"Why I Wrote Foster Girl" Confessions of a Non-Essential Part 3
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” —Toni Morrison
“Confessions of a Non-Essential” is a limited series on my being a non-essential worker. I am currently under a government order to stay-at-home. I’ll be using this time during our global pandemic to be introspective about what I’m doing with my life.
To catch new readers up to speed, I had one of the most horrific childhoods on record. My early years were so bad that it had to be recorded by a court. That information, if it weren’t for my writing, would be sitting lifeless and forgotten, archived on microfiche in the bowels of a stale basement somewhere. I’m breathing life into my past because my past is alive inside me.
And I want it out.
In the mid-1990’s, the State of California became my parent. While I was in its care, social services took copious notes on my family’s dysfunction and tracked my physical, emotional and mental health status as I grew up in its system. As an adult, I became the less than 3% of former foster youth to have graduated with a college degree. In graduate school, I obtained a 300-page copy of my casefile: 510846A. I had already been writing my life story but after getting my records and reading through the reports, I decided to revise that casefile by supplementing it with my side of the story. All in all, I spent over ten years and over $10,000 to write my book, “Foster Girl, a Memoir” before releasing that book out into the world. Foster Girl was published seven years ago. The moment that book was in my hands, I cradled it tightly and cried. I felt as if I had given birth.
Last week, I shared why I write. This week, I want to breakdown all the reasons why I wrote Foster Girl. The first reason was because The State of California wrote their version about my time in foster care and my book was a more fleshed out response to that casefile. But there are other reasons, some more noble than others.
I Wanted to Be Loved
Something I didn’t reveal in the book but you should know is that usually, when alone in a shower stall or in my bedroom, I would talk as if I had an audience hanging on my every word. I would pretend I had a group of people I could talk to about what I was going through. I also talked as if I had a guardian angel next to me, listening to everything I had to say. I talked to the air a lot in foster care. I remember spending so much time in foster care, in windowless rooms, staring up at a ceiling, wishing I wasn’t alive. My book captures some of these moments along with my innermost thoughts. One of the prevailing thoughts that raced through my head as I stared at a random ceiling was that someday I would write a book about my life. I was going to let the world know what I had gone through and then when they read it, I’d imagine people would want to hug me and love me and wish they could adopt me. Of course, it would be too late because by the time I wrote my book, I’d be an adult. But still, I wrote my book in part so people could love me forever, unconditionally.
I Wanted Life to Be Different for Foster Kids
So, I had this strange fantasy that once my book became public and enough people read it, my book would then enact change on a policy level and culturally. I thought my book would somehow make it onto a lawmaker’s desk and a compassionate Senator or Assemblyman would draft a bill that would improve conditions for kids in foster care. But even further than that, I had high hopes that my book would motivate people to step up in their own families — as I have done in my own life when I cared for my niece for a couple years. I just thought my book would generate action in others. Whether it be through family engagement, adoption, fostering teens, or reigniting jaded, burnt out social workers in the field.
I don’t want a single kid to go through even a fraction of what I went through and I thought a way to try to achieve that was to raise awareness. I wanted people who knew next-to-nothing about foster care to get a crash course. That’s why I added my court documents. I wanted the average Joe and Jane to know how the foster care system works and what it feels like to live in an institutional facility, what it feels like to live in a stranger’s home, what it feels like to not know where your family is, to feel like you could be kicked out of your placement at any given moment, or stand in court as a child, surrounded by coiffed professionals in suits spouting out into the open the most personal details of your family life. I wanted the reader to get a sense of what it felt like to be in foster care through my story. I wanted them to feel what I felt, see what I saw. And once you saw what I saw, I wanted you to feel compelled to somehow do something about it.
I am disturbed that to this day, the average person doesn’t know much of anything about the system. I was hoping my book would help bridge that gap. So far, it hasn’t and I wish I knew why.
I Wanted to Challenge People
I wanted my book to pose questions into the reader’s mind: What if this was you who went through all this you’re reading? How would you have handled it? How would you have turned out? What would you do if the family you were born into couldn’t care for you? What if you were me?
I Wanted Other Foster Youth to Write Their Stories
I only read three books by foster youth before I published mine: Hope’s Boy, Three Little Words and A Child Called “It.” In recent years, I’ve noticed more self-published foster care memoirs have been written. It’s a start but I hope that any former foster youth who reads my book will get inspired to write. I’m thinking about developing a paid-for webinar or curriculum for current and former foster youth (of all ages) on how to get started writing their own stories. Until then, they can read this article I wrote awhile aback, “Wanna Write a Book about Your Childhood? Here are Ten Tips to Get You Started.”
I Wanted to Get to the Heart of My Own Darkness
I learned early on that writing unearths truths that cannot come out any other way. Ray Bradbury had a great quote about writing: “I came on the old and best ways of writing through ignorance and experiment and was startled when truths leaped out of brushes like quail before gunshot.”
When I started writing about my life, I didn’t know what shape it would take. I didn’t set out to write a particular book like Foster Girl. I just wrote about my life ages 0–18 and even before that. I interviewed people and wrote out their testimonies and what I knew about my parents and grandparents. I have over a thousand pages of work and through that, I uncovered some hard earned truths. I saw, through my writing, why my parents made the decisions they made. There was one writing assignment that changed my life in college in particular. My professor instructed that we write about our parents as if they were not our parents. She asked us, “Who were your parents before they born?” This exercise freed me as a writer and gave me breathing room to explore different aspects to the important people in my life. That’s why I opened Foster Girl the way I did. I introduced my mother to readers as a woman separate from me. That college assignment forced me to look at my mom and dad in a way I never did before. When I did this, I idealized my mother less and judged my father less harshly. This was the affect writing had on me as a person but as a writer, I had to honor the child perspective and what I felt in that time period.
And I did not hold back.
I still have anger over all that has happened to me and I don’t forgive everyone but I ended up stockpiling a certain amount of compassion that wasn’t there before. For example, in the process of writing Foster Girl, I discovered that my father’s mother died when he was kid. He also spent time in foster care and his relationship with his own father wasn’t ideal. On the other hand, in the beginning of my writing, I romanticized my mother. Then, along the way, I grew to hate her. I flexed different muscles with my mother than I did with my father because I was closer to her. She raised me, but then she abused me. At the end of the book, I ended up seeing my mother as a young, disabled, isolated woman on drugs with her own mental health problems.
Clear, honest writing forces you to take an X-ray of the people you write about. It was through this process that I came to better understand the origin of dysfunction in my life. To say writing and publishing Foster Girl has been healing is an understatement. Fundamentally, I do feel changed and some of this invisible weight has been lifted.
I just wish my book could have been more influential. How can I make this happen?