MONTPELIER, Vt. – While Carmen Tarleton lay in a hospital bed – burned, beaten and disfigured by her estranged husband with injuries that doctors called “the most horrific injury a human being could suffer” – she had vivid dreams.
In one of the most memorable, dozens of doors stretched around her. “Life is a choice,” a voice said. And then the words appeared one at a time in white across a dark movie screen: LIFE IS A CHOICE.
Tarleton carried that lesson with her through her ongoing, daunting and remarkable recovery after her ex broke into her Theftord home five years ago, beat her with a baseball bat and poured industrial-strength lye on her, burning most of her body.
Tarleton, who at age 44 continues to undergo surgeries and awaits a possible face transplant, has written a book that will be published in March called “Overcome: Burned, Blinded and Blessed.” She hopes it will speak to abuse victims and others.
“I think I can help a whole bunch of people, not just domestic violence people,” she said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I think I can help a whole bunch of people wherever you are in your life.”
Despite her suffering, she says she’s in a better place than she was before the attack.
“I’m so much more blessed than I was then,” she said.
The book starts with Tarleton’s decision at 28 to move across the country from her native Vermont to Los Angeles, with her two children in tow, to work as a nurse at a UCLA hospital. There she met Herb Rodgers, whom she eventually married. The family moved back to Thetford, where her marriage started to unravel — in part over Rodgers’ dishonesty, Tarleton said.
Tarleton recalls what she now says was a premonition. One evening when she was about to leave for her night shift at the hospital, her 12-year-old daughter was sobbing in her bedroom. When she asked what was wrong, her daughter said, “Something really, really bad is going to happen to you.”
Eight months later, it did. Rodgers is serving a minimum of 30 years in prison for the June 2007 attack.
When she set out to write the book three years later with only limited vision in one eye, she stalled when it came time to explain what Rodgers had done to her that night. She had to coach herself through it.
“Alone at my magnifying machine, I felt physically ill with what I was doing,” she wrote. “The experience of reliving that night, trying to capture every detail as vividly as I remembered it, was sickening. Halfway through, I let my pen drop and rushed to my bedroom, the edges of my limited vision blackening.”
It took her two days to write it. It was scary, but it was what she wanted to do, she said.
She talked out the rest of the book and recorded it. She hired Writers of the Round Table Press to write it all down, including dialogue she had recalled.
“I was paying attention, because some of it I couldn’t forget if I wanted to,” she said.
She writes about facing Rodgers in court, how she dealt with being blind and disfigured, her pain, the help she has received from her community, family and friends, and how she came to forgive the man who maimed her so she could get on with her own life.
“That’s where I feel people get stuck, because we don’t have a segment of our society that says just because this terrible thing happened to you it doesn’t have to ruin the rest of your life,” she said. “And I want to be the example of that, because it doesn’t.”
Publishing the book was a no-brainer for Writers of the Round Table Press, which helped Tarleton write it, said vice president David Cohen.
“Taking that kind of experience and turning that energy into something positive and wanting to go out there and effect change with as much as she had to overcome, to me was just striking,” Cohen said.
As she awaits approval for a procedure that could help her get a face transplant, she looks forward to feeling well enough to speak publicly again about her ordeal to help others. She has had several recent surgeries to install a catheter in her chest and was sick last winter with hyperthyroidism.
She has plans to write other books. She has also started a blog on the book’s website. She says she’s trying to develop ways to verbalize her positive attitude.
If she had a choice to go back to a year before the attack and to take her life in a different direction, she would not.
“When life gives you a big negative situation like I’d been through, if you can get through that, you can really find all of the blessings and all of the positive things that can come out of that,” she said. “And I found so much that I would not go back.”