by Jerry Waxler
When parents and extended family are unable to take care of a child, “society” is supposed to pick up the burden. I hope that happens, but I didn’t know the details until I read Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s beautifully written memoir, “Three Little Words.” Ashley is qualified to speak authoritatively about the fate of kids without caregivers because she was in the system from the time she was 2-years-old until she was 12. Shuffled from home to home, she was subjected to a variety of parenting skills, some compassionate, others incompetent, while some were outright mean.
After running out of in-home placements, she reached the end of the road, an orphanage, where families came by to shop for an adopted child. She found herself literally auditioning for prospective parents. When she was finally adopted at the age of 12, it was such a relief, my eyes leaked for a whole chapter. But the journey was not over yet.
Opposite of tough-love
When Gay and Phil Courter adopted Ashley, they didn’t see her as a reject. They saw her as their daughter. However, to become part of their family, she had to make significant inner changes, and it wasn’t easy. After years of being arbitrarily moved, punished, and robbed by adults, it seems healthy that she would turn defiant, relying on her own willfulness rather than trusting their love.
For example, Ashley was raised on cheap foods like macaroni and cheese so her new family’s sushi and sprouts seemed too weird. She refused to eat what they served. What started as a food preference escalated to a battle of wills, and Ashley assumed the Courters were going to “send her back.” Instead, Gay Courter found a loving way to steer through it, bending her own will to accommodate Ashley.
Gay and Phil told her, over and over, “We love you no matter what.” The unconditional love these two people showered on their daughter, despite her rebellion take parental forgiveness to new levels, enough to drive a tough-love advocate to the nearest therapist. Apparently forgiving worked. Ashley vowed to do better next time, and lo and behold, she did.
The transition from rebellious kid to loving daughter makes the memoir “Three Little Words” not just about the foster system. By revealing her own thoughts and emotions, Ashley has created one of the most psychologically insightful, frank, and revealing Coming of Age stories I have read.
Insight into a child’s mind
Memoirs take the reader deep into the mystery of another person’s mind. For example, Temple Grandin’s breakthrough book, “Thinking in Pictures” provided an inside view of growing up with autism and John Robison’s memoir “Look me in the eye” shows what it was like to have Asperger’s. Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s book provides a similar service, taking us not just into her circumstances but into her mind, where she reveals rebellion and fear, outrage and hope.
Ashley isn’t just any foster kid. She is a unique person with an interesting twist. Despite her frequent changes in schools, and inconsistent parental guidance, she is placed in classrooms for gifted students, writes prize-winning essays, and performs in school plays. Now she is an author and public speaker with a remarkable list of credits, including keynote speeches at large conferences.
How can a child be surrounded by poverty and rise to remarkable success? It’s a puzzle that I find delicious, with every example leading to a counterexample, always implying some underlying truth without ever promising a satisfying answer. Consider Oprah Winfrey’s journey from a dirt poor background, or the four boys who grew up in the gang-infested streets of New Jersey, became doctors and wrote a memoir called “The Pact.” Ashley’s chaotic childhood in the foster care system adds another example of this mysterious transformation.
Secrets – what happens behind these walls
We all grow up with an insider’s view of our particular household, and whether we are conscious of it or not, our own house is unique. We generally don’t appreciate that uniqueness though because we are so immersed in it. The very things we don’t like to talk about as children, later turn out to add an enormous amount of interesting color.
I’ve rarely described the Jewish traditions we followed in my home. Because bread products were not allowed during Passover, we performed a prayer ritual to cleanse the bread crumbs from the house and switch to a special set of dishes. During Yom Kippur each year, there was always the nervous energy of feeling hungry during the 24 hour fast. Cheating created a weird mix of bodily relief and ethical guilt.
As long as they remain hidden, such details make us feel slightly separate from other people. Once we share them, they become an opportunity for others to get to know us. Popular storytellers have created entire careers out of turning ordinary childhood into compelling tales. When I was a child, trying to fall asleep, my brother who was seven years older came into our bedroom and tuned the radio in to a talk show on WOR. I lay in bed laughing, as radio personality Jean Shepherd made life seem so interesting by simply sharing the experiences of childhood.
Other secrets are dark and sinister. Take Ashley’s experiences in one particularly harsh foster home. As punishment she was starved, forced to stoop in an awkward position, and her brother was forced to eat Tabasco sauce. When she tried to tell adults about her treatment, they accused her of lying, and she got into even worse trouble. She learned the hard way to stay silent about what happens inside her home. Later, by writing about it in her memoir, she finally relieves the pressure of isolation.
What sort of family behaviors did you naturally hide from your friends? As you organize thoughts about your own life, what special insights into religion, family relationships, mental conditions, parts of the world, types of families, can you bring into the open by writing about them?
Sometimes the private, unique parts of your life aren’t secret events but characters at home are different than the ones you expect to see or talk about out in the world. A cousin had a psychotic break, for example, or disfiguring acne, or grandmom lived at home and never got out of bed. If you can describe the people you grew up around, you will bridge the gap between your private memories and your public memoir. List a few quirky characteristics about the people in your family that might add vivid detail to your childhood or the period you want to write about.
Memoir is a calling card for advocacy
“Three Little Words” has become Ashley’s calling card, supporting her authority as a nationally recognized speaker about the foster care system. She even provides a valuable resource to legislators and other public policy makers, who look to her for information about the theory of foster care as well as the actual practice.
By publishing her memoir, Ashley brought her audience another turn around the cultural spiral, offering them the opportunity to learn from her experience. When writing your own memoir, see what you can learn from Ashley. What sort of message could you share that would provide greater connection with your audience, offering them your hard earned wisdom in return for their empathy. What can your readers learn by walking arm in arm with you through the pages of your life?
Here are some of the memoirs that contribute to advocacy or deliver a message:
Jim McGarrah “A Temporary Sort of Peace” — Combat vets and PTSD
Doreen Orion, “I know you really love me” — Stalking
Brooke Shields, “Down came the rain” — Postpartum Depression
A.M. Homes, “Mistress’s Daughter” — Genealogy, adoption, family roots
Greg Mortenson, “Three Cups of Tea” — international understanding, world peace
Carol O’Dell, “Mothering Mother” — Caregiving, Alzheimer’s
Dee Dee Phelps, “Vinyl Highway” — 60’s nostalgia
David Sheff, “Beautiful Boy” — Addiction
Jon Robison, Look me in the eye — Asperger’s
Jamie Blyth and Jenna Glatzer, “Fear is no longer my enemy” — social anxiety
If you have a topic or area that you want to publicize, whether abuse, or special insider information of any kind, writing a book about your experience is an excellent way to build a connection to your audience. What group might be interested in your story?
Note: Excerpt from an interview with Ashley
I spent 10 years in the foster care system. I had 14 different placements before being adopted at the age of 12. Many of them were very abusive, and later we found out that 25 percent of my foster parents became convicted felons.
The National CASA, which are court appointed special advocates, or guardian ad litems in some states, asked me to speak at their national conference when I was 14. So that was my first big kind of motivational speech. Since then I’ve spoken personally to over 15,000 people and shared my story with them.
Note: Tough versus Unconditional Love
There are many conflicting notions of how and when to discipline kids. For example, once drugs and alcohol enter the picture, most experts agree that hard consequences seem to be the only valid course. However, even in that extreme case, tough love doesn’t provide perfect answers. Ashley’s experience with her adopted family might not apply to everyone, but it offers one experience worth considering in the mix of this complex debate.
For another, more complex example of this painful dilemma between tough and unconditional love, see David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy, about a father’s journey through his son’s addiction.
Listen to the podcast version. Click below or download from iTunes: [display_podcast]