Cinderella

It has been two years since we brought our foster daughter her Cinderella costume at the mental health hospital.

She was trapped in the facility where she spent four months being “snowed” (a term insiders use as code for the state of over-medicated kids). Children in foster care have seemingly endless access to facilities, group homes, hospitals and drugs.

M was thrilled by the costume that trailed glitter every time you touched it, but on Halloween when we came to visit her we found her face painted as if in some sick joke. The meds gave M’s pretty face deep, dark circles. The staff exaggerated those circles with paint making her a zombie Cinderella. M was too disturbed to care. Only days before she’d been told her mother had given up her rights and would never see her again and her sisters were going to be adopted.

As a zombie, M spotted my daughter and me from across the sparsely decorated visitors’ wing. She cursed us, called us bitches and told us she never wanted to see us again. When we left we were almost relieved. Maybe she really meant it. Maybe this experiment in foster care was over. M called that night (after processing her anger in the padded room). She apologized and begged for us to return the next day.

So much has changed since those early days when an invisible force kept nudging us to stay connected. So many layers have been peeled back, and, with each layer, new and sometimes ugly revelations and behaviors emerge. Kids who’ve been abused to her extent often take their anger out on the mother figures in their new homes.  Many women report having suicidal thoughts after adopting extremely abused children (not there yet).

Survival for kids who have been hurt before the age of two, before real words to name their abuse, suffer from fears that make no sense—even to them. An Irish fishermen sweater may have the texture of a blanket in a child’s crib. How does a toddler understand the time her mother fractured her tiny sister’s skull and broke her clavicle  before throwing her into your crib? Stress and neglect damage the brain.

This year has been tough. Loving a low-functioning kid with bizarre survival skills is loving a dog who keeps biting you. Yeah, they’re cute but you have to wonder if you’re a little crazy too. Luckily this kid is only verbally abusive—and it’s more a constant need to control me. It’s like being locked in a bubble with a crazy person. She wants help yet she’ll fight for three hours (if you let her) insisting 3+3=7. We have to keep an alarm on her door now because she threatened committing suicide with kitchen knives. Once we got to the hospital (because as foster parents we must bring kids in for evaluation after suicidal talk), M ordered some food, flipped on the TV and admitted she was just angry at me for not letting her date (tests say she’s functioning at between 3 and 7 years old mentally).

While there’s a whole host of more important issues to deal with, the one that drives my husband and I crazy is her Cinderella dress from two years ago. The experts say to pick your battles, so we let her dress in the torn, too small dress over her play clothes after school. She gathers a bunch of toys, rocks and pieces of string into a bag, hops on her bike and parks it a ¼ of a mile down the road where it curves around a neighboring cow farm. She practices cheering imaginary teams with her tiara tilted on her head. On ninety degree days she wears the princess outfit, 7 scarves and a Shrek-like furry vest someone gave her at the group home. M thinks it’s fashionable.

Last week our son’s friend drove to the house. “I almost hit some crazy person in a crown blowing bubbles in the middle of the road!”

“Yeah, that’s my sister,” our son replied.

We’ve considered throwing away this costume so many times but it’s so important to her we haven’t had the heart. We’ve considered keeping her on a tighter rein but she’s finally not afraid to be out in nature on her bicycle. We’ve considered cutting our losses.

This weekend she came to apologize to me yet again for picking a fight. She knows she seriously may not be able to stay with us if she can’t begin to follow our safety rules (children of neglect believe they actually do know best about most things).

M stood before me in the open fields waving her arms with emotion. “Yeah, I do take everything out on you! I’m afraid to go to school tomorrow because the dog ate my paper (true) and here’s why I wear the princess costume. You really wanna know?”

“Okay, I guess so,” I replied, waiting for a lame excuse and not really wanting a discussion about fashion.

“So when I wear it, it’s the only time,” she began, her brown eyes welling with tears. “It’s the only time–when I wear the tiara and the dress—that I don’t feel like who I am for real: the ugliest person alive.”

 

***Photograph Library of Congress

Anne with an “E” and the Reality of Orphans

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We all have something of the orphan in us. Rejection, loneliness and the bleak reality that we die alone color some of our darker imaginings. I’ve a soft spot for fictional orphans.  As a writer I collect broken people. I give them homes in MY BOOKS. They tend to wreak havoc. The same is true for real orphans.

Watching the first episode in the new series about the red-headed orphan girl Anne of Green Gables with my own orphan girl last week offered striking contrasts and similarities. I applaud the new edgier Anne. She comes far closer to the reality of orphans.

Here’s what orphans do (well, my orphan in particular):

THEY TALK. Non-stop. Anne talks about poetry and at times is quite insightful. Our orphan girl was so brutalized at a young age we may never fully understand how much of her  potential was lost. Entire blocks of learning do not exist. The level of trauma was so severe in her early school years that while she was there, she really wasn’t there at school. Her last IQ test score was a 57.

But talk she does. When not talking about earrings or insane arguments that make no sense she sings gibberish songs. A rink-dink-dink-dink-dinky-doo is one of her favorites. My teenage son  whispered to me in the kitchen the other day, “Oh my god, I’ve got a rink-dink-dink-dinky-doo stuck in my head. Please kill me now.”

Kids with reactive-attachment disorder (RAD) never shut up. They rob the air from the room. They MUST be in CONTROL of all time, all space and all people. Anne makes it look kind of cute but in reality it can be “nerve-grinding” (a new phrase I’ve learned from books on RAD).

This winter the incessant talking and stalking caused me to question my sanity many times. Not cute. According to the books, people who take in RAD kids have a higher suicide rate. (Don’t worry. I’m not there yet)

ORPHANS CHARM: When I first met our orphan she told me I was the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen. After ten awkward minutes of playing  a board game she didn’t understand our orphan announced that she loved me and wanted to live with me forever.  The director of the children’s shelter told me  not to feel too bad if it didn’t work out because no one thought it would. I remember how eagerly the shelter workers hustled the orphan into my waiting car and how relieved they all looked when the girl was strapped in.

I like how in the new Anne series Anne manipulates RACHEL LYNDE into forgiving her. Our orphan has many people in the system and at her school convinced that she is the sweetest kid on the planet. At home she writes sexually explicit stories in her notebooks and calls me a lot of names (on papers she leaves around her room) that paint another picture of me.

ORPHANS STARE: They just sit there and stare. The occasional weird grown-up will actually get offended and ask our orphan why she’s staring at them. She often doesn’t know. Sometimes a face or color, the tone of a voice or the feel of a fabric will bring something back to her that she can’t put a finger on. The terror it taps into is so profound it causes all rational thought to cease. And then it’s gone and she wants ice-cream.

ORPHANS DO THE DISHES: And then they break the dishes. Anne, trying to prove her worth, jumps from the table to wash dishes. She drops them in  nervous haste. In that moment we see the terror rise up. Mistakes made by orphans remind them of other mistakes–and punishments: the belt, the switch, the name-calling and the being tied to a chair for days with the help of duct tape.

Our orphan always wants to help out and do dishes. It always ends badly. We say, “You’re still loved, but, really, stay away from washing the dishes.”

ORPHANS HAVE WEIRD DIETS: Anne gets into trouble when she serves her friend wine by mistake. She’s never had wine or fruit drinks and doesn’t know the difference. Our orphan eats goat food right out of the dirty feeders. The feeders that little shitty goat hooves have trampled in. Our orphan ate green beans off of the floor of a public bathroom at the beach last summer.

“Safe” is just another word that makes her stare.

ORPHANS HURT SMALLER CREATURES: Anne is kind to animals. Our orphan girl pretends to be kind to animals. She is not to be left alone with our dogs. She’s broken hard things over the soft belly of our retriever. We didn’t even believe it at first, but it’s true. Her moods and tempers must be harnessed. Her brain retrained, but it’s a hard road (especially when she laughs at an animal’s suffering).

Being an orphan is a life sentence. We all end life alone, but we’re drawn to the redemption stories of orphans. The homecomings, the healing and the forgiveness of great sins.

I believe in destiny, God and his command to take care of the orphans. Loving the unlovable looks so nice in period costume.

As spring comes on strong here at the farm I see some growth in the orphan (and maybe a little in me). The girl didn’t know how to read last year. It was painful to hear her butcher Dr. Seuss. Now she reads chapter books and understands some of the jokes. She sucks at math but her teacher raves about her blossoming storytelling on paper.

Our orphan wants to dress like Anne and is now able to take long walks in the country by herself without fearing death. Sometimes she tells us things that are coherent and interesting. She tries using big words. No one really believes her true IQ is so low. Tests scare her.

Anne’s adoptive parents initially think Anne is a big mistake. They wanted a boy, but Anne was their destiny.

Our orphan is not what we thought we wanted. She’s just as cute as Anne of Green Gables, but she’s real. Broken things in real life don’t often mend with beautiful music in the background.

Yet there is a reason orphans are mentioned so often in the Bible. It’s easy to love a beautiful little girl on the big screen, but we are commanded to love the beaten, the neglected and the people everyone else has kicked to the curb. yes, sometimes it sucks. But I live for the signs of spring, new growth and happy endings.

***Not all orphans come with the same problems, skills or attitudes.

ANNE WITH AN E (the darker Anne)

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES

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Can Education Change The World? (or is it all in our heads?)

“I’ll keep having babies until they stop taking them away.”

Yes, that’s what a mentally challenged young woman told the social services workers outside family court. She’d lost five or six children to the system already. A talk on birth control would have made little difference.

I heard about this case from our foster daughter’s lawyer after I asked her if M could possibly get some baby pictures of herself that her mother “Tracy” used to have. The lawyer shook her head in sad disgust.

“I doubt Tracy would have kept the pictures. She’s never in one place for long, but when I see her at court next I’ll ask.”

“Court? Again?”

“Yes, she’s had two more kids in the last two years—both of them are already in the system,” the lawyer replied from behind the heaps of documents on her desk.

No one’s told M that not only does she have two sisters (adopted locally) and a stepbrother living with M’s scary father but also two new baby siblings—in the court system.

So I ask, “Is Tracy mentally deficient like the other woman you just told me about?”

The lawyer thinks a moment. “No, she’s just evil.”

I’m sort of shocked by her honest appraisal and inclusion of a moral take on the woman. Knowing M’s history I’d have to say the stuff that was done to her was evil.

What would phrenologists of the 19th century say? Phrenology is the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities.

Walt Whitman wrote in his 1870 sexual-eugenic essay Democratic Vistas that America’s youth lacked sexually. They were “puny, impudent, foppish, prematurely ripe, and characterized by an abnormal libidinousness and a diminished capacity for good motherhood.”

Whitman’s remedy: “crops of fine youth planted” to become America’s best breeders.*

As a gardener and foster parent of a girl with “delays”  I’m troubled by the analogy. How are we to be rid of the weeds that grow among the fine youth?

To be pro-life is a radical idea in the history of the world where weeds, misfits and mistakes are gotten rid of. Slavery, body parts for sale, war and thousands of cast off orphans are the consequences of the human proclivity to get rid of weak and uncomfortable things.

How often do we hear now from “civilized” and “compassionate” people that this or that leader should be assassinated?

We hear of new procedures that may one day eradicate unacceptable or messy human misfits—a pipe dream at best but chilling when taking into account the many ways we find fault with each other.

George Combe, the Scottish phrenologist in his The Application of Phrenology to the Present and Prospective Conditions of the United States (1840) had this to say: The enlightened classes “raise the mental condition of the people . . . which will enable them to understand the moral and political principles on which the welfare of nations is founded.”

Combe predicted “an uncontrolled development of the faculties of Acquisitiveness (greed), Self-Esteem (excessive self-confidence), and Love of Approbation (vanity), in which could destroy the Union.” If something wasn’t done. *

We mustn’t judge the Victorians too harshly when we find that many embraced the idea of social and moral uplift through education and selective breeding. If we are honest we will see ourselves in the historical mirror.

vaughts-practical-character-reader-1902-2Studying bumps on someone’s head may seem silly to us. Frat parties and pussy hats would probably have seemed “funny” to them. We judge our Victorian ancestors harshly for bringing “civilization” to “less civilized” people (but if we’re being honest not many of us want to live the Rousseau dream in a buggy forest with no air-conditioning (see the movie The Mission).

How much moral uplift has come from the public school system (or the Ivy League colleges—many of which were founded as Christian seminaries?).

How many less unwanted children have come into the world because of legal abortion?

Yes, I had to make the terrible choice to terminate a pregnancy (after seeing the baby’s perfect body on an ultrasound). My very flawed and very human doctor dismissed my concerns about a blood clot in my leg for weeks. A vascular surgeon saved my life at the very last minute, but the doctors refused me treatment until the baby was gone.

I hadn’t really wanted another child, but until this very day I suffer from a profound sense of loss. Funny how the heart works.

The 19th century perfectionist idea that we can, through science and education, bring heaven to earth was an illusion. It still is.

It’s easier to be rid of things, to divide the skull into seemingly rational sections that tell us our fate, to abort babies who have low IQs or the “gay gene.”

We must be careful in labeling someone we disagree with a fool or someone to be gotten rid of. We so rarely see the evil in ourselves and gladly kill the other for reminding us of our own weakness.

Judges 6:24 says: “The Lord is peace.”

What are we?

* From Pseudo-Science & Society in 19th Century America, Arthur Wrobel, Editor

** Pictures from VAUGHT’S PRACTICAL CHARACTER READER

In THE DEW THAT GOES EARLY AWAY Buck Crenshaw stumbles into a selective breeding program with mixed results.

Testimony Farm

I shoot an envious glance towards this house every morning on the way to our foster girl’s school. The house has an elegant sign out front “Testimony Farm.” I can’t help but wonder about testimonies. The great thing about stories of calling or faith or redemption in public testimonies is that they have beginnings, middles and endings. Like this house everything appears tidy and finished. Of course it’s an illusion. Termites work, people die and houses crumble, but still . . . there is a longing for enduring testimonies that offer the assurance that one day we will be complete and all will be well with our souls.

Last night  our foster daughter (M) and I went on our bi-weekly sibling visit. M’s sisters were adopted only recently but we all knew it was coming and on this particular visit the sisters saw fit to make M feel how lucky they were and, by contrast, how sad they were for her. Kids do this to each other. One sibling emphasized the word “MOM” every time she spoke with her foster/new mom before turning to M to ask her if she was all right because it looked as though she might cry. M refused to be goaded.

As we sat in a quiet McDonald’s (because where else is there to take three young girls on a dark Monday night in Upstate New York) the girls repeatedly brought up their impending trip to Disney. “Wouldn’t you like to come with us, M?” one asked knowing it was impossible and seemed sort of gleeful about it. M let it slide.

As the adults chatted about watercolor paintings and anniversaries the girls laughed and joked. They sang made up songs to amuse each other until the youngest tugged her new mother’s sleeve and pulled her aside. “M said something inappropriate.”

I was pulled aside then. It seemed that M had made up a song about throwing babies in the trash. “Okay,” I said, “M often has a less than funny sense of humor and it’s usually related to anvil’s falling on people’s heads and car wrecks.”

The little girl peeked from behind her new mother. “M said she wanted to throw our new foster baby in the trash,” she whispered.

I didn’t believe her. Yeah, throwing a fictional baby in the trash isn’t a fantastic place to go with your jokes, but M spoke quite fondly of the new foster baby in her sisters’ family. I  went to M who sat watching the weather on the TV.

“Did you say you wanted to throw a baby in the trash?”

M said, “Yes. It was a joke in a song . . .” a look of panic flashed across her face as she glanced at her sister.

The sister’s new mom stepped in. “M, your sister says you wanted to put this baby in the trash . . .”

“No! She’s lying!”

The dinner ended abruptly, but as we walked to our cars the girls made sure to mention Disney one last time.

M stared after them as we pulled out of the parking lot and waved. They didn’t wave back. They didn’t see her.

I waited for M to say something. It came like a torrent. “Why do they get to go to Disney while we take care of stupid goats? I didn’t say I wanted to put a real baby in the trash and how come they look so pretty and I’m like trash? Everyone hates me at school and I try to be nice and they think I’m trash too. And my sisters hate my real mom and I love her even though she did bad things and why can’t you guys just adopt me already?” The talk went in long circles between sobs.

I said, “Well, M, I love you and don’t think you’re trash–it’s why I help you brush your hair in the morning.”

“Yeah, I know you love me, but no one else does!” More sobs. She settled down for a second. “But . . . when you get mad at me –when I do something–I think you might–you know–send me away and hate me–like trash.”

Trash was the word of the night.

We got home and M returned from her room after getting ready for bed. She was holding an mp3 player we bought her when she still lived at the group home. “I have this thing . . . and I’m afraid to tell you . . . but I recorded words I’m ashamed of and everyone’s gonna think I’m trash. The lady at the shelter said I should let out all my sexy thoughts–like what my mom did. I can’t get rid of the thoughts.”

“Wait, do you mean in your head or on the mp3 player?” I asked.

“Well, on the mp3 player which makes me think about it all.”

My husband sat reading about the CUBS. “Here, M, give me the player.” In about 2 seconds he figured out how to delete the offensive recordings. “All gone,” he said and tossed the thing back. ” Let’s just keep music on it from now on, okay?”

M nodded gratefully.

My husband of little words continued, “Oh, by the way. You do realize there’s no turning back. I spoke to your caseworker and the lawyer. The adoption is a done deal–just waiting for the paperwork.”

M covered her face and went to her room with her dog eagerly at her heels. We listened as she goofed around with the dog before falling asleep.

Today was M’s last visit with the psychiatrist. “I don’t see any reason for M to come anymore now that she’s off the meds. I see a bright future for her. One that I never would have forecast looking at her paperwork. I guess it was meant to be,” the doctor said. “Please let me know when the adoption goes through. M told me before you walked in that she loves you and your husband and that you love her so I’m done here.”

And there’s my testimony (for the moment).