MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Just ahead: Cincinnati gets a new priest and makes history - the first African-American to be ordained there in three decades. But first, you probably know her as Drucilla Barber, the feisty runaway turned fashion model who starred for years on a long-running daytime drama "The Young and the Restless."
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Young and the Restless")
Ms. VICTORIA ROWELL (Author, "The Women Who Raised Me: A Memoir"): (As Drucilla Barber Winters) Oh yes, Carmen, come in. Close the door.
Unidentified Woman: Is it about (unintelligible)?
Ms. ROWELL: No, this is about project sales for my husband.
Unidentified Woman: Excuse me? (Unintelligible).
Ms. ROWELL: Where is this coming from? Where is this coming from? Where is this coming from? You know, perhaps this routine works with other men's wives…
Unidentified Woman: Whoa, whoa, time out. Are you accusing me of something?
Ms. ROWELL: Don't make me pull out an Afro puff. My husband is off limits to you.
MARTIN: You may also know her as Dr. Amanda Bentley on the primetime series "Diagnosis Murder." But what you may not know about Victoria Rowell is that she spent her entire childhood in foster care, and she spent nearly two decades working to help other kids in foster care. She talks about all of this in her new book, "The Women Who Raised Me." She joins us here in Studio 4B. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. ROWELL: Thanks for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: Now, you know, when you hear the term foster care, I think many people will think tragic stories, abuse, neglected kids, stressed out, greedy foster parents. That is so not your story.
Ms. ROWELL: No, "The Women Who Raised Me" is more of an homage to celebrate women who just gave up themselves selflessly, and I wanted to write my truth.
MARTIN: Obviously you've written a whole book about your life, but if you could just tell us briefly how it is that you happened to be in foster care. And you were born in Maine.
Ms. ROWELL: I was born in Maine and my mother was unable to care for myself or my other siblings. I was immediately placed into a hospital orphanage and I was placed with my first foster mother, Bertha Taylor. She and two of her friends in Gray, Maine, raised me. I then lived with Agatha Armstead, the only woman I would come to call Ma, who noticed I had a propensity for classical ballet.
MARTIN: Now your first foster mother wanted to adopt you, and she was not allowed to in part because she's white, she's white.
Ms. ROWELL: Bertha Taylor was of European heritage and she was the first person that went to the hospital and said I'm taking this child, and then her two friends, her neighbors, rallied around her, Laura Sawyer and Retha Dunn. And the three of them were like the three musketeers. They battled the system - we don't care about laws. They said this is ridiculous, we're supposed to be coming together. They were churchwomen on top of it.
MARTIN: But eventually they were thwarted by the system.
Ms. ROWELL: They were thwarted by the system.
MARTIN: And you were given to an African-American family, which is not that easy to find…
Ms. ROWELL: No.
MARTIN: …in Maine.
Ms. ROWELL: The Armsteads were Bostonians and they - Agatha had saved $2,000 as a Rosie the Riveter, and she bought the 60-acre farm, which is not easy as a black woman either, married or not, and that's where I lived. And Agatha struck up a relationship with my natural mother Dorothy. She felt it was imperative that Dorothy know, regardless of her state, that she should know, if possible, where her children were. And also…
MARTIN: That must have been hard though. I mean, the fact is your mother was schizophrenic.
Ms. ROWELL: Well, it was - yes, she was, and she died so. But it was also an opportunity to peel of the mystery. Agatha was a very straightforward person. And she believed, even as a child at the age of six, that I should know the truth. And so Agatha explained to me, Vicky, this is your mother. This is what her malady is and I want you to have compassion for her. And I did.
MARTIN: There have been so many memoirs in recent years, you know, not just from actresses, from women in all walks of life. They seemed to be consumed with tragedy, you know, incest, abuse, hardship. Not to diminish the suffering that this women have endured that they want to talk about. But often it's about victimhood, and your story is very much about what you learned from all the hard things that came your way.
And I was wondering, was this a conscious choice on your part that you wanted to focus on the learning, or is that just who you happened to be?
Ms. ROWELL: It has been taught to me to look at where the lesson is from the beginning. Agatha showed me how to do that by learning how to plant a garden. And so my lesson started with seeds, literally. And we would grow tomato plants, for instance, in teapots. And that through planting a garden season after season and reaping the harvest and tapping trees for maple syrup, all of these lessons lead me to a place of tremendous understanding.
MARTIN: Do you think that, though, you were lucky? Do you think you were especially blessed? Or do you think there's something in you that allowed you to absorb all the lessons that were in front of you?
Ms. ROWELL: Well, first of all, as a national spokesperson for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Casey Family Services, I impart this piece of knowledge to foster youth: No one person is made up of only two people. We're flanked by generations and ancestors upon ancestors. And so looking at the bigger picture, my DNA is rich. So perhaps I was wired already with this. It's in my DNA. But I do have an aptitude to want to get the lesson in every circumstance, and I implore of you to do the same.
MARTIN: I'm just curious, though, because, as I said, the tone of your book is very much about what can be gleaned, but it was not easy. I mean, there were times when you described having an apple to eat in a day when you were on your own and trying to make your way initially in your career…
Ms. ROWELL: In New York. Yeah.
MARTIN: …some very difficult situations that you were in and…
Ms. ROWELL: Yeah, those were not happy times.
MARTIN: No, no.
Ms. ROWELL: And you were wondering how do you get a lesson out of that. The lesson there is that I held on to that stories. I think the things that are invisible that people give us are undervalued. And I think people like myself who are met with incredible obstacles, we make a decision because - and I write about it in the book. It's like a piece of dental floss, you can step on to the other side, and I had to. Look at the value in what people were telling…
MARTIN: No, you didn't have to. I mean, you could have given up. There are a lot of people…
Ms. ROWELL: I didn't want to.
MARTIN: …who would have been in your circumstances, who would have just said I can't do it.
Ms. ROWELL: And they do.
MARTIN: I can't do it.
Ms. ROWELL: And they do.
MARTIN: It's too hard.
Ms. ROWELL: And there were times when I thought I might give up. But I also wanted to do it because I knew of all the hard work that these women had shared.
MARTIN: So what's up lately professionally? Just recently, your character, Drucilla Winters, left "The Young and the Restless" after 11 years. She went over the side of a cliff.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ROWELL: It's a cliffhanger.
MARTIN: Oh, okay.
Ms. ROWELL: It's a cliffhanger. Drucilla - the character of Drucilla has been very, very popular in daytime television exclusively because she's a pull-her-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of gal.
MARTIN: Not that we know anybody like that, but go ahead.
Ms. ROWELL: No. And…
MARTIN: Do you think you might go back?
Ms. ROWELL: It's just that she insists…
MARTIN: Since she was last seen on a cliff.
Ms. ROWELL: Well, you know, I never say never. I think that circumstances would have to change for me to go back to any daytime drama. I need to see more diversity, not only with African-American producers, writers, cameramen, actors, but also in all ethnic communities. Because I cannot responsibly sit in the lap of luxury on a number one daytime drama in television and not be proactive. So I've been very proactive and I have seen some change, but not enough.
MARTIN: Victoria Rowell, it was great to speak with you. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. ROWELL: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Victoria Rowell is author of "The Women Who Raised Me: A Memoir." She joined us in our studio in Washington.