Reminiscing on my violent, alcoholic father

It has been more than 35 years since my adoptive father died of health complications that followed years of destructive behavior and a losing battle with alcoholism.

Though he has long been buried in a cemetery plot in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River, Ohio, next to his father and mother, his impact on my life and my family lived on long after he passed away.

Even today, I frequently am forced to confront my long-buried memories of this often violent yet aextremely intelligent man who was an ordained Lutheran minister.

A shot taken with my adoptive father and sister in our home.

For the last seven years, when my adoptive mom was on her long and difficult journey with Alzheimer’s disease, my adoptive father’s memory frequently came up in our conversations. When I visited her in her home in University City, Missouri, flying out from my home cities of Seattle and then Portland, we spent endless hours talking about the past and her memories that grew dimmer over time. She could recall snippets of her past life and share them with me. She frequently repeated ideas or hazy recollections. She repeated two things more than any other during these seven years.

First, she told me, I have the greatest husband in the whole world. She was referencing her current husband and full-time caregiver, my stepfather, who cared for right up until her final day. Second, she told me, my first husband used to beat me. That was a reference to my adoptive father and her first husband, from the summer of 1958 through their divorce in the summer of 1973. During that time they lived in Detroit, moved briefly to Boston in late 1965 and 1966, and then moved to the metro St. Louis area, where my mom lived out the rest of her life.

My adoptive parents in front of their west Detroit home, likely in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

When my mom’s memory was sharper in the early years of her Alzheimer’s, she repeated constantly how often my adoptive father would hit her. She said the doctors told her the violence could have contributed to her awful and prolonged brain-wasting disease. I can still remember those incidents as if they happened hours ago. I too can never forget them.

I would always reply during these countless recollections that, yes, mom, your husband—my stepfather—was the best husband in the world. I would say nothing about her comments on her years of domestic abuse at the hands of my adoptive father—her former husband. These conversations continued until the second-to-last time I saw her alive, in September 2019.

In the end, my adoptive mom had two distinct memories, one of violence and one of love, which she likely had little control over because of her deteriorated state from Alzheimer’s.

Making Sense of my Adoptive Father

Though my life with my adoptive father in a nuclear family lasted eight years, I spent another five more visiting him, first in the St. Louis area and then in the Huntington, West Virginia and Chesapeake, Ohio metro area, where he resettled after the divorce.

Those trips with my adoptive sister to stay with him several times a year, as part of the divorce custodial settlement, were as bad if not worse than the times when we lived as a family under one roof.

I tried to reconstruct those years from memory starting about five years ago, as I began to write my memoir as an adoptee. I remember the day I wrote out the first outline to my memoir on a hot July day on a river beach. I then started with a chapter exploring my childhood and younger years with my adoptive father.

I wrote that chapter first. It proved to the hardest one to do because I had to dredge up memories that were neatly buried.

I also needed to revisit the places of my childhood and youth, in Huntington and Chesapeake, letting me remember things I had forgotten, perhaps as a way to carry on with life. I took a road trip there in September 2015.

My adoptive father lived for several years in this house, owned by the next door Lutheran church, where her served as a minister in the 1970s.

I published an essay on that trip on one of my blogs. I wrote about my childhood trips to see him: “I had no choice in the matter. I had to go there. I had to visit my father. It was bad to awful, and sometimes downright terrible. But when you are young, you are flexible and stronger than you think. You actually can do impossible things, and still come out at the end of the tunnel with a smile. I did. Despite the odds, I really did.”

When I finished the revised text to my memoir in late 2017, I left my first chapter on my adoptive father out. That decision came easily. I decided it was too personal about a relation that shaped my life. No one else would understand that journey but me. By that time in my life, into my fifth decade, I also realized I had become more like the generations who preceded me, who were reserved, not someone who wanted to “tell all.”

I also had come to a deeper realization about living life and finding meaning. I was able to see my unpleasant times with my adoptive father through a completely different perspective, shaped by my life and the knowledge I had gained from life.

Rudy Owens’ memoir on his experience as an adoptee and on the U.S. adoption system.

I described my later life’s wisdom in the introduction to my book, which I published in May 2018: “My adoptive father, a Lutheran minister, was abusive and an alcoholic. He had a serious drinking problem before I was even placed in his and my adoptive family’s middle-class, two-story brick home in metro Detroit. He treated my adoptive mother, my adoptive sister, and me very poorly. At times, when he was drunk, he could have killed my sister and me on more than a dozen occasions—when he would drive us in a total stupor. My adoptive family’s struggles were not pleasant, but they are also things no one could have predicted, and their meaning and purpose may still not even be clear to me. However, the way I confronted these challenges was uniquely my own, and I own how I addressed my reality and the conditions of my life. No one else is responsible for that.”

The Impact of Living through Domestic Violence Never Goes Away

As I continue to reflect on my life, I remain honest that the impacts of my adoptive father’s actions never fully disappeared. I see that most clearly when I read and learn about how domestic violence impacted others in their youth and their eventual journeys in life.

Patrick Stewart in his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series and film franchise.

I only recently learned that the fine British actor Patrick Stewart, known to the world as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series, also grew up in a home marred by domestic violence. I had always felt something raw when watching Stewart’s performances, as Picard, as Ebenezer Scrooge in his version of A Christmas Carol, and his lesser and earlier roles in films like Excalibur. He always had bursts of rage that felt like a smothering volcano, but controlled just barely.

By accident this month, I found his essay published in November 2009, in The Guardian (Patrick Stewart: the legacy of domestic violence). In it, he laid bare what he and his mother experienced at the rough hands of his World War II hero and domestic-abuser father. He wrote in the bluntest of terms how his father badly beat his mother, especially when he was drunk. He described the terror of living under the shadow of a violent person, who put their lives at risk.

“Violence is a choice a man makes and he alone is responsible for it,” Stewart wrote. “No one came to help. No adult stepped in and took charge. I needed someone else to take over and tell me everything was going to be all right and that it wasn’t my fault. I wanted the anger to go away and, while it stayed, I felt responsible. The sense of guilt and loneliness provoked by domestic violence is tainting—and lasting.”

Everything Stewart described echoed eerily what I had written in 2016, without ever reading Stewart’s essay, penned six years earlier.

In the section of my book I deleted, I wrote: “In those frequent drunken conditions, the ordinary looking man could transform into frightening malevolence, and you never quite knew how he would erupt. The well-worn expression walking on eggshells is actually a perfect match for what my mom, sister, and I faced for years around him.”

I also described the ravaging effects of alcohol, which I internalize to this day, as a survival mechanism. “In those intoxicated moments, my father’s ordinary appearance would be transformed by alcohol. His speech would slur. His left eye would slant behind his glasses. It was the mark an alcoholic I learned to spot instantaneously in others the rest of my life—one of the weird outcomes of growing up around someone with this affliction. To this day I can spot a problem drinkers with Spiderman-like quickness, usually in the first five seconds of meeting them. And my self-defense response kicks into a state of hyper readiness, just in case.”

On some days, like ones I have had this month, I revisit my life’s decisions that still leave sorrow, including my decisions to live a life that eschewed anything resembling domestic normality and middle-class happiness. I still associate these with my adoptive family and father.

Like all of us, we have to confront ourselves and decisions. There are days it is hard, when I might see families that appear “normal,” and I can observe a father who acts compassionately around others without toxic masculinity or the effects of alcohol. On those off days, these apparently normal activities allow me to play “what if” games in my mind.

In the end, I let those thoughts go, because I own this path and my thoughts entirely.

In the chapter I cut from my memoir, I concluded with a meditation on restorative justice. I described how embracing forgiveness means letting go of the power the offense and the offender over a person. It means no longer letting the offender and their actions control you anymore. Without this act of healing, the wound can fester and can control one’s actions indefinitely.

Like Stewart, I cannot entirely let go of the memories of a violent man who failed as a father. But I have found a path to becoming a better person and the person I wanted to be. I never followed in my adoptive father’s footsteps. For that I take credit. I accomplished more than I knew I ever would.

A Chance Meeting with Ike

Every one of us has a mother, and that can bring together strangers. (Sculpture in front of the St. Louis Art Museum, taken three weeks before my mother died in early February 2020.)

In mid-February, I flew across the country from Portland to St. Louis. My trip came suddenly, but not as a surprise. After more than seven years of battling Alzheimer’s my mother finally passed away.

My plan was to write a eulogy on the long flight I would have from Seattle to St. Louis, the second leg of my journey. My tale was meant to focus on young woman, who was raised in a scrappy New Jersey town just outside of New York City.

That’s what I thought at least.

I ended up writing two stories. One I published after I returned. The other I put aside. It was a story I never intended to have, but had to be told. I finally am telling it now, at the end of May 2020, in the middle of a pandemic and protests occurring nationally in the United State against racial injustice and much, much more.

Perhaps by fate, I think my mom decided to play a funny trick on me on the way for me say goodbye. The experience allowed me to recall her wisdom and share it with a stranger.

On that trip, a stranger crossed my path. However, it was up to me to do something with this opportunity and make sense of it. My mom’s passing gave me a window.

Wakanda PatchOn the escalator coming out of the Airport shuttle tram at SeaTac, Seattle’s international airport, I spotted a large African-American man in a red and black checkered shirt. He must have weighed 225 pounds. He stood about 6’2” and had a massive chest and arms for linebacker.

I didn’t really think about him until I spotted two items pinned to his backpack.

One said, “Wakanda is not a shithole country.” The other was a medallion with the Latin words “Memento Mori,” or remember that death comes to all. During the period of the Roman Empire, the phrase would be whispered in a mighty Roman emperor’s ears by a slave as he entered Rome. It reminded a mighty emperor of his mortality and that he, the mightiest person in the world, face the same ultimate fate as slave behind him.

When I read the Memento Mori medallion, I decided I had to introduce myself. I recently had found myself drawn to Stoic ideas, from ancient Greece and Rome, which are embodied in the words carved on that medallion.

I said, “Hi. I’m Rudy.” He replied simply, “Ike.”

I asked about his backpack decorations. We laughed about Wakanda.

I told him I recognized the Stoic medallion, and he said, yes, it’s sold by Ryan Holiday. Not by coincidence, we both followed and liked Holiday’s blog called The Daily Stoic. Both of us obviously found something in these ideas that connected with us.

I could hear a West African accent in his voice and asked about his background.

Soon I learned Ike originally hailed from Nigeria, the son of political refugee parents. He told me his mother arrived in Boston with just the shirt on her back and four kids while his father rotted in a jail back home.

I then discovered we were on the same flight. He was on a business trip from Seattle to St. Louis.

I told him about my family, being raised in a family of three with a single mom in St. Louis. I said I was flying to St. Louis to attend the funeral of my mother.

Ike commented how important funerals were in Nigeria for the Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa-Fulani ethnic groups. Ike called them festive occasions where the life of a person was remembered as a joyful thing.

Rudy and Ike

Rudy and Ike, connecting over mothers, death, funerals, and remembrance during a chance meeting at SeaTac in mid-February 2020. It is sad knowing we can’t enjoy the friendly embrace of strangers anymore for a long time amid the pandemic.

He said as a child, he wasn’t afraid of death because funerals were always so fun. Only later did he learn of the sadness that also accompanies the loss of a loved one. But first he learned that death was not a thing to fear and that it was a part of life.

Somehow we began to talk about how our mothers raised us and what life skills they taught us. Ike said his mom, and dad, always taught him he had to fight, because nothing in life came without some sort of struggle.

He said they never spoiled him or pampered him or over-parented him. If he was hurt, without requiring a hospital visit, he was expected to overcome his circumstance, because he if wasn’t gravely injured, he would be OK. He said it was the right thing to teach him, and he later understood the importance of this teaching. It helped to make hi successful.

I said my mom was the same way. She understood good luck and bad luck. Like everyone, she had her share of both, and maybe in stronger doses that she deserved at times. I said, she could handle a strong wind and not snap. She would bend back. I said she had raised me not to be blown down during storms, even if I wasn’t aware of this when it was happening. Like her, I had to learn on my own to let storms pass and then come back up, stronger. Maybe I was more successful at this than she bargained for.

I also talked about my mom’s battle with Alzheimer’s and how it had given me a chance to learn about things that frighten us all—our mortality and death. By the end of this journey, watching this illness take my mom, I had grown. I had become less afraid of the end that awaits us all (“Memento Mori”). I simply did what I could do for my mom, mostly in a way that worked.

I told him that in the end, my mom always had an ability to see goodness. She could find something good amid something terrible, including her illness. Though she despised it, and would rightly say, “I hate this. I can’t stand this.” She also said one line all the time, right up to the end. “I have the nicest husband in the whole world, “ she would tell me, again, and again, and again, and again. I must have heard this hundreds of times in the past seven years.

It was one of the last things she told me on the phone, the last time we had a conversation during the Thanksgiving 2019 holiday. I remember replying to her the way I always did, with utmost sincerity: “Yeah mom, you do. He’s a great husband.”

I reality, my mom had said this for all 37 years of her marriage. She was speaking a truth about what the second half of her life was like with her best friend and husband.

“I got so lucky,” she might add. “Yes, mom,” I’d reply. “You got real lucky indeed.”

At that moment, in telling Ike my mom’s story, I started to feel my eyes water up and looked away. Here I was, crying to a man I had never met, telling him about the passing of my mother. He gave me a hug. “It’s OK, man. It’s part of the journey of life.”

Ike and I took a selfie and I gave him my card. I don’t know if I will see him again. He lives in Seattle with his wife. He’s not even sure how much time he has, having just had a heart attack on Jan. 18. He told me it was almost a blessing, because it reminded him of how precious life is and how important his wife and health are.

I think my mom would have loved to meet Ike. She could have easily found herself talking to him, like I saw her do countless times before whenever we travelled, or went to the Missouri Botanical Gardens, or the St. Louis Art Museum, or on a holiday. She was always warm and welcoming with strangers, of any race or background—always eager to hear about their lives and talk about their families and especially their kids.

In some ways, I felt my mom somehow played a serendipitous role that crossed my path with Ike’s, and therefore my mom’s story with his mom’s story, and the story all of us have with our mothers and the lessons they teach us, so we can pass them on to others, the way all people do, in the USA, Nigeria, or any other place.

Yes, maybe there was a reason I would be in an airport tram on that very day, at that very hour, at that very second, with an imposing looking man next to me, who just happened to have a reminder that captured the wisdom of a long journey my mom just completed. In some ways I felt that was her reaching from beyond through a stranger letting me it would be OK.

Remember to always get up and welcome a stranger into your life, I think she’d say. It was something her long and abiding Christian faith had given her until the very end.

Remembering and honoring the great Bill Withers

On March 30,  2020 the world lost one of its wisest voices, singer and songwriter Bill Withers.

Withers passed away from heart complications at the ripe age of 81, having lived a life that allowed his life’s wisdom to reach the entire world through the power of music and the magic of his soulful voice.

His memorable hits remembered by many include “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” “Use Me,” “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” and of course his timeless original “Lean on Me.” That timeless classic gave him the freedom to walk away from the music business and live a different life after 1980, after making nine studio albums in nine short years. His final hit, before he grew disillusioned with the music industry, was “Just the Two of Us.”

For me, the emotional depths Withers can find with the simplest chords on a guitar in “Hope She’ll Be Happier” is a testament to the power of music to touch someone’s soul.

And like so many, I am now turning to “Lean on Me,” from his second album, Still Bill. It provides an anchor as I search for light amid our global COVID-19 pandemic. The day I learned of his death, I played his masterpiece all night. I wrote to a friend, “Still chills. Decades go by, and it’s all I’ve got. I needed this song today more than ever. It carried me back to my humanity.”

Withers is an American original, shaped by his humble, poor beginnings and the knowledge of lived experience that he channeled into his music that found an audience the world over. “I could have done better, but I did alright,” is how he summed up his musical career, the perfect understatement of a true artist.

Born in 1938, Withers was the youngest of six children. During a 2014 interview, he said his mother actually had 13 kids, and high infant mortality took its toll. His family lived in a coal mining community called Slab Forks, West Virginia, which was literally racially segregated by railroad tracks.

Long after Withers had become successful and stopped performing, he said his early and impoverished years that he had little control over likely exposed him to health issues that caught up with him later. He said as a child, he and his family ate every part of the hog but the holler. That is a classic West Virgnia line.

Despite the inherent racism his family experienced during his formative years, his father became a respected United Mineworkers treasurer while working in the coal mines. His life as a miner, Withers later shared, led to his premature death when Withers turned 13.

Despite these hardships, Withers also saw a type of communal bond that later informed his world view and his songwriting. When interviewed by a West Virginia TV program in 2007 about historic racism in West Virginia, he responded, “When you’re coming out of a coal mine, everyone’s black”.

Withers later lived with his mother and grandmother, the latter became the inspiration for his hit “Grandma’s Hands.”

Withers was determined to leave his poor upbringing in Appalachia and escape the life in the mines that left many men unhealthy in their later years.

He joined the U.S. Navy and learned to become an aviation mechanic. He was discharged and then lived in California, working in factories, including for Ford and Weber Aircraft on assembly lines. Those years as an assembly worker taught him about working together and caring for his fellow worker, he would later tell reporters.

While working he bought a guitar at a pawn shop and taught himself to play, while songwriting. He began to share his tapes and pursue his dream of making it.

In interviews in his later years, after he left the business, he described “Lean on Me” as a product of a small, poor town, where you had to lean on others to get through hard times. He said that song could never have been written by someone from a big city, like London or New York. It’s a song from a smaller place.

When the news broke on Friday of his death, and I dug into his songs, I found there was far more to this man than I ever knew. And the more I knew, the more I realized how profoundly thoughtful he was about life. I realized how much of a Stoic he was, in a classical and advanced sense, and how there are people with whom you share spiritual and philosophical kinship, across time, space, race, and life experience.

One of my favorite lines I heard from his interviews was, ”We all become the composite of the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met.” So true, that.

He talked about the way we speak to others and our decorum come from the basic manners we learned from those who have raised us, regardless of where we’re from or our class. He also spoke about this simple stuff, and what camradarie was like in his home state.

As I mused about his life, I wrote this passage on my Facebook feed, after listening to his wonderful 2014 interview with the radio show Death, Sex, and Money: “If I could go back in time right now, and speak to my 15-year-old and very immature self, I would give myself a recording of this amazing interview with the late Bill Withers about living a meaningful life, how to be a real man as he understood it (without toxic masculine swagger, but with love and compassion), and finding one’s place in the world. This may not be the wisdom others would need, but I probably could have benefited from it. One of the most important male figures in his life was a slightly crippled man named virgil, who was also a hunchback. It was Virgil’s wise words that helped Withers overcome his own disability when he was 30 (a stutter).”

Unlike many singer songwriters, Withers never needed the ego gratification performing on the stage. He described himself as the type of kid who might be in the corner, reading a comic book not the one dancing for attention the moment someone entered the room. You can see that in his performances, where he sits on a stool, closes his eyes, strums his simple chords, and then unleashes the ferocity of his voice that comes from the human soul.

 

Toward the end of his life, he never lost perspective. You could see that in his 2015 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His stage presence conveyed, “Sure, whatever, folks. There’s more important stuff than this stage spectacle. Have a good time. I’m all good.”

In his interviews, Withers also described the difference between music and the music business. Everyone should do music, he emphasized, because of what music brings to the world. He said, when the big fat lady gets up in church and sings from her soul, that’s music, but ain’t nobody gonna pay her a dime.

Amen, indeed.

I will miss you, Bill Withers. We have lost a poet, artist, and force for humanity. I assure you, your wisdom will help all of us through the dark days of ahead:

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Thank you, Bill Withers, for showing us the way.

Saying Goodbye

In December 2019, my mom began her stay at the Barnes-Jewish Extended Care facility in Clayton, Missouri. The place is close to my stepfather, who decided at last to put her into a care home. He has been my mother’s primary and dutiful caregiver for years. The decision was entirely his alone to make.

He felt good about the facility and its staff. It is partially owned and managed by the most respected medical system in metro St. Louis — Barnes and Jewish Hospital.

I first arrived at my mom’s new and likely final home on the first night of my four-day trip in late January 2020. I had flown out from my current home on the West Coast, in Portland. My plan was simple: spend as much time as I could with my ailing mother.

From the outside, the place looked remarkably plain, testifying to its focus on function. The three-story brick building has a gated courtyard and no fancy design features. It mostly resembles thousands of other care homes, where families, loved ones, and our society place our sickest, frailest, and oldest residents to live out their final days and die, hidden from public view.

My trip here also marked the final arc of my family’s life, not far from where we spent our early years together. Over the course of four days, I visited my mom daily, spending a couple hours each day with her.

My mom turned 83 last fall. When I came, she was at the end of her long, seven-year odyssey since she was first diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2013. That diagnosis changed everything. Those who care for patients with Alzheimer’s, like my stepdad and my mother’s husband of more 35 years, travel in the deep and dark valley of this horrible disease for intolerably long periods, with few moments of joy.

Though I lived nearly 2,000 miles away, my life also changed completely. I stopped taking vacations. Nearly all the free time I could pull from my work schedule went to trips two or three times a year to see her. I ceased to care about petty squabbles at my job, wanting to conserve my energy and health to focus on my family. It probably allowed unhelpful situations at my job to get worse because I refused to waste time on inconsequential issues and people who were not important to my life.

Every time I saw my mom, her conditions had deteriorated more. By time I came out this January 2020, my mom had already had two emergency room visits the previous month. She first stayed at another care facility nearly 30 miles from her and my stepdad’s cozy home, where her offered loving care for years. He found the Barnes-Jewish facility after lots of rejections and queries. It offered extended care, and he immediately liked it.

This is an expression I had much of the time during my four-day visit to see my mother at her new care home.

Over my four days in St. Louis, I visited my mom’s room on the third floor, where I got to slightly know some of the patients. Most of them were mentally sharp. Some had severe cognitive disabilities. Many were old and friendly to me. I had several conversations with mom’s neighbors during two lunches.

For those lunchtime meals, I spoon fed my mom what little amounts of nourishment she could swallow. When she did, she would smile at me, but not really see me because of her eyesight had long since failed.

I also befriended some nurses and nurses aides. All were cheerful and caring. They lovingly helped my mom with her basic functions: showering, eating, being wheeled in and out of the recreation and dining room. They were pros at moving her around. They also did the diaper changes and clothes changes. I couldn’t do that. Most were African American.

This sign decorates the rec room/lunchroom at my mom’s care home.

I particularly liked a day nurse, a man with tattoos covering his arms and about my age. I also liked another nurse, a South Asian woman who helped me get my mom out of bed and ready for lunch one day.

Since I last saw my mom in September 2019, she appeared to have aged about five years. She now had nearly totally gray hair. She was so weak, she was unable to walk.

According to my stepdad, on most days, she slept. Sometimes the TV was left on. Other times my stepdad said he put on music, which she liked. He set up some pictures on her bureau of happier times for all of us and put one of my mom’s favorite posters, from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, above her bed.

My stepfather has arranged a loving display on the bureau in my mom’s room.

During each visit, I talked to her. I held her frail, withered hands. Sometimes she smiled. I liked that a lot.

The last morning of my final visit, a Sunday, began as a beautiful winter day in St. Louis. I awoke at 6:30 a.m. I took a brisk walk to clear my head. During those three miles I exchanged friendly hellos to friendly Midwesterners. I wondered to myself how many of them might have family members who were ill or experiencing dementia like my mother.

I arrived at my mom’s facility shortly after 10 a.m. It was quiet. As usual I signed in and walked to the elevator upstairs, through the institutional hallways.

I first went to my mom’s room and it was empty. I briefly panicked. I thought, she might have died the night earlier. I went back to the recreation and lunchroom. There she was, in her red sweat pants, a red sweater, and curled in a fetal position on the chair next the table below the blaring TV. I walked up to her and told her it was Rudy. I could see her smile, but I knew she did not see me.

That morning, a woman minister in her late 60s, wearing a blue turtleneck and blue pants, was leading a Protestant church service in the same room. About 10 of the mostly older patients participated.

I heard the minister speak the Lord’s Prayer, and half of the patients said it with her. She came up to me and asked if we wanted communion. I asked mom, and she agreed, likely not understanding what I asked. She ingested about one half of the wafer.

Mom began to curl up, wanting to sleep again. I ran to her room and grabbed a pillow to give her something more comfortable than a wooden chair arm to rest her head on. The minister, having finished her service, then sat at the piano and began to play hymns. She played and sang How Great Though Are, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Down by the Riverside, Amazing Grace, and other hymns I didn’t recognize immediately. At that moment I couldn’t think of a better thing to be doing for those here, and for visitors like me.

I started crying when the minister and an older African American patient sang Amazing Grace.

This was it, I realized. This was the end. I knew I would never see my mom alive again. My eyes were turning red and I wiped away the tears on my jacket.

I told my mom I was leaving. She smiled and asked where I was going. I said, I’m going to Portland. She smiled. I don’t know if she heard me. I blew her a kiss, not wanting to give her my minor throat illness. Then I got I got a nurse’s aide to punch in the security code to open the secure elevator to leave.

Alone, I started to cry. I mostly kept up my straight-faced appearance in the lobby as I signed out. Once in the small parking lot, I bent over and wept. It has been years since I cried like this. I must have been a pitiful sight to someone looking out a window.

I got in the car and continued to weep. I turned the ignition and began to leave the parking lot, still crying.

Enough of this, I told myself. I wanted to be strong. So I pulled out my stoic shell and put on my public mask. It is the face I show the world, even when things go very, very bad.

I turned my rental car onto Forest Park Parkway, turned north on Interstate 170, and headed to St. Louis International Airport to catch my flight home.

Letting go of the living

During the last six years, I have been forced to confront the collapsing health of my family. Not by coincidence, my reflections on these changes and death itself led me to writers like Viktor Frankl and branches of thinking such as Existentialism and the Greek and Roman school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

The Stoic philosophers from ancient Greece and Rome provide a roadmap that remains remarkably relevant today. The most famous ancient stoics—Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—did not focus on abstractions. Rather, they wrote about the most pressing realities of life and issues of what define us and how we live each day.

At this point in my own life’s journey, I found comfort in old ideas that embraced questions about death. As Seneca wrote, “A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well.” Stoic ideas helped me think about how all of us can prepare ourselves for misfortune and navigate through the worst possible events, in order to confront what inevitably lies ahead.

My journey, with my family, was now one confronting inevitable loss. This chapter of my life story, with my family, will perhaps soon end in the death of the remaining two members of my nuclear family—my mother and sister.

Losing my Mom

My father died in 1985, when I was 20, and I can scarcely remember him as a person. He was an alcoholic and unimportant in my life. I unfortunately lost my mother more than six years ago, but this loss is ongoing.

In 2013, she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The illness has been especially cruel to her husband, my stepfather, who saw his intimate partner and best friend of 30 years slowly lose her mental abilities and her ability to function as an independent adult. I have observed her slow decay, mostly during short visits and on phone calls that always got worse with each week, month, and then year.

My mother changed from being someone with a razor-sharp mind and who loved crosswords to a woman who could no longer remember the names or even faces of her neighbors and family.

On this last trip to St. Louis in September 2019, we were alone. I asked her, “Who am I?” She gave me a long look with that blank stare, created by the destruction of her neurons and the accumulation of amyloid plaques in her brain. She replied with my stepfather’s name. I said, “No, mom, it’s your son, Rudy.” She didn’t reply. She then asked me a question she had asked half a dozen times earlier in the last 15 minutes.

I have spent these last six years flying back and forth from Seattle and then Portland to her home in the St. Louis area. My trips were motivated by personal concern for her and her husband caregiver and a sense of duty to help as her son.

I have shed tears. I have felt anguish. I have gnashed my teeth. I have cursed scores of times to myself as I walked alone after work, daylight or dark. I have felt powerless. I have felt my desires for my own dreams bend and be extinguished, just so I could be there for her, albeit from afar.

When I read about my friends’ lives, involving travel or a life where the future is filled with promise, I compare it to my stepdad’s world. His involves non-stop and constant care for my mom.

I have, in the end, simply abandoned thoughts of vacation and time alone that don’t involve flying halfway across the continent, so I can spend time with her. On past trips we have held hands and took walks. We could even squeeze in visits to the St. Louis Art Museum and Missouri Botanical Garden. Even those stopped on my last trip.

On this trip, like the ones before, she asked me questions she had asked dozens of times before: Where do you live? Why do you live n Portland? Why won’t you live here? Do you have a girlfriend?

My mom often chastised me, saying, that’s too far away, you should be closer, even when she has no idea who I am or that she even had a son.

Losing my Sister

During these last six years, and for at least a decade earlier, I have also watched my sister slowly spiral out of control.

She has battled addiction, obesity, mental health issues, a long spell of homelessness, and finally the collapse of her body. Her obesity finally made it nearly impossible for her to walk. After living on the mean streets of St. Louis for months, and then in an unsanitary drug house in a very unsafe St. Louis neighborhood, she rebounded with the help of my mom and stepdad. My sister found a low-paying but stable job with Missouri’s welfare office.

Yet each visit, from 2000 on, turned into a portrait in loss. By the last time I saw her in January 2019, just before she had a heart-attack, she was out of her job, living in squalid conditions alone, and having no contact with anyone or any person except a former drug addict neighbor in a poor south St. Louis suburb.

Each time I came, her apartment looked dirtier and more cluttered and chaotic. I am choosing not to share the details. They are too depressing and also private.

Finally, in July 2019, she called for first responders who discovered her collapsed on her apartment floor, unable to walk. She had deep and open pressure ulcers and was immediately taken the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. From there the hospital managers and social workers placed her in skilled nursing facility in the city that accepted Medicaid eligible patients. She moved into the facility that month and has been bedbound and no longer able to walk.

Her new home is a facility for indigent patients, all eligible for Medicaid-paid care. The population is a mix of mostly older African Americans and fewer whites. When I visited in September 2019, more than half appeared bedbound. Patients with mental illnesses wandered the halls, without interference from staff. The front door was coded, and no one but staff could get out without the punch key.

To me, it felt like a madhouse from the Victorian era, with staff unconcerned with the patient wards in their care or visitors from the streets who could walk in the facility without even signing in.

No staff member required me to present my ID or sign in. So I could wander the facility without interference, startled that no one cared who I was. In one of the community rooms, I saw silent, elderly, and sick patients gaze blankly at their television. Others sat in the courtyard, silent and hunched over. Still others in their rooms lay silent, with their televisions blaring reality shows and their faces staring blankly at the blue light. I imagined this was like hundreds of others similar facilities nationwide.

My sister looked like she had aged 10 years. She had lost one of her front top teeth. She had a bad rash and dirty, unkempt hair. She remained unable to walk.

The hardest part of my trip was visiting my sister’s cluttered, dirty apartment that had long gone to hell. Amid the clutter that littered each room, I found evidence of her past life. I located her diaries she had kept from the time she was in her 20s, still with dreams of living a good life, even as it was slowly going sideways from her substance-abuse problems. I found her jewelry she made as a hobby for years, as her mobility began to decline and her world closed in on her.

I spent about two hours finding all of her legal documents and her writings. That was my plan from the start. I put those in a pink plastic tub and filled another with her nicest dresses, pants, and shirts, even though I knew she likely would never wear them again.

We had a falling out when I refused to help her rent a storage locker to put her stuff. She cried, feeling betrayed. I knew from all I had seen she would not leave this place or another. She still believed she could walk again and live on her own with her public assistance.

On my last morning in St. Louis, I visited her room again. Her roommate, who is in her 30s and likely had a mental health disorder, was there. I held my sister’s hand and said I was happy I had come to see her. She looked at me, and said, “I love you.” I responded the way I always had in the past, with a smile.

I then left her room and found one of the young, African-American nurses dressed in purple scrubs. She smiled, punched the code, and the door opened. I walked out into the fresh-smelling fall morning and the sunshine on a beautiful St. Louis day. It was time to catch my flight and leave behind this warehouse for the infirmed.

Back to where it all began

In early June, I visited Michigan, my birth state. I made a four-day whirlwind visit to promote my new book and advocate for changes to Michigan’s outdated adoption laws that deny Michigan-born adoptees their original birth records.

Crittenton General Hospital in Detroit, taken in 1930 (from the National Florence Crittenton Mission).

During the two days I was in the Detroit and Ann Arbor area, I finally returned to the place of my birth: Crittenton General Hospital, the epicenter of adoption in Michigan for decades.

The building is now torn down. In its place is a large, boxy utilitarian set of buildings housing the Detroit Jobs Center and a nursing home, all surrounded by a gated steel fence. There is no plaque mentioning the hospital, how long it operated, and who it served. The surrounding area, just west of the John Lodge Freeway and at the intersections of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Tuxedo Street, is severely distressed.

Decay was visible everywhere near the old Crittenton General Hospital site, off of Rose Parks Boulevard.

Multiple houses a half a block from the old hospital site were in various states of collapsing. On Rosa Parks, by the rear entrance to the jobs center, a two-story apartment was slowly falling down—and no doubt would be destroyed one day or, sadly, torched by an arsonist.

The former Crittenton Maternity Home on Woodrow Wilson is now the home of Cass Community Social Services. The former home used to house single mothers before they gave birth next door at the former Crittenton General Hospital, from the the 1950s through the 1970s.

The former Crittenton Maternity Home, in a three-story brick building next to the old hospital site, is still standing. It is now run by Cass Community Social Services. I saw a young and I’m sure poor mother with her child entering the building. I realized how the story of single mothers continues today, but with different issues and without the full-throated promotion of adoption by nearly all major groups involved in social work and the care of children. I took some photos of the home and then went to the hospital site.

I took out my sign that I had quickly made in my car using a fat Sharpie. It simply said: “I was born here.”

I took multiple pictures, on a hot, muggy, and sunny day, but I could not manage a smile. I could not make light of my origins at this place, where so many mothers said goodbye, forever, to their children. It is not a happy story.

Rudy Owens at the site of the former Crittenton General Hospital, where he was born and relinquished into foster care in the mid-1960s, and then adopted at five and a half weeks after his birth.

Despite my stern appearance, I felt a sense of elation to have finally returned to my place of origin. It felt like closure. I accomplished what I set out to do decades earlier, for myself and on behalf of other adoptees denied knowledge of who they were and where they came from.

This time, I had controlled the story. This time, I was telling that to the world with my newly published book and public conversations that had been connecting with readers. This time, I owned the moment, unlike the one when I arrived as a nearly underweight baby, heading into the U.S. adoption system in Michigan and a new family.

And no one, not the state of Michigan or the groups who determined my life because of my status as an illegitimate child, could ever take that from me.

Yeah, it was worth it. That selfie and throwaway sign were my Trajan’s Column, as glorious as anything ever built by a conquering Roman emperor. The adoptee hero, as I frequently describe all adoptees searching for their past, had returned victorious to Rome (Detroit), even if there were no crowds throwing garlands upon me and no one to write poetry celebrating that victory. I had written that story already

‘The Art of War’: the essential text for any U.S. adoptee

Sun Tzu, the brilliant Chinese strategist, reportedly born in 554 BC, should be studied and read by every adoptee in the United States who is denied equal treatment under the law and their original birth records. His classic treatise, The Art of War, remains one of the most frequently studied, quoted, and referenced tools in human civilization for anyone who engages in advocacy and, yes, war.

Everything is there for the adoptee or birth parent seeking his/her records and past and for advocacy groups seeking reform and justice from a system that denies basic justice and equality to millions.

For adoptees who are plagued by insecurity, doubt, and depression about the injustice of discriminatory state adoption laws and historic and unspoken prejudice against illegitimately born people like adoptees, I first recommend drawing from your wisdom and discipline you have gained from your experience. Finding wisdom in books will be meaningless unless you can first put that knowledge into a perspective you have lived yourself.

So Why Sun Tzu and an Ancient Text?

My tweet to adoptees on preparing for long campaigns for equal rights: read Sun Tzu.

Most adoptees will learn that their path to wisdom and later action will eventually require discipline, awareness of one’s adversaries, and adapting successfully from tough experience. Luckily, Sun Tzu provides one of the easiest to access toolkits to guide you as you embark on your journey that only you can make.

If your mind is open to new ideas, Sun Tzu’s timeless observations and tactics allow anyone to become an irresistible force. As Sun Tzu says, “Being unconquerable lies with yourself.”

In my case, I embraced many of these strategies to overcome the country’s discriminatory adoption system and achieve a measure of justice and wisdom, which I describe in my book on my adoption experience. Sun Tzu correctly notes, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”

(I first published a copy of this essay on the website for my memoir.)

Me, Mum, and the Wisdom of Time

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Regret is not an emotion that we like to speak of. Speaking of it is an admission of failure and lost chances. By saying one regrets something, we diminish our standing in the eyes of others and ourselves.

But I do have regrets. They are sharp as hornet bites on a hot, muggy day. For me they stemmed from my foolish pride and my familial disagreements I should have risen above.

These thoughts accompany me now whenever I visit and speak with my mother.

Because of her illness, she cannot remember the past in its full richness. There are fleeting, diaphanous moments that she can recall good and bad moments. But these are fragments, not fully formed memories.

I feel this loss especially now, as I get older, and I want to hunt down stories of my past that only my mom would have. But they are now lost forever, because she cannot recall them.

Me and Mum, the Good Days:

Mom at the Wooden Boat Festival, July 2004.

My mom and I have had our fierce challenges. I do not intend to share them here. I always did my best to not let them cloud the possibilities for the future, even if the bargain may not have been a fair one, from my perpective. But as we both grew older, so did our friendship.

Between 2010 and 2012, when I was in graduate school earning my MPH, we hit an impasse. We once went more than six months without talking. The rifts between me and my stepfamily and my mom widened during the rough time, when I was not in a good place.

When we did talk, it was not pleasant. I was, in essence, estranged from my “unique” family when I probably needed them the most. It was not until I finished my imperfect masters program at the University of Washington—quite drained fiscally and likely spiritually—that we made amends.

My mom flew out to see me in July 2012, and we found our old routine.

At that time I was living in Seattle, and I was doing contract work while still looking for full-time employment right out of graduate school.

Mom at a Shakespeare performance in Seward Park, July 2012, Seattle.

So we had time. We visited the Ballard Locks, where I took one of the best pictures ever of my mom. I brought her to Discovery Park on a glorious sunset, where we could see the sun slip behind the Olympic Mountains and light up Puget Sound in the soft summer light. We rubbed our toes in the sand at Golden Gardens Beach. We ate out for dinner and laughed. We saw Shakespeare in the Park, outdoors, in Seward Park at Lake Washington.

These reminded me of our other precious times we spent together, without my step-dad or others around. We could confide in each other. I could hear stories about her first husband, my father, that she seemed to hide inside for years, and for good reason. That 2012 trip was a lot like one she made in 2004, the summer before I went to Alaska.

She also flew out in July that year, and we spent great days walking around Greenlake  Park, attending a Wooden Boat Festival, and being happy-go-lucky tourists in Seattle. Both times were transition periods for me. In 2004, I was getting ready to leave Seattle for a job in Alaska, unsure what living in the True North would be like. I needed to know we were still connected.

On the last day of her 2012 trip, I realized something was not right. She was having trouble remembering things and feeling more anxious than normal. I was still able to get her safely to the airport and on her plane. Not long after I learned that the issues I let slide by were more pronounced. She was not going to be the same person when I saw her again.

I would no longer be able to have a conversations with someone who could listen to me and knew me. That new person would never be the confidant I once could share my stories with, in confidence.

Facing Tomorrow, Today

The loss from a half decade ago is more pronounced today. It is July. I think of our past summer walks, in Seattle, in the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, and in Forest Park in St Louis, where we spent many great hours together.

Mom and the Ballard Locks, July 2012, and one of my favorite portraits I took of her.

Today, my foolish pride for two years from 2010 through 2012 seems like my greatest squandered opportunity. Why did I allow that?

Perhaps the stress of doing my degree and spending my savings on an expensive and imperfect professional program clouded my thinking. They likely did. Now, at a more calm place in life, I can fool myself and say, I could have done better.

Maybe I really would not have been able to do things differently. But I still wish I could have those days back. I wish I could have spent my precious dollars and flown from Seattle to St. Louis on a short trip to have conversations that would have been more important than my money in my bank today.

I will fly off to St. Louis to see my mom again in two weeks.

When I visit her, I won’t be able to ask her about our brief time spent in Detroit, when I was a baby and we lived as a model middle-class American family, in a city just before it started sputtering to economic decline.

I can’t ask her about her life in college, when she struck out on her own and left New Jersey as a beautiful, smart young woman.

I can’t ask her how she and my father decided to adopt two children, or what it was like for my father and her to move from Saginaw to Detroit in the early 1960s.

I wish we could have back those past Julys, walking and talking and sharing stories about our lives. They were some of the best times I ever had. I wish I had known that when I was living those moments.

Defining your values, to yourself and others

Four years ago, I spent some time defining my core values and how these apply to work. These have been a part of my identity for as long I have worked . They also guided me as I balanced work with other experiences that contribute to my place in the world.

These values probably limited my ability to climb proverbial ladders of power, but they also mean that I am authentic in how I show up and what I want others to know about me.

That is me, Rudy Owens, on Martha’s Vineyard, in July 1984, when I worked outdoors. It was a lousy job, but I learned some important things from the crew and from my employer, DeSorcy Contracting.

In no particular order, here are some of my values as they mostly relate to me in the work world, where most of us have to find our place and earn our keep. Some values also relate to what I prioritize when seeking that elusive balance in life.

•    I value hard work.
•    I value personal and professional integrity.
•    I value collaboration with colleagues and open systems thinking more than hierarchy and closed-systems thinking.
•    I value creativity and those who are wildly passionate in visions for change.
•    I value being open to constantly learning new things.
•    I value spontaneity and the ability to change.
•    I value travel and learning from experience and other cultures.
•    I value personal health and the promotion of health at the individual, local, national, and international level.
•    I value simplicity.
•    I value the benefits that come from fair but fierce competition.
•    I believe in pursuing goals bigger than one’s self and one’s immediate surroundings.

So, these are my values. What are yours? What do you do stand for? How do you show them? What do you do when they conflict with your coworkers and neighbors? How do you respond? Do your values bend or do they guide you through life’s ambiguities?

Twenty-Four Terrible Little Hours in Paris

I am re-publishing a story I first published on my website in January 2007. Amid the stories emerging lately about harsh treatment of U.S. citizens and non-citizens entering the United States, I was reminded that any citizen anywhere can be singled out for racist and frightening treatment.

I have been profiled and ransacked entering Canada and the United States several times. Both sides used drug sniffing dogs, suspecting I had to be a drug smuggler. I had a nasty shakedown in Uganda I will never forget. Japanese customs agents did a chemical test on dirt in my luggage, smiling and suggesting it was dope. If it tested false positive (and that would have been a false positive, since I don’t do any drugs), I could have done prison time. Indonesia warns visitors they face the death penalty if they are caught smuggling drugs. I took this warning very seriously and avoided even making eye contact with Bali’s many street dope dealers in the Kuta Beach area. There were rumors many were police informers.

Indonesia makes clear to all visitors if they smuggle drugs, they likely will be killed by federal law.

Indonesia makes clear to all visitors if they smuggle drugs, they likely will be killed by federal law.

Here is my experience just before I boarded an Air France flight back to the United States in November 2006, coming from Italy and heading to my home in Anchorage, Alaska. What happened is an accurate record of the events and my efforts to seek an apology from those who treated me as a likely criminal.

When you travel and enter into a no-man’s land at the border, you have no power. No law protects you. You are ultimately at the whim of a state power and the people wearing uniforms. Men like the fictional and corrupt Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca are ready to seize those moments and exert power,  for pleasure and profit. Anyone who has traveled knows this. This is universal, not just an issue of one country or one culture.

© 2007, Rudy Owens. All rights reserved.

I am still trying to decide what is worse, French security guards or Disneyland Resort Paris. Both conjure up frightening images. Both overlapped painfully for me when my Air France flight from Rome arrived late at Charles de Gaulle International Airport on Nov. 7, 2006. What followed were some of the worst 24 hours of my life, rivaling my feverish malarial delirium in Africa and the tearing of my anterior cruciate ligament on my left knee for the second time.

When I finally boarded yet another late Air France plane to leave “Old Europe” on Nov. 8, 2006, I had just endured the must humiliating and degrading security shakedown of my life.

Claude Rains as the corrupt Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca. Remember, round up the usual suspects.

Anyone who has gone through this experience knows the feeling that comes when the uniformed power figure mocks the powerless. But the archetypal redneck American sheriff has nothing on the archetypal Frenchman in uniform, captured so brilliantly by Claude Rains as the corrupt French police chief, Capt. Louis Renault, in “Casablanca.” And, like so many ugly archetypes, often a dark, dirty, worm-infested truth lies at its core.

In less than one day, the Republic of France, Air France, and the personnel of Charles de Gaulle International Airport, in Paris, had temporarily turned me into an ardent supporter of the “Boycott France” movement. Though my initial sense of outrage has now passed, the residual sense of fear has not. It is a feeling that I think will always linger when I leave the country, when before I had only known curious excitement.

In truth, I could have forgiven France and Air France for my missed connection at Charles de Gaulle on Nov. 7, 2006, when this all began. I could even have forgiven the accommodations Air France gave me, if I just were allowed to leave France like any other transiting passenger the next day. But no, it was not going to be that easy.

After landing 90 minutes late from Rome, four hours of my life zipped away at Air France’s help desk, where personnel in smart navy blue uniforms speaking smart Parisian French rebooked me on a flight back to the United States the next day and told me I would spend the night at Hotel Cheyenne, courtesy of Air France.

I had no time to ask where this oddly and American-named accommodation was found. I thought, this could be OK; at least I could see a little of Paris, eat some French food, and walk around. I was told, hurry up, the bus was leaving – told in French, of course.

There were about 20 of us international traveling misfits from many countries who were collected on an unmarked bus at 3 p.m. and driven an hour away from de Gaulle, not to the City of Lights, but to Disney’s European bastard child, Disneyland Resort Paris, a.k.a, EuroDisney.

The bus unloaded us at Hotel Cheyenne, a complex adjacent to EuroDisney in the middle of absolutely nowhere. This sprawling corporate complex in the farm fields near WWI battlefields was designed to prey upon European and Japanese affections for American cultural kitsch.

As for Hotel Cheyenne, it was an entirely fake wild Western village, with poorly constructed, two-story wooden hotels named after real and imaginary icons of the old West: Sitting Bull, Wyatt Earp, and Billy the Kid. It resembled a French civic planner’s vision of a Hollywood Western movie set.

A fake western village in Disney Paris, the prelude to my nasty encounter a day later with Air France private security officials.

A fake western village in EuroDisney in Paris, the prelude to my nasty encounter a day later with Air France private security officials.

The check-in was a chaotic. Our bus arrived minutes after another busload of Japanese tourists. Unlike us stranded Air France passengers, these tourists were actually paying for this experience, rather than enduring it.

I was assigned a room in the Wyatt Earp building, handed meal coupons, and told an Air France shuttle bus would arrive in the morning to take us to the airport.

My room had a faulty heater and smelled of rancid cigarette smoke. I was told by the hotel’s staff I could not change rooms. They were booked full. Full? Who would actually pay to stay here? As it turns out, thousands and thousands of Europeans and Asian tourists do just that.

I walked around the hotel-cum-tourist village. There were fake corrals, fake wells, fake streets, a fake bank, and signs in English to make visitors feel as if they were in Tombstone, Arizona, or a corporation’s vision of what imaginary Tombstone may have looked like. The more I saw, the more I could not believe what was happening. Trapped in a faux Western village, in EuroDisney, miles from any real French town, or even a grocery store, or boulangerie, or anything remotely French.

To kill time, I took a 6 mile run. I did a quick spin first through EuroDisney. It resembled a 1970s-era Six Flags-type theme park in the American Midwest. Fast food restaurants and stores peddled Disney merchandize to mostly European visitors. Large block hotels ringed the amusement area, surrounding a lagoon. I then ran out along a canal to an open space by the road that punched through a farm field to a distant highway. A fog had fallen with darkness. As I headed back to the Wyatt Earp, I followed the grand boulevard, laid out like the entrance to Versailles. Except here the distant palace was that of the Magic Kingdom, shimmering in the mist like a bad dream.

Later that night, the hotel finally posted information that our morning bus would arrive at 7:30 a.m. Because half of the 20 passengers, such as myself, had early morning flights, we would need to book cabs. To our collective shock, we discovered cab fare to the airport was more than 100 Euros, or about $125. We also were told we would have to pick up the tab. This was yet another insult to injury heaped upon us by Air France. I thought conditions could not get worse, but the next day they got much, much worse.

I shared dinner in the fake Western hotel restaurant with Carlo, an Italian designer who, like me, had arrived late on the flight from Rome and missed a connection. Young waiters and cooks and cashiers tended to a crowd of more than 400 visitors. Staff wore cowboy shirts, red handkerchiefs around the necks, blue jeans, and boots. They also spoke French. Most were second-generation Arab and African immigrants. They were super friendly, and I enjoyed our small talk. Mainly, dinner in the fake Western cafeteria had an air of surrealism

Over salad and French wine, I told Carlo our situation was reminiscent of the 1960s TV show called “The Prisoner.” That drama concerned a retired British secret agent sent to a mysterious island prison with a cast of crazy characters, from which he could never escape. Carlo and I laughed repeatedly at our fate and the ridiculousness of our accommodations.

A Long Day Begins, Starting Very Badly at Charles de Gaulle Airport

At 6 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2006, a taxi van arrived. Two Italian citizens who spoke Arabic, the Italian designer, myself, and a fluent-English-speaking Albanian women heading for New York piled into the van before anyone else could commandeer it. We negotiated a fare of 125 Euros. Our driver told us that a French train strike had made Paris’ highways even more congested than normal and that we were wise to be taking our trip now, before rush hour. We arrived at Charles de Gaulle at 7 a.m., in a dark fog. I bid farewell to my Italian colleague, cashed in my remaining Euros at a criminally unfair rate at the airport’s official currency exchange, and made it through customs and security clearance unscathed.

At this time, Charles de Gaulle was undergoing a major overhaul. This repair followed the collapse of part of a new tube-like terminal building that killed four people on May 23, 2004. Because of the airport’s colossal and embarrassing engineering mishap, the airport authority had implemented a complex means of moving passengers to their gates for international flights. Passengers bypassed the terminal walkway and took a bus across the airport to a final waiting area. Here, other passengers from international flights around the world were unloaded, waiting for connections to North America. I was among hundreds on Nov. 8, 2006, waiting to board Air France Flight 084 from Paris to San Francisco, at gate E86.

Charles de Gaulle Airport (creative commons license from Flickr).

Charles de Gaulle Airport (creative commons license from Flickr).

Finally, after nearly 24 hours, I could leave this country. After being called by the agents, I and the hundreds of other passengers lined up by the door, from which we would pass through yet another layer of security and walk across the tarmac board the plane. (I later learned these guards in unmarked black uniforms with no insignia nor name badges were private security personnel hired by Air France.)

While standing in line, a young man dressed in a black coat, with no name badge, and sporting a goatee tapped me on the shoulder and indicated I was being pulled aside for secondary screening. He apparently was a security guard, but it was not clear for whom he worked at the time. He never told me who he was, who he worked for, or why I was being questioned.

I sighed, and he took offense. I immediately apologized in my imperfect French, saying, “Excuses-moi, monsieur.” He was extremely offended I made the greatest of all French language errors by using the informal “tu” rather than formal “vous” conjugation. He stopped, pointed at me with his forefinger, and replied, “No, monsieur, excusez-moi,” correcting my conjugation. I knew I was in for trouble.

What followed proved to be the most degrading treatment I have received from any security or quasi-security personnel anywhere in the world. It was more rude than the insulting interview in 1989 by a U.S. immigration official at St. Louis International Airport who likely thought I was a drug smuggler when I returned from nine months overseas; more hostile than the failed shakedown by crooked police officers at the bus station in Kampala, Uganda; more threatening than the hostile lecture I received from a Rwandan military officer after I had tried to take a picture of a tattered Rwandan flag atop a border outpost; and even more demeaning than the over-the-top interrogation, bomb check, triple questioning, and double bag-checking that I received from Israeli security personnel at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel. This topped them all.

Later I also learned that my 30-minute interrogation occurred just days before a court appearance by former Charles de Gaulle security personnel, most Muslim and of Arab ancestry, who were challenging the airport’s management, known as Aéroports de Paris (ADP). ADP officials had laid off 72 of these workers in 2005. The guard who questioned me was, by all appearances, of Arab ancestry.

I do not know if he was influenced by this touchy labor dispute or if he was taking out his personal, religious, or nationalist beliefs on me. Nor do I know if he was Muslim and perhaps upset by U.S. policies in the Mideast and Afghanistan. Nor do I know if he, as a French citizen, may not have liked U.S. citizens. Nor do I truly know if he had just broken up with his girlfriend, or was a nice guy having a bad day. How could I truly know what was happening in his mind.

I do know that his actions that morning had little to do with any true effort to screen against legitimate security threats or possible criminals. From where I stood, it appeared as if this young guard was carrying out a personal vendetta against a French-speaking – poor French speaking – U.S. citizen just trying to get home. He did a great job in the old human art of humiliation.

That my shakedown had clear racial undertones did not surprise me, given the sharp racism I had repeatedly experienced at a university in France from nonwhite, mostly Arab French residents in 1985. The racial riots that rocked France in November 2005, reportedly in response to France’s deep seated institutional racism against nonwhites, revealed little had changed in France in two decades – racism and resentment were still alive and well in France, among all its residents.

The race riots in France in 2005 that shook the country.

The race riots in France in 2005 that shook the country.

During the questioning and inspection of my belongings and person, I never raised my voice. Not once did I not do what he asked. Not once did I not answer a question, in French. Based on what followed, I have to assume the guard harbored a serious grudge, or just enjoyed the power that comes with a uniform. I treated the guard professionally, calling him “monsieur” and saying “bien sur” when he asked me to empty the contents of my wallet, money pouch, back pack, and suitcase.

When I could not understand some of his French, he threatened me that I would not get on my flight. I took his threat seriously. What’s more, I was not about lose another day of my life waiting for this flight, trapped again at EuroDisney. I apologized that Air France had made me miss my flight the day before and that I was tired and missing work. He merely said, “Calmez vous, monsieur, calmez vous.”

The interrogation proceeded much as if a slave owner would treat a slave, with orders barked for me to obey him like I was a dog. Out came my clothes from my suitcase on the table. Back in they went. My passport was checked twice. Two AAA batteries were confiscated for unknown reasons. He searched, and searched, and searched, but alas, he found no contraband. My medicinal shampoo did raise his eyebrows and curiosity though.

On several occasions, two female security guards gave me eye contact and revealed expressions of shock and disbelief. Numerous French passengers stared at me with similar looks of extreme concern. They did not gaze long as they scuttled out to the plane.

At the end of the screening, the guard also checked every part of my body with a pat down, including twice passing his hands intentionally on my genitalia, which was in view of both other passengers and other security personnel. Never in the United States or in any country I have visited on five continents have security personnel performed such an overt and sexually offensive act on my body in public. I personally believe the guard did this to me intentionally, to humiliate me and demonstrate his temporary and total power over my entire body, in public.

This is an old trick by the powerful over the powerless. It usually gives those in power a thrill, a sense of pleasure, and an adrenaline-type boost, according to social scientists who study such phenomena.

No one stepped in to stop the half-hour-long, fascist-like shakedown. In the end, the guard threatened me yet again, telling me to “calmez vous” once more. I smiled politely back. Before I was allowed to leave, he wrote down my name and passport number and promised me that he would write a report about me. I thanked him and wished him a good day.

Based on my observations, no other passenger allowed on this plane received this degree of screening. Clearly no French citizen received the screening I did – I know, as I was there watching all of the screenings right until I was allowed to leave. I was among the last passengers to board the plane.

I felt that my interests would best be served if I did not ask for this man’s name. So I left without registering a complaint. As I walked on the plane, I turned to the woman walking out with me. We both had endured secondary screenings.

She smiled when I said to her, “That was the most degrading treatment I have ever experienced from a security official. I can’t wait to get the hell out of this country.”

Later, on the flight, I asked the same woman if I had been acting inappropriately. Did I say anything wrong or do anything wrong. The woman, a British citizen and music composer, said, no, you were very respectful. She said it was probably a mistake that I spoke in French. She told me she acted as if she did not speak French, to avoid such problems, though she was fluent in the language. I asked her if I could get her name and contact information. She happily shared those details with me, saying it was important to speak up when security officials behave like the guard who interrogated me.

Later on the same flight, I also got the name of another witness, a public health specialist who worked in Morocco, but was a U.S. citizen. She also received secondary screening, which overlapped during my interrogation. Again, I asked her if I had been out of line, said anything wrong, or did anything inappropriate. She said, no, not to her knowledge. She thought that my faux-pax having “tu toi’d” the guard likely pissed him off. But she added the guard also used lines like “calmez vous, monsieur” with another passenger, a man who didn’t speak French, who couldn’t understand a word of what the guard was saying. It turns out that this other male passenger and myself were the only two men checked by the guard who treated me as if I were a potential drug dealer or international terrorist.

Seeking Restitution–Little Would Come

A few days after returning home, I vowed to do something about the experience I had just endured. In an era of real international terrorism, real terrorism paranoia by national governments, and numerous incidents of security personnel running roughshod over the rights of law-abiding, innocent travelers, I felt I could not let this incident just slip away. Many of my friends and family laughingly encouraged me to let it go. This laughter upset me and encouraged me even more.

I wrote detailed letters explaining my experience to writers and editors at Le Figaro, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and the Christian Science Monitor. No one at these publications ever contacted me or acknowledged receiving my notes.

Had I been Arab or African-American or Latino and treated in this manner by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security personnel, would the media have cared? I do not know. Perhaps, if I had been handcuffed and escorted off a plane in the United States, it may have been a news story. But because I am white, and this happened in Paris, and I did get on the plane, perhaps my story is just too pedestrian for the interest of busy international news organizations.

I wrote a complaint letter to the Ombudsman for ADP. I explained to the ADP that I had written to the above-mentioned media and to my three members of Congress from Alaska, Sen. Ted Stevens, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and Rep. Don Young. I explained what had happened to me, described why it was offensive, and demanded an apology. I also copied the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., to attract ADP’s attention. It did.

I received an email within days from Mr. Robert Espérou, the Ombudsmen from ADP. I was informed that I would receive a formal reply, after a preliminary investigation, by ADP. I received that reply on Nov. 29, 2006, from René Brun, Managing Director, Charles de Gaulle Airport.

In his email to me, Mr. Brun wrote, “The check you speak of took place in the boarding lounge and was carried out by a contractor hired by the airline, in accordance with current rules.”

But, no apology was offered in this email. Mr. Brun did offer an explanation, and said that the matter was referred to Air France, as the man in question was not an airport employee. In short, what happened to me was not “his department,” which was the oldest and most reliable bureaucratic explanation ever used.

Mr. Brun’s email also said: “Despite the strict security rules that are mandatory in our country, we share with our airline partners the concern for respecting every person, without discrimination, whatever their origins or nationality. Although every precaution is taken regarding the agents in charge of security operations, unacceptable attitudes still emerge on occasion. I can assure you that we have set up every possible kind of safeguard to avoid this kind of incident.”

In my immediate reply to Mr. Brun, I noted that while I appreciated his response, I thought the email was a whitewash of the harassing and degrading treatment I experienced: “I found it interesting that the private security’s actions were described to be ‘in accordance with current rules.’ Also of note was the statement that ‘we have set up every possible kind of safeguard to avoid this kind of incident.’ Based on my experience, that pledge clearly needs to be realized through better training, better management of third-party security officials, and appropriate discipline when rights of innocent persons are violated.

“I am certain that a private guard instigating a hostile interview because a visitor such as myself speaks imperfect French, threatening visitors such as myself that I would not board an aircraft, and implementing a sexually degrading and humiliating search that including feeling my genitalia twice in public is hardly a professional standard or an example that you are meeting your standards. If these methods are acceptable under your rules, then it confirms my worst fears both about your facility as well as the security mentality filtering top down through French officialdom that is demonstrated against innocent visitors to your country.

“A sad result of your incident is that I, as an American, will never visit your country again, even though I studied there as a college student. A sad result is that I will encourage persons (who earn about $100,000 to $200,000 annually, and who represent the tourist profile you want come to France) to never visit your country because of the security protocols, overt racism, and sexually humiliating interrogations perpetrated by security officials at ports of exit and entry. There are so many other more friendly and inviting countries to visit on your continent. I know. I have visited many of them.”

A second email note to me from Mr. Brun arrived on Dec. 14, 2006. The email said, “I am deeply sorry for the annoyance you experienced at Paris – Charles de Gaulle.”

I felt obliged to inform Mr. Brun later in December that I had also been in communication with Rep. Young’s office twice. I thanked Mr. Brun for his reply and attention.

As it turns out, Rep. Young is one of a group of Republican lawmakers who has repeatedly voiced concern over the original U.S. Patriot Act, though he did not officially register a vote on the legislation in October 2001, in the heat of the post-9/11 lawmaking. He has been critical of the law’s provisions, such as library record snooping.

“I think the Patriot Act was not really thought out,” Young told the AP in 2003. “I’m very concerned that, in our desire for security and our enthusiasm for pursuing supposedly terrorists, that sometimes we might be on the verge of giving up the freedoms which we’re trying to protect.” Young went on to buck his party and vote to limit the scope of the Patriot Act when it came up for renewal, costing him a chairmanship on the Homeland Security Committee in the process. Rep. Young also has been given secondary screenings by U.S. Department of Homeland Security personnel, according to press reports, because his name is apparently on a watch list of suspected travelers.

So, perhaps his office felt strongly enough about my six-page documented letter concerning the incident to take action. I was informed by a Dec. 14, 2006 letter from Rep. Young’s office that he had sent a letter to the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., asking for a review and explanation.

Then, on Jan. 6, 2007, Rep. Young’s office sent me another letter, bringing closure to this little story of one traveler’s encounters with a sanctioned security posture that, as Bogie’s Rick Blaine of “Casablanca” might have noted, “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” The note from Rep. Young’s office shared with me included a copy of the letter sent to him by France’s Ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, on Dec. 28, 2006. Rep. Young, correctly in my assessment, said, “I realize Ambassador Levitte’s response does not offer much in the way of relief of your experience. I hope a call from the Ambassador’s office will alert the proper officials with Air France to review their screening procedures.”

This is the so-called apology signed by the French Ambassador to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), my then representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was better than nothing at all.

The note sent to Rep. Young from Ambassador Levitte, which followed my official protests to my member of Congress, was a spare document, less than 100 words and three paragraphs in length. However, it conveyed proper contrition appropriate for diplomatic correspondences for the sender and receiver, including an apology. Ambassador Levitte’s letter referred to my screening as “degrading treatment,” and he noted, “I am deeply sorry about this incident and will let Air France know of the complaint so that it can take steps to prevent such incidents from happening again.”

Ultimately, I do not know if any of my actions will change any policy or prevent private or national guards in France or elsewhere from pulling aside persons, threatening them, feeling them up, and treating them like criminals when they transit through airports. I for one refuse to accept such behavior quietly.

Passivity on a large scale by ordinary citizens is precisely the behavior that feeds the security mindset that can push any country down a fascist slope. I have seen more than 25 old Nazi concentration and death camps in Europe. That is not a state of mind or state of order I ever want to see take shape again, not in my country, not in any country.