Good magazine talked to Auckland woman Karen Mills, a survivor of mental and physical abuse. At the age of fourteen Mills ran away from home and today, has written a book, Tasting Stars, aimed at young people of Aotearoa. Mills’ goal is to give voice to the voiceless but also to give children hope to dream for a happy, healthy future, which she eventually experienced for herself.
Why did you decide to write Tasting Stars?
It’s always been a dream to write a book and share my story, which tragically reflects the life of thousands of silenced children like myself. But it was when I heard a particular news item about a toddler who died at the hands of his parents that I thought, enough is enough, the time is now.
Can you tell me a little about your childhood?
I grew up as the eldest of five siblings in a tumultuous family in Otara during the 60s. My father was a terrible drunk and had an explosive temper. Most of my memories from that time are bleak. He used to simmer all the time, even when sober. I was terrified of him, always afraid of setting him off. I was singled out by him because I was not his biological child, which I didn’t find out until I was an adult. I remember when he threw a hammer at my head because he kept hammering a nail in to the fence crooked. I also remember picking the crusts off my peanut butter sandwich speckled with my mother’s blood after a beating my father had dealt that morning. I thought to myself – I will never let my children experience a life like this.
Was there a particular memory that stands out for you?
Even though he said and did such awful things to me, the hardest thing was watching him hit and be cruel to my mother. He never let her forget she had got pregnant out of wedlock and I felt like that was all my fault. One memory that haunts me still today is when I left home at 14 years old, I remember my little 3-year-old brother running after me saying “don’t go Karen, don’t go.” His little face was so sad and confused but I had to save myself first before I could help them.
What does the title ‘Tasting Stars’ mean?
When Rose Dixon, who is the main character in my book, ‘Tasting Stars’ discovers joy for the first time, she likens the feeling to tasting stars.
How does the story reflect your own life?
Rose’s story has elements of my own story, with a fictional twist. For example, there is a scene where she talks to her father in a jail cell as a young adult, but in my life, it was in a retirement village where my father resided. Rose, like myself protected her siblings and was given a chance by a certain person in her life to start over.
What response have you had from people when they find this is a story about you?
Friends and family who have known me for years have read the book and said they had no idea I was subjected to similar experiences as Rose. I think there was also a sense of awe, that I hadn’t let that life define me.
Why would a young person want to read this book?
I wrote this book to give voice to the silent children. So, the thousands of Kiwi kids witnessing or experiencing domestic violence could read a story of hope in little old New Zealand and be empowered to never give up. For those who were more fortunate, I hoped it would give them some perspective and encouragement to speak up if they know a little kid is getting hurt.
What message would you like people to take away from the book?
I think my biggest message to young people would be that no matter what you were subjected to, no matter what happened, you don’t need to be defined by that life. There is hope and joy on the other side. For others, I hope they will help someone in their life, have a child’s back, or ‘catch a comet’ for them. You might get a little burnt, but you could save a life because as the old saying goes, ‘to you they might be one person, but to that child you could be their world’.
Why did you decide to give some of the proceeds from sales to Child Rescue and Women’s Refuge, Kids in the Middle?
I volunteered at Child Rescue and understand that when it comes to child abuse, there are no borders as violence is prevalent in all parts of the world. I also wanted to give to a wonderful initiative here at home. Women’s Refuge ‘Kids in the Middle’ will help the younger victims of family violence rebuild their lives through tamariki programmes, and one on one support from a full-time child advocate.
Will you be writing another book?
I am in the process of writing another book right now. It will also be for young adults and about a prevalent issue New Zealand faces. Stay tuned!