When Janice Gary is 19, she leaves home with a little money and a lot of nerve, heading out west to fulfill her dreams of becoming a rock musician. But after one horrifying night, when she is dragged off the street in Berkeley and assaulted, all that changes.
From that time on, she can only walk on her own if she has a dog by her side, a big dog. When she discovers a stray Lab-Rottweiler pup wandering loose in a strip mall parking lot, she knows she has found her biggest protector yet. But Barney’s fate mirrors her own when, just before his first birthday, he is attacked by a vicious dog. From that moment on, he becomes dog-aggressive, dangerous around other dogs.
For years, Barney and Janice walk in isolated, out-of-the-way places to avoid dogs and people. It is only when she risks bringing Barney to a park on the Chesapeake Bay that the leash of the past begins to unravel. As they face their fears, Barney sheds the defensive behaviors that once shackled him, and Gary steps out of the self-imposed isolation that held her captive for three decades.
“My book, Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, is more than a dog story or a book about recovering from trauma,” explains Gary. “It is a moving tale of love and loss, the journey of a broken soul finding its way toward wholeness.”
Scroll down for our Q&A with the author.
Be Inkandescent: In the book, you say you are a woman on a “short leash.” Could you talk a little about that?
Janice Gary: By the time I was in my 40s, it appeared I was a success. I had started a thriving event-consulting firm, left that for a high-powered arts administration position, and met and succeeded the goals for that organization. But inside, I felt like a failure because I was not fulfilling my own desires.
I was, and have always been, an artist, whether through music, film, or writing. And I kept sabotaging that part of my life. Yes, I took risks, but mainly for others, and certainly not for my heart’s desire. Behind the confident businesswoman was a frightened person who hid behind the persona of the woman she thought the world wanted to see.
Be Inkandescent: What made you think you needed to hide?
Janice Gary: I grew up in a complicated and often violent childhood, where the way to stay safe was to stay invisible. But at the same time, I had a fierce desire to express myself creatively. As soon as I was of age, I left home for California to fulfill my dreams of becoming a musician and to be a part of the youth revolution of the 70s. I thought I could take on the world, but I was 19 and naïve and didn’t fully realize the dangers out there for a young woman on her own. Unfortunately, I found out soon enough.
Be Inkandescent: That sounds horrifying. Can you tell us what happened?
Janice Gary: One night, I was walking to a friend’s house and was ambushed by a man who dragged me into a garage and assaulted and raped me. I survived, but from that time one, all I wanted to do was to be safe. I couldn’t even walk alone any more without constantly being on guard. If someone walked toward me, even in the daytime, I’d shake and want to run away.
I left California and my dreams and went back home. Like a lot of women who are survivors of violence, I learned how to adjust. Eventually, I went back to school and began a career, working in fields that were creative without revealing too much of myself. For example, instead of writing books and stories, I wrote advertising copy. And I was quite good at it.
Be Inkandescent: Do the effects of the attack still affect you?
Janice Gary: I realize now that I was suffering from undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Until recently, it wasn’t recognized that survivors of trauma not related to war could suffer from this disorder. So the effects stayed with me for years— decades. However, I found a way to compensate. I was able to walk “alone” by walking with a big dog by my side for protection and emotional support. And that worked well for many years. At least until Barney came along.
Be Inkandescent: Barney is the brave dog you write about in “Short Leash.” What made walking with Barney different from walking with other big dogs?
Janice Gary: Barney was a 95-pound Lab-Rottweiler I rescued as a puppy. I knew he would be my biggest protector yet. But when he was about a year old, he was attacked by a German Shepherd and from that day on, he became aggressive to any dog that came near him. Because of this, I had to walk him in out-of-the-way places—like vacant lots, dumpsites, median strips—places that ironically were more dangerous for a woman to walk alone (even with her dog).
Be Inkandescent: You brave woman. Lots of people would be frightened walking in that kind of environment. You weren’t?
Janice Gary: Fortunately, most of these places were in or near populated areas, so I thought I was okay. And I was used to not feeling safe anywhere. The constant vigilance and the feeling that the world was an unsafe place just became a normal part of who I was. I couldn’t even walk to my car alone after a business meeting without anticipating an attack.
Be Inkandescent: So what shifted in you to make you want to take the courageous step and walk with Barney in a park?
Janice Gary: Quite simply, I got tired of walking in ugly places full of trash and broken glass. But I think I was ready. By this time, I worked hard for many years to heal myself of the things that held me back. I still had the PTSD and was still hiding behind a career that was not fulfilling me, but somehow I was willing to face my demons. Walking into the park literally was like walking back into the world for me.
Be Inkandescent: So walking in the park healed you. Tell us more about that process.
Janice Gary: First, it forced me to face my demons. I was terrified to walk in that park, both because there were dogs that might approach Barney, and there was always the possibility of being attacked like I was in California. But day after day, Barney pulled me further into the park and I learned how to trust myself and the world again. Nature is a profound teacher if we just open ourselves to its lessons. And I learned so much just by walking through the seasons.
Be Inkandescent: Of course, this did not happen overnight.
Janice Gary: Not by a long shot. It took almost five years. But in that time, an incredible thing happened. I lost my fear and PTSD and Barney lost his need to be aggressive. Most amazing of all, by taking those steps, I ended up taking what felt like a big risk—giving up hiding behind a career that did not feed me to go back to school to claim a life as a writer. “Short Leash” is the result of that journey.
Be Inkandescent: Your story is so powerful—and a testimony to your courage. How do hope it will help other victims of violence face their fears?
Janice Gary: Stories are the way we save ourselves and others. My hope is that people who have held themselves back because of their fears will read my story and realize it is possible to heal and lead the life you were meant to live. It takes a lot of patience, courage, and risk, but it is possible to do. And it is so worth it.
Pick up your copy today of Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance.
About Janice Gary
Janice Gary is the author of Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, (Michigan State University Press, August, 2013). Recipient of the Christine White Award for Memoir/Personal Essay and the Ames Award for Essay, she is also a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Her work has appeared in Literal Latte, Kaleidoscope, The Baltimore Review, The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Potomac Review, and Women Speak Out, an anthology from The Crossing Press.
She leads writing workshops throughout the United States, including Writing the Memoir You’ve Been Dreaming About at the C.G. Jung Institute of New York City, and she is a presenter at the Association of Writers and Writers Programs (AWP) annual conference.