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Books and Authors: Katherine Arnoldi

December 16, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ Halfway through Katherine Arnoldi’s illustrated memoir, there’s a drawing of two feet tiptoeing down a staircase.

It’s the house Arnoldi left the night she stood up to her brother-in-law, who she said had abused her. Days later, living on the street, she was raped and became pregnant by her assailant. She was 17.

``When I drew this right here,″ Arnoldi says, pointing to the drawing, ``I just started crying. It really brought that memory and that fear back to me. It came through my arm and appeared.″

These days, Arnoldi at 45 is a self-assured advocate for single mothers and a self-taught cartoonist who has told her story in ``The Amazing ‘True’ Story of a Teenage Single Mom,″ published by Hyperion Press.

In vibrant black-and-white panels, the book chronicles her sometimes rough journey from shy factory worker in Ohio to mother and community-college student in Denver.

Education, Arnoldi says, is the most important factor in her success, and that’s the message she wants to convey to millions like her. She says they need extra encouragement because colleges and universities discriminate against single mothers by not providing enough day care, cheap dorm rooms or other aid.

The book ``shows a woman pulling herself up by her bootstraps. ... It’s like having a support group in your hands,″ the artist and poet says in an interview at her studio apartment in Inwood, a tree-lined neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan.

Arnoldi says Jackie Ward, a single mother she met in a park in Denver, was the person who gave her a new life by encouraging her to go to college and helping her to apply. Ward has since died.

``I just wanted to do what Jackie had done for me,″ Arnoldi says.

With her slender frame, long limbs and dark brown hair, the book’s unnamed protagonist brings to mind the cartoon character Olive Oyl, Swee’ Pea in tow. Though not loud or whiny like Popeye’s girlfriend, the narrator has, like Olive Oyl, endured her share of abuse.

As a teen-ager, Arnoldi _ herself the daughter of a single mother _ lived unhappily with her sister and brother-in-law in Canton, Ohio, and soon found herself on the street. After the rape, she worked at a surgical glove factory, gave birth to a daughter and soon headed west with a boyfriend. She eventually wound up in Denver, where she waited tables and enrolled at Metropolitan State College.

Her daughter was her motivation. ``If you hold the love of your child in front of you and keep moving forward,″ Arnoldi says, extending her arms as if holding a baby, ``you have something to focus on. That’s how we trick ourselves into moving forward.″

Studies show that teen moms like Arnoldi who stay in school are better off than those who don’t.

``We know statistically that finishing high school and going into college makes a huge difference in their lives and the lives of their children,″ says Dr. Joan Davis, director of the New York City Board of Education teen pregnancy program. ``If they succeed, their children will succeed.″

The book has won praise from activists for single mothers for showing, as author Tillie Olsen puts it, ``a single mother and the passionate love that she feels for her little one in a world that is really hostile.″

Arnoldi’s tale may help other young, unwed mothers ``not to feel that they are wearing the perpetual scarlet letter,″ says Olsen, a Depression-era single mom who wrote the short story collection, ``Tell Me a Riddle.″

Arnoldi’s daughter, Stacie, now 28, graduated magna cum laude in sociology from Hunter College. She is applying to medical school and hopes to provide health care to single mothers.

Arnoldi has spent much of her adult life reaching out to single moms. But it was in 1991, when she met then-Village Voice cartoonist Stan Mack, that she decided to write about her own life in comic-strip form _ and teach herself how to cartoon.

Arnoldi first passed out photocopies of her story to GED programs, housing projects and churches, and at Charas, the single-mom college program she started on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Even as a teen-ager, she says, she always had hope.

``It was buried,″ she says. ``I’m no different from every single mother.″

Her own character in the book has many flaws, she says. ``Confusion, inability to make good choices, easily swayed, easily depressed, denial. These are things that as far as I am concerned, I have amends to make to my child about. It’s not a pretty picture.″

But she also instills hope and happiness in the character .

``It’s because she knows the end,″ Arnoldi says. ``She can’t wait to get to the end to tell you this good thing. It’s one person out on a plain screaming, `There’s a way out of this.‴

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