The brutal honesty of Amber Stevens' 'Bee Stings & Mosquito Bites'

Joel Oliphint
Amber Stevens, who writes as Jai Fontaine

Amber Stevens began keeping a journal at age 12, but she didn’t use it to document her latest crush or to bemoan an annoying teacher. Stevens said she was being sexually abused by her stepfather, and she didn’t know where to turn. She worried that if she said anything, someone might take her away from her mother. So she journaled.

At first, Stevens wrote as if these horrible acts weren’t happening to her. They were happening to a “sad girl.” And she wrote the entries as Jai Fontaine, a pen name derived from her middle name. It was a way to process her feelings without entirely owning them.

Often, Stevens would later write reactions to her own journal entries, and when things got particularly dark, she’d attempt to rewrite her own history. “I was making excuses for why I was feeling that way. So I would write something like, ‘I don't want to live here anymore. I don't want this. I hate it.’ Then I would write back and be like, ‘It really was not that bad,’” Stevens said in a recent interview at a Clintonville coffee shop. “Even at that age, I was trying to go back and make it look better than it was.”

Stevens continued journaling into her 20s, 30s and 40s, documenting her life — particularly the ups and downs of romantic relationships and her struggle with depression. She saved every journal (early ones were sometimes covered in scratch-and-sniff stickers), and in the last few years, she began going back through them in an attempt to heal from the traumatic events in her life. But while reading, she noticed a disturbing trend.

“The pain that I was feeling about myself at 13 was the same way that I was feeling in this entry that I wrote when I was 16, which was the same way I was feeling at 20, which was the same way I was feeling at 30. All these years have gone by, and I am still feeling the same way. I still have the same insecurities. I’m still wanting somebody to love me unconditionally. I was still people-pleasing. Nothing had changed,” she said. “That's when I realized I had to do something.”

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Stevens grew determined to collect her entries into a book so that she could finally learn from her mistakes and move on. And maybe it would help others avoid the same pitfalls. “I wanted to show how much hadn't changed, because if you don't get help — if you don't speak your truth — this will be you, dealing with the same stuff and accepting the same stuff and lying to yourself and allowing people to lie to you,” she said. “Nothing will change until you actually be honest with yourself and say, ‘This is who I am, the good and the bad,’ and just put it out there.”

But with decades of writings to sift through, Stevens struggled with what to include and how to present them. At first, she considered pairing a raw, exposed diary entry with a later reflection on that entry to show how even negatives can become positives. But since she hadn’t, in fact, healed from those crises or found the good in them, that approach didn’t feel honest. In the end, Stevens decided to include only her immediate, first reactions to events, choosing entries from every five years or so from age 12 until her early 40s, and collecting them in her new book, Bee Stings & Mosquito Bites, which she’ll discuss at a Book Loft event on Sunday, Jan. 12, at 1 p.m.

In her quest for honesty and authenticity, Stevens gave each entry a title and printed it exactly as she initially wrote it in her diary, grammatical idiosyncrasies included. “I didn't change anything,” she said. “So if my sentences were run-on, I wrote it [that way], because when I was feeling it and when I was writing it, I wasn't using periods and commas. … This is my broken English. If that's how I was speaking, then that's how I want it read.”

Each entry gets its own chapter, interspersed with prayers directed to God. The effect is closer to poetry than prose. “Shattered Innocence,” for instance, is taken from an entry around the age of 13:

I feel alone

Make this pain go away my heart silently yells

Unanswered cries

Uncovered lies

Shame and guilt I internalize

Because Stevens wrote without any intention to publish, the entries are startlingly honest and sometimes sexually graphic. “Dangerously” marks a turning point in the book, taken from a romantic encounter at 18 that turned potentially deadly:

Held me down on the bed with promises to kill me

Manslaughter, attempted murder, homicide

Because he couldn’t live without me

At the time, Stevens said, the thought of dying came partly as a relief. The author said she attempted suicide twice, first in eighth grade. “It wasn't until I got older that I looked back on that and realized I was never one time asked why I was trying to kill myself. Not one time. I was punished for feeling the way I was feeling and for attempting it. So then I learned that no one cares how you feel,” she said. “It was like a big cry for help, and no one answered.”

For fear of potentially embarrassing her daughter and other friends and family members, Stevens published Bee Stings as Jai Fontaine. But in a brazen act of honesty and a refusal to hide, she recently decided to put her face and her real name alongside the book.

In September, Stevens hosted a book release event at Gramercy Books in Bexley, and the night before, her stepfather died. Stevens had already confronted him in 2017, but he never apologized. In fact, Stevens said he later recounted to her even more instances of abuse that go back well before the age of 12. In his death, Stevens thought she’d feel a sense of closure. But she didn’t.

“Since I was a kid, I wanted him to go away. I always felt that the reason why I was this way was because of him, and in my head, if he's gone, I don't have any problems: 'Everything's going to be better because he's the reason my life is so messed up,'” she said.

Instead, she felt nothing. His death wasn’t the magic reset button she’d hoped for. But that discovery has led to other healthy realizations in the past few months. Stevens can now talk about incidents from her life without crying or getting nauseated. She’s changing, learning, growing.

“I was so stuck on trying to heal,” she said, “that I hadn't even realized how far I had come.”

The Book Loft

1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 12

631 S. Third St., German Village

“Amber Fontaine Stevens: Bee Stings & Mosquito Bites”