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.