Jessie Elliott has spent most of her life in Metro Detroit, well known in prominent philanthropic, social and business circles. You would never imagine that the confident and successful business entrepreneur today suffered from such traumatic and unthinkable experiences.
It took her a half a century to open up about her traumatic childhood of abuse, abandonment, adoption and the pain of racism that began the day she was born. Now, Elliott shares her story of perseverance from trauma to triumph, in hopes of encouraging others to work through their trauma and overcome it.
The Michigander began her life in South Korea, born to a Korean mother and an African-American father in a town called Pyeongtaek. Elliott’s father was 19 years old and met and fell in love with her Korean mother while he was stationed in the Army there. But he was discharged and jailed for stealing before she was born, and so she didn’t get to meet him.
Her mother struggled to raise their mixed race child in the 1970s and early 1980s in an unaccepting country. Elliott says that schools wouldn’t take her because she is half Black, and that people would throw things at them and call them names -- all because of the color of her skin and the texture of her hair.
Under desperate circumstances with seemingly no way out, the entrepreneur’s mother left Elliott on her eighth birthday. She believed that Elliott would have a better life living with her grandmother.
“We were so close and she was just my No. 1 and everything,” Elliott said. “I just couldn’t believe she would actually leave me. I was screaming and punching and crying.”
Then, life with her grandmother only got worse. Elliott says that she was molested by her uncle while living with her grandma.
“(My grandmother) just said, ‘I think it’s better if you go to America,’” Elliott said.
At 11 years old, her grandmother faced the same desperate circumstances and abandoned Elliott at a Korean orphanage, expecting that she would get adopted to the U.S., where a better life of acceptance and glamour awaited her.
But rather than a glamorous life in Los Angeles or New York, Elliott was adopted -- but by a Michigan family. It was not the Hollywood welcome the 12-year-old girl had imagined.
Elliott says the first thing her new mother did was take her to a hair salon to get her hair done.
“She thought this Korean child was going to have this thick, glossy Korean girl hair ... except, did anybody tell her i was mixed?” Elliott said. “Why would you do that to a child you just uprooted from her entire life to another country? Doesn’t speak English at all?”
At 18 years old, Elliott left for Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, and has not seen or talked to her adoptive family since. She had come to be let down by every mother figure in her life, and still did not know her father.
Time went by, and she got married and started a family of her own. Elliott and her husband have three daughters and an adopted son.
“My children and I are incredibly close, and people are like, ‘How did you guys get like this?’ and we’ve been through a lot together,” Elliott said. “Somewhere along the way, I started telling them the absolute truth about everything.”
The woman says she briefly reconnected with her birth mother once she had a family of her own, but it didn’t amount to much. Her mother did, however, tell Elliott the name of her father, and she was finally able to get some answers about him.
Then, a DNA match on Ancestry.com from a cousin on her father’s side led Elliott to her dad in New York on her 50th birthday.
“The first 15 minutes that we talked, he said everything I needed to hear,” Elliott said. “Whatever hole that was left in me, he filled it.”
Elliott found out she has two sisters and a brother, and each of them had traumatic lives, she said. But once they met each other, their bond was “like nothing else” within the first hour of meeting, Elliott said.
And when it comes to adoption, Elliott says that adoptive parents should tell the truth if a child asks a question.
“There is space in a child’s heart for all of us,” Elliott said. “It helps me be a whole individual, and I think it makes you a better human being when you know fully, and what you come from, and why you are the way you are.”
Deciding to confront your trauma and search for answers, or for a biological parent, it is an emotional and difficult decision, and you have to be prepared for any outcome, Elliott says. For her, it took decades to find that will and strength.
And, as you can see, for her, it was well worth it.
Watch the entire interview in the video player above.