Meeting my birth mother in my early 30’s and getting the unanswerable question about “why” I was put up for adoption answered — she was a former Catholic nun and white Polish American, and my birth father was a Catholic Priest and Black American. Also, from this first phone call, I finally got clarity about my racial identity. Having been adopted and raised by the Steele family, I viewed myself as a light skin black man even though outside my immediate neighborhood, I was often mistaken for anything but black, often being viewed as white. At least now, knowing what I am racially and ethnically has provided me clarity and conviction about how to respond to the question “what are you?” Also, these insights and clarity have helped immensely in my Diversity and Inclusion consulting engagements.
I had the pleasure to interview author Joe Steele. Joe is a Harvard College and Harvard Business School graduate, a successful global development consultant, executive coach and world traveler. His 15-year journey learning about his birth parents allowed him to share their story and his in the memoir Forbidden Love. Joe resides in the Hudson Valley outside New York City.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
Writing a memoir about my adoption has been a creative dream since I first met my birth mother in 1991. Being a World Trade Center 9/11 Survivor was the catalyst. This near death experience along with having lost very close friends during the AIDS Pandemic in the 90’s left me feeling very vulnerable and uncertain about how much longer my life might be. Hence, time was of essence if I was going to write my story.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Meeting my birth mother in my early 30’s and getting the unanswerable question about “why” I was put up for adoption answered — she was a former Catholic nun and white Polish American, and my birth father was a Catholic Priest and Black American.
Also, from this first phone call, I finally got clarity about my racial identity. Having been adopted and raised by the Steele family, I viewed myself as a light skin black man even though outside my immediate neighborhood, I was often mistaken for anything but black, often being viewed as white. At least now, knowing what I am racially and ethnically has provided me clarity and conviction about how to respond to the question “what are you?” Also, these insights and clarity have helped immensely in my Diversity and Inclusion consulting engagements.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Maybe because I am Aries and/or because I went to Harvard, I still believe I can do anything. And, I now know for sure that does not include writing a memoir. After 15+ years of struggling to write my memoir and getting lots of hard knocks in the process, it was still difficult to accept that I would need to get someone else to write it for me if it was ever going to be written. Fortunately, as Lisa provided the monthly written installments to me for my review, she was firm while gentle in “keeping me in my lane” especially when responding to my “suggested edits.”
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Lisa and I are excited by the promotion phase. One of the most exciting things we’ve done recently was the Going Home Tour to Cincinnati, where we visited the orphanage from which I was adopted, my childhood home, my high school and other areas significant to my Cincinnati upbringing. While not a project, I enjoy the wide range of questions people are asking about my story which are very personal given the intimate details shared in the memoir.
My challenge is to answer the questions being asked while still making sure that I’m respecting the memories of my birth and adoptive parents. I’m also excited that so many people have said they believe the book should be made into a film or television series, and a plan Lisa and I have had from the beginning.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
There are many exciting stories in the book. And, the most powerful story for me is the book’s opening — my 9/11 experience witnessing the World Trade Center in flames, people jumping from the building, and my birth father’s spirit consuming me and urgently pushing me to tell this story. This experience was the catalyst giving me the urgency to get this book written.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
They have the right to love who they want regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
Nelson Mandela — for his courage and stand for racial reconciliation and social justice Martin Luther King, Jr — for his courage and stand for racial reconciliation, healing, and social justice President Barack Obama — for modeling inclusive leadership for America
Angela Merkel — for her global leadership and strong and compassionate female power Pope Frances — for his leadership of the Roman Catholic Church applying Jesuit Principles around Social Justice and compassion.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
Honestly, I am not an avid reader. However, books that inspired me for my memoir, were Cane River by Lalita Tedem, particularly for the generational aspects of the story; and I was touched by, Cutting For Stone written by Abraham Verghese, a story about a Catholic nun in Ethiopia who gives birth to a set of twins.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
I’m blessed to have a life story filled with overcoming the obstacles of forbidden love faced by my birth parents, being adopted, the age of my adoptive parents who were in their late 50’s when they chose to adopt me, the death of my adoptive father when I was only five years old, leaving me to be raised by a single mother. My story is a clear indication that your circumstances do not define you.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?
It’s essential to tell your story in a way that leaves the reader engaged and learning from the shared experiences.
The other piece of advice is to identify the necessary resources to help and don’t be shy about asking for help, just be clear and specific with requests.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Just to be clear, Lisa Jones Gentry is the writer of my birth and adoption love story. The story was written based on my notes and tapes from years of research.
The time — I started considering this memoir project in 2001 commencing with the research, interviews, etc. Believing that I was going to write the book myself even though I didn’t have any expertise in memoir writing, I spent at least 5 years trying to find the right editor to assist me in this writing process never feeling like any of them really “got” my story in terms of how I wanted it told.
In 2016, I connected with Lisa Jones Gentry having just read her book, “A Dead Man Speaks.” Besides being a great writer, Lisa is a friend and a Harvard Alum. Finally accepting that the book would never get written if I was going to be the writer, I asked Lisa to write my story and she agreed. We worked together for 2.5 years with her sending me monthly installments of 10+ pages, finally completing and publishing the book in August 2018. Now, Lisa and I are actively engaged in the publicity and marketing of the book. And back to time, throughout this entire writing process, I’ve had to maintain a full time work schedule doing international organizational development consulting just to live and survive.
Managing my ego and “staying in my lane” — this process of reviewing the written draft book installments each month from Lisa while accepting that I did not have the writing skills for memoir writing was challenging on occasion.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My movement would focus on protecting the rights of global citizens to have the “right to love” and having their basic needs met to accommodate this right.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
George Soros, because he is a believer in my mission: protecting the rights of global citizens to have the “right to love” and having their basic needs met to accommodate this right. Mr. Soros also has the financial resources to support our dream of turning my story into a film.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest: @Forbiddenlovememoir Website: www.forbiddenlovememoir.com