professional. She has been an expert and lecturer with the International Atomic Energy Agency for over a decade, a spokesperson for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and a press officer for the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, the City’s civil rights department. After traveling to twenty-one countries for work and pleasure, Angela decided to seriously pursue her love of writing. She is a member of the International Thriller Writer’s Debut Authors program.
Her debut international thriller, The Child Riddler will be released by Bella Books in July.