Rise is a memoir by Arkansas mother Cara Brookins that recounts her astonishing story of escaping a life of domestic violence to, with the help of her four children, Roman, Jada, Hope, and Drew, then aged two-17-years, build their own house from scratch with just US$130,000 and the guidance of online videos. What’s more, they did it all in only nine months.
“I had a great job as a senior computer programmer analyst, and good credit, so I could have borrowed enough money to buy a small house, or a bigger one that needed fixing up,” says Cara. “But my kids and I and been stalked by a man with schizophrenia for more than ten years, and I had been married to a man who had been physically abusive. We were not a close family. We had been in survival mode and I was worried that when the older ones left home I would lose them, that we’d never develop positive relationships. It was a very intentional decision to do some sort of project, and of course, we needed somewhere to live.”
So, after watching hours of YouTube videos, the family began laying the foundations of their five-bedroom pad that was to be christened ‘Inkwell Manor’ — certainly far from the humble house I was expecting to see when I first heard about their endeavour. “That’s what happens when you let kids make the plans!” laughs Cara over Skype from her happy place that is her impressive personal library. “This is my favourite spot in the whole world, I didn’t care about anything else, so long as I had my library!”
When they started out, Cara and her kids were so mortified about their predicament that they told few people of their project. “My colleagues knew I was building a house, but they didn’t know I was actually physically building a house,” she says. “When you’ve been in an abusive situation, you don’t develop close bonds. We didn’t think it was the sanest idea, and we were ashamed. It wasn’t until we moved in and people came over and were like, ‘You actually built this house?’ that we started to think it was something we should be proud of.”
With office and school time, the family often worked 20-hour days, making use of the car headlights, before the power lines were fitted, once the sun went down. “I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into, and if I did, I probably never would have started,” admits Cara. “But, once we had begun, we were committed.” The conditions of Cara’s construction loan, coupled with regular building inspections — all of which they passed — meant the schedule could be no longer than a full-term pregnancy.
“I lived in fear that the teenagers would just wake up one day and refuse to do it,” says Cara. “When your self-esteem has been crushed for so long, you get very defensive so once we could start telling jokes and laughing at ourselves when we made mistakes, I knew that was the first step to healing. That happened while working on the foundations.”
The children had witnessed so much domestic darkness, and this was the first time they could take some sort of control of their lives. “I soon realised there was no way they were going to walk away from that,” says Cara. “They needed it is as badly as I did. They saw themselves as capable, they saw their potential, that they could build something bigger than them. There’s also a lot to be said for the therapeutic processes of chopping wood and hitting things with a hammer.”
They officially moved in 2008.
Her kids, now aged 11-26-years, are “fearless”, between them building businesses and sustainable straw cabins in the bush. “My 11-year-old has his own YouTube channel, and 50,000 followers on Twitter!” beams Cara. “He recently told me he wants to smelt metal in our backyard so that he can make swords.
“I think that the most important thing we can teach kids is curiosity. If you have curiosity and determination, with the internet, you can now literally do anything you want to do.”
Cara agonised over the memoir for six years, and wrote a handful of fiction books during the process (she had previously published seven novels). “I had never planned to write about it, but I thought I should get something down for the kids,” she says. “Writing about building the house was easy, but writing about why was tough. I had to go into the dark side of our lives, tell everyone about those most difficult times and my biggest mistakes. I quit many times.”
Once the manuscript was finally signed off, then began the even more painful process of narrating it for an audiobook. “That was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life,” Cara says. “You write in the privacy of your own head, and imagine others reading it alone — there is a level of intimacy. But saying things out loud I’ve never said out loud, being my own voice, and being the voice of my abuser… I’ve never managed to listen to it back all the through.”
Cara refused to publish the book without the approval of her children. “There are parts in there that are not complimentary about my youngest son’s dad, and I knew that I would forever be changing his life,” she says. “But the alternative was silence, and too many domestic violence victims stay silent. It means that we will have to have an extreme level of honesty, and to always keep that communication open.”
Her ex has stopped drinking and has since “pulled himself together”: “I’m not afraid for my son to be with him. He picks Roman up every other weekend, but he’s not allowed to come into our house. He hasn’t read the book — he doesn’t want to. But I told him I was writing it, and that I would be honest with media about his recovery.”
But Cara doesn’t want to dwell on her former domestic issue too much, there is far more to the memoir than that. “We’ve all been through things,” says the writer. “The message is that the best way to get through them is to challenge yourself, to change the way you see yourself, whether it be climbing a mountain or running a marathon. You have to start with baby steps. Not long after we’d moved into the house, my youngest daughter, Jada, was having trouble at school with some kids and she was going to quit the basketball team. My oldest son, Drew, told her not to worry, not to listen to them and to keep it up. They were in another room, and didn’t know I could hear them. She kept saying over and over that she can’t do it, and Drew said, ‘Jada, you built your own damn house!’ That was the moment when I realised, ‘Yeah, they got what they needed from this.’”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces