Cherished Daughter, Forsaken Son

Journalist Unravels Family Secret

By Edie Gross

Photos by Stephanie Klein-Davis

Mary Carter Bishop ’67 grew up firmly believing she was an only child.

There had been a boy, 10 years her senior, who lived with her family when Bishop was very young, but she’d been told Ronnie Overstreet was her cousin. Besides, by the time she was 7, he was gone, and what few memories she had of the long-limbed, sullen teen grew hazier as the years passed.

“The only really semi-vivid memory I have is of him standing in our teeny-tiny foyer. I remember my mom having him stand there naked and dusting him with some kind of powder, as I recall for his allergies,” said Bishop, who figured she was about 4 at the time. “It was a very sad scene. I remember him looking very distressed, ashamed, humiliated. And she appeared angry to me. I just remember looking at those two and thinking, ‘Something’s not right here.’ ”

Bishop was 32 before she stumbled upon the source of that anger and shame: Ronnie wasn’t her cousin at all, but her half-brother – a dark secret her mother had guarded from friends and family alike because she was 18, poor, and unmarried when he was born in 1935, the product of a youthful “mistake.”

In Don’t You Ever: My Mother and Her Secret Son, Bishop thoughtfully weaves together the frayed threads of her mother’s enduring guilt, Ronnie’s tragic life, and her own shocking discovery. It’s an achingly personal tale that’s as much about class struggle in rural Virginia as it is one family’s heartbreaking history. Published in July 2018 by HarperCollins, the book is, in some ways, an attempt to reconcile the tender, overprotective mother Bishop knew with the one who seemed to have turned her back on her firstborn, once threatening him, “Don’t you ever call me mama!”

“Mary was such a cherished only child that it’s almost hard to believe how her brother was treated,” said Beth Macy, an author of three books herself and Bishop’s longtime colleague at The Roanoke Times. “It’s a story about shame, about poverty, about religion gone haywire. And it’s just so honest. That unflinching honesty is what makes the book so universal and makes it such a riveting read.”

The book is Bishop’s first, but she’s no stranger to difficult stories. In her 35 years as a newspaper journalist, Bishop covered everything from the struggle for migrant workers’ rights in the Carolinas to the dangerous practices within Virginia’s pest control industry, a Roanoke Times project for which she was a Pulitzer finalist in the late 1980s. She was also part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Since the publication of Don’t You Ever, Bishop has shared her family’s story at churches, libraries, and bookstores, including two minutes and 17 seconds of audio from Ronnie, the only recording he allowed her to make before he died in 1991. At each stop, people have told Bishop how they identify with her family’s circumstances: her mother’s shame, her brother’s self-loathing, and their aching desire for respectability. Her mother, who died in 2005, never forgave herself for having a child out of wedlock, Bishop said. But she recognized her daughter’s storytelling prowess and gave Bishop permission to publish the account – after she had died.

“One of the first stories that came out about my book had a headline that said ‘Journalist Reveals Mother’s Secrets,’ and I thought, ‘Oh God, I did!’ ” said Bishop, who lives in Roanoke with her husband, Dan Crawford. “If my mother and my brother had any privacy at all, it’s blown to bits.”

Long before she discovered her family had secrets, Bishop enjoyed an idyllic childhood, growing up in the shade of the Blue Ridge Mountains just east of Charlottesville. Her family lived in a tenant house on the Keswick estate of a DuPont chemical heiress, where Bishop’s father, Early Bishop, managed the farm and her mother, Adria Bishop, cared for the heiress’s two young sons.

Despite the beautiful backdrop, Bishop said she was always keenly aware of the community’s class divide: At the top were the wealthy landowners, who whiled away the hours with fox hunts and alcohol-fueled garden parties, and at the bottom was the servant class, people like her parents who were expected to work hard and keep quiet about the more scandalous activities of the elite.

Bishop fondly recalled watching the news each evening with her father. Though her high school guidance counselor urged her to consider a career in the growing field of speech pathology and audiology, she felt drawn to journalism.

“Listening to how they summarized very complicated events, I wanted to be one of them,” said Bishop, who majored in English and wrote for the student newspaper at Mary Washington.

She would ultimately earn a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University and another in creative writing at Hollins University. As a religion writer at the Richmond News Leader, she reported on clergy as they waded into national debates over race, poverty, and women’s rights. At the Charlotte Observer, she wrote about textile workers struggling to unionize and was part of a team of reporters that produced an investigative series on evangelist Billy Graham; it was later turned into a book. In 2001, she was awarded a federal grant to do research on eugenics survivors, information she hopes to turn into a book someday.

“The learning I did every week as a reporter, it was like majoring in 50 subjects,” Bishop said. “It was awesome.”

But she uncovered the most extraordinary story of her life in June 1978, when she returned to her parents’ home in Keswick to secure a copy of her birth certificate so she could obtain a passport for a trip to Europe. That’s when she noticed that her mother had written the numeral “1” in answer to the question, “How many other children of this mother are now living?” Bishop couldn’t fathom that her mother, ever meticulous, would make a mistake on her only child’s birth certificate. She also couldn’t imagine who that “1” could be.

“It’s Ronnie,” her mother told her, referencing the gloomy boy Bishop barely remembered from her childhood. It would be nine more years before Bishop would track Ronnie down at his barbershop in Vinton, just east of Roanoke. She wasn’t sure he’d want anything to do with her.

“I knew this much: I was spoiled rotten, and it was the opposite for him,” Bishop said. “I couldn’t imagine he would want to meet me.”

But he did, and over the next four years, Ronnie shared with her the tragic details of his life: his brief happiness with a foster family that loved and wanted to adopt him; his miserable stay in an orphanage; and his eventual return to his mother, who sent him to reform school and ultimately, at the behest of Keswick’s moneyed class, to a mental hospital where he endured shock treatment.

As a teenager, Adria Bishop had been exiled from her community and packed off to a home for unwed mothers. As an adult, she knew that acknowledging Ronnie as her son meant risking exile again and losing the little piece of paradise she and her husband had so carefully carved out for their daughter – something she was not willing to do. Ronnie was unwelcome, and he knew it, always referring to himself disparagingly.

“He started revealing parts of his story to me. I said, ‘I can’t believe these things happened to him.’ It was in such sharp contrast to how my life had been,” Bishop recalled.

Not long after their reunion, Ronnie was diagnosed with a rare hormonal disorder, one that could have been treated successfully decades earlier had Ronnie had close family or friends to notice the drastic changes in his appearance. Instead, even after his diagnosis, Ronnie insisted that his ballooning hands and feet and his misshapen face were inherited: “I just look like my old man, whoever the hell he was,” he would tell Bishop.

“That killed me when I realized that his estrangement from my mother and from my family meant he was all by himself,” Bishop said. “After all these things had happened to this man, he happened to get this rare disorder that played right into his worst fears about himself.”

Refusing surgery, Ronnie died of complications from the condition in 1991. Following the death of her parents – her father in 2003 and her mother two years later – Bishop set about working on her family’s story in earnest, consulting journals, letters, and school and hospital records, and interviewing longtime family friends. The way Adria Bishop treated her son was, in large part, a reaction to the way her community had treated her. Bishop said she hopes the book will soften the hearts of readers who might otherwise be quick to judge and condemn.

“I feel so lucky to have been able to tell the story,” she said. “I hope the readers will look with greater compassion on the people around them and reach out to not just family members but neighbors. I guess I just want people to be nicer to each other.”

 

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