Fostering Truth, Pain, & Change

 

“I’m scared of what the future holds, of getting old. I don’t have a family, and once I retire, I won’t have anything to distract me from the fact that I’m alone in this world.” 

 

I wasn’t sure how to respond, because he was telling the truth: that his work is what helps him avoid the painful memories of his past. I could only offer him a tissue, which he already had at his side. Clearly he was more prepared for this interview than I. So I kept filming. After all, it’s what he asked me here to do. 

 

I met Richard several years ago in Atlanta at a conference, where we presented together on a panel focused on fatherhood programs. I showed clips of my film, THE BLACK FATHERHOOD PROJECT, and he discussed one of his programs at the Boston Public Health Commission, the Father Friendly Initiative. Months later he invited me to Boston to show my film to the dads in his program and the larger Boston community. He was a great host and we bonded over our shared passion for social justice and fighting for opportunities for Black men. 

 

Last year he reached out to me with excitement about a new program he was expanding that would provide housing for homeless dads, essentially instilling a safety net to prevent kids from going in to the foster care system, and help those in the system get out of it by reuniting them with their dads. He asked if I could make a film about it. I said yes, because I knew that for Richard, this is more than just a critical service to offer dads; it represents his life coming full circle. 


 

I sit with Richard in his living room. He lights a cigarette, sitting criss-cross at the end of his sofa, rocking back and forth, watching talking heads on CNN. He tells me the rocking keeps him calm, and he also rocked himself to sleep throughout high school. It’s been that way as long as he can remember. 

 

Later, he takes me on a walk in his neighborhood of Roxbury, where he’s lived for over thirty years and shows me what he calls “his bubble.” With his teenage puppy Benny, we trek the 15 or so block radius where he eats, works, and breathes. The streets are colorful in its people, structures, and sounds. African American, Puerto Rican, Cape Verdean, Dominican and other music, accents, and culinary scents converge here brilliantly. And Richard, who told me he has struggled with his own racial identity in the past, seems to fits right in. 

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While in college, after passing the birth records section day after day at the Boston Public Library where he studied, he decided it was time to seek… something. Information? Apologies? Reasons? Family? Love? 

 

Her name was listed with an address in the North End, a predominately Italian-American neighborhood in Boston. Calling the number he found in the phone book next to the name of his birth mother;s father, a man answered: 

 

Hi, I’m trying to reach “Lynn DeRosa.” 

 

“My daughter’s been dead for seven years, who the hell is this?”

 

“Well, uh, actually I’m her son she gave up for adoption.”

 

The man on the other line, Richard’s grandfather presumably, sputters out angry words, denying Richard’s truth. Eventually, a woman gets on the line. 

 

“Is your name still Richard?” 

 

Briefly, Richard feels some relief at the confirmation that he did dial the right home. But the denial continues, upset and accusatory, and the conversation ends, but not before Richard leaves his number in case they change their minds later. 

 

A second brief phone call take place, and it ends with Richard being told, “There’s no niggers in this family.” 

 

The ultimate rejection of family reunification, that perhaps he fantasized for years going entirely differently, in addition to learning of his mother’s death, pushes Richard to lock himself in his dorm for days alone, drowning in tears. 

 

It was, without a doubt, an incredibly traumatizing experience. Yet it was only the latest of many. First, there was being returned in his infancy by his adoptive parents to the Department because he skin was darkening. Later he learned his first adoptive parents weren’t informed he was a biracial child. 

 

There were the Sunday beatings from the Hendersons. The constant hard labor the Turner family forced upon him. Being locked in a dark basement for hours. The fighting and yelling at the Garcia’s house. And the feeling of denial, each and every time he was sent back, as if he came with a warranty. By the time Richard was 14 years of age, he had been placed in eight different living situations. 

 

Of course, the adoptive parents had their reasons, as is documented in his records. “Steals money from neighbors.” “Pees in the bed.”

“Hides candy all over the house.” 
“Wouldn’t stop rocking his bed and broke it.” 

“Breaks his sibling’s toys.” 

 

As he reads aloud the complaints from his case file, we can’t help but get a good laugh out of it. It’s the typical behaviors of a child, especially one with a traumatic history of abuse and neglect. 

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I ask Richard why he so adamantly wanted to make a film about his new program, and his life journey. 

 

“Because I have a hard time getting close to people, I don’t have a family, or a legacy in that way. I want to leave something tangible behind after I die that helps young people. This film is what I can leave behind.” 

 

While he is no longer a petty thief or household menace, he says he is suffering from more serious issues that are likely the result of his childhood. He recently had an operation to remove a cancer in his colon, however after a CAT scan legions were discovered on his left lung and due to complications during a biopsy he was put into a medically induced coma for two days. In addition to the cancer he has other serious health issues under examination. Research has shown that adverse childhood experiences like those he experienced can be directly related to health problems such as cancer, heart disease, and substance abuse. To him, the correlation is clear, and it should be included in the film. 

 

“I want to show that my problems haven’t gone away completely. I want to show the whole truth, not just the good stuff, because it’s not that clean and simple. My childhood is still impacting me and showing itself in new ways.”

 

I concur, and see tremendous value in telling his story in all of its complexity, triumphs and shortcomings. It’s the truth, and that’s where healing begins.

 

 

 

 

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Cheryl Miranda posted:

After moving away from my toxic family of origin, I was always apprehensive being asked about my family. Since I used to work in a residential school and lived on campus, I'd constantly have to deflect questions like Are you going home for the holidays? 'How come no one is  visiting you?' I don't know what was more painful, not having family who cares or having to hide the fact I don't have anyone who cares. 

I always found hiding to be the more difficult. Whenever I could “fess up” it was an intense relief. 

Cheryl Miranda posted:

After moving away from my toxic family of origin, I was always apprehensive being asked about my family. Since I used to work in a residential school and lived on campus, I'd constantly have to deflect questions like Are you going home for the holidays? 'How come no one is  visiting you?' I don't know what was more painful, not having family who cares or having to hide the fact I don't have anyone who cares. 

Thanks for your post Cheryl.  I suspect that this is an issue with many of us who have had their primary family disrupted.  I am reminded, as I read about your residential work, of a term that I learned in my graduate program, "wounded healers"

And although you don't need to be wounded to be a healer, it can certainly bring another dimension to our ability to empathize with those we work with. 

After moving away from my toxic family of origin, I was always apprehensive being asked about my family. Since I used to work in a residential school and lived on campus, I'd constantly have to deflect questions like Are you going home for the holidays? 'How come no one is  visiting you?' I don't know what was more painful, not having family who cares or having to hide the fact I don't have anyone who cares. 

Nancy Washton posted:
Rich DeRosa posted:
Nancy Washton posted:

I too have no family other than a child I gave up. Trauma has significant lifelong impact in so many ways; I struggle everyday with the ingrained coping mechanisms that are no longer suitable given my current life. I hope at some point that complex trauma becomes understood in general society, and that those that have experienced it are viewed not as deeply flawed people, but rather tremendous survivors who bring diversity and unique perspectives to the table. 

Thanks so much for your response.  I wonder do others really see us as flawed when they know our history?  I wonder if maybe we are viewed as flawed because we are protective and secretive about our past experiences out of a misplaced sense of shame, and others see the impact that of our ACES has in our opinions and behaviors without having a context in which to understand them?

Just a thought....

It's certainly not easy for me to discuss my history with coworkers - I'm a chemist surrounded by other scientists whose backgrounds are very dissimilar to mine.  I had one colleague, upon asking him why I wasn't viewed as a "real scientist", state that "there is just something about you....".  I believe that "something" is the pervasive effect on my world view arising from significant trauma from childhood and young adulthood.  I believe that complex trauma survivors communicate differently and this is picked up on by others.  In some situations it's a positive, and in others a negative, but ultimately it results in feeling "other".

Nonetheless I no longer hide my history, although I am careful about the context I bring it up in.  Too many of us are faltering from a lack of understanding, empathy, and experiencing basic human dignity.  After finally finding a therapist that understands and treats complex trauma I am beginning to  manage the effects of trauma, and my goal now is to communicate the consequences of trauma to those that are unaware and/or haven't experienced it themselves.

I agree wholeheartedly,and am so happy that you too are on a journey for the betterment of your life which I hope that I am also on, but to be honest the jury remains out on that.

I wish to clarify my last response:  it in no way was ment  to suggest that we should be running around spilling about our history and trauma.  Folks should only disclose information that they are comfortable with, actually forcing disclosure of trauma can actually be very dangerious and should be considered with great care.

Rich DeRosa posted:
Nancy Washton posted:

I too have no family other than a child I gave up. Trauma has significant lifelong impact in so many ways; I struggle everyday with the ingrained coping mechanisms that are no longer suitable given my current life. I hope at some point that complex trauma becomes understood in general society, and that those that have experienced it are viewed not as deeply flawed people, but rather tremendous survivors who bring diversity and unique perspectives to the table. 

Thanks so much for your response.  I wonder do others really see us as flawed when they know our history?  I wonder if maybe we are viewed as flawed because we are protective and secretive about our past experiences out of a misplaced sense of shame, and others see the impact that of our ACES has in our opinions and behaviors without having a context in which to understand them?

Just a thought....

It's certainly not easy for me to discuss my history with coworkers - I'm a chemist surrounded by other scientists whose backgrounds are very dissimilar to mine.  I had one colleague, upon asking him why I wasn't viewed as a "real scientist", state that "there is just something about you....".  I believe that "something" is the pervasive effect on my world view arising from significant trauma from childhood and young adulthood.  I believe that complex trauma survivors communicate differently and this is picked up on by others.  In some situations it's a positive, and in others a negative, but ultimately it results in feeling "other".

Nonetheless I no longer hide my history, although I am careful about the context I bring it up in.  Too many of us are faltering from a lack of understanding, empathy, and experiencing basic human dignity.  After finally finding a therapist that understands and treats complex trauma I am beginning to  manage the effects of trauma, and my goal now is to communicate the consequences of trauma to those that are unaware and/or haven't experienced it themselves.

Mara Mark posted:

I feel Richard's pain. I have that pain myself. Just a note of empathy... wishing you healing and finding some peace and resolution.

Thanks so much for your response. I am very lucky to have a very supportive group of friends.   Funny I feel like I have no family but in reality nothing can be further from the truth.  This is all so very complicated...

Nancy Washton posted:

I too have no family other than a child I gave up. Trauma has significant lifelong impact in so many ways; I struggle everyday with the ingrained coping mechanisms that are no longer suitable given my current life. I hope at some point that complex trauma becomes understood in general society, and that those that have experienced it are viewed not as deeply flawed people, but rather tremendous survivors who bring diversity and unique perspectives to the table. 

Thanks so much for your response.  I wonder do others really see us as flawed when they know our history?  I wonder if maybe we are viewed as flawed because we are protective and secretive about our past experiences out of a misplaced sense of shame, and others see the impact that of our ACES has in our opinions and behaviors without having a context in which to understand them?

Just a thought....

I too have no family other than a child I gave up. Trauma has significant lifelong impact in so many ways; I struggle everyday with the ingrained coping mechanisms that are no longer suitable given my current life. I hope at some point that complex trauma becomes understood in general society, and that those that have experienced it are viewed not as deeply flawed people, but rather tremendous survivors who bring diversity and unique perspectives to the table. 

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