Three Little Words From A Silenced Voice

Yesterday was a lousy day. My 16-year-old cat, Mac, was diagnosed with diabetes. The vet wants him to have two shots of insulin a day. I have no problem giving a cat a shot–my cat Pear needed allergy shots for years. But Mac has been very irritable in the last year. While he gives me face kisses on a several-times-a-day schedule without a problem, he most likely will not want shots.  Just a guess on my part, but everybody who knows him agrees.

That was my memoir sound byte of the day. Now on to the review of the week. It’s sort of a retread review, but a book you can’t miss.

In February 2013, on another blog, I wrote two posts about a memoir by a voice that is rarely heard: the voice of someone who grew up a ward of the state–a foster child. Here are excerpts from my posts:

Last night I finished reading Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s memoir Three Little Words.  The book, published in 2009, tells the story of how Ashley survived in Florida’s foster care system. Eventually she was adopted by a family with two adult sons, and she began a battle through the courts to seek justice and help for other foster children.

On Rhodes-Courter’s website, the synopsis is described this way:

“Sunshine, you’re my baby and I’m your only mother. You must mind the one taking care of you, but she’s not your mama.” Ashley Rhodes-Courter spent nine years of her life in fourteen different foster homes, living by those words. As her mother spirals out of control, Ashley is left clinging to an unpredictable, dissolving relationship, all the while getting pulled deeper and deeper into the foster care system.

Painful memories of being taken away from her home quickly become consumed by real-life horrors, where Ashley is juggled between caseworkers, shuffled from school to school, and forced to endure manipulative, humiliating treatment from a very abusive foster family. In this inspiring, unforgettable memoir, Ashley finds the courage to succeed – and in doing so, discovers the power of her own voice.

. . .  Ashley Rhodes-Courter . . .  was a foster child who lived in over a dozen foster homes and a shelter.  She was abused and neglected and lost in the system.  But because she eventually got a wonderful guardian ad litem to advocate for her, she ended up in an adoptive home.

In Ashley’s story, she describes how Gay Courter, her final foster mother and eventual adoptive mother, discovered that nobody had ever read a bedtime story to 13-year-old Ashley.  After that, Gay began to read Ashley “Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon, and Where the Wild Things Are.”

I took special note of the book choices because when I used to teach children’s literature, the picture books I used for in-depth analysis were Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are.  What phenomenal stories to introduce to Ashley.  They both are centered on images of the moon and the mother hovering in the background of the house.  The moon can be synonymous with the mother figure.  In this way, it could be seen that the mother in the house with the child is the adoptive mother and the moon overlooking, but at a distance, is the child’s birth mother.

. . . Ashley began babbling in baby talk and Gay responded by playing along.  Ashley declared that she wanted a baby bottle because her mother took hers away too soon.  This can also be “read” as Ashley losing her mother too soon.  Gay bought Ashley a bottle the very next day, and Ashley drank out of the bottle with relish.

I’m not a psychologist, and I’ve always pooh-poohed more “radical” ideas like the notion of taking somebody back to their babyhood.  But in Ashley’s story, she clearly initiated these actions herself, and it sounds like it was short-term, but helpful to her.

Some excellent reviews have been written about Three Little Words.  I won’t try to re-invent the wheel here, but I paid attention to some things that were mentioned almost in passing, but which I felt were important.

One of these passages was when Ashley went to her first event at the White House, an invitation she received from the Dave Thomas Foundation.  She was blushing with excitement and confesses “that it was as if my childish fantasies about accidentally being lost in foster care, while I was really meant for another, grander life, had come true.”  In literature, we see the “Cinderella” story being one of the most prevalent story types there is.  Harry Potter is a Cinderella character–an orphan raised by mean relatives until he goes off to Hogwarts and discovers that he is destined for greatness.  What a powerful fantasy to keep one going in the worst of times, to know that one deserves much more.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s book is a treasure to foster children and to a system that needs fixing so badly.  Every person who reads this book will feel a desire to advocate for these kids and to see the system change.  As a teen, Ashley herself sees the movie Erin Brockovich and decides that she will be like Erin and stand up for what’s right.  She will help other children who are enmeshed in the foster care system.  Today she is a public speaker on this issue and a foster mother.

When I read Rhodes-Courter’s book, I wasn’t looking at memoirs as a writer, but rather as an adoptive mom who cares about the plight of children–especially those without “representation.”

What do I find when I look at the book as a writer? I was transfixed by Rhodes-Courter’s story and surprised at the story-telling powers of a writer so young (Rhodes-Courter was 24 when her book was published). What I really learned from this book was not about writing, but about living. I learned how important it is to listen to the voices of those who often are not heard, how there are ways to help foster children without being a foster parents (becoming a guardian ad litem will give a child a voice in court!), and what it’s like to be a child caught up in the “system.”

This book should be read by teens, as well as adults.


Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

39 responses to “Three Little Words From A Silenced Voice

  1. My sister adopted a family of four, so I have always been interested in this subject. Thank you for letting me know about it!!

    • It really feels good to read about the system from the POV of somebody raised in it. In some ways, Ashley is an exception because she was adopted into a family that really had the resources (not just financial) to help Ashley achieve in remarkable ways. But circumstances were that Ashley’s exceptional qualities were recognized by the family and they picked her out. It was not an adoption fair, but a similar situation.

  2. OH and sorry about your kitty; I am going to send some positive vibes your way in the hope that he will cooperate and you can give him the shots.

  3. I participate in the Volunteer Advocacy for Children program at our local Legal Aid Society because in this county you have to be an attorney to be a guardian ad litem. It gives me the opportunity to help the kids out and give them someone, a third party, to talk with and share ideas. I was a foster child also, but my health won’t allow for me to bring kids in at this age. There is still so much we can do.

    • Thank you so much for volunteering for the kids, SK! I’ve probably told you this before, but before we adopted our kids we wanted to be foster parents, but the social worker told us we weren’t allowed to because we didn’t have kids. She said we needed to adopt instead. Now that was 30 years ago. That must have changed by now!

  4. Oh, it’s tough when our pets get sick. I’m really sorry.
    The memoir reminded me that so many children have an unhappy childhood and that just isn’t fair. But then whoever said life is fair?

    • My father-in-law always had this strange expression about where you’ll find fair in the dictionary. It never made any sense to me, but the idea was that the whole notion is ridiculous.
      Yeah, Mackie is stressing me out!

  5. Amazing what struggles a child can endure and overcome. It’s great that Ashley has become an advocate for foster children.

    I hope all goes well with Mac.

    • That’s what I think. Ashley is an amazing young woman in so many ways.
      Thank you re Mac. I wish I could just devote myself to taking care of him the best way possible, but sometimes his needs are going to conflict with human needs, and that really makes me upset.

  6. I am so sorry to hear about Mac!

    I love, however, the affirmation of how important it is to read to children–and that it may actually never be too late. I started my ed career as a middle school language arts teacher in a loving and challenged inner city parochial school. I read to my sixth graders every day after lunch. They grew to love it; it filled so many niches–bonding time, learning to listen, feeling the cadence of words, beginning to love literature…

    Gay was a wise and wonderful mentor! Thanks for a great post; I’ll find this book, for sure.

    • Oh, Pam, your description of the kids’ responses to being read to makes me tear up–so happy for them and so sad for others.
      In the book you will see that Ashley and Gay had/have an interesting relationship. In some ways, it’s clear that Ashley needs to make sure she herself remembers that nobody can take the place of her first mom. On the other hand, Gay has given of herself in ways only moms can give–with more love and care than they will ever get back. Ashley’s warmest relationships are with her (adoptive) brothers and dad.
      Thank you re Mac. Sigh.

  7. I sorry to hear about Mac, Luanne. Good luck administering the shots.
    While reading the excerpts from your posts, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened to Ashley if Gay hadn’t entered her life.

    • Ashley is a remarkable young woman, and I think she would have been–no matter what. In fact, that’s what attracted the family to her. But Gay and the rest of the family are privileged people with resources beyond the financial that have helped Ashley achieve what she is capable of achieving. It’s that package of Ashley and her 2nd family that have catapulted her into “stardom.” She’s met a lot of celebrities, for instance, through her talents and her family’s assistance with her talents.

  8. Sending best wishes to Mac, I hope he copes with the shots okay. You’ve introduced us to another inspiring story. I did a project with looked after children a few years ago and it was so sad to hear about the prejudices and challenges they face.

    • Andrea, it’s so true. So sad. Society has a dim view of children who are or have been “in the system.” Instead of going above and beyond for them, we tend to let them languish so we don’t have to deal with them.
      Thank you for Mackie!

  9. This was such a powerful post, Luanne. I had a second cousin, in New Jersey, who made it to my 1st wedding.I had read letters, back and forth, of her foster parents’ troubles with the system. Her name is Venus. She was born of a mother who was very much ‘lost’ and did not follow good practices, drugs and alcohol, among many ‘vices.’ She eventually was allowed to be adopted by my mother’s cousin, who has cherished and loved on her forever. She is happily married and successful
    I am always happy to hear of good foster parents, sad to hear of bad ones. I feel so much for Ashley’s upheaval of a life. So glad the final foster mother, during Ashley’s teenaged years, was reading her children’s books. I absolutely love, “The Runaway Bunny,” which should also be included in stories read to children who are fearful of their parents not staying part of their lives. The words in this book, are read daily to my step-son and his wife, who adopted a Cleveland baby, African American descent, and live in a tiny ‘back woods’ town in Southeastern Ohio. I feel they will have many trials, defending their much loved Kennedy Rose.
    I wondered if you had seen the movie, or read the book: “Philomena” or “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” (2009 book)? I have a post written but will not be sending it out into the blog until I get a few other ones posted. I am always leading you into more discoveries, but to me, it is our way of connecting. You tell your reviews which remind me of others, hopefully it doesn’t drive you crazy, Luanne! Smiles, Robin

    • Oops, meant the words to the book, “Runaway Bunny,” are read to Kennedy Rose daily. If you wish to edit this, you may… xo

    • I really need to see that movies, but maybe I should read the book first! I’m so glad things turned out so well for Venus. What a wonderful results of the “system.” I know you’ve mentioned your step-son’s daughter before, and I do think that it’s going to be very difficult for her in a small town where she feels she is “alone.” It would be really good if they would educate themselves by directly communicating with others who have children a little older who have been in similar situations. There is at least one really good Facebook group for this that I know of–it’s called Transracial Adoption, and there adoptees and adoptive parents on there and they try to keep a balance so that the parents don’t “take over” and that the adult adoptees are really listened to. Once problems begin they can be so difficult to solve, so it would be good if they got the info they need ahead of time. They might even decide it’s in the best interests of their child if they move. Of course, “we” can’t tell them that, but if they hear from enough others in the same situation they might come to that decision or another on their own.

  10. So sorry about your cat. My 16 year old cat has had diabetes for 7 years. Yep, he gets 2 injections a day and I would have said that he wouldn’t have allowed it. Somehow he knows it makes him feel better and I don’t have any problem with him. However, he won’t let anyone else do it unless he is boarded. So when I go on vacation, I have a cat sitter care for my other 3 but Jake goes to my vet where I know they will take good care of him. BTW controlling his blood glucose makes a big difference in how well he is. I swear that cat will outlive me!

    • Thanks Kate. I’m sure it has helped your cat so much for you to take such good care of him. My cat gets very upset with the vet, etc., and they are worried he could have a heart attack with the stress, so the problem if we put him on the insulin is that it will impossible to monitor him correctly–and as you know insulin can be dangerous if the monitoring isnt’ done. My vet has us trying a diet change for two weeks to see what happens. High protein, low carbs, all wet food, no snacks. He’s crying as I write this because he’s always hungry. I feel so bad for him.

      • By the way, I do think I can give him insulin as I’ve given allergy shots to one of my other cats and know I can handle it, plus he lets me kiss on him all the time. But no way a pet sitter could do it. I do have a vet tech who is amazing, though, who says she will make house visits when I’m gone if we end up doing the insulin.

      • Good luck with that. I have too many cats to make that successful. He whined and whined until I couldn’t stand it anymore and I gave him some dry food. He eats mostly wet but he likes a little dry. All my cats are on low carb diets now but with both the wet and dry. Good luck with whatever you and your vet decide to do. There is no easy answer.

  11. This post hit me in a few places, Luanne. First, like you and Kate, I dealt with my precious cat (Germano) having diabetes for years. I was surprised how quickly he adapted to the routine of shots and how little fuss there was. Of course, they can’t feel the needle at all, if done correctly. The monitoring was a challenge, and I didn’t always get it right, but I have a great vet who only works with cats (believe it or not, her name is Gloria Leopard – I don’t know her husband, but I wonder whether it was he or his name that won her heart!) which helped. Thoughts and prayers are with you on that one – it is, indeed, stressful.

    Second, about 20% of my law practice is serving as a Guardian Ad Litem. It is certainly not the most lucrative part of my practice, but it is where there is an opportunity to make the biggest impact. Most of the children I represent either have parents going through a divorce or a post-divorce custody battle. Often ugly stuff. Nothing is so rewarding as assisting a loving parent in “getting” what the parental behavior is doing to the children. Nothing is quite so devastating as realizing that not all parents are loving parents and sometimes a child is just a means to an end.

    Third, the foster care system. Better than many other places in the world that simply institutionalize un-parented children until they are adults. And yet, it is not good. Hearing many first-hand accounts over the years (I was on a teaching staff for graduate students in different disciplines taking Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect) – I am not exaggerating when I say I LEARNED much more than I taught in that course.

    • Shel, I read this after you wrote it, but never came back to respond. However, I’ve been thinking about it. How does it happen that you become a Guardian Ad Litem, in most cases? Does the court require that some children in divorce cases require their own representation? is that it? The whole situation that some parents are never going to be loving parents is one that is difficult to discuss in adoption circles. I understand a lot of the complaints of adult adoptees who feel that they have not had the representation or voice that they deserve (more so than the adoptive parents or the birth parents in the adoption triad). But those who want to do away with adoption: what about those children who truly cannot find a loving parents from their birth families?

      • Somebody wants to do away with adoption??? That makes no sense. Is there really an entity that is trying to accomplish that?

        As a new attorney, I did court-appointed work as a means to get experience and income. I was often appointed as a GAL by the state or a particular tribal nation that I contracted with to represent a child who was the victim of neglect or abuse. As my practice evolved, I developed a rep as a GAL and I’m hired by parties (having been selected by their attorneys) in high-conflict cases to represent the interest of the children in custody matters. Some of the time it’s because the attorneys or parties request it, some of the time it is court-ordered that there be a GAL because of the level of conflict or because there are allegations of abuse – with the latter a GAL is mandatory by OK law. Also mandatory is an attorney for the child being adopted – a slightly different role than the GAL. As you probably know, an attorney has to represent their client’s position and a GAL represents the best interest of the child and may or may not agree with the child’s position. I’m occasionally hired as a GAL for children who are in the adoption process and I still occasionally take court-appointed cases on a pro bono basis to be an attorney for a child during adoption or as as an attorney or GAL for a child who is a victim of abuse or neglect. Unfortunately, there are no shortage of clients in this area.

  12. Luanne, I’m so sorry to hear about Mac. I dread the day that I might have to pill my cats Maxine or Wendy because both of them seem impossible to pill, the few times I’ve had to try. Other cats I’ve had were very easy. Perhaps once Mac gets used to the regiment, he will relax. My understanding is that the needles are very thin and he shouldn’t feel them. My heart goes out to you. All you want is to help him have a long, good quality life. You and Mac are in my thoughts.

    • Marie, Mac has had to take a pill twice a day for his heart for years. I was lucky that he does like the taste of Laxatone and the teeny piece of human pill that he received was well masked in that. But then it was clear that such a small piece of pill is not a reliable quantity, so now I get pills made from a compounding pharmacy for animals–and he thinks they are treats. I believe they also ship out of state. Thank you SO much for your thoughts for Mac. We are trying to do this through diet, at least for starters, because he has that bad heart and will not take kindly to lots of shots and blood draws and could cause himself a heart attack. So all the good wishes, vibes, prayers, and hugs we can get are much appreciated!!

      • Wow, you are really going through a lot with Mac! Of all the cats we’ve had, the most troubling was Mikey. He had the usual encroaching kidney disease that old cats get and hyperthyroidism that old cats also get, but his health was compounded by having to have all his teeth removed (severe peridonitis), cataracts, and finally irritable bowel disorder. He was my sweetie, my snugglebunny, and I hated letting him go. But he just got plump tired of it all 🙁 I really appreciate what you are doing for Mac, and I would definitely do the same. Diet is the first thing we try to adjust too. I’ll thinking of you and Mac 🙂

  13. I’m sorry to hear about Mac, Luanne. I have a diabetic cat, Nicky, who was diagnosed back in 2010. Insulin injections twice a day. His problem is that we tried three types of insulin in the beginning (all quite reasonably priced) but it turned out he’s insulin resistant. So we tried the more expensive Lantus which up until recently was not used on animals. Voila, it worked. Since he began taking it the price for a small vial (I call liquid gold) has gone from $107 to $239 with the biggest jumps in price beginning in 2013 (144 to 239). But then I read somewhere that in 2015 their license or whatever expires and generics can be introduced. Gotta gouge those last billions. Yes, I’m angry. Sorry, I didn’t mean to rant. I hope Mac takes his medicine okay. Nicky surprised me. He acquiesced and just goes along with it now. People think I’m nuts spending that kind of money on a cat but I won’t tell you what I think when they say so! I know you understand!

    • Linda, don’t even get me started about veterinary care, expense esp. medications, etc. Too many veterinarians seem to be in it for the money, which I don’t understand because their salaries are not that great compared with dentists. What I complain about is the way they push inferior foods and other pet care supplies which are not in the best interests of the animals. No, you’re not a nut! They trust us to do our best for them!

  14. Luanne: So sorry about Mac.

    Again, you bring to the forefront another memoir that did not appear on my path. I look forward to reading this work. The snippets that your profiled are compelling. It also reminded me of the fiction account, The Language of Flowers which profiles a young woman who moves through the foster system and then eventually lands with a lady who adopts her.

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