Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Julie Project - musings on infertility, humanity, love and perfection

I discovered the Julie Project early this week from Blue Milk, and it's been haunting me ever since, so I thought I should take some time to put some of my thoughts onto paper, if nothing else then to at least help purge my mind from all the levels of disturbing that have been tossing around.

The Julie Project is a documentary photo essay created by Darcy Padilla, winner of the W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography, which tracks the life of Julie Baird over almost two decades. It is the story of brutal, inescapable poverty, surviving childhood sexual abuse, drug addiction, AIDS, motherhood, and loss. Blue Milk's description of the series as "utterly compelling but completely devastating" is right on target.

There have been a couple of persistent themes running my head. On one hand, I was interested in perspectives of the story through the eyes of women in the ALi (adoption, loss, infertility) community, and how socio-economic privilege might frame one's perceptive of the story. I was also interested in examining what this story can teach us about humanity, perfection (or lack thereof), and love.

First I want to think about some (but certainly not all) perspectives that might be considered in the context of the ALi community. The pain of a woman struggling with infertility can be overwhelming. The anguish can lead to some women questioning the universe. I once read on a woman's blog - such and such woman doesn't even intend to try breastfeeding and is already talking about the daycare she is going to put her child in, why is she pregnant and I am not (implying that she clearly thinks she would be a superior - breastfeeding, stay-at-home - mother and is therefore more deserving of getting pregnant). I have read numerous accounts of people crying about the unfairness that women who lack one (perceivably desirable) quality or possess another (perceivably undesirable) quality have children so easily, when they, who do not possess said undesirable quality or do possess said desirable quality cannot easily bear a biological child. What, I wonder, would these women say about a sometimes homeless drug addict birthing six children, five of which were taken by the state and given for adoption.

But it is so easy to reduce someone to "a sometimes homeless drug addict". By reducing Julie as such, she is dehumanized, and if the Julie Project does nothing else, it forces us to see her humanity. And let us discuss for a moment, this concept of fairness. Is it fair that Julie was born to an alcoholic mother? Is it fair that she was raped repeatedly as a child by her stepfather? Is it fair that by the age of 14, a life as a runaway on the streets was preferable to life at home? When one has the privilege of being what society generally considers to be the "right" kind of woman to be a mother, it is so easy to point fingers at the "wrong" type of woman. These types of judgements are by no means limited to women struggling with fertility. Certainly these types of judgements are used constantly by policy makers, with the implicit approval of their constituencies, to justify such actions as the elimination of a variety of social programs that target marginalized groups for being the "wrong" type of woman.

Back to an ALi perspective, I now want to consider those who have been on the opposite end of the same line as Julie. I am speaking of those who have become mothers via adoption through a foster-to-adopt program. Many of these women are all too aware that they have gained their parenthood only though someone else's loss. Their children may or may not still bear the physical or emotional scars of the circumstances of their births.

It is interesting to consider Julie's children and their adoptive parents. The mother of Julie's fifth child, Jason Jr./Zach, contacted Julie and openly and explicitly tried to include her in her son's life. This child had been taken away from Julie at birth - she had never seen him. Nonetheless, Zach's mother taught him that his birth mother was special. Julie had given him life and for that he should feel love and gratitude towards her, despite her inability to care for him.

I found it fascinating that, upon receiving the initial letter of contact, Julie's response was "I didn't expect this, I expected it was Rachael," Julie's firstborn, who had been with her the longest of any of her children. Rachael had spent the first several years of her life with her birth mother in excruciating poverty, moving from home to flea-infested home, surrounded by drug abuse. She was present, although sleeping, when her 15 month old brother was beaten so badly by Julie's current partner (Julie was at the hospital at the time) both children were taken by the police, placed into foster care and later adopted. Julie thought Rachael would want to contact her. I wonder if Rachael would have any interest. What might Rachael feel towards Julie? Resentment and hatred? Love and longing? Who knows if she would ever want to revisit her difficult beginnings? Would she ever want to look backwards to where she came from, or would she be happy to leave any dark memories of deprivation and loss behind and look only to the future, more bright than any Julie could provide?

This thought, in my mind, brings me back in full circle to Julie's essential humanity. I am reminded of a particularly powerful sermon I once heard. The theme - perfection and love. You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to be perfect in order to love others. You don't have to be perfect in order to be loved by others. I think of the people who loved Julie. The biological father in Alaska - who never forgot her - who tattooed her name on his arm when Julie's 17-year old mother took her and ran off to San Francisco - who spent the next 31 years searching for her. Jack, the man who gave her AIDS and fathered her first child - who gladly took her back after she first left him when their child was a few months old to get away from his drug use - who embraced her second child as he did his own biological child - who, after she left him again for the man who beat her child and caused both children to be taken into custody, when dying of AIDS in a public hospice, had a last wish only that Julie, the love of his life, be by his side. Jason, the father of her last four children - who stood by her side when three of those children were taken away at birth - who stood by her side all the way up to Alaska so that Julie could be reunited with her father - who nursed her day and night when she lay dying of AIDS. Julie may not have been perfect. But she was undeniably human. And you don't need to be perfect to be loved.

One last thing I want to talk about is Julie's motherhood - the transformative potential motherhood had on her. When Darcy first met and started photographing Julie, she and Jack both said "Rachael has given us a reason to live". In fact, this is why Julie first left Jack within a year of Rachael's birth. He was abusive and did not want to stop using drugs. She was trying to stay clean because she did not want to lose this baby. The story starts with hope and optimism. Would this 19 year old young woman be able to transform her life? Could she overcome her own past, filled with addiction and abuse in her own upbringing to become the mother she wanted to be? Could she escape her own drug abuse, homelessness, and poverty? On her own with no education, no family, no resources, neither boots nor bootstraps, the poverty proved to be unrelenting and inescapable.

This is one of the tragedies of Julie's story, and a tragedy of our society.

Darcy Padilla said, when asked why she took on this project:
"I guess what motivated me was this question that I kept thinking about all those years: How does a child born into this world like every other child, get to be Julie Baird?... Julie was witty and smart, and she might have grown up to be a teacher. But her mother was an alcoholic and her stepfather abused her, and she ended up on the streets at age 14."

So when I hear about how House Republicans are trying to cut down on violence prevention by defunding programs such as the Violence Against Women Health Initiative (which funds ongoing work to improve health care providers' response to domestic and sexual violence), the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (which funds domestic violence shelters and the National Hotline), and the Engaging Men and Youth in Prevention Program (which works to tap into the critical role men can play in helping youth develop respectful attitudes and behaviors towards women and girls), I have to agree with Blue Milk's final statement that every policy maker should view the Julie Project.

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