Through Hell and Into Heaven: An Interview with Activist Brenda Wesley

by Patricia Obletz

Brenda Wesley’s father and her boyfriend/husband/ex shaped her view of herself, until she learned how to understand herself, and thus protect herself, and then find her way into the best years of her life. Brenda Wesley’s personal journey through hell and on into heaven paints a portrait of the beauty of the human spirit.

Brenda Wesley and I met in 2008 when we worked on the public awareness project on spiritual freedom through art now on view on Milwaukee Access Telecommunications Authority Ch. 14 and @ Last summer, she agreed to talk with me about her own journey through hell and on into heaven right here on earth.

Brenda said, “I was the third child of five daughters. My mother was white, my father was black, and we lived in a black community. I was always scared, never knowing when my father would come home, or what mood he’d be in. He physically and emotionally abused my mother, sisters and me.

“I understand my father better now. Because his father had abused him and his sisters, the only male role model my father knew. Looking back, I think that he had mental health issues, probably relating to slavery and self identity. I also think that, because my mother was white and my sisters and I were light‑skinned, he thought we looked down on him.

“My father grew up in the racist south in the 1940s and ‘50s and I think that he was absorbed by his own identity as a black man. Perhaps he thought marrying a white woman would elevate his status, but if it ever did, it never improved his self‑respect.

Escape through art
“I used to escape my fear as a child by sketching all the time at home and going to movies as often as I could.

“It took me a long time to overcome that fear I grew up with. I was overweight, I was light‑skinned, I stuttered, I was scared all the time, especially around the time my father came home from work.

“My father was the first black man in Milwaukee to own his own construction company. He had a lot of workers, but he never knew how to give love to his family. He didn’t have a high school diploma, but his company excavated the land on which the first expressway in Milwaukee was built. And yet we grew up in poverty on 13th Street and Reservoir.

“My father did not respect women. He called my mother, my four sisters and me ‘tramps and whores.’ He was always on my mother for not doing enough.

“Perhaps because I was fat and very quiet, he wasn’t on me as much as he went after them. My mother would call the police sometimes. When they’d arrive, my father would take them aside and say he was just trying to keep us all in line. The police would tell him not to physically hurt us, but their attitude was, a white woman who marries a black man has to accept the life she chooses. I think she drank to escape her life, and today, I think she was clinically depressed. When she was in her 40s, she became addicted to pain medication.

“My oldest sister remembers good times along with bad times. I don’t remember too many of the good times, nor do my younger sisters.

“I’ll never forget the time when I was 11 and my parents were having a terrible fight. I ran upstairs to get away from them. Then my father came upstairs and went to his bedroom. I watched him pull his gun out from under the mattress. I shouted downstairs to my mother, ‘No, don’t come up.’ He put his gun to my head and told me to shut up or he’d shoot me.

It’s in the genes.
“I never met my father’s family. His dad had kicked him out of the house when he was 14. After that, my father moved around a lot, looking for work. He finally left Kentucky and wound up in Mississippi, where he met my mother.

“When my maternal grandmother moved her family to Freeport, Illinois, my father followed them. Eventually my parents married and moved to Milwaukee.

“My mother’s mother was an alcoholic. I think that she also had bipolar disorder. Her moods were way up and way down and erratic. Sometimes when we drove the four hours to visit her, she’d make us spend the night in the car; sometimes she’d pull out her gun, aim it at us, and order us to leave.

“Given her mother, it’s not surprising that my mother also was an alcoholic. In addition to self‑medicating with pain pills, no doubt she still needed to numb herself through drink to completely forget his abuse.

“My mother loved us, and was kind to us, but we’d come home from school and she’d be drunk, dinner burned. She worked third shift at American Can Company. By the time I was nine or 10, she’d wake up my older sisters and me about 10 PM so we could make her lunch and coffee. Even though we were tired we enjoyed seeing her off to work. She had to be there by 11pm.

“At times it seemed that my mother was emotionally unavailable to my sisters and me. But even with this disconnect, I always felt her love. Perhaps she had a mental illness. Depression maybe. She had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized at the mental health complex when I was — I can’t seem to remember how old I was — when your life is full of downs, you often lose track of time. One of my older sisters said that our mother was given electro‑convulsive shock treatment, but I never learned what her medical diagnosis was. Nor did I ever connect her illness to the ‘crazy’ people in the movies and on TV.

“When I was 11 or 12, my mother left my father, which made me very happy. But then she went downhill. I think she had no clue who she was without him. She continued to drink.

“When my mother finally started to address her demons, she got cancer, and a list of other medical conditions. Due to emotional and physical pain, she began taking pills again, along with her drinks until she could no longer work. I stopped going to school (one semester), and got a job to help out.

We All Were Traumatized By Racism
“I know now why she had to drink: In addition to dealing with my father, she had to deal with racism. She was white and living in a black community with her mixed‑race children. When we went downtown, we kids had to walk behind her in case she ran into anyone from work — we all were traumatized by racism.

“I went to public school on Milwaukee’s north side. I got beat up most of the time. It was the identity thing. I had very long hair and light skin, and the boys went after my hair. I walked around believing I was a lesser person because my skin was light. I used to sit in the sun whenever possible to tan myself dark. I thought that, the darker you were, the better you were. I thought this perhaps because my father’s skin color was dark and he had the power. Many others think that being light gives you power, however, that was not my belief.

“Perhaps I was 12 when my older sisters left home. That was just before my mother left my father and we moved into a boarding house. It was filled with men who all were alcoholics; they were nasty and they were all dirty; the place was a mess. I tried to protect my two younger sisters from these men — they weren’t interested in me because I was ‘chubby.’

“When I was 14, I met my ex‑husband. He made me feel good about myself for a long time. When your father tells you all your life that you are bad, you believe that. My ex taught me how to be self‑sufficient; he made me feel beautiful and smart. Taking care of my sisters, being afraid of my father, not knowing who I was, made me think that my boyfriend was my personal savior. I know that he was brought into my life for a reason.

“He also grew up in poverty and had to deal with a mother who had her own demons; he had 14 brothers and sisters were involved with drugs and drowning in the streets. He disconnected himself from them, for his own survival.

“He was wonderful to me for years. I was 16 when we had John — we didn’t marry until I was 27 because I couldn’t abandon my sick mother and younger sisters.

“I got my own place when my son was six months old, but I still took care of my mother, who was dying by then, physically, spiritually and emotionally. I made sure that my sisters went to school and were properly dressed and had packed their lunch.

“When I graduated from high school, I got a job in a daycare center so I could stay with my son. My ex went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison to major in journalism.

“He became part of the black power movement in the ‘70s. I learned so much about racism, skin color and being black from him. He wanted me to move to Madison, but I just couldn’t leave my mother and younger sisters. He’d say that he had disconnected from his family, why couldn’t I leave mine? We fought about this a lot.

“He transferred to UW Milwaukee. I got a secretarial job and took marketing and public relations classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College. Then I got a job in marketing and PR at a radio station.

“Although I was satisfied with my life, I had this thing inside me saying that there was more for me to do. But I couldn’t figure out what.

“My ex and I began to exercise together, running and working out with weights, adopting a healthy lifestyle. I became a vegetarian. For a while, things seemed okay for us. Except that I still felt that my ill mother and young sisters came first.

“We had another son, and then our daughter, who is now my best friend.

“My ex couldn’t find a job in journalism, but bet me that he could get into the police department and that I couldn’t. He won the bet and joined the police in 1980.

“Given his (Black) activism, trying to change the world, you can imagine how he felt when he discovered blatant discrimination within the police department. The police chief claimed that blacks were not being promoted because they didn’t have the qualifications; the chief insisted that the police department was not racist. My ex and other black policemen formed the League of Martin, named after Martin Luther King, because they were determined to overcome this racist force. They filed a lawsuit against the police department and won it in the ‘80s.

Stress at work

“I think my ex grew more like my father because he had to deal every day with discrimination, poverty and violence in the inner city. By 2001, the family we had built started to crumble. I understood the stresses of his police work, yet, his emotional disconnect also started at the time I began to flourish.

“I developed anorexia. This eating disorder allowed me to control what I ate, just about the only thing in my life that I could control. I was treated for this disorder, but it took a few years to overcome it, or let’s say control it, in part because my marriage and my mother were deteriorating.

“Helping my ill mother added more stress to my marriage. She died in 1980 when I was in my mid‑30s. That’s when I went to a psychologist for help.

“When my second son was 11 or 12, he became very rebellious. His older brother was a gifted child, so I also thought maybe he was intimidated by his brother’s success, always walking in the shadows of his big brother.

“He was having trouble with anger and learning in school; he couldn’t concentrate. His father was on him because he wanted him to be more like his big brother and get good grades.

“I took my son to a psychologist, who said he thought my son’s problems stemmed from his relationship with his dad. But his dad didn’t want to deal with any of this, so we never got any therapy. My marriage imploded. The police department got involved.

“My oldest son went to college and my youngest two children got caught up in the disintegration of my marriage and my eating disorder.

Spiritual awakening
“I finally left my husband when I was in my 40s. Actually, I ran away by moving to California. I had an uncle in California, who was a pastor. My two younger children wanted to stay with their father, and my daughter eventually moved in with her boyfriend. I thought my youngest son was okay, but eventually my ex kicked him out. He didn’t understand our son’s behavior.

“In California, I found my spiritual self. I worked for a recording label and was living the fast and good life, but I was still aware that something was missing. My uncle in California always tried to give my life spirituality to God.

“My uncle got his wish. He owned his own plane, which he and his wife and a few church members were taking to Las Vegas for a conference. They wanted me to go. I backed out at the last minute. Their plane crashed, and although they were okay, the seat I would have been sitting in was crushed. This made me start to really think about my life. Then I lost my job.

“I moved in with my aunt and uncle. On Mother’s Day that year, I was talking to my daughter and she started asking me questions about God and about life that I couldn’t answer. That day, I walked into my uncle’s church, and something came over me. That day, I gave myself to God and realized I had to get myself together. I stayed in California and went to church every week and sought spiritual guidance from my uncle.

“My favorite uncle died in Tennessee, and we all went to his funeral. My daughter came with her baby. Meeting my grandbaby for the first time made me think again that something still wasn’t right. My youngest son moved to California. He started running with gang members in Crenshaw. He didn’t like my uncle and he would say things to me about him that didn’t make sense. I decided to move back to Milwaukee to put my family back together.

“My ex and I tried to piece our relationship back together. However, we both realized that it would be better for us to remain friends.

“In Milwaukee, I got a job at Sentry rather than return to marketing. I wanted to get to know myself. During this transition, my youngest son’s mental illness presented itself in a way that couldn’t be ignored. He became out of control. At this particular time in my life I didn’t know anything about mental illness. But when I look back at my life, I now can recognize that my family had signs of this life altering illness.

“Our society has awareness campaigns to help people identify signs of other physical illnesses, but not those of brain illnesses. My son was finally diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia after years of heartache and lost opportunities.

“After the diagnosis, we thought all he needed was a pill. We were never taught about recovery and how a person can live with and manage a chronic illness. When my son’s girlfriend got sick, he started to miss a lot of medication doses because he didn’t like the side effects. He became symptomatic again. In the mainly white community in which his girlfriend lived, he was easily spotted and targeted by undercover cops. The target he carried on his back was male, African American, and hip hop. Boy did he get into a lot of trouble. Of course my eating disorder kicked in and I was off to the races again.

“In 2000, my son was arrested for selling cocaine to undercover cops in his girlfriend’s mostly white community. Most of the charges were bogus and he was given an eight-year prison sentence, of which he served three. Experts say that people with mental illnesses usually spend their entire time behind bars, even their five years on probation. Although my son had a mental illness and was very ill at the time, his condition held no relevance with the courts or the judge. He was sent to Mendota and then Winnebago, where he was treated for his mental illness before they could convict him in court.

“Again, I really didn’t understand his mental illness then. I thought he needed only medication. I didn’t understand that his brain chemistry was permanently changed. My childhood depression and my eating disorder didn’t permanently change the chemistry of my brain, but I’m always aware that when life gets too intense, I have to be vigilant and make sure I don’t slip back into anorexia.

Epiphany
“After my son was taken away in handcuffs from that courtroom, I locked myself away for two weeks. During that time, I realized that what had been missing in my life was helping other people help themselves by raising awareness on mental health issues. I was 52. I took a part time job and my sister and I moved in together so I could put my plan of action into place.

“I started writing poetry and plays about my experiences. I started knocking on my Senator’s door, my Congresswoman’s door, and some agency doors. A lot of people didn’t want to hear about mental health. They didn’t understand that everybody is vulnerable to a mental illness. Or maybe they are afraid of the unknown, the way AIDS use to scare us.

“The stigma existing in the world today is intense, but in the black community, stigma is even more devastating. This fact inspired me to create ASK, Access, Support and Knowledge, an African American Outreach Program. I spoke out to anyone who would listen to me. I knocked on the door of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and they not only said yes, they hired me as Outreach and Education Coordinator. In this position, I do seminars and workshops regarding mental health. Let me tell you, I did not select this profession, it was chosen for me.

“Congresswoman Gwen Moore opened her door to me and told me which doors to knock on. When Wisconsin Representative Sandy Pasch was at NAMI, she invited me to speak about my and my son’s experiences with mental health to the police at her Crisis Intervention Training, as well as at the Crisis Intervention Partnership program.

“Dr. Pat McManus of the Black Health Coalition opened the door and asked me to speak to groups. More doors started opening. My journey has been a slow one, which leads me to believe that if I were a white mother trying to save her children or community, maybe the doors would have been opened a lot sooner.

“I remember, just before Christmas, the pastor at the church I worked at fired me. He may have fired me because I was becoming well known for my plays and poetry readings.

“Recently I have come to realize that when one door closes, another opens, and nothing happens by chance. It was then that I realized that life wasn’t about what man wanted me to do, or about what religion told you to do, it was about what God wanted you to do. It wasn’t about money and glamour, it was about growing the ASK Program. I took on three part time jobs to make ends meet.

“I also have come to realize the path we choose for ourselves may not be the path we should be on. When I go out and do presentations, it seems that I automatically get feedback with tears. I realize that if I have helped one person to understand his or her illness, or a family member’s illness, I realize that I am on the right track and will continue to do this the rest of my life.”



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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on September 09, 2016

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