Watching Antwone Fisher, Seeing Themselves

Kendra Hurley
December 23, 2002

Each year about 20,000 young adults across the country "age out" of foster care, striking out on their own. Many have trouble becoming self-sufficient—studies show a significant number never complete high school, remain unemployed, and end up homeless or on welfare. About one-quarter of the men become incarcerated. This holiday season brings us Antwone Fisher, a film showing the extent to which a painful childhood can encumber an adult. Adapted from the memoir Finding Fish, the movie follows a former foster child, played by Derek Luke, whose explosive temper in the Navy leads him to therapy, and an exploration of his anger, his painful memories, and his feelings of abandonment.

I brought four teens to preview the movie, all writers for Foster Care Youth United, the magazine written by and for teenagers in care that I edit. It wasn't an easy film for them to watch: For teens in care, it's tempting to think everything will get easier once they leave the system. Instead, the movie showed just how thoroughly a turbulent past can haunt one's present, making a persuasive argument for why former foster youth need access to services and emotional support long after they've left the system. Here are the reactions of writers Kareem Banks, Princess Carr, Marissa Hoey, and Shannel Walker:

Marissa: The movie was emotional. I was sitting there getting ready to cry.

Shannel: I cried twice. I shed real tears. Even though I didn't have as tough a time growing up as Antwone did, I've been in foster care. I felt what he went through.

Kareem: It shows how a bad childhood can affect someone. Antwone never forgot his childhood, and he had a bad temper because of it.

Princess: None of us forgets what happened to us, especially the bad. When something bad is done to you, it's like it's tearing at your soul. It stamps something on you. Even if you want to say, 'OK I'm done with this, this memory needs to go away,' it's always going to be there in some form.

I'm 22. I've been out of care for over a year. But like Antwone, to this day I have anger problems and abandonment issues and I have trouble getting close to people. I still can't sleep with my light off 'cause my mom put the fear of God in me. When someone walks out the door, I worry that they aren't coming back. My mother used to do that to me, leave me alone for a long time. And that's what this movie showed—the bad things affect you even after you've grown up.

But I liked the book much better than the movie. The movie was too long, and it still needed to draw out more events that happened in the book. All those events shaped Antwone's life. The reason he was so angry as an adult was because that stuff happened.

Shannel: I cried when he got molested as a little boy and the only person he told was his best friend, because he didn't have anyone else to trust. And I cried when that friend died, because that's how it sometimes feels in foster care—that the people you are closest to are always leaving you or hurting you. That's why people in foster care are sometimes scared to get close to somebody.

I've been interviewing a bunch of girls from a group home for a story I'm writing, and they tell me, "I'm scared to get close to somebody because they're going to leave me and then I'm going to feel like my life is over. That's why I don't have nobody. That's why I stay to myself." They don't want to experience love because they think 9 times out of 10 they're going to get hurt.

Kareem: If you're a little kid and people keep treating you bad and disowning you, as you get older you'll not trust nobody. It's a natural result of your childhood. That's what happened to Antwone.

Marissa: But another big reason why he was upset was because he didn't know who his family was, and he felt abandoned by them.

Shannel: It calmed him down when he met his family as an adult. Even though his mother barely said a word to him, he felt relieved. I shed a tear when he gave his mother a kiss on the cheek and explained how when he was a little boy coming home from school he would wish she was waiting for him with ice cream. I know that feeling. I know what it's like to have times when you need a mother and your mother's not there, and it really breaks you down. It helped Antwone to tell her how he felt growing up without her. But I was upset that the mom didn't say nothing back. How do you not see your son for 25 years and just say, "Do you want something to eat?"

Princess: It was different in the book. In the book his mother explained to Antwone what she'd been through and why she hadn't been there for him. That's when Antwone felt less angry. And in the book the mother didn't just forget about Antwone. When he was a child, she came to get him from his foster family. In the book she explains, "I came for you and they wouldn't let me have you. I was on drugs and I was homeless, and it didn't work out the way I wanted."
That's where Antwone's forgiveness came, that's where his acceptance came. They didn't let that be known in the movie. They made it as if the mother just forgot about him. Really, she was overwhelmed by her own troubles.

Marissa: That would have meant a lot to Antwone to know his mother was pushing for him, that she wanted him. I hope parents with kids in foster care see the movie. They would see how important it is for their kids to feel wanted.

Shannel: But in the movie, Antwone's new girlfriend [Joy Bryant]and his therapist [Denzel Washington] helped him learn to trust. That helped him get over his past.

Kareem: If he hadn't been in the Navy and met his therapist, Antwone probably would have been in jail, because he had no direction or guidance. He was completely on his own. Social workers or people studying to be social workers should see the movie. If they see how a therapist or that kind of relationship can change a person like Antwone, they would know that they really are doing more than just a job, that trust in a relationship can help someone get over a hard life.

Princess: But at the end of the movie, I didn't think Antwone was going to make a whole 180 degree change. Antwone did confront his demons—maybe not all of them—but the ones that had the biggest hold on him. He'll put more closure on the past because of that. He won't be like he was in the beginning of the show where he was beating people left and right just for saying something to him. But he's still going to have stuff to struggle with. That anger is not the same, it's not as strong, but it's still there. I would know. I'm no longer in foster care, I've been in therapy, and I still struggle.
Still, it really would help if those of us who have left foster care could get the kind of help that Antwone got from his therapist. But instead of giving us someone to lean on when we leave care, the system forgets about us the minute we walk out the door. If foster teens had somebody who made sure we had all the proper help we need after we leave care, maybe we wouldn't have so many issues on top of having to survive on our own.


Kendra Hurley is co-editor of Foster Care Youth United, a national magazine written by and for teenagers in foster care, which is published by Youth Communication.