Love Your Son: Confessions of a White Father

Chapter One: Blame

[If you missed the Introduction:]

I don’t know where to begin, which is just another way of saying I don’t know who’s to blame.

Isiah (pronounced, eye-zay-ah) came to us on Monday, February 24, 1997, a week after my mother celebrated her eightieth birthday at a Temecula Bed & Breakfast and eight months before I turned fifty. Until Isiah, Mom was my prime nemesis.

Descended from slaves (and slave owners, I assume), Isiah has the smooth, chocolate skin of a model. My wife and I are pale, sun-screened, northern European-Americans. I don’t know whether we’re descendants of slave owners, but both our families hail from the South: hers from North Carolina, mine from Louisiana and Texas.

Fifty is late to have a child, even an eight-year-old, but Isiah is our one and only, and he came to us by way of Karen, a teenager. Children having children, the newspapers say. At eighteen, she already had two and would have two more after Isiah. He was the only one she didn’t keep.

That probably explains everything.

Isiah was removed at birth because she had tested positive for cocaine. When he was given to a court-appointed guardian, Karen did not protest because she feared she would lose her first two. It seems cruel, especially to someone like me, who has no biological children. Of course, Isiah would not have been available if she had fought for him and won.

I first met her after one of Isiah’s freshman basketball games and saw her only once again, when she and Isiah were meeting with a therapist. Like him, she is good-looking and pleasantly mannered. I think that’s when he asked why she didn’t keep him. We never heard her answer. I should ask her now. Or would that be cruel?

She never overtly undermined our relationship with him. In fact, one night while Isiah complained on the phone to her about what we expected of him, she told him to do what we asked. I think it had to do with taking away some of his favorite clothes because he would not do his homework, or his chores, or both. Little did we know how often they were in contact, and that the frequency of those conversations, whatever the content, were dooming his chances of connecting with us, his adopted parents, any more than he had connected with the short-term foster parents of his early years.

Another irony: Isiah would live under our roof about as long as he stayed with that guardian, five years.

His birth mother remained in his life just enough to undermine our relationship with him but not enough to take him back. As a black fellow teacher once said, “She only gave birth to him. You are raising him.” Our black friends had little sympathy for her.

Once he was upset with us because, in another phone conversation with Karen, she had encouraged him to follow his NBA dream. You know, that foolishness that you can do whatever you want without serious consideration of the effort and preparation necessary. We had told him that the chances of making it on even a low-ranked college team were slim, and that he needed to plan for other more realistic possibilities, like being a coach or doing something with his love of music. But, according to him, we were destroying his dreams.

Of course, we still did everything we could. While he was in elementary school, he played in the Junior Lakers league at the South Pasadena-San Marino YMCA. We drove him to basketball workshops at Occidental College every day for a week during consecutive summers. We made it clear that even a less ambitious goal, like starting for the local high school varsity team, would require an enormous amount of commitment (much more than he had ever devoted to anything, I had said to myself).

We wanted him to achieve what seemed to him inconsequential, but really necessary, preliminary goals. We were at every game he played and worked with every coach to make sure he maintained his grades to stay on the team. So, we were the ones giving him the opportunity to improve his basketball skills, but it was his “mother” who was supporting his dream.

Much of the self-reflection in this book was already present in the first drafts, but sometimes, during a rewrite, I am taken aback at the tone of what I’ve written. Like the previous paragraph, it sounds so vindictive and petty. But I can’t leave it out because I was vindictive and petty. Karen got all the glory and we got everything else. I resented her, and him, for that.

When Isiah was five, Los Angeles County Children and Family Services had received a tip that he was being beaten in that court-appointed guardian’s home. (He has a Harry Potter scar on his forehead).

He would claim later that he was sexually abused, too. At High Frontier, therapists couldn’t determine whether it actually happened or if Isiah feared it might. For his own recovery, it probably didn’t matter because he acted like a sex abuse victim. There was even evidence that he was a sexual predator in the making when the staff learned of favors he expected from younger boys in exchange for CD’s. He definitely was sexually active in middle school and had difficulty staying away from porn once he discovered it on our home computer.

When Children and Family Services had the information they needed from the guardian’s disgruntled husband, they took Isiah out of that first home. We think Karen was contacted. In anger. I once told him that was the second of three times she left him high and dry. The third was when she gave up her rights to us.

The two children she had after Isiah were fathered by her latest boyfriend. He did not want another kid around, probably because Isiah wasn’t his. Doesn’t that mean she chose her boyfriend over her son?

Whether true or not, it fits my own “if only” narrative, an attitude I didn’t tolerate in him. If only Isiah had not been deeply wounded by his mother abandoning him, if only he had not suffered in-utero brain damage, if only he hadn’t been abused in his first home, if only he hadn’t had to live with so many different foster parents, if only Karen hadn’t stayed in contact with him. If only. If only. If only.

A few years ago, I told my wife that once I finished my novel, set just before the turbulent political and social issues had come to a head in the early 60s, I was going to write about Isiah. I believed I would have to deal with the racial topics that I skirted in that first book. I expected her to warn me of the dangers of wading into such waters, but she encouraged me instead.

Still, I was wary. I felt only Blacks are given permission to discuss how Black children are treated. Whites must limit themselves to confessing their complicity in a racist system that helps to create situations like Isiah’s.

I was also concerned that I would have to face their criticism of white people adopting a Black child. We think the primary cause of his acting out with us was all the abandonment and neglect and cruelty, not the transracial part, but we may be wrong. L.A. County told us to make sure he had plenty of opportunities to experience African American culture. But how much is enough outside the home when you there are only whites at home? Even our dogs were blonde.

In the early 70’s, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) announced their opposition to the adoption of black children by white families, calling it genocide. In 1996, to decrease the wait of children in foster care and allow for interracial adoptions, a federal law established that placement could not be based solely on race. Thus, white couples seeking children to adopt could be eligible for the enormous number of children, mostly Latinos and blacks, languishing in foster care. But NABSW was still adamant: Black children were better off staying in foster care with Black adults until they or other Blacks could adopt them.

But didn’t they know about the common horrors in foster homes? Or did they see white domination as so pernicious that even abusive fostering weighed little against the “genocide” caused by whites like us raising “their” brown-skinned children? In 2014, Toni Oliver, an NABSW Vice President, said the 1972 statement did not mean her association was against all mixed race adoptions. Rather, they opposed the all too easy elimination of black families as prospective foster and adoptive parents.

When we met Isiah, he had just turned eight, so he had a very good chance of staying in foster care until an adult. From 1999 to 2014, over 230,000 foster kids had aged out: about 20% becoming homeless immediately, and only half employed by the age of 24 (Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative).

NABSW claimed that there were enough prospective Black parents out there, but no concerted effort (especially by white social workers) was made to find them and that foster care agencies acted like any adoption was preferred to finding the parents best (read, ethnically compatible) for the child.

Many adoptive parents want a baby and even a one-year-old is considered an “older child” by foster agencies. So, at eight, Isiah had little chance of being adopted, no matter what color the parents were.

At the time, we didn’t care about having the baby experience, but we didn’t know that the early years of bonding are as important for the parents as they are for the child. I don’t think he ever saw us as anything other than foster parents and, once life with him became so intolerable, I wondered if I ever got beyond feeling the same. We lasted longer than the others, and our home was the first one he ever returned to, but everything was undermined by his inability to attach.

I’m sure the circumstance of his placement as a foster child in our home and his adoption almost two years later would confirm NABSW’s position. Our social worker was white. So was Isiah’s. Everyone else in his life had been African-American: his guardian, various aunts, uncles, cousins, and the foster mother he was placed with a year before he came to us.

Though we were the first white family he had lived with, we were encouraged by our social worker to believe it would work. The years-long relationship with John, his white male social worker, was supposed to make his connection to me easier. The only word we had from the good side of his family, Aunt Lulu and Uncle Earl, with whom Isiah had stayed for a while, was that he should be kept away from his mother and another aunt, who had gang banger sons, one of which had done time in prison. Aunt Lulu was glad we were giving him a home. She showed her support by coming to the adoption ceremony at All Saints Church.

Before Isiah began living with us, John asked him what he thought about having white parents. “I don’t care what color they are just as long as I don’t have to move again.” Obviously, that was not a ringing endorsement and, more obviously, an eight-year-old has no idea of the implications for living in a mixed race home. But Suzanne believes that he had more problems with the economic differences between our middle class lifestyle and his previous homes than with the racial contrasts.

I believe he used that racial difference to avoid feeling rage at his same-race mother. Then he could avoid responsibility for his present behavior and cling to the thuggish side of the African-American experience, the side represented by black gangs and the raging misogynist element in rap.

Often, in the morning, he would walk into the bathroom — chores undone, homework incomplete, disrespect oozing from him — and then TAKE HIS TIME showering, all the while singing to his hip-hop gods. Once I considered shutting off the hot water at the tank. Would that qualify as vindictive and petty?

Why didn’t I try to figure out what appealed to him in those rap anthems? Why didn’t I spend more time finding out what he’d been through? Why didn’t I meditate on how different his childhood was from mine? In other words, why didn’t I spend more time listening to him?

Because I felt he needed to listen to me.

It’s been over eleven years since he lived with us and ten since we were legally responsible. (How relieved we felt when he turned eighteen). I have gone through at least three phases in my relationship with him: 1) I know what’s best for him, and he better listen to what I tell him; 2) I know what’s best for him, but he won’t listen to me, so there is no use in continuing to say what he’s not paying attention to anyway since it just serves to irritate both of us; and 3) I don’t really know what’s best for him; he can only discover it for himself.

Had I been in stage three when he lived with us, I might have heard what he wanted, heard what he really needed, heard what Tupak was saying to him when he talked about how white society had made him the way he was. Then Isiah might have seen me as someone who could help.

I don’t know what he should do and how he should act because I have no idea what it’s like to lose a family. How could I tell him to stop listening to those rappers who were giving him some self-respect and a sense of authority over his life?

Do you and I need to know any more about his tragic life than he was willing to live with whites as long as he didn’t have to move again?

Grief experts tell us that any change is a loss. While my father was in the army and by the time I was in fifth grade, our family lived in four cities, and I attended five different schools. Suzanne’s father was in the navy, and she moved more often than I. But both of us moved with our families.

Painful: children leaving their friends behind.

Heartbreaking: children leaving their parents behind.

© 2017 Dublin Galyean