Posted on 08/15/2014 at 12:00 AM by Jeffrey Bruner
Only two years removed from being homeless, Seeley James did something remarkable that would be pretty much impossible today – he adopted a 3-year-old girl. We talk about that journey and how it shaped him as a writer.
JEFFREY: So you're 19 years old, working minimum wage jobs in the 1970s in Arizona, and a friend decides that parenting her 3-year-old has become more than she can handle ... and you volunteer to raise this child. Now you had done some babysitting at this point, but still, the obvious question is: What 19-year-old decides to adopt a child?
SEELEY: It wasn’t a decision. It was a more like an alternate destiny. And I wasn’t really babysitting, I had adopted her in my heart when she ran out of the daycare and called me Daddy. That might sound melodramatic, but at the daycare center, she jumped into my arms and I didn’t put her down for years.
She rode on my hip everywhere I went. And I went to bars -- drinking age was 19 back in the stone age -- and parties, and concerts, etc. I don’t recall the timeline anymore, but at some point her mom was struggling with money, jobs, family, stress, etc. I said, “Hey, how about I adopt her?” I had NO clue what that meant, or that there were a ton of options. It just felt natural. (At right: 1977.)
JEFFREY: More than three decades later, are you still amazed that a judge signed off on it?
SEELEY: Yes and no. Frankly, I’ve never worried about it much. I’ve spent more time with high school counselors and teachers talking about her grades and attendance.
I imagine courts today would have infinitely more hurdles to get there, but the net decision from the court’s point of view would be the same: If the birth parent is willing to give a child up and someone is willing to take the child, that’s much better than the alternative -- the absolute hell of foster care.
Anyone involved in family courts will tell you, foster care is a last-last-resort. There are many excellent and dedicated foster care households but kids don’t go into them because they come from a safe, loving environment, and the system itself lacks that unconditional, permanent love so critical to a child’s development. As long as the child is not being sold, and the adopters are not molesters or cannibals, the courts don’t have a reason to stop the process.
Sometime later I discovered that her natural grandmother, who was a wonderful help to me, had no idea what had happened. She offered to adopt Nicole. We had some tense conversations but resolved everything peacefully and quickly. I had two realizations: 1) Huh, this could’ve gone in a whole different direction and I could’ve gone back to fancy free; 2) she’s mine and I ain’t giving her up to anyone no matter how much rational sense it makes.
JEFFREY: What was the reaction of your friends and family?
SEELEY: Disbelief. My father latched on right away and told her to call him grandfather and always introduced her as if she were flesh and blood. My sisters were uninterested in helping but verbally supportive, “Oh, isn’t that nice. Gotta go.”
My mother thought it was something that would fade away. Ten years later, I was living in Washington, D.C., and my mother came to visit for a few days. As she was leaving, she hugged Nicole goodbye. She gave the then 13-year-old a strange look. When we got outside, she said to me, “You really did adopt her.”
I’ve since married and had two biological children. They adore their big Sissy. I’ve compared notes with other adoptive families over the years and found a common experience: When you have biological children, everyone around you has them with you, but when you adopt, only a select few will adopt with you.
Several years ago there was a death in Nicole’s biological family. We came down from Seattle for the funeral. She had a good time with them. When I drove her to the airport, she showed me a picture of the whole family, maybe 20 of them. She didn’t speak while I looked. There were two high school diplomas between them and a lot of early-aging. I handed her the picture back. She said, “I’m so glad you raised me.”
JEFFREY: How tough was it to work a job while raising your daughter? You experienced many of the same challenges that working women did during the 1970s.
SEELEY: When I met my daughter, I left my minimum-wage-life and made a career in sales -- where last month’s numbers, not degrees, are the only things that matter. Challenges were constant: day care, car-pooling, homework, business travel, etc.
Many at-home mothers jumped in to help me in ways I can never repay. Single parents rely on the kindness of parents-with-extra-bandwidth. It really does take a village, and when you’re single, you need a kind, helpful village.
The one thing I learned about single parenting was that getting married and maintaining a two-parent household is the optimal way to raise a family. Adding family in the vicinity is a bonus. Doing it alone is much harder and not for the obvious economic reasons. The biggest problem with single parenting occurs when you’re wrong -- there’s no one there to tell you.
JEFFREY: Did being a single dad shape the novels you would go on to write? And do you think you would have become a novelist if you had never adopted Nicole?
SEELEY: I wanted to be a novelist the first minute I read “Treasure Island.” I was 10-years-old and found a 1911 edition with N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations buried in an attic. I spent one rainy day reading it from dawn until midnight. I read it again the next day. My only regret in life is that I didn’t pursue that dream right then. At the time, I had the idea that young people shouldn’t write because they had not yet gained the wisdom of the ages. Now that I’m old and know you never do, I realize my mistake.
Being a single parent shaped my writing in an unexpected way. Mother Nature imbues children with resilience to help them through hard times. We see this in the successes of adopted kids from Aristotle to Babe Ruth to Steve Jobs. I made the mistake of keeping my daughter’s mother in her life, which led to disappointments and abandonment issues. (At right: 2007.)
In order to survive psychologically, my daughter developed a strong character. By the time she was in her mid-20s, I knew I had to write about a heroine who could withstand incredible setbacks, overcome emotional scarring, and strive forward without missing a step. In that regard, my daughter was the archetype for Pia Sabel. Although, my real daughter has never killed anyone. (I hope.)
You can read more about Seeley at his website and you can find his books on Amazon here.
Categories: Author Interview