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Poetry Radio Project

Scarred for Life

Suzie Lechtenberg

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Karen Williams at age 7.
(Courtesy Karen Williams)
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Normally, when I'm walking down the street or if I'm in the proximity of young children, people tend to look at my skin and even ask audibly if I've been burned. They look at my jaw line because that's the remainder of the most serious scarring that I have. I'll tell them that it was from the chickenpox, and people say, "Oh my God! The chickenpox did that?" And I'm like, "Yes." And they say, "But I don't understand how the chickenpox could cause that type of scarring."

I tell them that as an African American, our skin is prone to what is called keloid scarring. And people tend to see that on me first, especially along my jaw line. I have the scars all over my body, but they were particularly worse along my jaw line.

If you were to look at me when I was a kid, I had a jaw line that looked like a mound of lumpy dough with pits and marks in it. It was like a little mountain, a little group of mountains off the body, or off the flat surface of the skin. It was very irregular and odd to look at.

I really had a difficult time. I was a normal child up until the age of six and a half years old, but once I became what they called the "chickenpox girl," when I went back to school, everything literally changed. The teasing was definitely something to be expected with a skin condition like that--ugly, spotty, chickenpox girl, leopard--they called me all sorts of ugly names. The kids would surround me when I would get on the playground, and they would call me chickenpox girl, and they would throw stones at me, and they would run me into a corner of the school and get on top of me and beat me up. Naturally, as a child, I reacted to that. I turned inward and I became very quiet, and it was very traumatic. It was very much a hard time.

I did wear turtlenecks for a very long time. Instead of a sleeveless top that you would wear in the summertime or a short-sleeved top, I would prefer to be in a long-sleeved top because I didn't want anyone to see the scars. Of course, people saw the facial scars--that was the first thing they reacted to--and there was nothing I could do about it. Everybody looked at the surface and they decided who they thought I was, and it was very frustrating--very frustrating.

I told myself, and I've told myself this for years, that I must be here for a reason that I have had to undergo such a rough time coming up. I believed that this experience, along with others that I've had in my life, were sent to kill me--to kill my spirit. I really believed that this was sent to destroy my life purpose. But that was not the case, as I would learn as I got older.

My parents took me to see this doctor, and he worked hard with me and became a mentor to me. He was like a father to me. Not only did he care for my body, he also cared for my soul and spirit because he poured so much of his wisdom into me about what it meant to be truly beautiful. But in the meantime, I would have to have a series of injections every week into my scars. It was torture. I decided after five years of treatments, after five years of lying on a table, five years of injections, five years of photographs, five years of being interviewed for medical journals, I did not want to go through the pain anymore. I said, "I will grow into the skin that I am meant to have, and it will be OK."

There is this beautiful quote that I just love that says, "What was a hindrance becomes a blessing, and what was an enemy becomes a friend, and what was darkness is now my light, and what was clutter is now my treasure." And my chickenpox condition and the scarring and the teasing and all of the pain that it caused, well yes, it was a hindrance, it was an enemy, it was darkness and it was clutter. But look at how time turned such a painful experience into blessing and friendship and light and treasure. It's just awesome, and I see all of that everyday when I look in the mirror. This is who I am. I have come to learn to love the skin that I'm in. I don't worry what people think. I truly do not care. I am Karen, and what you see is what you get and it's all right. That's how I feel.

  • Music Bridge:
    Deputy Piano-Wired
    Artist: Alvarius B
    CD: Alvarius B (Abduction)
More stories from our Poetry Radio Project series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Eileen Adickes

    From Macedonia, IA, 08/08/2008

    What a phenomenal woman you have become. I am so glad I clicked on this story to read it. I wish every young woman would read it and understand. You are a blessing to everyone you meet.
    Thank you for sharing.

    By Angela Willis

    From Matthews, NC, 08/03/2008

    Thank you for sharing your journey Karen! I wept as I listened to your memories of childhood trauma. Just imagining the years of anguish that you endured made me incredibly sad for that little girl and every other defenseless little girl who has to endure that type of torture due to physical abnormality. Your story couldn't have come at a better time for me. I have been driving myself and everyone around me crazy for the last few days, fretting about a few pimples on my face. I'd even threatened to skip our family's Jamaican vacation next week if they were not gone. Your story really put things in perspective for me rather quickly. It was a great reminder for me to keep the important things in perspective and to ALWAYS look deeper than the surface. Your story knocked me off my Vanity-laden high horse and here I sit...happy for the reality check. What an inspiration you are. Thank you...from one brown girl to another.

    By Alex Freedman

    From MA, 08/03/2008

    Truly an inpsiring story.I wish all the best to Karen Williams. Thank you for sharing her thoughts.

    By DeAnn Wilson

    From St Louis, MO, 08/03/2008

    I was struck by the strength and beauty of Karen's voice as she shared her life's journey. All that she has endured and all that she has become is awe inspiring. Her voice and words define the simple clarity that is born of her genuine decision to accept herself as she is and not care what others feel.

    I have been a pediatric nurse for 28 years, working for the last 4 years with children born with cleft lip/palates and other craniofacial deformities. My heart has been significantly transformed by knowing these children and families that have endured multiple surgeries, lost summers to surgical recovery, and still face a world that is convinced that superficial beauty is more important than real beauty which can only be found within.

    Thank you for sharing this story, helping to further mold my character, strengthen my resolve to help these beautiful children through their own journies.

    By Richard Matheron, US Ambassador (retired)

    From San Diego, CA, 08/02/2008

    I was taught, by whom I cannot remember but many years ago, always to look and give a smile to people who look strange, ugly, or seemed physically impaired. For years, I had been a prisoner of guilt for turning my eyes away. I felt so liberated after I was taught that lesson. The story of Karen Williams was a reminder today as I listened to Weekend America. Thank you Ameican Public Media and you, too, Karen Williams.

    By Tammy Blue

    From West Hollywood, CA, 08/02/2008

    This is one of the most powerful pieces I have heard on the radio, period. You touched on one of my worst secret guilts, something that shames and horrifies me about myself: the way that I recoil when I see someone whose face is scared. This is a double secret guilt because I am a nurse. While I would never be overtly cruel to anyone, I am covertly cruel in that the horror I feel does not allow me to see the person beneath.

    Karen Williams is an amazing woman whose beauty is deep and wide. Thanks to you for broadcasting her story in her own words and thanks to Karen for sharing her experiences in such a powerful way.

    By Paul Roby

    From Seattle, WA, 08/02/2008

    Thanks for a compelling story! I'd love to keep and share the quote that opens the last paragraph. Can anyone cite the original author?

    By John Copeland

    From Geary, OK, 08/02/2008

    There are many things that cause us to stand out. I am Native American and White. So, I catch it from both sides. My wife is Hopi; and, we are raising our grandson who is Black, Aztec, Tewa, Hopi, and Navajo. Even though his beginning was a little rough, I chose to love him/her before birth. He has been such a blessing. I did not have the scarring; however, I did have chicken pox at age 13, which did leave some pox marks on my face. I could not see you on the radio; but, you have a beautiful voice and a very inspiring story. Then, I looked at the pictures on-line and you are beautiful. My wife and I liked what we got on the Radio--true beauty.

    By Robert Revelle

    From NJ, 08/02/2008

    As a African American man, I was stopped in my tracks listening to your story on NPR. One of triumph and victory. As young black girls try in vain to emulate super models, your journey exposes this societal hypocrisy and speaks to the titans of industry with the message "we can and will love ourselves". You have reached a place of peace and inner strength----a journey all of us should take.

    By sandra coleman

    From san francisco, CA, 08/02/2008

    Beauty comes from within. It's unfortunate as a child you had to experience this pain. But you are a woman now with confidence. The greater lesson in this is that we are not our bodies, our skin. We are the soul living a human experience. I would like to see a program set up for children who are experiencing the pain of personal rejection in our public schools and I also think teachers owe it to children to discuss how "differences" in human beings and acceptance. In one way or other we all have scars. Some scars are visible and some are invisible. But the key is to use your scar and remember to not judge others who are different than you are. Thank you for this story.

    By Sandra Taylor

    From NH, 08/02/2008

    Smart, brave, confident women are the most attractive. So it seems to me you have beauty in spades.

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