Stephanie Thornton Plymale, AMERICAN DAUGHTER

Stephanie Thornton Plymale, AMERICAN DAUGHTER

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Stephanie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Stephanie Thornton Plymale: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I could not be more excited to talk about American Daughter: A Memoir. I’m showing the cover to anybody watching on YouTube. Stephanie, this book, I opened it early on Saturday morning. I was like, I’ll just read few pages now. Then I’ll go work out or do something or deal with whatever. I stayed in one spot for four hours and read the entire thing. I could not put the thing down. It’s so good. It is so, so, so good. Congratulations.

Stephanie: Thank you. I’m so happy to hear that from you. I can’t wait to hear what you think about it and what your thoughts are. I can’t wait.

Zibby: First of all, why don’t you tell listeners what this memoir is about?

Stephanie: You know, you read the memoir, it’s so hard to say in just a brush stroke. Basically, after about fifty years of complete silence and living in shame with my story, I decided to come clean and write my story of my past of living homeless, in foster care, a severely mentally ill mother with multiple personalities, drug addictions, and just this life of homelessness that I had all the way up until I got married. Simultaneously, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I was estranged from her because of the stalking order of her trying to take my life and burn my house down and horrendous things. I decided at that time it was time for me to get answers. I went in to do a series of interviews with my mother because that’s the only way she would talk to me, is do an interview with her. Then what came out, the shocking, horrific crime that happened against her and then the reconciliation and the process of healing our relationship and many, many other layers that come out in this memoir and in my book to the point of the end where my mother and I fully reconcile.

Zibby: It’s so much more than that, as if that wasn’t enough. That’s what was so remarkable about this book. First, it’s all of just your ability to overcome the traumas of your early childhood and your retelling of all of what happened to you and all those scenes where I’m literally sitting there with my hand over my mouth reading because it’s like, oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this happened. It’s also, what I thought was really beautiful — first of all — I’m so excited to talk about this. I can’t get words out. Part of your background — I don’t want to give it away because I had no idea it was coming, but your own story throughout history, where your family came from was also unbelievable, especially the way you unveiled it the way you did. The third part that I really loved is that it’s really a love story between you and your husband. You had this whole moment of almost cheating. It’s really a love story. I feel like it has every element, the mother, the adversity, the love story, and it’s true, which is what the craziest part is.

Stephanie: It’s a true story.

Zibby: Even your mother’s ability to overcome adversity, oh, my gosh.

Stephanie: There’s so many layers for me. I appreciate how you brought what I said in bringing in what you said because it is hard to really distill it the way — it’s almost impossible to distill it into this brush stroke. We can go into more, but you did a good job.

Zibby: Thank you. Why did you write this? Why did you decide to take your story and put it in memoir form and do such a good job?

Stephanie: I started writing the minute I started working with my mom. Even before then, I started to write my story before I knew the whole story. Once this started to come out, these revelations and my relationship with my mom and, really, my failing in my marriage that was able to be restored, just everything needed to be told. It also started to feel like a story that was for everybody, and it is. It’s this American story. It’s the story of the failings of America. I fell through every crack. I fell through the education crack; my mother, a mental health crack. Our family just fell through every crack possible. Then I’m also the American story of being able to succeed in the opportunities that I’ve been able to have. It’s a story of our history, even. My family is the history of our country that came out of this. There’s just so many reasons why this story needed to be told. People will say — I was just telling my staff, we were talking about this — that I’m brave. It’s not about being brave. I feel free. I don’t have to live in hiding. I don’t have to live in shame. I’m an open book. There’s something just so freeing about that.

Zibby: You are an open book that is now sitting here open on my desk. Literally, you are. I could imagine that would be freeing. I don’t know how you were carrying around that heavy load for so long. I don’t know how corrosive that must have been in so many ways, keeping all those secrets. What was that like?

Stephanie: It’s exhausting. It was exhausting. Before I could even meet with somebody — my husband had a big career as a CEO. I was always having to meet and entertain people. I’d have to make a plan of what questions and how would I answer them before every time I met a new person if they said, where are you from? Where’d you go to school? How many siblings do you have? I don’t know. One was kidnapped. I don’t know if I should add him. There was no way for me to tell my story and be normal. It was exhausting. That’s why I say I’m just so free now. It’s all out there. I had all this external success, but inside, I was just broken. I was empty. I was a shell of person before I started this. Now everything’s integrated. I get to be a whole person. Even my name, Thornton, I took my name back. I didn’t even have a name. I didn’t have a grandparent. I didn’t have a cousin. I had nobody. I had no history that I knew of. I took it all back. I’m just so whole now.

Zibby: Wow. It’s amazing. It’s just amazing.

Stephanie: I don’t know what it’s like to have had these things either. Even when I was living in the back of station wagon eating seaweed, I didn’t know any better. I wasn’t unhappy. I was with my siblings. We were all together. I truly love the beach still. We lived in the beach. I’ve had to come to terms really through the process of writing my book. I lived outside. I lived in a car. I went to the bathroom outside. We ate seaweed. This was my life that I had. I didn’t know any different. Even today, it shocks me. We were living like animals outside. That is sometimes just staggering for me.

Zibby: You even bring in your own parenting in this book. Even the way you adopted your daughter, this international adoption saga that ended beautifully with your daughter, but even your point of view of being able to say, look, this was what my daughter was like when she was eleven. Listen to what was going on with my mother and what was going on with me. Yet you have three children that are being raised totally “normally” in a very comfortable environment. Yet look what happened.

Stephanie: I tried to raise them idyllic. I tried to be the opposite. I tried to give my daughter everything that I didn’t have, which isn’t always great at all. That was that façade that I put on that you read about that I think we all do in a way. We can hide behind this. I could hide behind this interior design business or all of this, but it’s still there.

Zibby: Do you still do interior design, or do you only run your schools?

Stephanie: I just do it for fun. If you follow me on Instagram — I think you’re following me.

Zibby: I am, yeah.

Stephanie: I am constantly redesigning stuff. I’m constantly styling. I do that for the school, but it’s just my fun passion. I don’t have time to work with clients anymore. I just run the schools. Then now I’m doing a lot of philanthropic work and stuff with the book and starting a podcast and starting on my next book. Design, you’ll see on my Instagram, it’s my love.

Zibby: Slow down. Go back for a second. Tell me about the next book and the podcast.

Stephanie: I’m starting a podcast called “Overcoming.” I’m interviewing extraordinary people who have been through extraordinary circumstances who come out on the other side to share their story, their strategies to help inspire other people to share their stories and to gain more strategies on how to overcome. It’s all about overcoming. Don’t we all need that right now after the pandemic?

Zibby: Yes.

Stephanie: That’s what I’m doing. My book working title is called Overcoming. I didn’t share everything in American Daughter.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. That, I find hard to believe.

Stephanie: Oh, no, I scaled it. People say, wow, you just really let it out. It’s like, no, we actually had to edit a lot out for this book to make sure that this book was just perfectly aligned with the story. There’s still more of overcoming.

Zibby: I can’t wait.

Stephanie: If you think about being homeless all the way up until I got married, I was in and out of cars, foster homes. I fell through that whole system, aged out, got kicked out my senior year for not getting my tags done on my car. I had to live with no parenting, no guidance. Can you even imagine your senior year? I think about my kids and how vulnerable they are. To be in their car staying in somebody’s sofa their senior, it’s just astounding how much I fell through these cracks.

Zibby: What is like then if your child complains about something? Are you just like, don’t even?

Stephanie: I’m not. They don’t like me to do that. They’re not into that. I’ve never been like that. I never shared my story with my kids. They never knew until I wrote this book. They only had glimpses of seeing my mother. They knew there was a stalking order. I shielded them from everything. They found out about my story when I wrote this book.

Zibby: What was like for you?

Stephanie: I just wanted to protect them from everything.

Zibby: What was it like having them now learn it? What was that experience like? Did you hand them the copy of the manuscript?

Stephanie: Literally.

Zibby: Literally, you were just like, here, this is what happened?

Stephanie: Yeah, literally. Here it is if you want to read it. Here’s the story. They lived also with their mother not being truly a whole person either. I hate that about the story because they didn’t get to find out about their history. If I was raising my kids now, I’d be sharing these wonderful successful things from my family. I’d be sharing the horrific parts of our American heritage that we all have in terms of the Washingtons, the horrible things they did, the good things that they did. They never got to grow up knowing their heritage, but my grandkids will. If I had the story, that would’ve made them more whole too instead of a mother who had no history, no background, and shared nothing.

Zibby: Don’t beat yourself up, seriously. I’m sure you’ve done an extraordinary job. You can sense how much you love and dote on your kids in the book. I’m sure they’re amazing people in their own rights. I’m sure you did a fantastic job. Whatever you needed at that point to get through, that’s what you needed then. Now you’re ready for this.

Stephanie: Exactly. I don’t have any regrets. I do feel like I really tried hard having no skills. If you think about it, I had no parents. I was really homeless, orphaned. Then I decided to have a family with no skills. I just had to muddle my way through. For me, being as loving and doting on them was a safe thing to do.

Zibby: The process of writing this, were you sobbing over your keyboard? What was that like?

Stephanie: Oh, my gosh, it depends on the parts. It depends. When I found out about my mother and what happened to her, so during the interview when she told me what had happened and she said, “Go look it up in the papers, 1953, and you’ll find out,” I still didn’t believe her. You have to understand my mom’s been in and out of psych wards over a hundred times in my lifetime, or jail. Anything she says you would take with a grain of salt. To find out what happened and to have never asked the questions that I wished that I had earlier — but it was about the right timing. To find out what happened to her felt like somebody kicked me in the stomach a hundred times. The physical pain of what she went through being abducted and getting raped, it was horrific, but it also then created a lot of compassion that I had for her. Even if you read the first chapter, my mother describes trying to end her pregnancy with me. Just like we’re sitting here talking, my mother told me with no emotion — and I wrote it that way. If you read chapter one, this is right out of her mouth exactly how it went down in the interview. She had no feeling or compassion. Stuff like that is really hard to learn and to process. That was hard. What I’d like to say is that once I realized what happened to my mother, her personalities, her mental health, her addiction, it all made sense. It all made sense at that point. My compassion for her grew. Also, I was to a point in my life where I mattered. I never mattered. I never mattered to my mother. I never mattered in the system. I never mattered. I matter now. I mattered and I was still going to get the answers. She was still going to keep going through with the interviews. These interviews went on for two years. She wanted them to stop. I set the next one up week after week until I was done. That was two years later. The interviews went from being interviewing her to us having a relationship and forming a bond and love that we never had. That was very meaningful.

Zibby: The way that you wrote it and the way you discovered and shared your discoveries, we all — well, I can’t talk for anybody else. Now I need to find people who have read this book so I can talk to them about it too.

Stephanie: In your group, your book club.

Zibby: In my book club, I’ll do it, yes. We’ll do it in my book club. We all felt that too. We all went through that period of, oh, my gosh, that’s what happened. Then you have to go back in your mind and say, does that change the way I view this person now that I have this information? Can I reshuffle and readjust like a filter or something when you have new data? It’s just crazy.

Stephanie: I’ve only met one person who said, “I cannot forgive your mom. I do not care what happened to her.” I had only one person.

Zibby: What happened to that person? That person probably has a lot of stuff they’re carrying around too. Most of the time, people’s reactions to things are based on their own stuff.

Stephanie: Most people — which was important to me that my mother’s story be told and that people would have compassion on others with mental health issues because I did. I did. I grew up in a way that I’m so thankful that I don’t have mental health issues. Most of my siblings do. They didn’t quite come out. So often, it’s just not the fault of the person. It’s what’s happened to them. You see that in American Daughter. You see what happened to my mother. It makes perfect sense how this can happen to somebody.

Zibby: I know you were clearly protecting the privacy of some of your siblings. In my greed at your story, wanting more and more, I was like, I want a picture. I almost googled and was trying to — I was like, I can’t do this. This is creepy now if I’m trying to google your siblings and your mom. I was like, should I try to look up the articles? Maybe I’ll look and investigate.

Stephanie: Well, they’re out there.

Zibby: I know. I’m sure.

Stephanie: People do. People do all the time. I notice if I google myself, I see what other people are googling.

Zibby: Exactly, what fills in after.

Stephanie: We all do that. In Overcoming, I’ll probably share more about some of the stuff that people really are interested in similar to you where they just wanted to know more. It’s not going to hurt anybody by sharing.

Zibby: Are your siblings that you’re still in touch with and that are remaining, are they okay with where you’ve —

Stephanie: — You know Dominic who was kidnapped. He lives in New York. He’s living his life. He’s had a rough life, prison stays. It’s to be expected. He had a really rough life. Other siblings, one of my siblings has been diagnosed with five different mental illnesses. He makes my mom look like a walk in the park, to be honest. It’s really, really scary. A lot of this trauma and honestly, illiteracy — I didn’t learn to read until I was eleven years old. We lived outside. We did not go to school. The first time I went to school was in my foster home where I was held captive, is what I like to say because I was literally tortured there, was my first time in school. You imagine how traumatic school was for me. My siblings, they were barely literate. Your early childhood is so traumatized like this.

Zibby: I love how you talked about the boyfriend who worked at RadioShack sitting there teaching you how to read. That was just beautiful, heartbreaking but beautiful, and even how you described Rick and your complicated feelings about him and everything. Can I just read a paragraph? Is that okay?

Stephanie: Sure.

Zibby: When you were talking about Rick and how he always used to tell you that you were beautiful inside and out and how he said that to you over and over again, and then you said, “On the morning of his funeral, a homeless woman came up to me in Starbucks drawing closer than a stranger would. With no alarm at all, I let her reach out and touch my face. ‘You’re beautiful,’ she . ‘I can see you’re beautiful inside and out.’ It was Rick’s mantra to me, and in that moment, I had no doubt that the message was from him. The gift of it knocked me out, rocked me from my roots of my hair to the soles of my feet. It was a moment as otherworldly as the one in that vintage bar at the piano when music flowed from beneath my hands with no explanation. That was my first memory with Rick, and this would be my last, both of them shimmering, glittering with mystery.” Beautiful.

Stephanie: That made me cry thinking about that moment at his funeral. Readers haven’t been able read to about Rick, but Rick was a conman. Rick stole a mail truck and took us to Mexico. It’s just stuff movies are made out of. This is the craziest stuff. He was conman. He’d been in prison. He had even taken someone’s life in prison. That didn’t make the book. I loved him. He was like Santa Claus to me. He’d showed up here and there drugged out. I’d be like, oh, my god, he’s back! Yay! I loved Rick. When you read about his turnaround and his recovery from drugs and alcohol, he became one of the most amazing human beings I’d ever met. I loved him. We had a great relationship. He even did things like — I’m a designer. I own these schools now. He was the first person to take me to beautiful homes in Portland that he was working on as a contractor to show me what interior design really was. He would take me to these beautiful houses. I got to touch the fabrics. There were things about Rick that I think as a child I saw in him that nobody else saw. Even before he died, he asked me, “What did you see in me? Why do you love me? Are you crazy?” He would say, “Are you crazy? What in the world is wrong with you?”

Zibby: I love that relationship and all these signs that you point out over and over in the book. This whole book, there’s some sort of spiritual thread to everything that is just so inspiring. I sound like a broken record.

Stephanie: I’m so glad you see that because in so many ways, sharing my story, it has a little bit of a magical way in people’s lives. This book affects everybody in a different way. As crazy as this story is, as we’ve just laid out here, everybody sees themself in American Daughter. It’s truly an American story. I didn’t set out to do that. It’s just it is that.

Zibby: Is this going to be a movie?

Stephanie: I’m sure it is. They’re talking about a miniseries, which I think would be far better than one movie. We all want a miniseries, right? We like to binge those.

Zibby: I love how now the miniseries is rebranded as a limited series as if it’s a completely different animal whereas it’s exactly the same, but whatever. I’m just going to let it go. It’s great. A limited series is like a ten-hour movie. It’s perfect. It’s fantastic.

Stephanie: That’s what we all really want. There’s so much layering to the story, like you said, from my story to my mother’s story to our history to all the people in this book. I think it’ll be a really good series. We’ll see. I know they’re talking about it, working on it. I’m excited to hear about it.

Zibby: Me too. Do you have advice to aspiring authors?

Stephanie: Yeah. Have you written a book? I didn’t read that about you.

Zibby: I have. I’ve written unpublished books. I have an anthology coming out very soon.

Stephanie: You do?

Zibby: Yeah, Moms Don’t Have Time To: A Quarantine Anthology. It comes out in two weeks.

Stephanie: Really? That’s so exciting. Congratulations.

Zibby: Thank you.

Stephanie: That’s so exciting. My journey of publishing was really wild, as wild as this book is. I published with Greenleaf which is hybrid publishing. I published American Daughter because I like to learn the hard way on everything. I published it. It went straight to number-one best seller in memoir. I was on the Today Show. It just exploded. Then HarperCollins bought the book two weeks later, took it off the market. Then I’ve had a fabulous experience with HarperCollins. That’s the next phase of American Daughter. I’ve had a chance to do both. I really love both experiences. If you have a chance to work with a publisher, I think it’s fabulous. If you also get a chance to self-publish, I think it’s a wonderful education for people. I just don’t think that people should tell you not to do something like this. If you want to write a book, write a book. Do it. It’s the best. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I’m free from it. As hard as it was, it was so fulfilling. I just think writing a book is so fulfilling. It’s such a major accomplishment. I recommend if that’s something you want to do to go for it. Don’t let anybody tell you that book’s been done before or any of the negativity. I heard it all. I got the looks. Who cares? What’s another story? Even if I just did it for myself, it’s fabulous. The book’s going to touch people’s lives. You need to go for it. You definitely want to know your audience. You want to be clear about what the purpose of your book is for. There’s a lot of things. I want to teach a little class on publishing because I’ve been successful as a self-publisher and I’ve been successful working with a wonderful publisher like HarperCollins.

Zibby: Great. We’ll be signing up for that.

Stephanie: That’s next year.

Zibby: Stephanie, thank you. This book really touched me profoundly. As you’ve said, it’s touched so many other people and will continue to do so. I am just so in awe of you and feel like I have this place in my heart for you now that I know so much about you and have gone through this book journey here. It’s really amazing. I’m thrilled to have you in book club at some point soon. I just congratulate you from the bottom of my heart.

Stephanie: I love being on your show. I love following you. I love your positive energy. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks for coming. Thanks for following me.

Stephanie: Oh, I’m all in.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Stephanie: Thank you. I’ll talk to you soon. I can’t wait to be in your book club.

Zibby: Me too. Thank you. Buh-bye.

Stephanie: Bye.

Stephanie Thornton Plymale, AMERICAN DAUGHTER