Foster care in this country gets a bad rap, and sometimes deservedly so. Three years ago, when I was told that my two-week-old soon-to-be adopted daughter would be placed in foster care for a week until her birth parents’ parental rights were terminated, I felt ill. “Foster care” conjured up in my mind the near-certainty of abuse, neglect, and “parents” who were in it just for the money. But our adoption agency assured us that they carefully screened their foster families, that this particular family had provided short-term fostering for them for nearly a decade, and that this would be a private placement. In other words, our daughter would not be “in the System.” Those words allayed my fears, because it was the failures of state-run child welfare systems that made disturbing news headlines about children falling through the cracks, being violated or even killed.
Thankfully, our foster care experience was a success. In addition to her birth mother and me, my daughter Peyton can count among her mothers Pam B. in Chicago, the wonderful foster mother who cared for Peyton during her transition from the hospital to our family. Even though Peyton was with her for only a short time, I am forever grateful to Pam for letting the circle be unbroken, allowing my child to know a mother’s love every day since she was born. Not surprisingly, Pam immediately came to mind when I heard about actress Victoria Rowell’s memoir The Women Who Raised Me, a tribute to the numerous women who welcomed her into their homes and hearts when, at birth, she became a ward of the state. Rowell’s memoir is also a tribute to the imperfect foster care system that nevertheless brought these women into her life. Rowell’s is a “system” success story, the kind that doesn’t generally make headlines.
Well known for her portrayals of Drucilla Barber Winters for thirteen years on the CBS soap The Young and the Restless and Dr. Amanda Bentley on Diagnosis: Murder for eight seasons (co-starring with Dick Van Dyke), Rowell is a two-time Emmy Award nominee and an eleven-time NAACP Image Award winner. Her film work includes roles opposite Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy. She is also a classically trained ballerina who has danced professionally with the American Ballet Theatre and the Juilliard School of Dance. The road Rowell has taken — from being “born with no prenatal care and in quarantine because [her] mother was so ill and filthy” to becoming an accomplished actress, activist, philanthropist, and loving mother to her own children — has been paved by ordinary women who, with their gifts of love, time, attention, and encouragement, made extraordinary contributions to Rowell’s development and well-being.
“I was never meant to be raised by one mother, but by many,” Rowell writes. She was the youngest of six children born to Dorothy Rowell, a woman who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was ultimately deemed unfit as a mother. Reflecting on a photograph of her mother taken in the 1950s, Rowell observes: “She had Elizabeth Taylor good looks. Creamy white skin, thick black hair, laughing eyes. An abandon. Maybe a wild side. She didn’t drink or smoke, I was told, but she loved music, dancing, and strong black military men.” One such military man was Rowell’s father — a sailor whose identity remains unknown to her.
Each of the earliest chapters in The Women Who Raised Me is dedicated to a woman or groups of women who make up the “many” mothers who stood in the gap and provided for Rowell when her birth mother could not. They welcomed her into their homes in places as diverse as rural Maine, inner-city Boston, and middle-class suburbia. The women who nurtured and mentored Rowell taught her to persevere and to be resourceful, frugal, diligent, and compassionate.
The first of these women was Bertha C. Taylor. Rowell’s earliest childhood memory is of being held while Bertha waltzes with her and sings. Bertha, a 54-year-old white woman, cared for Rowell against the protestations of social workers and gossipy residents of her predominantly white community. Ultimately, however, Bertha lost her fight against an antiquated Maine law which mandated that a black orphan be placed with a black family as soon as a suitable one is found.
At age two, Rowell became the foster child of 56-year-old Agatha Wooten Armstead and her husband. On their 60-acre farm, Agatha shared with Rowell her passion for gardening, music, painting, and photography. Agatha, a self-taught ballerina, gave Rowell home ballet lessons and helped her win a Ford Foundation/National Endowment for the Arts scholarship to the Cambridge School of Ballet in Massachusetts at the age of 8.
Rowell’s life is a testament to the transformative power of dance, with its physical and emotional rigor as well as its beauty. While at Cambridge, Rowell was privileged to study under Esther Brooks, a dancer held in high regard by ballet greats such as Balanchine. Brooks introduced her students to French, history, opera, and sculpting as well as dance. Because of the special interest Brooks took in her, Rowell counts this former prima ballerina among the women who raised her.
In addition to Rowell’s official and unofficial foster mothers, a number of other women helped her pursue her dreams, including her ballet teachers and her social worker, Linda Webb. Webb fought the system on Rowell’s behalf for years, bending the rules to allow her to travel and live outside of Maine to study dance and pushing through purchase orders for ballet gear.
The Women Who Raised Me is also a tribute to Dorothy, who, Rowell later learned, worked the system behind the scenes as best she could to secure safe, loving homes for her children. She also worked to make sure they were not placed for adoption, holding out hope (in vain) that someday they would be reunited with her. Decades later, Rowell and her siblings would reconnect with each other, and none of them had been adopted. Rowell aged out of foster care at the age of 18.
Lean years filled with personal and professional challenges followed Rowell’s emancipation from the system. When Rowell was in her early 20s, her mother died of lung cancer. Even in the time leading up to her mother’s funeral, Rowell experienced rejection from her mother’s Yankee blue-blood family, particularly from one aunt who wanted nothing to do with her sister’s “nigger children.”
A few years later, at her agents’ urging, Rowell made the leap to acting exclusively and relocated from Boston to New York. Of this decision, she writes: “…[L]etting the ‘dancing thing’ go was like letting go of my family. The ballet studio was the single most consistent home I had known since the age of nine. Yet I had to go where the work was.”
In addition to her achievements as an actress, Rowell has established a foundation, the Rowell Foster Children’s Positive Plan, that provides scholarships to foster and adopted youth for arts and education. She is also the national spokesperson for National Foster Care Month. For her humanitarian efforts, she has received numerous awards, including the United Nations Association Award.
The final chapters of The Women Who Raised Me honor women who supported Rowell later in life. These trusted friends and confidantes include those who stood by Rowell a few years ago when, in her early 40s, she set out to learn more about her mother. She hoped to find where Dorothy’s tortured life ended and Victoria’s life began: “I tried to disentangle my own history from the few remnants of information I had managed to salvage about Dorothy.” During Rowell’s struggle to make peace with her own patchwork history and heal from the anxiety and depression that burdened her, these “sisters” were steadfast. They showed “love by example,” Rowell writes, “and sometimes by confrontation…[T]hey each helped to keep my feet on the ground and eyes on the prize. More important, these sisters were teachers, providing me with life lessons that, in the final analysis, changed my life forever, and saved it.”
Rowell’s memoir might disappoint those who approach it looking for name-dropping, celebrity excesses, and gossip. Admittedly, I was curious about her relationship with jazz great Wynton Marsalis (they have a son, Jasper). After sharing a few details, Rowell, ever tactful, summarizes her relationship with Marsalis: “What were the chances that at this climactic moment in my life, in the anticipation of falling in love, I would meet a man who not only had no intention of falling in love, but would love only one woman, one muse — his trumpet.” (Rowell also has a daughter, Maya, from a previous marriage.) It’s commendable and fitting that Rowell chose to remain above the fray, committed to telling the story she came to tell, celebrating the women who taught her to live a life of purpose and dignity. Rowell’s clear, honest prose transforms what could easily have been yet another lightweight, overly sentimental celebrity vanity project into a deeply personal reflection with resounding sincerity.
The Women Who Raised Me is a long love letter, a letter of gratitude sent out to the women (and, in later chapters, men and various organizations) who have aided Rowell in her efforts to overcome the odds stacked against a child not only surviving the foster care system intact, but thriving in it.