Trouble in Paradise

raising sons As a single mother on the violent streets of american suburbia

A few months ago I walked out of my house to find a razor sharp javelin stuck in the middle of my front door. It was at eye level, right where my forehead would have been if I’d opened the small window in the door. I guess if I’d looked, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d be dead.

Day after day I read posts on social media about standing up for mothers of Black sons and how they worry every day that their sons won’t come home alive, due to potential violence at the hands of the police. I stand up for them one hundred percent.

I also know how they feel because I felt that way, too. Yet, my sons are white. Yes, I’ve had the same feelings. As mothers, crying in agony for our sons, there is no difference. Imagine if all mothers stood together in unison, marched hand in hand, disavowed the violence both in our institutions and on the streets, how powerful that would be. But we are being told we are not united. And that takes away from where the real focus should be. We are in for a long, hot summer and worse to come if we don’t change this mentality.

Every night I prayed that my older son would come home alive. I dreaded getting that call that he was in jail, but at least I knew he wasn’t dead. I worried, not because of the color of his skin, but because he was doing things he shouldn’t do.

I am a single mother and I raised three children who are now doing well as adults, thank God. But that wasn’t always the case. Once my sons became teenagers, it was a rocky ride. They didn’t have a father who guided them. We didn’t know at the time but their father was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease. All we knew was that sometimes he was okay while often he acted abusive and strange. He was wealthy, with a prominent name and standing in the community, so he got away with a lot. Once he divorced me, I lost the “protection” of my wealthy husband. I’d signed a premarital agreement and got nothing. I didn’t try to fight it, I just wanted to move on. My ex-husband took me to court for years and made our lives hell, trying to gain full custody so he could stop what little child support he contributed. My kids and I lived under constant stress, in a series of apartments in the San Fernando Valley.

We understand now why their father behaved like that, but we didn’t at the time. Eventually, he lost the court case, after the court finally appointed a wonderful attorney for my sons. She stood up for them and saw through my ex’s carefully constructed facade. It was more than ten years of our lives down the drain, but we had survived, and we looked to start healing from the experience.

Once their father lost the case, it was as if he lost his purpose in life. He went downhill and that’s when we found out what was wrong with him. He has sadly been in a home for many years and is now in hospice care. All the money in the world could not make him happy or save him from a disease over which he had no control.

But there are things we do have control over and those are our actions. We have to teach our kids that their choices have consequences. Even if bad things happen in life and you have reasons to react negatively, you have to learn to overcome that tendency or you will never live a fulfilled life.

Both of my sons suffered from this experience of feeling abandoned by their father. Much as I tried to reassure them otherwise, it had been cemented in their young minds, at the ages of four and six when all of this started, that the fact we were in court was somehow their fault.

My sons have always been talkers, independent thinkers and artists. My younger son is gay, which brought its own challenges as a kid, while my older son would defend him—and anyone who was being put down. As teenagers, both of them experimented with drugs far more than they should have. I was ignorant on the subject since I had never done drugs and had never been tempted to do so. I learned things about drugs I never wanted to know. One thing I understand now is that no one should ever judge an addict unless they have walked in their shoes.

My older son got in deep and became involved with gangs and criminal behavior. I wrote a piece about it for The Fix called Saying NO to the Addict I Love. It’s a brutally honest account. As a writer, I felt that perhaps, I could, at least, be a voice for others in similar situations, letting them know that they too could make difficult but necessary decisions. Ultimately, you can’t save someone else, but you can save yourself.  

Sometimes my son stayed out on the streets for days, even weeks. More nights than I can count, I sat on my bed, rocking back and forth in despair, praying he would come home alive. How I felt on those nights wasn’t any different than how any other mother felt in the same situation, no matter the color of her son’s skin.

These accountings in the press of young men being stopped with warrants out for their arrest, and then resisting arrest and terrible things happening, could have easily been my son, too. I don’t want to get into statistics, because they are spouted all the time and they don’t seem to matter to people. Statistics can be manipulated anyway to fit whatever agenda a side wants to present as true. The reality is, if your child obeys the law, black, white, brown or whatever, they are far more likely to survive an encounter with the police.

I didn’t trust the police, I didn’t want them at my house. If I had a problem, most of the time I would rather deal with it myself or call a friend to help me. Nor did I trust how my son would react if the police were called. The thought of what might happen terrified me. But if a tragedy had occurred, I knew in my heart I would have had to honestly say that it had been my son’s choices, my son’s behavior that had led up to that point.

Thankfully, my son made it through. That doesn’t mean the end of the story, of course, it never is for any of us, because our challenges never go away, we just get older and hopefully wiser and better able to handle them. Now that he can reflect honestly on the past, he doesn’t hesitate to take responsibility for his actions. Whereas at that time, he always had a million excuses why it was everyone else’s fault. It’s normal for kids to think like that and as parents we have to teach them otherwise. Yet, that toxic victim mentality is now accepted as okay if you fit into a certain category of victimhood.

Three years ago, I had the pleasure of writing another piece, together with my son, for The Fix. It’s very different from the first one. It’s called The Joy of Saying YES to the Addict I Love. Nothing I’ve written since has meant as much to me.

This type of accountability is lacking and ordinary people are afraid to talk about it. If you do, you are labeled a racist. You can lose your friends and your job. But it’s time we stand up and say enough is enough. Stop the hate and race-baiting.

A life starts with birth and many things happen thereafter. If a teenager chooses a path of violence, he does it because of everything that led up to that point. And once he does make that choice, or those series of choices, violence will follow him until he makes a different choice. And pray God it isn’t too late, because the further he goes down that road, the harder it will be to turn away. Habits develop quickly and are hard to break.

There are consequences for actions in life and if we don’t acknowledge this, where are we heading within our families and as a nation? What are we teaching our youth? Just like the mothers we’ve heard about in the news who have tragically lost their sons, there are many others, of all walks of life and all colors, who worry day and night about their children. The families of police officers are no different. I have nephews who are police officers and I can tell you their mother and their wives worry just the same. I have seen horrific videos of police officers being murdered at traffic stops, yet no one takes to the street to protest. They are human beings too, with families. They also walk out the door every day wondering if they will survive.

We are all brothers and sisters on this planet. Yet we are treating each other horribly. We are being manipulated to hate one another based on color when it is really more about poverty and class. Keeping us at each other’s throats ensures that those in power will just keep racking up more power. While we burn down our own neighborhoods and scream about defunding the police, they live behind walls and gates and negotiate bigger and better deals for themselves.

I refuse to give the powerful the satisfaction of believing their lies and blindly following their lead.

So, having written that rather long, albeit necessary, introduction, I want to share an essay I wrote 13 years ago about my experiences raising my wonderful son. I am sharing it to show that the stories we hear or see captured on videos in the media are only one small part of what we need to understand. People are reduced to stereotypes. One side is painted as good and the other is painted as bad. But this is never how it really is.

Let’s go back in time to around 2008, when I wrote this piece.

A few months ago I walked out of my house to find a razor sharp javelin stuck in the middle of my front door. It was at eye level, right where my forehead would have been if I’d opened the small window in the door and looked out when I heard the screams and squeals of tires around 1:30 am. I guess if I’d looked, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d probably be dead.

Fifteen years ago, my husband and I had moved to Calabasas, the new Beverly Hills of LA, made famous by the Kardashians infamous reality show, thinking there couldn’t be a safer suburb in which to raise our children. We were the perfect family—really looked the part, good public schools, church on Sundays, big house on a hill overlooking everybody else on the flats. Seven years later I was divorced, expelled from paradise and living just across the border in Woodland Hills. The perfect façade was gone but I was happy in my modest home, making the best of my situation, believing it to be a peaceful neighborhood and close enough to Calabasas so we could smell the clean air wafting our way and my kids could stay in the preppy schools.

I now find myself, a single mother of two teenage sons, one sixteen and one fourteen, fighting for their safety and my own. Their sister made it through the terrifying teens and is in her third year at UCLA Law School, so I know there’s hope.

I believe in my boys, I am proud of them and love them fiercely. They are exceptional human beings. More than anything else in this illusory era, where the concept of standing by your word is virtually unknown, they need to hear me say “I believe in you,” “I am proud of you,” “I love you,” and know that I mean it, so that they can grow into believing it about themselves.

Unfortunately, like so many single mothers, I’ve had to play the role of father as well as mother, doing my best to teach strength, honor, defense of the weak, respect and how to be seekers of truth. As a second degree black belt and amateur boxer, I’m not a light-weight, but every day is still a battle for my voice to be heard by young men who are finding their way into manhood without a father to guide them.

When I heard the screams and screeching tires, and then a few seconds later, two ominous bangs, I didn’t dare go outside to investigate, just checked inside, our dogs barking frantically, my younger son following after me like a frightened puppy and then making a bed on the floor next to mine for the remainder of the night.

After discovering the javelins the next morning, I called 911 and the police arrived about one hour later. A nasty, creative piece of work, they said. Could’ve killed somebody. Prison style, homemade, with a six inch nail attached to a steel rod. Shot from some kind of weapon, imbedded at least an inch into the hard wood of the little window in the door.

The police took a report. No, I had no idea what it could be about. There’d been a friend of my older son’s staying with us for a few nights but I hadn’t seen him in the past couple of weeks. From what I understood, his father had passed away when he was young and he and his stepmother didn’t get along. He’d needed a place to stay and I’d let him use the garage.

My older son hadn’t been home that night either. This was becoming more and more of a habit. When the young man found out about the javelin, he came back to talk to the police. He explained that he was in fear for his life, on the run from a gang of skinheads.

A gang of skinheads—in my neighborhood?

Oh yes, said the two officers. It seemed the gang was well-known to them. When the police pressed the young man about why the gang was after him he finally admitted that besides being Jewish—cause enough for a conflict—he’d bought weed off someone from the gang and they claimed he owed them money. The police admonished him to make better choices in the future and the young man agreed, explaining that he had to try and stay alive for the next three weeks, at which point he could join the army. Then, he’d be safe.

Safe? I thought.

But to this young man, fighting in Iraq was safer than living in or near Calabasas.

Once the police were gone, I was left with the problem of what to do with the young man. I couldn’t just let him loose on the streets so I called another single mother who lived in an exclusive gated Calabasas community and often took in troubled kids. No problem, she said, she’d make sure he stayed safe until he could join the army. I didn’t know at the time that she had a drug problem and was well-known for using drugs with the youth she invited to stay with her.   

A few months before the javelin incident, my older son, who was fifteen at the time, had been attacked by a seventeen year old on the Calabasas High School wrestling team. My son had gotten into a verbal argument with the wrestler’s younger brother, who was my son’s age. That, added to the fact that we no longer lived in Calabasas but in Woodland Hills, “the wrong side of the railroad tracks,” was enough justification for the wrestler to want to do serious damage to my son and make it clear that he should stay out of the wrestler’s “hood.” Within a few seconds the wrestler, supported by back-up of about thirty of his “homies,” had my son in a head lock and threw him to the ground. The wrestler bashed my son’s head twice into the concrete and then yelled that he was going to “curb stomp” him, just like he must have seen in “American X,” and started dragging him towards the curb. Someone else yelled “shank him.”

All of this was filmed on a cell phone and immediately put up on MySpace by the perpetrators.

As the wrestler was dragging my son to the curb, someone cried that the police were coming and the gang dispersed in their BMW’s and SUV’s. My son and his four friends, who were all too young to drive, and wouldn’t have been able to afford cars anyway, were left to make their way home on foot. My son’s forehead was expanding into a big bump. It looked like his nose was broken. Long, angry scrapes ran down his chin, shoulder and arm. He and his friends were angry and I worried that this would escalate. My son had made the wrong choice by arguing with the younger brother and continuing the argument with the older one, to the point where a confrontation had occurred. Still, such experiences were part of growing up and learning the right way to behave. But curb stomping and videos on MySpace were taking the common fistfight to a whole new level. The desensitization and disassociation from reality that those kids must have felt in order to premeditate filming the violence and then posting it online was chilling.

Nowadays, everyone has a phone with a camera and you can see people filming violent attacks that are so common place, nobody thinks twice about it. It’s gruesome to these videos of this online, nobody helping the victim, everyone hoping their video will go viral and they will get their ten seconds of fame. It all started back then.

I knew what my son needed in those angry moments wasn’t me, but a man to talk to. Because as much as no one wants to admit it these days, boys need a father.

I called a mentor of my son, a retired Black boxer, and he came right over. He talked straight, about how he grew up without a father, becoming an angry teenager who thought he needed to prove himself through violence. As a result he’d been shot, knifed and spent time in prison. He said it was only by the grace of God that he was alive. He told my son that you never start a fight but if someone is determined to hurt you, you do what you have to do to survive. He said, learn right now how to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut, and always, if possible, walk away. In fact, if you can run away, do it, never think you have to prove your manhood to a punk. He spoke with authority and compassion. He talked of honor and respect and doing the right thing. My son listened.

Back then, my sons didn’t see color. They had Black, Brown, Persian, Jewish, every type of friend. Yes, there was racism, there always is, but this country has made so much progress, it’s sad we are now going backwards. I never saw racism amongst my sons and their friends. And the media wasn’t telling you twenty-four seven that you were racist and if you disagreed, well, that just proved more that you were.

In 1995, as a writer and illustrator of children’s books, I’d created a writing program in juvenile hall called InsideOUT Writers. In juvenile hall I’d heard every story imaginable of how hurt, angry, abused kids had fallen into violence and couldn’t get out of it. Honestly, for all the gang-bangers I’d met in juvenile hall I’d never run across one who I’d felt was evil, just misguided.

And now, here I was, struggling to communicate to my own son the dangers that he and his friends would face if they took justice into their own hands by choosing violence over reason. The humiliation of having to suck it up, knowing that every kid in Calabasas was watching the fight online, was almost too much for my son to bear and I suffered with him.

I’m thankful to say that my son and his friends decided not to escalate the violence. Convincing them to go down to the police station to file a report was something they were not willing to do and I understood why.  They did, however, agree to speak to the police if they came to our house.

“Anyway, nothing will ever happen,” my son and his friends said.

“Why,” I asked.

“Because, the wrestler’s Marsha Clark’s son,” they said.

It took a moment for the name to register.

“The Marcia Clark, the prosecutor in the O. J. Simpson trial?”

“Yes,” they said.

I was dumbfounded. The next day, I went to the Calabasas sheriff’s station to file a report. I told the officer everything that had happened and explained that if they came to my house, my son and his friends would give statements. I gave all the proof they needed to back up my statements, including printouts from MySpace. The officer nodded sagely. Oh yes, they knew who these guys were. He promised to follow up immediately. He never contacted me. No one came to interview my son or his friends.

I went to Calabasas High School to talk to the vice principal but he said they could do nothing since it hadn’t happened on campus. However, he gave me the contact information for Marsha Clark, even though he wasn’t supposed to. I reached out to Marsha Clark by writing her a letter, requesting that we meet in order to get to the bottom of what had happened and bring reconciliation. I did not hear back.

I felt powerless. If I felt like that, how must my son be feeling? What, I wondered, was all of this teaching our youth? That justice is a sham? That bullies prosper? As a result of this experience and others, my son became angrier and angrier.

The fact is, that while the words “equality,” “justice,” “honor” and “truth” are flimsy platitudes slung from pulpits and podiums by hypocritical, marketing-branded leaders, on America’s streets there is an ever-widening gap between the rights and privileges of the wealthy and the lack thereof amongst the poor.

Not long after the fight incident, my son and his best friend, who were on their skateboards and hurrying to get home, were stopped by the police because it was a few minutes past curfew. The excuse given was that a robbery had been committed in the area and they “resembled the description.” I learned this was a common reason given for such stops and searches. The police searched their backpacks and found some cigarettes. In better days, the police would have dropped my son off at my house and given him a good talking to. But now, with the city needing to rake in as much money as possible, the result was that my son and his friend were issued tickets and had to go to juvenile court. They had to stand before a judge so he could pass a sentence. They were each fined $495 and ordered to attend a class, similar to traffic school, and told to come back in a couple of months with a certificate of completion. If they did this, the fine of $495 would be reduced to $135. Both boys attended the class and the reduced fine was paid.

I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to afford to pay the ticket? Or the classes? How do single mothers in more dire circumstances than mine, perhaps who don’t speak English or have no transportation, deal with these minor run-ins with the law, having an angry teen in the house, or maybe two or three? Or what if my son had simply refused to go? I have personally seen parents and kids in this situation, where the crime started with something insignificant but because the child failed to comply with the court order or the parent couldn’t pay, the problem escalated until the parent and child became so frustrated and overwhelmed by worry that their already fragile relationship was ruined and the child ended up being sent away to camp or juvenile hall—where he then became the angry, violent young man that he had never been before the court intervened.  

Thanks to the powerful corporations that feed our children’s minds on a daily dose of violence and disrespect (and don’t tell me that a daily dose of violence and disrespect doesn’t influence young minds) children think that by forming gangs, wearing colors, fighting over a piece of concrete, they are expressing their independence, when they are only doing what they have been taught to do by the opportunistic media giants who crave to eat their souls and bleed them dry.

And then we are all told that it’s because we are racists. This conveniently takes the focus off of the real problems.

I’m not interested in hearing results from another government study costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to determine whether or not violence in the media affects our children. Nor does it take a great intellect to figure out that it’s unhealthy to manipulate children into believing that they must have “things” in order to be happy and fulfilled, triggering them to demand those “things” at any cost. As adults, as communities, we are responsible to uphold to our children a standard of behavior that they can respect and feel proud to emulate. They are trying to grow up and learn how to be decent human beings. Who is teaching them? The voices of parents are all but drowned out by a media that caters to their impressionability, telling them how to think, feel, look, act cool—and exerting pressure on them and their parents to spend huge amounts of money in order to do so.

I am only one of many single mothers, all with our own unique stories. All with stories that are important. I also happen to be a writer. As such, I believe that words, spoken with true conviction, have power. So, I am using my voice, not only for myself and my children, but for the many single mothers with whom I identify. Whatever it takes, I will be there for my boys, all the way through to manhood. They’ll be amazing, strong, good men because of what they’ve survived and because they are being taught how to make independent choices based on their own power to reason, not passively absorbing what they are being fed by market-savvy mega-corporations.

The young man who started the trouble with the javelin incident went to the army and I don’t know what happened to him. Tragically, the single mother who took him in passed away due to drug use.

It’s a scary world for everyone. Back then, I could never have imagined how terrifying it would become. How angry and hateful people would be. How irrational and easily swayed.

As a single mother, I did what I had to do and defended my sons and my home the best way I could. I stand on my own two feet, with my eyes wide open and my head out of the sand. Because in the neighborhood where I live, in every neighborhood, it’s better to be educated to the reality of the life our kids face on the streets, than to be ignorant and foolish.

Violence begets violence. We have all been victimized in one way or another, some worse than others. But how can we really measure someone else’s story as being less worthy than ours? We live in a wonderful country. After spending three years in Egypt, I can say this with conviction.

Stand up for truth. Have compassion. Take responsibility. Find out the entire story before passing judgment. And then let’s all stand together, hand in hand, for justice and peace.

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