Actress Discusses a Childhood in Foster Care
TONY COX, host:
I'm Tony Cox and this is NEWS & NOTES.
Actress Victoria Rowell spent 18 years in the foster care system. In her new memoirs, "The Women Who Raised Me," Rowell plays - pays tribute to the remarkable women who cared for her and inspired her to become the success she is today.
She sat down with NPR's Farai Chideya, and shared some very personal memories of her birth mother, Dorothy Mabel Rowell.
Ms. VICTORIA ROWELL (Actress; Author, "The Women Who Raised Me"): Dorothy Mabel Rowell, she was a phenomenal person. She suffered from schizophrenia. She had six children - I was her fifth child - and unable to take care of her children. I was immediately placed into foster care.
Her family is 13th generation of the May Flower lineage. And one has to really explore what the human stain really equates to. And in my case, there would be no opportunity to see my mother, based upon this very private family's wishes.
Of course, I fought against that for her entire - our entire relationship. As much as she wanted to see me, I wanted to see her. We made it happen on three separate occasions.
FARAI CHIDEYA: You talk about one occasion where you weren't allowed to see her - where your brother brought you when you were throwing pebbles at a window to try to get her to come out…
Ms. ROWELL: Yes.
CHIDEYA: …but your own aunt, her sister, wouldn't let you see her.
Ms. ROWELL: That's right.
CHIDEYA: How did that feel?
Ms. ROWELL: Well, I tried to go as armored as possible, but nothing can completely prepare you for such abject rejection. When I got there my brother didn't quite understand what was going on because he had a relationship with this woman. He's Caucasian, and I'm not. And he was asking his aunt, why aren't you opening the door? And she never did open the door and so I never saw my mother alive again.
It was a difficult chapter in my life to navigate, one that made me stronger as a result, and one that taught me that I will never be told where I can and cannot go especially when it's attached to family and extended family.
CHIDEYA: Your family, the whole point of this book in a way, is that your family can be not just biological but across bounds of space and race and class. And you also had a mother named Bertha Taylor(ph).
Ms. ROWELL: Bertha Taylor was a pioneering woman. She was from Gray, Maine, which was an industrial town. And Bertha already had children. She was married. And through a series of attempts, she was against the law essentially because the state of Maine did not allow mixed-race parenting.
She just took me and loved me like I was her own with two other women who were her friends, Rita Dunn(ph) and Laura Sawyer(ph). And eventually, two and a half years later, the state of Maine, the Department of Children and Family Services, said we really have to remove this child from your household after two and a half years because you are white and she is black.
And they fought, collectively, this group of women who cooked and sewed and raised children, and they said no law should undermine love. And they fought fiercely but they ultimately lost the battle.
CHIDEYA: Strong women. And then there's Agatha Armstead who you call, Ma.
Ms. ROWELL: Yes.
CHIDEYA: She was a real consistent, longstanding presence, and that's your farm girl days. It's hard, looking at you right now you're wearing this jaunty hat and this beautiful blouse, it's hard to think of you as a farm girl, but Ma made you a farm girl in a way.
Ms. ROWELL: Ah, well, very much so. We had harvests. We sold our pine. We bailed hay. She was an extraordinary woman. She was first-generation Bostonian. She had 10 children of her own, raised. And she bought a farm, 60 acres, this African-American woman, off of money she saved being a Rosie The Riveter. The rest is history with Agatha. She was an extraordinary mentor, mother, friend, and she was my primary foster mother.
CHIDEYA: And she looked at holes in your shoes, and found an aptitude for dance in you.
Ms. ROWELL: Yes.
CHIDEYA: Tell me that story. It's a really interesting one.
Ms. ROWELL: Well, Agatha was destined to be a jazz pianist. She played the piano every single day. And she noticed that I had these holes in my sneakers and she asked me how is this happening, and I showed her. And I stood up on my toes and I told her I was doing this before I fed the animals.
So she then reached out to her Bostonian family and said if there's anyone that hears about any type of scholarship programs, ballet classes, please let me know.
And her daughter-in-law, Laura Armstead, called her, who was a schoolteacher in Boston, and said there's a school and let's get her here. And on the bus I went to Massachusetts and won a full scholarship with the Cambridge School of Ballet.
CHIDEYA: You know your foundation now deals with foster children and I was struck by something that you said. You said being raised in foster care helped you shake off rejection. Is that something that you try teach kids about who end up working with your foundation?
Ms. ROWELL: Yes, certainly. I ask foster youth to flip the script. To look at all of the history that we hold, look at how rich it is, rather than how wretched it may seem.
CHIDEYA: I want to end out talk about your book where your book begins with you at your mother's grave with your daughter beside you. What was that moment like to go back with your own child?
Ms. ROWELL: I took my daughter by the hand, Maya. And I wanted her to witness where her grandmother was buried and wanted her to be able to lay flowers, as we did, on her gravestone, so that she would never be forgotten. And that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, but rather, I looked at my mother as an incredible, strong, convicted person who, even through schizophrenia, never lost sight of her children.
CHIDEYA: Before I let you go, I want to update your many fans on some of the developments in your life. Now you decided to wrap up your tenure on "The Young and the Restless" and you've spent 13 years on the show. So what is life going to be like without Drucilla Winters, the character you played, to keep you company?
Ms. ROWELL: Well, I found time in working in a daytime scenario to do other work and to again flip the script, if you will. I was busy purchasing book rights. I was busy doing the creative things that I needed to do and raise my family. It was a means to an incredible end for me, doing the daytime drama.
It also gave me an opportunity to sharpen my wares as a writer, because the scripts lender themselves to allow me to give them a special voice. So the Drucilla character has given me tremendous opportunity, as well as me breathing life into her.
I think there's a lot of things that will be keeping me company. As you know, I have a film coming out starring opposite Samuel L. Jackson as his wife. "Home of the Brave" speaks to what's in the headlines everyday now - soldiers coming back from the Iraqi war and the war at home. So I'm very proud to be a part of this movie.
CHIDEYA: Well, we could go on, but I'm going to let it end right there.
Ms. ROWELL: Okay.
CHIDEYA: Victoria, thank you so much.
Ms. ROWELL: Thank you.
COX: Actress and foster care advocate, Victoria Rowell. Her memoir is called "The Women Who Raised Me." She spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya. You can hear Victoria talk more about her experiences at the Cambridge School of Ballet. Plus, hear her read an excerpt from her book at npr.org.
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