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April 30, 2012

The Scars You Don't See


Photo Credit: Peter Yang

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My attacker was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to 27 years without parole. After the initial waves of emotion subsided — relief, anger, anxiety, fear, abandonment — I started to actually register the sense of closure elicited by the guilty verdict. The past was done, and I'd never have to go back there again. It was finally time to close this book and write a new story.

I had heard about a course at MIT called "Birthing of Giants." A master's program for entrepreneurs, it was an intensive series of classes in all the high-level stuff: vision statements, corporate culture, best practices. This was exactly what I needed, so I applied and was admitted, along with 64 other under-40 business owners from around the world (62 were men; one of the two other women was part of a husband/wife team). As an event planner, I worked in a female-dominated industry — my employees were women, and I've always thrived on my relationships with women. Not only was this totally male-dominated environment alien to me, but I felt deeply intimidated by the other students' knowledge. Most were MBAs with all kinds of business expertise that I'd learned by my wits, not in graduate school. I felt like such a fraud.

So I put on my tough exterior armor and sat at the front of the class, absorbing the course work like a sponge but speaking to no one — at least initially. When the others were getting together for drinks in the evening, I was back in my dorm room, poring over what I'd learned during the day. I'm sure I was known as "that bitch from New York."

Over time, though, I started to warm up, and I was deeply affected by the passion of my fellow students. There was always an incredible array of speakers, and each of the business owners who attended was invited to tell the story of his or her business at some point during the course. I listened while these strangers spilled their hearts out about what their business meant to them, and how they had poured so much meaning into their work. For the first time, I felt surrounded by kindred spirits. I realized a truth that has stuck with me ever since: Everyone's got their something. Everyone in that room had a story — whether it was sickness, poverty, or some other adversity — and they had all channeled their personal challenges into something beautiful. Their stories might be different from mine, but we all had one.

FINALLY, ON THE LAST DAY of the course, I was the only person who hadn't spoken. This was at a time when the people who knew what had happened to me were a very select few, and certainly no one in my office knew. I'd never sat down and told a bunch of girlfriends what had happened, much less 64 strangers whom I'd been so intimidated by just a short time before. In telling me their stories, these strangers had shown me the respect of treating me as their equal, as if I was as worthy as they were to sit in that room.

For the first time in my life, I told a large group of people about my personal tragedy, and how my company had been born of my commitment to spend the rest of my life helping people celebrate. I said that I got up every day and helped people to laugh and express themselves, and I loved what I did. Their response was staggering to me: a standing ovation followed by dozens of e-mails telling me how much my story had meant to them. It was a life-changing experience for me to reveal myself that way among peers, and to feel nothing but respect, acceptance, and gratitude in response. It taught me that, at least some of the time, I could fully be myself — all the sides of me present and visible for the world to see.

Excerpted from I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag by Jennifer Gilbert (Harper), on shelves May 15.

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