Let’s start at the beginning with the obvious first man in my life—someone who was literally and figuratively larger than life.
My Dad, William Earl Faison—best known as Earl— was an All-American football player at Indiana University and the Los Angeles Chargers. First-round, draft pick of the AFL, one year before the team moved to San Diego. In 1961, he won Rookie of the Year and was an all-star four years in a row as part of the Chargers’ original “fearsome foursome” defensive line that ultimately won the 1963 Championship game. At that time, in some areas of the country, black players were forced to room separately from white and often could not even dine in the same restaurants. My Dad was outspoken on racial issues and became something of an activist.
Most notably, he was embroiled in an event that became known as “the Great Walk Out” in Louisiana in January 1965. From the moment black athletes arrived at the airport earlier to play in the AFL All Star Game in New Orleans later in the week, they were subjected to a barrage of racial slurs, segregation, and physical threats. Twenty-one players, including my Dad, took a vote that resulted in their refusal to play in the All Star Game. Who can blame them? These football greats couldn’t even get a “colored taxi” without being on the receiving end of taunts and abuse. In a show of camaraderie, the white players also joined in the walk out.
My Dad stood six foot, five inches and weighed 270 pounds. Despite his immense size and intimidating presence when he entered a room, he was a gentle giant— well-mannered with a certain kind of charisma. He was Hollywood handsome with skin so dark and glistening it almost looked purple and with magnificent straight white teeth. It’s no wonder he was always popular with the girls.
He met my mother, Barbara Jewel Marshall, while they were attending Huntington High School, an all-black school (due to segregation) in Newport News, Virginia. My Mom, a smart, slender, outgoing beauty, loved anything she considered “glamorous.” She enjoyed theater and was a majorette in high school. Though they didn’t officially start dating until later when they were undergraduate students at different universities, Dad did escort Mom to her prom while she was a junior and presented her with her first orchid.
After high school, Barbara and Earl went their separate ways: he to Indiana University; she to Ohio State University. They officially started dating while he was a senior and she was a junior. After he began his pro football career and while she was still attending Ohio State, he invited her to see a professional football game in Buffalo, New York: the Chargers against the Bills. She enjoyed the game—which they won—as well as their visit, and their relationship evolved into a long-distance romance.
Months later, Dad visited her at Ohio State and surprised her with his Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity pin. Back in those days, “pinning a girl” was a big deal and signaled an engagement forthcoming—which did occur shortly thereafter. They married on June 8, 1963. They had such a large wedding that police had to direct traffic.
My Mom suffered some miscarriages in their early years, which explains why I was adopted from a San Francisco foster home in 1966, a few months after I was born. My parents had to endure a ten-hour drive from San Diego to San Francisco to get me. I’m told that I cried in my mother’s arms the entire way back.
We lived in a custom-built, split-level cedar home on Laurie Lane in East San Diego, which was an up-and-coming area at that time. Most of the walls were solid oak, except for two made of plaster, upon which a local artist had painted custom murals. I don’t remember much about my Dad even being in this house, since my parents separated while I was young. Once my parents were divorced, my father seemed to lack the tools necessary to maintain a relationship with me. In fact, he seemed to struggle with relationships in general.
At the same time, my mother battled alcoholism—a disease we believe was inherited from her mother’s side of the family. On several occasions she would drink vodka to the point of blacking out. In social situations, she would end up so inebriated that she would become belligerent and embarrass my Dad.
As with many marriages, it was the little things that eroded their relationship, though her drinking was a contributing factor. On one occasion, she drunkenly cursed out a top bank executive at the Bali Hai Polynesian restaurant in San Diego, which was the last straw for my Dad. Proper and dignified, he could no longer tolerate her behavior and made up his mind to leave.
His first instinct was to fight for custody of me, but this was a losing battle for men at that time when it was largely believed that only women could care for young children. Also, my Dad had a demanding travel schedule, so he would have needed full time childcare. He tried to enlist the assistance of my paternal grandmother to take care of me, but she worked full time.
After the marriage ended, my Mom was engaged twice over a period of thirty years but never remarried. I suppose she never truly let go of my Dad.
As the years passed, my mother was left fending for herself as a single parent. Though my Dad gave her the house, the car (a Ford Thunderbird), and all our other major possessions, he was not forthcoming with financial support. He had visitation rights with me and at first followed through on them, but after a while found that the drop-offs were too emotionally painful for him, and he stopped coming.
To be honest, I don’t know how my Mom managed to support us. She had a beautiful voice, so for a short time— and some extra cash—she sang Aretha Franklin’s and Gladys Knight’s tunes in local nightclubs. I enjoyed when her talent surfaced at home, and together we sang along to all the Motown tunes that she played on our phonograph.
I recall her suffering from depression—which was not discussed at the time—and that she spent a lot of time in bed when she wasn’t shopping. Even at a young age I was aware of her drinking and remember emptying her vodka bottles and filling them with water.
My Mom was not religious, but felt I needed to attend a private school. I was taken to school daily by Mrs. Lefton—a stout blonde with wavy hair and a warm smile. The Leftons lived down the hill from us with four girls and a boy. Mrs. Lefton drove her five children and me to our small Christian school and then to church on Sundays in their large passenger van. Growing up I felt like a member of their family. At school and at church, something always seemed to prevent me from finding secure footing. Perhaps it was because my Mom never attended church with me; I was always in tow with the Leftons. For a while I tried the soulful black church in town—which seemed to help a bit.
Personal safety has always been an issue in my life. When I was about five years old, as a result of a break-in, we had to change the locks on our front door. Cliff Locke—aptly named, since he was the locksmith we hired to complete the job—was welcomed into the house by my mother, who subsequently passed out on the couch.
After completing his work, Cliff tried to wake my mother to let her know he was finished. Let’s just say he wasn’t exactly successful. He had to make the difficult decision of whether to stay and watch over me or leave me alone in the house with my passed-out mother. Later, Cliff became a close family friend and my mother’s AA sponsor.
One year later, my Mom recognized that her drinking had gotten out of control and sent me to live with my grandparents in Hampton, Virginia, for one year. During this time she voluntarily placed herself in a recovery facility called Turning Point for Women. I didn’t mind the separation since I was thrilled to be spending time with Nana, Pa, and my uncles.
I especially liked being with my Uncle Rodney, who was only ten years my senior and more of a brother to me. He came across as a lovable teenager who was always getting himself into trouble.
After the year passed, my Nana accompanied me on my return to San Diego. My Mom’s remarkable transformation to sobriety amazed me. My Nana called my Pa to let him know she and I had reached our destination, and they “had their Barbara back.” My Mom had returned to my grandparents and me. She went back to school, enrolling at San Diego State where she studied Industrial Engineering. She landed a job in that field with a private company and began what would become her career until her retirement many years later.
At last, I had consistency and structure in my life. I went right back to attending school with the Leftons. I also started ballet classes, which became a passionate creative outlet for me.
Unfortunately, my Dad’s football career ended prematurely due to back injuries. In 1966 he was traded from the San Diego Chargers to the Miami Dolphins, where he only played a few games. He had the option of undergoing spinal surgery—which risked paralysis—or retiring, and he chose the latter.
I suppose my Dad was fortunate that he was well educated and had interests outside of playing football. He loved coaching and mentoring young people, so it was a natural move for him to become a high school football coach as well as a history, gym, and driver’s ed teacher. Later, he became a high school assistant principal and principal. He retired from the San Diego Unified School District as a school administrator. It would be a major understatement to say that everyone admired and respected Earl Faison. His hulking size and booming voice commanded respect, but his slow moving gait and casual demeanor enabled people to feel at ease with him. When he entered a noisy room of students, you can be rest assured they silenced, sat up, and paid attention.
My Dad didn’t entirely give up the limelight, however. While he pursued his career in education, he also found occasional work as a Hollywood television and film actor. Over the years he landed guest roles on episodes of several classic programs, including The Beverly Hillbillies (two episodes as “Earl Bell”) and The Six Million Dollar Man. He played The Zombie in Kolchak: The Night Stalker and even had a line of dialogue in the Warren Beatty film Heaven Can Wait.
It shouldn’t be surprising that my Dad brought me to a few Chargers games while I was growing up. He also took me along to see Indiana—his alma mater—in the Holiday Bowl in 1979 when I was around thirteen. Not only did the Hoosiers defeat the BYU Cougars 38-37 in a sensational game, my Dad introduced me to the president of Indiana who urged me to apply to the college (which I later did).
Although I cherished these moments with my father, I can’t say that he was as present as I needed him to be. For most of my elementary school and teen years, I only saw him sporadically—maybe once or twice a year—and even on those occasions we didn’t have opportunities to speak one-on-one. He attended occasional special events, such as my ballet performances; my debutante ball, sponsored by the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority; and my graduation. For the most part, however, he was only interested in my academic pursuits. He was self-absorbed to some extent and never found an appropriate way to connect with me in any kind of meaningful fashion, although we always said “I love you” to each other. Sadly, living separately for so many years, we never fully clicked as father and daughter. To this day, reflecting on my larger-than-life Dad, I am envious of the many students who were inspired and guided by him. I can’t help but feel that I was cheated, and he invested in them more than me.
I guess it’s kind of ironic that, despite my Dad’s impressive professional football career as inspiration and my seemingly athletic build at five foot, eight inches, 126 pounds, I was far from being any kind of athlete. I couldn’t dribble and run at the same time, so basketball was ruled out. I dabbled at other sports, such as volleyball and track but did not have natural talent at either, so I pursued other things, such as becoming a varsity cheerleader. Later, I donned a big red bird costume and served as “Cardinal,” the school mascot.
Surprisingly, my father didn’t seem to care one bit that I didn’t play sports. Nor did he really pay much attention to my cheerleading, either. He was most attuned to my academic efforts and leadership skills and seemed genuinely impressed when I became senior class president.
I don’t know whether not having my Dad around or having any kind of consistent father figure in my life impacted me. It’s easy to speculate things like: Did this circumstance make me more vulnerable in some way to predators? Was I unprotected from male behavior—or naïve in some way?
Given the significant number of women and men of all ages who have been violated in some manner, I suspect that the things that happened to me over the years likely would have occurred anyway. On the other hand, having a six foot five, 270-pound all-pro football player Dad around me more often couldn’t have hurt! Especially when it came to one emotionally painful situation—the first time I experienced abuse.
I always loved babies and gravitated to them. I was thrilled when Stacy—my cousin who also lived in San Diego with her husband, Todd—had a baby, and I could come over for visits. Either my Mom would take me or Todd would pick me up and drive me to their home. At first I enjoyed this because it gave me the opportunity to spend time with their infant and to swim and play tennis at their apartment building, which conveniently had a pool and tennis courts. Meanwhile, my time away afforded my Mom a much needed break from single parenting.
Uncle Rodney gave my mother and me some stern warnings about my not going over to visit Stacy and Todd. Sometimes he spoke out so strongly against it that it led to screaming matches between him and my Mom. When I asked why I shouldn’t go, his response was always something along the lines of “Stay away from them. I just don’t trust them.” But he left out the real reason he was so adamant. Likely, it was because back in those days people didn’t even whisper a word about the awful subject—molestation.
My Mom had made it a habit of dismissing my uncle’s concerns, probably because he was sixteen years her junior, and she didn’t take him seriously. It didn’t help that Uncle Rodney often acted like an immature teenager himself. But things were abundantly clear: He loved me deeply, wanted to protect me as best as he could, and knew there was something sinister about Todd.
Inevitably, I discovered the why behind Uncle Rodney’s warnings. During one visit, after I had played tennis and gone for a swim, I returned to my cousins’ apartment, where I lay down on the floor in my damp swimsuit and watched television. At some point, Todd sidled up next to me on the floor. I didn’t think anything of it until his hand reached over to me, and he began exploring underneath my bathing suit.
I was completely unprepared for this: No one had ever given me any warnings about what to do if a man were to touch me in an inappropriate place. I didn’t know how to react. I felt alarmed and frozen with fear.
Somehow I must have said something to express my displeasure and slipped over to the couch. When he joined me there, I retreated to the bathroom where I holed myself up and prayed to go home. Eventually I emerged and managed to get through the rest of day without being subjected to further advances.
I didn’t tell anyone—not my Mom, Dad, or Uncle Rodney—about what happened, but after the incident I started to make up lame excuses about why I didn’t want to go to see Todd and Stacy.
“I don’t understand why you don’t want to go there anymore,” my mother would press me. “Don’t you like swimming and playing tennis?”
I shrugged this off. There was no way I was prepared to admit what Todd had done to me.
I’m not sure whether my Mom was most interested in my interacting with family, being outdoors, or getting exercise—or if she just wanted more of her own “free time.” Either way, she didn’t give me any choice a couple of weeks later when she drove me back to Todd and Stacy’s apartment building for another visit.
I reacted awkwardly around Todd and avoided eye contact with him. I did my best to steer clear of situations in which I would be alone with him, but this turned out to be impossible. It felt inevitable that something was going to happen and, sure enough, it did: He waved a pornographic magazine at me and tried to cajole me into looking at the lewd pictures with him. This time I was able to take a stronger stand. “Stop! Take that thing away,” I protested. “I’m not looking at any of that with you….. Something is really wrong with you.”
That was the extent of my second inappropriate encounter with Todd at his home. My mother continued to try to nudge me to go back for more visits, but I refused. She wasn’t going to win. Not this time. Todd and Stacy kept calling and badgering both of us about my going over there, but I remained firm. After a while, they finally stopped asking, and Mom gave up trying to convince me. To say I felt relief would be a major understatement. I suspect my Mom was waiting for me to disclose my reasoning, but I never did and eventually she let it go.
Looking back, I wish Mom had paid closer attention to my apprehension and had heeded my uncle’s warnings from the beginning. The experiences and emotions of having been violated stayed with me and taught me an invaluable lesson about not trusting people, especially around my children. I realized that anyone could be a child molester, and years later I protected my children like a grizzly. But little could I have known that this would not be the last time I would be forced into the role of victim myself.
I had a strong self-image as a teenager, despite the incidents of abuse and attending weekly AA meetings with my Mom. On the positive side of those meetings, I became close friends with Susan, whose mother was also an AA member. Together we passed the time having fun in the back of the room playing with our dolls.
Although I was blessed with beautiful skin, it always bothered me that I was not darker like my parents. I never wanted anyone to confuse me as either extreme—mixed race or white. I suppose everyone struggles with his or her identity to some extent while going through adolescence.
I was lucky to have had a good figure and, as mentioned, enough poise to make it as a varsity cheerleader and into the homecoming court. I worked hard at my studies and had plenty of friends and boys interested in me. My sense of self was strong, and I owe a great deal of my confidence to my Mom, who drilled into my head that there was nothing I couldn’t do or become, and I believed her. Throughout my youth there was nothing my Mom wouldn’t do or provide for me.
I admit that I wasn’t immediately smitten by Chris. In fact, I’m not sure I even liked him much at first. There was something about him that gave me pause, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Although he already had a girlfriend, Allison, he was relentless in his pursuit of me. He sent me flowers and came on strong. I remember saying to my friends that “He was too much, too quickly.”
On the other hand, his tenacity was wearing me down. What young girl in her right mind wouldn’t have been attracted to him? He was clean-cut with dark eyes and a light Chicano complexion. He had a muscular, athletic build and played varsity sports. He had a perfectionist streak, always dressing immaculately. As if that wasn’t enough, there was something deeply seductive and charming about him. He could adapt to any environment and somehow find a way to make himself seem comfortable in even the most intimidating situations.
At first I was concerned that Chris’s dad—a kind, hardworking blue collar guy—didn’t care for me, probably because Allison was demure and sweet whereas I was opinionated, outspoken, independent, and headstrong. I think he saw that our future would be wrought with difficulties. But his opinion may have worked in my favor for us to get together. Teen boys always rebel against their parents, don’t they?
Despite his dad’s pleas to remain with Allison, Chris dumped her for me. I remember seeing Allison cry all over campus. While I felt bad for her and still had some apprehensions about Chris, I eventually caved in to his overtures and we became a couple.
Within a month we were head over heels in love and were hardly ever seen apart, attending every dance together arm-in-arm. We spent many romantic days and evenings at the beach. He constantly sent me flowers and other gifts. He taught me how to drive a manual transmission and didn’t mind having me hang around with him and his baseball team pals. The sex was always good. He was a marvelous lover right from our initial intimate encounter, completely devoted to my satisfaction.
To outsiders, we probably seemed like the ideal couple— so much so that we were nominated as prom king and queen. We were destined for a fairy tale life together, right?
Well, not exactly—far from it, in fact. We were both strong-minded, direct people who bickered all the time. He became irrationally suspicious of me and jealous of my ex boyfriends, even though I remained faithful and had nothing whatsoever to do with them anymore.
Things became so heated between us that a major public blow up occurred in the high school quad the day before prom. I’m sure this is why we lost out on being voted prom king and queen to a far more deserving couple.
Despite all our highs and lows, the future looked bright for Chris and me in late spring 1983 as I set my sights on heading off to college. Since my childhood dream had been to become a surgeon, I planned to be pre-med and major in biology, so I could later attend medical school.
My Mom wanted me to attend Indiana University, where I would have had the “inside track” for admissions because my Dad was an alumni and had already planted some seeds for me to be accepted. I had two compelling reasons for wanting to remain closer to home and instead opted to attend the University of California San Diego (UCSD): my Mom was in remission from breast cancer, and I wanted to be near Chris, who was planning to take courses at a local community college in San Diego.
Admittedly, I struggled terribly at UCSD. I was a fish out of water in terms of being able to handle the workload. I worked tirelessly to keep up, but my pre-med friends and peers—who all went on to become successful doctors— were leagues ahead of me. Much later, I discovered that I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Who knows what I might have become if this had been known back then and I’d received the right treatment and tutoring.
It didn’t help that Chris was a major distraction, often visiting me and staying over. I was drowning academically.
Someone from the school or my dorm called my Mom to inform her of how much Chris was sleeping over in my dorm room. Naturally, this led to a heated argument between Mom and me. “I’m not paying all of that money for Chris to be at the dorm with you,” she warned. “You need to make a choice.”
What can I say? I lied. I reassured her that Chris’s presence was not in any way impacting my schoolwork and that I desperately wanted to succeed. I believed I could do both.
I ended up paying a severe price for not having heeded my mother’s warnings. All my mistakes coalesced into something of a nightmare and destroyed my ambitions of ever going to medical school and becoming a doctor.
I became a pregnant teenager.