Regina: I don’t remember my mother, I don’t remember who taught me to tell time, tie my shoe, who taught me to walk. Who, who helped me utter my first word. I have no memory of that or no experience of that, that I can recall.
Noah: Regina Louise grew up in the foster care system. From age 12 to 19, she lived in around 30 different foster homes. She suffered a lot of abuse from the people who were supposed to care for her. And because of that, some of her memories of childhood are vague and fragmented. And she didn’t remember a lot of them until her late thirties, when she started to write a book about her life.
Regina: And I had to rely on memory in order to write. I realized, wow, there are no concrete examples or experiences that I have that are consistent. Just these little chunks and pieces.
Noah: In 2003, Regina put those pieces together. She wrote a memoir about her journey through foster care and about her friendship with a woman who changed her life. But the details of Regina’s story of abuse and neglect were harrowing. Some of it was almost surreal. And that was a problem
Regina: My publisher, she said, you know, I need you to find someone to corroborate your story because the claims you’re making are like, oh my God. So, I said, I don’t have anybody. She’s like, well, you’re going to have to figure something out.
Noah: Regina Hadn’t heard from her biological family for more than 25 years, she didn’t have much documentation. She didn’t even have a photo of herself as a kid to use for the book cover.
Having no background, you did not have any photos, no doodles, no stories about you as a kid.
Regina: No, nothing. I think then I realized, oh my God, there’s no archiving. There’s no proof.
Noah: When you grow up without a family like Regina did, the things you forget about yourself, about your life, they’re gone and the things you do remember you end up doubting. Regina spent a lot of time doubting her memory, but having someone else doubt it, felt worse.
Regina: I’m not even registered in this thing. It’s like, I’m nobody.
Noah: So Regina set out to find the one person who could corroborate her story and her life. I’m Noah Rosenberg. And this is Believable from Narratively. It’s a show about how our stories define who we are.
Today: the story of a child’s journey through foster care and a woman’s struggle to corroborate her own life.
Regina: We walk into this one level building. Stainless steel door. You walk in. A man sits at a desk and the intake procedure begins.
Noah: On May 2nd, 1976, Regina Louise was brought to the Edgar children’s shelter in Martinez, California. She arrived in the custody of police. She had bruises and scars. She was 12 years old.
Regina: The intake guy, Mr. Porter is like I see you have an injury. And I see a police report with the outline drawing and I see Xes. I didn’t put two to two together that as he goes down this body with the Xes that those injuries are mine. I don’t recognize that. And I just lie and say, I fell, you know. They asked me about my mother and my father. Same questions. I didn’t want to talk about any of those people. They were gone. They didn’t want me. There was no need to go over that. As far as I was concerned I was just dropped from the sky.
Noah: At the shelter, Regina lived in a room with eight other girls. There were bunk beds and shatter-proof windows. And for the most part, Regina kept to herself. But there was another side of her.
Regina: I could bring an environment from stable to completely dysfunctional within seconds. If I didn’t get what I wanted, I threw a tornado meets a volcano, kind of a temper tantrum.
Noah: What did that tantrum sound like?
Regina: Ooh, see you better be careful what you ask for. No, no, no, no. I would just be like punching, kicking, scratching, spitting, hollering. Sometimes I got restrained. And a lot of times I did it to be restraint just to feel contact human contact.
Noah: Some of the social workers saw Regina is tantrums as a sign of mental illness. And at first, no one seemed to be able to reach her. And then one morning, Regina woke up. There’s this beautiful white woman root beer colored hair. She raises a blind, she walks around the room. She shakes all the girls toes and you know, she’s just different, right.
Annoyingly different. And she comes over to me and she says “good morning pumpkin.” And I’m like my name ain’t pumpkin. She said, I know your name is not pumpkin. Your name is Regina.
Jeanne: She was very quiet and secretive and she didn’t share very much.
Noah: This is Jeanne Kerr. The counselor Regina is talking about.
Jeanne: If she was deciding to act out. She would lash out with vigor. If she was quiet, she was the quietest one.
Regina: There’s something about the way she made the effort to lower herself to my level. And then she also sees the marks and she asks what, what happened? And I just can’t go back there, you know? And she knew to leave it alone.
Noah: Regina didn’t trust anyone. But slowly, she started to trust Jeanne. They had a connection right away. The other kids at the center had family or friends in the area, so they could leave for visits on the weekends. But Regina didn’t have anyone.
Jeanne: She was the only one there. So, we had an opportunity to get to know each other very well.
Regina: We would go and do fun things. Like I did things I had never done before.
Jeanne: Like go to ice cream parlor. Are you kidding me? We would crochet. She would do my hair. She would teach me how to braid hair.
Regina: She taught me how to swim.
Jeanne: And we would go on outings to swimming. We’d go on outings to horseback riding.
Regina: Movies! I had never gone to a movie. The more I experienced regular kid girl things, the more I blossomed and the more the trust between she and I developed. At one point, she basically took me to her house accidentally. To maybe pick up something and you didn’t do that kind of stuff with me. Cause once you took me, I knew how to get back to you. I just counted streetlights. You know what I’m saying? So I knew, Oh, 102 streetlights. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Or 36 street lights. Boom, boom. Turn left. Right? Boom, boom, boom.
Noah: You were consciously counting as you were driving toward the house thinking. Okay. I want to be able to get back to this woman.
Regina: Heck yeah. I would run away and spend the night at Jeanne’s house. Right when I would hear her turn the keys over to the graveyard staff. I’m out of the bed, my shoes I’m ready. I’m at the fence. I’m jumping over and I’m on my way to her.
Noah: The Edgar Children’s Shelter was supposed to be a temporary solution, a home for kids until they could be placed in longer-term foster care. Regina ended up in homes all around the area. But she never stayed long.
Regina: I was put in 30 different placements and I ran away from each one of them trying to get back to her.
Noah: Sometimes Regina didn’t have to run away from her placement to see Jean.
Jeanne: And of course, you know, I would book a hotel near the place that she was staying. So I could be there for their visiting hours.
Noah: When something went wrong at a placement, Regina would call the shelter, asking for Jeanne, and the other social workers started to catch on.
Regina: And I think that was problematic. I had failed so many homes that they were concerned.
Noah: In 1978, Regina was scheduled to have a custody hearing. She was a proven flight risk with a history of erratic behavior. Her social worker, Gwen plan to recommend that Regina be moved to a psychiatric treatment center. Regina didn’t know note at the time, but Jeanne was working hard to keep that from happening.
Jeanne: I wrote a letter to the social worker. I had never wanted to be anybody else’s mother there, but I really felt that I could help Regina, that I wanted her to have a family. I wanted her to be my daughter.
Noah: But the social worker, Gwen, shut that idea down.
Jeanne: The social worker felt that I was a bad influence on Regina and I should not be fraternizing with her.
Noah: Gwen thought Jean had overstepped, that her relationship with Regina was inappropriate, but there was another problem.
Jeanne: She said Regina needed to be in a black family. And I wasn’t black.
Regina: At that time, African-American social workers were fighting to preserve the African American family. And they were losing that fight.
Noah: In the late sixties and early seventies, adoptions were dropping dramatically. The legalization of abortion and the invention of birth control resulted in fewer white children being put up for adoption. White couples were becoming open to the idea of adopting across racial lines, and between 1968 and 1972, trans racial adoptions became more common. But not everyone thought that was a good thing.
News anchor Tony Brown: I’m Tony Brown in a moment: Can whites raise black children?
Noah: In 1972, the National Association for Black Social Workers or any BSW announced that it was against transracial adoption and the organization’s president Jay Chon wasn’t wavering. Here he is in an interview on a TV show called Tony Brown’s journal.
Interviewer: Now are you saying that white people cannot and should not raise Black children?
Jay Chon: We certainly are. We don’t feel that white families have the sensitivity to Black life, Black lifestyles, Black culture, and the way Black children grow, learn, think, and behave to be able to successfully raise them. The NABSW was adamant. Their president argued that a Black child was better off in an institution than in a white home. And that stance had a big impact on transracial adoption. By the end of 1972 white adoptions of Black children decreased almost 40%.
And in 1978, when Regina went to her custody hearing, it was still a big issue.
Regina: To watch a Black girl go into a white home. It was the politics of race.
Noah: In court, Regina’s social worker argued that Regina needed to be with a Black family, but she also said that Regina wasn’t stable enough for a family setting. She recommended Regina be placed in a treatment facility.
When Regina had a chance to speak. She told the judge that she wanted to live with Jean. To Regina, it felt like the whole world had decided who she was and who she was going to be.
Regina: My social worker would say things like, you’re not going to be anybody. When she said that sort of stuff, my insights are like, you’re lying. Whereas Jean is telling me, this is your life. This is the world you can pick and choose. I wanted someone who could mirror to me the unconditional possibility that I could become anything and be proud of who I was as a
Black woman, but not allow my blackness to limit my possibilities.
Noah: In the end, the judge sided with the social worker.
Jeanne: I got word before Regina returned. I just sat down on the floor and I was crying, sobbing.
Regina: I’m in the dining room of the Edgar children’s shelter. And I look to the right and there, Jean is on the floor.
Jeanne: And she saw me there.
Regina: And, um, and I get down on my knees.
Jeanne: She didn’t know that I had written a petition to be her mom. And, um, I think I shared with her that, you know, I tried. It’s very sad.
Regina: I said, just knowing somebody wanted me. Somebody was willing to make me someone. Thank you.
Noah: After the break, Regina continues on in a world without Jeanne.
Noah: After the court’s decision, Regina was taken away from the children’s center, away from Jean. She was brought to a treatment facility where the rules were different. Regina was heavily medicated and because of her behavior, she spent a lot of time in isolation.
Regina: I was in solitary confinement most of the time. So I was in literally a locked room. And I think that was probably the most devastating.
Noah: To make matters worse, she wasn’t hearing from Jean. Where are the letters? Why isn’t she communicating with me.
Noah: But Jean was calling. She was writing letters.
Jeanne: I didn’t know why Regina didn’t respond to my mail. Legally I had no right to be present in her life. Since I didn’t have the privilege of being her parent.
Noah: Regina wasn’t allowed to talk on the phone. They never gave her Jean’s letters. And Regina thought that Jean had just abandoned her. Like everybody else.
Regina stayed at the treatment center for two months. And then she was placed in a group home outside San Francisco.
Regina: And I think at that point, my anger became a form of resistance.
Noah: She started running away again. She went to job interviews, auditioned for plays, tried modeling.
Regina: And I just said, when I’m out of here, I have to live this life because it’s in me.
Noah: When Regina was 19, she aged out of the foster care system, but she was far from a fully developed adult. The only model she had for had to live for how to succeed was the short time she’d spent with Jeanne. That became my MO, was to grow myself up the way I imagined she would have. So I basically took over the parenting of myself.
Noah: Regina spent a lot of time in the library, reading every book she could find. She worked at paper out to get by stealing a few subscription dollars when she was desperate. She finished high school and got into to college. And as she struggled to lift herself up, she looked for Jeanne. And when Regina was 20 years old, her search paid off. She tracked down Jean’s mother, and then she invited Jeanne to dinner.
Regina: I think my hope was she lost the right to be there for me then, maybe, you know, here we are two people without anyone saying yes or no, you know, maybe there’s a chance.
Jeanne: Because I hadn’t seen her heard from her since then. I thought it was like, well, you know, I thought I’d reach out to an old counselor and just say hi and let you know, I was doing well.
Noah: But things between them were different and both Regina and Jeanne could feel that.
Regina: She was just very avoidant at the dinner and very blank and very checked out. And I didn’t have the courage or the know-how to just come out and say, do you want me? You know, I would have never done that. I was way too frightened. You know, how you, when someone’s in that thousand mile stare and you take your hand and you were to wave it in front of them and they don’t even blink, it was more like that.
Jeanne: Walking down the stairs from leaving, in my heart, the bond was there, but the feelings were not present. Even though she’d invited me, the feelings were different. And, um, the warmth wasn’t there.
Noah: Once again, Jeanne and Regina went their separate ways. There was no insurmountable obstacle, no one was standing in their way. And that made it all the more difficult to swallow. In fact, Regina didn’t remember the dinner with Jeanne until we reminded her of it. She had blocked it out.
Regina: That’s a really interesting experience that I’m actually having right now, just complete disorientation. You know, there’s a trauma that goes with that. And within that, we’ll go memories and the way we see it and the way we remember it. It’s just too bone crushing to believe that bad actually happened.
Noah: It wasn’t easy, but Regina moved on, on her own. She dropped out of college. She says it was too sad around Christmas break. All the other students went home to their families and she was left alone. After a while she became a hairdresser and she was determined to be the best she could be. Saving until she was able to open up her own salon. And then another. The girl who had only wanted a family became a self-made woman.
Regina: Anger can be an incredible form of resistance. And I want it to resist what I was going to be, which was nothing.
Noah: Regina had a son and she was determined to give him everything. She never had to raise him how she’d always hoped Jeanne would raise her. And every once in a while, over the years, Regina went looking for Jean, but her memory wasn’t helping her.
Regina: I tried to remember where her mother lived and I would drive, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t access that. I think there was some trauma at that point that had almost like pinned me down.
Noah: And Jeanne looked for Regina too. I tried to reach her several times and the people who answered the phone said that she wasn’t at that phone number.
Do you think you were find-able?
Regina: Oh, I made sure I was, I always put my name in the phone book as Regina Lewis, in case anybody from my life wanted to look for me. I never wanted to give them an excuse.
Noah: Although they tried Jeanne and Regina couldn’t find each other. And after a while they both stopped looking.
Almost 20 years went by. Regina was approaching 40. And one day, she started to write in the margins of a newspaper.
Regina: Not to disturb the raggedy screen door that barely kept the man eating the mosquitoes from tearing our asses up… Yeah.
Noah: It was a scene from her childhood growing up in a trailer outside of Austin, Texas.
Regina: I linked my body into the frame and stared up at the sky. I could tell by the way, the clouds move, that God was going to start crying soon.
Noah: At first, writing was a way to go back, to explore all the memories she had lost.
Regina: And I kept writing. Yeah. And then, but just this part of me, this, this horrific fear, this just, it started falling off.
Noah: In writing sessions, dull memories would come back to her. Regina called them pockets of grief, but she sometimes doubted these memories. Many were dark and dreamlike. It didn’t seem connected to anything. And Regina didn’t fully trust her memories of Jeanne either. Had this woman really loved her? And if she had loved her once, why did she disappear?
With the help of a writing coach, Regina wrote a memoir, but then her publisher needed proof of her life.
Regina: That was sobering, I don’t even own my own experience to some degree. She’s asking me to prove not just that this happened, but I need somebody to say this happened and a photo.
Noah: So Regina set out to find Jean again. She started on the phone and I would just spend time calling. Hello? Hello. I have phone bills, dude. Crazy shit.
Noah: She looked up addresses and knocked on doors and places Jean used to live and she wasn’t there.
Regina: Nobody, you know, nobody knew, you know, then they’re not going to give out the information. It wasn’t until she got a list of Jeanne Kerr’s from her friend, a reporter, that Regina picked up Jean’s trail.
Regina: She had been at a military base and Fort Campbell and Tucky and all these various military bases. Yeah. But eventually, Regina ran out of numbers to call.
Noah: In a last ditch effort, she sent a letter to an address that seemed promising. It came back returned to center.
Regina published her memoir, “Somebody, Someone” in 2003. Without corroboration, she had to change all the names in the book. She went on a book tour. And during an interview, somebody asked her, what do you want?
Regina: You have it all your son is well adjusted. Your book is fast, becoming a best seller. You’re you know, a business owner. What do you want? I said someone to tell me they’re proud of me. I’ve never had that.
Noah: Later that night, when Regina got back to her hotel, she checked her email and a message caught her eye.
Regina: I’m so proud of you, sweetie. And I’m like, are you kidding me? And I open it. And it says, hi, sweetheart. Holly got ahold of me. She said, you’re looking for me. And I just want you to know I’m not lost.
There was a telephone number from Alabama. I’m like, Oh my God.
Jeanne: Well, I was asleep and the phone rang and I answered it.
Regina: And I said, hello, may I speak to Jean? And I, oh my God.
Jeanne: It was Regina. You know, I knew it was Regina. I said, hey baby girl. You know, it was just really tingling, exciting. I’m like, Oh my God, this is real. And I wasn’t sure how to work with it. And I was afraid. I, you know, heart.
Jeanne: She didn’t know that I wanted her. So she felt abandoned. In my heart she was my daughter millions of years ago. I said I wanted to give her, what was I felt was her birthright to make it official, to have her be my daughter. She goes, I’ll call you right back.
Regina: I was like, what the hell? I’m scared. I don’t know what to do. I recognize the enormity of it.
Jeanne: Moments later, she called back and she wanted to give me a gift that she hadn’t given anyone else. She wanted to call me mommy.
Noah: Regina was going to be in New York as part of her book tour. And Jean made plans to fly in and meet her at the airport.
Regina: Finally, she lands, she calls me, sweetheart, I’m coming. I see this woman coming down the jet way.
Jeanne: There’s this beautiful, very well put together woman.
Regina: Her hair is long and gray and it’s swinging in the back of a baseball cap and I’m like, okay, that ain’t her.
Jeanne: I was wearing something that I thought was very special.
Regina: And her Capri pants, nobody wears Capri pants.
Jeanne: They were chartreuse green with little white polka dots on them.
Regina: And I see this hot mess coming towards me and I’m looking for Jean and all of a sudden I hear “sweetheart” and I’m like, hells to the no.
I can’t believe it. And she’s like “sweetie I can’t believe it,” she’s touching me. “I can’t believe it’s you look at you. You’re so grown up!”
Jeanne: You know, she was, she looked very different and I’m sure I looked very different than when, you know, we had seen each other before. So there’s a familiarity, a deep familiarity, but just a difference.
Noah: They get into a cab to go back to Regina hotel, get to the hotel room and she goes into the restroom she’s like, I’m going leave the door open. I just want to make sure you’re there when I come out.
Jeanne: We had been separated for so long and it was just like, this is a precious, precious gift, which means, oh my God, I don’t want to lose it again.
Noah: Jeanne had made Regina a gift, a photo album.
Regina: I open this book, every home I ever lived in, she had taken pictures. I didn’t even know.
Noah: There were pictures of Regina with her father and pictures of Regina sitting with Jeanne’s mother at the dinner table. It was proof of a forgotten life.
Regina: There’s me holding a Tony, the tiger. I close it. Because I can’t, ‘cause that girl had to die in order for that woman to be sitting there. Right then.
Noah: Regina canceled the rest of her book tour to spend time with Jeanne. And after so much time apart, the two were inseparable.
Regina: We were tracking like mother and newborn in a way.
Jeanne: If she was out of my sight or if I was out of her sight it was like, kind of like a little panic. Oh my God. I wanted to do everything I could to be with Regina to do anything I could for her.
Noah: More than 25 years after they were separated, when Regina was 41 years old, she and Jean stood together in front of a judge and the Contra Costa County courthouse. It was the same exact courtroom where a judge had denied the adoption in the first place.
What did that feel like that day in court?
Regina: Whew. Other worldly, but beautiful. You raise your hand and you swear, you solemnly swear to love and abide and cherish and all those beautiful things. Afterwards Jean and I took a walk on the beach in San Francisco. There was this song that I used to love, and I sang a little bit of that for her. And basically… Well, it’s basically, I want to thank you for your generosity and so on. I just want to thank you. And I said that to her and we cried.
Noah: Regina had dreamt of having a family, her whole life. She dreamt of warm meals around the dinner table, of safety and comfy beds. She dreamt of the uncomplicated version. The Norman Rockwell painting.
Regina: To wish for something and wish and wish and wish and wish. And to have that very thing actually happen, that doesn’t land as easily as you think it will.
Noah: In the fairytale version, Regina is accepted into the family immediately, but when she first arrived in Alabama to meet everyone, Regina could tell it wasn’t going to be that simple.
Regina: Her husband went into straight up sibling rivalry with me. She gave me a lot of her attention and he was not comfortable with that in any way, shape or form.
Jeanne: It really impacted him. There was no way to make up time that I wanted to do anything and everything with her or for her.
Noah: Jeanne says that getting Regina back changed everything. For a while, she felt like she was in shock.
Jeanne: This reunification, reconfigured every molecule in my body. So I wasn’t the same person that he married.
Noah: Instead of being taken in by the family, Regina played the role of peacemaker.
Regina: How can we become friends, family? What, what what’s possible here. But in reality, it was really hard.
Noah: A few years after Regina was adopted into the family, Jeanne and her husband filed for divorce.
I mean, I hate to ask, but do you think this new relationship in some way contributed to the dissolution of your marriage?
Jeanne: It was a factor in it. Yeah.
Noah: Despite the rocky start, most of Jean’s family has warmed up to Regina. They get together around the holidays. And although there’s still some awkwardness and tension, there are Norman Rockwell moments too.
Regina: Christmas day, we go to aunt Joan’s and we have this tradition of having grapefruit with sugar on the top. We all kind of look at each other each other and go, thank God. It’s not fruit cake. And then we open gifts. And it’s that, that feeling.
Noah: It’s that Christmas you never had…
Regina: It is that Christmas I never had.
Noah: Regina had finally found her family, but in her relationship with Jean, she had to establish some ground rules.
Regina: You are my mom. I see you as that. But there are boundaries that… you can’t really tell me to reconsider my cleavage. This is my body. This is, this is no one’s ever told me that.
Noah: Is that something she said to you?
Regina: Oh, are you kidding me? Yeah.
Jeanne: I feel it would be remiss of me not to share, like if her dress would be plunging, you know, I have mentioned
Regina: Sweetheart, are you sure that is the image you would like to project? It’s like girl. You know, and then me, you know, how much do I want to perform the daughter? And then performing authentic autonomy. Those lines can bleed a little bit.
Noah: If this sounds a little bit like a mother and teenage daughter relationship, that’s because it was kind of like that. When they first reunited, Regina says that it was like living a childhood, she had never gotten to live.
Regina: I let my guard down and I let Jeanne in and it was sweet and fun to allow her to parent me, if you will.
But after a while, Regina grew up and her relationship with Jean and she wanted to strike out on her own.
Regina: Once I left that the closeness of our relationship, that was the ultimate individuation, not so unlike a 20 year old or 25 year old leaving their parents’ home.
Noah: Regina went back and finished college and then grad school. At both graduations, Jeanne was there in the audience with tears in her eyes. It’s always bittersweet to see your child grow up and become their own person. This was no different. Just a little bit late.
Jeanne: How can you put so many feelings into just a few words? I mean, I mean, you could fill books. She is her own unique self. She may have taken seeds from things that she saw me do or things that we did together, but she is her own unique person. And I’m very fortunate to be her mother and to share this life with her,
Regina: We go to Disney World. I have a big speaking event and Orlando, Florida, and I set it up that my mom would come along. We’re at Disney world and I kind of have a temper tantrum. I’m not kidding because I realized I want princess dresses, like all the little girls and I was a full blown adult. She literally took me into the store and helped me try on princess dresses. Because they have them for big girls. To let me have that experience and to, and to see that and to let that just be like, I wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t pathologized. I think it was at that moment that I realized what’s done is done. The best we can do is create memories from this point and allow those memories to bind us, to be the mortar that takes us through the rest of this relationship. The greatest need that I believe we all have is to be seen. Just having that witness has been everything for me.
Noah: Regina Louise is an author and speaker who lives in Walnut Creek, California, not far from her mother, Jean Kerr. She’s written two memoirs, “Somebody, Someone,” and “Someone Has Led This Child to Believe.” Her essay for Narratively, “I was adopted when I was 41,” was edited by Lily Dancyger. The story was produced by Ryan Sweikert with help from Emily Rostek and me Noah Rosenberg.
Ryan handled the mix and sound design, fact-checking by Rob Williams and our beautiful episode art is by Zoe van Dijk. Additional support from Ula Kulpa, my Narratively co-founder Brendan Spiegel, Rachel Ishikawa, Jeremy Dalmas and Leesa Charlotte. Special thanks to the NYU School of Journalism and the Made In New York Media Center.
This is the first episode of Believable and we really hope you enjoyed it. The show has been a labor of love for us, and we’re just getting started. Support and word of mouth are huge. Tell your friends about us and leave us a comment on iTunes.