And Poison Fell From the Sky
Marie Thérèse Martin
No Mainer has ever written a book as deeply disturbing and haunting as Marie Thérèse “Terry” Martin’s And Poison Fell From the Sky. And yes, I’m including that creepy dude up in Bangor with all the money and movies, because Stephen King writes fiction and Martin has written a memoir in which the horrors are all too real and the human monsters continue to prey upon us all.
Martin, who grew up in the Western Maine town of Rumford, was the main source for Kerry Arsenault’s much-lauded 2020 memoir, Mill Town, about her life in the nearby town of Mexico and the tragic consequences of growing up in a toxic industrial hellscape. Martin may not have the storytelling chops of King or Arsenault, but her matter-of-fact, unsentimental testimony is ultimately more affecting for its lack of artifice.
The two villains in this tale are, broadly speaking, capitalism and Catholicism. Whereas Arsenault, using Martin as her primary source, focused on the ways corporate greed and government deregulation poisoned her community, Martin’s story also describes how a misogynist religion poisoned her town, turning victims into villains and causing excruciating personal torment that can last a lifetime.
Martin begins by describing “the exact day in my life when everything changed.” Confronted, in dramatic fashion, with evidence of her husband’s infidelity, Martin’s mother, Evangeline, makes the daring decision to divorce him — daring because this was the 1950s and the family was part of a large community of French Catholics who, in contradiction to the teachings of their faith, ostracize the woman and children left behind by this philanderer.
The unspoken message being delivered by her community was clear: the authority of patriarchal power cannot be challenged, regardless of circumstance. The same generalized deference to authority prevented people in this part of Oxford County from challenging the owners of the paper mills who were murdering them with pollution. For Martin, the struggle against both forms of authority became a lifelong mission.
Her mother, now forced to work for wages in addition to shouldering her duties as a single parent, struggles to keep her three children warm and fed on a nurse’s salary. This compels Evangeline to make the fateful decision to send Terry to a Catholic convent high school in (appropriately) Salem, Mass., where her room and board will be covered by nuns hell-bent on turning Terry into one of their own.
Here, the terror truly begins. The nuns run their private school with a sadistic and misogynist zeal that would make the Taliban blush. In typical cult fashion, they immediately cut this frightened girl off from her family and her prior identity. “Black stockings, black shoes, and black uniforms … were required,” Martin writes. “I was not allowed to bring jewelry, makeup, hair accessories, or street clothing. Personal photos, books, and diaries were not allowed. I was forbidden to have outside contact with anyone except my immediate family, and that would be only by letter, once a month — and those letters would be read by one of the nuns before I was allowed to see them.”
The merciless sisters even stripped Martin of her name, replacing it with a number, 24, labeled “in cross-stitch and black marker” on the few personal possessions she was allowed to have. They strictly enforced a code of silence by which students were free to speak for only one hour each day, during afternoon “snack time.” Whenever Terry, then 13, needed to change her clothes or bathe, she was compelled to do so under a long, white, cotton gown. “If I couldn’t see my developing body, the logic went, then I couldn’t have impure thoughts about it,” she recalls.
For the girls ensnared in this real-life Handmaid’s Tale, the only choice is to rebel or to submit. Terry does her best to rebel by refusing to internalize the nuns’ medieval worldview and continuing to dream of home. She and a friend sneak up to an attic on Saturday mornings, where the teens steal precious moments to have candid conversations and get a thrilling peek at the landscaper’s teenage son, working shirtless in the convent gardens.
In one of the book’s most shocking passages, Martin writes of a roommate whose submission to the Church became a sickening obsession. This girl, Gabriella, who Terry knew from Rumford, brought a copper crucifix (also considered contraband, purloined from her grandmother’s coffin) to the convent and “slept with it every night, the way a normal child might sleep with a teddy bear.” In bed and under cover of darkness, Gabriella mutilated her arms with the crucifix, “creating wounds she hoped to pass off as stigmata,” Martin wrote. “She imagined being recognized as a living miracle, a saint with bleeding symbols of the cross on her arms.” It didn’t work.
Evangeline finally springs Terry from the convent school after two torturous years, but Rumford is hardly a respite from the grotesque. Martin writes of the day she and her younger brother take a canoe onto the Androscoggin River and discover it’s an open sewer full of floating human shit, toilet paper, tires and tin cans. Life on land is no less unpleasant. The paper mills perpetually foul the atmosphere with the stench of rotten eggs, and the chemicals in the air burn the townspeople’s eyes and lungs while, imperceptibly, causing deadly disease at a rate that earned the area the nickname Cancer Valley. At night, the loud banging and clanging of the mill, which operated around the clock, and the screech of railcar wheels made it impossible to get a restful sleep.
This is, essentially, hell on earth, rendered more terrifying by the fact that this is not fiction, and nor is it all about the past. Although the most visible forms of pollution have been somewhat curtailed by environmental laws, new toxic terrors continue to plague Maine’s population, most notably the “forever chemicals” poisoning our wells and farmland and bodies. And while one political party, the Republicans, are determined to roll back regulations on polluters, the response of the rest is feckless at best.
Take our stuffed-shirt senator, Angus King, the “independent” voice of reason, who, Martin bitterly notes, responded to reports of poisoned fish in Maine’s rivers when he was governor in the ’90s by “proposing that the solution was to eat only one fish a month.”
“‘We all have to do our part to keep business in the state running as usual,’” she quotes then-Gov. King as saying, then adds, incredulously, “We all have to do our part?”
Equally troubling is the Christian Fascism that crusades to keep women limited to roles as sex slaves and mothers. I needn’t remind you that this neo-conservative movement, after a few decades of relative weakness as our society liberalized, is now resurgent and winning victories nationwide, including the overturning of Roe v. Wade. And, besides, Martin’s personal account of living in a time and place where abortion was illegal is much more powerful than any political argument.
Terry also became a nurse and, beginning in the early 1970s, she and her husband — a much older doctor at the same rural hospital, nicknamed “Doc” — began publicly raising the alarm about the link between industrial pollution and the high rates of cancer and other diseases in the area. Their activism made them enemies of the mill owners and managers, who had the means to live outside the town’s most heavily polluted dead zone, as well as the hospital administrators and politicians in the pocket of those moneyed interests.
Terry would ultimately be seen by many as a hero for her environmental activism, but her true heroism is in this book, in which she reveals that Doc tricked her into becoming pregnant with their first child in order to bind her to a life of service to his medical practice and their family, and subsequently subjected her to decades of abuse behind closed doors. Martin basically had seven years of relative freedom, hope and happiness — starting with her return from the convent as a teen, and including one revelatory trip to Europe — before she was forced by Doc’s lie, Maine’s abortion ban, and the consternation of her Catholic community to become a mother at 22.
And Poison Fell From the Sky should be required reading in Maine’s high schools, both for the evils it describes and for the inspiration it imparts. This reader stands in awe of Martin’s strength, perseverance, bravery and honesty. One marvels at what Maine could become if we had more Terry Martins in our midst, more fearless women willing to challenge the material and spiritual status quos that keep us all bound and gagging. If you’re of a mind to pray, pray her book inspires others to join the good fight.