Zibby is joined by journalist and author Tiffanie Drayton to talk about her first book, Black American Refugee, which grew out of one of her popular New York Times articles. The two discuss how Tiffanie decided to portray the narcissistic abuse she endured from her ex-husband in the same way she portrayed the narcissistic abuse of living in America, as well as what it was like to reflect on some of her painful memories. Tiffanie also offers a less than ideal follow-up to the end of her story and offers an inspiring call to arms for those who have been maligned by our government.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tiffanie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your absolutely beautiful memoir, Black American Refugee: Escaping the Narcissism of the American Dream.

Tiffanie Drayton: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be able to talk to you about it.

Zibby: This is such a unique memoir. Not only do you tell your own story and your own escape from a narcissistic relationship — thank you for all the information about what that is like, that particular brand of abuse, for the many people, I’m sure, reading it who need to know what that is — but also how you apply it to American history and culture. It’s so interesting the way you interwove those narratives to make America actually the narcissistic abuser as well. Really a brilliant way to do that. I thought it was beautiful. You are a great writer. I am so glad that our paths intersected, especially through Sue Shapiro a while back. That was a lot. Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit more about the book in general and when you decided to make this a book?

Tiffanie: You say that was a lot, but the story is so layered that it’s a lot. That was a perfect description. Right around the time of the murder of George Floyd, I sold an essay to The New York Times. It pretty much told the story of me deciding to leave America to get away from all of the racism and the turmoil. Sue Shapiro, who always tells me what to do next, she was like, “Make sure you say you’re writing a book. Make sure you say you’re writing a book.” I’m like, “But I’m not writing a book.” She’s like, “Yes, you are.” I put that I was writing a book. As a result, then I got an agent. I worked on the proposal immediately. Within maybe a month, we sold the book.

Zibby: What happened after your article came out?

Tiffanie: As soon as the article came out, I got an agent right away. I sold the book. It was probably a month between the article coming out and the book being sold. Really, that was a testament of two things, A, how much I had learned about writing proposals and stuff as a ghostwriter, and B, having great mentorship from Susan Shapiro. She was like, “Listen, get on it now.” I would’ve never thought to work so fast, but she was absolutely right. That was really great.

Zibby: Wow. You start with growing up and growing up in America as a Black girl, your mom, who was trying to elevate herself in the world with her different jobs and working so, so hard and having all these setbacks. I have to say, by the time we got to the end where she was safely with you guys in Trinidad and Tobago, it brought tears to my eyes with her calling her friends. Oh, my gosh, your mom is amazing, basically, as you well know. You go through the financial crisis and what happened when you moved to Florida and having to move back to New Jersey and your tiny bit of an okay grace period. Tell me a little bit about those years and even what it was like having to think back and write about them and maybe analyze it now with the framework that you have as a super smart adult who can make sense of some of the issues that happened in the past.

Tiffanie: When I decided to incorporate the idea of narcissistic abuse into the book, I didn’t really know how it would interplay with my life story. I was like, you know what? Let me just get something on the page. Let me just write the story. Let me pick the most poignant moments of my life and just write it out and see what happens. After I did that, I gave my draft to my sister. My sister was like, “You know, I think you can just put each part of the cycle of narcissistic abuse as the name of the chapter.” That’s when it really occurred to me. I was like, wait a minute, the thesis actually stands because it works. Just by applying these labels, all of a sudden, I saw how that cycle had been playing out over the course of my life, whether it’s first arriving to the country and having all of these narratives be told you. America’s the land of the free. You just have to work hard. You get told that the Thanksgiving between the pilgrims and the Native Americans, how lovely it was. In reality, it was mass genocide. You always go through this cycle. You don’t even notice it. It was only really when I applied these labels to the different parts of my life story that I was able to see so clearly how the cycle of abuse was indeed playing out over the course of my life and my relationship with America.

Zibby: Wow. The high level, how is America a narcissistic abuser?

Tiffanie: Narcissistic abuse really has elements that are unlike other types of abuse, especially in the beginning. Everything is about love-bombing. You sell this perfect narrative where you’re made for each other. It’s godsent. Everything is godsent. It really reminded me of manifest destiny and how God was used a reason for the expansion of America westward. Eventually, the cycle moves you into being devalued. As a little Black girl, I encountered that, whether it be through imagery of Black people in the media, whether it be how in the eighties and the nineties there was always some ridiculous court case like the Central Park Five or Black people being referred to as welfare queens, all types of ways that Black people are devalued. Then eventually, the discard phase, which is when you’re just kind of thrown to the side. It’s like, this person isn’t important anymore. This person doesn’t mean anything anymore. The easiest way for people to understand that are systems like mass incarceration or even for myself, being displaced by a really, really terrible policy like what happened during the crisis when, in Florida, my family was forced to move as a result of being priced out of neighborhoods and rezoned and the financial crisis impacting Florida in the way that it did. That cycle perpetuates both in your individual life and as you analyze the history of the United States of America and its relationship with Black people. You see it play out in that larger relationship too.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. You also have, as one of the parts of the abuse cycle, what happens when you try to leave and how that just enrages — essentially, the narcissist has had some injury done to their self-perception that they can’t live with, and so they self-aggrandize. Then when you try to really shake that, they cannot tolerate it.

Tiffanie: It’s sad because though the book ends where it ends, the part that I’m living out now, it’s insane. Now I’m stuck in America. I’m a stuck parent because my ex enlisted the court system to start this whole custody fight over my kids. He pretty much went to court and said that I kidnapped my kids. As a result, I have been stuck here since November. I have not seen my kids.

Zibby: What?

Tracey: Yes, yes, yes. I have been exposed to the failure of the court system. Not only that, but now it has really reinforced my thesis because it’s like, how can someone go to court and tell blatant lies and continue to terrorize a human being? A lot of people will tell me, they’re like, when you think about how America views the rest of the world, it’s like, why should these American kids live in some island? It’s not safe. I’ve heard so many of these narratives play out over the course of this case that I’ve been dealing with. Even financial abuse, when you start to analyze the family court system and you look at how a person that is technically a poor person — myself, even my ex, we are still not rich people. We’re still just struggling to get by. Yet you have to throw out tens of thousands of dollars to fight in a legal system for your children. It’s one of the scariest continuations of a pattern of abuse that even I could’ve never ever, ever anticipated, honestly.

Zibby: Wait, so the book — can we even talk about how the book ends? It’s not a nail-biter, essentially, because I feel like your theory is up. You say even in your bio or whatever that you end up leaving America, which I think is so interesting, too, because you did it. You not only left your relationship, you left America. You left all the patterns. You left all the places that were getting you down. I just felt like you were so victorious at the end. You did it. Now to hear this is so crushing. I literally can’t believe it. Can I ask you more about it? He said you were kidnapping them. Then you were forced to come back with the kids?

Tiffanie: Yes.

Zibby: Then he took the kids away?

Tiffanie: Yeah. The borders of Trinidad were closed for a while, and so I couldn’t travel. Now it’s been two, three years that we’ve been locked into this custody dispute. Of course, because they ordered the kids to return — I wasn’t living here. I didn’t have an address, so they gave him custody of the kids. Since then, I have not been able to see them. He has just withheld them. They do nothing about it. I just don’t see my kids.

Zibby: Oh, Tiffanie. That is the most tragic thing ever. How are you dealing with that?

Tiffanie: It’s horrible.

Zibby: Do you have a good lawyer?

Tiffanie: It’s lawyer after lawyer. It’s constant.

Zibby: I am so sorry. It’s terrible. I can’t even believe he got away with that.

Tiffanie: They’re saying there has to be a trial. He never follows any court orders. To date, he doesn’t follow court orders. They just postpone the date of everything every time. They don’t enforce any of his court orders, ever. You know how you have to hire a custody evaluator and pay a retainer? He hasn’t done that. They’ve done nothing about it. It’s been since November. They’ve done nothing about it. There was a hearing scheduled for, I think it was yesterday. I asked, “What happened in the hearing?” Now I’m not even able to attend them. I just have to ask the lawyer, “What happened?” The lawyer’s like, “It’s been postponed.” It’s constant postponing, postponing, postponing.

Zibby: Do you get to talk to them, the kids?

Tiffanie: Yeah. There’s a court order that I get to talk to them every other day for how much ever time. Most of the time, he doesn’t even follow that court order.

Zibby: This is so awful. I’m so sorry.

Tiffanie: You get dragged back in the fight. Back to the argument about narcissistic abuse, once you try to leave the abuser, they get more angry. They throw so many resources behind making your life a living hell. The only thing that has made that bearable is the fact that as a result of me writing this book, I just gained this support group — amen — a lot of women that are like, I’ve been through this. I’ve seen this. I’ve been connected with a lot of women who are fighting for women’s rights in the family court system and protecting children from abuse, etc. Now I’m locked in this new fight that I would’ve never even — when I finished that book, I thought it was done. I knew it wasn’t done because narcissistic abuse, it just doesn’t end that way. It doesn’t end easily. It’s always, you have to completely fight to get out of the situation. A lot of the women that I talk to who have been in really high-conflict custody disputes, it’s typically with a narcissistic-type personality. They all tell me the same thing. They’ve all endured years of litigation. It’s unending, never-ending. Now we have to fight for reform. It’s unbelievable to me, honestly. The types of things I’ve been exposed to, it’s unbelievable. I could never imagine this level of failure.

Zibby: What can we do? What can we do as a society? What can we all do? I was just at this panel last night about — there was a whole documentary about women and the failure to provide the supports even just to have a regular working life as a mom and a woman and how the government has failed us in that way without childcare and how everything’s sort of stacked against us. This is just yet another failure. I’m feeling very down about everything, honestly. Where is the hope? How do we effect change?

Tiffanie: I feel the hope is in, just like I said before, this community of women I’ve now been exposed to, both, A, writers and B, advocates. This year alone, Angelina Jolie went and spoke, I believe it was at the UN at one point about passing something called Kayden’s Law and pushing the pass of VAWA, which is the Violence Against Women Act. Kayden’s Law, it’s pretty much to protect children from having to be with their abusers. Watching Angelina give that speech, it was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen. Simultaneously, it’s fantastic to see women fighting and see change, as slow and as difficult as it is. We are mobilizing. We are really supporting each other. That’s the glimmer of hope. The glimmer of hope is that we are really, really connecting with each other and offering the support that five, ten years ago — five to ten years ago, nobody was even talking about family court or talking about how difficult it is or being honest about how it is to be a mom, even. My mom’s generation, nobody was talking about how hard it is to be a mom, how hard it is to survive this thing, but we are now. There’s this level of transparency, vulnerability. Also, we have resources. We are our own advocates. That’s the hope. It’s not in the system. There’s no hope in the system.

Zibby: I hope that’s not true. I really do. That would be too depressing.

Tiffanie: Not as it stands. We have to literally force it to become something that empowers us and protects us. We have to force that because it has never been that. The other day, I was doing a panel for women. They were talking about the fact that women’s rights have never been codified in the Constitution. That’s something that they’ve been pushing for. I think it’s called ERA. They’ve been pushing for women’s rights to be actually codified in the Constitution because the Constitution only refers to men. Why? That’s absurd. I would say at the very least it should just refer to humans. If you’re going to refer to men, you definitely need to refer to women. This is such a major step to get women properly protected and to have them have rights under the Constitution. We’re doing all of these fights that — for my generation, I would’ve never ever imagined we would be at this point with Roe v. Wade. I would never imagine it. Nonetheless, here we are. The upside, once again, is we have the education. We are committed to each other. We are supportive in ways we’ve never been. We’re more honest. That’s the only saving grace, us, the women.

Zibby: Wow. On the other hand, that’s really powerful. It’s not just the women. Look at us. There’s so many of us.

Tiffanie: Boom! When it came time for me to deal with this whole court situation and have to come back to New York, I had just become acquainted with this group of women who were all writers. One of the women was like, “What can we do? How can we help you?” One my girlfriends, she has a little apartment in New York City. She was like, “You can stay here.” She’s Upstate with her family. Fortunately, I just got this whole community to rally around me. I could never have imagined how terrible the fight would’ve been and then how beautiful the sisterhood is simultaneously. My life is extremes, the extreme of the beauty of seeing this awesome community blossom out of nowhere and then the reality of a fight that I could never have even thought that this is where I would be as a woman, as a Black woman, as a young Black woman.

Zibby: How did your ex respond to this book? How were you able to even write about him?

Tiffanie: He hasn’t said anything. Well, because it’s true. Fortunately, he hasn’t said anything about it. It wasn’t the first time that I wrote about our relationship. I had written some essays in the past. Ultimately for me, it’s not about just a conversation about my ex and even the abuse that I encountered dealing with my ex. It wasn’t even just about that. It’s really about using that story to educate women and educate any victims of abuse, male or female, so that they can be more familiar with the cycle and make sure that they’re not getting entrapped in anything like that, and then simultaneously, to call America out and to demand better. Without swift intervention, this thing will get worse. As I say about the unmasking, people don’t recognize 2020 was a year of unmasking for America. The whole world saw so many failures of, whether it be protecting the rights of Black people with the murder of George Floyd or whether it be protecting the dignity and the health of its citizens with the pandemic, the failures are so glaring now. As a result of being in that moment where you’re seeing the unmasking and the perception shift globally of what America is, that’s when, for me, the people need to recognize it’s their responsibility to make sure that America does right by them because it’s going to do everything to protect itself. These failed structures are going to do everything to protect themselves even as they’ve been unmasked. We need to really make sure that we’re trying to organize and have accountability and make sure that we’re safe.

Zibby: It makes me want to start a whole new government. What if we created what it should be? What if we rewrote the Constitution, restarted it, pretended like we just woke up on this planet? Here we are. How would we craft it today?

Tiffanie: Yes. These are the conversations that so many people are starting to have. The piecemeal change is not sufficient to address the scale of the issues, whether we’re the climate crisis, whether we’re looking at the health care system and how it’s in shambles, whether we’re looking at the family court system. The family court system is failing me and has failed women and children not just because of the patriarchy, but because these people are actually overworked. There isn’t the capacity to deal with the issue in a way that’s — whatever system has been erected is insufficient to actually address the issue. Knowing that now, I can’t tell people, oh, just go vote. Just do that. No, no, no. We need to actually be organizing to create entirely new systems or to call these systems to task in a way that will offer major change because that’s the only way we’re going to address this moment and have anything worthwhile to hand to our kids.

Zibby: You are a great leader for this. I’m serious. You might not have wanted to be, but this is where you have landed. It’s where you’re meant to be. You can make so much change yourself. It’s really inspiring.

Tiffanie: I try to explain to my mom — my mom has been so heartbroken.

Zibby: I bet.

Tiffanie: I’m sorry.

Zibby: No, it’s terrible. This whole thing is so terrible. Where is she? Is she still in — where is she?

Tiffanie: She’s in Trinidad.

Zibby: She’s still there. What about your sister?

Tiffanie: She’s there too. I have to make her leave because she just couldn’t deal. I was like, “You cannot be here.” Every time with the court, she’s expecting that — it’s like, okay, I’m here now. I’m in New York. I’ve been here for months. She’s expecting they’re going to let us see the kids. She’ll get to see them. Every single time, it’s always a delay. It’s always awful. It got to the point where I was like, “Mom, I can’t deal with how you’re feeling and how I’m feeling. I can’t do both.” Aside from that, my book is coming out. It’s everything.

Zibby: I’m so sorry. I am so sorry. This must be devastating and exhausting. It’s awful. I am so sorry.

Tiffanie: It’s an exhausting and empowering and angering and every freaking thing. If I didn’t feel these things, if I wasn’t forced into this predicament, I wouldn’t, honestly, feel the drive to meet the moment. I’m grateful for that because I would say comfort breeds a certain level of — you allow yourself to be more complicit. Even ignorance, in ignorance, there’s so much in how we are not treating other humans as humans and how we’re not protecting children and how we’re allowing a house-less population to just explode. It’s so many things that we allow as human beings once we have comfort. This disruption of my comfort has been so eye-opening. As terrible as it is, the other side to it is that necessary anger, that fire under your butt to get up and do something, say something, anything.

Zibby: Wow. If there’s one thing listeners can do it is to buy this book to help you out, Black American Refugee: Escaping the Narcissism of the American Dream, as a first step. If you are responding to this conversation, that is step one, is to get the book. Read more about Tiffanie and how amazing she is. What is the second step? What else is the most valuable thing people listening could do? What do you think?

Tiffanie: The most valuable thing is to really sit with the lessons of the pandemic and to really analyze what we want from our individual lives moving forward. There’s been this push to go back to normal, but we need to redefine what we want normal to be. We can no longer return to what it was before. Each individual within themselves has this more beautiful, well-rounded idea of normal as a result of being exposed to the pandemic. They’re letting that vision kind of fade away with this anticipation of things returning to the way they were. I just caution people not to do that. Stay with that feeling of what it meant to not have to travel to a job every single day. Demand the right to actually have more time with your families. These are things that are going to drive us to making the necessary change that we need in this world, the humanness, the love, the family, refocusing on these things. Once we do as individuals, I feel like that’s going to create just this wave of change in the whole society.

Zibby: Tiffanie, I’m going to email you after this. My heart is just — I want to see how I can help and what I can do. You’re lighting a fire under so many people. I hate that it’s taken this terrible, tragic time in your life to do it, but I’m impressed at the grace with which you’re doing it.

Tiffanie: Thank you. Thank you so much for the work that you’re doing and giving writers a platform, giving moms a platform. Thank you for your advocating for my book. It was really, really amazing to see the article that you did. It was really touching, the round-up. I was like, oh, my gosh.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much.



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