Heartbreaking Truths and A Parent’s Brave Pursuit of Reciprocal Love in Raising a Thief by Paul Podolsky – with Author Q & A

My Review:

Memoir gives us a window into someone else’s life and sheds light on emotions and struggles we may not have experienced.  In Raising A Thief , Paul Podolsky brings us into his world where he and his wife chose to grow their family through adoption.  They endured painful occurrences and realizations about their beloved child, who at 16 months, they brought home from an orphanage in Kaliningrad, Russia.

This is a powerful story of a family and the many challenges they faced with their daughter.  Sonya, a Russian adoptee was brought into a loving home after spending time in an orphanage.  She had emotional issues that did not allow her to give and receive love, and some behavioral issues that included lying and stealing, from a young age.  Ultimately diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, stemming from early childhood trauma, neglect and disfunction, Paul and his wife Marina did all that they could to get Sonya the help that she needed to be on track to live a fulfilling life and be connected to others. 

Written with heart, honesty and humility, from the perspective of a well intended father, our eyes are opened to the never ending hope, the bad and the ugly, along with the few bright moments that accompany the extremely difficult behaviors that can often break a family apart.  Raising a family has many ups and downs and with time, Paul and his family aim to make positive strides and come together.  A worthwhile read for any parent.

Author Q & A

Q:  Do you think RAD is more prevalent in children born in countries like Russia vs the United States?  

A:  First, let me say that I am a dad, not a clinician, so I can share what I’ve learned writing my books and raising a difficult child as opposed to a scientific answer.  The short answer is I suspect so, though I am not aware of data that tests the prevalence of RAD across different at-risk populations.  The reason I think it is more likely in Russia and Eastern Europe is that they generally do not hold orphans and the act of holding a child is enormously soothing to the nervous system.  So cultures where young children who lose their parents are then held by other caretakers is important.  Of course, lots of countries tragically mistreat their children, so it isn’t as if RAD kids are only of Eastern European descent, but is is quite prevalent there.  The other factor, which is hard to measure with precision, is the impact of multi-generational trauma.  This is very widespread in Russia and likely due to how much disruption Russia has experienced in the last 100+ years.  This then leaves the birth parents, both financially and psychologically, unable to provide adequate care to a young child.

Q:  Are steps taken to prevent it in orphanages anywhere?  

A:  Not that I am aware of.  I think there needs to be much wider awareness of the phenomena of broken attachment and what can be done to reduce it.

Q:  Is it more treatable if diagnosed by a certain age?

A:  Yes, the earlier the better.  The brain is more plastic and I think that an aggressive intervention with our daughter could have made a difference, if she had been diagnosed early on.  As I note in the book, we took our daughter to many doctors, psychologists, etc. and they did not diagnose her and by the time we figured out what was going on with her she was 9.

Q:  What do you want readers to take away after reading your moving memoir?

A:  A few points.  First, early childhood care is absolutely critical.  Don’t stare dispassionately at kids separated from their parents at the border.  There will be permanent damage for doing so.  Ditto any action that disrupts caregivers attention to their child.  Military deployments can do the same.  This isn’t a political left and right issue, it is how best to create functional adults.  Minimizing the interruption of care between a child and their primary caregiver is critical.  Second, there are lints to what a society can do for people with ver difficult personalities.  The families that are dealing with such difficult kids need support and often don’t get it.  Let, there are limits to what a person can endure.  Sometimes it is said that certain difficult experiences “make you stronger.”  Sometimes they do, but sometimes, particularly for a very young child, they just break a person.

Q:  This book truly shows your feelings when it comes to wanting to be a great dad and craving that special father daughter relationship that never developed.  Can you share a bit about your wife and how she navigated the disappointment and frustration?

A:  I wouldn’t presume to speak for my wife though my sense was it was very difficult.  She is a mom who very much wanted her children to blossom.  Isn’t that universal?  Instead, Marina’s love was rejected.  I can’t imagine a more painful blow to a mother.

Q:  Are you in touch with your daughter today?  

A:  I am. One of the most beautiful and unexpected elements of the book was that, after two years of not hearing from her, my daughter reached out to me to talk. Part of what brought her back to us was her interest in the book, which I’d posted about on social media. A few weeks before publication I asked her if she would write the final paragraph of the story, so she could literally have “the last word.” She did and in a mad dash I revised the book to get her words in. My daughter and I now have resumed regular conversations. She is struggling with work, relationships and other issues but we are now talking through that, which feels like an improbable blessing. I have photographs of her all around me in the study I write in, but it is much, much better to talk with her than just look at photos!  

Q:  Has she read the book yet?

A:  She has read most of it. She said it helped her understand what her mom and I were going through when we raised her in a way she had not before. I think if the book can help families with kids like this better understand each other that would be the best gift I could offer. 

Q:  What made you decide to write your story?

A:  It felt like a story that needed to be told.  Everyone has a story.  This is mine and one that I thought by telling might be able to avoid other families an enormously painful experience.

Q:  Will you write another book?

A:  Yes.  I am writing another book now, though this one is fiction.  Being able to make a story up feels like a much different challenge than trying to accurately record past events, which is what I did with Raising a Thief.  Memoir is a tough form to do well.  Maybe I will return to it at some other point but for now I need to write something new.

Excerpt from the book

Additional Reading

Other fantastic books on disorders and illnesses you may be interested in are:

Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett and Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker


About the Author:

Paul Podolsky lives in Westport, Connecticut with his wife Marina, a licensed Marriage and Family therapist. For over 20 years he worked on Wall Street, most of that time with Bridgewater Associates, an investment management firm. Before that he worked as a journalist. His writing appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and aired on National Public Radio. He has a bachelor’s degree from Brown University, a master’s from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and has studied languages at The Maurice Thorez Institute in Moscow.  Paul and Marina have two adult children, one who works in technology and the other the subject of Raising a Thief.

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