Fear and Change: My Story (Part 1 of 4)
I’m an adopted, fostered child.
Until recently, I never talked about my childhood — about being adopted and fostered — or how it formed who I am today. Last year, Diana Brown invited me to speak before the group she founded to support foster kids, SOAR for Youth. It was the first time I’d spoken to anyone publicly about my early childhood. The response to my talk was so powerful that I came to realize that sharing my story can be another way to help others.
SOAR for Youth operates in the Bay Area of California, a state in which one in every five foster kids in this country lives. In my talk for SOAR, I encouraged my listeners through a series of questions intended to inspire them to think about how they had already faced and overcome challenges, and how those experiences helped form their characters. I hope you’ll share your thoughts about your own experiences with me just as they did. Use the comment box or send an email to ted (at) tedleonhardt.com.
Like more or less all of us, I spent my first nine months inside my mother and formed the kind of attachment to her that all growing babies do in those earliest, formative stages. We now understand that developing fetuses retain memories of voices and sounds they hear when they’re inside the womb. They also react to their mother’s stress, and can cry when startled. I don’t remember being taken from my mother, but I know now it was a wrenching, life-changing moment.
I was placed with a foster mother just after birth. She lovingly recorded my growth in a baby book, calling me “my little Chucky.” Discovering that little book and her thoughtful entries always made me think she intended to keep me. That didn’t happen.
At five months old, I was adopted by the Leonhardts, my new parents, and taken to Seattle on a train. It was early 1946. My new dad, Ted W. Leonhardt, was just home from World War II. I have no idea what happened to him in the war; he never talked about it. But I’m sure it wasn’t good. My new mother, though, was obviously thrilled to have me. As you might expect, though I don’t actually remember being conscious of it, but I must have felt I’d found a family.
Fear of Separation
When I was almost three, my parents took me on a train to visit relatives in the East. We were changing trains in Chicago and while we waited on the platform, a porter standing in an open boxcar asked my dad if I’d like to take a short ride. The porter must have known that the train was going to move just a few feet and thought the little boy would enjoy the ride. My dad lifted me up into the open boxcar, and I remember being terrified. I’ve since learned that our strongest memories are formed around strong emotions. I suspect that my fear was triggered by the thought that I was being given away again. I believe that that early fear of separation made me desperate to have a family, to belong to a group.
Fear of my Father
Another lasting — and vivid — early memory: My father, standing in the kitchen, crying, and hurling dinner plates. I was four years old, terrified, and not only because plates were shattering all around us. In my early childhood, I had a recurring dream that seems an analogy of that moment. In the dream, my mother and I are in the basement. I’m supposed to protect her from the vicious tiger that roams upstairs, searching the house for us, but I know it’s hopeless — I’m powerless against this beast. I always woke in a cold sweat when the basement door opened, and the tiger started down the stairs.
Mom called what my father was going through a “nervous breakdown.” Eventually, Dad was diagnosed with schizophrenia and placed in a mental institution. My mother took a teaching job in another town. She sent me first to my grandmother in California, and later to a family named MacCoubrey, with whom I stayed for a couple of years.
My early childhood was clearly unusually tumultuous, beginning from day one. I believe the early dislocations and losses taught me that I was on my own and would have to take care of myself, years before I could articulate what I was learning. While still with the Leonhardts, I learned to be very careful around my father; later, I took those deeply embedded lessons and applied them to my life more broadly, training myself to tread lightly around situations that felt dangerous to me. In the next post, I’ll talk about discovering how to deal with loneliness, and figuring out how to defend myself in grade school, a tough time in life for many.