Bess Hilpert is (and has been) many things—student, actress, runner, CEO, swimmer, daughter, sibling, wife, mother, and now, author. By sharing her story, alongside research and data illustrating the transgenerational damage of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), she wants to start a revolution of repair for the more than 3 million children who are abused globally each year. More than 700,000 in the U.S. alone. The picture sounds bleak but she tells her story with faith, hope, and love.
Born to a devoutly Catholic family of 13 children, her father, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, was a mercurial figure who, at times, terrified and humiliated his children. Bess tells the story with compassion both for her younger self and, eventually, for her father. But what makes the book so compelling is the way she has braided current research and statistics around ACE to create a dialog between what her experiences were and what the data shows to be true about children who survive such childhood experiences.
Taking us through her life, she shares fun experiences of playing with her siblings, visiting relatives in Las Vegas and California, including visits to both her grandmothers’ homes where she astutely observes the differences between the two women and the differences among their homes and her parents’ home.
In addition to the braided story of personal history and ACE research, she does a lovely job of grounding us in the current events of the time. Her family moved to Washington, D.C., and lived in a large brick home where she and her siblings played with the neighbors, including next-door neighbors Linda and Luci Johnson. At the time, there was no official Vice Presidential home as there is today. She attended Catholic school, the same school where David Kennedy was a student and she shares the memory of the day at school when they learned his uncle, President John F. Kennedy had been shot. She went home to find Secret Service agents surrounding their neighbors’ (Vice President Johnson’s) home.
Finding I is in many ways a dramatic story but it is not a “misery memoir” as the publishing industry internally labels such real and raw narratives. Our narrator is a fighter and survivor, but more, she is a person of deep faith. Her faith continues to undergird her even when she writes about feeling lost or bereft. The story stretches across the U.S. from her east-coast upbringing to Broadway plays in New York and television roles in California. She also learned yoga and body work.
Later, in Texas, she was a runner who was married and starting a family. She solved the problem of finding running clothes to support her body during pregnancy by founding a company—Mothers in Motion. Raising her sons and running a company, she competed as a runner until she couldn’t. Then she found swimming and, of course, worked her way into top-ten finishes in her age group nationally with United States Masters Swimming.
Interspersed through the chapters about her adult life are trips to Florida, where her parents re-located and where her father began having serious health problems. She faced down her demons and was able to bring a loving presence to her parents’ home as they moved through the final years and months of her father’s life. None of it was easy and it would be hard to read except that she shares vivid moments of spiritual transcendence.
The latter part of the book turns to her own family. She boldly shares details of her own experience as a parent, perhaps a link in a chain of transgenerational adverse childhood experiences. She ponders how her father must have been treated as a child and does not blink as she examines her own parenting—where she purposefully tried to be the parent she would have wanted and yet her children still wound up having some adverse experiences.
By the end of the book, I was awed that Bess had made herself so vulnerable by telling her whole story, putting herself back through many of the traumatic adverse childhood experiences she survived in order to put flesh—literally her flesh—on the story the data quantifies about the transgenerational damage of abuse. And yet, throughout the book, there is hope. More than hope, a fighting spirit armed with personal experience and the research to back up her cause. The book ends with a questionnaire about Adverse Childhood Experiences as well as a robust list of resources and endorsements. She has a website (findingi.org) and weekly newsletter. Any book sale profits beyond publishing fees and the finding.org website operating expenses are donated to support ACE-related charities or research.
Q & A with Bess Hilpert
I sat down with Bess to talk about the book. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.
MPM: What was the process for writing this book?
BH: Well, it took three years to write. But this book demanded to be written. The thoughts came, the words. Every time I put it down, it came back. I really struggle with night terrors. When I was really deep into writing the book it was difficult.
MPM: You have some very impressive people who wrote blurbs for you.
BH: I reached out to a lot of people and I got a lot of “No’s.” But, like anything I’ve done in my life, I wouldn’t want to put out data that wasn’t correct, so it was important to get it right and have endorsements from professionals in the field.
MPM: This is a very personal story. What has the response been?
BH: It’s been very positive. It shines a light on the fact that we all have a story. You may have no idea what’s going on behind this presentation (a person puts forth). I hope it helps people be more sensitive (to others) instead of just jumping to conclusions.
MPM: What hopes or vision do you have for the book, because you have a website (findingI.org) also.
BH: My goal is to get (the book) out to educators and people who work with children. We’re not doing it to make money but to help people, including women who have been abused. The book is the beginning. My newsletters are life after Finding I. I’m not miraculously healed but the newsletters add more to our toolbox to greet the world. I’m creating community with people; we can share together.
MM: Your faith is very important to you. Can you talk about your faith in terms of writing the book, or vice versa?
BH: Throughout my life I was curious about this thing called faith and I wanted this thing I thought my mother had. I tried lots of things and finally realized that I’m more than my wounds that define me. In original goodness I’ve found peace and healing. My faith is very important to me now and I’m seeing that from the process of writing the book. Even though life is still hard, I know I’m being held.
MPM: Tell me about your connection to the Christ in the Desert monastery in Albuquerque.
BH: It’s interesting because I’m just now realizing that the first time we went to the monastery was within a few months of when I had first put pen to paper on the book. Ed and I looked at each other one Thanksgiving morning and got in the car and decided to go. It was transformative for both of us in personal ways and it deepened our relationship and our quest for spiritual wholeness. There’s a peace now in my life, a wholeness (since becoming involved at the monastery). Then Covid hit and the second visit had to be postponed. Later, I went while I was on a pause from writing and was introduced to the idea of becoming an oblate. I did an 18-month practice of doing the Divine Office daily and it woke up the book.
MPM: Sounds like the spiritual practices you found at the monastery may be connected to your work on the book in some way?
BH: I hadn’t looked at it like that but it does track, 100 percent. This November will be the first ceremony where I’ll be formally an Oblate Novice, then, in a year, I’ll be formally an Oblate.