The internet is rife with stories of the people who change kids’ lives: the teacher who took the student under her wing, the stepfather who was the dad the boys needed, the grandparents who raised kids like they were their own, the kid who stands in the way of another kid getting bullied.
I could’ve used one of those people.
I was a kid who needed someone or something to keep me going. When I was eight, I started being sexually abused by adults who were strangers to me, and that abuse kept happening for years. I was adept at not causing problems for people, and until I was 19 and got sober, I never told a single, solitary person, not a soul—not a friend, not my parents, not an adult, not a stranger on the bus. No one. I believed—and was given good reason to believe—that if I did, everyone and everything I loved in the world would be destroyed.
Yes, I have adults who made a difference to me as a kid—my parents in key moments, the librarian who took me to the big kids’ side of the library, the high school English teacher who noticed something was wrong and actually asked me. (Thank you, Mr. Mahn!) None of them knew about the abuse, and I didn’t want to endanger them by telling them. They all made a difference; they all kept me going, one way or another, and I continue to thank them from the bottom of my heart.
Here is what I did have, though: Star Wars. I had an escape hatch from my reality, and I had a doorway into a better, bigger world.
I realized this truth about the arts and myself while sitting in a theater watching Solo: A Star Wars Story. (Thank you, Ron Howard!) At a point in the film, someone tells Han that there’s a guy on Tatooine with a big job; chronologically, this is Han’s first introduction to the planet that would bring him to Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi—and to all of us.
I sat in the theater watching Solo, electrified in that moment. I felt the heat of Tatooine; I was right there with Luke as he fixed the droid unit we would learn was R2D2. I had the wind whipping hair in my eyes, and sand in my mouth. I could feel how small my life felt, and how much bigger I hoped it would be.
I was also right back in the Saint Louis Park movie theater in the summer of 1977, seeing Star Wars for the very first time. (My biggest takeaway at age 7 was the hologram chess game on the Millennium Falcon.)
And then … then I was brought back to 2300 Totem Trail, the street I grew up on, to the neighborhood’s first VCR, and the neighborhood’s first bootleg copy of Star Wars. (Please don’t come after me, FBI—it was forty years ago and I have paid to see it many times.) Over the course of the next year, I would start to be groomed for sexual abuse, which would grow in intensity and frequency as the next few years unfolded. I didn’t have anyone to tell—but I had a world I could escape into: Tatooine, and the Falcon, and anywhere Luke and Han and Leia cared to take me. I could go there, over and over.
When Tatooine was mentioned in Solo, I started weeping in the theater—not for the horrors of my childhood, but with gratitude for what had gotten me through it. Luke Skywalker had a place he was itching to leave, and so did I. He believed in the good in ostensibly evil people, and that stuck with me. He whinged about it sometimes, and I wished I could.
It wasn’t enough to stop the abuse, but it was enough to get me through it.
I don’t know Mark Hamill, or Harrison Ford, or George Lucas. I don’t know Anthony Daniels or Peter Mayhew. I did not know Kenny Baker or the shining Carrie Fisher, but I will never let go of the gratitude I have for them, all of them. Unknowingly, they were the adults who stepped in to make sure a little abused girl’s life was bearable, and better, and they did a great job of it. They saved my life, literally. I would not be here without them.
Star Wars was not alone in inspiring me—someday, ask me about Wonder Woman and Lynda Carter, or Hawkeye Pierce and Alan Alda. It is fair to say that the arts in general saved me—every book I pored over, the music that I cherished, the comedians I found early and love to this day, but Star Wars was the first and has remained a through-line of my whole life from that scared kid, to recovering alcoholic, to elected official, and now private citizen. Hell, within an hour of knowing I had lost my election, I thought to myself, “Well, now I can finally watch The Clone Wars.”
So when you see me posting yet another Star Wars meme, or appreciating the wonder of Mark Hamill’s Twitter, or confused if you haven’t seen Solo yet, please know that all of that is manifest gratitude and a celebration of life—a life that would otherwise have been more painful and far shorter.
Betsy Hodges was the 47th mayor of Minneapolis, MN and currently serves as a Senior Advisor for Cities United, a consultant to organizations working with cities to improve equitable outcomes for people of color, and she recently served as a Residential Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics.
In her spare time, Mayor Hodges works on staying physically fit, writes, reads poetry, and enjoys seasonal viewings of “Die Hard,” her favorite movie. She is known for her extensive collection of Wonder Woman memorabilia. She is an occasional karaoke singer with a very limited vocal range.
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