Before Women Had Wings

Before Women Had Wings

by Connie May Fowler

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Before Women Had Wings by Connie May Fowler

Starstruck by a dime-store picture of Jesus, Avocet Abigail "Bird" Jackson fancies herself "His girlfriend" and embarks upon a spiritual quest for salvation, even as the chaos of her home life plunges her into a stony silence. In stark and honest language, Bird tells the tragic tale of her father, a sweet-talking wanna-be country music star, tracks her older sister's perilous journey into womanhood, and witnesses her mother make a courageous and ultimately devastating decision.

Yet most profound is Bird's own story—her struggle to sift through the ashes of her parents' lives, her meeting with Miss Zora, a healer whose prayers over the bones of winged creatures are meant to guide their souls to heaven, and her will to make sense of a world where fear is more plentiful than hope, retribution more valued than love. . . .

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804118903
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/01/1999
Edition description: 1 MASS MKT
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Connie May Fowler is an essayist and screenwriter as well as the author of two previous novels; Sugar Cage and River of Hidden Dreams. She lives in Florida with her husband, Mika Fowler.

Read an Excerpt

My whole body turned hot, then ice-block cold. I thought I might throw up or pass out. Did I feel sick because of my breath-holding, the bump on my head, my blood connection to Daddy? I didn't know, but I needed air bad, so I sat up, looked at Phoebe, studied her nettled face. Figured she could use some kind words. So I leaned into her: "He ain't dead."

Then I scrunched down into the seat, but not so low that I couldn't see out. The countryside whipped by fast. It felt like I was watching a moving picture. We streaked past farms and groves and signs that touted fresh citrus and the power of God. As we neared Moccasin Branch Bridge, I grew amazed, for it appeared as if every man, woman, child, and dog in Lily had gathered along the western bank. How they knew to be there, how they knew Billy Jackson was going to attempt to take his life right there on the slim white shoreline of that brown-water river, was a mystery to me. I hadn't yet learned that in a small town everybody knows everything instantly.

I eyed those busybody folks and was seized by a funny thought: It would be a good time to rob the bank.  Then my heart stumbled a beat, as if it had gotten caught on one of the cypress snags in Moccasin Branch, and I searched that crowd for my daddy. But I did not see him. I looked to Phoebe, whose cinnamon skin was flushed and clammy. Her dark eyes were dry, which was a terrible thing to see. My mama always said the Devil steals tears--keeps them in a box with your name on it so that when you go to hell you will spend eternity crying the stored-up teardrops of a lifetime.

Mama struggled and cursed as she tried to get out of the police cruiser,but you can't open the back door of a cop car if you're on the inside, so the three of us were trapped. I felt a fit coming on, one of those leg-kicking, arm-flailing, wailing fits, when Mama had one of her own. She let loose with a string of cussing so potent it caused Jack the policeman, who was standing outside talking with another of his own kind, to blush.

He opened the door and said, "Sorry, Glory, I just need to make sure what was what. We've got Billy in custody. He's okay."

Jack nodded in the direction of another police car, and I craned my neck to see, but there were so many people milling about that my view was blocked. "You want that we take him in, or that you carry him home?"

Mama stared straight ahead, her eyes hard as steel. She said, "Take the son-of-a-bitch in."

Then she gathered her pocketbook into the crook of her arm and took me by the hand. I slipped my other one in Phoebe's. Pretending we were women of grace, wearing our pride like long black veils, we slipped out of the cruiser and threaded our way through the gawking crowd--friends and acquaintances all. Some said, "Glory, can we help?" but my mama responded to no one. She fixed her granite gaze on the storm clouds rising upon the horizon and pulled us right along behind her.

We got in Daddy's white Impala. Under the sun's glare not yet shadowed by the approaching clouds, the Impala seemed only a glimmer, a ghost car that would ramble through the Florida scrub toward a future thick with questions and grief.

Mama drove us home. She kept her lips sealed, and through instinct and experience, Phoebe and I knew to keep our own traps shut.

We had a shotgun house on a lake no one had ever bothered to name, in the middle of a citrus grove owned by Mr. Bailey T. Watson, a rich man who lived a lifetime north of us in a mansion that overlooked Lake Panasoffkee. We rented our house from him, and it was okay. The grove was a good place to hide.

As we walked up the front porch steps, Mama, who looked whipped but stubborn, said, "You girls play Chinese checkers or something. Do anything but fight."

My sister said, "Can we have a Co'-Cola?"

"Yes, you may, but don't drink too much."

Then Mama and Phoebe went into the kitchen, and I stayed on the porch and looked through the cracks in the wooden floor slats and said, "Here, kitty, kitty," because there was a wild cat that sometimes stayed under there and I wanted to tame her, thought that would be a fun thing to do.

Phoebe tired to catch the screen door with her foot as she came out with two Co'-Colas, but she wasn't fast enough. It made a popgun sound. From somewhere inside the house Mama yelled, "Damn you, young'uns!"

I took my cold drink. "Why do you think she's making Daddy stay in jail?"

Phoebe ran her finger down the long crest of her nose. "Try to teach him a lesson, I guess."

I took three big swallows, and as the soothing fluid rushed down my throat I wondered what kind of lesson could he possibly learn--not to play with guns, not to make Mama angry, not to do anything to attract attention? That must be it--I acted poorly whenever I desired sweet attention. Maybe all my daddy needed, more than anything in this world, was for my mama to be Jesus-like, all-forgiving, and gentle to little animals.

Phoebe looked out toward the grove. Its straight, orderly rows of citrus trees were shaddy and often cool. She swatted a fly off her forehead and said, "I wish the rain would come soon."

"Me too."

I liked the way I sounded when I agreed with her. I thought I came off as a grown up, trying on my big sister's words and ideas rather than my mama's high heels and beads, which always landed me in trouble. I blew on the lip of the Co'-Cola bottle, coaxing from it a long, sad whistle. Daddy could whistle like nobody's business. Was he in that jail cell all alone, or had they thrown him in with a bunch of robbers and murderers? Was he wearing one of those striped prison outfits? Was he safe? I didn't have any answers. "Sister." I patted her leg. "Will you play me one game?"

Phoebe looked down at me as if I was a pest, but then her sharp black eyes softened and she said, "Yeah, Bird, I'll play you a game."

We sat on the porch, Indian-style, placing the marbles on the Chinese checkers board. Mama came out, pocketbook on arm, paper sack in hand. She'd put on fresh makeup and had changed out of that nice linen dress and high heels she'd been wearing earlier and into a blue wraparound skirt, a white cotton blouse, and flats. Despite the dark circles under her eyes, she looked comfortable, newly scrubbed.

"There's egg salad in the refrigerator," she said. "Phoebe, fix you and your sister a sandwich while I'm gone."

Phoebe didn't look at Mama, just kept on with those marbles, glaring at them as if they were being unruly and she was trying to make them obey. "Where are you going?" she asked.

"To take your daddy something to eat." Mama bit down on her bottom lip. I saw her whole face start to tremble and then pull itself back together. She took a deep breath, stared over our heads, and in a justifying tone of voice--as if we were accusing her of something--she said, "He's probably hungry by now."

"I guess so," Phoebe said.

A mockingbird started singing, and in some faraway field a tractor droned to life. A wisp of hair fell in Mama's eyes. "I've got to go," she said. Then she hurried down the steps, settled into the car, fiddled with the keys. Had to try three times before that heap of wheels and metal would start, but once she got it going, she hollered, "You two behave while I'm away. Bird, don't give your sister a hard time. If your head hurts, put some ice on it."

Then Mama was gone, disappeared down the road in the white Impala. A clap of thunder cracked the heavens, and a flock of sparrows flew from the live oak that overhung our tin roof, taking cover in the grove.

Phoebe seemed unmoved by the rumbling sky. Just kept her eyes on the Chinese checkers game board and its perfect triangles filled with marbles of such luscious colors I wanted to eat them. But they wouldn't be sweet, no they wouldn't. Sister, she looked beautiful, staring down at the board, her face framed in shadows and cloud-spangled light. I thought, She would make the most perfect angel.

I watched as she stretched over the board to flick off a fallen leaf. Underneath her thin cotton shell, I saw how fragile the bones in her back were, far too sliver-prone, far too light to support a pair of wings.

Something tickled my arm. I looked down; a ladybug walked among my many freckles. My hairs must have seemed like a forest to a creature so small. I brought my arm close to my lips and softly blew, my breath a gust of wind to send the ladybug on her way. She flew off to another world, maybe a blade of grass, maybe a flower with a pool of water cupped in its petals. I wiped the sweat out of my eyes, stared into the heat. "Do you think she's gonna yell at Daddy; do you think he still has that gun?"

My wingless sister moved a red marble. I thought I heard the cartilage holding her skeleton together snap as she said, "Who cares, Bird. Who the hell really cares."

Reading Group Guide

1.         This story takes place in the mid-1960s. How have our perceptions of child abuse changed since then? What options do families have today to cope with domestic violence that they might not have had thirty years ago? Women--especially poor women like Glory Marie--had far fewer opportunities than women today. Did that lack of opportunity contribute to her anger and frustration and the physical abuse that resulted?

2.         How would you describe the differences in the ways in which Bird and Phoebe deal with the same set of difficult circumstances?

3.         Why do you think Billy Jackson committed suicide?

4.         Why does Bird shut herself off verbally from the outside world? Why do you think she becomes convinced that a blackbird stole her voice?

5.         What is the significance of Miss Zora's role as a guardian of the bones of dead birds?

6.         What do you think happened to Bird's family in the years after the story ends? Do you think Glory Marie recovered from her fear-scarred life? Did the family reunite? Did Phoebe make it to college and stability? Did Bird find some measure of peace and pleasure in the healing presence of Miss Zora?

7.         How does Bird manage to remain full of hope under such difficult circumstances? How might you react if you were in her shoes? What is it that keeps this family together despite the abuse andturmoil?

8.         In considering a picture of Jesus hanging on her bedroom wall, Bird says, "He was skinny, but I bet He was strong. I loved his silky, long brown hair . . . . In my daydreams, Jesus and I would walk off into a blazing sunset, holding hands. I may have been nothing but a kid, but in that gauzy dream, I was gorgeous. There we were, Him with his Prell-perfect hair, and me sporting a good figure. In my heart of hearts, Jesus was my first boyfriend. And I was dead certain he loved me special. . . ." Why was Bird so preoccupied with Jesus and with religion? Why does she think Jesus and the Devil are battling for control of her life? And why does she feel jilted by Jesus?

9.         Do you think Glory Marie truly loves her daughters? Why didn't she feel like she could keep the family together and get help for her alcoholism and abusive nature at the same time? Do you think she made the right decision in allowing the children to go with Miss Zora?

10.         Do you think Bird's brother, Hank, understands how bad things are for Phoebe and Bird? Why doesn't he take stronger steps to intervene or keep his sisters from being hurt by their mother's beatings?

11.         Is it fear or jealousy that causes Glory Marie to cut up Bird's Christmas present for Miss Zora? What fueled Glory Marie's dislike of Miss Zora? Why do you think Glory Marie engineered things so that Bird got blamed for stealing money from Mr. Ippolito?

12.         Why does Bird blame herself and her sister for the beatings they receive at the hands of their mother?

13.         How does the picture of Florida painted by Fowler differ from the way Florida is depicted in other books?

14.         While many people might want to leave such memories behind, Fowler admits she wants to keep these memories alive and vibrant. Why? What purpose do you think these painful memories serve for Fowler?

15.         Fowler mixes themes of religion and spirituality in her stories. How does Fowler's use of spirituality compare to spiritual themes in other books you might have read?

16.         What is it that Bird learns from Miss Zora about hell, and why does this change everything for her? What do you see as the connection between the kindness of Miss Zora and Bird's discovery of her own capacity for forgiveness?

17.         Fowler says that Miss Zora believes that forgiveness is for the people who are doing the forgiving; it's a way for them to create a usable past instead of the past continually dragging them down. Do you agree with Miss Zora's ideas about forgiveness? If so, why?

18.         This book is clearly the story of Fowler's own childhood. How do you think her siblings felt about having their family history revealed in the pages of a novel? How would you feel under similar circumstances?

19.         Fowler has said, "I wanted to characterize the mother honestly, presenting the trauma she inflicted but also the inner turmoil; that she was reacting out of frustration. I also want to reveal the humanity of her life. I hope it comes off in the book that she was very courageous." Do you see the mother as a humane or sympathetic character? Do you consider her courageous?


On Tuesday, November 3rd, welcomed Connie May Fowler, the author of BEFORE WOMEN HAD WINGS. Winner of the 1996 Southern Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, this poignant novel is about a girl's triumph in the face of abuse and poverty. Fowler also wrote a screenplay based on her novel; the movie debuted on November 2nd, the first entry in the Oprah Winfrey Presents series on ABC-TV.

VogelBN: Ms. Fowler, we are so glad to have you with us tonight!

Connie May Fowler: Well, thank you. It's very nice to be here.

VogelBN: The audience is brimming with questions about your book, so let's dive in.

Question: Although this book is fiction, much of it is drawn from personal experience. How has your family reacted to the book?

Connie May Fowler: I have been very, very lucky that my family has embraced all three of my novels. They celebrate them, and I think that when you grow up in the kind of circumstances we grew up in, it's not uncommon to not talk about it, and I suppose there's some measure of shame. But the books really helped our family start up a dialogue about it, and it has been a chance for all of the siblings to share their stories and experiences.

Question: Who was the person in your life who gave you your wings?

Connie May Fowler: There were many people. As I said on "Oprah" the other day, I think that we're all born with wings. I think that all children have wings. But unfortunately and more often than we would like to think about, children are in positions where the wings are clipped. The wings are battered. So it's important that we resign ourselves to daily acts of kindness. Telling a child that they are good, that they can achieve anything they want. In my own case there was a woman early in my life named Vivian. She was the inspiration for the character Miss Zora. She was the first person in my life who showed me unconditional love. I don't think she ever knew how important she was to me, but for a child who grew up feeling unloved, whose home life was so violent, this was so important. To have that safe haven where there was no judgment other than positive was really important. My older sister, Deidre, she was just like in the book and film, she had her own hard life to deal with, but when I needed her she was there for me. I also had wonderful teachers who helped give me wings, and also my husband.

Question: The movie ends on a heart-wrenching note, and we're unsure if the girls will ever see their mother again. What happened in real life? Was there ever an awakening and a healing within your family?

Connie May Fowler: The movie and the book in many ways were happier than my own life. In real life, my mother did not make it. In the film and book we're not sure if she makes it; in real life my mom only got worse and worse. And the healing comes every single day. The adult survivors of child abuse, we struggle every single day, trying to recapture some self-esteem, and I think that all of my siblings are committed to trying to capture in our adult lives the joy we missed as children. And I think we're also committed to trying to keep alive not only the bad, the negative, but we're committed to remember what was good about them. Remembering only the bad would be a lie and would only serve to drag us down.

Question: I was severely verbally abused throughout my childhood, and I am currently in therapy trying to overcome the aftermath. Your movie touched me deeply. Any advice on how to cope?

Connie May Fowler: I think one of the most important things to do is also the most difficult: Get to the point where you not only tell yourself but you truly believe that you didn't deserve it and that you didn't cause it. You have to learn to love that child that you always were and that you still are.

Question: What's it like working with Oprah? Did you have a significant hand in the production of the film and the writing of the screenplay?

Connie May Fowler: First, Oprah is absolutely such an incredible person. Such a wonder to work with, such a real pleasure. I wrote the screenplay. I was on set for a substantial amount of filming. I think the main reason it was such a joy to work with her is that she truly believes in the writer. Down to her soul she believes in the power of the written word.

Question: What is the meaning of the title of your book?

Connie May Fowler: One of the most important things about the title is that it sets the book in a certain time. It's set in the mid-1960s, and it was a time when women didn't have any choices. It's very close to what really happened to me and to my family. It makes me abidingly sad that my mother didn't have choices. There wasn't an 800-hotline, there wasn't a battered women's shelter. There wasn't even a recognition of the problem. So my mother never had her wings. She never had any opportunity. One of the least-discussed aspects of domestic abuse is that often if there is no intervention, the person who is being battered sometimes eventually becomes a batterer herself. That's exactly what happened to my mom. And instead of being able to find her wings, she just descended into the depths.

Question: It is interesting that your name is Fowler and the symbolism of birds are used throughout WINGS. Is there a relationship that has symbolic meaning to you?

Connie May Fowler: Not with my last name, no. Someone pointed that out to me two weeks ago, and I hadn't thought about my last name and the bird imagery. The bird imagery has much more to do with transcending the negative circumstances of your life. And it also has to do with how we are affected by place.

Question: What first ran through your mind when you heard that Oprah wanted to put her stamp of endorsement on your beautiful, heartbreaking book, BEFORE WOMEN HAD WINGS?

Connie May Fowler: Well, the first thing that happened and the way I found out...I was in my backyard hoeing weeds, and the phone rang, and it was Oprah! The phone call that changes your life! The phone call that you can't believe! And the whole time I'm thinking, Is this really Oprah? I can't think of anyone I'd be more proud to be associated with, someone I could trust to hand my work over to. She is a woman of such integrity.

Question: Tell us about your foundation and how people can help?

Connie May Fowler: I started the Connie May Fowler Women with Wings Foundation. The purpose is to identify and aid women and children in need. Our first project is to help establish a building fund for the Refuge House, the domestic-abuse shelter in Tallahassee, Florida. In my research I found that they serve eight Florida counties but they have only three bedrooms! Our first benefit was a week ago. We'll keep raising funds until we have enough for a new facility. And then we'll go from there.

Question: Loved the little girl -- Tina Majorina, I think her name is. Were you pleased with her portrayal of the role?

Connie May Fowler: Tina's performance is absolutely flawless. Everybody associated with the project, from Oprah to the grip, we were all astonished by her! One of the things that's so delightful about Tina is that she's such a fine actress, such a professional to the core, yet she's still this delightful 12-year-old girl!

Question: Hi, Connie, this is your neighbor and fellow writer Melody. How difficult was it to write about the obviously painful events in the book that reflected your life?

Connie May Fowler: The experience was very painful, but more important than the pain was the healing it afforded me, and hopefully the healing it might begin to prompt in other victims of domestic abuse and child abuse.

Question: I applaud ABC for letting you stay so honest. Was that ever a question, changing your screenplay or toning it down?

Connie May Fowler: Well, first let me say, I too applaud ABC. I think it's an extremely brave film. And brave for ABC to air it. They really supported us every step of the way. In the early day of the script, even. They loved the book and felt it was an important project, and their support never wavered.

Question: What do you feel, if anything, the film lacked or glossed over from your novel?

Connie May Fowler: I don't think it glossed over anything. It was really an incredibly honest and at times even brutal look at the ugly face of domestic violence and child abuse. Because it is a movie with time constraints, and on television, which created structural complaints, we couldn't just replicate the book. It wouldn't have been as strong of a movie if we had done that. So I had to make choices up front about what in the book might not translate well to the screen. And the result of that exploration into what wouldn't work well is that it moved me closer and closer to the heart of the story. So what is not discussed at length in the movie but is discussed at length in the book is Bird's preoccupation with religion. For that to have worked we would have needed to make an eight-hour-long film. It was far too complex and ponderous for the given length.

Question: Will there be a sequel?

Connie May Fowler: Interesting question! I don't know if there will be a sequel. But I think that of all the characters I have created, the one I'm most likely to revisit would be Bird.

Question: How has forgiveness helped to shape your adult life?

Connie May Fowler: Forgiveness has been such a pivotal notion and force in my life. It's a recurring subject in my novels. I believe Miss Zora, who says to Bird that "forgiveness really exists for the living." I truly believe that. If I hadn't come to some level of forgiveness with my parents, I would have just become a bitter shell of a woman. I don't want to be a bitter shell of a woman, I want to be vibrant and contributing. And forgiveness is such an integral part of that.

VogelBN: Thank you so much for joining us tonight, Ms. Fowler. It has truly been a wonderful experience, and we'd love to have you join us here again, with your next book!

Connie May Fowler: It's been wonderful for me as well! Thank you.

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Before Women Had Wings 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read a lot of books about child abuse. This book was very moving in some parts. I think the ending was a little rocky. It ended kind of abruptly. Personally, I would like to know what happened once the girls and Miss Zora get to Florida and if the mom ever recovers. The end of the book where Bird was getting the last beating, brought tears to my eyes. The way Connie May Fowler describes the child abuse and the events that take place following the fathers death were very good. The story line of the book was wonderful and the only thing that I did not like about the book was that it left you hanging at the end. As a reader, you never find out if the book has a happy ending or if the mom stays a drunk and the girls stay in Florida. That was really the only drawback on the book.
JustMyTwoCents More than 1 year ago
This novel puts a real face on abuse This book was next to impossible to put down. The author did an excellent job of showing an abuser (the mother) as both victimizer and victim and was a sober reminder that those little children who are abused all too often grow up to become abusers themselves. In both the real world of criminal justice and in books we all too often see a portrait of abusers as evil people, whitewashing over the fact that they have often been abused themselves. One wonders what kind of people Bird and Phoebe would become if there had not been any intervention. The story instead ends on a hopeful note that perhaps the cycle of abuse might stop.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book, was going to delete off my "To Read List" so glad I didn't. This book broke my heart, made laugh and gave me hope because it shows that there is still good people in this world.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I recommend this book to everyone. It was tragic and yet at the end you knew that there was hope for everyone. Ms Fowler's treatment of the mother showed deep insight. Things are never black and white. Every women in the world should read this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Before Women Had Wings was one of Oprah's early selections--and for good reason--it is a classic. The writing exposes the raw emotions of the characters through their dialoge, attitudes and the things left unsaid as much as the things made obvious...You can feel the confusion and helplessness, anger and frustration.. and the pride in the of the most compelling books about abuse on the market. Beautifully written.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was absolutely awesome i loved it. When reading this book it made it feel so real like i was right there when everythign happened. The author did a great job going into detail. Over all this bok is great.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a very good book but no exactly one that is life changing and inspirational. I only felt small emotion but at least there were emotions. I really do like Fowlers style of writing but she just needs to write a book that is dynamic and has deep characters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you need a book to read, this should be it. It is the very best book i have ever read. Connie does such a good job and makes the book so realistic. Bird reaches out to you in more ways than one. connie shows you abuse through the eyes of a child and how incredibly funny it can be while at the same time, it is sad. Bird is so innocent, yet she's not.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is my most favorite book I have ever read. Connie Mae Fowler has made me laugh, and made me cry, and made me understand some things about child abuse. The characters were so developed, I found myself 'looking' for Bird when I went out! An outstanding contribution!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book narrates on the growing process of women throughout all ages. It's about women struggling with each other, attempting to find themselves. I loved the message of one being the master of restricting yourself or setting yourself free. And how powerful letting go plays a huge role.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Before Women Had Wings is southern writing at it's finest. The characters were so real and believable, I almost had myself convinced that I was Bird. Would love to read more by this author
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was the best book i have ever read.....i loved it so much i read it twice and let all my friends and family borrow, they all loved it as much as i did!!!