by CHRIS ROGERS
Carole Jayne Stoa Senn’s ex-husband tried to kill her. He nearly succeeded. According to Senn, her ex-husband Jay had a moody, angry streak, though she never realized what he was capable of. In 1986 in Decorah, Iowa, she went with Jay for a ride in his pickup because he needed to talk. He pulled out a pistol and shot Senn six times at point-blank range inside the cab, Senn states. She managed to get out of the truck. Then, she wrote, he tried to run her over before killing himself. She survived.
This act of violence was just one moment in a rich life, but it was a major reason Senn decided to share her life story in a memoir that came out this month. “Because Jay and I — the violence,” Senn said of why she wrote the book. When Senn’s speech pathologist asked what message she wanted others to take away, Senn responded, “I survived. Good again.”
Senn is an affectionate person, who kisses people on the hand and tells her caretakers, “I love you.” That she is even alive today is amazingly fortunate. Senn narrowly escaped death twice —first, after the shooting, and then again, after suffering a brain aneurysm and spending months in a coma. When she awoke, she had to re-learn how to speak and to write. Then she decided she wanted to write a book. Her story and her path to telling it are remarkable.
Horses and writing have been Senn’s twin passions. After studying English under Emilio DeGrazia at Winona State University, she raised dairy goats on a farm outside Viroqua, Wis., moved to Decorah and married Jay in 1985, and eventually came to work and live at Hans Senn’s Helvetia Stables shortly before the shooting. There she learned dressage, an intricate form of competitive riding; the interspecies bonds formed by riding played a big role in her recovery after the shooting. She married Hans in 1993. The title of her memoir, “Shamu, Splash & Solemn,” is an homage to some of her favorite horses, and in one poem, she describes gaining the trust of a panicky, abused horse: “It’s his language of perfect memory / and I try to listen without error, / for this, too, is my salvation.”
In his contribution to her book, Degrazia wrote that Carole came to his office one day in 1991 and slowly told him the whole story of her marriage to Jay, the shooting, and what happened after. It was a lot to share. In the book, Carole wonders why her mother-in-law did not warn her about Jay and wonders if maybe, subtly, she tried. DeGrazia writes that Carole asked him to look at her poetry, and the two began exchanging her poems, his critiques, and the professor’s urges to keep writing. In late 1994, Carole wrote a letter to DeGrazia about her and Hans’ decision to sell their farm, asking him to look at more of her writing, and telling DeGrazia, “I might even say that literature has become my biggest, all-consuming passion, rather than the horses. I’ve switched priorities, and it’s so scary!”
Tragically, just a few months later, Carole suffered the aneurysm that put her into a months-long coma. She was not expected to wake up. In her book, Carole describes spending the next several years languishing in nursing homes with staff she felt were mean and the constant gleam of fluorescent lights giving her migraines. Eventually, she made it into a better environment with dedicated caregivers, including Anne Gerber.
Gerber is a speech language pathologist, and her chapter in Carole’s book is an education into both the challenges of adapting communication to different abilities and into Carole’s determination. With Gerber, Carole learned to speak again from the ground up — practicing how her lips and tongue needed to work together to form a “b” sound — and began writing creatively again. It was all more than Gerber’s training had led her to believe was possible. When Carole started jotting out the chapters of her memoir with Gerber, Gerber was amazed that Carole had more or less already written the book in her head. “I was so shocked. She just rattled off the names of the chapters,” Gerber said. Each chapters came out with a full narrative arc, Gerber stated. It was surprising, “how much of the story was trapped in there,” she added. Carole explained she had been thinking — and dreaming — a lot about her story. She faced barriers to expressing herself, but Carole’s writing suggests that she is still the sharp-minded woman whose writing impressed DeGrazia as a student. How did it feel to put her story out into world? “Relief,” Carole said.
Carole’s book doesn’t simply hand the full picture of her story to readers. They need to gather it up. The book contains chapters of memoir written by Carole, selected poems from decades of writing, snippets from her journal, and sections written by DeGrazia and Gerber. Each are mosaic pieces in a portrait. Readers slowly gain a fuller understanding of the significance of riding in Carole’s life after reading a eulogy for Hans, a 1994 journal entry in which Carole wonders whether a flaw in her riding technique is linked to her psyche, and poems that use horses as a point of reference for wide-ranging topics. Gerber said that, as she re-reads Carole’s writing, she is still connecting dots about Carole’s life.
Each short chapter of Carole’s autobiography is matched to a poem or several, which Carole picked to accompany the chapter. It is a striking pairing. Carole’s life story and straightforward prose are interesting themselves, but the poems that follow each chapter offer imagery-filled glimpses into Carole’s mind. The poems seem to grant greater insight into and empathy for Carole’s feelings on the events of each chapter, but they are wide open to interpretation. So that, when it comes to a chapter about seeing colors after the shooting, hospital visitors, and a dream about Jay as an angel, the exact meaning of the poem “Sun Chimes” that follows is left to readers’ interpretation.
In one chapter, Carole describes the pain of realizing what she had lost in the aneurysm, remembering that one of her close friends had died in a farm accident years ago, and re-grieving for him. “What kept me going was knowing that I was tough, which I learned from horses,” she wrote.
Perhaps as a result of the way it was written — with plenty of thought and an economy of typing — Carole’s memoir sometimes conveys a lot in a few words. “He had harsh words that broke my character down when he was angry. He had a mental disorder that was not diagnosed but could be felt,” she wrote of Jay.
Carole told the Post she had forgiven her attempted killer. “Jay was trapped,” she said. How was he trapped? “Mind,” she responded. “I forgive easily,” Carole added, smiling.
The author said she wanted to speak about the violence she experienced. Carole said she is proud of what she survived and wants to inspire others. Asked about her future goals, Carole said, “A novel. Two of them. About relationships and horses.”
“Shamu, Splash & Solemn” is published by Shipwreckt Books Publishing Company. More information is available at www.shipwrecktbooks.com.