Immigrant Families: Forever Scarred by Forced Separation

Note: Some of the following comes from book three in my Appalachian Families series, which I’m in the process of finishing.

Never mind that President Trump signed an executive order today to stop families from being separated at the border—because, at this moment, they still are. For these families, the damage is already done. I know this only too well.

That’s because the day my children were torn from my arms, I cried so much it’s a wonder I didn’t turn into dust and blow away.

It was 21 years ago, and yet the pain was so great it sometimes still haunts me like it happened yesterday. Then my heart feels so full that I am afraid to cry, to shed my tears, worried they will sweep me all the way down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico, where I will end up floating in the Atlantic Ocean. Except once there, I will still be crying, unable to ever stop, becoming one with the water.

I heard the judge that day, the day my world changed forever. But his words didn’t make it all the way to my cerebral cortex. They sizzled inside my ears, bouncing back and forth while my brain tried to grasp their meaning.

How can you take my children?

Before my thoughts could even become words, the judge spoke. “You can appeal the decision.” Then, a few words from my attorney. I didn’t even hear what she said. All the energy I had been holding tightly inside dissipated as quickly as if I was a balloon animal that someone stuck a pin in. My knees gave out and I crumpled to the floor.

I’m sure this decades-old pain haunts my four children, as well. The scars are hidden beneath our skin, and riddled with shrapnel that no one sees. But we know they’re there.

Our scars remain today, and while we tried to overcome the damage done, it was impossible. Too many things happened during our three months apart, words spoken, actions taken, that were irreversible. But the most crucial element, I believe, to hinder our healing, was the individual thoughts we carried with us from that day forward. Why did you leave me? How could you do this to me? When will you come get me?

And then, when I couldn’t go get them—because the law forbid it—this: What did I do wrong? Why don’t you want me anymore? Why don’t you love me?

What I’ve personally heard about the current family separation, which is amoral and inhumane, hit me so hard it took me a good long week to even write about it. My first thought, upon learning that parents were told their children were being taken for a bath—only to not be returned—was of the Holocaust. Similar lies were told then, too. Jews, Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, many of their families were torn apart, never to be reunited. My first public comment, on a friend’s Facebook page, was “Can anyone say Gestapo?”

Make no mistake, following a forced separation, these immigrant families will never be the same again. It is unnatural for children to be separated from their parents in this way. The child, the mother, the father—all three will carry these scars for the rest of their lives. Such a separation creates a hole in a child’s heart. A hole that will be filled with sadness, self-doubt, and anger. Anger that may later turn into rage.

While these feelings may diminish over time, they will never completely disappear. At best, they will rise to the surface during stressful situations, boiling over like a pan of hot milk left unattended on the kitchen stove. At worst, they will be buried deeper than our cemetery dead, so far down in the dark earth that you cannot see or feel them.

Being plagued with a gnawing sense of hopelessness condemns you to a life lived looking over your shoulder, forever trapped in the past. This failure to process your feelings will impede your ability to grow, to move forward. Even after you are reunited—if you are. But make no mistake, you won’t be the same person ever again.

Neither will your children.

The best you can hope for is to tap into your own well of resilience, to keep going. To try and thrive. Counseling can help. But even a trained therapist cannot always dispel the fear, or reverse the damage done to these children. Or their parents.

The Department of Homeland Security says that since May, 2,342 children were placed in what the world views as cages. (The practice of U.S. officials keeping children locked up is not new; nor does this number include thousands of other detained children, who entered the U.S. without their parents.)

Aside from the trauma these families must endure, what else has such a “zero-tolerance” policy wrought? Have we returned to a Dickensian era, a land fit only for the orphaned Oliver Twist? I thought internment ended with the Japanese. Have we learned nothing?

Apparently not. Even though we’ve known for more than 100 years that keeping children away from their families is traumatic. President Theodore Roosevelt convened the first White House Conference on Children in 1909. There they determined that “children should not be deprived of (home life)” by being placed in an institution. Instead, they should be placed with foster families.

Later, numerous studies found that children raised in orphanages suffered from “the inability to bond, inability to effectively problem solve, inability to turn to others for help, poor peer relations, disciplinary problems, disruptive behavior.” And the current detention camps make those orphanages look like a playground. Given that these children range in age from babies to teenager, how many of the younger ones have already been molested by an older child? Or a caretaker? Judging from the disturbing video and audio clips, the sounds and sights of sobbing, traumatized children, these places are obviously worse than orphanages, which lost favor with the American public in the 1960s. No wonder the world, including the Pope and the United Nations, has condemned the U.S. for its actions. At least orphans had trained caretakers who comforted them when they cried.

But this basic human right is being denied these children. Children who should soon be reunited with their parents—but aren’t yet.

The very notion that no one is allowed to comfort these distraught children makes me furious! How is that even possible in this day and age, when we know that such cold and callous behavior is abuse? When we know that human touch is critical to good mental and physical health? That such a pattern can lead to severe emotional problems?

As proof, consider the famous artificial mother experiment conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow. He showed how crucial comfort is to humans, when, given a choice between a cloth mother and a wire one, isolated baby rhesus monkeys preferred spending 18 hours a day with the cloth mother, as opposed to spending only one hour a day with the wire one. This, even though the wire mother held the bottle the babies nursed from!

In an op-ed to The Washington Post, former First Lady Laura Bush spoke up about this lack of compassion and empathy. There, she told how Barbara Bush once held and cuddled a crying child who was dying of AIDS, apparently when no one else would.

Let’s learn from her, and do better. We can. We must!

* * *

Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!


Hello 2018—Let’s Turn That Whisper Into a Shout!

As we bid the last 365 days goodbye, I keep thinking that 2017 reads like one gigantic, above-the-fold headline, complete with a star-studded Hollywood cast. One woman after another—Taylor Swift, Ashley Judd, Angelina Jolie, Rosanna Arquette, and Salma Hayek, to name a few—boldly stepped onto a very different red carpet, under an intense glare of media scrutiny.

This is not fake news.

People are calling what happened in 2017 a “watershed moment,” where cataclysmic events collide, creating a point of no return. If so, then we can only hope that trend continues in 2018.

Women have been accusing men of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault for centuries. The past few decades have seen an increasingly vocal number of such complaints. But for the most part, women have done what they usually do: suffer in silence.

But last year a slew of prominent and powerful women raised their voices in a cacophony, admitting to having been victimized in just this way. Is this why society as a whole has begun listening, and is more outraged than normal? Or is it because the highest position in the land is held by a man who has not just been accused of such criminal conduct—but who has minimized his own sexual assaults?

I imagine it’s a bit of both. Women are fed up with being forced to live like this, as if any vulgar man who wants to can fondle them at will—and then fire them when they report the bad behavior to their superiors. So it is that powerful Hollywood women have set an example for the unknowns in this battle, women who have silently carried their shame, but who have been no less abused by the Senator Roy Moores of this pandemic.

And we are done holding our collective tongues.

We, each one of us, I believe, have such a story to tell. At least one—if not more. This is why: recently I was one of three women who randomly met and began discussing the one in three statistic put forth by the World Health Organization. Less than three minutes later, we had established that all three of us—100-percent—had been victims of sexual assault.

That wasn’t the first time this has happened. I feel like I’m trapped in Groundhog Day, where I’m forced to repeat the same conversation, again and again. As a result, from the years of professional and personal research I’ve conducted, I believe it happens to one in two women, if not every woman.

And we are tired of the status quo. Frustrated about waiting for someone else to help us, or stand up for us. So we’re taking matters into our own hands, and naming names. And that may be the only action that matters, when you see powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey and Matt Lauer step down from long-held positions of prestige and power.

Such serious repercussions tell me that this watershed moment is here to stay. So, in keeping with these feisty, female silence breakers, I’d like to do the same. #MeToo.

Readers of this column and my news reporting know I’ve been speaking out about sexual violence against women since 1988—30 years. In 1990, I broke my own silence when writing about my personal experience as a victim of sexual abuse (albeit quite subtly) in Vintage Berry Wine, my then-weekly newspaper column in the Preston County Journal.

And in 2011, my first memoir was published. It was titled, appropriately, Sister of Silence. SOS is about the traumatic effects of keeping such sexual violence a secret. The fact that students from Johns Hopkins University to UC Berkeley have heard of it tells me that we want—indeed, need—to hear from other women like ourselves.

I’ve not been silent since then—with one notable exception.

In January 1998, six months after moving 3,000 miles to take a job as a news reporter with The Tracy Press, a little daily in San Joaquin County, California, I was fired. The events leading up to the loss of my job were so minor, in comparison to what many women have endured, that it barely deserves a footnote in this watershed moment of history.

But throughout 2017, as I’ve listened to the voice of one feminist after another, I’ve returned to that unsettling time. And for me to continue speaking out on behalf of other women, I know I must now break my own 20-year silence.

Jon Peters, then-managing editor, hired me in August 1997. I quickly earned a reputation as a hard-working, fearless reporter who went the extra mile for every article I wrote, and who willingly drove to nearby crime-ridden Stockton to investigate a gang story I’d been assigned. Not once during that time did anyone at the paper tell me I was doing a bad job. Quite the opposite, in fact.

So when Peters called me into his office and fired me, I knew. I immediately knew what had happened: Paul “Spud” Hilton, the city editor, enjoyed telling off-color, crude jokes in the newsroom, in front of female staffers. The three other women and I discussed it during our regular jaunts to a nearby coffee shop. We didn’t know what to do about it; we just knew were growing weary of Hilton’s antics.

The final straw was the day he called one of my colleagues a “breeder,” in a negative tone of voice, in front of the entire newsroom. (According to Wikipedia, that word is often used “with the derisive implication that they have too many offspring.”) She was hurt and offended, as was I, on her behalf. So I went to Peters and simply asked him to speak to Hilton about his inappropriate behavior.

I lost my job shortly after that.

Peters and Hilton had the blessing of the Matthews family, who owned the newspaper. And as much as I respected then-publisher Sam Matthews, my respect all but evaporated as events played out. Because, being an investigative reporter, I did what I was accustomed to doing on the job: I turned on my tape recorder, and after collecting enough evidence to prove my termination was illegal, I hired an attorney. The Matthews family fought back with their all-male team of high-powered San Francisco attorneys.

Not once did they willingly admit that Hilton, a fellow with a penchant for denigrating women, was the problem.

As a woman, I’ve engaged in my own whisper network, just like the female Hollywood stars who warned up-and-coming actors of predators like media mogul Weinstein. My hope for 2018 is that the momentum from the 2017 watershed continues to empower my women everywhere.

That it helps every single man to understand that we have a right to be treated with nothing less than respect and dignity. That our bodies our ours, and you better keep your hands off.

That can happen, if the whisper turns into a shout.

* * * * *

Dear Readers,

My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!