Before Michael Brown's death became an urgent call to action, Lezley McSpadden strove to provide stability and safety for her son in a hostile world.
Photo by Mark Seliger
On the day her son Mike Brown was gunned down by a Ferguson police officer, Lezley McSpadden was filmed by a swarm of TV cameras, distraught in her husband's arms. Stories and analyses about the family's life saturated the news. Now McSpadden has published a memoir, Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil: The Life and Legacy of My Son Michael Brown, sharing the story of her son and her own upbringing (both painful and joyous). The books traces the course of her pregnancy at the age of 16, two abusive relationships with the fathers of her four children, struggles with poverty and low-wage service work, but also finding fulfillment in her family and solace in therapy surrounded by the company of other mothers who have tragically lost their children to police and vigilante violence. Broadly spoke with McSpadden about her new book, her deceased son (whom she calls Mike Mike), her relationship with the police and her raw cameo in Beyonce's Lemonade.
BROADLY: Why did you decide to write this book? What was the process like?
Lezley McSpadden: I decided to write the book for my son, and for his truth, and so that the world would know who Michael Brown was and how he was loved, and that he was not all the things that the media tried to make him out to be.
Writing that book came about when I was watching all the news and reading the articles, and listening to all the lies. And I didn't want to go out there physically and be vocally argumentative to anyone about their false accusations. I just started journaling, and that's how the book came about.
And when I met Lyah [LeFlore], who is the writer, we had conversation after conversation, we became friends, I would confide in her and say, "That's not true when they say that." She was around my family and just hearing so much, and she wanted to do something to help. She said she didn't just want to write a blurb or an article for a magazine. She wanted to do something special so she offered: "What do you think about a book? How do you feel about putting your truth on paper?" I thought about it and I thought about it and I just kept journaling, then last year I decided to start writing a book and share it with the world.
You share candidly your experiences of abusive relationships, especially with Mike's father. Having just lost your son, was it difficult to also have to spend so much time with the man who abused you?
If that's what I had to do for my son, I'll do that. And that's what I did. I'm able to look at what's really going on and what was really going on wasn't about [Mike's father], it wasn't about me. So if I had to stand on the side of him again for my son I'll do that. But what I went through with him, I'm not willing to go through that again.
How have you changed as a parent to your other kids since Mike's death?
I parent them all the same but the one thing that did change is I got more protective. We don't really go too many places or do too many outdoorsy things like we used to. We're getting back to doing that but it's just when we go out so many people recognize us and they point, they stare, they say things.
I have not let them see me broken down like I was when it happened. I have to be strong for them. I want them to not be insecure about living out their lives. I try to show them the same Mama, the same Lezley. I try to show them the same person as before this happened, because they're kids, first of all. Second of all, I have a daughter who's under seven, who doesn't understand all the way. I have an 11-year-old son and I don't want him to think that at 18 something like this is gonna happen to him. And then I also have a 17-year-old daughter who's the closest person to Mike Mike, three years apart. And for her to be a black female and for that to be her brother I have to keep it instilled in her that, "You are someone special and you will always be someone special." I don't want her to not feel that she can't do her best or get her best because of this thing, of people looking at her as his sister, because she was always his sister.
So normal isn't a thing for us anymore but we try to be, we try to be.
They say there's this conversation that you're supposed to have with your son at a certain age pertaining to the police. But they only say that to black mothers, for black boys. Why?
Could you talk more about the lessons that you try to teach your kids? Do your younger kids ask about the police, for example?
They don't ask those questions. When my nephew was over he made a comment to me before when he saw a policeman he ran. And I asked him why and he told me, "Well because this is what they did to Mike Mike." I don't want them to feel like that but there are some things that I cannot teach them.
So in the foundation that I have for my son we're starting programs that will be with some policemen that will come in and hopefully reassure these younger kids that they should not be scared of the police, that there is a difference in good policing and bad policing. And with the older children try to get them to be a part of the police force, because if they do those things they'll come back to their neighborhoods and police those neighborhoods where they came from, because they do completely understand it.
That's why I'm willing to work with police through my foundation to create something where they can come in and we can do conferences and speeches and even one-on-one and reassure these kids that they should not be scared, that before a person puts on a police uniform they are individuals, they are a person. It may not have anything to do with their professionalism at their job. People bring chaos with them all the time, we don't know what was going on in Darren Wilson's head that day but I definitely know he was not acting like a professional policeman.
They say there's this conversation that you're supposed to have with your son at a certain age pertaining to the police. But they only say that to black mothers, for black boys. Why? Why does he have to have a special conversation? I don't know anything about it, I never thought to warn my kids about the police. Who does that? So I think that's a conversation that maybe should be part of the training for these officers when they're going through their training stages. I don't think that should just be a conversation for black mothers to have with black boys, that's so not right.
You think that's a strange thing to be asking black parents to do?
It definitely is. It's just wording racism in a different way. They're just saying Well maybe you should have this talk. But why only me, as a black mother, should I have this talk? When you think about it as a black mother, with black kids—and I do have another 11-year-old son—why is it only apparent for me to have this conversation but not for my [white] friend Amber to have this conversation with her son? To me it's just another form of racism.
Can you talk about your experience with therapy?
Therapy has taught me how to deal with my feelings. I like to talk to my therapist because she's not a person who will try to tell me how to do it, or what to do; she helps navigate the feelings. I think everybody takes different pieces of therapy and they make it work for them. And that's what worked for me. And in the Rainbow of Mothers program [a foundation McSpadden created to work with other mothers who lost their children] I know that a lot of these women may need the therapy like I did.
I didn't think that I needed it but once I got it it was helpful. It gives you an outlet to go and speak to someone when you need to, and they're understanding and they're not taking any sides. They just give you the advice and the ear that you need at the time. We had an event and over 12 therapists donated their time and came in to give these mothers attention and it was so great that to this day they're talking about it. But you know, it's very expensive and everybody can't afford a therapist, so I appreciate the person that actually helped me get a therapist and helped me continue to go to therapy. Because this is like PTSD for any parent to go through and you definitely need some mental advice and you're gonna need someone to walk you through those steps. It's very important.
You said at first you didn't think you needed therapy, what changed your mind?
What changed my mind was speaking to another mother; actually it was Tamir Rice's mother. I think that every time we talked maybe she heard something in me or from me that told her to give me that advice. Because she too had a therapist and she let me know how great it was for her and how it worked for her and how it would help. She would say, "Just try it," but in my mind I felt like if I went they would just try to change my mind, they would just try to make me feel different or say "forget him." I felt like they were gonna be trying to make me say things that I'm not ready to say and I'm not ready to give in and feel that way, like make me feel a feeling that I'm not feeling. So I was a little reluctant, I drew back, like, "I don't want to do that." And then one day I was like Well I don't want to talk to everybody that disagrees with me either. And I said, "I'm gonna take her advice and I'm gonna go see a therapist." And from that day to today I've been seeing a therapist ever since then.
Were you surprised by anything in therapy?
When I went to therapy I would tell her about my feelings about doing things, even if it was like this interview or going somewhere because I had been talked to bad, I had hate mail sent to me, I had police put middle fingers up at me. I was like, Why? What did I do? And talking to her and getting some understanding from someone who doesn't know me at all—doesn't know my son, wasn't out there protesting, has no relation to any of this—she opened my eyes to another way of looking at things. She also let me know that saying "no" is ok. She just reassured me that, "Nothing is wrong with you, you haven't done anything, and you must regain your energy and your strength and come back to be who you are. Don't let this change you." Talking to her is reassuring and I encourage anybody that's having doubts about themselves or anything that they're going through to see a therapist.
Do you think going to a therapist is different then confiding in a pastor or religious leader?
I think it's a personal choice. For me, this is the thing if people choose to go to a church and talk to a pastor: Church, for me, is supposed to be accepting of all, right? So if I'm in a church and I say, "Well I don't forgive the person, that he did what he did to my son." The pastor isn't gonna agree with me. You know, he's not gonna want to hear that, he's gonna instantly tell me that I should forgive. But my question to him would be: Well if we all should forgive and we all praise one God, and we all read out of one Bible, why are there so many different religions? So that there by itself says that it's OK to go speak to somebody else. You understand what I'm saying?
So in a church setting you might be told what you should feel or think? And that's not necessarily helpful when you're trying to process your pain?
Right, correct. So true.
You appeared in Beyonce's Lemonade along with the mothers of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. As the camera approached you were shaking your head and a tear streamed down your cheek. What was happening in that moment for you?
My feelings. My feelings for my son. I didn't cry until they gave me his picture to hold.