PORTLAND — She’s homeless, marginally employed and living in a city more than 1,400 miles from her hometown.
And Ashley Rebel, 32, is enjoying life.
“I am enjoying the freedom of being in a situation with less stress. I am enjoying not being at risk,” she said Dec. 18 as she discussed her self-published autobiography, “Bitter Harvest: A story of growing up in Mississippi.”
The book, which can be downloaded from Amazon.com, is an unflinching account of Rebel’s upbringing in Meridian, Mississippi, in a home rife with poverty and sexual abuse. It is also a story of her determination to get an education and a college degree.
It is not a story that ends with the heroine overcoming all her struggles; Rebel has been living at the Oxford Street Shelter for more than a year and has been unable to find full-time work.
“I want people to take away that though I had a rough childhood, I stayed dedicated to my education because at the end of the day, that is what makes or breaks you,” she said in a soft voice lightly tinged with a Southern drawl.
She credited secondary school teachers with keeping her focused on learning and making college a possibility. She took community college courses before transferring to the University of Mississippi, where she graduated in 2014 after studying pre-law and social work.
“I went to college because I thought going would get me out of the house and away from my parents,” she said. “I didn’t always know how to cope with life, but I knew how to go to classrooms and do things independently.”
Going back to her family after graduation was not an option, she said – not after years of sexual abuse by her father. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Rebel said she requires three types of daily medication.
She moved to Tennessee, where she worked as a waitress. The Toyota 4Runner she drove also became her home, but with more than 300,000 miles on the odometer, the SUV eventually stopped running and she could not afford to have it repaired.
“As a child I always wanted to move to Maine whenever my two other siblings and I would play (with) the United States Of America puzzle,” Rebel says in her book.
With no vehicle and no home, she decided it was time to move to Portland.
“I came to a place I always wanted to go to,” she said. “I thought anywhere up north would have more opportunity once I put myself out there.”
Opportunity has not yet knocked in Portland.
“Some nights you don’t get a bed,” she said about living at Oxford Street.
But in the time she has spent in Maine, Rebel completed “Bitter Harvest.”
“It was very hard; after I wrote a sentence or two I might sit there for three weeks and think about it,” she said. “It almost felt I had been in a wreck and I was recovering. Every time I opened the notebook and wrote, I would get sick.”
When not working temporary jobs, Rebel said she has been advertising the book by leaving fliers on vehicles. She hopes to get a grant so she can publish a print edition.
Completing the book has helped her move on, Rebel said, but the journey can still be tough.
“It has been very discouraging,” she said. “Some mornings I don’t want to get out of bed, some mornings I don’t want to eat.”
Yet she remains optimistic, and hopes “Bitter Harvest” is a springboard to a better life.
“This is just to get their attention,” Rebel said. “Maybe there is someone who can imagine what I have been through and open some doors for me.”
Ashley Rebel moved to Portland from Mississippi about 14 months ago. She has written about her struggles with abuse and homelessness in a book called “Bitter Harvest.”
“Bitter Harvest,” Ashley Rebel’s autobiography, is available online.