LEWISTON — It’s a marvel, really. When Carmen Blandin Tarleton tells her story, what you feel is strength and courage.
It’s a marvel because Tarleton’s story is horrific.
In 2007, her estranged husband broke into her Vermont home, beating her with a baseball bat and dousing her with corrosive lye, leaving Tarleton burned, blind and disfigured.
The burns were so severe, only her hands and teeth were recognizable. Doctors described it as “the most horrific injury a human being could suffer” and held little hope for her survival. She lingered in a coma for nearly four months. When she awoke, her future looked bleak.
“I was completely blind for the first two years,” Tarleton said Wednesday, in front of a rapt audience at the Franco Center. “For those first two years, I cried every day.”
Sometime during her 65 surgeries, including a complete face transplant in 2013, Tarleton decided she did not want to merely survive: She wanted to thrive and inspire others.
“I wanted to figure out how to not be miserable,” she said. “That was my big thing.”
Standing at the lectern Wednesday night, she cracked more than a few jokes while telling her powerful story. Those in the audience, nearly 100 strong, found themselves laughing, wincing, grimacing and grinning.
And smiling. Why not? Tarleton really did go on to thrive, writing a book, speaking all over the world and marrying her music teacher after falling in love over the piano.
“She’s an incredible person,” said Jane Morrison, executive director of Safe Voices, the Lewiston-based domestic violence resource center. “Her whole thing is just, you have to go forward with your life, and she’s done that.”
Tarleton was 39 years old, a registered nurse and mother of two, when she was attacked by her ex-husband. There, her story has a twist.
“I was not a battered woman,” she told the audience. “I think people just assume that I was in an abusive relationship. I was not.”
Her ex-husband eventually was sent to prison. One of the hardest things she had to do, Tarleton said, was to forgive him for what he had done. Once she achieved that, she began to feel better.
But there were plenty of challenges left. Her eyesight was slowly repaired, but as soon as it got better, it would go away again. More surgeries followed, and more frustrations. Eventually, she did get some of her sight back, but that presented still more spiritual mountains to climb.
“One of my biggest challenges,” Tarleton said, “was to look at myself in the mirror for the first time. I could only look in the mirror for 30 seconds at a time. It was probably the most painful thing I had to do.”
The audience at the Franco Center remained transfixed during this portion of her tale. Some of them dabbed at their eyes. Tarleton wasn’t done. She told of a bus trip she took to Boston while she was learning to be self-sufficient again. A young girl on the bus looked at Tarleton and immediately started to cry.
“She thought that I was a monster,” Tarleton said. “I thought that this was how things were going to be for the rest of my life.”
Things got better, in large part because she refused to be beaten down. She started reading spiritual and motivational books. She learned to play the piano again and married her instructor in December 2012.
“He fell in love with me while I was disfigured,” Tarleton said. “He could see who I really am.”
A few months later, she had a face transplant, a process still in an experimental phase. What’s more, she got to know the daughter of the woman from whom her new face had come.
As she had hoped years before, Tarleton wasn’t simply coping, she was thriving. For those who had the chance to meet her one on one, it shows.
“She came right up to me and said hello,” said Mitch Thomas, director of the Franco Center. “She’s very friendly and very outgoing.”
And happy? Better believe it. Even now, seven years after the ghastly attack, things are looking up.
“I get happier and happier as time goes on,” Tarleton said.