I love love love the new Beauty and the Beast movie. One of the best parts, of course, is the Beast’s library, so I wrote “Belle Would Be Enchanted by These 10 Lovely Libraries in Hotels” for USA Today 10Best.Read All Entries
Debra Monroe On Transracial Adoption and “On the Outskirts of Normal”
It’s hard enough to be a single mother. It’s even harder, as Debra Monroe discovered, to be the white single mother of an African-American baby in rural Texas. Debra shares her experiences — which include often-mortifying reactions from strangers; the struggle to balance work, illness and child-rearing; and doing right by her little girl’s hair — in the powerful On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging A Family Against the Grain. Approaching her subject matter the same way she approached motherhood — unapologetically, with intent, determined to figure it out — Debra has written a brutally, and beautifully, honest account of transracial adoption and, more importantly, the color-blind bond between parent and child. Not only was she able to create a solid and loving against-the-odds family with her daughter but, through this book, has gathered a whole new family of fans who have taken her story to heart. I am one of those fans, and I was thrilled to be able to learn more in this very personal interview with Debra — and her daughter, Marie!
I so enjoyed reading your book but kept wishing that you hadn’t had to write it, that — in the 21st century — the fact that a single white woman adopted an African-American baby wouldn’t be worthy of a dramatic story. What surprised you most about people’s reactions?
Well, many of the events took place a dozen years ago and in a setting that really put the magnifying glass on them — a small town, which wasn’t close to diverse. On the other hand, your point is trenchant in that it’s not entirely a book about race. It’s a book about motherhood, and my race vis-à-vis my daughter’s race is a part of the story, but not the entire story. Readers tell me that they expect the book to be about race more than it actually is, or for it to be about race in a way that’s sort of mythological and not realistic — in the way The Blind Side or The Help or even To Kill A Mockingbird are mythological, or at least not realistic for our times. Those are books in which there are clear protagonists and antagonists (enlightened crusaders vs. the clueless ones). Real life is more complex than that. Enlightened crusaders sometimes condescend. People who are clueless are sometimes imprisoned by the values of the era in which they were raised and can be jarred out of reflexive beliefs. And it’s also true in real life you can’t tell off or avoid every insensitive person.
Race isn’t irrelevant in the book, of course — it is the sole subject of two entire chapters, and the topic of race is infused throughout the rest of the book in the form of strangers’ comments and the assumptions imbedded in their comments. I’ll be thinking about a doctor’s diagnosis, or how to get Marie home before bedtime, or what first grade will be like for her, and someone starts talking about race. The questions were usually (not always!) kindly, if constant and disruptive. I’m not black, of course, and I can’t write from the perspective of someone who is. But I am the white mother of a black child, and I wrote about that. My daughter’s race is (or would be) irrelevant to me, but it isn’t to other people, and so I’ve had to step up and deal with other people’s attitudes. The amount of attention I give the subject of race in the book reflects the amount of attention I give it in real life. When people bring it up, I will speak forcefully but tactfully. When strangers brought it up in front of my daughter, I did resist talking about it at length — soapboxing — because I’ve always felt she deserved the privacy to ask her own questions about race, and about the sad, scary history of race in America, and to have the freedom and privacy to wonder what she wonders, discover what she discovers, without an audience of strangers. I thought she should have that experience with me, or a trusted mentor, and not in front of a stranger, with the stranger referring to my daughter in the third person. The last thing I wanted her to be was everybody else’s symbol of their own (self- congratulatory) tolerance, or a public object lesson.
If I read anonymous internet comments under reviews or interviews — and, believe me, I’m learning not to! — some people, most of whom focus on an out-of-context line in the review or interview and haven’t read the book — say I have either made too much of race and exploited the subject, while other people think I’ve not done justice to the amount of prejudice that still exists, that I’m therefore raising my daughter too sheltered from racial realities. I couldn’t shelter her from all realities of prejudice, as the book makes clear, or the startling facts once she started to learn American history. However, I did think it was my responsibility to shelter her from racism in her own life — to get her out of that weird first grade classroom as swiftly as possible, for instance, drawing as little attention to the process as I did. I taught her to stand up to the school bus bullies. I don’t think prolonged exposure to someone’s racism is helpful or instructive. I think it’s only demoralizing.
I guess what surprises me most, but shouldn’t, is that you can’t say anything about race in America without someone from each side of the spectrum getting hackles up and telling you you’ve got it wrong. But no one can agree on exactly which way I’ve got it wrong. Finally, it’s one story — influenced by a specific time and place and circumstance — and not everyone’s.
What was most emotional to me was that this is – at its heart — really the story of a new mother trying to care for and raise her daughter by itself. That seems much more important than the stupid comments of ignorant strangers, and I’m sure will resonate with single moms everywhere. What was the hardest part about raising a child alone?
The sheer multi-tasking and the fear I couldn’t do it all. I knew I was raising a child without a husband. Lots of women do. Even married women who have really uninvested husbands do. But if there is a father, divorced or asleep in the recliner or on a business trip, these mothers still have a little time off. A few hours here or there. Weeks or weekends off if you have split custody. And if you have even an ex-husband, you probably have two sets of relatives to call on. What I totally underestimated was the need for extended family. I remember watching “American Idol” with my daughter (she loved it when she was in grade school) and there was a finalist whose M.O. was that she was a single mother trying to win to give her child a better life. I kept thinking: how can she be in Los Angeles without her child for 8 weeks? One night she thanked her mom and grandma, with whom she lived, and her grandma provided daycare. I remember thinking: ah, that’s the part I didn’t understand.
The four years when we were both sick seem to me, in retrospect, like one long emergency. At one point, I “interviewed” Marie about what she remembered about our life before we moved to the city. All her memories were happy and fun: Johnny Cash songs sung into the Playskool microphone, or her pink pajama pants stuffed with the wrapped presents, or gardening, sewing, cooking, swimming. I gently prodded her to see what she recalled about my surgery, or hers, or other difficult moments. And she doesn’t remember much. Those moments loomed large for me, because I was responsible for her sense of security and working hard at handling crises while also shielding her from them.
I’m now married to a man who’s a great father, and the best thing a good co-parent does is help you make big decisions. If you’re alone all the time, you doubt your judgment. Am I overreacting, underreacting? I’d been dating him just three weeks when he helped me decide to get my daughter out of that classroom. He helped me decide what to do about the expensive hair care option. I’m not sure I would have made the same (good) decisions without his input, because I tended to self-doubt and second-guess. I am so grateful for his perspective now, every time some significant decision comes up.
You give readers a real sense of place – those small towns feel so red-neck to me, especially when the people who live there ask you questions like, “What is she?” or “Is that a crack baby?” Do you think your story would be different if you were living in a big city when you adopted Marie?
Absolutely. But people still make race-based assumptions in the city. That she’s a shoplifter, because she seems to be alone in the store, not shopping with me, because we don’t look alike. Maybe the same clerk would think that about a white adolescent who seemed alone in a store too, but I don’t think so. Or that she’s going to be good at sports but not academics. Or that she lives in a less affluent neighborhood. They just don’t say the words “black” or “African-American” when they state these assumptions. We live in semantically cautious times, and people in the city learned that sooner than people in the country—they have a more careful vocabulary on tap.
A great thing about living in the city — again, this is a side-effect of living in a later decade — is that there are other interracial families here. I see interracial families a few times a week. There are fewer in Austin, Texas, than there were in Los Angles when I visited Los Angeles a month ago. But everywhere there are more than there were 14 years ago.
Not only were you the first one in your family to graduate from high school but you went on to earn your Ph.D. and have a successful writing career. How were you able to overcome your own childhood, which included abusive men, alcoholics and a neglectful mother? Where did you find that strength and determination?
My mother wasn’t at all neglectful when I was a child. She bailed out when I was in my early twenties. It was sad. But it didn’t destroy me. I can’t stress enough the difference between a mother who neglects her child, and a mother who can’t be there for her grown children. A mother’s inability to mother a child has life-long ramifications. A mother’s inability to be available to her adult child is sad, but, in my case, I had my essential lessons instilled already. I’d learned to give love, receive love. I might have been a little hungry for it by the time I adopted, for a return to the sense of the unconditional permanence of familial love, and perhaps overweening and cautious. But I knew how to do it.
My mother was a wonderful woman whose world came crashing down on her, and she bailed out on her entire life, including her adult children. I know from experience, and from having done research about motherless children and attachment disorder, that I’m fairly lucky. It hurt to lose my mother in my early twenties — in ways that I didn’t fully come to terms with until I was in my forties — but if she hadn’t been such a good, nurturing mother when I was a child, I wouldn’t have been good at mothering at all. How we mother ourselves is determined by how we have been mothered, unless we consciously set out to learn to do so differently. Social workers who supervised my earliest days with Marie, and strangers too, remarked how instinctively and effortlessly maternal I was. Touch is the first language of love a child understands. Then structure and safety and routine. I learned those early, so I knew how to give them to Marie.
The biggest legacy of my mother’s life I had to unlearn was that she didn’t have a bottom line about how men treated her, a failing that was, in part, generational. She didn’t feel equal to men. I grew up feeling the same way, though I was, in theory, post-feminist. As for how I educated myself, as I say in the book: school was structure. My family structure disappeared. School was such a reliable and rewarding replacement. You work hard at school and you’re rewarded tangibly. You work hard on your dysfunctional family and you may or may not be rewarded — you might even be making more trouble for yourself.
What’s amazing, with your family background, is how unselfishly you were willing and eager to give your love to a child. It’s like you said – “Love is like spelling. You learn good spelling early. Or you never do.” How were you able to open your heart so generously when you certainly had no role models in that area?
I did learn love early. As a child, I did have a great role model. My mother did most things right. What she didn’t do right is choose men. She can be forgiven for that. You’ll notice I absorbed that from her too, along with nurturing and tenderness. So I had to keep the best of what I learned from her — love, structure, essential kindness — and reject the worst, which was her fear of being alone, her subservience toward men.
I loved the chapter about Marie’s hair and the amazing amount of time, effort and care you put into getting her hair right. It’s such a fascinating – and important – topic, and one that Chris Rock’s explored in his documentary, “Good Hair.” What other culture-related challenges have you had to face?
Well, I’m going to get slammed for saying this, but I would say geographic apartheid. I just looked up the census statistics about the little town I used to live in. African-American, 0%. (We moved away—maybe it used to be 1%.). It’s 11% in Austin. But not in our neighborhood. This is a very liberal city — the Chamber of Commerce tourism slogan is “Keep Austin Weird.” Yet it’s still segregated in a self-perpetuating, voluntary way — or maybe not entirely voluntary way because of median income and property values. But people gravitate to what they know as “community.” I’m constantly wishing for more diverse social settings, but there are few. A friend who has her Ph.D. in urban planning just moved from Austin to Chicago. She loved Austin but is thrilled that in Chicago she was able to find many diverse neighborhoods. This is so not the case here.
Why did you want to write this book? Is there a specific message you want to pass along?
In the book I talk a lot about “clout,” how I got clout, what I was like before I did, how I am since I got it. My message is that each of us, at some point in life, is handed a series of painful experiences we wouldn’t choose to endure but must. Choosing to be a mother has been my great joy. But, given the chance, I would have opted out on the nearly fatal illness, my daughter’s illnesses, the shock of my mother’s disappearance, reappearance, and death, and the numbing isolation. Yet without these experiences I would be a less able mother than I am today. I’m not saying that bad things happen for a reason. I’m saying that bad things happen. And if we pay attention, we will probably be wiser and stronger afterward.
You are so open and honest in telling your personal story. Were there parts that were difficult to write? Parts you wanted to leave out?
I felt guilty for telling my mother’s story — I don’t think I could have done so if she were still alive. I also feel ashamed of my own bad decisions in the chapters in which my surgery and a series of other mishaps spiral together. But when I write the difficult moments, I always picture one sympathetic reader at a time, not a judgmental horde. I know that when I have been discouraged or sad, I’ve sometimes stayed up all night reading a book that spoke to my difficulties. I think it’s right and necessary to explore difficult times. People who have found themselves in similar straits feel saner, less lonely, generally better off for having read someone else’s account.
Was it strange to write a memoir after writing novels? And, in the “truth is stranger than fiction” category, how would you have written this story differently if you were writing it as a novel?
I sort of did write it as novel, in my previous book, Shambles. And the reviews were like: this novel is trying too hard to be politically correct. Doesn’t that say it all? No one believed me when they thought I was making it up. Of course I changed some details in the novel, heightened certain tensions. But it covers many of the same issues.Photo by Scott Van Osdol
Marie’s had questions of her own since she was prattling chains of syllables at age 15 months. I’ve always answered them. She’s used to me being a writer, having books out, and she’s gone to many conferences and readings with me since she was a baby, so, in some ways, this isn’t different. Except she’s on the cover of the book. Right now she thinks that’s cool, fun. Most kids her age would but I don’t think any adolescent understands what it fully means, and I know that. I talked to her a long time before I submitted the book for publication, to see what she thought. If she truly seemed uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have. And I would have insisted on a different cover photo if she’d objected. And I feel right with my decision to write this book because I don’t tell her secrets, only my own. She did say not long ago that it was “our” book. Her friend corrected her: Your mom wrote it. Marie said, “She couldn’t have without me.” So true. It’s a book about how, in my forties, I finally addressed a few problems in my life and got them right. I couldn’t do it for myself, to improve my life. But I was compelled to do it for her, to be a better a mother and role model.
I’d add that we were, whether we liked it not, public figures in the small town just for being so conspicuously unlike everyone else, and she’s accustomed to attention. If she hadn’t been handling it well, I probably would have moved away from the small town long before I did. She was on the front page of the small town newspaper all the time. Every time there was a school event, she’d be in the newspaper photo because the newspaper wanted the town to look diverse. I don’t think she makes a distinction between being in the Wimberley Times and People magazine. She was quite unimpressed by People magazine. This is what she said about the People magazine photo: “Well, I don’t read that magazine.” Who knows what she’ll ultimately think? But a review recently pointed out that it is a book in which she comes off stronger and better than anyone else. And that’s because — I’m bragging now — she pretty much is.
Marie looks like a happy, confident young woman. Can you tell us a little about the person she’s becoming?
She has a gift for working with small children. She’s a mensch about human nature in general. She’s not underconfident or ill at ease, but she notices kids who are and helps bring them into the fold. She has zero tolerance for bullies. I don’t mean she gets mad. They just aren’t on her radar. There was a “mean girl” at camp recently, and I said, shuddering, long-time coward that I am, “How can you stand being in a cabin for two weeks with someone like that?” Marie turned to me with a level stare and said, “Mom, sometimes you meet people you just ignore. You can’t let them ruin your day.”
How has life changed in the time since the book ends? And have people’s reactions changed since you moved and married?
Basically fewer people ask in their roundabout way if I’ve had sex with a black man, no kidding. In part, because you don’t ask that in the city, and, in part, because I’m out in public with my husband and his son too, and it’s fairly obvious she’s not our biological child. It’s been interesting to watch my husband learn to navigate the chronic awkwardness. He was recently trying to pay for Marie’s sandwich in Subway, and the clerk told him to back off, to give the young lady space. My husband, startled, said, “Umm, I’m her father and I’m just trying to pay for her sandwich.” Marie cracked up and said to the clerk, “He’s my dad, not a stalker.” I realized when he told me about it that I’d long ago learned to make small talk with Marie in public places where we’re unknown to people, just to make it clear we’re together. I apparently started doing this unconsciously. But of course he hasn’t.
What’s next for you professionally?
I’m not sure because promoting and traveling for a book is so time-consuming. I’m writing a lot of short magazine pieces and book reviews now. But what’s emerging is an idea for a nonfiction book with an overarching personal narrative, but also research, and interviews with other people, with the working title, The Last First Kiss: Courting and Sparking in Middle-Age. People in their forties and fifties having to begin to date again is kind of a new cultural phenomenon. More people divorce now. More long-married men and women come out gay late in a marriage and fall in love. For both gay and straight couples, this sometimes includes blending families. Some people live longer, so one spouse dies and the other has 30 more years and doesn’t want to spend them alone. The narrative arc would be my own changing ideas about what marriage is and isn’t over the course of several decades. I went from being fairly conventional on the subject; to radically disenfranchised, thinking a marriage in which a woman’s professional ideals don’t get swallowed was a pious but unrealizable ideal; to changing my mind again, learning to understand that, with the right partner, we can retain the best features of the traditional partnership and adapt it too. And I’d interview people from different demographic categories who did partner happily late in life.
Thanks so much for sharing your story. I think it’s going to make a big difference in many people’s lives.
This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.