Monthly Archives: November 2012
The Mistress’s Daughter by A. M. Homes (2007) and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson (2012)
Here are two memoirs by adopted women about searching for identity. They are both professional fiction writers. I was drawn to their books because I think we all seek to understand why we are as we are and we look to our childhood and of course to our parents for clues. We try to unfurl our context of geographic location, historic events before and during our lifetime, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, body size, shape and abilities or disabilities. You know, all the things that make us the same or different. Adoption adds an entire extra layer of mystery and surprise to this sense of self and integration of all the elements of who we are.
Until about twenty years ago adoption was secretive and birth records were sealed. Babies were “matched” to look like the adoptive parents and some kids were not told they were adopted. Social services opened the adoption procedures to provide more information for birth givers, adoptees and adoptive parents. The triad could be far healthier in the light of truth. Still, the daydreams of children about their birth parents continue to thrive. Many kids wonder, “When will my real parents come and get me?” A. M. Homes fantasized about being the daughter of Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. Her adoptive home was literary, artistic and progressive, and so too her imagination.
Jeannette Winterson grew up under the spell of the Pentecostal. She was left out on the stoop all night or beaten for being incorrigible, and she walked miles to church six nights a week. She was forbidden books, so learned to read swiftly in the outhouse or anywhere she could be out of Mrs. Winterson’s wrath. And wrath there seemed to be plenty of. Her childhood home in Manchester, England was cold—physically and emotionally. She left Mrs. Winterson behind and went to college, with her education she also got her freedom. She wanted to write of “experience andexperiment,” of “the observed and the imagined”(p.3) as men could. Her novels provoke and prod, defy gender (Written on the Body) and twist history and philosophy into lyrical dimensions (Passion and Sexing the Cherry). These novels are mystifying and erotically teasing. There are many more novels and essays; these three are the brightest in my memory.
Winterson reveals in an interview with Stuart Jefferies for The Guardian Books that she came upon records that revealed she had initially been with her birth giver for months before she was adopted. This information provoked her to realize that not knowing this detail of her adoption “leaked” into her fiction. She now sees some of her seductive scenes toward lovers as actually scenes of searching for her lost birth giver (Feb. 21, 2010).
A.M. Homes is a novelist and she has little patience for memoir, even distain (“I’m completely opposed to them,” she says in an interview for New York Magazine). Her heart is in her fiction, but she was convinced to write The Mistress’s Daughter. When she is thirty a message arrives via a lawyer that her birth giver would like to meet her. Homes had never been compelled to initiate a search but she is propelled after meeting her birth mother into several years of attending to her birth origins. She meets the alleged father as well. After publication of the memoir he denies the DNA test — the results of which he never shared, though he demanded the test — was positive. Homes becomes obsessed with genealogy—of all four of her parents—and spends hours and years researching, she even hires research assistants, trying to connect the dots of ancestry. Her birth and adoptive parental legacies become intertwined and she comes to understand their designs are within her.
Boris Kachka asks Homes, in the New York Magazine interview, “How much did you wonder what it would have been like to grow up with your birth parents?” Homes replies, “I don’t know that I would have survived growing up with my biological mother. She claimed my father wanted to adopt me, but I think it would have been like Cinderella, in that they’d never let me out of the kitchen” (April 1, 2007).
In a question that became the title of Winterson’s memoir, Mrs. Winterson asked Jeannette, “Why be happy when you could be normal?” And Jeannette comes to understand:
“Happy endings are only a pause. There are three kinds of big endings: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. Revenge and Tragedy often happen together. Forgiveness redeems the past. Forgiveness unblocks the future.
My mother tried to throw me clear of her own wreckage and I landed in a place as unlikely as any she could have imagined for me” (p.225).
We raise our mothers (remember Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel), or do our mothers raise us? My own mother (biological) looked at my sister and me once, adults by then, and asked, “Where did you two come from?”
As an adoptive mom I find it utterly freeing to love my kids for just who they are, no ancestors to compare or contrast with. I hope to give them the opportunity to be fully who they can be. I get to open the doors—they must walk through them.
As any mother would if she could.
Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality. A Memoir. John Schwartz (2012)
Some memoirs by journalists are eerily calm, kind of dispassionate and therefore credible for a wide audience. Schwartz writes for the big newsrooms: The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. He used all his skills to interview and research, sort out fact from fiction, rumor from real about adolescent and gay identity development. But here, in memoir, the objective and fair professional writer has to contend with the real live emotional Dad that he is. It works, especially as we realize his wife, Jeanne, is on the ground raising their three kids while John is away covering national news. This book is packed with good information about growing up gay (or even maybe gay) as well as for all parents with kids who are just a bit more creative, insightful, impatient, or “squirrely” as Schwartz calls some of his son’s behavior. Those of us who grew up in the heteronormative (even though we didn’t know this word) world being ‘gay as a Christmas tree’ (who knew we were that cheerful and decorative!) without any support from teachers or bewildered parents, have to envy the possibilities for kids these days. Luckily, we’ve come a long way in a few decades.
The Schwartz family surround their son, Joe, with fabulous feather boas, marvelous Barbies, colorful clothing and a real positive accepting attitude toward his gender bending. The kid does well; he is a reader and a conversationalist until he bumps into inflexible teachers, especially the bullying kind. The stories of Jeanne, John and school staff and administrators negotiating safe learning spaces for a kid with idiosyncrasies, finally diagnosed as “Pervasive Developmental Disorder—Not Otherwise Specified” (p.171) make me “squirrely.”
The public school system the Schwartz family kids were in was really a good one. They work so hard to negotiate the political and economic networks of their public school, respectfully. Maybe the Schwartz team was too respectful and patient. I found myself yelling (in my head) “Walk AWAY! Get Him out of there! HOMESCHOOL THIS GUY!”
Despite all this love, attention, acceptance, facilitation of learning, psychological and learning support—teasing drove thirteen year old Joe to gather pills and prepare to cut his wrists.
Mom appeared just in time.
We know this story. Forty years ago my Southern cousin’s gun went off as he ascended the stairs to his room after his first days at college. His parents thought it an accident but he knew guns and we knew he had a secret. Talk about ghosts in the closet. Many of us have them. Many of us just escaped—as Joe did.
Schwartz covers gay history, sexology, learning differences, the autism spectrum, the debates about the spectrum, biology, out entertainers, psychology, and legal issues. In fact he covers just about everything I cover in my gender studies syllabus. He’s even got pages of resources.
The heartbreak here is that too many environments are divisive for youth, still treacherous for kids who are different or quirky. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” sings Kelly Clarkson. But why should middle school be so tumultuous? What does this say about our culture?
It’s hopeful that professionals in psychology and other fields, are declaring LGBT kids healthy, Glee, The Ellen Show, and other prime time television shows are offering glimpses of gay as happy rather than epically tragic. The 2012 elections voted in our first openly gay U. S. Senator. Tammy Baldwin stands on the shoulders of Harvey Milk and Barney Frank, also gay “firsts” in government.
And the final pages of Schwartz’s memoir are heartwarming. He describes an incident when Joe was being questioned about his choice of purple for his hair by a jock. Another jock intercedes and shouts, “He can dye his hair hot fucking pink if he wants!” The two boys walked out of the locker room, arguing with each other about Joe’s hair. Joseph turned to the boy he shared a locker with and said, “That was surreal” (p.225).
The new thinking we all must do is about teaching our boys the full spectrum of being men. I want to know why we teach our girls and women to protect themselves from rape and we teach our gay, lesbian and trans youth to protect themselves from homophobic verbal and physical violence? We teach victims to protect themselves, but we don’t do enough to stop the perpetrators in the first place. I want that jock who stood up for Joe to start the new curriculum and teach boys to be men who feel strong and secure in who they are so they respect and accept who others are.
Love isn’t enough to keep our kids strong and healthy. There are too many detractors, too many voices contradicting the love. “The haters are my motivators,” Ellen DeGeneres says about the Million Mom protest against her role as a JCPenny spokesperson (Feb 7, 2012, The Ellen Show). She finishes her five minute declaration with, “Here are the values I stand for: honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated and helping those in need. To me those are traditional values. That’s what I stand for.”
I never thought I’d advocate for traditional values, never has “normal” seemed anything but boring. After reading about Jeanne and John Schwartz’ advocacy for their son and reading Joe’s short story offered as the last chapter about a little boy who offers chocolate, flowers and a poem to a boy and is rejected, only to have another boy approach him with the same items, I have to admit, I’m feeling, well, oddly normal. How about you?