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Debra Dickerson: "I'm going to lose my kids as a punishment for running out of money"

I'm only sharing this with you because I know that during the very difficult economic time, many of you who are reading this blog are struggling with similar issues.

Debra Dickerson was one of the first writers to write about Blogging While Brown. She mentioned the conference on her Mother Jones blog and I want to say she discussed this blog WAY before anyone else knew we existed. For whatever reason her name has some special position in my repository of pleasant memories related to blogging. So I paid attention when Richard Prince's Journalisms wrote that Debra Dickerson and her children were  homeless.
"I can't know why any random street person is destitute but I know why I am: my divorce," Dickerson wrote. "Five and a half years of litigation later (we were only married for five) I've lost everything. My career. My health. My home. My possessions. Our beloved cat and my very sense of self. Now, most likely, my kids since I can't provide a home for them.

Now the lawyer in me has a completely different take on this, but I won't quibble with a lay person about their interpretation of  the role the family court system in her  decline. Nor will I discuss financial planning or literacy.  Your perception IS your reality.  If this is why she thinks she found herself in this situation then it is what it is.  We can debate whether or not her divorce or the decisions she made about how she wanted to pursue that divorce lead her to her current predicament,  but however you may feel about HOW or WHy Debra ended up in her current predicament, this was really painful to read:

I'm not writing this to settle scores with my ex. The specifics of our legal conflict is unworthy of public attention. I'm writing this because I'm going to lose my kids as a punishment for running out of money.. . . . Last but not least in the litany of all that I've lost is my passion for writing. This experience has been so debilitating, I gradually lost my love for wordsmithing. My long-term unemployment in the post-internet wasteland that is now journalism and publishing hasn't helped. To be sure, I could work all day everyday as a writer were I willing to do so for peanuts. Just turned down a job reviewing six books. For fifty dollars. Debra Dickerson

Ironically, her unwillingness to work for "peanuts" might be the last yoke the Universe if trying to rid her of.

I suspect that a number of things are converging here. The mental debilitation by long term unemployment is enough to break any normal person. Couple that with having to care for two small children plus stressing over how to provide for them and a custody battle, anyone would fall into a severe depression and suffer from impaired judgement.  In the middle of a storm is about the worst time to be making major life decisions. I would also add that stress, depression, and anxiety combined with an internet connection can be a DANGEROUS combination.

She and I are similar in that anxiety shuts me down creatively but stress also yields some of the greatest work I've ever written... none of which any of you have ever seen :) because I've learned my lesson which I address in my book... Blogging While Intoxicated is generally a bad thing. It doesn't matter what you are intoxicated with, anger, depression, fear, euphoria.. when your normal judgment is impaired by the stressful nature of the catastrophic events of life, having access to technology transmit thoughts to the world isn't necessarily a good thing.

On the other hand, she might find some comfort from others who connect with her as a result of sharing.

I wish Debra all the best, and I applaud her willingness to be open with her struggle. There are a LOT of people who are struggling right now. The wheres and whys or hows are irrelevant. When you're in the middle of the storm, you have tunnel vision. The only thing  you can see if the darkness the clouds around you and that tiny stream of light that you cling to as the way out.

I was lucky in that I had my Damascus Road moment fairly early in my adult life.  I wouldn't trade nothing for my journey now, but I can't imagine being 51 and going through the same thing.

You can Follow Debra on Twitter and at her blog.

Reader Comments (36)

I'm sorry to hear this. Dickerson is a no non-sense sistah who can be counted on to speak her mind.

But (and there is always a but) isn't she a Harvard trained attorney? What else is going on?

(I'll leave it at that.)

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

@monica I know I know. There is more going on, but I figure she'll share in time. The post is kinda double edged in that I'm noting that we all go THROUGH, but its a tough call regarding when, whether and how to share that online.

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergem2001

I wonder if her predicament will cause her to change her views on post blackness. Everyone has their battle in life but it seems she looked down on the lower classes of blacks. Here she holds a Harvard Law degree in a homeless shelter with the very type of people she despised. I guess now she needs to pull herself up by the bootstraps. I wonder if her kids will feel "black on her account" by living in poverty

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterblkchik

Before she will let her kids suffer, she will give custody to their father .

There are lots of folks - black, white and other - that have degrees that have fallen on hard times. Throw in depression, and a sense of worthlessness, and life turns into one big bitch...

Unlike the folks that Debra supposedly "despises", she will pull herself up - and over and above. What she despises is the mentality of "Oh well, in the gutter, might as well stay here".. no no she is too much of a bougie and a fighter for that.

My heart breaks for her and my prayers go out to her..

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTracy

I dunno. I thouroughly enjoyed both An American Story and The End of Blackness, but many of Debra's articles after that, particularly those regarding her children were almost always skin-color obessessive to a fault.

I remeber her writing about her children being the grandchildren of "Ivy League professors" and that they would have a "cushy" life style. She even went so far as to ridicule her own son for overly articulating his words. She compared her hair to that of Simpson's character "Sideshow Bob" while her half-white children who "look white" had alabaster skin and silky ringlets.

Where are these Ivy Leauge grandparents now? Why are they allowing they're flesh and blood to reside in a hotel? I'm sensitive to her plight, but at this point blogging about how sorry she feels for herself hasn't chnaged her situation. I admire her courage for being so open and public about her turn of misfortune, but she needs to start exhibiting some of that self reliance that she talked about in EOB.

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBLKSeaGoat

I've rarely agreed with any of Debra's writings, however I wish her the best as she works her way out of this predicament.

Depression is very real, but I hope that she can somehow look outside of herself and see that there are many people who have fewer intellectual and societal resources than she, who have gone through worse and overcome.

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSonya Steele

This is what I understand about Dickerson. She grew up in a working class family. After high school, she joined the military and was able to obtain her bachelor’s degree and masters while in the Air Force. She attended Harvard after she was discharged and began her career as a writer after she graduated. I’m not sure if she ever practiced law. After establishing herself, she decided to get married. I recall it was to a white man who had pursued her for years but she wasn’t interested (she was waiting on the super brother). She had two children with him. I recall on Bill Mar’s program she said she decided to end her marriage. Fast forward a few years and she’s living hand to mouth and depending on the kindness of others (embarrassing her kids and herself in the process)
Her story is an American up by the bootstraps story. To be sure, it was rare for a woman (anyone black, white, or Latino for that matter) from the working class to claw her to the top, becoming an acclaimed essayist with her work featured in a number of prestigious publications. One can’t help but wonder what went wrong. We all suffer setbacks but Dickerson has proven that she can overcome obstacles.  If you can do it once, you can do it again if you need to.
A lot of us (well at least I have) have had periods of soul crushing depression. You work your way through it with medication and counseling to get you over the hump (if you can afford it). If that’s not available, you can take the positive route of pushing through the darkness with detractions such as work or volunteer activities and focusing on diet, exercise, adequate sleep, prayer or mediation, journaling, and practicing gratitude. The other option is to go negative: self medicating with things like fire water, wallowing in misery and blaming your problems on others.
I have coped using all three methods.  Dickerson turning her nose up at a paying gig when she has nothing else coming in, shows me the road she’s taking. She doesn’t realize that this isn’t about the money but about the opportunity.
I hoped that her homelessness blog and twittering would offer some honest self-reflection, but from what I have seen, it has not.
I wish her all the best.       

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

Sorry Gina. That seems like a blog post instead of a comment.

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

I applaude her for being open. It is very difficult for a person who has achieved so much to admit they are stuck. Maybe she will walk away with new insight as to how others have arrived at that spot. After rising again maybe she will be able to speak with even more authority on the personal responsibility to pull ones self up and how it's done

I am not a psycologist and will not attempt to play one but I can relate to how it feels for life to punch you in the gut after you feel you did everything right, played by the rules and avoided the no goods. You tried and still ended up in a place with others who chose to just roll out of bed with their hands out. It hurts. It angers and makes you question everything you thought you knew to be true.

I wish her the best and how she comes back to the place where she knows that the same set of skills, will and devine guideance that caused her success the first time are still available and that she still knows how to use them. She may have to take a different track and be open to new expressions of her talent but it can and more than likely will happen.

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBee

I'm a journalist and I personally know how tough it is in the field right now. Journalism is going through a transition because of new media and the layoffs have been massive. Especially for those in print. With her education background I question too how she got in this situation. But I hope she can pull herself up. I understand her losing her passion for writing. Sometimes when you're going through so much and it hurts soooo bad, it's hard to pick up that pen or in this age, keyboard.

May 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCocoa Fly

Divorce is expensive - I can see how she got there if a protracted battle ensued - and custody battles can get nasty.

I'm not a fan of Dickerson - she has serious "black" issues that she's been all too willing to air out for the world to see.

From what I remember from her writing she essentially cut herself off from her family (too poor and too black is how I took it) and so without that security I guess you can find yourself in a homeless shelter with your kids.

While I don't recommend editing 6 books for 50$ there are plenty of "peanut" writing positions on line where you can make $50/60 an hour and bring in a full time income - maybe not one she's used to - but still enough to feed, clothe and house her and her children.

Also with her (presumed) level of connections I don't see how she hasn't landed some sort of consulting/writing/freelance gig with a major website or some broadcast work. Or hell even a teaching kid at a major University.

i suspect she's leaving a lot out and I suspect those legal fees are killer. I wish her the best.

May 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJJ

This story--marriage, motherhood and divorce plunging a woman into poverty-is actually common. Motherhood is fast downward mobility for women who don't maintain or increase their income/wealth while parenting. Women who choose to take time away from
maximizing earning and career to care for kids find themselves financially vulnerable if the bottom drops out from their partner's financial support.
divorce statistics:
* Divorced women with children are four times more likely than married women to have an income that is under the poverty line.
* A single mom is nine times more likely than a married woman to have an income that is less than half the official poverty line.
* Although 10% of families in the U.S. are headed by a woman, 40% of poor families have a female head of household.
Of course, divorce also results in a higher cost to society as a whole. According to one study, a single divorce can cost state and federal governments more than $30,000 in court fees, increased bankruptcies, food stamps, and public housing benefits.

May 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNathalie

Hmm, I've never heard of her until today but based upon her views I'm not surprised that I haven't.

I checked out her "homeless" blog and it seems to me that she's more interested in blogging about her situation than finding a job. Talking about the paint color of the hotels she's living in...?

I can't help but feel that she's turned her situation into some sort of realty TV special via the net. Seems like it's one big road trip for her and her children.

Maybe that's her intent. If it is she is indeed a great writer.

May 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBella B


I 'm not sure that the statement about her family is true. It's been a while since I read "Who Shot Johnny", but I thought she was quite connected to her family.

But if what you say is true, I don't think that contributed to her current situation. As someone who was never able to depend on her family and who knows the impact of a family who use guilt to drain you, I can tell you that some families offer no security.

In fact the stress caused by family members unmotivated to do any with their lives and who identify themselves by the struggles of being poor, the ones who think others succeed because of their connections and hook-ups, can be detrimental.

May 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonica


I'm sure most single, child-free black women figured this out a long time ago which is why we rebuff calls to marry down.

May 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonica


To be fair most women initiate divorces citing financial problems as the reason. It isnt simply that, "the bottom drops out from their partner’s financial support."

May 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThe Economist


"I’m sure most single, child-free black women figured this out a long time ago which is why we rebuff calls to marry down."

Thats kind of a non sequitur especially when you consider that a) most women marry up, b) upwards of 80% of divorces are filed by women. You may have to marry way way up, in order to avoid certain pitfalls which is even more unlikely. Better to stay unmarried and especially child free.

May 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThe Economist

"In fact the stress caused by family members unmotivated to do any with their lives and who identify themselves by the struggles of being poor, the ones who think others succeed because of their connections and hook-ups, can be detrimental."

That's a very broad statement. I believe that your statement can be true for some but not all.
I'm a divorced mother of one who has an extended family that has been very supportive and if it hadn't been for them I don't know where I would be. Divorce can rock you to your core, especially when there are children involved. It takes some time for one to be able to regain their footing.

I understand fully through my relationships with other divorced mothers and/or single mothers that not everyone is lucky enough to have extended family as a safety net. But it doesn’t mean that there are many who do have supportive families.

It truly hurt to read about Ms. Dickerson’s current situation. I hope that she does find her footing soon.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterthelilidiva4u

I can sympathize with Ms. Dickerson's situation. I am a divorced mother of two who is struggling in this economy. I tell you if it wasn't for financial aid and my extended family I wouldn't know what I would do. No one realizes how hard it is for women to raise children on their own until you do it first hand. This economy has flipped the script of sorts in that no one really wants educated people to work for them. Most jobs out there are low end retail and pay peanuts. You really have to dumbe yourself down to get a job. Trust me, I am having a heck of a time trying to find a part-time job while I am in school. I know people will say she can move to another state, but really is that feasible with two small children. That's why I am a big proponent of better child support laws.
Ms. Dickerson, keep your head up and stay prayerful.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShell

Also, the internet has really killed and hampered the job search. I mean even restaurants want you to fill out applications on-line. Have you ever filled out one of those on-line job applications. It's ridiculous. Someone recently joked to me that finding a job is like playing the lottery. You have to be it in to win it.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShell


some families are great; others are not. I'm glad you have a family who will help.

I can only speak from personal experience. Some relationships should not be maintained. It's not the lack of money that makes being around unmotivated family members unhealthy, it's the attitude and the 'poverty' state of mind.

(I'm still working to change my state of mind.)

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

I work at a public library in a large city. We have a area called the Job Shop....a room with 20 pcs and a fax machine to fax resumes. Currently we have every pc in the lab full and at least 10 more people out on the floor using the pcs usually set aside for word processing.
It took us a while but we finally figured out that employers are using online applications as a way to discourage and weed out folks. You would be amazed at how easily people give up when it comes down to filling out an online application and how hard the simplests ones are for most people. The world changed and left behind a lot of people....no joke.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChele Belle

Over the past decade, I have come to enjoy the words and wisdom from several Black women such as, but not limited to, Gina, Jill Nelson, Bell Hooks and indeed Ms. Dickerson. These strong, sane, intellectually honest and productive voices have often been a suave to the sickness that is the Black male hegemony. In the last view months, Saviour’s Day, Tavis, Rev. Al, and the Obama hater up in Harlem typifies this illness.

After reading Ms. Dickerson’s biography, blogs and columns, I thought the issue she was totally wrong on and deeply personal was her promotion of white men---imported never domestic. I can truly understand the salvos being fired on both sides about why neither Black men and Black women make good life partners. Hell, like me add most Black folks don’t make good friends too. That being said most of my enduring friendship are with Black folks. I hope you understand the dichotomy. While Ms. Dickerson basked in the glory of interracial bliss, I knew that there was something amiss because ain’t no relationship that damn good. Ms. Dickerson trumpeted her children as having no apparent physical traits of blackness and were so, so white in appearance. Coincidentally, I don’t think that will serve them well in the ghettos of Albany. If I may surmise rightly or wrongly, the only reason the divorce is hurting you so bad is because you were carrying him.

Debra now get it together!!! You are better than that. Please do not fall in the trap like some many other talented Black women who have loved interracially and lost big time never to recover. Yes, you will recover, yes you will write professionally again, and yes you may even love gain. However, enough of the shameless pity. You have brains let us know it’s working.

Remember the words of the late Rev. Ike: the best thing you can do for the poor is not become one of them.

May 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBlackAchievement

Ms Dickerson got what was coming to her!

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMenelik Charles

Shell, I wish you all the best during these trying times.

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCool Beans

WAOD made Debra's blog.

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBLKSeaGoat

And I know that this is the totally wrong place to post this, but Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to up to 5 years in prison for violating the terms of his probation. He was also fired from is 6 figure salary job that he got the day AFTER he exited the pokey during his last stint of incarceration.

Please don't ban me Gina, I was just too giddy when I got the alert!

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBLKSeaGoat

I really feel for her. Years ago I worked with a woman going through a nasty divorce, and I mean this was NASTY. If it had not been for her mother, sister and friends, she would not have made it. It nearly drained her financially and the only reason her husband stopped fighting was because he met another woman who wanted to marry him and she was like, "get on with it, sign the papers!" Otherwise, she still might be fighting now, nearly 20 years later.

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEva

Thanks, Cool Beans

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShell

I hope Ms. Dickerson can recover quickly.

There are a lot of educated people who you may not have imagined would be struggling...yet they are.

The recession has been brutal to many journalists as noted earlier.
A fellow writer and Latina writes about her own financial trouble in "Hot Broke Messes"...the irony of her book is that she gives financial advice to others in her columns, yet she herself was deep in the dark hole of debt.


May 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterknockoutchick

"I wouldn’t trade nothing for my journey now, but I can’t imagine being 51 and going through the same thing."

My Dear as you are aware these type of things are happening every day. I too wish Debra well and keep moving forward. She has talent, go and write that great story(fiction) of your life.

May 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjanice

On second thought, Ms. Dickerson could take a page from Kristy Alley's life and use humour to sell herself. Kristy got Oprah to docorate her kitchen. Kristy has no shame when it comes to getting hers. Ms. Dickerson could possibly write a sitcom...well its a start. Yes, I know writing for a living is not easy. Networking is important to most people's careers.

May 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjanice

Janice, as someone who was educated in formal writing I know firsthand how the literary community looks down on commercial fiction. I am proud to admit to enjoying reading and writing commercial fiction. Most writers though that's where the money is and will always be. To help pay off my student loans I have decided to write romance and chick lit novels. Too many educated people let their education trick them into becoming prideful. I just finish two for young adults. Ms. Dickerson should take a cue from Terry McMillan and others. Also, my professors always drilled into us that we should always keep our day jobs.

May 26, 2010 | Unregistered Commentershell

BLKSeaGoat, to answer these questions: Where are these Ivy Leauge grandparents now? Why are they allowing they’re flesh and blood to reside in a hotel?

The father's family offered to pay Debra's rent, utilities, and food for two months when she let them know she was on the verge of being evicted. She turned them down, and chose to become "homeless". Debra has cut off virtually all contact between her children and their father's family, to everyone's distress. The decisions she has made have not been in her children's best interest (like taking them out of one of the best local public suburban school districts in favor of an inner city school that did not meet their needs, and keeping them from their father, who was the primary caregiver in their lives from the beginning, as Debra was always more interested in her career than her children). Now Debra has removed her children not only from their father, but from their community. Letting them live with their father while she gets herself back on her feet would be the logical, best choice for them, but unfortunately for her son and daughter, one she is unable to see and make.

May 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArielle


I don't believe most of what you're saying, but if that's what you believe, then I guess that's what it is.

If what you are saying is actually true, then the white man who fathered her children is a spineless POS.

May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBLKSeaGoat

Wow! Today is October 8, 2010. I happened to be reading an article about Thomas Sowell. Something went off in my head and told me: Google Debra. Lord have mercy! I know Debra and I think the last time I spoke to her by telephone was--oh a few years ago--and she told me that she was being considered as a contract writer for The New York Times Magazine. I knew that she was going through some problems; but, I was shocked to read and find this current update about her life. In fact, I remember when she was pregnant with one of her children. She gave a lecture at a college that I organized. She was gracious and, in fact, talked about the fact that "no black man" wanted her. I don't know all of the details of her relationship/marraige with her husband (who I understand is an architect); but, I guess the moral to all of this is: black men are not the only ones who treat black women wrong. This needs go be understood.

Debra--and this is clear from her memoir--is dealing with a lot of pain. That's clear. She is a graduate from Harvard Law School. There are folks there who could help her find a job somewhere I think.

As for making a living as a writer these days, things have changed a great deal unless ou are a branded writer or know editors. Writers (freelance) have to work for damn near for free. The lucky ones can make a few dollars here and there; but, the Internet has created a situation where wven major online sites are not paying a writer a dime to blog.

I hope that Debra pulls through.

October 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThink

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