From Tragedy to Triumph
Elaine DePrince is one of those rare people you meet who motivates and inspires you to want to be and do better. After reading about her experiences of losing three of her children and making the decision to raise six more, then speaking with her via phone, I decided our interview would be more of a blessing to you than my feeble attempts at summarizing her life ever could. Hope for Women: Why did you decide to write books about your experiences?
Elaine DePrince: It really wasn’t my decision. I love writing fiction, but whenever I get serious about submitting a novel, I’m urged to write non-fiction. And often that non-fiction requires a great deal time of time and effort put into research. In 1993, when members of the hemophilia community were trying to gain federal compensation for HIV-infected hemophiliacs, I was working on a young adult novel. I dropped that project when a U.S. senator complained about the tens of thousands of pages of documentation associated with the contamination of the blood product used by hemophiliacs to treat their bleeding episodes. He asked, “Can you reduce this to about 200 pages?” So I became the one to read those tens of thousands of pages.
I intended to write about many of these HIV-infected men, but my editor at Random House had another ideas. I was the mother of three little boys with hemophilia who had contracted HIV. At the time, two of my sons had already died of AIDS at the ages of 11 and 15, and she wanted me to write Cry Bloody Murder: A Tale of Tainted Blood and alternate the technical chapters with the human interest chapters about my own family’s experience with this tragedy.
After that first book, I attended law school and took a leave of absence to adopt children from war-torn West Africa. While I was raising six little girls, I continued to write young adult novels, middle grade fiction, and picture book manuscripts, but never found the time to submit them. Then after sending a 700-word picture book manuscript loosely based on an incident in the life of my daughter, Michaela, my agent said, “I really like this. Can you work with your daughter, Michaela, and turn it into a 250-page young adult memoir. So there I was, writing about my family’s experiences again in Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina. Then my publisher requested a Step into Reading book about Michaela for emerging readers, so Michaela and I collaborated on Ballerina Dreams: From Orphan to Dancer.
Finally, with the publication of Ballerina Dreams, I was free to work on a middle grade novel that my agent and I are both enthused about. But yet again, my publisher requested another book about Michaela—this time a 700-word read-aloud picture book. Fortunately, it is short enough that I won’t need to put my middle grade novel on hold. However, now I’m being urged to write a book about child-rearing, and my daughter Mia would like to collaborate on a book with me.
HOPE: How many children have you raised? ED: I have raised 11 children. My oldest is Adam, who is 42 years old. My youngest is Bernice, who is 15. I lost my three youngest boys, at the ages of 11, 15, and 24 during the hemophilia/HIV tragedy. When people ask, “How many children do you have? I always include them in the tally because in my heart and mind they are still present.”
HOPE: What are your hopes for your children? ED: My hopes for my eight surviving children are that they live happy lives, doing what they feel most passionate about. I hope they remember the blessings that have come to them and pass them forward.
HOPE: What do you want others to learn from your experiences? ED: After Cubby (11) and Michael (15) died, I felt like I had a hole in the core of my being and I would never find joy again. I knew my sons would never have wanted me to live a life without joy, so I reached out to others who needed the love I had to give. In this case, it was six little girls who were the flotsam and jetsam of two West African wars. By doing this, I discovered two things: First, I could give greater meaning to the lives of my sons by improving the lives of other children. Secondly, by patching the holes in the hearts of these two hurting girls, I could patch my own. I want others to learn from this that life is not done until you take your last breath. As long as you live and breathe you owe it to yourself to use your talents wisely, seek happiness for yourself, and share whatever blessings you have with others.
HOPE: What is the biggest lesson you've learned from your experiences? ED: My children are vastly different from one another. Their I.Q. scores have ranged from 69 to 152. Three were deaf. Three were Caucasian, two were Hispanic, and six are African, yet each and every child has had a talent that has made him/her outstanding in some way. The biggest lesson I learned from my experiences was to search for each child’s talent because there is surely one there. And when it’s found, nurture it.
HOPE: How did you come up with the idea for the Defy Gravity movement? ED: When my eight-year-old brother died of leukemia in 1968, I was 20 at the time and old enough to be sensitive to the changes in my mother. Though her mouth might turn up at the corners, her eyes never smiled after my brother’s death. She had lost her joie de vivre and either didn’t know how to get it back or didn’t try. It seemed to me that she eagerly awaited death, which didn’t come until 28 years later.
When my son, Cubby and Michael died within nine months of each other, I refused to live the remainder of my life under the heavy mantle of constant sorrow. Nor was I going to leave my husband as paralyzed by grief as he was.
I made a deliberate decision to move on with life, and take him with me. That is what led us to bring six little girls from war-torn Africa. When it became obvious that our entire family had a propensity for overcoming adversity, my husband and friends attributed this quality to my influence. They began encouraging me to share the formula for this with others. My effort to do this became the “Defy Gravity” movement.
HOPE: What would you like for your legacy to be? ED: I have never considered this question of a legacy, other than to be remembered with love by my family and remembered for having inspired my children to be strong. If I have inspired others to defy gravity, overcome adversity, and find strength in themselves, then all the better.
HOPE: Is there anything else you would like to add? ED: It’s mind-boggling how much need there is in the world. I can think of a dozen projects right off the top of my head: shelters for female victims of rape in Africa, home-building projects around the world, free schools in developing countries, advocacy against female genital mutilation, mentoring students in inner-city schools or in poor rural districts in the United States, food pantries, books for poor children everywhere, mentoring young men and women who have aged out of foster care, purchasing a pair of chickens to provide eggs for a family in Africa, volunteering on Mercy Ships, delivering meals to homebound seniors, and tutoring immigrants.
I believe that stepping outside of one’s own sphere of worries and concerns is the best way to defy gravity.
To learn more about DePrince’s Defy Gravity movement or to bring it to your city, visit www.elainedeprince.com