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Not Annie the Musical

"Not Annie the Musical" Continued...

Issue: "American bounty," Nov. 30, 2013

Abbie wrote in her diary, “I hate my mom. I hate my family.” She said she felt as if Jennie and Mike were her real parents because she had lived with them her whole life, “but I felt different.” Every day Jennie found herself crying in her bedroom closet. Mike said Jennie grew “jaded,” anticipating a battle from the moment she woke up.

For a while Mike thought Jennie was the one who needed therapy, calling the conflicts “normal mother-daughter stuff.” Jennie started recording meltdowns with her iPhone, holding it at her side so Abbie wouldn’t notice, and Mike agreed that something was wrong. The Landreths put Abbie in a succession of education environments, public and private schools, and took her to therapists, counselors, and doctors. They drove a car with 280,000 miles on it as the expenses piled up because insurance didn’t cover her treatments. Jennie worried that Abbie would soon end up in juvenile detention.

“I don’t know if our marriage would have survived and I don’t know if our family would have stayed together if we hadn’t gotten help,” said Jennie.

Under new parenting techniques the Landreths learned at a post-adoptive camp last year, Abbie is a different girl. She jokes with her brothers. Mike showed me a video on his phone: He’s picking up Jennie around the waist, and then turns her upside down while Jennie laughingly protests. All the kids are cracking up on their parents’ bed. “A family moment that was not miserable!” he said. Abbie doesn’t wear hoods when she is out anymore. She orders her own tuna sandwich, her favorite, at Subway. She showed me her room, which her mom decorated as a surprise for her with her favorite things: pink and zebra stripes. A One Direction poster hung on the wall, and she has diaries lined up on her desk. She now has a tutor, which seems to be the best form of education for her, and she is working on tap dancing. She still has friction with her mom, but nothing like before.

“Still I sometimes complain about doing the dishes,” Abbie said. “I don’t like doing the kitchen, but I’m the best at it, so it’s a curse.”

DEALING WITH TRAUMA: Karyn Purvis.
Taylor Hill/Getty Images
DEALING WITH TRAUMA: Karyn Purvis.
A DIFFERENT GIRL: Jennie and Abbie and her pet rat Buttercup in her bedroom.
Billy Weeks/Genesis
A DIFFERENT GIRL: Jennie and Abbie and her pet rat Buttercup in her bedroom.
SEEKING SOLUTIONS: The Stowells with Yu Hsuan (far left), two of their other children, and two friends, in China.
Handout photo
SEEKING SOLUTIONS: The Stowells with Yu Hsuan (far left), two of their other children, and two friends, in China.

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Not far from the Landreths in Tennessee, Tim and Ellen Stowell, both 60, are dealing with similar, but more extreme, problems. They never had children, and over the last few years have adopted four children from China and Taiwan. The Stowells’ children came to their family grown, ages 8 to 12. Ellen has worked for decades in special education, so she did not approach adoption naively. 

“I never expected one of these kids to come running into my arms the moment I met them,” she said.

But her training didn’t prepare her for the exhausting battle with her youngest, Yu Hsuan. The Stowells adopted Yu Hsuan at age 8. He had lived with the same foster family in China for seven years, but Ellen recalls that he “didn’t shed a tear” when she and Tim picked him up. She now sees that as one symptom of trauma. 

Three years later, the Stowells are still desperately seeking solutions to reach an unreachable boy. Yu Hsuan, now 11, hits his mom, which has become more serious as he’s grown older and stronger. He mumbles or whispers so Ellen has to ask many times what he’s saying, which she sees as a tool for control. I visited their home while he was at school, and Ellen showed me his room. He had punched holes in the walls, ripped the blinds off the window, and slammed his closet door off its hinges. The clearest sign of trauma from his childhood: He doesn’t sleep in his bed. He gathers all the blankets from around the house, covers the bed, and then he climbs underneath the bed to sleep on the floor. The bed is the only remaining furniture in the room because he has destroyed everything else.

Yu Hsuan is obedient at school; in his school photo he is smiling and wearing an American flag shirt. Children with post-adoption issues can be well-behaved toward people outside their family. But during this past summer, without the structure of school, he had meltdowns. At one point Ellen told him if he hit her one more time, she would call the police; he did and she did. Ellen wanted the police to “read him the riot act,” she said, to impress on him the significance of his violence. But when the police officers came, they didn’t know what to do, and she sent them away.

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