My stepson hasn’t died, but we have lost him all the same. No one has brought us any casseroles.
He came close to dying, actually, last summer, when he accidentally discharged a firearm into his own leg. The bullet missed his femoral artery by millimeters and also graciously, but barely, spared his genitals.
I was almost relieved that the worst had nearly happened because at least he wouldn’t have that damn gun anymore. After nearly shooting off his penis, surely he wouldn’t buy another one?
But he did.
He returned to his job at a convenience store, just five blocks from our home. He continued to rant against the “SJWs,” the so-called Social Justice Warriors like myself and my husband, who had everything all wrong. At 21 years old, he knew better. White men reigned supreme for a reason, a good reason in his book, and everyone else should just shut up and stop whining.
Like many children born to one white parent and one Black parent, my stepson presents as Black. So when he first announced that he more or less considered himself a Proud Boy, my husband and I said, “What?”
We thought surely he must be joking. Just trying to ruffle our feathers.
But he said, very seriously, that he had been watching a lot of YouTube videos and listening to a lot of podcasts and yes, he more or less considered himself a Proud Boy.
“Do the Proud Boys consider you a Proud Boy?” I thought, but didn’t ask.
My stepson had lived with us for a year, at age 16, after which he’d returned to his mother’s home on the opposite coast to finish high school.
But he never did finish high school. He found himself battling severe depression, the same severe depression that had originally prompted him to move in with us.
While it wasn’t his first rodeo with depression, it was his first rodeo with antidepressants, which he proceeded to take erratically, exactly as we had feared. (On the phone, the doctor had haughtily ignored our concerns, insisting that medication was the only recourse.)
We went a few years without seeing my stepson at all. He communicated with us erratically; many calls and texts went unanswered. There’s a lot we don’t know.
Here’s what we do know: After moving back in with his mother, my stepson often bickered with his (white) stepdad and his (white) grandfather. At one point, after getting embroiled in a political debate while driving, his grandfather became so enraged that he pulled over to the side of the highway and told my stepson to Get. Out. Now.
He drove off. He left his Black grandson on the side of the road.
I can only imagine that it was all very confusing for my stepson, to say the least. Since the age of eight, he had been crossing state lines to spend summers and school breaks with us, first in Washington DC, and then in Portland, Oregon.
With a white, working-class mother whose parents called Obama the “anti-Christ” and a progressive Black father who was in the process of earning his undergraduate, and then doctorate, degree, my stepson crossed other lines that didn’t show up in Google Maps.
It was a lot for a child to reconcile. Multiracial children, my own included, straddle multiple identities by default. But my stepson was also straddling two warring factions who fervently insisted that the other side was dead wrong, about pretty much everything.
Most of his earliest memories involve his parents fighting. Back then, they weren’t fighting about ideology, but about paying bills, losing jobs, staying out too late, and all the other pressures his parents found themselves facing as early 20-somethings who had only known one another for six months before the accidental pregnancy.
To both their credit, for two people so completely different and so wholly incompatible, they did try to make things work. Neither of them wanted a broken family. But eventually, it became clear that they would do more damage to their son by staying together than by being apart.
The first time I met my stepson, he was five years old and could entirely conceal himself behind his father’s left leg.
His father and I had been dating for over a year, and the meeting was a big deal. It took quite a bit of coaxing to get him out from behind his father’s leg. He didn’t make eye contact and provided only one-word answers to my stupid questions.
Our second meeting was to see King Kong at the Providence Place Mall. I asked a few more stupid questions, we sat in a theater for nearly three hours, and afterward, he informed his father that he didn’t like me much.
I was determined to win him over, but I’ve never been particularly good at engaging with children. Plus, his embittered mother hadn’t exactly given me a resounding endorsement.
I am good at card games, so when he came to my house a few weeks later, I taught him how to play War. I would have let him win if I needed to, but I didn’t need to. He won the first game, the second, and the third. As he gleefully snatched up cards, he finally made eye contact to proclaim: “You’re really bad at this game!”
Turns out, the boy who would become my stepson was a great kid — thoughtful, smart, and conscientious — with an emotional maturity that often flabbergasted adults.
In the summers and the few weeks during the year when he came to visit, we often found ourselves with hours to kill together. My husband worked 24-hour shifts as a paramedic and when one of them fell on a weekend, we explored public pools, walked to Eastern Market, and once reeled around the National Mall after hanging upside down for far too long on a flight simulator at the Air and Space Museum.
He discovered my weakness for ice cream and fully exploited it. Who could blame him?
I can already feel the lump swelling in my throat as I review my mental catalog of memories. The gleam of triumph in his eyes when he woke up early on a Saturday morning to master a three-story card house. Running down sand dunes with him, racing him down the long block from the metro stop, reading him The Hobbit before bed.
The fond memories continue into his 16th year when after years of fighting to see him, we finally got him full-time. He arrived only a few weeks after the birth of our second child. Though there was no denying that he was deep in the throes of teenagerhood, with a know-it-all bluster and a 1.3 GPA, his thoughtful, inquisitive, easygoing nature still glimmered beneath the hard exterior.
At 16, he was building up his armor, but the anger hadn’t yet consumed him. He was struggling to find a coherent identity but didn’t yet define his self-worth by division and hatred. He was feeling lost in the chasm he had spent his childhood straddling, but he still maintained faith that someone would show him the way.
“The Way,” it seems, came to him via YouTube.
That’s all we can surmise. It was a few years after he’d left to return to Rhode Island after he’d dropped out of high school after he’d gone on and off antidepressants. We don’t know what exactly he typed into that YouTube search bar, or even what exactly he found.
However it happened, he was soon spiraling down a rabbit hole of white chauvinism. When he finished one video, YouTube helpfully recommended another. I’m sure he found the simplicity of the narrative compelling. It was clean and clear, nothing like the mess he had spent his childhood and adolescence wading through.
And it was angry. He was angry. No one understood him. He was tired of being caught in the middle, between two warring factions who claimed to love him but whom he couldn’t ever seem to please. It was so much easier to pick a side.
He told us that he more or less considered himself a Proud Boy, and six months later, he showed up on our doorstep in Portland, Oregon looking for a place to crash.
We were hopeful that his decision to move to the country’s most notorious liberal hotbed (an anarchist jurisdiction, in the words of former President Trump) was a sign that he might be reevaluating the Proud Boy rhetoric. But it quickly became clear that his primary mission was to prove liberal Portlanders wrong.
At first, we tried to engage in good-natured debates. But they never ended well. As a woman who had been the sole income earner during the same year in which my husband had started a demanding graduate program, my teenage stepson had come to live with us, and I’d given birth to our second child, the last thing I needed was for a 20-year-old man to sit on my porch after I’d put in another long day’s work and tell me that a woman’s place was in the home.
Neither did my Black husband, who had spent 20 years fighting and clawing his way from a jail cell to a doctorate, need to sit on his porch after another long day’s work and be told by his biracial son that white men are inherently superior.
We tried to agree to disagree. But my stepson insisted that there was nothing else worth talking about. It was pointless to pretend we weren’t divided, he said. We were essentially rejecting him and everything he stood for.
After just a few nights, he packed his bag and left. He had nowhere to go. We found out later he had spent three weeks riding up and down various Metro lines all night to catch some sleep. That was when we truly grasped the terrifying depth of his convictions. In his book, being homeless was preferable to being misunderstood.
By the time COVID hit, we no longer operated in a shared reality.
In the preceding year, my stepson had not managed to keep a job or an apartment for more than a few months at a time. We had seen him only here and there, usually when he needed something.
He told us stories of getting fired from his job or kicked out of his apartment, and even though he told them to his advantage, trying to make us understand how everyone else had so ridiculously overreacted, they still sounded bad. He’d made roommates fear for their safety, verbally abused female coworkers, heckled Black Lives Matter protesters.
I absolutely could not reconcile this haughty, rage-filled young man with the gentle child who used to curl up with me to read The Hobbit.
When he texted us a photo of his new gun, amidst the swirling anxiety that characterized the early days of COVID and not too long after we’d learned that he had yet again gone off his antidepressants, the fear set in.
I had felt so many things since my stepson’s first pronouncement that he more or less considered himself a Proud Boy. Burning shame that a boy I’d helped raise was treating women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ people with such contempt. Unshakeable guilt that we had somehow contributed to this outcome, that we had played a role in stoking his anger. Profound grief that a boy we loved seemed lost to us forever.
And now fear. Cold and heavy and intractable. We bought a security camera, just in case, and became more diligent about locking our doors. In the dusty gray of early dawn, when I set out to run before work, I scanned our front yard. I couldn’t shake the mental image of my stepson hiding behind a shrub, finger poised on the trigger.
We called a Mental Health Crisis Hotline to see what could be done, but involving any authorities meant involving the police. If police were killing unarmed Black men, how could we send them into the home of an armed Black man? An armed Black man who was my husband’s son, no less? There would be no time for my stepson to explain to the police that he was on “their side.”
The woman who had answered our call said, “I’m sorry, I just don’t know what to tell you.” She did seem sorry.
At least we weren’t the only ones who had no idea what the hell to do.
We still have no idea what the hell to do.
Our particular story might have unique plot twists, but parallel versions are playing out in families and communities across the country. My stepson isn’t the only one who’s angry. He’s not the only one struggling with isolation and depression. He’s not the only one who has been sucked into a YouTube vortex, only to spit out into an alternate reality that validates and stokes his fury.
Our country is seething with people who are sick and lonely and mad as hell. We may choose different targets for our rage, but there is a general sense that we’ve been duped. That we’ve lost control over our destinies, our futures, our livelihoods.
Raging inequality is fueling the fire, and social media is fanning the flames.
We’ve retreated into our homes to scream at each other across the fissures that have snaked their way through our cities, towns, neighborhoods, and families. We can’t think clearly through all the noise. Even moments of quiet are darkened by the shadows of ever-advancing fires and floods.
I am fast losing faith in humanity, but I haven’t lost hope for my stepson. Maybe there is still room for a reckoning. Maybe my husband and I will find a way to reach him, to listen better, to communicate our love.
Or, maybe it’s too late. Maybe it’s too late for us all.
Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.