Things Fall Apart 

If your mother can’t take care of you, who will? The story of Sophie’s boys

Wednesday, May 24 2000
Illustration by Bill Smith

SOPHIA VIDAL DISAPPEARED ON MONDAY, November 29, 1999. At least, that's the day her friend Isabel Trujillo realized she was missing. On the previous Friday, Sophie, 28, had dropped her three boys off at Isabel's house, ostensibly for the weekend. She said she had to work Saturday and Sunday dancing at a strip club and would pick up the kids late Sunday night. "I really need the money," Sophie pleaded. If Isabel could just do her this favor, she'd find a way to pay her back.

Isabel* didn't mind the imposition all that much. She was the godmother to the two older boys: Peter, a preternaturally alert 10-year-old, and James, an agreeable child of 7. She also enjoyed playing with Matthew, the chubby, even-tempered toddler, especially since she had no kids of her own.

Nonetheless, when Sophie didn't turn up as she said she would on Sunday night, Isabel was annoyed. "I figured she was just out partying and would come in the morning. But it was rude of her not to call me." When Monday arrived with no word, Isabel began to worry. Either Sophie was on a serious binge or she was locked up. There could be no other reasonable explanation. "I mean she loves her kids," said Isabel.

In their 15 years of friendship, Sophie and Isabel had helped each other through bad boyfriends, drug flameouts, suicide attempts, a bunch of babies (Sophie's), a miscarriage (Isabel's), and so many deaths you'd assume they'd been in a war, which in a sense they had, since both came of age in the Pico-Aliso housing projects, a community infamous for its lethal gang battles. Both of them had sisters, but, as eldest children in families with no reliable adult minding the store, they had more in common with each other -- namely the experience of being the only grown-up in the house far too early. When they were in their mid-20s, Sophie was the one who usually had a job, a car and the money to assist her friend whenever she needed it. Now, as the two women closed in on 30, Isabel seemed to have found a modicum of stability, while Sophie was losing ground.

"She gave me a number where she said she and the kids are staying," Isabel said. "But I dialed it, and the people who answered didn't even know who she was." This was a bad sign. We agreed to talk again at 10 p.m., by which time, we assumed, Sophie would surface. But by 10:30 Monday night there was still no word.

I MET SOPHIA VIDAL NINE YEARS AGO, WHEN she was 18 and pregnant with her second baby. I was researching a book on Eastside gang members, and her then-boyfriend, Angel, was among the homeboys whose lives I was chronicling. I took to her right away. She had a well-developed sense of humor, and a more penetrating, complex intelligence than her outward circumstances suggested. Yet, it was evident, even before I knew the details of her upbringing, that Sophie was a deeply wounded girl.

To begin with, her mother was a heroin addict who declined to care for her kids, and her father disappeared early on. Her mother dumped Sophie and her sister on their grandmother's doorstep when they were preschool age. Although the grandmother agreed to take the children in, she raised them without any sense of fixed attachment, as if she were merely a temporary worker filling in for somebody else. She was also an Old World woman, easily spooked by some of the most basic requirements of parenting. When Sophie got her first period, the grandmother wouldn't talk about it, instead sending her to a relative down the street for an explanation of her bodily changes. Worse, when some of the men in the family paid peculiar kinds of attention to the pretty young girl, the grandmother simply elected not to notice.

All warm-blooded mammals, humans included, if they are to become functional members of their species, need a period of growth, learning and maturation during which they are relatively sheltered from the rigors of adulthood. Sophie had very little of ã this early sheltering and, perhaps as a result, too often allowed herself to be blown this way and that by the desires of whichever guy she was with at the moment. If he drank to excess, she did too; if he wanted a baby, she had a baby. But when the men left or got themselves locked up, as they inevitably did, she resurrected herself with remarkable resilience.

Sophie worked hard to stay off public assistance and tried to do right by her children. It was really important to her that her sons were baptized, something she regarded less as a religious rite than as an emotional insurance policy. "That way my boys will always have people who'll look out for them," she explained, meaning the godparents. "My kids are going to have things better than I did, no matter what it takes." She said this so often, it was difficult not to believe her. Like a magician pulling flowers out of an empty hat, Sophie always seemed able to generate a fresh supply of optimism each time life knocked her down.

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