Domestic violence survivor builds house with her family via YouTube tutorials

When novelist Cara Brookins decided to build her own house by watching YouTube tutorials, she didn’t think it was a cool idea that would go viral or a gimmick that would land her a book deal. She was just trying to survive. 

Brookins had left her physically abusive husband, her four kids in tow, and they had no place to live. 

“Everyone focuses on ‘just leave, just leave,’” she says. “I was married to a man who descended into full-blown schizophrenia, and I left quickly after that, but he continued to stalk and terrorize us for years. Just leaving doesn’t solve all your problems.”

The thought of piling her family of five into a one-bedroom apartment during a time when they were “so broken, our self-esteem so low, would have made things even worse,” she says. So that’s why they decided to build a home themselves with the help of some piecemeal internet videos.

While you could go on YouTube today and find numerous series on DIY home projects, in 2007 YouTube was a slush pile of low-fi, barely tagged clips. There was no 12-part series to follow, no home-building guru with his own channel. Brookins had to get on her desktop, search for how to frame a window, compile all the tips she found, go out to the job site, and figure it out herself. Then start the search all over again for every fit and detail every single day. 

Photo via Cara Brookins

Since Brookins also worked a full-time job as a computer programmer and her kids were in school, they all became amateur construction workers in the evenings and on the weekends. This was also in the dead of winter in D.C, when the sky gets dark by 4pm. 

But the project was something substantial they could to do together—a functional, necessary way to move forward. 

“You need that physical action to get you through things,” she says. “Traditionally, people would go off on a walkabout, or when they were coming of age, they would go into the forest and complete these physical tasks. And I think we’ve gotten away from that. But when you’re out alone with your thoughts or with your kids who are going through the same thing, it’s a powerful way to focus on what you’re trying to overcome.”

Within nine months, which was the terms of her construction loan, she and her kids built the 3,500-square foot, five-bedroom home they still live in today. They named it Inkwell Manor because she dreamed this was where she’d write all her books. 

Photo via Cara Brookins

The good news is the house became a self-fulfilling prophecy—her memoir on this project, Rise: How a House Built a Family, comes out Jan. 24. But the experience has also had a left a long-lasting impression on her children. Her eldest, Hope, now 26, runs a branding strategy company for women entrepreneurs; her son Drew has climbed mountains in Alaska; Jada has learned about sustainable building in the Ozarks; even her 11-year-old has his own YouTube channel.

“How do you change from this victim into rising into something triumphant?” Brookins asks. “That’s the message I want to give, that whatever your thing is, find some big action you can take. Run a marathon, climb a mountain, build a house. Not the baby steps, not the get out of bed and get dressed. But that big thing.”

Thinking about the confident people her kids have become, she laughs. “Well, maybe they’re too fearless.”

Jessica Machado

Jessica Machado

Jessica Machado is the IRL editor of the Daily Dot. Previously, she was an associate editor at Rolling Stone. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Elle, Vice, Salon, BuzzFeed, Guernica, Bitch, Bust, the Cut, the Awl, the Toast, among others.