February 03, 2011

The Julie Project

An award-winning, eighteen-year project by photographer Darcy Padilla has been making the internet rounds this week after cropping up on Metafilter. The Julie Project documents pieces of Julie Baird's life from her days as a nineteen-year old new mother to her death this past autumn from complications of AIDS. She wasn't even two years older than I am.

Julie with her eldest daughter
It's brutal to take it all in, in that confrontational way statistics have when they become embodied in a single human story.

Writes Ms Padilla:
I first met Julie on February 28, 1993. Julie, 19, stood in the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel, barefoot, pants unzipped, and an 8 day-old infant in her arms. She lived in San Francisco’s SRO district, a neighborhood of soup kitchens and cheap rooms. Her room was piled with clothes, overfull ashtrays and trash. She lived with Jack, father of her first baby Rachael, and who had given her AIDS. She left him months later to stop using drugs.
Her first memory of her mother is getting drunk with her at 6 and then being sexually abused by her stepfather. She ran away at 14 and became drug addict at 15. Living in alleys, crack dens, and bunked with more dirty old men than she cared to count.
For the last 18 years I have photographed Julie Baird’s complex story of multiple homes, AIDS, drug abuse, abusive relationships, poverty, births, deaths, loss and reunion. Following Julie from the backstreets of San Francisco to the backwoods of Alaska.
I don't dare comment too much off the cuff on something so multi-layered. But I wanted to point you to it because it's not just a project about addiction and AIDS and inescapable poverty. It's about a child who wasn't adequately protected from abuse. Who grew up to have five of her own six children removed from her care by the state and eventually adopted. And into that comes a story of an opened adoption, a son who entered foster care at birth meeting his birth parents after his adoptive parents track them down through the photographer.
Julie's son with his first dad
This is a woman many might want to diminish, might label a "birth person" or worse. Looking at the facts, some might doubt her maternal love; after all, her children were variously removed due to abuse and neglect, raised in deplorable conditions, born addicted to drugs. They were hurt. I have listened to those who would say a mother like her doesn't deserve to know anything about the children she lost, that she isn't stable or healthy enough for contact to be anything but damaging. Yet against those voices is the a recording of a little boy saying goodbye to his first mother days before she dies,* his small voice breaking as he says, "Mom...thank you for having me...Mom, Mom... I love you."

Four of her other children won't have that chance.

Neither of my children were adopted from foster care, but there are elements of Julie's story that parallel parts of the complex history that led to one of their placements. Perhaps that is why I am not able to stop thinking about Julie as a child, her life in the margins, the children who were there with her, her son's first letter to her.

It is never not complicated.

* I'm conflicted about something that intimate being public, since her son is so young. I wonder how he will feel about that years from now. That said, the recording is undeniably moving.


Anonymous said...

I saw this yesterday and I wasn't able to quite put into words how it moved me. I still can't, really. I'm so glad you posted about it.

Ellis said...

Very sad that Julie had a 'crappy" start in life. I have always been grateful for the parents that I have ( an adoptee here) .One never knows how they could have turned out if they had crappy parents/start in life. My heart goes out to people like Julie; they are the product of their life experiences and environment. On a side note, as much as people say adoption isn't needed, this story tells WHY it is.

Lisa said...

I agree. It's always complicated. We've experienced this with our daughter's first mother, who has gone through more in her very short life than I can even imagine. Bad choice after bad choice, but none of them un-influenced by the horrible conditions of her upbringing. She keeps trying to turn her life around and keeps hitting a wall. But that doesn't mean that we don't think she should be excluded from our daughter's life. We need to shield Olivia from certain things, of course. But having a relationship with the person who gave her life is important to us, and someday it will be to her as well.

Anonymous said...

This is so stunningly sad and yes, oh so complicated. Our son's birth father grew up in the system and has survived so many tragic circumstances. His current situation is an absolute result of those circumstances, the most horrid of which being the realization that he cannot parent Ponce. My heart breaks to think of how much "luck" has to do with our individual circumstances (who we're born to, where we grow up, the influences in our life) and how very little luck he and Julie and others have had in their lives. And how unfair life really is. Thanks for posting this.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad that she was able to know one of her children before she died. And I'm happy that her son had the chance to know her.

Unknown said...

This is one of the most haunting life stories I've read. Thank you for posting it.

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