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Book Review

Three Little Words: A Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Ashley Rhodes is born to a 17-year-old single mother, Lorraine, in South Carolina. Ashley spends her early years living in a trailer with her mom and her mom’s twin, Leanne, until Lorraine’s boyfriend, Dusty, moves in. Lorraine gives birth to a baby named Tommy, who disappears less than two months after his birth. Ashley later learns he died of SIDS.

Lorraine is soon pregnant again with a boy named Luke. While Ashley is still a preschooler, social workers removed her and Luke from their home. Dusty and Lorraine spend the rest of their lives in and out of prison and rehab, while Ashley and Luke suffer in numerous foster homes and facilities.

In this memoir, Ashley recounts her next nine years of foster care in detail. Some of her foster parents are kind, though many homes are overcrowded. Ashley acts out some, but she also receives frequent blame for offenses she didn’t commit.

She and Luke enjoy living with their grandpa and his girlfriend, Adele. Grandpa is a negligent alcoholic, but Adele loves and dotes on the children. Even after Grandpa is deemed an unfit guardian, Adele tries to retain custody. She is denied, and the children are sent to Florida.

Ashley and Luke go to separate families. Ashley ends up in a home where the husband keeps sadistic, pornographic videos, which she accidentally discovers. As she passes through more homes, she clings to gifts from her mother and continues to hope Lorraine will return for her.

Ashley’s most distinct memories center around the horrors of the Moss home. She and Luke are sent to the residence, which is already overcrowded with foster kids. The cruel, deceptive Mrs. Moss rarely feeds them enough and often inflicts horrible punishments, such as making them drink hot sauce.

All the children are too afraid to tell social workers the truth about her and their environment. After the Moss house, Ashley spends time in a residential facility. Luke lives with an Adventist pastor and his family. When the family learns about Ashley’s living conditions, they decide to foster her as well.

Around this time, Ashley is assigned a guardian ad litem named Mary Miller. Of the many adults she has encountered in the foster care system, Mary is the first and only to advocate for Ashley and offer hope. Mary is also honest in telling Ashley that living with Lorraine might not be in her best interest.

Ashley is transferred to the Children’s Home of Tampa, her 13th move in seven years. She is a third-grader. There, she learns how potential adoptive parents come in to “shop” for children. The home’s workers create photo albums of children and of potential parents. They host picnics where adults can meet the kids. Ashley likens the events to slave auctions.

She encounters Phil and Gay Courter at several events before learning they are interested in her. They are older than her dream parents but seem to have other things to offer. Feeling ongoing hesitation, Ashley spends time with the couple on outings and at their home.

The rest of Ashley’s memoir chronicles her life with Phil and Gay. She writes about pushing them away, testing their love and pitting them against one another. Despite her behavior, they ask Ashley if they can adopt her.

Ashley enters the process skeptically. She expects they will still relinquish her at some point. It takes time for Ashley to trust her new family, including welcoming older brothers. After watching the movie Erin Brockovich, Ashley begins to ask questions about how she can make the Mosses pay for their abuse. She also wants to ensure they won’t hurt any more children.

Phil and Gay help Ashley through years of legal proceedings against the Mosses. They also champion her efforts to speak out for foster care reform. Ashley has opportunities to meet with well-known individuals and visit the White House because of her activism. She completes the draft of this memoir on the sixth anniversary of her adoption.

At that time, she says she was still trying to build a better relationship with Lorraine and Lorraine’s young daughter, Autumn. Luke continues to struggle after a life in the foster system. Ashley expresses love and appreciation for her adoptive parents. She writes more about life after foster care in the sequel Three More Words.

Christian Beliefs

The Ortiz family sends their foster kids to church. The Merritts are Seventh Day Adventists, and the father is a pastor. They reward the children for being good on the Sabbath, and Ashley likes the family’s religious rituals.

Mrs. Merritt tells Ashley it may not be God’s plan for her to live with her mother again. After Ashley meets Mary, her helpful guardian ad litem, she believes the woman may be an angel. This makes her think maybe God does have a plan for her.

She later tells a social worker, not necessarily honestly, that she reads her Bible when she feels sad. Her next foster family, the Chavezes, attend a Catholic church with different rituals. She thinks that since the virgin Mary was a teen mom, Lorraine must not be all bad. Ashley appears on a Christian TV program promoting adoption, and the reporter asks viewers to pray for foster kids.

Other Belief Systems


Authority Roles

Ashley’s neglectful, addict mother is in and out of jail. She makes promises to change and reunite with her daughter, but she fails to keep her word. She says Ashley is hers and that her ex-husband can have Luke.

Ashley’s grandmother had a number of children when she was young and eventually relinquished parental rights. Grandfather is an alcoholic and drives drunk with Luke. His girlfriend, Adele, loves Luke and Ashley. She takes good care of them and tries, unsuccessfully, to get custody.

While some foster parents provide stability for Ashley, others are cruel or neglegent. Workers in the foster care system often fail to file paperwork appropriately or keep foster children safe. Phil and Gay put up with Ashley’s emotional abuse as she struggles to believe they will not abandon her.


H---, d--n, s---, the f-word, b--ch and p--- appear a few times.

Ashley and her foster siblings are subjected to inhumane treatment at the over-crowded Moss home. The children rarely get enough to eat and are frequently punished by being forced to drink hot sauce. Ashley is subjected to the hot sauce punishment even when she is suffering a severe mouth infection. Other punishments include being locked in rooms, having to run laps or do squats for long periods of time, receiving swats with a wooden spoon and having their faces forced into their own vomit.

While at the Moss house, Ashley starts wetting her bed. Mrs. Moss makes her sleep in the same wet sheets night after night. She also shames her by making her wear a diaper and forcing her to announce what she’s done to the other foster kids. When the kids have baths, they must all share the same 6 inches of water. Since Ashley is one of the older kids, she gets the water near the end. If someone defecates in the water, she has to fish out the stools and bathe there anyway.

Mrs. Moss sometimes scrubs her with a bristle brush or forces her head under water. Ashley finds a condom and opens it, not knowing what it is. When Mrs. Moss finds out, she lies and tells the social worker Ashely brought it into the house. She says Ashley showed all the kids, even the little ones, how to use it. In children’s homes, Ashley meets other kids who have been raped, starved and had their hands superglued together by foster parents. She says their behavior showed they had been through horrible things.


Ashley says she was conceived when her mom partied the night of her grandmother’s funeral. Using teddy bears, a young Ashley shows foster sisters what her mom and stepdad do together (sexually) to have fun. Lorraine is arrested on drug charges and for offering to commit acts of prostitution.

One of Ashley’s foster fathers, Mr. Potts, keeps violent pornography films in the house. Ashley sees one involving Nazis, dildos, rape and murder. Although she doesn’t remember him ever touching her, she later learns Mr. Potts was accused of molesting other foster children.

Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments/Notes

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

14 and up


Ashley Rhodes-Courter






Record Label



Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division


On Video

Year Published



YALSA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, 2015 and others


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