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.
HOW TO BE A WOMAN by Caitlin Moran (2011)
I’ve always found it befuddling to be a woman. So I am grateful British writer Caitlin Moran has finally explained it in How to Be A Woman. She is also a feminist, and even though she gives in to the request for a sound byte definition on television (see BBC, 5 Minutes with Caitlin Moran, May 4, 2012) she takes her time to fully illuminate the possibilities of living feminism in her memoir-manifesto.
There was a time when I blamed the patriarchy for everything –the economy, sexism, racism, gender rules and the incredible lack of imagination we have about how we act (being gendered, sexually oriented, and racialized.) Then my son arrived. I loved and adored this new male in the house. I was determined to raise my boy and my girl to change the world, and define their own selves rather than be defined by patriarchy. Or as author and activist bell hooks says all in one exhale, “the white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.”
As I see it, the burst of women’s rights activism in the Seventies and the legal efforts of the Eighties led many women to think all was well for womanhood. Feminism has had a hard time gaining any momentum over the last few decades. Rush Limbaugh, the epitome of archaic patriarchy, condemns women who ask for justice as “FemiNazis.” His extremism, and the media misconstruing the efforts of a few zealous women using “hegemony” in every other sentence, turned off a lot of girls. The academy lassoed feminism into aloof theory, which only further alienated women on the ground.
In the US the extreme right males who dare to assume their authority in these matters have the topic of reproductive rights locked down. Sandra Fluke brought this to our attention when she tried to testify before the all male House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the need for insurance coverage for birth control. Limbaugh rushed to defile her (February 2012). Despite even these very immediate issues, few young women will embrace the F-ism word.
Moran wants a kick-ass Feminism for all humans. Her experiences of childhood poverty provide the foundation for this desire. She found her way out of deprivation through writing and pop culture. Her absolute chutzpa landed her a career as TV celebrity, music critic and columnist. I don’t know how she has time for so much sex and drinking (Reviewing Moran’s book in Slate in July 2012, Peggy Orenstein offered the subtitle: “The drunken, furious, delightful life of Caitlin Moran…”) but she sustains a loving marriage, motherhood, career, and much popularity.
Moran is at her most savvy and daring in the memoir entering the discourse on reproduction. She offers three chapters “Why You Should Have Children,” “Why You Shouldn’t Have Children” followed by “Role Models and What We Do with Them” before she presents “Abortion.” Moran’s party girl antics and the espresso martinis evaporate as she pulls her craft and insight together to write that chapter, which snaps every synapse discussing this complex, divisive, private, hot button topic. She offers her denial, her realization that she may indeed be pregnant, takes us to the doctor’s office, through the ultrasound, through the abortion procedure and through her clarity and precision regarding her decisions. Most of us have been on this journey with relatives, friends, or alone. “Abortion” offers a very refreshing mindset of a woman profoundly knowing what is best for her and her family.
As a reminder, in Why Have Kids? (see the 9/14 post in this blog) Jessica Valenti tells us that only a third of U.S. children are planned, and that the abuse of children in our country is higher than any industrialized nation. Why? Moran writes, “And the most important thing of all, of course, is to be wanted, desired, and cared for by a reasonably sane, stable mother.” This to me is the most clear and profound response to any antiabortion argument, and an answer to why so many children are abused.
Moran goes on,
“I cannot understand antiabortion arguments that center on the sanctity of life. As a species, we’ve fairly comprehensively demonstrated that we don’t believe in the sanctity of life. The shrugging acceptance of war, famine, epidemic, pain, and lifelong grinding poverty show us that, whatever we tell ourselves, we’ve made only the most feeble of efforts to really treat human life as sacred. I don’t understand, then, why, in the midst of all this, pregnant women—women trying to make rational decisions about their futures and, usually, those of their families, too—should be subject to more pressure about preserving life, than, say, Vladimir Putin, the World Bank, or the Catholic Church” (268-269).
This is a life-saving moral standard. Health care and the widest assortment of options for pregnant women would bring us a planet full of children who are wanted, who can be cared for by parents, and grow up to be creative and contribute rather than destructively unemployed and angry. This has got to become a global effort global effort in the face of the hate we see streamed across the Internet. That hate has no borders, and the consequences are dire. The energy that gets put into antiabortion efforts distracts from the real work at hand.
Moran, this luscious heterosexual, takes this on. She describes the details of birthing (sex, birth, breastfeeding, exhaustion and joy) two bouncing baby girls, and then deciding to have an abortion. It is a decision she and her husband make with utter respect and love for one another and their family.
I do have a confession to make here. Some women love being pregnant and they love the birth experience. I actually bless my blocked fallopian tube and have such gratitude for the birth giver of my children. I am so grateful she decided as she did, for the infants, for her and her future. I have learned more than I even know as a Mom. I wanted these kids, oh I wanted them so. I send her over a zillion thanks regularly. I thought I had to be pregnant to be a real woman. I’ve come to know that birthing a child doesn’t make you more of a woman or even a mother. Women having choices does.
From what I see in my undergraduate classrooms, most young women and men agree, and they wonder what the fuss is all about. Gay Marriage. Reproductive Rights. Interracial Couples. Women Executives. Most of the young people I meet think old people and old ways of thinking are just in the way. I want them to be right. Move over patriarchy, the next generation has you dismantled already.