Who protects the children? Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

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.

Click here for Ashley’s Home Page
Click here for the Amazon page for her book Three Little Words

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.

Writing Prompt
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?

Writing Prompt
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

Writing Prompt
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.

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Memoir author talks about writing, sharing, and healing

By Jerry Waxler

Bill Strickland’s memoir, “Ten Points,” weaves together three things: a promise he made to his daughter, a summer of cycling to fulfill that promise, and his insights into the wounds of his own childhood. To see my review of his memoir, click here. To learn more about his experience of digging so deeply into his past and then sharing it with the public, I asked Bill Strickland to answer a few questions about writing and publishing his memoir. Here is the second part of the interview I conducted with him.

Jerry: Many writers feel a concern about sharing their private lives in public. I imagine this was even more intense for you, given the very personal nature of some of your disclosures. What was it like to share these private experiences?

Bill: At first I was terrified. When I first met my agent David Black, I couldn’t even look him in the eye as I tried to describe what I thought the book might be, even without details. I also hated sending the story to my mother, but it turned out to be good; we talked like we never had before ? a conversation that made its way into the end of the book.

After I submitted the manuscript, and it made the rounds through the offices at Hyperion, I was speaking to someone about the book – of course, right? – and the experience was so bizarre that it cured me of shock. I was lucky to be able to realize that everyone was going to know the worst parts of my life. And I’m luckier, I think, that for some reason I don’t very much care.

David Black, my agent, gave me some great advice when he read my first chapters. “Get ready for everyone on earth to understand you,” he said. And that’s been true: When I lose my temper at work with friends or I’m snotty at work or something, it’s not because I’m having a bad day but because my dad stuck a gun in my mouth ? that sort of thing. Everyone else has all these potential motivations that are hidden so we assume they’re just having a crappy day or are sick or tired or justified in their actions. But for me, now, for everyone who’s read my book the temptation is to attribute everything I do to something they’ve read. I don’t hold that against them. It’s probably hard not to do.

Most people are nervous when they approach me to talk about the story. They’re not sure if mentioning some scenes will open some sort of traumatic wound that’s been scabbed over. I try to put them at ease, and also try to apologize for the graphic nature of the story.

The bizarre thing is that I’m more myself now than I ever was. Rather than being driven or affected by shame, all the mistakes I make are my own mistakes, all the anger is my own, all the stupid decisions are just me being a stupid human, which is all I ever wanted. I’m more me than ever, yet to everyone else, I’m more the character in the book than ever.

The only concession I think I make is that when I give a book reading I try to select a section based on the audience. The story about my father making me race the killer poodle works pretty well.

Jerry: What advice would you give to people about looking at their own darker memories, and how to decide whether to dig deeper, or keep them hidden, or share them with others?

Bill: I imagine that the best way to go about our lives is different in at least some measure for each of us. Mining the hole inside me worked out; it might not for someone else. For me, it worked out that to be successful in a sport I fell in love, I had to spend a lot of time immersed in suffering, turmoil, unpredictability and other conditions that evoked my memories – and that one positive trait I possess, tenacity, was the answer to the memories as well as the sport.

Jerry: How would you describe what happened to you by writing this book – for example was it healing, redemption, therapy?

Bill: It felt like I was purified in some kind of fire. I don’t think I can make up for the rotten things I’ve done, nor do I think I have to make up for the things that were done to me. I just wanted to be shed of all of them, start fresh. My idea was never that I would be perfect, or even necessarily a better person. I just wanted to be a person.

The races themselves were the vehicles of my transformation . . . the experience of trying so hard, of failing, of succeeding only to fail again, of being outmatched but not quitting, then of having to quit anyway – all of that thrust my childhood back into my life. So my introspection took place at 30 mph, 180 beats per minute, 500 feet off the back of the pack or rubbing elbows with a whirling madman. Bike racing, as it turns out, feels like being burned clean.

Jerry: Some of the humiliating experiences your dad put you through were extremely difficult for me to read. Did you ever consider damping the book down to make it more palatable?

Bill: My editor at Bicycling magazine, Steve Madden, pushed me to be honest about my life in a feature story I wrote about cardiac health back in 2003. I was recounting my family’s cardiac history, and starting writing not just about the physical heart but the emotional concept of heart, and in a draft I dropped the detail that my father had once shot my dog, and I remember Steve saying, “That goes in,” then asking for more. At that time in my life I wasn’t going to tell anyone all that had happened to me, but the incidents I sketched out in that article marked the first time I’d admitted that what went on in my past wasn’t some hilarious caper of misadventures and loveable anti-heroes; that started a change that developed as I wrote the book.

Jerry: What role did writing play in helping you come to terms with your past?

Bill: Writing, as it turned out, was a way to process it, organize it, make sense of it. There was no narrative to my quest until I made it a narrative, in other words. I mean, we all decide where the stories begin and end in our lives — plenty of incidents related to that story happened before and after the framework of the book, but I made sense of my life within those particular boundaries.

One of the oddities about my personality is that I often seem to not know, or fully understand, what I think or believe until I write it down. It’s been this way for me as long as I can remember, just the way I relate to the world, a quirk of my mental make-up. I was one of those kids, for instance, who could learn how to hit a cue ball or build a go-cart from reading about it more so than from watching it demonstrated.

Jerry: I recently met John Bradshaw, who has spent his whole life working on the topic of shame. This fascinates me, since as near as I can tell it’s one of the main deterrents to introspection. Help me understand your willingness to stare your disturbing memories in the face and keep going.

Bill: Well, I was desperate. When Natalie was born, I was actually terrified that I might turn into the kind of monster my father had been. My choices were either to leave, to destroy myself, or to destroy the monster that was in me and wanted out. (I had no idea there was another option, which I found out only at end of that long season, which was to unmask the monster and see that it was only shame.)

At the end of the last race of the season, when I failed to get the ten points and had to deal with my failure and the fact that it had happened right in front of Natalie and my wife and my friends, I realized that the monster I’d always feared was nothing but shame. And I knew that exposing shame to the world would be the best way to neutralize it ? which meant I wanted to not only write my story but publish it so I would become transparent. I also wanted to keep my promise to Natalie. I couldn’t give her ten points (the score), but I could give her Ten Points (the book).

It wasn’t that I faced shame like some brave and noble human, but rather that the racing, the failing at racing, and the succeeding at admitting I’d failed, shone a bright light on the shame that was in me. I mean, there it was: I couldn’t not see it.

Jerry: Do you speak or do any sort of advocacy for victims of child abuse?

Bill: I don’t feel qualified to speak knowledgeably about anyone’s abuse except my own, or about the causes, effects or other commonalities. I just haven’t done that much research. The one thing I feel confident saying, which is in the book, is that I believe all of us contend with our own personal demons (though the intensity and source varies) and that for each of us, our obsessions, whatever they are – bike racing for me, stamp collecting, gardening, or whatever – can teach us all we need to overcome or learn to live with those demons.

Jerry: What’s next?

Bill: I’m done writing about myself. Next summer the paperback of Ten Points comes out. There has been some interest in movie rights to the story, though that’s notoriously unpredictable and not to be counted on, and I’m not inclined to see many of the scenes from the book acted out.

Next summer is also the release of a book I co-wrote with Johan Bruyneel (Lance Armstrong’s team director), We Might as Well Win (Houghton-Mifflin). Stories from Bruyneel’s life illustrate all he’s learned about how to win, whether it’s in the Tour de France or in life.

This is the second of a two part interview. To read more of this interview, click here.
Note: Foster Winans reports a similar experience in which revealing his observations of childhood helped him deepen his relationship with his mother, rather than alienating her as is so often feared. I comment more on Foster’s experience in this review.

Memoir of Redemption: Author Shares His Writing Experience

By Jerry Waxler

I recently reviewed Bill Strickland’s memoir Ten Points. It strikes me as being a “perfect memoir” – it’s a great read, it has a powerful sense of love and redemption, and the author opens up generously into his inner process. In order to delve even deeper, I asked him answer a few questions. Just as he was generous in his memoir, he was also generous in sharing his insights about writing it. This is the first of a two part interview.

(To read my review of the memoir, click here.)

Jerry: When did you realize you were going to write your life experience in a memoir?

Bill: As I started training for that season, I was taking notes and writing about the races, because that’s generally what I do ? try to make sense of my life by writing about it. But at that time, the writing was strictly for me. One of my training friends, Jeremy, who makes a few appearances in the book, rode many early 5 a.m. morning rides with me, during which we talked and talked, as cyclists do to fill the miles. He was a book editor (now an agent) and he kept telling me, “You have a book. This is a book. Write this book.” But I kept hesitating, because Jeremy, along with everyone else, didn’t know the full story. He only knew what I’d told everyone: That I was trying to score ten points to show my five-year-old daughter, Natalie, that any of could achieve something impossible, and to show her that we should ask much, and expect much, of those we love. Jeremy, like other people, that I’d had a tough life; I’d never been shy about spinning yarns about my white-trash family, turning us into comic-heroic misfits.

I didn’t tell anyone though, in detail, about the horrors of my life and what I really hoped to accomplish by scoring ten points ? destroying the monster I believed lived in me. I knew if I wrote a book, it would only be if I told the full, true story.

As the season wore on, and I wrote more, some of the stories of my past began to lay over the stories of the bike races in ways that seemed natural. And the act of racing itself, the suffering and the survival and the triumph and tragedies, was like opening a pipeline to my childhood. After the racing season was over and I’d had that final epiphany about shame, telling the story was not only okay to me, but almost mandatory.

Jerry: How long did it take you from the time you started to the time you finished writing?

Bill: From the end of the racing season through the rest of 2004, from October to Dececember, I kept writing scenes and what felt like chapters. At my agent’s urging, in 2005 I began working on a proposal, and we submitted a 50-page proposal that spring. It had a long chapter that also worked as a kind of introduction; a summary; and a summary of every chapter I’d planned.

Hyperion bought the book in the spring 2005 and I began writing for a May 2006 deadline. I mostly hit that deadline, with an 80,000-word manuscrpt. My editor, Leslie Wells, asked me what the book might look like with less cycling, more present day family stories, and a little tighter. She made some suggestions about which parts worked and where her interest flagged, and I ended up liking her ideas so much that I cut about 12,000 words and tried to focus on the most compelling race action rather than document each race. That, in turn, made the connections to my past even sharper. I turned in a final draft in August of 2006, and it was published July of 2007.

Jerry: What can you share about persisting, overcoming slumps, and making it to the end?

Bill: There was never a slump for me. Rather, in the spring of 2006, in the middle chapters, I could sometimes forget I was writing a book and that there was an end. The process seemed to exist only for itself, which I found sort of satisfying but also mystifying; I could get lost in the writing for days. Each week I tried to look at the book as a whole and see where I was, in a way kind of reminding myself that I was trying to complete this big, long thing.

I never had periods where I felt blocked or stumped. There were definitely times when I went off-track, or when I felt drained. I simply took a few days off, tried not to think about the book, then came back to it. I get great joy from the act of writing, even when it’s hard, maybe especially when it’s hard. To me it’s less about persistence than the incredible good luck that I am able to do this. When I get a chance to write, it’s a gift.

Jerry: What were your writing habits?

Bill: I don’t keep track of words or hours or consecutive days. I would guess that I write something, whether it’s fresh copy or playing with something already written down, just about every day. But I don’t know for sure. I write until I know I should stop for any of three reasons – I am exhausted or I can sense the next sentence and know I’ll be able to pick up the flow, or I have reached what I think of as a “turn,” in the story, which I define to myself as the end of a section that moves in a certain direction or with a certain rhythm. Or, sometimes, I need to take out the garbage or let the cat in or something, too – life’s mundanities rule us as much as our passions.

I’m also a fan of revision, so I like to just get something on paper and then tune it.

I write on computer, edit on paper, and like to move about the house with my laptop. I also wrote a fair bit of the book in our local bike shop, South Mountain Cycles.

Jerry: I am stunned by the brilliance of the story telling and phrasing. How much of this skill was learned before you decided to write a memoir, and how much after?

Bill: I have to say that I was surprised to hear myself called a good storyteller (by my agent, readers and editors). It’s not that I thought of myself as a bad storyteller but I’d never tried to tell a long story and didn’t know if I could, whereas I’ve always more or less known I can write some striking sentences.

In a strange way that is almost embarrassing to discuss, I think that deciding to be honest about who I am, for the first time in my life, opened up my writing in a way that changed it. I realize this sounds precious or maybe makes me sound like a sophomore in a creative writing class, but I now believe that I was always holding something back in my writing, what I gave to my writing, or the chances I was willing to take with language and sound and rhythm and image.

Jerry: What memoirs did you read to learn the art of memoir writing?

Bill: I didn’t want to read other memoirs as I wrote mine, especially those that dealt with abuse. I wanted to prevent anything from the abuse canon from slipping into my story; I wanted the details and whatever patterns or connections there might be in that area to come to the story strictly from my experience, even if they are part of a common experience . . . if that makes any sense. I guess you could say I don’t mind being derivative as long as I’m original.

I did have some reference points. I’d read Bill McKibben’s book, Long Distance, which is about a year he spent trying to become a world-class cross-country skiier. I still think Tim Krabbe’s book, The Rider, captures the entire feeling of a bike race better than any other book (or movie). A book about swimming, of all things, Water Dancer, by Jenifer Levin, showed me something important about language in its cadences; I realized that I wanted the writing about the racing to be extremely physical – to feel harsh or hard or as if it were slipping away from the reader, or hitting them in the face, and I worked hard to try to accomplish that through word choice and rhythm. I kept reading Worstword Ho, by Samuel Beckett, because I thought the pacing was a good model, and because some phrasing in it became important to me: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” In fact, as I raced I used to repeat, like a mantra, “fail better,” and I had that in the book for a bit but the idea of a racer quoting Beckett seemed too outlandish to be accepted as real. I used it as the epigram, at least.

Jerry: Tell me more about your approach to finding the story amidst your memories.

Bill: I found that, to be effective as a storyteller, I had to quickly get to a point where I was able to view the story as a story rather than as therapy. I don’t think I could create tension, character, setting within the confines of a therapeutic recounting. A story, even the ones that feel loose, are structured. I was writing certain ways, introducing certain things at certain points, ending things at certain times, revisiting at certain times, for storytelling effect. I talk about the people in the book as characters, which I think can be disorienting for people who want to talk about me, or Natalie as people. We’re both, but those people inside that book are more characters to me. I mean, I counted up once and Natalie has less than 300 lines of dialog in the book — a fraction of a fraction of everything she said to me over the course of that year. Her dialog in that book is the dialog of that particular character, whereas Nat and I have this whole, nearly boundless yearlong mess of our life together.


This is Part 1 of a Two Part Interview. To read part 2, click here.

To see the Amazon page for this book, click here.

To read more about Bill Strickland and Ten Points, click here