Our Create! Birthparents Arts Grant, is an opportunity for birthparents to tap into their creativity by encouraging projects that use the arts to allow for healing, growth, and advocacy in response to their adoption. 2022’s Create! Birthparent Arts Grant was awarded to S. Savannah Verdin, whose memoir, Chrysanthemums Under Streetlights was published this Fall. It's a powerful book, detailing adoption trauma, homelessness, and domestic abuse, and how they can snowball into generational cycles nearly impossible to break.
We had the opportunity to sit down with this year's grant winner to talk all things books and writing; healing and finding your voice.
What is your relationship to the adoption constellation?
I’m a survivor of domestic violence, and I made some decisions that I wouldn’t have made if I was presented with alternative options. As a result, I’m a birth mother, or that’s at least what society calls me. This is a title I’ve grieved since the day I signed that paperwork. This is a term I’ve found to mean more for its social construction than it should. This term marginalizes natural mothers and creates a role for them in society which does not let them fully embrace their lived experiences as a mother. The term birth mother, like adoptee, is given as a result of the adoption that begins on a foundation of trauma and grief. It is a word that minimizes a bond that has existed before labor/ birth. So yes, birth mother. I am hanging on to as much of a connection is allowed and I have four children out in a big reality with big questions that wait to see me whenever it’s approved.
Are they all together?
They are. That was the only thing that I did have control over, because the option of them being separated didn't feel fair; they didn’t have a voice in it, and they weren't old enough to consent to it. I thought that I was protecting them. That was the goal.
What prompted you to write a book?
It’s been something I've been sitting on for a while, I think. I started writing a completely different book back in 2011. And then, life just kept happening. We went from being a military family, and then being a civilian family, and we moved around a lot trying to find our footing and navigate to understand domestic violence, unaware that that’s what we were actually experiencing. It didn’t feel right, my ex-husband and I had a decade-long marriage before it dissolved, and the stories I could tell you about that time would hopefully lead to an understanding of why I just didn’t leave. I didn’t call it out then, but I’m calling it out now and I think that the experience is why this book exists. And I’m hoping it encourages survivors everywhere and also has a positive impact regarding family preservation and the transition of victim to a safe survivor who should be empowered and supported as opposed to being a victim in some systems that do not serve everyone equally.
I put the book down completely for a couple years, and then in 2016, I started again, as a single mom, and then in 2018, I picked it up again, but with a completely different story. The focus was always going to be trauma-informed, but in the past, before my divorce, I was speaking more about generational trauma, not knowing that, hey, I'm in a situation that's really bad too. After the adoption, staying alive and healing was work, and it still is. But as the story unraveled more chapters developed. And I’m sure more publications will follow.
The blurb for your book talks about how adoption trauma, homelessness, domestic violence – it can have a snowball effect, resulting in generational trauma. Can you unpack that a bit for us?
The insight I have into it is both from personal experience and then professional experience. I kind of stumbled into the mental health and social services field: not my intention, but I started volunteering in the field when my kids were attending therapy after the separation from their bio dad. I started as an administrative assistant, and I really paid attention to the therapists, and I would get to sit in on the groups that were facilitated for the foster children. And I thought, hey, you know what I might want to go to school for this, and that was me surviving violence and then having to rebuild my life up. You know, I didn't even have a resume. I got married at 18.
I didn’t grow in the field until trauma and the need to repurpose it was all I had. And then professional growth was a part of the healing and grieving. I’m sad that I couldn’t carry our family forward for this growth, but because of my mistakes and loneliness I needed to make a difference. I needed to impact positive change, and the patterns I saw with my clients really kept me captive as an advocate and survivor working in the field.
I'd have clients and I would see the result of homelessness coming from violence, and the tearing apart of families, which is essentially what happens, especially when we have a system that criminalizes being a victim of violence.
And it’s hard, because when I experienced domestic violence, it took me a long time to see that my kids were experiencing that violence too, because I wanted to believe that it was only directed at me, that only I experienced it. That was completely false.
I got these clients, and they almost always survived some kind of trauma. Sometimes their trauma was related to mental illness, and then that often leads to homelessness. And from there, you start losing your access to other resources. It's like when you're headed in that direction, it's a slow spiral, and bridges are being burned behind you. I can honestly say that where there’s poverty there’s usually violence and though it can be argued, there’s an element of diminishing mental health, and from there or maybe before, we can identify chronic homelessness. It isn’t always in that order but in my experience, there isn’t one issue without accompanying others.
Maybe it started because there was trouble at home, and you're a teenager that decides not to finish high school, and you get caught up in a cycle of poverty, essentially fighting to survive day to day. From there the youth tend to follow the path that reflects that home experience. It is possible to break cycles, I’ve had to fight like many of my clients, and if you didn’t know, I can tell you. It’s hard to fight your way out of these cycles, and oftentimes there’s minimal support.
You know, being on the street, there's a certain way that you do things - you develop coping skills that get you by - but they might not be healthy. And seeing it through that lens, as a domestic violence survivor and in the professional field, it was really helpful for me while writing this, having that professional lens, too, and being able to look at other people's stories. And honestly, it helped me with a lot of my healing, too. If I'm having a bad day, I go to work and I get humbled really quick. And we celebrated the victories too, no matter how small. And I hope this book impacts all the way these cycles are unseen. I hope it reaches a lot of eyes. And I hope it contributes to the better part of change in hopes that vulnerable populations aren’t fighting these monsters alone.
It's astonishing how much we have criminalized being poor in this country. It can be so hard on women and families.
It really is. I lived in and outside of my car for four and a half years after the adoption. I kind of gave up on myself. I never gave up on my kids, because I wanted to give them a fighting chance at a better life, but there was a point where I definitely gave up on myself.
I could give an example of this:
After the adoption I fell down and didn’t get back up as quickly as I did as a mother, their mother. I was homeless for years post adoption. But I still worked. I needed too. There were ways I’d compartmentalized and ways that I carried this kind of silent tragedy.
What would happen is, first thing in the morning, I would have to find a gym, a gas station, someplace to get prepared for the day so that I could get dressed and cleaned up, and I had an end goal of having kind of a business-casual look. It’s a lot, trying to find places to do this, and even walking into these places, I've been yelled at you know, like you’re bum, get out of my store. But then after I transformed, people are holding the door for me, and saying yes ma'am and no, ma'am and hi, how are you? That really helped me provide services to my clients because, if that's not humbling, I don't know what is. I was living two lives, and ultimately just trying to stay alive. I can admit, over the years this takes a toll.
What was the most exciting part for you about writing your book?
Being able to say it all out loud, because that's what publishing was - putting it out to everyone's eyes. You're revealing, you know, the worst parts of you in some ways. I think I revealed the best parts, too, when you read through my/our story, although it's not a linear narrative. You can see the growth and how things progressed through homelessness and mental health issues and trauma, just being able to see the story unfold in a way where hopefully it went from me being a victim to me being a survivor. And I especially enjoyed the pieces about my ex because that's something I'm never going to get to say out loud to him. It felt empowering, having a place to put it, and it's okay if he never reads it. It's okay if it doesn't reach anyone he knows. I still did it. It’s like I finally stood up to him - I faced it and I was then able to close the door on it. My littles and I survived the violence, and once the restraining order was permanent, I never had to talk to him again. But I screamed about it all in these pages.
It sounds really cathartic, to go through the process of writing your life story.
Yes! I probably could have written a whole book, just on him, but I didn't think he deserved that much space or time.
Writing a book is never easy. What was the most daunting aspect of it?
There were times that I couldn't write because although I know it's going to need to be edited, I wanted it to be perfect. And so, I'm sitting there doing the editing as I'm writing, and it takes away from the inspiration. And I’m not even very good at editing. I worked and was supported by a small press. There were different manuscripts and reading those over and deciding which to publish was really helpful too, because you get to see different styles and figure out what your style is. Navigating the process and getting the first draft done and sent was hard, as was talking about the adoption. I certainly made mistakes. I even made big ones. I was really, at times, clueless. There’s a part of me that wishes I could go back and make it better, but I bet most authors feel that way. I just wanted it to be perfect but maybe there aren’t any or enough words to do it justice. Telling a story that's not only mine was really tricky for me. I tried to keep it to my experiences within that time because there's no way for me to ask my kids if it's okay; they're still young. We're not having these conversations yet. And I wouldn't want them to have this much reality, because it's a lot; it's not censored at all. In the beginning of writing the first draft, someone told me not to police my thoughts and feelings, because I was trying to be appropriate and correct and polite, and I can't do that. And I shouldn’t have to. After that, I just kind of put it all out there. You can't have a story like this and tiptoe around what everyone else is saying and thinking. And I decided if I was going to share it, I’m going to share it.
Telling your story is an act of bravery. Who should read your book? Who is your dream audience; who would benefit from reading it? Would it benefit adoptive parents, do you think, to read it?
Oh, last one, definitely – giving this perspective to adoptive families is important. Originally, I was connected to an advocate, and we were having these conversations about the information I had when I placed, which for me wasn't a lot. I went from triaging the crisis of my ex and everything that came attached with it, which was a lot, to triaging the crisis of surviving with my kids, you know, in terms of poverty, in terms of the harassment that we were facing, and the amount of intrusive times he found us and it backtracked our progress. It just seemed never-ending.
And one of the things that was brought to the surface during these conversations with that advocate post adoption that really resonated with me was, would it have helped you if you could have heard from adoptees and birth parents, and yes, I think that would have been great because I wasn't exposed to their stories. I was exposed to the hopeful adoptive parents, and then I kind of held that guilt and I think that's what ultimately led me to my final choice of placing them, because now I have this family involved. I don't want to break their hearts.
The advocate, she had asked me, if you could have interviewed adoptive parents beforehand, in addition to the feedback from bio families and adoptees, what do you think one of the questions you’d want to ask adoptive parents would be? And for me, it would be to ask them about their knowledge and thoughts around the power dynamic in the triad, because there definitely is one. I went from trying to appease this man, and then trying to navigate [adoption]. I don’t think you ultimately realize that, even in open adoption, where you may have some kind of contract or agreement, that it’s not really legalized, and access could change at any point in time. They could decide they just don't want to talk to you anymore. And they have their reasons, you know, things could be great one day and fall apart. That’s what homelessness taught me; you can have everything and then suddenly you can have nothing. There is a real power dynamic in adoption, and I feel like if adoptive parents had access to this book, and more information about the systems in our country, systems that are not meant to serve everyone equally, it could be very beneficial for them. I don’t believe they’re ever had to place themselves elsewhere in the triad and maybe humility over entitlement could help enforce the realities that bio families and adoptees experience. Perspective is important.
What advice do you have for women who maybe want to tell their own stories and don't know how or don't know where to start?
I think that it starts with the conversations you have in safe places. That's what encouraged me and motivated me to be able to share: it gave me the confidence, gave me the foundation I needed to be brave, whether it be with a therapist or a close friend or another type of support. Having these conversations in safe places where you can share things privately and not feel like it's going to be poured out to any area of your life and be detrimental to you.
The next thing is figuring out how to tell your story. I've been looking at different avenues, moving towards a TED talk. So that that would be an option if you want to talk to crowds of people. When I first moved here, I got hired at this agency to do presentations for healthy relationships. And that became a unique way to use my voice to because I never expected to be standing up in front of a room of police officers or teenagers and being able to advocate against violence and help them identify a language they may not otherwise have been exposed to. And that’s part of finding your voice and finding your style and finding how you best tell your story where you feel most comfortable. Even if you start out writing and realize hey, it's really not for me, just allowing yourself flexibility to change your mind and to learn something new and to try different things to see what works for you.
There is an aspect of silence when you’re experiencing abuse. I like to say silence can also be violence because when you’re a bystander to violence, you just expect someone else to deal with it or call the cops, but when you're in a violent situation you are silent, you are walking on eggshells, you're trying to survive the day, because explosions happen. So when it comes to telling your story after something like that, it’s really empowering, especially considering how long you've been silent and how long you want to be silent, because I think it's almost like I still needed permission in a way, to share, and to talk about it. And I think up until last year, when I was getting close to finalizing things with the book, I still would dissect memories in my head and I placed blame with me, you know, because there's no one else to point the finger at. It took me a minute to find my voice and to find the true narrative, not one that was connected to doubt and feelings of guilt and feelings of being a failure. I still struggle with the adoption; when you can't parent your own children, you kind of feel like crap. And so just being able to share the story, I think, gave me freedom to forgive myself, because I realized that I was still really angry, and the anger felt like sadness and that was probably connected to grief, but just little steps at a time until you're at your destination whatever that may be, is my best advice. Maybe it's publishing, maybe it's public speaking, maybe you start to host some kind of a small support group. There's lots of ways to access people to that want to hear your voice, you know.