The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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You Can’t Keep Her Down
A review of movie star Rosie Perez’s memoir
Victor Tanis-Stoll

In her 2013 memoir Handbook for an Unpredictable Life: How I Survived Sister Renata and My Crazy Mother and Still Came out Smiling (With Great Hair), Rosie Perez lets it all out in what feels like a conversation with the reader.

The author is well known as a choreographer, actress, and activist for multiple causes. She got her start on the Soul Train TV show as one of the featured dancers. From there, she found success working with musicians Bobby Brown and LL Cool J, and became the choreographer for the Fly Girls, the dancers on the hit TV show In Living Color. She starred in the movies Do the Right Thing, White Men Can’t Jump, and Fearless, for which she earned an Oscar nomination, and in the HBO show Criminal Justice.

At first glance, Perez’s life seems normal—better than normal. But her childhood wasn’t easy. For the first time, she shares her difficult past in this memoir.

Perez says her mother, Lydia, was mentally ill. She left Rosie with her Tia Ana (Rosie’s father’s sister) when she was an infant. As a very young child, Rosie was surrounded by a family who cared for her. Tia Ana’s daughters, Titi, Millie, and Cookie, all treated baby Rosie as if she was their sister, rather than their cousin. Rosie believed that Tia Ana was her mother until she was 3.

That was when Lydia, the mother she thought was an aunt, took her back from her Tia Ana, only to place her in a Catholic home for girls. Much of the book deals with Perez’s experiences in group homes. Perez recounts the way she felt her first day at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Home for Children in Peekskill, New York.

“I started to get scared. I was fidgeting, looking around at this unfamiliar place…and just sat there, numb, shocked, eyes and nose swollen from crying. I couldn’t even suck my thumb.” Then the nuns told her that her mother was actually her aunt.

I Could Relate

I went into care very young and was then adopted by my foster parents. Reading the book made me remember how I felt on my way to my first foster home. The van was dark and cold and it was packed with me and my other siblings. I was nervous and on high alert the whole journey. I felt weak in the knees.

To take a child away from his or her parents at a young age causes emotional trauma. Furthermore, being thrown into the foster care system or a group home can add on to the hurt feelings a child feels and as a result, it can be hard to talk about the experience. Perez didn’t tell her story until she was in her 50s and both her birth parents were dead.

I can relate to that reluctance. Sometimes I don’t like letting others know that I was a foster child or that I was adopted because it makes me feel different. I feel like if I let this information flow freely, it supplies people with the ammunition to judge me.

But on the flip side, telling your story can help you make peace with a complicated past and heal. “The point is to get it out, to validate my feelings…and to share my feelings and move on,” Perez writes in the preface to her book.

At age 3 or 4, Rosie wet her bed one night and a nun punished her with a spanking—the first time Rosie was hit. After 6-year-old Rosie fell out of a moving car near the Home and was
seriously hurt, she was prescribed painkillers to help her sleep at night. But she always had to beg the head nun, Sister Renata, for her pain medication.

One night, Sister Renata refused to give her the pill, and Rosie yelled, “I need a pill!” Sister Renata slapped her across the face several times and eventually Rosie smacked the nun back. Sister Renata forcibly carried Rosie to her bed and beat her across her bottom with a paddle.

After several days of not speaking to anyone (“a silent war”), Rosie was sent to the home’s psychiatrist. Rosie didn’t tell the doctor about the physical abuse because she was afraid she’d be sent to the mental hospital and drugged. She had seen a girl leave the hospital “like a zombie,” and it scared the hell out of her.

image by Crown Archetype

Underlying Blah

When Rosie was in her early teens, Lydia allowed her to leave the Home to live with Tia Ana, but with one condition—she would have to visit her mother a few times a month. Lydia caused Rosie pain for much of her life.

As a child, Perez writes, “I was always walking on eggshells, waiting for the insanity to hit.” Perez says her mother knew how to “act normal,” “something that many mentally ill people can do, despite what you see in the movies.”

On one occasion, Lydia smacked Rosie in the face after she talked back to her. After Rosie screamed, “I f-cking hate you”, Lydia began punching her and Rosie ran away with a bloody nose and emotional scars. She fell into a depression soon after.

Rosie’s experiences with the doctor at the Home “closed her off to [therapy],” which is true of a lot of kids in foster care. Not until 1997 did she go to see Dr. Susan Grand, telling her, “everyone thinks I should give it a shot, so I’m here, but I really don’t need it.” After breaking down in tears during the session, she agreed to go on with therapy.

Dr. Grand recommended Perez see a psychiatrist for medication, and the doctor diagnosed her with mild depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Getting the diagnoses gave her some control over the healing process.

Because Perez was usually in a good mood, she writes, the people who knew and loved her had a tough time understanding her condition. She writes that her good moods were “100 percent authentic. It’s just that there was this underlying feeling of blah, or sadness.”

I can attest to this. Depression doesn’t have to be at the forefront of a sufferer’s mind. It can be a background feeling that dulls and darkens one’s reality and perception of the world. But depression doesn’t have to last forever, and Rosie Perez is an inspiring example of this. She said, “I refused to let this [depression] hold me down…. I wanted to fully enjoy the wonderful life I worked so hard to obtain.” That’s the voice of a fighter.

The PTSD didn’t make things any easier—“all the night terrors, the paranoia, the flashes and thoughts of possible danger, the explosions of anger” were a huge obstacle, she writes. But after a couple of years of therapy and with the use of medication, her depression and PTSD diminished.

Therapy helped Perez heal, and so did forgiving her family. Perez grew closer to the father she never quite knew in her teen years and she forgave her mentally ill mother, visiting her as she died of AIDS. Her father acknowledged that Lydia wasn’t the best mother.

Perez wanted to tell him “about the emotional and physical abuse endured from Lydia.” But she didn’t because she wanted to spend that “precious time” with him holding his hand while she listened to his stories about his adventures.

Get Back Up

When she was a teen, Perez knew she wanted to make something of herself and stayed on her path, despite all the hardships. She used her tap dancing lessons at the Home and her job as manager of a cheerleading squad in high school along with watching moves in clubs to become a great choreographer. Hours of practice and absorbing everything around her—she was a voracious reader—put Perez on the path to stardom.

She was smart about her acting career too. She didn’t want to settle for roles where she would “only be playing unintelligible, downtrodden, and humiliating stereotypes.” By doing this—and holding out for an agent who would fight to get her good roles—she took control of her acting career.

Life will knock you down, and you have two choices. You can lie there, defeated and powerless, or you can get back up on your feet. I’ve heard a variation of this before, but this book showed someone I could relate to doing it. Perez inspires me to fight on and to reach out to others when the fight becomes overwhelming, because there’s no shame in that.

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