Perhaps Margaret Cho said it best when she called Jillian Lauren a “punk rock Scheherazade.” Lauren hit the literary scene in 2010 with the publication of Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, her New York Times bestselling-memoir and, like the legendary Scheherazade, Lauren seems to save her own life by telling fascinating stories. But unlike the new wife of the Persian king, the adventures that Lauren recounts are her own.
Some Girls tells the tale of how Lauren’s acting ambitions turned to stripping, high class sex work and ultimately membership in the harem of bad boy Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Brunei. In “Some Girls,” Lauren writes honestly and intriguingly about the interweaving of her insecurities and ambitions, and the pain inherent in rescuing herself from the harem life with its lazy days, dizzyingly exorbitant shopping sprees, and harem party nights full of backstabbing, jealousy, heartbreak and shifting alliances.
By the beginning of her second memoir, Everything You Ever Wanted (Plume, May 5, 2015), the landscape of Lauren’s life has changed dramatically. She picks up a few years after Some Girls ends, when she meets and marries Weezer bassist Scott Shriner and together they try to start a family. Lauren was adopted as an infant and hopes that by having children she’ll feel more connected to the world. But her happy vision of redeeming herself from her wild child past through motherhood soon turns to pain as she finds herself unable to have a baby.
Everything you Ever Wanted details Lauren and Shriner’s decision to adopt a baby from Ethiopia, their journey to meet the baby and his birth mother, and the unexpected struggles they encounter as a new family once they return home to Los Angeles with their 11-month-old son Tariku. Lauren writes passionately about the difficulties–and rich rewards–of learning to parent her son, who has special needs resulting from trauma experienced in the first months of his life. In Everything, Lauren grapples with feeling worthy of motherhood and of the fairy tale life in which she finds herself. Ultimately, Lauren finds that redemption is all the more rewarding with its attendant challenges.
I spoke with Lauren about Everything You Every Wanted and about adopting and raising her son Tariku.
In some ways, your life sounds like a fairytale. After earlier struggles, you and Weezer bassist Scott Shriner fell in love and you were able to live this very idyllic seeming life—getting an MFA and touring with Weezer. And yet, you were still very stricken with sadness because you weren’t able to have a child. Can you talk a little bit about that paradox?
I had very specific expectations around what I thought settling down and having a family was going to look like. And granted our version of that is more arty and bohemian than some. But even so, I thought, “Okay. I’m behaving now. I’m a good girl. I’ve joined the fold.” So there’s reward for that, right? And the reward is the white picket fence and the 2.5 children. That wasn’t what happened to us at all. What I found was that we encountered a tremendous amount of adversity and pain–and that wasn’t the entirety of the story–but that became a very big piece of it when the family we wanted so badly wasn’t happening. But now I would go through every minute of it again, because it was that adversity that shaped me as a person and prepared us for what it was like when we encountered challenges in our early years of parenting.
It’s great to hear you say that adversity can end up being a blessing. So once you decided to adopt, you traveled to Ethiopia to meet your son, and you also met his birth mother and learned about her struggles. She told you about how she was raised picking cotton and fetching water and that her family was very poor and often without enough food. How did meeting her and seeing firsthand the extreme difficulties that she’d faced in her own life affect you?
Meeting my son’s birth mother was probably the most significant moment of our life..It changed us in so many ways. It deepened my respect for the enormous bravery and sacrifice it takes to make an adoption plan for a child you’re unable to care for, for whatever reason.
The experience also helped to teach me that adoption was the solution for our family, but not a solution for the world orphan crisis. Unicef places the number of orphans worldwide today at 153 million. There are 4.6 million orphans in Ethiopia alone. The most prominent underlying social causes of this are extreme poverty, lack of healthcare and lack of education
There are a number of terrific organizations, like World Wide Orphans, Help One Now, and Roots Ethiopia, that do the vital work of empowering local leaders to help preserve families in developing countries
Yes, you write about how she was raised doing very hard labor–picking cotton and fetching water–and that she and her family were extremely poor and often didn’t have enough to eat.
It’s really important that we increase the visibility of the struggles faced by people like my son’s birth mother, and to address family preservation in developing countries, and here in the U.S. as well. Scott and I work with a number of terrific organizations now, like Help One Now, and AHOPE for Children and Roots Ethiopia. I’ve had a chance to go back to Ethiopia, and I’ll probably be going back again in the Fall. And so through this amazing experience—where really we just wanted a kid—-we ended up so much more connected to the world around us. That wasn’t our original goal. But that in fact, is what happened.
Your son Tariku has some behavior challenges likely resulting from the traumas he experienced during his first year of life. What was it like to realize that parenting wasn’t going to be that white picket fence you had imagined?
If I had really been looking and listening, I probably would have known it wasn’t likely to be the Ozzie and Harriet story, but I’m a tremendously willful person, and I have a tendency to see only what I want to see. So it was a real shock to my system when Tariku started manifesting these challenging behaviors. It turned out we learned— after a lot of trial and error, and a lot of professional help— that my son suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and from Sensory Processing Disorder, which basically means that he processes sensory input in a different way than a child who’s developing more neurotypically. When I first heard the words “special needs” applied to my son I felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room.
Once I learned more about it, once I got plugged into that community and started to really embrace what that means to have “special needs” and not to just react with fear, it actually became such a gift. Getting to know the people in that world, and the people I have learned that we truly are, has been a real blessing to our family.
In one of my favorite scenes in Everything You Ever Wanted, you and your husband and his parents go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and you all see that the famous Weezer lit up “W” sign is hanging over the gift shop. But then Tariku makes a run for John Lennon’s piano, climbs on it and starts banging away and your whole family gets chucked out of the museum. I think that’s a great metaphor for how–when our dreams come true–we have all these complications and challenges we wouldn’t have anticipated.
Yes, I think so, too. That was the first time we were starting to realize that maybe something was going on with our son.. People have a tendency to normalize anything that is going on, like, “Oh, my kid went through that.” And then we were on tour with Weezer and we were starting to realize, maybe that’s not true.
So here we were in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and all of the security guards were slowly amassing behind us based on Tariku being wild and dancing everywhere. And then when he made a beeline for that piano, of course part of me is horrified and part of me is like, “He knows! He knows it’s John Lennon’s piano! He’s got great taste!”
Right. Who wouldn’t want to play John Lennon’s piano? But your son had the moxie to go for it.
As we’re being kicked out of that museum, right under the big light up Weezer “W” that was hanging up in front of the gift shop, we’re like, “Wait a second! That’s our band!” Even as we were being marched out of the museum in horror, I was also recognizing just how funny the situation was, and how surreal. It was really important for us to hang onto our sense of humor.
So speaking of things being surreal and keeping your sense of humor, your first memoir Some Girls was about a time when you were a member of a harem and that book was published after you adopted Tariku. What was that like to go public about your past when you were just coming into your own as a mother?
My life has the craziest timing. All I wanted was a book and a baby for the longest time. And it was like, “Okay, you get to have a book and a baby, but all at once.” So it was hard and it was confusing. Not so much coming forward about my past, but the practicalities of having a bestselling book and an 18-month-old. I was traveling around the country and handing him off to people at readings, and doing interviews in a hotel room while literally holding him on my hip. It went so fast and I was sleeping so little and it made it much more challenging.
But like many things with parenting it was also such a precious time for me, with both things— my book baby and my baby baby. Having Tariku with me when that book came out helped to ground me.
Mary Pauline Lowry has worked as an open water lifeguard and on a construction crew, as well as a hotshot. She received an M.A. in English, with a concentration on Creative Writing, from the University of Texas at Austin. For several years, she balanced writing with her mission to end violence against women. Starting as a counselor at the Southwest Safehouse in Durango, Colorado, she later worked as a bilingual advocate on the National Domestic Violence Hotline and as a public policy analyst for the Texas Council on Family Violence. She currently writes about women’s issues for the Huffington Post and xoJane. She lives in Orange County, California.