An ‘Invisible Boy’ takes a risk to find himself
Harrison Mooney knew that writing a book about his upbringing could cost him his family. He wrote it anyways.
Harrison Mooney didn’t just want to write a book about how he was raised. He needed to tell his story.
Even if doing so could cost him the family that raised him.
As an 11-day-old baby, Mooney, who is Black, was adopted by a deeply religious white family in Abbotsford. His childhood was disorienting, confusing, and disturbing.
Later, he would come to see abuse in how he was raised and moments like when he was five years old and tied to a chair until he finished his steak. He would also see how his own life and upbringing connected to larger societal issues about race, adoption, religion, and childhood.
But they were still a family. His family. And telling that story could sever his connection to them.
This month, years after he first conceived of it, Mooney published the story—Invisible Boy—of his youth.
The book is about how Mooney figured things out for himself. It’s about who he came from. It’s about where he came from. And it’s very existence is a reflection of who he is now.
Invisible Boy is a coming-of-age story about a kid discovering himself and learning how the colour of his skin shapes the world and the family in which he lives.
But though he has felt the need to write about his life started when he was still a teenager, he also had to consider the ramifications of writing honestly about that life.
“It was terrifying,” Mooney told The Current. “One of the reasons this book has taken me so long to complete is that I didn’t know how to tell these stories without hurting my adopted family.”
Eventually, he realized that was impossible.
“These stories don’t make them look good,” he said. “Some of these stories make them look very ignorant; they certainly seem quite racist, and I know if there’s anything you really can’t say, it’s that another white person is racist. You just can’t do that. So to do it to your own family, I knew that would be viewed as a kind of betrayal.”
On the other hand, not writing about it would exact a profound cost.
“If I can’t tell my story, it really feels like I don’t exist,” he said. “That’s my life. It’s the framework for everything. And if I … can’t speak about any of the things that happened to me, then I’m living a secret life, I’m living an invisible life, or I’m suppressing who I really am in order to keep fitting in this family that took me.”
So he started writing. During the project, Mooney, a former Vancouver Sun reporter, interviewed people in his life. Talking with those, and running a first draft past his adopted brother, who was supportive, confirmed many of his memories and gave him the confidence to continue.
A singular experience
The family that adopted Mooney in the 1980s was proudly conservative and deeply religious—even more than most families in a city with no shortage of churches. After a tent revival they left the Abbotsford Pentecostal Assembly for an even more personalized religious experience. And beginning in Grade 4, Mooney was homeschooled using materials from a Christian curriculum published in the United States.
In his book, Mooney takes readers inside the churches, revivals, and schools in which he was raised. He is sometimes critical. But often, he just writes about what he observed: a boy, later a teen, in a world full of discovery, and drama. He’s not always a passive observer: a long chapter chronicles his frustrating, sometimes amusing, struggle to speak in tongues.
In church, in school, and across east Abbotsford, Mooney stood out. Just about everyone around him was white and he was Black. The colour of his skin seemed to influence how others acted around him—even if they insisted that wasn’t the case. But he had nobody who could relate to him and his challenges.
“After the upbringing I had, it felt like I needed to explain to people some of the things that I went through and how it led me to the person I am now,” he said. “It’s such a singular experience, being adopted and raised in a conservative white family as a Black kid. You see a lot. There are a lot of unusual happenings, things that are said to you that are strange, and you wind up kind of performing instead of just feeling who you are.”
There was also a larger purpose: to speak to the experiences of those like him, who grew up feeling alone, disconnected, and isolated in their respective communities.
An author changes
There is another thread running through Invisible Boy that charts how Mooney, the author, changed while writing down his story. It informs every paragraph but is often below the surface.
As he was writing, Mooney was also reading authors like Toni Morrison, Bell Hooks, and Toni Cade Bambara. And as he wrote, and read, he became more confident about himself as both a Black man, and the teller of his own story.
“If you know what you’re looking for, you can really see that progression happening to me as a writer at the same time that it’s happening to my younger self as a character.”
And as he wrote, his opinions also solidified, particularly when it comes to the systems and world that takes children from one mother and gives them to another.
Invisible Boy shows the damage and problems that can result when a Black kid is placed in a family who cannot, by definition, understand what their child might experience.
“They don’t have enough context for the experience,” he said. Mooney’s family didn’t have the life experiences to help him process who he was and how his skin colour was part of that. They also couldn’t lend an ear, or advice, about racist incidents that cropped up.
For those and other reasons, society is increasingly wrestling with when, if ever, children should be adopted by parents of another race.
But Mooney’s opinion on pretty much all adoption was also changed during the writing process.
“When I started writing this book, I wasn’t sure what my stance was going to be on adoption. And when the book ended, I knew that adoption as a practice needed to end.”
For Mooney, the intent of adoption doesn’t make it inherently a good thing. It’s the results that matter. And he sees adoption as generally doing more harm than good.
“I think that if people want to help children in need, help their families to stay together,” he said. “We adopt children and often we’re just stealing the future from people who have very little else.”
Mooney’s birth mother and father gave him up for adoption when they were just teenagers.
But in his 20s, Mooney reconnected with his birth father and his mother, Trinika Arthur-Asamoah.
From Trinika, Mooney discovered her story and just where—and who—he came from.
Mooney told The Current later that, as a Black kid in a largely white world, “it was hard to know who you are because you look around and no one is like you.”
Today Mooney has reclaimed and rediscovered his own family history. But he has done more than just that. Mooney has a two-year-old son and four-year-old daughter of his own, and they have provided a new window into himself.
“I was a weird kid and until I met my son, who is exactly like me, I’d never met anyone like me,” he said.
They also allowed him to tell his own story.
“I couldn’t have written this book until I had a family of my own because it felt like writing Invisible Boy was going to cost me whatever relationship I still have with my adopted family,” he said.
“But they’re not who I live with anymore.”