At one time or another, each and every employee of Indiana University Northwest is bound to come across the smiling face of Crystal O’Brien, Human Resources Assistant, and an IU Northwest alumnus.
It’s a pretty face, few would dispute, but as her memoir will reveal, it hides an ugly upbringing.
Now available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, her self-published memoir, “Pretty, Raised Ugly,” was a journey that began in October 2014 when O’Brien, of Gary, learned her father was being released from prison. He’d been convicted on several counts of abusing her, and the possibility of seeing him again, and having to tell her daughter, now 12, about everything, began to overwhelm her.
Ever since her father had been convicted in 2003, O’Brien, now 29, had worked hard to build a life after her abusive childhood. She’d become a mother at the age of 16; she’d sought out years of therapy and eventually earned two college degrees. When news of her father’s impending release came, O’Brien had been pondering her next steps as far as her career, her healing process and how she would make her mark upon the world.
Last January, O’Brien took to writing her memoir as a way of healing, and to explore her future. The words flowed out of her in a therapeutic whirlwind of prose.
“One day, I decided I would write the first couple of chapters and see how intense it would be,” she recalled. “And every day, I wrote non-stop. It just kind of flowed out of me. It was a combination of a release and a venting and it just came to me like it was supposed to be on the pages. I did this for seven days straight, and I was done. When I got to the end, I was overwhelmed.”
Overwhelmed, perhaps, because of the vivid detail with which she recounts her experiences. Not simply saying she got in trouble, for instance, but spelling out exactly what she did, why, with whom.
Telling her story in such a public fashion comes with some inherent risks and difficult situations. Much like her teen pregnancy forced her to reveal her abuse and seek help — a self-admitted “way out” as O’Brien described it — the release of the book also forced her to address some tough questions, like having a long-overdue conversation with her daughter, for instance. Thankfully, her father had been deported back to the Philippines, his native country, upon his release from prison, so that difficulty had been avoided.
Difficult as it might be to share her raw, unedited story with the world, it was important for her to self-publish the memoir so that it remain untouched, and thus, authentic. She feels this is the best way to accomplish what it needs to.
“I just feel like the book is going to reach the hands of those who it is supposed to reach,” she said.
Talking with O’Brien, her gold “Hope” necklace glinting in the light, it’s clear this book and the motivational speaking engagements it has prompted, were not meant for career gain, but rather, to use her experiences to raise up others. However, thanks to her education, her entrepreneurial spirit and team of professionals she’s secured to help, it seems that’s where she is headed.
In fact, that notion of raising oneself up in the face of struggle gave rise not just to the publication of her memoir, but the birth of a movement that has been dubbed the “iRaise Movement.” As she wrote the book and worked to bring it to print, she also took to video blogging and encouraging others to join the conversation and tell their own stories of how they’ve raised themselves up.
“I wanted to change the perspective of how you’re raised and how we can change and grow from that,” O’Brien said. “Just having that conversation is a lot of it. We don’t talk to each other about our histories the same way; we don’t talk about how our personal experiences influence and change us and so we go through the same things. When we talk to each other, we can learn from each other’s experiences and by doing so, not have to go thro-ugh the same challenges.”
That’s what the iRaise Movement aims to accomplish, provide that “short cut,” for others.
O’Brien has worked as a human resources assistant at IU Northwest for the past five years, a role which doesn’t seem to correspond with her educational level. She holds two degrees – a bachelor’s in financial information systems from IU Northwest, and an MBA with a human resources concentration from Indiana Wesleyan University.
“I am flowing with what I am supposed to be doing. When I got my degrees and my job, it was because of what I needed to do,” she said. “This is what I had to do to take care of my daughter. I wanted to finally find what I am supposed to do and match that with what I am passionate about.”
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson contributed the forward for O’Brien’s book. She knew O’Brien as a young girl and was involved with her family’s custody battle as a legal professional. She describes feeling “haunted” by the case. She also recounted witnessing O’Brien’s transformation over the years from a troubled child to a determined professional and admired her triumph over her childhood abuse.
“In the pages of Pretty, Raised Ugly,” Freeman-Wilson writes, “Crystal bares her soul and in doing so, regains her voice and gives voice to so many others. I am grateful that she has taken this opportunity to share experiences that many might choose to suppress.”
She continues, “I am so glad our paths crossed more than once because her evolution has been an inspiration to me and I am sure that it will provide a similar experience for countless others. There is so-mething here for everyone; I am hopeful that you will find what is in here for you.”