In the spring of 1961, a young black woman named Camille Billops took an action that made her a pariah in the eyes of her family and society: She gave up her 4-year-old daughter, Christa, for adoption.
Unwed and uninterested in motherhood, Billops left her child to pursue a life of adventure and a career as an artist. She soon married a white man--inviting further condemnation--and ultimately became a sculptor and filmmaker in New York.
Ten years ago, mother and daughter were reunited, and now Billops has made a haunting film about their odyssey. In a testament to its absorbing content and artful look, “Finding Christa” won the 1992 documentary grand prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It is the third film by Billops, 58, and her husband-collaborator, James V. Hatch. It airs this week as part of PBS’ “P.O.V.” series.
From her home in New York’s Soho district, Billops discussed her controversial decision and her new film in an interview with Times Staff Writer Jenifer Warren.
Your choice to give up Christa collided with tradition and acceptable behavior for mothers. What brought you to that point in life?
I was a senior at USC, in occupational therapy school, and I got pregnant. Christa’s father and I were supposed to get married--I had 500 wedding invitations in the garage. But one day I called the (Air Force) base and he was discharged, gone. So that was that.
For four years I looked for a father for her, but nobody wanted me. Men don’t want women with children. They don’t want you.
I wasn’t a good mother, because I didn’t want to be a mother. I wasn’t mean; I just wasn’t there. She was at a baby-sitter’s all the time.
By the time I gave her up, I wasn’t poor, I wasn’t broke. I just didn’t think being an unwed mother was so special. I felt shackled. I wanted my life back. And I thought, if you care at all, then let her go.
So I unmothered myself. I seized an opportunity to give her to someone who would provide a good, loving home.
How was your decision received?
My friends were very supportive. They said, “Good for you, you gave Christa a chance.” My family couldn’t accept it. I got the guilt treatment from a lot of them--huge guilt machines the size of Sherman tanks coming at me.
And then there were a lot of people who kept asking me why, who kept looking for some secret reason. They’d say, “If you just tell us, if you just apologize, if you just repent, things will be OK.”
I don’t regret my decision at all, and I choose to think that maybe what I did was heroic. But I don’t try to get sympathy for that position, because people are not sympathetic. You have to be pretty ill and crazy to justify this. You can’t just not want to be a mother, like men just decide they don’t want to be fathers.
How is your relationship with Christa today?
We had a honeymoon for the first 10 years and now we’re each trying to find the other one as an adult, to have a relationship that did not begin with her as a little baby. And that takes another bit of time.
For a while I was trying to tell her what to do, but she didn’t want to hear that. We give each other a little more distance now.
It must have been a tremendous challenge to make such a highly personal film.
It was difficult, because we had resolved some of these things 10 years before when we were first reunited. So to bring them back up was very hard. We went through some very treacherous waters.
I know this is particularly hard on Christa, this constant re-enactment. And I don’t know the solution to it.
I do have strong opinions about opening records to allow the children to find their natural parents. I don’t know if they should do it--not unless they have a wing of psychology to prepare people for what they’re going to find.
There are a lot of myths out there. Here’s one: “Your mother must have loved you a lot because she gave you up and now we have you.”
What are your thoughts about Vice President Dan Quayle’s recent attack on Murphy Brown, the television character who delivered a child without a father on the scene?
It’s your body and you can do anything you want with it. It ain’t the Pope’s, it ain’t the men’s, and it certainly ain’t Dan Quayle’s. Who does he think he is? He doesn’t have any right to make a comment about it.
The important thing is the hypocrisy. President Bush forbids the clinics to advise women on abortion, then he takes away the money and then what does he do? He calls them whores.
Do you have another film in the works?
We’re doing “The KKK Boutique Ain’t Just Rednecks,” about racism and hatred in the United States. This film will go beyond the same racism thing--the black people screaming at the white people and the white people screaming at the black people and everybody trying to get together on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” That ain’t truth, and that fails.
My theory is the power behind racism is personal hatred because of fear. Racism is a disease and we have to treat it like that. We need clinics for racism, like you have tuberculosis clinics. I’ve talked to a lot of people who say, “I know I’ve got it,”’ and I say, “I know you do. I do, too.”
I’m trying to say, “Come out of the closet, don’t be afraid.” Racism is a bad deal, it doesn’t deliver. If you hate, bite, scratch and burn, the people are still going to be there when you’re done.
“P.O.V.” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on KCET and KPBS.