Journalist and author Roxanna Asgarian joins The Stacks to talk about her new nonfiction book, We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America. We find out how Roxanna pushed back against true crime culture in writing about the 2018 Hart family tragedy. We also discuss how birth families are treated versus adoptive parents, how race and class factor into American child welfare and the financial implications of the system.
The Stacks Book Club selection for May is This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris. We will discuss the book on May 31st with Nicole Chung.
*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.
Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we are joined by Roxanna Asgarian. She’s a journalist, writer for The Texas Tribune and author of the new book We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death and Child Removal in America. This book is so fantastic. It is one of the best things I have read this year. Easily. It’s a shocking and harrowing account of the 2018 Hart family murder-suicide that claimed the lives of six black children at the hands of their white adoptive mothers. The book is riveting. It’s an exquisite and an indictment on our foster care system. And today Roxanna and I talk about the true crime genre, the flaws in the child welfare system, the ways we treat birth families and so much more. Remember, our main book club pick is This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics and Facing the Unknown by Taylor Harris. We will discuss the book on May 31st with Nicole Chung. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on each episode of The Stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. And if you love The Stacks, and you want more of it, like our incredible community on Discord, our bonus episodes, our monthly meetups to discuss our book club picks and more, join the stacks pack on Patreon. It’s just $5 a month and you get all of that plus you get to know that you’re part of making this book podcast possible. And now we’re offering a free Patreon membership. So a $5 feels like too much you can join the stacks pack and stay connected for free head to patreon.com/the stacks and join now a shout out to our newest members of the stacks pack. Brandy Wheeler, Caitlin Strauss, Mary Phillips, Callie shanafelt long and Ashley Zullo. Thank you all so much. And thank you to the entire stacks pack. I simply love you all. And now it’s time for my conversation with Roxanna Asgarian.
Alright, everybody, I am so excited. You know if you listen to the show, this has happened a few times in the past where I pick up a book just because maybe someone recommended it or I saw it or it looked interesting. And I loved the book so much that I completely change my publishing schedule for the podcast because I’m like, I have to have this author on the podcast. The book is too good. We have to talk about it. So today is one of those days I’m joined by Roxana as Garyun, who is the author of We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death and Child Removal in America. Roxanna, welcome to The Stacks.
Roxanna Asgarian 2:31
Thank you for having me.
Traci Thomas 2:33
I’m so excited to talk to you. One of the other books that I rearranged everything to have the author on the show was Invisible Child by Andrea Elliot, who you just talked to. So it’s sort of- the books are sort of in conversation. But before we talk about Andrea, which we won’t really, but I love her. Well, you tell folks who don’t know anything about this book in about 30 seconds or so what We Were Once a Family is about?
Roxanna Asgarian 2:58
Sure. So back in 2018, there was a crash off the Pacific Coast Highway, it was two white women and their five black adoptive children. It was a murder suicide. And the book is a much deeper look into that story. And it also focuses on the birth families and on the child welfare system.
Traci Thomas 3:24
Yeah, so that’s what the books about for people who are sitting at home and are like, this sort of sounds familiar. There’s a few ways you might know the story. You might remember it when it happened in the news like I do. You might have heard a podcast a few years ago about the this story. What was it called matters of the heart or something? Broken Hearts, broken hearts, I knew it had heart in it. You might have heard of this story. Because you might remember a picture of a black child hugging a police officer that went viral where the child is sort of crying. It’s a white officer or a black child. Or you might watch Atlanta and know that they did an episode that was sort of about this. So if this is sort of sounding familiar to you, it’s all this same story. Every time I tell people about the book, they’re like, is that the Atlanta thing? I’m like, Yeah, but it’s like the the real the real one. Okay, so this is I feel to me, the most obvious question is, why did you want to tell this story? And who did you feel like had been left out?
Roxanna Asgarian 4:24
So I got the story, initially as a breaking news assignment. And so I was doing I was a freelancer in Houston at the time. And so it was just very obvious to me, like immediately upon meeting the first birth family, which lived in Houston, that that they were grieving, not just the like horrific tragedy of the murder, but they were grieving the removal of their kids from a decade prior. And as a story like you mentioned that you It was all over the place in various ways. And as that, as that narrative took off, I felt like the birth families and their experiences in the child welfare system, were totally absent from most of this stuff. And also just, it bothered me that the child welfare system was and remained sort of unaccountable for any of this, even though I feel like they directed almost every single, you know, major thing that happened in this story, and it led it to such a brutal, awful outcome that you would think there might be an investigation or some kind of public comment. But there was none of that. And that really bothered me.
Traci Thomas 5:44
Is that something that the child welfare system does? Do they publicly comment or apologize?
Roxanna Asgarian 5:51
I feel like no,
Traci Thomas 5:53
that was my instinct, when you said that. I was like, I’ve never heard of such a thing. Yeah. But
Roxanna Asgarian 5:57
you know, like Oregon, they decided to open up the records of the investigation, for instance, but Texas didn’t do anything like that. They wouldn’t even release the names of the birth families to the investigators who right, were looking into the crash. So it was like an absolute stonewalling. And also just a lack a complete lack of accountability from even from the media like, attempting to, to get that, you know, yeah.
Traci Thomas 6:25
So you do the reporting. You’re writing some stories on it. You’re doing some investigative journalism, my favorite kind of journalism? When did you decide you know what, this is a book? Like, why, why stick with it? Why go deeper? Why go bigger?
Roxanna Asgarian 6:40
The main reason was, I had written three stories. So I wrote one story about each birth family. And then I wrote a story about three of the kids older brother, Dante. And when I was finished with those, I didn’t feel finished with the story, it felt like usually, when you finish a big project, it has a certain like, Ha, okay, you know, yeah, yeah, I didn’t feel that way. I felt really bad actually. And which was confusing. And I realized that, you know, in my mind, they really are, these three stories were all part of one larger story. And I felt that people don’t like encountered journalism in that way. So I didn’t think that people were necessarily going to read all three stories. I see. And I felt, again, let the narrative was so that it was just such a big story. And I felt that the story that was out there was missing so many of these important pieces, that I felt like it needed to be this like cohesive project in order to hopefully shift the narrative of the case.
Traci Thomas 7:50
Did you feel like there was instant interest in this book? And I asked that question, because I am a person who loves to read sort of like heavy nonfiction like this book is so in my wheelhouse that a friend of mine, friend of mine texted me and was like, you read this, right? And I was like, No, not yet. And she’s like, Okay, well, I read like 20 pages, and was like, this is a Tracy book. So to me a story about racism, murder, you know, abuse, trauma, all of that is like, appealing to me. But I know for so many people, even as I tell them about this book, they’re like, is it going to be too hard for me to read? And so I’m wondering, as you were trying to put it together in a book, did you feel like publishing or the world or like that people were interested in it? Because I think what you’ve made is, and I don’t know if this is appropriate or not, but I think it’s somehow like, much easier to digest than what I would assume a book about all of this would be. And I think that to me, that’s a compliment to you. But I know that for some people, it might not be but it certainly is, to me like that you were able to take this really heavy, dark, devastating stories, stories and tell a book that is incredibly readable and moves quickly and feels like people can come at it and understand it and not feel completely overwhelmed by it. But I’m wondering when you were first taking it out? If if publishing the publishers were like, this feels dark?
Roxanna Asgarian 9:13
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think that, um, well, I think it was like a major goal in of mine when I was working on this to make it readable, and just to pace it so that people could get through it because I knew that the material was so heavy and intense. And I also read a bunch of nonfiction in it as I was, like prepping for the proposal. And it felt like some of the books that were very serious, were very good, but they weren’t that readable, because I think there’s a ton of people who are interested in like, very, very awful things, right, which is the whole sort of true crime industry. So but I think that those people are able to somehow like de content analyze it to a point where it feels like it’s a made up story. That’s how I find that people come at True Crime, to enjoy it. You know, I think when I took the book out, I definitely experienced some people wanting that true crime version. And the proposal I went, like, I tried really hard to make it very, very clear that that’s not what I was doing. And I still took a meeting with an editor who like, clearly wanted that. So I think, you know, the publisher, that where I landed, I feel like they got it from the beginning. And, you know, my major goal, again, was just like to make it. I wanted to take the things that I feel like, are useful about true crime, which is like, the storytelling aspects of it. And I wanted all of this sort of systemic critique and context to feel like it was wedded to the story versus like, you know, big divergence, and here’s 1020 pages about, you know, whatever, because I feel like that that’s the part where you lose people.
Traci Thomas 11:14
Yeah, totally, totally. I mean, it’s like such a short book, considering all that’s in there. I think, you know, obviously, to talk to you about this book, a thing that we must talk about is the child welfare system, or the family separation system. I don’t know how you want to classify it. But I guess my first question is, why do you feel like birth families are left out of this story? I think, you know, so often we hear about the children or child, not this particular story, but the story of adoption and foster care in general. We hear so much about the children. And we hear so much about the adoptive or foster families. But we really don’t hear a lot about the birth families even in I don’t know, sick, quote unquote, successful family separations, is that a thing as successful when I don’t know the words escape me a little-
Roxanna Asgarian 12:08
Yeah, yeah, no, I think that, um, there’s just a huge stigma. And I think that, like the media contributes to that stigma by not really reporting on on family separations, especially needless family separations, which there are quite a lot of those right. So we hear only the examples of like, horrific abuse that and sometimes in murder, right, we hear about the child welfare system in that context. So people have an idea that the child welfare system is overburdened and underfunded, like we hear that all the time. Right. And I think that’s partly because we only, like we hear so much about those stories that they failed to protect kids. And the and the heart story is that is a story of that, too, right? They fail to protect those kids. But I think what, bringing in the birth families to that story, you can see the disparity in the treatment. And you can see the like, radically different approach, right, like the birth families experienced the system as exclusively punitive. Right. And they were not given second chances. You know, they weren’t. It was, it was as if the courts did not consider their bonds to be meaningful in a way that we would consider bonds between parents and children to be meaningful, I think, I think that’s a, that’s just a human impulse to recognize that, right. But we, as a society tend to not recognize birth mother’s birth parents bond with their children as meaningful, because we assume that in order for the court to have severed that bond, they must have been abusive. And we see time and again, that that’s not the case. But I think it’s just in this particular story, it was so clear that basically, every official at every point where they had contact with the birth family assumed that they didn’t care and or just completely forgot about them.
Traci Thomas 14:19
Right. I mean, I said we weren’t going to talk about Andre Elliot, but I think after having read invisible child, a book that we’ve done on the show, reading your book, there’s so these two books are so in conversation with each other because with invisible child, we’re seeing Dasani and her family, and we’re seeing the ways that these little things get missed and then get blamed on the birth parents. And then in this story, we’re seeing what happened when the kids get taken away and like we see what happens when they end up in the hands of other parents and I don’t know if you in your research know when the shift happened around foster or adoptive parents, but when I was a kid, I feel like foster parents were were kind of More branded in the media as like bad people are like, yucky people who were out for money or whatever. Like I think about Annie and I think about all of her and like, to me, those characters are always portrayed as like, monsters who also are abusive to children. But I do feel like in recent years, there’s been a real like, rebrand on fostering to adopt, or foster parents and adoption. So I’m wondering if you know, when that sort of public shifts happened?
Roxanna Asgarian 15:30
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I think that, um, I mean, I think there’s been a huge push in like Christian communities to become foster parents and to adopt children from foster care. And I think that might have had something to do with that push. It was, it’s been sort of promoted in those communities as like, a way to honor you know, your, your belief system, by adding people to your home, and then you know, really like making Christians out of them. So, and there’s a lot of issues, honestly, with that, too. But I think that that might have it like influence sort of the public perception, like back a couple minutes ago, you mentioned that, like, we hear a lot about the kids. And we hear a lot about the adoptive parents. But we often don’t hear about birth parents, and I think we hear about the kids but only through the adoptive parents like as a major issue. Oh, my gosh, yes. And this was a major thing in the hearts right case, as well, because Jennifer had this big social media presence. And she was doing what so many adoptive parents do, which was talk about her adoption journey. Which really centers the adoptive parent in their like quest to adopt a kid and is less really about the kids experience. And when you do see the kids experience, it’s sort of mediated through the lens of the adoptive parent. And, you know, when I was, when I was working on this book, I was following a lot of adoptees on Twitter, and learning a lot about the ways that they’ve felt silenced. And the way that their experiences can be really complex, and even really positive adoption. Stories can be very complex for the kids. And many folks don’t have positive adoption stories. And it’s just like, those are another part, that’s another part of it that’s really made invisible. in service of this, I think, like, because who has the most power in that triad, it’s the adoptive parent, right? Because they, they almost always have class privilege over the birth parent. And because they are the grown up, kids don’t have that much power, right. And say, like, in my, like, the lens that I see my work is trying to interrogate the power structures behind things like because it feels like we, we often just tell the stories of the most powerful as if it’s a neutral narrative, and it’s not neutral. So.
Traci Thomas 18:20
And in this story, when we talk about the heart women, the two mothers or adoptive mothers, there’s also a racial dynamic, but it’s much more complicated than I think it seems on the face for people who maybe remember the story from the news, which is that three of the children that were adopted, were half black and half white. And so their mother was a white woman. And I think a lot of the times when I think about like transracial adoption, especially white Americans adopting black American children, there is this thing that like, of course, these white women will be referred to because they’re white, versus like a black birth parent. And in this case, there was there was a black birth mother, and there was also a white birth mother. And and I guess the question sort of is, like, how much does race play into this? And, and I know, obviously, a lot of it has class dynamic, but there isn’t very forward facing racial dynamic to this story. And I’m curious sort of how you unpack that and thought about it.
Roxanna Asgarian 19:23
Yeah, I think there’s definitely a I mean, I think part of what made this story, a good example of the ways that the child welfare system fails is because the racism was very blatant. Because we think about racism in child welfare. We think about the like, disproportionality of black kids and families involved in child welfare as kind of this like macro numbers thing, right. And we talk about, which I think sort of obscures the Individual aspect of it. And I think this case shows like very, very obvious examples of racial bias like, in multiple ways that I do think that Tammy story. Tammy is the birth mom of Marcus and Hannah and Abigail, and she’s a white woman. I really appreciated the fact that the the opportunity to talk about both birth families because they experienced different types of hostility, right. So, Sherry Davis, she struggled with drugs, she’s not black birth mother. Yeah, she’s the black birth mother, she struggled with drugs. And that was her major issue. Tammy experienced childhood abuse herself, and she struggled with mental illness. And that was, and homelessness, housing instability on and off while she was parenting. So I think I think Tamizh experience was definitely indicative that that there’s not that there’s more than just racism going on. Right. But I think that like every parent that’s involved with CPS is always already marginalized in some way. Whether it be disability, mental illness, immigration status, right. LGBT parents are, you know, often targeted in the in the child welfare system. And so Tammy, I think, you know, what, what it showed me was that there were so many ways that these parents were struggling and did need support. But like, the tool that we have in the child welfare system is to punish, that’s all the tools that we have, and even the sort of service plans, those are done like coercively, and under the threat of your kids being removed, so parents don’t experience that as supportive.
Traci Thomas 21:55
Right? Okay, we’re gonna take a quick break, and then I want to talk about the parents more. Okay, we’re back. And I want to talk about sort of this idea of like support, because a thing, you know, that stands out to me, the more I learned about foster care, and the financials around it is that if you are a family member who takes a child and fosters a child from your own family, you know, you’re given less money than a stranger. And if you’re a parent who is struggling with, let’s say, homelessness, you’re not given any money to help take care of your children. But if someone else takes your kid, they are given money. And I’m just like, This doesn’t make sense to me. And it’s very upsetting to me. I think like, the more that I learned about this system, the more that I learned about, you know, the carceral system in general, prison, abolition, all of that stuff, so much of it seems tied to this, like financial aspect and the ways that we are or are not willing to give support to certain people. And so, you know, are there places that are trying to give parents who are in CPS like that foster care allotment for their own children? Like, have they been testing that? Does it work? Do we know anything?
Roxanna Asgarian 23:22
Yeah, all I know, well, in part of what’s difficult about the child welfare system, is that it really is a patchwork system that is run differently in different states and counties, even around the country. So it’s really hard to like make a totally sweeping statement unless you somehow were able to have data on every single system. And that’s another issue, because we know that the data is really patchy.
Traci Thomas 23:50
Roxanna Asgarian 23:52
But I think you know, in Texas, it is true that kinship families receive less than half of what foster parents receive, to take care of kids. And that’s it kind of, to me, it puts the lie to the you know, there’s a federally mandated push that it’s required that the child welfare system look for family members before they look for non family members. And that’s because all the data shows that kids do best if they stay with their families.
Traci Thomas 24:25
Right, of course, makes so much sense.
Roxanna Asgarian 24:29
Yeah, but then you see where the money goes. And that can show you what the actual priorities are. Because I think it’s very true that birth families, like stable members of children’s families that are willing and able to take kids have a very difficult time getting custody keeping their children it becomes it’s the the hurdles placed in that in their way are very high and one of those is money, right because Like in the Davis family’s case, there was an aunt who took the kids in, she had four more kids in her home, which is a huge, you know, jump a lot of kitten. And one of them was in diapers. And they several, you know, were in daycare, it was a, it was a situation where her costs just skyrocketed and her at back at that time, there wasn’t even a monthly payment for kids. For kinship families, she got like a one time payment that didn’t even cover like the basic furniture, like the beds that the kids. And so, you know, we can say and we do say that we make a preference for families and that we try, but it’s very clear that there’s a big difference between what we say we’re doing and what’s actually happening.
Traci Thomas 25:49
And why do you think that it’s that way?
Roxanna Asgarian 25:55
I think that the I mean, I looked into the history of the child welfare system. And that was pretty radicalizing, for me, when to realize that this system is really always set up to police, families that fell outside of the quote unquote, norm. And the norm has always been like a white middle class family. And so I think the issue with providing support to the families who need it, is that we have a disdain for poor people, we have a disdain for families that are on that are, you know, outside of that what we consider the norm. And I think it’s very true today that we consider the norm to be white middle class families. And I’ll say, though, that white middle class families are struggling right now in America, right? They’re struggling with issues of child care, with housing costs, with stagnant wages, all that stuff, right? Like they’re struggling. And so when you put people who are in poverty, who are experiencing racism, who are dealing with mental illness, like their struggles are pretty understandable, considering what you know, what’s going on in our society?
Traci Thomas 27:16
Yeah. Okay, I want to talk a little bit about the heart women, because I think like, a thing that I went into your book thinking was like, I don’t want to have to deal with these women too much. Like, I’m sort of over them. And you really don’t spend that much time on them, which I really appreciate. Thank you. But obviously, there are huge players in this story, like this story doesn’t happen without them, right. And so just for a little background for people, it’s a couple to women there in the Midwest, they end up going to Oregon with the children once they get both sets of siblings. And there are some reports before they ever get the six children. They have one daughter that they’ve Foster, but they don’t fully adopt, I believe, and they there’s some abuse towards her. She’s not happy with what happened to her there, they sort of kick her out once they realize they’re gonna get these other children. And eventually there’s reports of abuse from from the to heart, women to the six children. There is a time where one of the children is sneaking out to the neighbor’s house in Oregon asking for food to ring back to their siblings. There has been some reports and some observations in their schools from their teachers, and nothing is done. There are some welfare checks that one that does happen eventually. And a few that don’t happen. There’s like some attempts. But there is not this overwhelming. Like we must see what’s going on. We must bum rush these people and figure out what’s happening. Is that common is that what you have found in your research is happening once kids are placed in adoptive homes, like how much are we following up with these kids? And I know, you know, some of it is complicated, as you mentioned by where kids are adopted from where to where because every state and county and everything is different. And Texas has different rules and feelings than Minnesota than Oregon and California, whatever. But is this generally something that you see a lot of?
Roxanna Asgarian 29:26
Yes, this is generally a problem in post adoptive homes. And I, I’ve heard examples of this happening all over the place. There are there’s like a sizable percentage of adoptions that are considered failed adoptions, which means that the kids don’t live with their adoptive parents anymore. So sometimes the adoptive parents will give them back to the child welfare agency. Other times the kids just Move out, or run away. In New York, I know when of a good source of mine was tracking how often failed adoptions happen in New York and the adoptive parents continue to receive the subsidy for caring for the kids, even years after the kids don’t live with him anymore, which is just another example of the fact that we do have money for certain types of people. Right. Um, and again, you know, the data here is part of the issue. Because we aren’t tracking we’re not we’re not catching up with adoptive families very, very well. And very often. And because of that, we don’t know what happens to the to the kids. But it’s, it is a huge issue. And I think like in the case of the hearts, it was quite alarming the number of times that officials were made aware of abuse, and of withholding food. There were three separate investigations because they lived in Minnesota, and then Oregon in the Washington, all three of those states initiated abuse investigations. Actually, before the second set of kids were adopted, they, there were allegations of abuse made against the women. It seems like Texas didn’t even hear about those before they okayed the second adoption. Right. And they were so busy fast tracking that second adoption, that they went about it. While the aunt was still appealing the decision that she went, she got denied for adoption. So I’m, like, you know, there were there were multiple instances of it, actually dire warnings. Yeah, of abuse. And that’s a hard thing to square, I think, for everyone. Because, you know, why? Why could it be so punitive on one side? And then why could very, very alarming, like five of the kids were so small? An Oregon doctor found that they weren’t even on growth charts for their ages, not even on the charts. And I think part of it might have been, you know, they had moved around a lot. And maybe people didn’t know what they would do with the kids or it’s a lot, you know, it’s six kids. And it’s hard to get sibling groups placed together. And I think maybe they didn’t know where they would put them or, you know, it’s hard to imagine, when faced with what they were looking at, that they would not take it that seriously. But we’ve actually found that there’s a lot of cases like that, right. So Right.
Traci Thomas 32:50
And it just like, I think the thing that’s so hard for me to like, think about and understand or like try to wrap my head around, is that had the birth parents done a fraction of the things that the heart, women did, those kids would have been taken away in an instant. I mean, you mentioned that with the Davis family, the mom, she was not abusive. She had a she had a drug addiction issue, but was from all accounts in your book. And I assume from your research, because it’s in your book, she was a loving mom who tried really hard to take care of her children but had her own demons. And I think like, one of the things that I guess I didn’t understand, I believed that the sort of propaganda of the media and the in the imaging and the branding of adoption is that a lot of the times the infractions of the birth families have nothing to do with the abuse of children in the way that we think about child abuse, like sure there’s something to be said to have having a parent that has a drug addiction, and and that can be dangerous. Sure, I don’t want to negate that. But when faced with on the other side, these children are being starved off growth charts. That’s a direct abuse of these children’s bodies and their lives and their abilities to thrive. And I just like that’s the thing that’s so hard for me to square because if it had been opposite, or if you know if they had been transposed or whatever, like, I cannot imagine that there would even be a claim to keep those children in the Davis family had they been starving them and like forcing them to sleep in like a dungeon situation like yeah, I it’s not there’s not a question. I don’t know. It’s just like, that’s the part for me. That makes me feel like nauseous and like that’s what gives me the pit in my stomach because it’s like, we as a society have decided that certain people are undeserving of a chance immediately upon entry into a system and other people who are part of the exact same system are given chance and Chance and chance and are not taken seriously. And the kids are being harmed.
Roxanna Asgarian 35:05
Right? And money, right. Like they were given money. Yeah. Yeah. So we’re, you know, it’s hard to wrap your head around it, I think, you know, it’s really challenging because, you know, abuse is real, it’s real. And but the thing is, it’s, it cuts across class lines. And, you know, we know that abuse exists throughout society, but we don’t see any of I mean, we don’t see middle class families involved with CPS, we don’t see rich families involved with CPS, and we, and that’s scary, in a different way, like we’re not the system is not working, like it just is not working. And it doesn’t seem to be designed to actually save children from harm from being harmed from being advanced. And so the idea is like, what could we be doing for kids who experienced abuse? And what can we be doing for kids who, whose parents have drug problems, because we know that something that happens across class lines, you know, but ultimately, when you take a kid from their entire community, from the teachers that they trust from their friend group, when you put kids into a system where they’re isolated, and like you’re taking away their ability to find resilience, to be resilient to get through the difficult aspects of their childhood, and we do that only to certain kids. And that we know that those outcomes are so terrible. And that reverberates through generations. Right? And we have to ask, like, why, like, why are we doing something that we know is not good for these kids?
Traci Thomas 37:00
Yeah, you said that the system is not working. And it makes me think of when Miriam kava came on the show, she said the purpose of a system is what it does, right. And like, it makes me just think like it. It’s not lost on anyone who works in child welfare, that they’re not taking care of the kids or prioritizing the kids first, I think that’s safe to say. And yet the purpose of a system is what it does. So of course, the system is working, how the system is supposed to be working, because it’s doing what it does, but it’s just like, Fuck this, this sucks so bad. Like, it’s just like, there’s nothing else here for me or you or anyone. And you know, I don’t want to be defeatist or whatever. But like in reading your book, like, the takeaway for me is just like, this shit is fucked up like impurity Ed. Okay, a little bit more on the heart, heart, women, and then and then I’m gonna come off them. But so we talked about broken hearts, we talked about that. That’s that podcast that came out a few years ago that I listened to you. And sort of the through line after all of this came out. At first, I was like, This must have been an accident, it’s impossible that this could have been on purpose. And then the police reporting whatever made it pretty clear, there were no skid marks or whatever. Like it felt clear, they all had Benadryl in their system, it was clearly something was going on. And then the conversation turned to overwhelmed mothers, victims of having to take care of six black children that were fucked up kids who had they were crack babies and all of this stuff, right, it became about how the kids drove the parents to this. And I mean, what, talk about that? Because that is huge.
Roxanna Asgarian 38:46
Yeah, and I think that the, you know, that’s again, like the narrative piece that where it was like, I couldn’t let that. Go.
Traci Thomas 38:58
Yeah, thank you. Thank you.
Roxanna Asgarian 39:01
Um, you know, Jennifer Hart had this whole social media presence, where she talked about how wonderful her life was with this big family that they made. And she often talked about, I mean, it was like classic white savior. stuff, you know, where she talked about how Devonte only new curse words when he was three years old, and he was shooting guns at three years old. And of course, all this just like it’s like blatant lies, but they’re like racist lies, right? Like, that’s the that’s clearly racist. And I felt that the sort of narrative that was coming out after their deaths was still buying into that. Her line of thinking, right, we know it’s like, Oh, what, how did you snap but then, jeez, it must have been really hard. It’s like Eve Right?
Traci Thomas 39:54
Like she’s an unreliable narrator that we’re relying on for the entire backstory essentially, yes,
Roxanna Asgarian 40:01
yes. And the idea being that like, these kids never were able to talk to people outside of her presence either. So it was like, there really was no good information about the kids themselves from their own mouths that wasn’t, again, mediated through her. And that was a real challenge in the reporting, because I wanted to give a picture of who they were. And it was just because they were so isolated. And because there was this big, like, fake facade. It was really challenging to do that. And, you know, the birth families, like the oldest kids, they knew them the best because they had the most time with them. Right. But the youngest kids were barely were babies. So that was really challenging. But like, you know, the police really put forth this narrative in the inquest that the the women were really overwhelmed. The sheriff in Mendocino County said, you know, was this a Thelma and Louise situation like you use those words? That’s like, horrific, because this has nothing to do with that type of a situation. Like, if, if the two women wanted to commit suicide, that’s not the same thing as murdering six children, right. And just like even putting it and making it sort of it felt that the, there were the kids were simultaneously held up as like, Oh, these poor babies. But then, like, this narrative was so dehumanizing to them into their lives, and like the lives that they could have, and should have been able to live. Yeah, and that’s really, you know, that pissed me off. And it also, like, hurt my feelings. Like, you know, and spending time with the birth families and seeing how, like, they weren’t given, like the basic courtesy of like somebody calling them and telling them that their fucking kids were murdered, you know, like, it all is part of the same thing.
Traci Thomas 42:10
Yeah, yeah, I just, it makes me wonder why this story has become so incredibly popular, especially given that the public understanding of it is lacking, and so much of the depth that you kind of share with with the world like, before your book, this story was still really, really popular. And I just, I don’t, I mean, it’s really grisly. I think that’s part of why it’s popular, like we were saying about true crime, but I think maybe the viral virality of the hug, free hug Devonte stuff like people felt like they knew him before his murder, but I just doesn’t I don’t know. It just makes sense to me why this story? I mean, there’s a version that makes sense to me, but I don’t know, I just don’t I don’t like that. Like, why this one is the one.
Roxanna Asgarian 43:05
Well, when I was trying to sell these stories, like originally, I found Tammy, you know, and her family through her through her stepmom. And I told them what happened because it was six months later, and no one had told them and they didn’t know. And that was really awful. But I was trying to pitch Tammy story. And I was pitching the New York Times, which I had done some breaking news work for them. And the editor said, Well, maybe you could be on this other story that we you know, you can contribute to this other story we’re working on about the case. And I said, Okay, well, like tell me a little more about it. You know, because again, no one knew who Tammy was including the police officers who were investigating the murder. So it was actually pretty important breaking news. And he was saying, well, it’ll probably be like, I got on the phone with the editor. And he said, Honestly, it’ll probably be just a couple of paragraphs. We can probably pay you like $150. And we’re not trying to focus too much on this because like, everybody knows that foster cares fucked up. And we want to focus on when these women broke bad. That’s a quote. So in you know, to me, it was like, Okay, this is a no like, it was a clear yo, like, I’m not gonna do this. Because that’s, like, that’s exploiting Tammy for whatever. $100 right. But also, it was like that, that piece that like why these women broke bad. Like, I think there’s we love stories like that, which is also like kind of deranged in its own way. Because we want to force every story into this model of like this woman snapped. Right, right. And, again, it allows us to like judge someone but from the comfort of like not having to think about where we’re sitting, right, or any of our, like beliefs or biases,
Traci Thomas 45:07
right? And what’s so I mean, if you really do look at this story, and like, try to find that answer, it’s way, way, way, way, way further back than anyone would, you know, care about. If you’re doing it for like, the true crime Enos of it, right, like they were, they were abusing kids before they ever had these six children like, it’s just, it’s just so much darker I think then.
Roxanna Asgarian 45:38
Yeah. Which is really funny. So like, the people were like, is it too heavy for me? You know, like, I’ve noticed that, that people who? Look, I think it is heavy, to be clear, you know, it was it’s extremely hard material to look at and to sit with. Yeah, but I believe that, like, taking in this story as like entertainment is really fucked up. I believe that, you know, so it’s important to sit with this if you want to, you know, like, and it’s also important, like, ultimately, my hope and goal is to start to help shift this narrative about what the system does and who is who gets caught up in it. And, you know, again, what the issues really are, rather than it being okay, we’re overburden were underfunded, what what are some of them, like more central and pertinent issues
Traci Thomas 46:38
with them? So, I asked this of Andrea Elia. And I’m gonna ask you to, because I think it’s in line a little bit, which is like, how do you as the journalist, as the writer, as the person who sold the book? How do you navigate knowing that like, in some ways you are profiting or benefiting off of this story? Because I’m sure you’re a thoughtful person. I’m sure there’s some complicated feelings. And I’d love to hear about how you feel and think about that.
Roxanna Asgarian 47:06
Yeah. And it’s interesting, because I’ve asked, and this other people who have done similar work,
Traci Thomas 47:13
I ask everyone, I think I just, I need to hear the answer. I just feels like as a person who consumes this, you know?
Roxanna Asgarian 47:20
Yeah, I think that, um, well, first and foremost, I think that journalism has to reckon with this in general, right? Yep. And I think there’s ways that we can be super extractive of people’s trauma. I thought about it constantly, as I was working on it. I mean, I will say, I went into debt to write the book. So I will say that I think that there’s a like a, I mean, I think it happens for some people that they make millions of dollars, and then, you know, that wasn’t my experience at the time. And I was taking big, sort of making big sacrifices in my stability, financial stability, in order to tell the story. That being said, like, I’m in a different class position than the people that I’m writing about. And also their grief is really immense. And, you know, I do believe that there’s a value for some people who want to contribute their stories in having and being seen. And, and being heard, right, like, and particularly, I think, for people like Tammy who are birth mothers that nobody wants to see or hear from ever again, right, like, this is a shame for them that they they are expected to carry in silence. And so I feel like, there was some stuff that was happening in the moment and not in the writing even right, that was potentially healing or helpful, at least just being witnessed, you know. But also, I feel like, you know, it’s my job, right? And there’s ways that we, I think, we sort of devalue our, we can do value our own work by, you know, someone on Twitter asked me, like, are you gonna give some of the proceeds to like, and I wanted to ask her, are you gonna give some of your proceeds to these people? I mean, like, you know, I gave five years of my life to try to tell the story, and I hope I did it justice. But like, ultimately, I think there’s a way of being again, it’s like, I think that much bigger issue is the way that we treat people on the ground in the moment as journalists, and I think that’s what feels, you know, and Dante, the older brother, he asked me this, what do I get? I’m sharing my story, right? And I gave him this extremely earnest answer that I happen to believe you know, I said like, I think your story has value. I think that your story should exist alongside your siblings stories. I think you’re part of the story. I think people should know about what you went through. Yeah. Because it wasn’t okay. Yeah. You know. And then the other piece I’ll say is that, you know, when I got the opportunity to negotiate with the heart, families, surviving relatives, for some of the remains of the kids, that was part of my thought process was that, like, that’s something concrete that I can do for them. That is a show of, like, respect. You know, because I couldn’t, I can’t promise that they’re gonna like this, the book, I’m not, you know, you never you have to do, like journalism is like, you owe it to the story to do the story, the the, you know, the best way that you can, but it’s not to do something that everyone’s gonna like, or everyone’s gonna, you know, appreciate. So, you know, when I got that chance to do this, this thing, I did that as not really, as a journalist more as a person, because, you know, but I do feel there’s that that’s more of a complicated question than a lot of people want to tangle with like,
Traci Thomas 51:24
Do you know if the families have read the book, and
Roxanna Asgarian 51:31
I know that Tammy has read it? Yeah, I know, Tammy has read it. And Tammy liked it. Dante, he’s incarcerated again, and I sent him a book, but I don’t know for sure that he’s gotten it. And Nathaniel passed away. Last fall, so he has a he didn’t get a chance to read it. But I did give it to his grown daughter from his first marriage. And she read it. And she liked it.
Traci Thomas 51:58
So I love that Daniel. Okay, this is like such a hard shift. But I asked everyone this. How do you like to write how many hours a day how often music or not snacks and beverages rituals set the scene for us?
Roxanna Asgarian 52:13
Okay. I, I don’t like to write every day.
Traci Thomas 52:20
I like to say I don’t like to write. And I was like,
Roxanna Asgarian 52:23
No, I actually really like writing I write when I’m ready when I’m ready. And that’s different than than sitting there. And like being in at the keys. Because I feel like when I tried to do that the work I produced is bad. And I need to fix it. Yeah. And then when I wait till I’m really ready to go and I give myself. So the way I wrote this book, and this was partly because the pandemic, I had my three and four year old at the time. I mean, he’s, he’s now he’s six, but he was home with us. So that was another thing is I couldn’t I can’t like turn, like, click into this extremely heavy stuff, and then click out to like, make a lunch in the back. Right, right. Right. Right, right. So I ended up doing these like riding trips to the hill country, and like outside of Boston, and I was doing those like once a month for like four days, five days, and riding like 10 hour days. And then I would finish I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody. I wouldn’t be I would make myself an egg and take a bath and have a whiskey or whatever. And then when I came out I would do reporting like, all the time I can report every single day. And I can write to like, in my normal journalism life I can write here at my desk and or at the coffee shop with I listened to Yanni not not during the book, but mostly during my writing I listen to me it’s like since you know like- Which is really funny. I said it’s like, Pavlovian now like, you know, if I put on Yanni I’m like, okay-
Traci Thomas 54:12
Um, what’s a word you could never spell correctly on the first try?
Roxanna Asgarian 54:19
Any of those like E and I things. Like receive.
Traci Thomas 54:25
Who’s the coolest person who’s expressed interest in your book?
Roxanna Asgarian 54:30
Oh, my gosh, Matt Desmond, ah. He told me so many really nice things about my book we met in San Antonio. I mean, reading evicted was hugely influential in like what I was attempting to do. And he just said really nice things that it was like, oh my god, like just the fact that he read it and thought it was cool. I mean, that’s really it’s a big one for me love that.
Traci Thomas 54:56
For people who have enjoyed we were wonderful. Emily, what’s another book you would or other books you would recommend to them that are in conversation?
Roxanna Asgarian 55:05
Well, I think invisible child is an obvious choice.
Traci Thomas 55:08
I’ve just been screaming about it all day. Yeah.
Roxanna Asgarian 55:10
Yeah. Also, if if you haven’t read random family, I feel that random family was. I read that in the beginning of grad school, and it helped me. Just like realize what is possible? Yeah, in this in this medium. And I also felt like, the reporting was so so I mean, you know, it’s, there’s a reason that everyone talks about it all this time later, you know?
Traci Thomas 55:37
Yeah. This is my last question for you. If you could have one person dead or alive, read this book. Who do you want it to be?
Roxanna Asgarian 55:45
Judge Pat Shelton.
Traci Thomas 55:49
Monster villain. All right, everybody, this has been a conversation with Roxanne Alex Garyun, who is the author of we were once a family. I know that I have said this on the internet. And I know that I sort of said this at the beginning. But I just want to say it one more time for people. If you made it this far, this book is fantastic. You should 1,000% Read it, you should prepare to read it when you can sit down and basically read the whole book and like a day or two, because it is really heavy. And you aren’t going to want to as Roxana just said, click in and click out of it. So find a time where you can sit down and just read it and be in a place where you can do that. I started thinking like, Oh, I’ll start this. And then I was like, Well, I have to finish this in the next 48 hours. Because I can’t be with this too much longer. Like it’s one of those kinds of books. But it is so good. was so well written. It is so well reported. It is so important. I love this book very, very much. I will be rooting for you and this book and whatever you do next for the rest of my life, probably and I will be screaming about this book for the rest of the year people so just read it so that you don’t have to feel like you’re missing something because you’re definitely missing something if you haven’t read it yet. That is my true honest heartfelt pitch. Roxanna, thank you so much for being here.
Roxanna Asgarian 57:05
Thank you so much. And your support means so much to me.
Traci Thomas 57:09
I love this book. Everyone else. We will see you in the stacks.
All right, y’all. That does it for us today. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you again to Roxanna for joining the show. I’d also like to thank Stephen Weil for helping to make this conversation possible. Don’t forget our main book club selection is this boy we made by Taylor Harris and we will discuss the book on May 31st with Nicole Chung. If you love the show and you want insight access to it, head to patreon.com/the stacks and join the statspack make sure you subscribe to the stocks wherever you listen to your podcasts. And if you’re listening through Apple podcasts or Spotify be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stocks. You can find us on social media at the stocks pod on Instagram and Tiktok and at the stocks pod underscore on Twitter, and you can check out our website the stocks podcast.com This episode of the status was edited by Christian one yes with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. The stacks is created and produced by me, Traci Thomas.
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