One inexplicable act by Paula Shaffer’s mother left an indelible scar on her life.
In her memoir The Absent Mother, Paula Shaffer is pictured with her older brother Bobby, her hero: two Black children, holding hands and smiling. But there were few smiles after she and Bobby were abandoned by their mother. Their father, serving in the navy, placed them in foster care, where they drifted until being placed with the Browns. Then, their real nightmare began. Mr. Brown was a kind, benign figure but Mrs. Brown was a gorgon. The children were subjected to brutal beatings, neglect, verbal abuse, and sexual molestation. Shaffer graphically describes the abuse, which is appalling and repugnant. While reading, I kept wondering who might have helped the children. Teachers, neighbors, and both parents failed them. Separated from her brother, disowned by her father, Shaffer saw her father remarry and have two new children, a painful reminder that she was not wanted.
Pain and suffering marked Shaffer’s childhood, yet she survived. Bobby gone, she clung to LouLou, her foster sister and friend, and grappled with a myriad of emotions toward Mrs. Brown, the only mother figure she knew. Once liberated from the dysfunction of her foster home, she experienced bad relationships and substance abuse. However, she didn’t let her horrific childhood define her. She found a solid relationship with her husband and they adopted a son. She was also reunited with her brother, who battled his own demons.
Shaffer eventually tracked down her grandfather’s second wife, Ernestine, who embraced her without question. Shaffer credits her with being the pivotal point in her life as “she told me she loved me. That she wanted me in her life. I was wanted. Finally.”
Written in a mix of prose and poetry, The Absent Mother is a wrenching read about one little girl whom the foster system failed–miserably. It is a testament to Shaffer’s strength and tenacity that although she endured a tormented childhood in the foster care system, she created her own stable life. Many of her emotional wounds began to heal when she found Ernestine and heard a few simple words of love and acceptance. Writing her memoir has also been therapeutic. Shaffer’s story is harrowing and harsh, but one that definitely needed to be told.