Throwback: Marcella Jayne
by Malaika Dower
Photos by Amanda Stosz
The path to motherhood is almost always rocky. But somewhere along the way it becomes apparent that even though everything is not perfectly mapped out, and we feel like sometimes we should have turned left where we actually turned right, the adventure is in the journey itself. I spoke with Marcella Jayne about how her journey to motherhood began and where she and her daughters have been. More importantly, she tells me how her past experiences have shaped her parenting choices.
Malaika: I want to hear your whole story. I’m a mom to a 13 month old and I’m fascinated with how other mothers do it. Especially single mothers. So, I might be asking for tips along the way in case me and my husband ever break up. Because I'm somewhat of a fatalist and I believe in, “don't get ready, stay ready.” Just kidding. But, I do want to know how you’ve done what you’ve done. So can you tell me from the beginning? What was going on when you had your first child?
Marcella: I have friends who've purposefully been single parents. I'm more typical of most single parents because that was definitely not my plan. My kids have different fathers. I was 20 and my first daughter’s dad was very abusive, and we had a horrible relationship. And being a single parent in that case was kind of like, a relief because, I couldn't parent with him.
Malaika: So you made that decision pretty early?
Marcella: I wasn't seeing him. I was living with my mother. But she had their fears that I was still talking to him. I was pregnant with her when my mom and my sister filed a petition with the court to have me sectioned – which is, to be incarcerated for a period of time. And the other thing is because I had a history of drug use. And, this is one of those things that just kinda sticks with me. I did not have drugs in my system when I was detained by the police. And their tests confirmed that I did not have drugs in my system. But the judge, basically saw the fear of a pregnant woman using drugs and being in a relationship with domestic abuse is substantial enough to warrant being sent away. And it's complicated further because Carmelina, my first daughter, her father is Puerto Rican and, I haven't talked to him in years, obviously, but at the time he didn't speak English. He's got an arrest record that you can just roll out like toilet paper. So I think this complicates it too, this racial dynamic. They see me as a naive white girl with this scary dark man. They think, “he got her into bad stuff.” But I'm good at getting myself into bad stuff, or I was. So, I knew I was going to be a single parent with her. There's no legal way I could parent with him. If he was around, there could be warrants to remove her.
Malaika: Now you’re sectioned and pregnant. What was that like?
Marcella: Yeah, I went through that when I was pregnant with her for 30 days. It was really heartbreaking to go through that pregnant and feel so alone. And you know, you just think of the little things. When I went there, I didn't have a change of clothes. I didn't have a change of underwear because the police just took me. I went in there when I was about five months pregnant. That day, we had a hearing and they took my coat from me. You know, I didn't have anything. I get to this facility, I guess, this is the really hopeful and inspiring part of all this. So I get there, I have nothing. I don't have shampoo, I don't have, any kind of – it's not jail per se, but it's an institution that's locked down with barbed wire fences and no windows. And I don't have money for – and I'm pregnant – I don't have money to get anything out of the vending machine, I don't have – you know, I have nothing. And the inspiring thing is, wherever I went, and I went to a lot of places like this through my younger life – is that people took care of me. And, it doesn't take a lot, really. I guess people watch TV and think like, oh you have to be tough in these places. These women are tough. I'm just like, no, you know, they're just like me. What ends up happening is that people end up taking care of you. People who have just a little more than you who are willing to say, alright, you're pregnant, you want to split this honey bun, or whatever it was? And also in Puerto Rican culture, you're never supposed to deny a pregnant woman. And it just happened that most places I went had a lot of Puerto Rican women and that was their feeling. Even women who did not like me, which there were. And even though they did not like me, they were like, here eat this. That was a good part. I always made friends, I always had a good laugh. That was another way of surviving I like to do impersonations. So whoever was the most hated counselor, the most hated officer, I would learn to walk and talk like them and do impersonations. And we would laugh about it.
Malaika: When you came out did you think, okay now I’m going to make a fresh start with me and my baby? You made the decision to parent on your own already because it was an abusive relationship. But now there's so much more at stake. Did that make it easier to keep away from him?
Marcella: Well, it's hard to say because I think in a lot of domestic abuse situations you kind of make these decisions over and over again. What happens is an abuser will alienate you from your support system. So when he's gone, actually I have, I had nothing. I had no friends left, and I had no strong family connections. And my parents are not, you know, they were sort of absurdly dysfunctional. I mean, my dad – he's a veteran, he broke his back at a rubber factory, has been addicted to painkillers since I was a kid. And he's not anyone who can be helpful. And my mother, has struggled with her mental health and alcoholism, and her home was not a good environment. And she was kind of a hoarder. So it was this messy, chaotic environment that's not just messy and chaotic superficially, but also emotionally.
Malaika: Wow. So going home to your parents wasn’t a great choice really?
Marcella: Yeah. So actually, going to the shelter, even though at the time I was really hurt because I'm in this locked facility, getting ready to go. You know, I've jumped through all their stupid little hoops. They could have let me out after 21 days. But I didn't make a collage I was supposed to make.
Malaika: What? Are you serious? That's what stands between you and your liberty, a fucking collage?
Marcella: Yeah. I've spoken before at different colleges and events before. When I worked for the Prison Birth Project, to tell this story of being incarcerated while pregnant. And I tell this story and people are either laughing or so pissed off they want to cry. Now I'm laughing about it because it is so fucking dumb. [In the facility] they were like, "You haven't completed your recovery collage yet." And I'm like, “Fuck you!” You know, you have to find ways to rebel in these situations to keep your spirit alive. But you also have to comply with this bullshit or you won't ever get out. So everyone did these collages and on the right side stuff was "bad." The left side is good stuff. And they cut out words like sadness, depression, and then on the positive, future side, it'll be like shrimp, and a nice car.
Malaika: Shrimp and a nice car! The good things in life!
Marcella: I was like, “Fuck all of this.” So I cut out this silhouette of a pregnant woman and filled her body with images of the city and images of whatever spoke to me. Where her heart was. I was like, “I'm not, I'm going to express myself and I'm not playing into your thing.” But then, I got to be released.
Malaika: Where did you plan on going?
Marcella: My family didn't want me to stay with them anymore. So, during this time of getting released, they're calling, “Where are we going to release you to? Why don't we put you in a program?” And I realized right then – and like I said, there was no drugs in my system when I entered. But as far as cementing in me this idea of never wanting to do drugs. Never being involved in that type of street life. It was because I cannot stand having these people have control over me. I think I'm smarter than them. I think these people are assholes. No matter what I have to do, I’ll do it so that I never have to be under them, I'll do it. I'd been to so many programs. I will not go to a program. I'm not going to have people tell me when I can go to the bathroom. I'm not going to have people hovering over me, telling me how to parent. I'm talking about having every second of your life controlled. Institutionalized. I'm not going to raise a kid like that.
Malaika: That’s totally understandable.
Marcella: They said, “Well, we called your mom and she said you can't stay with her.” So I had to go to a shelter. I was very heartbroken and angry. She mailed me a letter. She mailed me stamps to write back to her. And I just neatly shred up the letter, put it back in the envelope, and put one of her stamps on it and mailed it back. I was hurt. I was very hurt.
Malaika: Are you still pissed off about it? Now that you are a mother? Because, now that I have a kid – you know, I would turn my skin inside out for this kid. I would do anything for my children. And are you pissed off on that basis alone? Like how could you do this to me as my mother? Or maybe you were this young twenty year old rebellious kid and, “goddammit, she should have just done what I wanted!”
Marcella: I have a lot of perspective on it as a parent now. Some people think, you'll be more empathetic to your parents once you're a parent. And that's one thing that can happen. But the other thing that can happen is, you become less empathetic. You can say, I have a kid now. I don't care if I have to stab someone. My kids will never go hungry, they'll never be humiliated! They'll never be treated like they're just a burden, and I was angry because I look at my mom and I say, you're upset because whatever. I turned out this way. But what the fuck did you expect.
Malaika: You set me up! It's like, I was set up in an environment to - I'm not saying you or me, but we all are. We're setting up environments for our kids to hopefully help them make good choices about their future.
Marcella: Right. For example, I always loved to learn, took it very seriously to be a good student. And when I came home, there wasn't even a flat surface that was clear enough to do homework on. Because of the hoarding and stuff. We were left for weeks at a time because my mom would be in the hospital because of her alcoholism. Sometimes, we'd get left and the electricity would get shut off, or the hot water. We wouldn't be able to take a shower. Just being left for long periods of time. I had a lot of anger. I felt like – your response to your fear, or what you think is your love for me, is to traumatize me. But I've already been through enough trauma. And that's what any type of incarceration usually does.I don't think of it as therapy. I don't think you can force fix other people. No matter how much I love someone, I can't fix them. Someone wants to use drugs, I can't make them clean. If someone is in an abusive relationship, I can't get them out of it. All I can do is be a support. And you know, I was doing this alone.
Malaika: Jesus! So you’re on your own, pregnant with this baby. Then you move into a shelter. Shortly after that, you give birth.
Marcella: Yeah, it was pretty horrible. Her birth was pretty horrible. I had an unplanned C-section after I got induced. But, she was perfect.
Malaika: What did you name her?
Malaika: That's a pretty name. It’s melodic. What did you guys do from there? Now you’re a team of two.
Marcella: Carmelina's dad wanted to see her and he came to the hospital, and I had just had a C-section. What am I going to say, sorry you can't come? I didn't want to anger him. I was still in that cycle. So, he came, and he held her. And I always hoped that he would like get it together, figure it out, and he had a horrible life. Not to excuse his behavior, but he had a horrible life. And he needed, you know, I don't know wherever he is now, but he needed some kind of help. His mother died when he was two. His father was an alcoholic who couldn't care for him. So even when I hate him, I can't hate him all the way because I know why he’s like that. But at the same time, you keep yourself safe, you keep your daughter safe.
Malaika: I get that.
Marcella: So he came in the hospital to see her, and I was just gonna you know, let him see her and hopefully maybe seeing her will motivate him and when he was there seeing her, the hospital staff called the police. They arrested him, and then a social worker decided to open a case against me for letting him see her in the hospital. And I was just like, "Fuck you. I can't walk! How could I stop him?" So for a year, they wanted me to do weekly drug tests. Even though that wasn't what they charged me with, but I had to do it. And you know, it's like, hot as hell summer walking uphill to this clinic with a new baby.
Malaika: You have to play their game all over again.
Marcella: And now in retrospect, I know I didn't have to do any of this bullshit. But I was low-income, so I guess I sort of had to. But now, knowing what I know, if they said, we want to open an investigation, I'd be like, "Good luck, I'm not going to fucking help. I will not speak to you. And figure out what you can figure out on your own because I don't get paid by the state to do your job." And that's what wealthy people do, and that's why wealthy parents never have their kids taken away. The problem is, when you're poor and relying on any public system, and you're living in a shelter, and people working in the shelter are mandated reporters too, then you better believe that they're going to hold that over your head, and you have to comply. We're in a position where we have to comply. If anything ever happened like that now, I mean I don't have to comply to shit. So it's like, go fuck yourself. Let me know how the investigation goes. But I had to then.
Malaika: It sounds so intimidating. Like they intimidate poor people because they know they can.
Marcella: Oh, it totally is. Every little thing about it is. So we finally got this apartment in public housing. And, by then, that was sort of when I knew, I wanted to be a lawyer for sure. because all this bullshit I've been through. I needed to find a way to be powerful. But I didn’t tell anyone that because they probably would have laughed at me. I just said that I'm going back to school. But in my mind, I knew I was going to law school. I don't know how, but that's what I'm going to do. And I'm not foolish enough to tell anyone that and be mocked or laughed at.
Malaika: That makes sense. You just wanted to keep your dreams to yourself and quietly do your thing. Where did you and Carmelina live after she was born?
Marcella: I brought her home from the hospital to the shelter. Then we got an apartment in public housing. That was, it was so intense. We finally get called upon this list. They brought us to see this apartment and the back windows are shot out.
Malaika: Oh shit.
Marcella: And I say, well what are you going to do about that? She said, "Oh yeah, we'll fix them before you move in." Okay. We go upstairs and this is like speckled linoleum, there's no fridge, no stove. And she shows me the bathroom, and there's rust all the way around the bathtub. I said, is anyone going to fix that? And she said, “You take it or you leave it. Somebody else will take it." So we take it. In the beginning we didn't have a fridge or a stove. We had to buy our own fridge. They did put in a stove a few weeks after. So we'd make formula with tap water, or breast feed. And to feed myself, I'd get a bodega sandwich once a day with food stamps. I just had a little clock radio, and we'd listen to NPR 24/7.
The weird thing is, even though it felt like it was a shitty place, it still felt like, I wasn't sure if I deserved it. I was scared somebody was going to kick us out one morning. Like, this is too much for you. It was a two bedroom apartment, and I had never lived in a space that big on my own. And, once again, people helped me. We looked at it like, they gave us the bare bones, so we're just going to make this apartment awesome, no matter what it takes.
Marcella: And that's where Carmelina started to grow up. And the only good thing that came from this state investigation is that they provided a childcare voucher. Then I could go back to community college, I'd been there a little bit. So that year, after we moved out of the shelter, I finished my associate’s degree, and then I was able to transfer to Mount Holyoke.
Malaika: Wow. You made that happen after all the stuff you’d been through. How did you even study?
Marcella: It was a crazy trajectory. Extremely unlikely. I got this acceptance letter from Mount Holyoke and less than two years ago we lived in a homeless shelter. I was crying. I tried to share this moment with my mother. I remember calling her and telling her, I was so excited. She said, well how are you going to pay for that? And that's when I started to realize that there was going to be a point where we were going to rift really hard because it doesn't serve my mother's psychological needs to have a successful child.
Malaika: That’s a really huge realization.
Marcella: It serves to have a dysfunctional child. Because that's a way for her to be a victim, that's a way for her to get sympathy from people. I have this crazy kid, I'm trying to help her. For her to say, I have this kid who's successful that I didn't help become successful, that doesn't serve her psychological needs. That's where that rift really started to come between us. Because I realized at this point, they're not proud of me anymore, they're resentful.
Malaika: Wow. Like how dare you.
Marcella: Yeah. You think you're better than us. And I do. And that's the honest part.
Malaika: I mean, that's the reality. You also have to separate emotionally from your parents, and be like, I cannot be you. And maybe there's this element of pity or resentment; it's so complicated. You're still, you know, the daughter of your mother and you want her approval and blah, blah, blah, but then to be able to say, nope I have to break with you because I cannot be you. That's hard and I can't even imagine. But when you become a mother you go into this hyper overdrive. Everything is so much more critical and crucial. You're like, nope, nope, nope, nope. I'm not going to take this bullshit, I'm not going to handle that bullshit. Like there's just shit that I've come up with myself that I'm just like, if someone talks to me the wrong way and I'm like, –
Marcella: You're talking to my kids' mother the wrong way.
Malaika: Yes, exactly.
Marcella: Especially don't ever do it in front of her.
Malaika: If someone ever fucking talked to my daughter like this, I would never – I want to raise my daughter not to put up with this. I do it for her. I am Lucy now. If someone talks to Lucy like this, I want her to say, nope not good enough. So I mean yeah, you think you're better than your parents, because you're parenting better. You're already making way better parenting decisions than they've made. And any good parent would want their kids to be better parents than they were. You want things to be better with each generation. If it can't be financial, it had better be emotional. I’m going to go off on a tangent. But, that's why I love talking to other mothers, because it gives me such, good energy to be like, yes, we're doing this right! Where were we? You just got into Mount Holyoke.
Marcella: Carmelina is one and I brought her to my interview. There's two women, Caroline and Kay. They're directors of the Frances Perkins program, which is for non-traditional students at Mount Holyoke. So Carmelina went right up to Kay. And these are very regal, older white women, you know, and I mean like, pearl necklaces. Carmelina goes and sits on one of their laps – oh look, that's cute – and she just reaches her hand and grabs the woman's breast. And I was like, god, why did you do that? But of course, you know, she was breastfed at the time. I was like, you blew it kid, you really blew it. But then anyway, in the acceptance letter, I'm reading it off my wall. I framed it. It says, “We are eager to welcome you and your cutest baby to our community. Hope to see you in April.” So they understood but I thought that was sort of funny.
Malaika: My daughter does stuff like that all the time. She tries to kiss people on the lips. They are so all over the place at one. How the hell did you balance having a one year old and going to college?
Marcella: At first we started with half-time. But by the end I was full-time and working two jobs. That first semester was very lonely. And it was hard. For sure. And you know, there are times when you're like, I wish my professor could see this right now. I’m trying to get this baby to bed so I can read all night. No, I can't go to that lecture. I can't afford childcare. So I’ve got to get a voucher so I can attend class. That's a different experience than the other students. My hope someday is if I ever have money, is that I can do something to make it easier for the next generation of student parents because I could not be involved to the degree that my classmates could. That first semester was really, really hard.
Malaika: I bet. But did you feel like, well, I made it this far on my own so I know I can keep on going?
Marcella: I felt like an imposter. I felt out of place. I actually admitted that to one of the Frances Perkins directors. I said, you know, I have this fear that you guys made this mistake and I'm going to get a letter revoking my admission. And she said, “Yeah, that's a thing. That's called imposter syndrome. It’s normal. You're going to feel that way. But you're just going to have to get through it and prove it to yourself – not to us, because we already think you're great. We wouldn't admit you if you weren't great. We know you're great, but you're going to have to prove it to yourself.” That semester was rough. In my Constitutional Law class, there was this girl. Her dad and her mom and her grandfather and her great grandfather were all lawyers, for a million years. And she said to me one day, "Just so you know, if you want to cut it here, you're going to have to change your class participation." And she said that as we were getting out of class. And I said, "I got admitted just like you did, because I'm good enough to be here. And just so you know, not everyone agrees with you, most notably the professor, who complimented my class participation." She said, "I'm not trying to be mean, or say that you don't deserve to be here, I'm just saying, if you want to cut it here." I said, "I am cutting it here." I had this moment, you know you have these moments where something higher in your spirit takes over and it does the job. And I was strong and I looked her in the eye. Other students witnessed this because the class was clearing out so they saw it, but then after, I went to the professor's office and I was just crying. But in that moment, I was strong. It was like that thing about, no one's going to talk down to my kid's mother. You're not going to talk down to my kid’s' mother, so I'm strong and telling you this. But then I go to the professor's office and I just break down crying. I tell him what she said. And he says, "She's here because her parents want her to be here. You're here because you fought to get here. I have a lot more respect for that."
Malaika: So your professors were seeing who you were and why you got in. Did that give you more confidence?
Marcella: As I stayed at Mount Holyoke, my self-esteem grew. I got better grades every semester. The first semester I worked really hard for a B and a B plus, and that was the last B I ever got. I made friends and I argued with people. Whenever people would say something classist or act like my reality didn't exist, I would just blow them up verbally. Then random students would find me after class. Like a girl who looked pretty normal, never noticed her, would come up and be like, "Hey, I just want you to know that I'm glad you said what you said. My mom works in a factory and I feel out of place, and I want to say those things sometimes and I don't. But I'm really glad you said it." Every time someone ever said something like that to me, it's almost like a videogame where you get juices or whatever. Giving me life. In those moments, I feel awkward and alone. But, I’m getting this feedback that maybe I'm not just speaking for myself, I'm speaking for a whole perspective that's not getting in and it's my job – it's my job. It's also taxing. Because I’m one of the only people who lives in the public housing project who will ever walk through these gates, and the price I pay, which I'm happy to pay, is that I have to say some things that are going to feel awkward or uncomfortable. I have to say them.
Malaika: Definitely, that's something that I mean, most black people have to deal with, most women have to deal with. And it's like, multi-layered depending on which part of the margin you're in.
Marcella: And it's a privilege. It's a privilege to be there. Not to say it's undeserved, but I'm not the most deserving person to walk through those gates. There are other people who deserve to be here who will never get here for whatever cosmic flaw or unearned privilege gave someone else the spot. For whatever dumb luck, I'm the one who got in here. So it's like, reverence I pay to those who don't get in. I have to say whatever I have to say, no matter how awkward and uncomfortable it is to throw a wrench in someone's analysis of the world.
Malaika: It seems like you had so much to prove to the world while you were at Mount Holyoke. And you were busting your ass to do it. And while you were there you had your second daughter?
Marcella: Yeah, I had Valencia while I was in school at Mount Holyoke.
Malaika: So what was it like being pregnant in college?
Marcella: It was intense. It's a women's school, and it was like wearing a scarlet letter. There were people I had taken lots of politics courses with, who just did not say hi in the hallway anymore. But you have to have a sense of humor about it. There was this girl who was in a lot of politics courses with me. She hadn't said hi to me in months. She was president of the Young Republicans Club or something. So she's giving a tour to these ultra WASPy looking people. And I'm just standing there. I'm only 5'1. Both of my kids were born late, and they were both large babies. So my belly was like a cannonball. I say, “Hi! How are you? Taking any other interesting politics courses in the fall?” And she's like, agh, ugh. She can't even deal.
Malaika: That's so funny. I'm surprised because you would think at a women's college it's going to be this warm environment of support.
Marcella: Not at all. I mean obviously, I had some friends that were the exception. But mostly, I feel like people were kind of disturbed or disgusted. There was also a thing of like, maybe it had to do with classism or whatever. But it was like, "Oh, we don't have children in our twenties. And we don't have children when we're in college."
Malaika: Where did you find support?
Marcella: My professors were great. I had one professor. He ended up being my thesis adviser. And I've stayed in touch with him since. He's one of my favorite people I've ever met. I never mentioned that I was pregnant. But it was obvious. And the classroom was kind of small and I remember I had this huge belly, kind of shoving my way between people. Trying to pull up a chair and participate a lot. And that was Race and Urban Political Economy. It was one of my favorite classes. So I'm getting more and more pregnant and then, finally I'm like, shit, I have to say something to him because the baby is due soon and I don't know what to do. So I went to his office hours and was like, "Hi, Professor Smith," and he was like, "Yes, come in. What do you want to talk about?" And I said, "Well uh, I don't know if you noticed but I’m pregnant." And he's like, "Yeah, I noticed. I was wondering when you're going to have that thing!" "So um, the baby's due date is like tomorrow or maybe next week. I don't know when I'll give birth to her. So I might need an extension." He was like, "Yeah, you got it." He was cool about it. They were great professors.
Malaika: That’s probably even better than getting support from your peers. They're the ones saying you deserve to be here. Now you're going to have a baby and we're going to support you for that. You can have extensions. Do you think that helped keep you going when maybe you felt like quitting?
Marcella: There was not even a thought about quitting, really. You know, it’s interesting – working class women throughout history just expect more of ourselves. Because we don't have a choice. When second-wave feminism is like, “Can you have it all?” You're like, “My mother worked, her mother worked – what the fuck are you talking about?”
Malaika: Yeah. I mean obviously, that's something that black women feel like white feminists missed in those first couple of waves of feminism. We didn’t get to vote until after them. And a lot of black women saw it as a luxury to have to question: Do I stay at home? Do I go out and work? Maybe now that there's been generations of college educated black women it’s more of an option for us. But when middle class white women were struggling with that choice it just seemed absurd to a lot of other women.
Marcella: It's implausible for me still.
Malaika: It is totally unfathomable for me, too. And so, you're right. I think there's a whole classist issue with that. Working class women are like, what do you mean, can you have it all? I just do it all. I don't have anything. I'm just doing everything. I don't know what you mean. So that's where you're coming from. I'm pregnant and I still have these assignments due.
Marcella: Right. And my professors, especially my thesis advisor, just got it. He’s from a black working class family in Chicago. He got it. And also, I thought, what is making these other students uncomfortable? it's not a hatred toward me. They’re uncomfortable with their own childbearing capacity. Maybe they're uncomfortable with being confronted with their own biological limitations. My pregnancy is raising an issue to them that's uncomfortable. They don't want to be a jerk to me.
Malaika: It's also your audacity. How dare you not fit this poor stereotype? How dare you have children in the prime of your fertile years and continue to go to school, and be totally unapologetic about it? It's really a revolutionary act to be all of these things at once.
Marcella: I was just like, we’re going to do this. So then, we have Valencia. Her dad stayed home with her when she was a baby. I breastfed her at night. I'd be writing my reading responses and breastfeeding her while I'm on the computer typing with one hand thinking, if the other students could see me now, or if my professor could see me now!
Malaika: Oh my god, it's a stark contrast to what other 20-something college students would be doing at that time. And you had a toddler too.
Marcella: Yeah, most of my college experience was with an infant and a toddler. And there were always little things like the car that always broke down; or our slum landlord was always trying to evict us; he was always taking me to court.
Malaika: Holy shit. How were you coping with it all? Were you in any type of therapy, or were you trying to do any type of emotional work?
Marcella: No. That's another interesting thing. A lot of people in recovery communities think that you need to stay away from triggers, just like in trauma. Avoid triggers. But I had no other choice of where to live. One of the most helpful things I'd ever heard were not things that were emotional, and not religious, but when people talk sort of scientifically about trauma and addiction. Those things are the things that have stuck with me. And someone said, the more you're exposed to a trigger, the less powerful it becomes. So I used to say to myself, this is like boot camp. I don't feel anything about this anymore. It's not triggering because I live here every day. We don't have the luxury to be triggered or have trigger warnings. You know? I mean, there was a man who was shot to death directly in front of our apartment and Carmelina was like right there. She doesn't remember because she was too young, she was maybe less than two. And this guy was just shot to death in broad daylight, right in front of our door. And we couldn't use the front door, it was taped off. You know, there was no trigger warnings about drugs or substance abuse. Forget it! There was drug dealing going on in front of the house, behind the house. People walking around looking like Night of the Living Dead because their bodies were just shutting down.
Malaika: How do explain shit like that to your kids?
Marcella: I always answer my kids honestly. Carmelina would ask, "Why are all these needles on the ground?" I'm like, "People use those to do drugs." "Why do people use needles to do drugs?" I'm like, "Oh because the drugs enter the bloodstream quicker." Did I really just say that? You know, I'm being honest with her. People use them to do drugs. "Are drugs bad?" "Drugs aren't bad or good. If you're in a hospital, a drug could save your life. A drug could also kill you." The shootings and some of the violence we've seen are harder to explain because they're also harder to understand as an adult, from my perspective. There were two murders that happened right in front of the house on Father’s Day. It’s really hard to explain it to them without scaring them. But, the brain is really powerful so all these triggering, horrible things are happening. And something in my brain is like, you're just going to keep on going.
Malaika: But your brain also holds on to everything. It’s sometimes too powerful.
Marcella: Yeah, I feel the impact of these things more now than I did then. The past year, I've had more trouble dealing with it because I'm in a safer place. I've gotten a therapist at the school to talk about these issues. The way she explains it is your brain is not going to bring them up unless you're healthy enough to process them. So we can look at it as a good sign that I'm so healthy now that my mind feels that it's the appropriate time to address this horrible thing that happened four years ago. These murders. This domestic violence. All the horrible things we experienced and witnessed. The mind is so clever. We're designed to survive.
Malaika: I hear what you're saying. So when you're in total survival overdrive, your brain telling you live live live live live through this, live through this. Work through this. Be alive. And now that you're safe and calm your brain is like, what happened back there? What was that about?
Marcella: Exactly. This is when it comes up. Even with the hunger I experienced in childhood. One of my law school classmates is a millionaire and he invited me out to dinner with him and his wife. We went to this restaurant at Lincoln Center. I ate the best food I've ever eaten in my life. We had cigars and they were so good. We had aged scotch and it felt like I was drinking a 200 year old hunting cabin. We had great conversation, and it was a lovely night. When I got home, and all of sudden it was like, it almost feels supernatural, having this kind of flashback, I guess. Maybe that's what people call it. I don't know if that's the right term. This heaviness just enters the room and all of a sudden I'm so disturbed. I'm having this moment where I'm remembering childhood hunger.
Malaika: Oh, after eating this beautiful meal.
Marcella: Right. And it can't be fixed by eating this beautiful meal. And it doesn't matter if every day for the rest of my life I'm eating filet mignon. It's never going to fix the childhood hunger. It's always going to be there. It's always part of who I am and I can't edit it out. I can't fix it. I can't erase it. It just boils up so much pain. The sirens are on. They're saying to run, and there's nowhere to run to and I have to talk it out. You are so healthy now that your mind is letting this happen. Your whole life you've experienced this trauma of growing up in poverty and not having enough to eat. And being ostracized for not having new shoes or being physically uncomfortable most of my life. I mean, we lived in New England and we don't have heat in the winter, or we don't have hot water to take a shower. Your clothes smell bad because your parents are not doing the laundry. Maybe the water's off. The electricity's off. You're getting picked on in school. All of this trauma never before has my mind been able to pull it out and my mind's like, now you have to deal with this. Now you're eating this fancy food, and I'm going to tear that shit open and remind you of something that you need to remember. That is what I feel now. The violence and a lot of things that happened in those housing projects. I feel it now. I didn't feel it then. You know? I had my blinders on and I was going to be somebody and now I feel it.
Malaika: Yeah. Now you’re in law school at Fordham and you live in this great apartment in New York City so your brain is like,” what the hell happened back there? Remember that? What the fuck was that about?” And also, I'm not a therapist, but it seems like it’s also a technique to work through potential future trauma. Like hey, what happened back there? Let's figure this out. So that if it ever happens again, we know what streets to go down, and what roads to take. Because we can't do that shit again. And I love the way that you're framing it too. You're saying it's because of the safety that shows how secure I am now that my brain can bring this up. But goddamn, I bet it's crazy to deal with.
Marcella: Yeah, it can be. And with kids, the interesting thing about being a parent is, I get to re-address all this through my experience with my kids. You know? It's a way of healing for me. Every meal we eat, is mending. It's pulling a stitch through the fabric. Because they're never knowing that hunger. I don't need them to know it, this feeling of childhood poverty, maybe as a way to justify some of – but there's nothing there that is justifiable. That's my opinion. Reprehensible, it's not worthy of justification. I want my kids to be grateful and have perspective, but I don't want them to be, you know – I don't want them to touch it with a twenty-foot stick. I still want them to know they are not undeserving of food, or undeserving of a hot shower, or undeserving of a clean blanket. I don't want them to ever touch it.
Malaika: Right. I’ve known some people who’ve suffered trauma like this and they swear they are glad it happened because it made them stronger. But the way you say it, I think it's so crucial that when we tell these stories we also say we don't want to repeat this. Nothing about this is justifiable. My children’s childhood will be nothing like mine.
Marcella: Well, it's kind of magical because I see Valencia sometimes and she looks so much like me. And we're talking about these moments from my childhood. I’m thinking of my life when I was her age. You know? Now, I'm realizing what a five year old really is, and what I was like when I was five. I'm seeing this little girl who is the same except her hair is lighter. Basically, she looks exactly like me. And it's this magical chance to sort of correct what's uncorrectable. And to fix what's unfixable. When I was her age I was cooking ramen noodles for myself.
Malaika: Right. You can see that this is unfixable, for your history, but it's fixable for her future. And that's intense.
Marcella: Right. The other thing is the idea that when I see her, I see that she's already great. She doesn't need to be taught these painful lessons to see these truths.
Malaika: Experiencing abuse and trauma doesn’t teach people lessons. Overcoming it might. But it’s never really gone. It’s a lot of work to get okay.
Marcella: And joy is a very hard thing to accept. Like yesterday, I was with a friend I made when I came to New York. She’s a lawyer who has three kids. She's older and very successful. She’s a politician. She took to me and she realized I was alone in the city and had kids. She’s like, let's hang out, let's do family stuff. You don't have a family here, and I just want to be supportive to a law student who's a mother. So yesterday we went to the science center and she took us to Coney Island and we had a beautiful day. We watched the sunset in Brooklyn on the beach. I get home – and also we were listening to opera in the car, and I love opera, and I was like, am I allowed to feel this good?
Malaika: Wow, yeah. Those moments when life is awesome. Life is great. I'm with this new friend who's supporting me, and then it's like, but how is this okay? How does this compute with the rest of my life?
Marcella: Exactly. I can look at my bank accounts and know that I have thousands of dollars in my checking account but when I go to swipe that card, I automatically fear it's going to be declined. It doesn't matter how much money is on there. I always have this fear it's going to be declined.
Malaika: Yeah, those are the lasting effects.
Marcella: It's not like, once you fix these outer circumstances and everything falls in line. It takes a lot of work. It’s my life’s work. That's why I picked law. It's a way for me to make utility of the trauma. Because if I feel like all this trauma was just random bullshit that serves no purpose, I'm not going to be able to survive because I feel that it’s a culmination of meaningless suffering. But if I look at it like utility and say, I'm not grateful it happened, I wish it didn't – but I made utility out of it nonetheless.