Kristen Sandstrom is a self-professed word geek. She is an avid reader, writer and seller of books. I interviewed her in Bayfield, Wisconsin. We talked about her love for Lake Superior, her understanding of community and the ways she has moved toward healing after surviving trauma in her teens.
“I am a storyteller at heart. I’m a survivor on many different levels. I love people and I’ve grown up loving stories and being told stories and then sharing other people’s stories. Now that I’m in my mid-forties, I’m getting to the point where some of my stories are finally coming out, which is kind of awesome and scary all at the same time. But in my world, life is about stories and how we share those stories.
I’m one of those kids who grew up reading books, and my grandmother—who was my idol on every possible level—books were the center of so many things for us. When we read Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as kids, we were not reading the Disney version. We were reading the original Hans Christian Anderson version. That’s really scary and dark and beautiful.
So I was introduced to stories from a very young age. And I think even as I got older, into the adolescent years, when mental health issues or trauma and struggle in life gets in the way, telling stories, whether they’re true or not, can be a really easy way to avoid other things. So storytelling can be good and bad, if that makes sense at all.
I’ve been very good at telling somebody else’s story over and over again, to fight for them or to say something for them or to do something for somebody else in order to not tell my story. In order to hide, maybe, what I may have been going through as a confused teenager.
So I would, at some points in my life, completely just dive into the books and be like, ‘yep, I’m going to live here for awhile.’
This is a story that I told at my grandmother’s funeral. And it has absolutely shaped who I am to this day. And it’s not that big of a deal. It’s not that adventurous of a story. We were swimming over on Madeline Island. My grandparents had a cabin on Madeline Island every summer when I was growing up. And there were these big boulders in the water that we would climb up on and jump off. And I was—I don’t know—seven or eight years old. And I was climbing up on the rock and I fell and smashed my knee into the rock. My knee started bleeding. I start bawling because my knee, right? My grandmother swims over to me. She looks at my knee and she goes, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad. Stop crying. Sometimes you just have to say, ‘God damn it! and move on.’
And that’s true. At eight years old, my grandmother said that to me. Like, not everything’s going to kill you. And sometimes you just need to wipe your hands off, say, ‘God damn it!’ and move on. Now. Not always the best advice. [But] Potsy was a bad-ass. That’s her nickname.
Catherine Patricia Sanford.
So this was our summer home. I was part fish. There’s [only] one summer of my life—I’m 46—where I haven’t been on Madeline Island. I think for me it does bring me a sense of solace and peace.
I think that once you’ve lived near water, you always have to live near water. There’s this spiritual connection that happens. My entire immediate family is all here and that draws me here. I have this dream of living in England for a couple of months every year. I went to university for a bit over there. [But] this is still home. I’ll go talk to the lake because that’s where we spread my grandparents’ ashes and that’s where my uncle’s ashes are spread. And that’s where my ashes will be spread. So that’s kind of our graveyard. It’s our place.
I do love the people. I don’t like all of the people, but I love the people.
I don’t think it matters what size your community is. There are people that I don’t agree with your politics or I don’t agree with how you run your business or any number of things. But if you need help, I’m going to give you help. And I think that community is not always this feel-good thing. Community means that sometimes you have to help the people that you don’t really like because you want your community to be okay. You’re not going to agree with all of them.
I think we see it more often than not. When a community member has come down sick and doesn’t have good insurance, we are the community who’s going to have a fundraiser down at the pavilion. That’s very likely a potluck with a beer and wine cash bar where we’re going to raise $5,000 for that person’s deductible. Or medical expenses. And I might not like the person, but I’m still going to give him 20 bucks. I’m going to show up. In the winter time, if I see somebody who’s stuck on the side of the road, I may not like that person, but they need help.
I feel like some of these things I would do no matter what, because it’s the right thing to do. Whether I like the person or not. I think some of this has to do with the fact that I come from a very large Catholic right-leaning family. My dad’s family. And I’ve dealt with that my entire life. Of going, oh, I just don’t agree with you. I don’t like you. But I still love you. And if you needed some sort of transplant that I could give you, I would. But that’s also because it’s the right thing to do in my, in my little microcosm of space.
The first word that comes to my mind when you say peace is communication. We all know the hippie sentiments of peace. We all know everybody and their sister and brother are flashing peace signs when they take their pictures for selfies or whatnot. We’ve all seen thi and in my mind, that’s like branding or cliche.
That is not peace for me. And peace isn’t even quiet in my world. The ability to communicate with your fellow human and even disagree with them, but then respect what they believe and just know that you can co-exist in a world and not hold all of the same beliefs. That’s peace. Peace is turbulent. Peace is a massive protest of people being able to gather together for a good cause and speak their minds peacefully. But it’s really noisy.
I’ve had experiences that have been really difficult personally in the last few years that while the experience may have been even traumatizing, the peace that it brought me was so huge that I would go through that trauma again, if I had to. knowing what was going to come. So sometimes peace comes with struggle and stress.
I’m personally working on a memoir for myself that was supposed to be a fictional novel. For the last 10 years it’s been fiction, but now it’s real.
When I was 16 years old, I took a trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland. The year prior to that, when I was 15, I was part of a project called the Ulster project, which was through our church. And 20 students from Northern Ireland came over to the United States and they stayed like a mini AFS program, but it was through the church. 10 Catholic, 10 Protestant. Making reconciliation of some sort because this would have been 1990.
That was an amazing experience. So the year following, in 1991, a group of us girls saved our money and went to Belfast when we were 16. Well tragically, while I was in Belfast, I was raped behind a nightclub and my body turned it off. That’s how I describe it. Within 24 hours of the event, in my mind, it didn’t happen.
Fast forward, 10 years, I’m having nightmares. What I believe is that my body or my mind was finally capable or strong enough to deal with it. Nightmares, nervous breakdown, lost my corporate job at a hotel in the Twin Cities. Well, I didn’t lose it. I quit. I moved up here. I ran away to the lake. I needed to be here. And the healing began.
Eventually I realized, oh, this is real. This actually happened to me. So by the time I was 26—10 years after it happened—is when I finally came out to my sister and my family is saying this happened and I’m not quite sure how I’m going to deal with it.
I never told a soul. And that certainly impacted how I dealt with sex as a young adult. Now looking back, I see that. So that was when I was 26. Lots of therapy. Now I’m 46. Four years ago, spring of 2017. I was obsessed with Ted talks. Watching all of them. I stumbled upon one. I’m not gonna remember their names, but a woman from Iceland and her rapist doing a Ted talk together. On forgiveness,
And her experience, he was a foreign exchange student from Australia. They had been dating in school and he took her to her first party. She had a bunch of rum and Cokes. I was drinking rum and Cokes.
The parallels were insane.
Years after her incident with him, finally, one of them reached out to the other, I can’t remember. But the whole thing was about coming to a place of forgiveness. Forgiveness of herself. For him, forgiveness of himself. Because he didn’t realize what he had done was wrong in the moment. And eventually forgiveness of one another. Or her of him. I’m watching this Ted talk and I am uncontrollably sobbing. This is 20 years after I was done with therapy or 15 years. I had never once thought about the prospect of forgiving the man who did that to me.
I’m watching this and I was blogging fairly actively at this point. So I shared the Ted talk and just talked very briefly about my experience, saying this is sort of life altering for me. I had never thought about this. A friend of mine messages me after reading my blog post saying, ‘I grew up in Belfast. I just want you to know that there’s no statute of limitations in the United Kingdom for rape.’
And I said, ‘why are you telling me this?’
He goes, ‘Because I think you should be counted.’
And I was like, okay.
When he said that to me, I never thought we’re going to catch the guy. We’re not. There’s no evidence. Logically we know that’s not going to happen. But the thought of somebody outside of my therapist saying, ‘oh, I believe you. And we’re going to get through this.’ Somebody else in a position of power, a police officer, a detective to maybe just hear me, brought me a sense of peace.
So the very next day I Googled Belfast Police Department, where to report a crime, filled out the form and within 48 hours, a detective had gotten back to me. And one of the first things she said in the emails was, ‘We believe you. We want you to understand it’s been a really long time. (it had been 27 years at that point) but we want to do what we can to help you.’
She kept the case open for two years. She questioned every single person that was with me that night. A friend of mine brought forth a photo of who he thought the guy was, it was a friend of a friend and he knew where he lived and everything. So the detective had me look at the photo and I said, I think it’s him. But I can’t say with 100% certainty. And therefore I won’t say that it’s him. Because I would never do that to somebody.
I literally wanted to be counted. What I thought was going to happen was she was going to say, ‘Thank you so much for being brave enough to step forward and give us your story. You’re now counted.’ That was what I expected. I did not expect two years of, we’ve interviewed this person we’ve interviewed that person.
And this is where I started to laugh at things because they had to get Interpol involved. Because I had to give a video/audio statement of my recollection of the evening that would then go in the police files. So I had to go to the Bayfield Police Department and give my statement to Chief Feynman of the Bayfield Police Department, which was just surreal.
So flash forward to July of 2019, I’m in Minneapolis with my sister waiting for an Apple store to open. We’re at a coffee shop in Uptown and my phone rings. And it’s the detective in Belfast saying, uh, first of all, are you with somebody? I said, yes, I’m with somebody. She goes, I want you to know that we feel that we have finally exercised all of our resources and we have decided to shelve the case. They don’t close cases over there. They just sort of put it on a back burner.
And again, the waterworks came and then peace. It was this sense of, oh my God, okay, it’s done.
I am planning to go to Belfast in November. My mom’s going to come with me and I I’m going to go to the nightclub and I want to have my own sense of closure. Now I’m writing a true story versus the fictional story that was going to have a really cool, nice bow tied on the top of the box ending. So the story’s not over yet. The word that comes to my mind is gratitude, which is sort of a bizarre thing to say, but I am really grateful for the experience. And I’m grateful that I was brave enough to say, ‘Hey, this happened to me. You know, a long time ago, but it still happened.’
I don’t use the word victim, I always use the word survivor. That’s very important for me.
I also try not to say I was raped and I know I said that with you before. I try to say someone raped me. Because that takes the action off of me completely.
I’m a word geek, right? I read books all the time. I sell books. How you say things really truly does matter. And, you know, I don’t like the word regret, because I don’t think I actually have any regrets in life. But it does make me sad that I had to wait as long as I did to be able to process it.”
-Is there a geographic place that gives you a sense of solace?
-Do you have a connection to the water?
-Talk about your idea of community and Kristen’s notion that she loves the people, but she doesn’t always like all of the people.
-Are there difficult events from your past that took time to deal with?
-Are you comfortable publicly sharing personal trauma? Why or why not?
-Talk about the choice of using the word victim vs. survivor.
-How do we determine the right time to educate our children about difficult subjects?
-What is the healing you are waiting for? What is your first step?