Compelled by Love

Compelling Compassion

By: Newell Hendricks

In the "Write to Freedom" series, where readers become writers!

Today it's my honor to introduce you to Newell Hendricks, a man compelled by compassion to form friendships with women who have been hurt by men. His website, "Life of a Normal Man" feels like God's kitchen to me – a welcoming place to sit and chat about how we can live life on earth as it is in heaven. Newell has a family that others instantly recognize as "special": A long-lasting, satisfying marriage, children who live their family values and have their own solid relationships and stable homes. We call it "special" because most of us have only known dysfunction. Newell calls it "normal" and so it is!

I first met Newell when someone I greatly respect called him her "best friend" and discovered he was writing a book. It led to participation in a "Spirit of the Poor" monthly synchroblog, led by Esther Emery and Newell Hendricks. I admire these people for sincerely attempting to live out Christian values in a way that honors all people, of all socio-economic backgrounds. What does Jesus look like in the 21st century? I believe Newell's story helps us to see what one "normal man" clothed in the garment of "compelling love" looks like, including his successes and his failures. Love is a risky business, as you may well know!

My first girlfriend, Linda, broke up with me because she said she wasn’t worthy of me.  We were a couple for only one year, but I was completely dedicated to her for eight years – transferring to her school when she asked, and hitchhiking across the country twice to make sure she was OK.  At one point she got engaged and told me she would rather spend her life with someone she didn’t respect than someone she didn’t feel worthy of.  I would characterize my feelings for her as compelling compassion for a woman who had internalized some trauma that had happened to her early in life.  She finally broke off the engagement, joined VISTA, stayed in Kentucky and there found a husband who was a good man.  She has had a good life.

A year after my second trip to Kentucky I went east to attend seminary.  The preceding summer, on a ranch in Colorado, I exchanged contact information with a young violinist I had known as a freshman and sophomore.  Barbara was headed to New York, to Barnard, and to study with a violin teacher from Julliard.  I made contact as soon as could, and by Thanksgiving she was my girlfriend.  She was young, intelligent, and the most honest person I have ever known.  She was Jewish, but her family was not religious.  She was beautiful, but had no affectations of any kind.  I marvel at my good fortune of finding a life partner so pure at heart and so easy to please.  She is the least materialistic person I have ever known.

After a year and a half on the east coast, I got a job on the west coast and she followed me.  But when she graduated I followed her to the east coast again.  I was a composer and decided I could write music anywhere.  She needed good teachers, and a location where she could make a living performing the music she loved.  She has been the primary wage earner in our family.  I have written the music I wanted to write, and done all the other things I have wanted to do in my life, including being very involved in the raising of my two wonderful daughters.  Barbara is the love of my life.

I have also been drawn to a neighbor who others shunned.  We were the stay-at-home parents in our neighborhood. Joyce developed a trust in me and told me her story of being sexually abused by her parents and others in ritual abuse of children in the woods around a campfire.  She divorced her abusive husband and self identified as a lesbian.  Last year she called me on a Saturday afternoon and asked if I would take her to her 40th high school reunion that night.  I did and kept the old bullies from bothering her.  She has remained a close friend.

Other relationships

It is at this point that I need to explain that I have had a number of close relationships with women friends, many of whom have been young women.  I have been close with my daughters and their friends, and I developed an ease with young people in general.  My flexible schedule has allowed me, especially in later years, to participate in lengthy peace walks and various delegations to other countries.  The people most likely to join in these activities are either retired people, or young people just out of college.  My tendency in these situations has always been to spend my time with the young.

I have articulated to myself a role I can play in the lives of young people.  I am over 70.  I have lived my values my entire life.  I can serve as a model for young people that they don’t have to give up their values – or assume a role that society tells them is the responsible thing to do.  I can play a supportive role in their lives, staying in touch, engaging in meaningful dialogue, and being a friend.  In some cases when there is an absent father or worse, I have taken on the role of a father figure – but always as a friendly father – as I was to my girls.  I have always been open with my wife about my communications and relationships and she knows the women with whom I have close friendships.  I keep her informed but try not to dwell on anyone in particular and try to include her when visits are involved, either to our house, or when we travel.  My wife is a saint.

But my sensitivity and compelling compassion for women who have suffered abuse, or who display the symptoms, has not always turned out well.

This is a preface to my final story of compassion. 

I met Laura eight years ago when I was on a delegation to Latin America with my church.  She was 20; I was 63.  Laura had gone with her school the previous January; on a trip led by Rob, a friend of mine, who took his students on a month long trip every other January.  Laura had gone back the next summer as a volunteer for the organization that let these delegations.  On our trip I had several good talks with Laura and saw that she was a leader who was sensitive, aware, and had values similar to mine.  The last night of the delegation we were all sitting around a table socializing.  I told her I would like to stay in touch and asked for her contact information.  She tore off a piece of paper and wrote on it, along with her contact information, (I’m available☺).  I was in shock.  I kept trying to think if there were some meaning I was missing other than a sexual overture.  She acted normal, not flirtatious in any way.  I excused myself and went to my room and stayed there. 

The next morning we had a closing ceremony that included one-on-one conversations between the young and old in the circle  She came up to me, put her arms around my neck and started whispering in my ear;  “You’re my wild man.”  I didn’t hear most of what she said; I was too petrified.  She continued “When we’re divided into twos, I’ll be with you and we’ll go to the mountains and get dirty.”  I was so freaked out I didn’t hear anything else she said, but it went on for some time.  But when she ended she seemed normal again – no hint of anything unusual.

I had no idea what to make of these encounters, but they made a strong impression on me. 

I saw her several times over the next year and a half, and there were no other incidents that were in any way flirtatious or unusual. 

In January, 2008, Rob hired me to lead the orientation for his students’ delegation, so I was at Laura’s school for a week.  When I saw her, it was in group situations, or with Joanne, her best friend who I also knew well.  Conversations were normal; almost formal. 

But there were 5 communications that were very different.

The first happened when she was showing pictures of her trip in 2006.  She showed a picture of the students in the back of a pick-up truck.  On our delegation I had borrowed Laura’s cap for the trip to the airport and it had blown off.  I had written an apology but got no response.  This was a year and a half later.  As she showed the picture she said in a very scolding tone “If your hat blows off, you’re supposed to bang on the side of the truck so the driver stops.  And you’re supposed to have it tight enough in the first place so it doesn’t blow off!”  Then she went on with the next picture.  I sat there with my mouth open.  I said nothing, but later kicked myself for not saying anything.

The next incident happened when I arranged to have dinner with Laura and Joanne.  At dinner, Joanne mentioned that Laura had just broken up with her boyfriend.  When I said good-bye I told Laura that I knew she was going through a difficult period and expressed my sympathy.  I gave her a hug as was our custom and started walking away.  Then I heard this whisper – like a stage whisper – “Good-bye Newell”.  I didn’t know where it was coming from.  Like all of these communications I was disoriented for a few seconds.  Having kicked myself for not talking with her after the last time, I turned around to ask if she had said something.  She was already walking away.  I ran to catch up to her and asked her if she had said something after I had turned around.  She said “no.”  I felt extremely foolish.  But here my memory fails me. 

Later that night as I could only think of that incredibly deep, deep look she had given me.  It was a questioning look, – “Can I trust you?” As I thought about that look, I couldn’t figure out when it had occurred.  I knew it must have been that night.  Finally I figured it had to have happened after I asked her if she had said something.  It was such an intense look that it had the same affect on me as a concussion; erasing from my memory the events immediately preceding it. 

The other two occasions in this period both happened when I was saying good-bye.  After the big evening presentation of the group, I gave her a hug and she just stood there for about 5 seconds, looking down, then said “I’m just remembering this moment.”  Then turned away and left. 

The last time I saw her as at Joanne’s thesis presentation.  After the presentation I went up to Laura and talked with her, knowing this might be the last time I would see her.  She gave me a big hug and as I was walking away I heard her yell across the room with a very loud voice “Good-bye, Newell.”  I didn’t turn around.

I wrote her the next day that I would make contact with her seasonally for a year to see if she wanted to stay in touch.  I recognized in myself the same sense of compassion for her that I had felt for Linda.  If she wanted something from me, I very much wanted to respond – in fact, I felt absolutely compelled to find a way to communicate with her and let her know she could trust me.

I decided to write down my experience with Laura, to have an accurate account of exactly what had happened, and how it had affected me.  I mainly wrote about my first encounter with her and I put it in story form.  I thought perhaps she was embarrassed about her actions and that is why she hadn’t responded to my first emails.  I wanted to tell her that it was no big deal – but there is no way to say “It was no big deal” without saying what “it” was.

I sent a Christmas greeting and got no response.  It came April.  This would be my last communication with her if she didn’t respond.  I decided to send her the story I had written, hoping it would generate a conversation and allow her to talk more directly about what she wanted from me

Two weeks later I got a call from Rob, my friend at her school, who said Laura had called him, completely freaked out by my story and was just sobbing on the phone.  He told me that I should never contact her again in any way.  It felt pretty bad. 

The next few years were perhaps the hardest of my life.  I had told my wife and Rob what had happened on the delegation, and my wife was the first person to see the story I wrote, but when I told her I had sent it to Laura I could tell that she knew it was a bad idea.  Joyce is the only person who has understood both Laura’s actions and mine.  Joyce has told me not to expect others to understand why I sent the story – that unless people have had experience relating to women who have been abused, they will not understand the behavior of these women or someone trying to reach out to them.

I have lost friends because of my sending that story to Laura.  I don’t think Laura has mentioned it to anyone.  But my world is close enough to that of Joanne’s that I regularly see people that she regularly sees.   I don’t know who all Joanne has talked to about the story I sent to Laura, but I know Joanne believes it was fabricated and inappropriate.  That is what one friend told me who had spent time with Joanne.  I was eventually able to stay in conversation with this friend long enough to reestablish trust and friendship.  With others there have been abrupt silences.  And my relationship with Rob has suffered.

It is my opinion that Laura may suffer from a dissociative disorder – a dual personality.  I know that a man should not bring up, or talk about a woman’s sexual history or sexuality without her permission.  But with Laura, with her bizarre communication, I felt she was asking for my help, even though most of the time she wasn’t.  I know now that I was way over my head and that I should have sought out professional advice.  I know it was wrong to have sent her that story.  But I also know that if I hadn’t I would probably never have heard from her again.  I knew that then, and did the only thing I knew how to do to see if there was a possibility of helping her.  I also know that there are very few people for whom that makes sense.

I have learned not to expect sympathy from women.  But I wish I could tell women that there are men who are sensitive to the particular kinds of behavior of women who have been abused; who feel compelled to reach out and try to help.  I also know that there are men who will try to take advantage of the vulnerability of women who have been abused.  And I know that it is almost impossible to tell the two types apart.

Compassion, love and desire are three very different emotions.  They are sometimes combined, and often confused by those in relationships and by those observing relationships.

— Newell


What would Jesus do about domestic violence in the 21st century?  The woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the woman anointing his feet and intimately bathing them with her long hair, the women who supported his trips… Jesus loved broken women! Yet, he was criticized and condemned for it, although he continued allowing women to be his intimate friends (like Mary of Bethany). 

I would sincerely love to hear your thoughts on this topic, because I believe this is an important key to bridging the gap between men and women. Healing begins, as we share our stories. Your comments can help us to increase our understanding and create a better legacy for the next generation!

Newell's bio: I have lived a good life.  Maybe a counterculture life, maybe a normal life.  I have written operas, built houses, been involved with cross-cultural education between Latin America and the U.S, and hardly ever had a job  I have helped raise two wonderful children with my amazing wife.  It’s been a good ride.  And I go to church.  I’ve just finished a book of stories from my life.  I am still connected to an organization in Nicaragua, Between Cultures, that promotes sister relationships between communities, faith communities, or schools, and to the extent that my cancer doesn’t pull me down, am attempting to share some of what I have learned, or at least tried out. Newell can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and "Life of a Normal Man" – his blog. 

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

newell hendricks June 7, 2014 at 8:16 am

I'm not sure why Sue thought my story should be posted here.  I think the main reason is that she knew that it might be a help to me, to have a place to tell my story, one that has caused me personal pain.

You ask what I would say to a woman who "has been repeatedly, even savagely, abused by a man?"  I don't think I have much to say, except that I know that women have suffered greatly because of the egos and desires of men.  And I understand that trusting someone you don't know is probably not a good idea.  Personally, I would only say something after I knew a woman well enough that she asked me what I would say to her.  I have not always followed that advice, and I have been wrong.

In the interest of honesty, I have to say that I did not recognize what I wrote in some of your comments – "coming on to" or "advances."  I felt that Laura was taking an iniative with me, very personal and bizzare, and I was trying to find a way to respond.  I did not take into account the complexities of cross gender relationships.

But thank you for responding.  I am sorry to take so long, but I didn't want to be defensive, and still am not sure if I have anything to contribute in this conversation.  I have thought about asking the woman I call Joyce to make a comment.  Do you think that might be helpful?


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