A Message from Purgatory

I set out on the morning of October 10th to get ready for a conference I was to emcee in Miami. Specifically, I sought to get my ragged fingernails tended and mended. I had heard about a new nail place from a friend and drove there first. They were closed. So, I headed across town to my usual spot.

I settled into the kneading joy of the pedicure chair, and the owner (whom I have known for years) introduced the ladies sitting next to me. “What a group we have this morning,” she said, “a powerful trio.”

One of my pampered cohorts explained how she mends broken victims of sexual abuse in a medical care center she established. With little community support and zero funds from the state and local government, she is an outspoken angel for voiceless victims.

The third of our trio is filming a movie at a lovely antebellum mansion in our area. She is also a screenplay writer.  Her movie, based on a novel, is a controversial look at mixed-race relationships in the 1800s.

We chatted and the filmmaker suggested that my father’s story, which is the basis of my memoir, The Killing Closet is important and that getting it picked up by a literary agent is all about timing. She explained that the author who wrote the book upon which her film is based penned it more than a decade ago and was self-published. The story (at the time of its original publication) was not popular. Yet, fast forward a dozen years and here it is being made into a movie that will be played at major film festivals around the world.

As an abuse victim who has authored a transgender story that the literary world seems hesitant to hear, meeting a victim advocate and a brave filmmaker at my early morning nail appointment seems rather incredible. Especially, in my small Southern city.

submersion-in-lethe.jpgLarge-e1571944500689However, as I sat there, it dawned on me that it was no coincidence. The same spirit that saved me from despair as a child, intervened that day. Or perhaps, it was my father Jo sending a missive from purgatory (where I like to believe she is reviewing her life and my book options).

October 10, 2019 would have been my adoptive father’s 84th birthday. Thank you, Dad, for reminding me that our story matters.

Blessings to be who you are and always be right on-time,
V.L.

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Savannah’s Flannery O’Connor Birthday Event

Author Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia on March 25, 1925. Flannery wrote two novels and a few dozen short stories in her lifetime and is one of the best short story writer’s of all time. Her Savannah home at 207 East Charlton Street is a museum and I highly recommend that every writer, reader and Flannery fan make time to visit.

Flannery O’Connor’s Childhood Home

This past weekend (and for the last seven years) Savannahians have celebrated Flannery’s birthday with a quirky parade and book sale by local authors. I first joined the celebration six years ago, long before Waving Backwards was published by SYP Publishing. I was not yet a book author, but adored Flannery’s fiction.

This year, I attended the event with my dear friend Rosemary Daniel, who has written a gaggle of brilliant books and runs the Zona Rosa writer’s group. The event has grown by leaps and bounds and weaves a heartwarming and artsy atmosphere with local authors, art vendors, chicken-poop bingo, a giant birthday cake, and a huge parade of costumed characters. Marchers are led around Lafayette Square by the Sweet Thunder Strolling Band.

Author V.L. Brunskill

Savannah is my heart place, and since so many of you write asking what to do when visiting our glorious city, I am sharing a few photos from the weekend festivities. Enjoy and come on down for next year’s Flannery-fest. See you there!


Sweet Thunder Strolling Band
Happy Birthday Flannery!

Four Years Since My Trans Adoptive Dad’s Death

Today is the four-year anniversary of my father’s death. I’ve been dreading the day for the way it reminds me of our shortcomings. He died a woman and left a daughter who could never accept the anomaly. Gender was one more dysfunction to add to the avalanche waiting to bury me, and so I refused to see Joann when she drove from her home in New York to Hilton Head, South Carolina for a surprise visit.

No longer a child rolling with the punches, kicks, and angry outbursts, I needed some warning to help me see Joann. Perhaps, had she let me know she was coming, I might have witnessed her bent posture in the old lady frock, as she limped along with a cane. Truth says, “Not so.” I would not have seen her. No matter how long one considers a coming tsunami, it will never be welcome.

Once, we danced, my tiny shoes atop his feet to Daddy’s Little Girl, and I was whole. Then it was crap. A battle fought too hard by a child too small. I could not get him to be the man I needed, for she lurked there under the calloused skin and hard edges. She did not love me for the daughter I became, but for my girlish things and female life. She wanted to be me.

Writing this today is so different than writing my memoir The Killing Closet. Our story is tragic and yet I have painted a thousand mental pictures of it in heroic beams of survival. Turning beatings into strength-building, honor. Truth says, “No. The character-building benefits do not surpass the suffering.”

It was a childhood no one would choose.

Joe was the father no one wanted.

Joann was a secret and we all suffered for her existence.

What have I learned in these four years since Dad’s death? I have learned that I loved my father. I have learned that he did not exist. I have learned that forgiveness comes with a price. One must pay with regret. I can’t forgive a man that never was but have come to forgive the woman tucked beneath the cloak of masculinity.

I have learned that the madness that was my childhood was born of a broken adoption process. That too requires a heavy mask of introspection. Love your captors. Love your saviors. Love the system. The adoption message bleeds for the childless. Forgiving them is distant, remote, untouched, as were the infants they placed in hell. Our fate makers were social worker Helen Steinman, Children’s Aid Society, money, income, the barren womb.

Four years and tears still run at the loss of innocence. My brother’s and mine. My father, miscast in a gender strict world, had no escape for Joann. They were beaten before he took a breath, or twirled in a sister’s skirt, or underwent the knife to make the gender correction.

I have learned that who we are inside often collides with exterior appearance. That we can never really know the heart of another human, and that to assume heartlessness is to deny the human condition. Joe’s heart was born with Joann’s being, or so I have heard.

I gave my father an opportunity to admit the way gender devastated our lives. She declined, blaming my mother for the violence instead. Joe spoke then, in defense of Joann. I did not know it was the last time. I got no closure, no admittance, no apology.

I have learned that Joann and Joe melded into one and that in the end, the angry man took up the cloak once worn by the woman. Hiding, blaming, hurting internally and externally was my father’s life fate.

I have learned that no relative has visited Joann’s grave.

I have learned to move forward, tip-toeing around Father’s day and the lucky ones born to men who put them first.

I have learned to breath when the thought of my father tries to steal my air.

Rest, Dad. I am still learning.

V.L. Brunskill

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My ‘Plane Son’ Called For Christmas

This past July, I was seated on a plane from New York City to Savannah when about forty young men and women boarded. These young people were charged with anxiety and excitement. Sitting in any seat available, many of these youthful, balls-of-energy were about to embark on their first flight. For most, it was their first time travelling without their families. They were on their way to Marine Corp basic training at Parris Island in South Carolina.

A particularly agitated young man sat next to me. He looked about as frightened as I had ever seen a teenage boy look. I said hello and he eyed my cell phone asking, “Can I use your phone to call my Mom?”

“Of course,” I answered, handing it over. My mothering instincts went into high gear as I realized the desperation in his voice. His mother asked him if he has eaten the meal she packed, and he replied, “Yeah Mom, but I threw it all up.”

I tried not to stare but had the urge to hug this soon to be Marine as I watched tears run down his face. Just then, the flight attendant walked by, announcing to the group that they had assigned seats on their tickets and that they needed to get in those seats pronto. The young man said goodbye to his Mom and stood, moving a few rows up to his ticketed seat.

In his place, another young man sat down. He appeared withdrawn, shy, and frightened. He stared at his hands. I looked over and said, “Hi, are you one of the Marines?”

In a quiet voice, the young man answered, slowly revealing that he was the only child of Chinese parents who came to America for a better life. Born in the USA, this young man had faced bullying for his ethnicity and feared more of the same in the Marines.

We spent the entire flight chatting. He listened mostly as I built him up with words of encouragement. They were the kind of words usually reserved for mothers and their children. I assured him he would do great, make lifelong friends and learn more than he could ever imagine about his inner strengths. He did not seem convinced but listened anyway.

At once excited for the opportunity he was pursuing and nervous for his anxiety about training in 100-degree weather and being screamed at by his trainers, I reminded him that no one owned his mind and that while his body would belong to the Marine in charge, he could think whatever he wanted. I told him that he was in control of his thoughts and that having this control would get him through the tough spots.

I could see the wheels turning as he seemed to take in what I said. His shyness melted away and he shared with me that he was an artist. Pulling a pad of stunningly rendered portraits and landscapes from his pack, he asked that I choose one as a gift. I suggested he should hold onto his creations. He insisted. I chose a landscape sketching.

As the flight ended, he handed me the artwork and thanked me for talking to him. I gave him my phone number, telling him to call if he ever needed someone to talk to. The intensity of our conversation left an indelible mark on this Mom’s soul. He had shared with me that he could not talk to his parents and that he did not get along with them. I suggested that he keep trying, for they probably loved him but had some difficulty telling him so. He did not seem to agree. IMG_20181226_110234.jpg

We parted with a hug. But my plane son (as I now call him) never left my mind. All through the Summer months, I would look at the pencil drawing framed on my office wall and say a prayer that he would be okay.

Yesterday was Christmas. So when my phone rang, I answered, “Merry Christmas”.  The voice on the phone said, “Merry Christmas. Do you know who this is?” I took a moment, breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Yes, this is my plane son, and you made it through training.”

We chatted for about 20 minutes before I had to cut the call short to serve dinner to waiting family members. He shared with me his successes and that he had made friends who he called “brothers”. I asked if he called his family for Christmas and he said, The Marines are my family now.”

I texted my plane son today, attaching a picture of his artwork on my wall. I plan to keep in touch with him.  I know our meeting was meant to serve us both and that no one is a stranger when you open your heart. The blessing of his phone call is a Christmas gift I will always cherish.

 

The Queen Knows Her Name

I wrote a letter to the Queen of England and received a reply.queen2

As most of you know, I am adopted and found my first family in 1991. After I was reunited with my first mother, we travelled together to the tiny town in Newfoundland where she grew up. There, I met my Nan and Grandad- two hardworking, salt-of-the-Earth people with enormous hearts and dignified spirits.

Because Newfoundland was a British dominion from 1907 to 1949, my Nan had a special respect and love for Queen Elizabeth. When I wrote to Her Majesty, I had Nan on my mind. I wrote to share the inherited sentiment that I felt for the Queen.

This is the letter.

October 22, 2018

Dear Madam,

There are very few women in the world whom I admire as much as you. Since I was a child, I have studied you on television and in American newspapers. I am a first born American and never thought I would write to you. However, in these trying times, I feel the urge to tell you that your grace and dignity is appreciated.

I was adopted as an infant, into an abusive family. Yet, even in childhood, I found a reason to hope. I always had a strong faith that my prayers would be answered. They were. My adoptive mother escaped to a shelter for battered families, and went on to work three jobs, raising my adoptive brother and me alone.

Even though our means were few and the road difficult, I felt a kinship and fascination with the royal family throughout my life. Especially, with Your Majesty. I would watch television in awe of your elegance. Your eyes, for some reason, calmed me. I never read a British tabloid, and so your infrequent media appearances were all I had. Yet, I saw behind your sometimes-guarded eyes, the same look of struggle that I saw in the mirror every day. And so, I believed that we had something in common. Which I know sounds silly, but is true if you believe that we are all one mankind. That we, no matter what our lot in life, share the same dreams, fears, needs and hopes. We are all simultaneously divine and human.

As a young woman, I searched for and found my birthmother, who had given me up after moving from a tiny town in Newfoundland, Canada to New York City. It was the way in those days, to force unwed mothers from their children. When I travelled to meet my Grandmother Alfreda Edwards, she had your photo hanging in her small, oceanside home. It was the home where my mother and her siblings were brought up.

As I considered the source of my brown eyes for the first time, you watched over us from a framed portrait on her wall. You became a common admiration which we could share. She adored you and always considered herself to be part of the British Empire. I feel perhaps some of my royal admiration was passed from her.

One reason, that I have decided to write to you, is the television series ‘The Crown’ that is being shown here in the states. While I’m sure they get many nuances wrong and take liberties with the truth in places where they cannot possibly have the insight to know what happened, the series does indeed paint a lovely picture of your struggles, strength, honour and heroic undertaking of what must be one of the loneliest roles on the planet.

For me, it has been a pleasure to learn more about your family’s history and recall the way your photos and appearances enthralled me as a child. Your reign has been an uplifting light in my life, and I want to thank you.

Far too often, people live and leave this earth without putting into words how much others mean to them. So, I decided, that even if this letter never reaches you, at least I have tried to share a sliver of the way your life has mattered. You are a great woman, Your Majesty.  God bless you.

One small request. I wonder If you happen to have a self-portrait/photo you can send. I will hang it on my wall as my grandmother did so that my daughter and perhaps someday, a granddaughter will feel the same warmth and honour that I experienced all those years ago.

With sincere gratitude and admiration…


When I received the Queen’s reply, I was overcome with emotion. Her Majesty insists on reading all of her daily correspondence. A Lady in Waiting pens replies with notes from the Queen herself.

So, it occurred to me as I held the Queen’s beautiful letter and photograph, that I had gifted my late grandmother with something rare and magical.

The Queen knows her name. 

Queen 1

Blessings for a world where ancestors are honoured and hearts overflow,

V.L. Brunskill

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Adoptees React to Immigrant Kids in Cages (Family Separation Not New)

All the news of immigrant babies in cages has stirred quite a lot of resentment, pain, and outrage in the world. This is especially true among adoptees and first mothers. I have several hundred Facebook friends who reside in a world defined by separation. We are a varied and interesting brood from all parts of society. The one thing we have in common is that by force, or societal expectations, we were separated from our families. triggered.png

As a result, we adoption searchers and rights advocates are defined by a quest for reunion and the need to own birth-related documents that were stolen from us. If you are a non-adoptee, you may be surprised to learn that in most states adult adoptees cannot see their original birth certificates (even after reunion). All documents related to birth and adoption are sealed by state law, and until each state amends these outdated laws, they will remain so.

As detained immigrant children’s screams were broadcast and photos of them behind bars washed over us, the adoption community was triggered. We know what it is to lose family. Yes, we were re-assigned and given new families. Some good, some horrible. We lived to tell our stories, and to suffer because of them. To understand the damage inflicted by even the happiest adoption scenario, I highly recommend The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child by Nancy Newton Verrier

As hearts ache for the imprisoned immigrant children, we are warned by psychologists of the irreparable damage done to children when removed from their parents, even for a few days. I read that Rachel Maddow (American television host) interviewed a pediatrician who said, “even as little as 72 hours away from their parents can produce irreparable harm, as the heart, brain, and others organs are bathed in the stress hormone cortisol.”

Joe Sol, author and founder of the Adoption Healing Network  reacted on social media asking, ‘So, what does 30 YEARS do to you?”

In addition to the irreparable damage of separation, there is the question of babies as profit centers. Adoption and foster care are not hippie-dippy communes of free love and perfect placements. It is a money-making industry built on the backs of at-risk mothers and their children. It has been reported that 81 detainee children are now in the care of Bethany Christian Services, which is said to receive up to $775 per day from the federal government for each child. Cha-ching!

On its website, Bethany states, “We believe that all children belong with their families. However, in the current situation of children being separated at the border, we would prefer these vulnerable children be placed temporarily in a safe and loving foster home instead of remaining in a center for an undetermined period of time.”

This statement reflects a mindset that has defined adoption for decades. The rhetoric  might be easier to swallow if at the end it said, “for free and without profit.” Making money on the plight of children in unconscionable. Adoption and foster care is a multi-billion-dollar business. Even agencies that claim to be non-profit are making truckloads of money off babies. To understand how they do it, take a look at this article about agencies in my home state of Georgia – Nonprofit adoption agencies often profit someone other than children, families.

In addition to the ‘kids as cash cows’ problem, Bethany claims they are placing kids in foster homes that are ‘safe and loving’. Foster care children die at a rate that should warrant a total system overhaul. In fact, a 2017 investigation by the bi-partisan Senate Finance Committee found that “roughly 1,600 foster children die each year due to abuse and neglect.” Where’s the outrage, investigations? You can read more about the findings here- CHILDREN ARE DYING AT ALARMING RATES IN FOSTER CARE, AND NOBODY IS BOTHERING TO INVESTIGATE

I write this blog to expose a system that placed my adopted brother and I (as infants) into the home of a man who had beaten his first wife and child into hiding and who pummeled my adoptive mother daily.  I want people other than my adoption peeps to realize that children have been ripped from the arms of their parents for decades in America. The taking of children is not a new phenomenon. Immigrant children’s cries mimic those of all children stolen by adoption.

America’s adoptees and first mothers are triggered and you should be too!

Blessings for a world where family separation is the last resort,

V.L. Brunskill

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Quit Stomping on My Soul- Morality & Cutting Toxic Cords

What would you say to someone who examines the checkout line at a busy department store, not to decide which line will be quickest, but to see which cashier matches their race and ethnicity?

I was with someone who did this. I encouraged her to join me at the shortest line. She did so begrudgingly, then left our line to checkout with the only Caucasian cashier (whose line was double the length of the one we stood in). Her action was premeditated, obvious.

I did not call her out on her action. It was one of many assaults on my moral principles and I knew that her response would be instinctual denial. She has denied these judgments before. Yet, whenever I’m in her presence, her actions illustrate her belief that the pigment of someone’s skin is a worthy tool for judging character.pexels-photo-220147.jpeg

This person is surrounded by like-minded individuals who act as a bubble to protect her immoral inclinations. They display the same biases. They speak poorly of African Americans and Hispanics, accusing entire ethnic groups of leeching from the medical system, and stealing America’s resources.

Does my poor judgment of their morality make them universally toxic people? I think it should. But, as I’ve discovered in the Moralities of Everyday Life (Yale) course that I just started taking, one person’s soul-sucker is someone else’s chum.

A lack of shared moral views is one barometer we use to define toxic behavior. As I begin to cut cords with those who cause me moral anguish, I don’t want to fall into the age-old trap of name-calling (a specific R word comes to mind). Labeling them would be the same as them labeling others. I choose instead to ponder what has been discussed for centuries- the source of a person’s moral compass.

Does our religion determine what we think is moral? I believe in a God of equality. I believe we are all made in God’s image. However, some Christians have no problem judging humans based on color, race, or sexual preference. Take, for instance, the bakery owners who decided they could not bake a cake for a homosexual couple’s wedding. Are gay people toxic to the bakery owners? How did they arrive on that moral plane? If we are members of the same Christian religion, why don’t we share a common understanding that the love of God is inclusive?

Morality for me is defined by instinct. It is right and wrong. I believe that moral behavior can only be labeled as ‘moral’ if it does not harm other humans. Morals may be partially learned, but I suspect we are also born with innate moral inclinations. Take empathy for example. Some children exhibit none, while others are innately compassionate. I believe empathy is essential to morality.

As I continue the journey to heal my physical (chronic idiopathic urticaria) and spiritual health, I seek to learn as much as I can about the things and people who cause me soul-level anxiety. I hope you will help me along the way by sharing what you have learned.

  • How do you define toxic behavior?
  • Have you cut cords to define a more peaceful existence?
  • Is your morality innate or learned?
  • What defines moral behavior for you?

Lots to think about. I have so much to learn.

Blessings to ponder what makes us moral,

V.L. Brunskill

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