Archive for August, 2012

Adopted Girl: Still Refusing

Posted in The Blog on August 30, 2012 by chateaucone

When I say I refuse to be written, I mean I refuse to be written by the patriarchy, by the dominant ideological identity construct of the day/year/decade/age/century/historical period.

But I also mean something else. I want my life to refuse to be written, to refuse, in all its pieces, to become coherent, whole, satisfying.

I want the parts that don’t fit to refuse to be recessed, to be hidden, to be pushed below the surface and silenced.  Like when you overfill the liquid soap dispenser and no matter how carefully or slowly you put the pump back in, it still overflows. Or when you squeeze one end of a water balloon and the other end blows up.

Bad examples. Help me out here.

I want (or Do. Not. Want.) some biographer to find the detritus of my life, read it, examine it, analyze it, lay it out on his living room floor and try to impose order on it–and throw his hands in the air and shout “Impossible à faire!”–because of course he will be French, and my stuff will have ended up in a garret in Paris, in a pre-war apartment building with fabulously large leaded glass windows, through which sunlight shines on the artifacts of my life, collected from all over Europe, but most recently from the Paris flea markets–because the life he has discovered is impossibly fragmented, incoherent, never-working-toward-just-one-goal, and refuses to fit into any sort of genre-acceptable shape or pattern or mold. Bits keep bubbling up. They refuse.

And then I want him, this perversely stubborn Frenchman, who recognizes post-structural theory as brilliant, to fight to the death to publish it anyway, this incoherent, fragmented, ever-changing-in-his-hands, life. And change the genre forever. Break the power of the metanarrative. Leave us all mired in chaos. Unhinged. In the wind.

(Mired doesn’t fit there so well, does it? I mean, you’re either mired OR unhinged, I would think.     How incoherent of me.)

But I can’t even get outside of a metanarrative in a blog post–the writer in the garret, in Paris no less–long enough to talk about the demise of my selves.

Save “concise” for sports journalism

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , on August 25, 2012 by chateaucone

A few days ago, nr posted a comment that said, “Perhaps writing concisely would help “P” out. Just a small thought.”

After my writerly ego, or the lack thereof, spent a day in the fetal position on the couch, and after a lengthy conversation with my friend/therapist NS, I thought, let’s talk about the metanarrative behind this idea of conciseness.

Bear with  me.  This will be a less-than-concise post.

Let’s go back to 1995 to start this discussion. ENG401. Introduction to Graduate Studies. Dr. Woodson. Consistent grades of B++ on all of my papers. “I love your writing style, but you need to learn to pass the ball around a little more,” he says, in a comment on such a paper. “Subordinate clauses,” he scrawls on another.

I contemplate his comments, and then I go to his office for help. For the magic ingredient to move my writing from B++ to A.

This ingredient turns out to be the semi-colon.

Later, it is the semi-colon that opens up new worlds of discussion for me, but for now I resist.

Our conversation goes something like this:

“I’m not sure what your comment on my paper means, Dr. Woodson,” I tell him, in his office, during office hours.

“Do you play basketball?” he asks.

“No,” I say.

He goes on to talk about basketball at length anyway. He talks about forwards and guards and centers, about passing and dribbling. I understand that this is a metaphor for writing, but I don’t know anything about basketball so the comparison part is lost on me.

“So,” he says, “When the ball is passed to you, do you immediately put it in the basket?”

“Yes,” I answer.

“No,” he says. “You pass the ball around a little bit.”

I make a face. Not my “Oh, I get it!” face.

At some point, he gives in and says, “Look, I know you wrote for political campaigns for a long time, and that you’re used to thinking that you have to get your point across fast and then stop. But here in academia, we’re interested in what you have to say. We’re not going to throw away your writing after reading only the words in bold. You can pass the ball around a little. You can explore ideas.”

What Dr. Woodson does not know is that I am stubborn, resistant, and foolishly confident. I know my writing is clear, concise and solid. I know that academic writing is not. I will not become an academic writer.

I write my final paper for his class, and after it’s written, I go back and edit. I sprinkle semi-colons around as though I am salting french fries. I create subordinate clauses for no reason other than to show I can.

I get my paper back and it’s marked B++/A- -.

I am awarded with an A for the course. I am not sure how I am supposed to feel about this grade. I am pretty sure I have done the Calculus equivalent of memorizing the formulas, missing the point entirely.

Back to 2012.

While I still rail against theory speak, and academic discourses that have as their seemingly only purpose to guard the gates of academia, and while I’m not condoning wordiness, writing about post-structuralism, and being actually interested in post-structuralism and how to use it in the classroom, to open up new avenues of agency, has made me, to some extent, rethink my ranting.

Have the gatekeepers got me in their grasp? Maybe.

But there is something to this academic discourse. Yes, it can be pretty high-falutin’ and Judy Jargon-ish, and yes, it can keep people out instead of inviting them in. But.

But, but, but. Sometimes– (And my 1995 self is at war with my 2012 self as I type this). Sometimes, ideas are complex, labyrinthine even, delicate and nuanced, and need subtly shaded, can’t-find-in-the-dictionary definitions  to explain them. Sometimes the explanations have to be intricately woven through multiple paragraphs with qualifications and mitigations and caveats. Sometimes you have to bear with the writer, struggle to follow her as she struggles to articulate something abstract but important. Sometimes that requires multiple examples, because one of those examples might work better for one reader than for another.

There is a point at which “concise” becomes “reductive.” And writing in a concise manner–striving for concision without examination of why you are valuing concision–reduces important issues and ideas to sound bites and contributes, dangerously, to the abyss into which American communication, American media, has fallen.

Okay, that goes perhaps a bit too far. And I am sure this is not what nr had in mind. There has to be something between Jamison’s inclusion of untranslated French in his discussion of postmodernity and the celebrated conciseness of the American newspaper or news program. There has to be a place where you can experiment with language, where your readers are willing–and interested enough–to let you circle around an idea until you find the right words to describe it, where understanding an abstraction is more important that explaining it in as few words as possible.

And anyway, isn’t the American news story, that bastion of concision, meant to the beginning of one’s understanding of current events? And not the end?

Maybe concision and clarity are not all they’re cracked up to be. Maybe they’re metanarratives that we embrace without enough examination. And maybe American readers of and listeners to our media, to our politics, are living down to our expectations when all we offer them is beautifully concise reductions of nuanced, complex issues. We’ve taught them not to listen, not to read, not to devote more than 13 seconds to any particular story–and not to think too deeply about anything.

Save the conciseness for sports journalism, I say.

Let me leave you with this, from the recently deceased and wonderfully talented David Rakoff. This is an excerpt from an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

GROSS: In your chapter about your therapist, you have great description of yourself when describing your thoughts after telling the therapist that youre going to stop seeing him. And I’d like you to read that for us.

Mr. RAKOFF: Yes. This is when he he – I’m not talking about terminating. I seem to be avoiding the topic, and finally he stops me one day. I’m ranting about, I think, human rights in China or something like that. And he finally says, you know, look, weve got to talk about you terminating. This is a big thing.

Turning things around, I asked him what his feelings were about our ending things. Im incredibly angry, he responded fondly. How dare you? You should at least have to come and have coffee with me once a week. I asked if he felt this way about most of his patients. Not really, he responded.

Sigh. Should you happen to be possessed of a certain verbal acuity coupled with a relentless, hair-trigger humor and surface cheer spackling over a chronic melancholia and loneliness – a grotesquely caricatured version of your deepest self, which you trot out at the slightest provocation to endearing and glib comic effect, thus rendering you the kind of fellow who is beloved by all yet loved by none, all of it to distract, however fleetingly, from the cold and dead-faced truth that with each passing year you face the unavoidable certainty of a solitary future in which you will perish one day while vainly attempting the Heimlich maneuver on yourself over the back of a kitchen chair – then this confirmation that you have triumphed again and managed to gull yet another mark, except this time it was the one person youd hoped might be immune to your ever-creakier, puddle-shallow, sideshow-barker variation on adorable, even though you’d been launching this campaign weekly with a single-minded concentration from day one – well, it conjures up feelings that are best described as mixed, to say the least.

GROSS: I just want to point out, since our listeners dont have a copy of your book in front of them, that most of that reading was one sentence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That one very well-balanced juggling act there. So I just want to ask you, did you consciously intend to keep that one sentence?

Mr. RAKOFF: Yeah. Yeah. It felt – I like, well, I like a little ranty sandwich of a sentence or a lasagna of a sentence or, you know, or (unintelligible) of a sentence, to be perfectly homosexual about the metaphor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAKOFF: I like things that, you know, build in that way with semi-colons and em-dashes and things like that.

(You can find the interview in its entirety here.)

What would we do without David Rakoff and that beautiful sentence? Because aside from everything I’ve argued above, a nice, long, sentence, full of words and clauses and dashes and winding all over the place conveys so much more than just information.

The Adopted Girl Refuses

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , , on August 22, 2012 by chateaucone

Back on . . . I don’t know, August 7? I posted something along the lines of “First, let’s talk about my birth mother’s identity . . .” and never got to “Second . . .”

And then I talked about the biography of my birth mother that somehow got itself written in this project, and its failure/success. The success of its failure. Its success in illustrating the failure of biography as a genre. Something like that. But I haven’t yet gotten to my own.

So here is “Second . . .” as though I never left off, as though I stopped mid-thought, as though . . . whatever. (Where do you put the spaces when you use ellipses? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)

My identity–and my autobiography–and how it is at stake feels more complicated or more layered, than my birth mother’s, perhaps only because it is mine. There are all these Is writing this project, and all these Is being created and being disrupted and being created to disrupt. And of course this creation is on purpose, by design, and yet somehow not created so much as uncovered, revealed, the wound opened.

Let me say this:

I too refuse to be written. Refuse to be fixed.

(Fixed. Hehe. I could maybe use some fixing. But that’s another blog.)

Does the inclusion of all the various and myriad and constantly changing and disrupting Is stop my subjectivity from being firmly, ideologically correctly, definitively represented, as it might be in a traditional, modern, liberal humanist biography?

Yes, I have disrupted the narrative of the Family, the two-parent, Conservative-Family-Values Family, within which there is no room for a 23-year-old single birth mother or her story. But is the disruption simply a new narrative to be proclaimed by some biographer the real and true goal of my life?

I feel as though my subjectivity refusing to be written, to be recovered, to be fixed, to be, is more difficult to articulate . . . and to enforce.

I can refuse to be written, but can I refuse to be read?

I don’t know. I can make myself very difficult to read, I think. I can make my narratives the kind that drive readers crazy. The kind where your book club friend says, “As I writer, I appreciate that the author leaves these hanging chards, but as a reader, I want closure.” Is that enough?

While I am the only intended reader of my birth mother’s biography, the letter from Angel Guardian, I have no such control over my own autobiography and I am beginning to think, more and more, that the success or failure of the genre (and depending on who you are, these could each mean opposing things) depends in large part on the reader. But I’ll come back to that. What I need to say here is that, I can refuse to be written, recovered, fixed, all I want, and a reader can come along and fix me anyway. The reader can recess the broken parts.

Of course, that person would not be a very good reader.

Maybe this is a St. Elmo’s Fire sort of problem. Let’s move on.

I think my autobiography needs to do more. Listen to this, from my favorite scholar of biography, William H. Epstein, writing in “(Post)Modern Lives: Abducting the Biographical Subject.” It’s long. But worthwhile.

If the oppositional agenda of (post)modern biography is to make a difference, then it will constitute itself and function as  difference. Improvising guerilla tactics that opportunistically take advantage of momentary gaps in the discursive surveillance of the proprietary powers, this emergent cultural project will disruptively mimic the indifference of traditional biographical recognition–and thus abduct it, lead it away from its historical alliance with dominant structures of authority by recessing its parts and revealing the hidden, but now signified, recurrent wound in the writing. Perhaps then biography will become what de Certeau claims it already is but can seldom be recognized as: “the self-critique of liberal, bourgeois society, based on the primary unit that society created[:] the individual–the central epistemological and historical figure of the modern Western world, the foundation of capitalist economy and democratic politics.” 

That’s a mouthful. Not only is it long, it’s huge. By which I mean rather ambitious.

In the beginning of this project, I asked (Have I mentioned this before? Maybe not.): What happens when I attempt to represent the post-structural subject autobiographically without fixing it in narrative, in discourse, as an ideology identity formation—to, as Epstein tells us, “expose the wound” created by traditional (auto)biography?

And now I need to talk about two things to address (never answer) that question. I have attempted. Was I successful in my attempt? And what do I mean by success?

Do I define success as Epstein defines it above? I think I do. Large scale success, anyway.

But maybe success isn’t what my original question is after. “What happens?” it asks. What has happened?

And I think I can say that (I think) I’ve done it with my essay about my birth mother, in which I’ve written alternate letters that the adoption agency could have sent, and–I didn’t tell you this last time–juxtaposed those with some of the (very nasty) things that social workers, sociologists, religious and other professionals believed about rehabilitating unwed mothers –“the discursive surveillance of the proprietary powers” embodied. I think I have signified the wound. And by doing so, opened up space for a million imaginary birth mothers–uncertainty, but possibility.

But then there’s my post from August 15, where I pretty much admit that for myself, for the Meant-to-Be-A-Family narrative, at least, nothing has happened. That the wound is imaginary. That I’m playing a grown up game of Operation and when I touch the edge, the broken part, a funny buzzer goes off and I laugh and lose my turn but nothing else happens. I never really touch our story, the story of how we became a family, that lives deep inside me.

Boy, will my aunts and cousins love to hear that. It’s what they’ve been saying all along. “It’s not a story. It’s what happened. You were meant to be ours.”

29 Birth Mothers

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , on August 21, 2012 by chateaucone

The dog hair is back. As is the anxiety. The panic. The terror.

Well, not so much the terror. It’s Monday morning, after all. Maybe it’s just the blues. Then again, what’s a Monday on sabbatical really?

Considering I just realized it’s actually Tuesday. Huh.

We will nonetheless begin with someone else’s writing.

–Excerpt from “Photo of the Author in Kangaroo Pajamas,” by Judith Baumel, which you can read here.

Judy Baumel manages to write my whole project neatly in one stanza. I am on page something-like-352. But.

My birthmother refuses to be written, recovered, to be. Both theoretically and literally. Theoretically I’ve explained. And literally. I know. I’ve tried. I’ve written 29 versions of her.  Yes, 29. Count ‘em. And they’re all in an essay that is written in the form of 29 possible letters the adoption agency could have sent me to tell me about her. Twenty-nine possible birth mothers. Twenty-nine possible subjects. Twenty-nine possible identities. And yet, I am not one word closer to knowing her.

The biography Angel Guardian sent me fails. It falls apart upon close examination. Oh, at first it seems like a sudden windfall of information. But when you look closely, there are gaps. There are silences. There are wounds. There are agendas.

And this letter, therefore, is a prime example of the failure of biography as a genre. It’s nice and short, too, which helps, because I can tell that no amount of additional “facts” added to it will lead it toward representing an actual complicated, flawed, outside-of-convention human being.

The letter feeds the system. It smooths over the broken narrative of the unwed, financially- and emotionally-unsupported mother. It repairs the narrative of American Family Values by returning, neatly, my birthmother to her previously unpregnant state, unharmed, her secret kept, protected; she is ready to reenter society, get properly married and have children of her own. And it hands me over, through God’s Will, to my poor childless parents. It makes the denatured, natured. Political, social, economic and cultural authority are reaffirmed.


I guess, depending on what side you’re on, the letter could be a prime example of the total success of biography as a genre, if, as genre, it’s job is to manage and contain our subjectivities within ideologically appropriate spaces. To present a nice, seemingly-coherent story. the gaps and silences abducted.

I, however, am sticking with failure.

Anxiety, defiance and the writing process: what you will not read in the FYC textbook

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , on August 16, 2012 by chateaucone

Let’s take a break from our regularly scheduled program to discuss writing processes. Yes, processes. And control. Or the lack thereof.

Who has control of their writing process? Go on. Raise your hands.

Because I don’t.

Case in point:

Monday, August 13: read a serial killer novel all day. In between naps, that is. Felt immensely guilty, even a little panicky, that the writing groove I’d gotten into since coming out to GP had ended. That maybe I’d even let it end by reading a serial killer novel all day. And by not writing all weekend. Never mind that I’d been amazingly productive the two weeks prior to this day.

Tuesday, August 14: Woken up numerous times between midnight and five am–not, as per usual, by the cat, yowling at a bug, or the dog, who doesn’t lie down so much as release all muscle tension at once, all of her bones hitting the wood floor with a crash every time she gets restless and changes position, but–by my own voice, muttering things like, “place to stand,” and “Charles Wallace and the Echthroi” and “gaps and silences.” At five, I actually woke up all the way, and began writing a blog post in my head, which, sadly, has no gigabytes of memory and is really better at remembering images than words. At seven, I gave up on sleep altogether, gave in to my “writing process,” and got up and wrote the whole darn thing down, fast, before it went away, the fear of which, let’s face it, is really what was waking me up so often to begin with.

Tuesday, August 15, evening: felt immensely better, confident that the writing was still happening, the stars aligned, all the moon, the tides, my process.

Wednesday, August 16: Much like I can’t quite break the meant-to-be-a-family narrative–although I can teach (some) students to read and think critically about the narratives that construct their lives–I can’t break the writing-is-magic narrative–although, again, I can teach (some) students all about the writing process, brainstorming, drafting, revising, you know the drill.

I know all about the writing process. I know it’s not magic. And I don’t know it’s not magic. I’m not saying here that writing isn’t about discipline and hard work. But for me, there’s magic involved with getting those first words down on paper. And sometimes, yes, the magic happens while I’m writing the crap. And sometimes it happens during the night. Sometimes, in the night, it slips from my unconscious to my conscious and demands to be written down, immediately.

Could I control it if I had the discipline to write at the same hour, for the same amount of time, every day? (I’ve been trying. I sit down every morning at 9 and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.) Would I have less material written on napkins and concert programs and on the back of my hand and more in a neat little notebook or a journal on my laptop? Would the writing muscle in my brain relax, knowing that it could save its ideas until the appointed hour and I’d be there, punctual and reliable, to put them down on paper?

I don’t know.

My therapist says this IS my process, and if it weren’t working for me, I’d change it.  But isn’t the whole point of a process to knock out the anxiety of a task? I mean, really. My process revolves around anxiety. It’s driven by anxiety. It thrives on anxiety. And my defiant little brain likes to work when it wants to work, not when I want it to work.

Thursday, August 16: Woke up at 3:17 am to the sound of my own voice explaining, “It’s those guide wires on the Roomba. The brushes are pushing against the wires making the Roomba think it’s full because the brushes are in wrong.” Went back to sleep. Got up at 9, fixed the Roomba, and rid my small world of dog hair.

The Bruce, The L’Engle and The Matrix

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , on August 15, 2012 by chateaucone

Bruce Springsteen says, “I think what happens is sometimes you have to break your own narrative. We all have stories we’re living and telling ourselves. There’s a time when that narrative has to be broken because you’ve run out of freedom, you’ve run out of places to go.”

NR, my faithful friend and blog commentator says, “Your paper is a manifestation of an intellectual exercise . . . A non-conventional structure should allow the reader to explore meanings (or ways of thinking) that would not have been achieved otherwise.”

And that is what I have been trying to do here. To break the stranglehold of the metanarrative of our adoption. (I think I stole “stranglehold of metanarrative” from somewhere.  But I know not where. Any of my TC friends have a source?) Here is how I have tried:

  • I have written an essay about the first time I felt/saw a crack in the narrative
  • I have explored the discourses available to my parents in 1967, about families, about unwed mothers, that wrote/limited/prescribed, for them, the story of our adoption
  • I have explored the discourses of professionals in the adoption process, and how they and their research and their biases and values and beliefs wrote my birth mother’s story
  • I have re-explored, as an adult, The Chosen Baby, the text that illustrated for so many parents the chosen narrative
  • I have brought in other voices from other adoptees, most notably my brother, who tosses the whole story out without a backward glance
  • I have explored the personal essay and memoir as a genre to see how their very conventions influenced my retelling of the story, my exploration of the story, the boundaries of my exploration
  • And I have included, for the reader, other, later essays that touch on the adoption story, that trace, perhaps only minimally, the narrative, the memory, as it grows and changes as I grow and change
  • I have written each of these, whether wittingly or unwittingly, from a different persona, a different I. The I of the essay is only the I of the moment writing. There is Liz, the 28-year-old, first-time personal essayist; Liz, the child, being read The Chosen Baby and Liz, the horrified adult rereader of The Chosen Baby;  Liz, the . . .
  • And each of these Is contradicts, in small ways, the others–is different from the others, is older, younger, more or less naive, operating in a different discourse community with a different perspective for a different audience for a different purpose, is coherent and whole only in the moment of writing

And here is what (I think) has happened:

I have identified (some of) the gaps and silences in the adoption story and I have explored/exploded some of those. I have been (I think) successful in disrupting/ problematizing/exposing the constructedness of the narrative surrounding my birthmother, in moving her along some sort of spectrum from the Blessed Mother to a real person, although, yes, she stops well short of real and actual, at least in my narrative, and lands somewhere in the realm of “birth mothers of the 1960s.” But I have given her layers and complications and possibilities. (And really, from a post-structural point of view, she wouldn’t be representable even if she were sitting right next to me. So there.)

And I have called into question, to a small degree, the ever-popular choice narrative of adoption, the chosen baby narrative, and I’ve even  noted the contradiction it creates when it stands alongside the “meant to be a family” narrative.

But it’s that metanarrative of our family, our entire, extended family, that we were meant-to-be-a-family, that I have not touched, that I cannot touch.

As a reader, you might see places where it’s been disrupted, touched, toyed with. And that would be great. But I can tell you this: as the writer, as the person living inside the narrative, or living with the narrative inside me–I can’t touch it.

Is it enough to reveal it? To know I’m living inside a constructed reality? Is that maybe all we can do anyway?

If I break the “stranglehold of the metanarrative,” won’t I simply construct a new narrative, albeit one with perhaps more freedom to move, in which to live? Is that all Bruce is trying to tell us?

Am I even talking about the right metanarrative here? Is our narrative, our we-were-meant-to-be-a-family narrative, a metanarrative? Or it is operating as part of the metanarrative of family in general, which is such a strong narrative in our culture? Is ours simply a narrative underlying the metanarrative of American Family Values?

In that the narrative of our adoption operates behind all of the stories of my identity, of our identity as a family, I think it could be considered a metanarrative. In that it operates within the metanarrative of family, our cultural values and beliefs, our cultural “story” of family, if you will, our naturalization of family as we structure and organize it, it is just a narrative.

But as we’ve been saying– “just a narrative” is not nothing.

Let’s go back a minute, though. I can’t touch it. The narrative. Us. Meant to be a family. I can talk about the self, the post-structural subject being constructed by discourse from now until Kingdom Come (as my mother might say), but the meant-to-be-a-family narrative is the big one. I can play with it. I can talk about breaking it, disrupting it, where it contradicts itself, how it’s constructed and by what powers.

And through those actions, I can open up new avenues of freedom, of movement, of possibility, for my birth mother’s story, for example, and that’s a good thing. I can analyze and contest the practices that wrote her story, that wrote our story, even, and that gave her only one line in it. I can even analyze and contest the practices that wrote us as a family.

But I can’t, really, touch that narrative.

I just don’t believe we were not meant to be a family.

And that’s where it becomes, for me, an intellectual game, something to toy with, something that stops, always, short of me feeling anything. And makes me a fraud.

And what would I feel if I could touch it, really? My brother’s disconnect from the family?

And why can’t I touch it? Am I not ready, intellectually, emotionally? Are we seeing the power of the metanarrative?

Because I don’t mean, here, that I back off from feeling anything, like when you tentatively touch a bruise to see how much it still hurts, and you yank your hand away when you sense the pain about to start.

I mean, there’s no bruise. There’s no hand. It’s all pretend.

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tiltling Planet, Charles Wallace Murray, who you might remember from A Wrinkle in Time, gets blown into a projection. The unicorn he is traveling with, Gaudior, tells him, “We’re still here, in your own Where, although it is not yet a real When.”

Charles Wallace asks, “Will it be?”

“It is one of the Projections we have been sent to try to prevent. The Echthroi will do everything in their power to make it real,” Gaudior answers.

I think L’Engle’s Projections are like narratives–evil, purposeful incarnations of narratives that culturally and ideologically and through our social class inscribe us–narratives that construct and constrain us, that write our lives for us, or that we, if we’re lucky, can see and prevent. Either way, they’re a place to stand, and to look around, to be.

Do I need a place to stand, a place from which to be, and this is what I’ve chosen? Don’t we all need a place to stand?

Has this narrative not yet constricted my freedom, my agency, in such a way that I need to break it? Have I become as savvy as some of my students, who say, “Yes, I see what this text is trying to do to me, and I don’t care?”

Or am I kidding myself?

The Echthroi have won.

I’m in the Matrix.

For my good and kind friend P., and a cheat sheet for me

Posted in The Blog with tags , on August 10, 2012 by chateaucone

My good and kind friend P. read my August 7 post, and left me a comment on FB.  He said, “Liz, I’m going to “Like” this but it went right over my head.”

I said, “Oh my god. Every morning I sit down at 9 am sharp to write. It takes me until about 10 am to get straight in my head again what post-structuralism is and what I’m doing with it. Then, I’m able to hold that in my head for only about two hours before I start getting confused again, and I start doubting my understanding, and losing hold of little threads and connections. Then I watch the Olympics until my brain recovers. And I’ve been doing this for a long time. Why, I don’t know.”

So, what follows is a sort of cheat sheet–for anyone reading, and for me to consult daily to get my bearings.

I’m going to start with a quotation from Cloud Atlas, which I just finished reading. The post-structuralists would have a bit of a problem with it, but it’s a good jumping off point. It’s something a minor character is writing in his notebook just before his plane crashes; more context than that isn’t particularly necessary:

  • Exposition: the workings of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic. The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave. Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction–in short, belief–grows ever “truer.” The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct; in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.
  • The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will. Power seeks + is the right to “landscape” the virtual past. (He who pays the historian calls the tune.) (p. 392-3)

Keep this in the back of your mind, and read on.

Here goes:

The post-structuralists believe a few key things:

  1. Language is not transparent. It’s not a direct representation of the world. It’s all metaphor. The symbols “t-r-e-e”  have nothing to do with the shady object outside your front door except that culturally, and arbitrarily, we’ve made one signify the other. So, language is never a direct representation of the world. It’s a metaphor, an interpretation.  But we all use it and agree on it, so it seems natural and we forget that it’s something we made up. And so:
  2. Reality is discoursive, constituted by discourse, or language. Reality as we know it, perceive it, is constructed by language. There is no reality outside of language, at least not for us human beings. Everything we perceive is always and already interpreted and language is the medium. And remember that language is not transparent. We don’t remember or experience anything directly, objectively, truly. We always experience and remember from a perspective–and then we use language, which is not transparent, to describe it. Any experience or memory of an experience is, for all of these reasons, an interpretation. This is where the  Titanic illustration comes in. The post-structuralists would say that the Titanic illustration is wrong because it assumes that an actual, objective, knowable past exists. But the rest of it is pretty close.
  3. The self (which the post-structuralists call the subject) exists only in language. It didn’t exist before language and it doesn’t exist after language. (Don’t ask me what I mean by “after language.”) By the “self” I mean, like, “who you are.” Sort of, but not quite, your soul. Those other than the post-structuralists–the humanists, for example–would say it was that thing inside you that makes you who you are, different from everyone else. The “nature” half of “nature vs. nurture.” Kind of.  But the post-structuralists say that this self, or subject, is created by, and exists only, in language. Before language, no self. This part is a bit weak, I know.
  4. Because the self, or subject, exists only in language, it is constantly changing and shifting and it’s never coherent. That’s because there is no one thing inside you that is just you, never changing. It’s effected by all the cultural and religious and community and political discourses and ideologies, and so on and so forth, all around you. These are systems of ideas, and these systems–like social mores–privilege certain discourses, and silence other discourses. (You can see this in politics and religion especially easily!) “He who pays the historian. . .” or as we know it better, “History is written by the victors.” But we’re talking about something more subtle here; ideology is a more subtle kind of manipulation, a kind of thought control–the practice of making values, beliefs, morals that are not universal seems universal, nature, inevitable. (Remember reading “Body Ritual Among the Nacerima” in Social Studies class in 9th grade? Along those lines.) (
  5. And anyway, even if the self weren’t constantly changing and shifting and contradictory, the post-structuralists believe you can never know the self, or the subject. You just can’t access it.
  6. And then of course, you can’t represent it in language, which brings us back around to #1.

And all of this is why, then, post-structural autobiography can’t exist. And yet, I’m writing one. Or trying to.


That baby?

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , on August 8, 2012 by chateaucone

August 8

I finished Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, on Sunday, and it was great. Read it. Don’t let the first section, which is the diary of this 19th century notary aboard a ship sailing from New South Wales, I think, to San Francisco, stop you. It gets better. Much better. Took forever to read, but it was worth it.

Then I whipped through Joan Didion’s new book, Blue Nights, which was good, although not as good as The Year of Magical Thinking, which is one of those books I read and wished I had written, it was so beautiful. But Blue Nights was interesting, and I love Didion, and it was, in part, about adoption and motherhood.

In Blue Nights, Didion tells the story that she and John Gregory Dunne told their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, about her adoption:

She was born in the first hour of the third day of March, 1966, at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. We were told we could adopt her late the afternoon of the same day, March third, when Blake Watson, the obstetrician who delivered her, called the house at Portuguese Bend in which we then lived, forty-some miles down the coast from Santa Monica. I was taking a shower and burst into tears when John came into the bathroom to report what Blake Watson had said. “I have a beautiful baby girl at St. John’s,” is what he had said. “I need to know if you want her.” The baby’s mother, he had said, was from Tucson. She had been staying with relatives in California for the birth of the baby. An hour later we stood outside the window of the nursery at St. John’s looking at an infant with fierce dark hair and rosebud features. The beads on her wrist spelled out not her name but “N.I.,” for “No Information,” which was the hospital’s response to any questions that might be asked about a baby being placed for adoption. One of the nurses had tied a pink ribbon in the fierce dark hair. “Not that baby,” John would repeat to her again and again in the years that followed, reenacting the nursery scene, the recommended “choice” narrative, the moment when, of all the babies in the nursery, we picked her. “Not that baby . . . that baby. The baby with the ribbon.”

This is the story Rosemary and Frank Cone told Elizabeth Cone, about her adoption.

One day in June, the phone rang, and when I answered it, it was the nun from Angel Guardian. She said, “We have a baby girl named Elizabeth for you.” I burst into tears, and the nun said, “Oh, no! You can change her name if you want to!” But I was crying because I’d always dreamed of having a baby girl named Elizabeth. So I quit my job teaching even though there was only a week of school left and Dad and I went down to Angel Guardian to get you. And when the nun brought you into the room, you sat right up, all by yourself, on the desk, and Dad picked you up and said to the nun, “You’re never going to get her back,” and we left and took you home.

Didion tells us that  Quintana Roo asked these questions as she was growing up:

What if you hadn’t answered the phone when Dr. Watson called, she would suddenly say. What if you hadn’t been home, what if you couldn’t meet him at the hospital, what if there’d been an accident on the freeway, what would happen to me then?

Elizabeth didn’t ask any questions. She couldn’t imagine it happening any other way.

You see, Elizabeth conveniently forgot about the page in The Chosen Baby where the mom and the dad are shown a baby, and they say, “This is a beautiful child, but we know it is not our baby.” And then they are taken to see the next child.

The Unnatural Story of My Natural Mother

Posted in The Blog on August 7, 2012 by chateaucone

I feel like there are two identity representations at stake in this project–mine, and my birth mother’s, or, as Angel Guardian called her, my “natural mother.” Two identities are called into question explicitly. One is fictional, in the truest sense of the word, because that is all she can be, and one is a number of Is that exist only in the moment they are writing, after which they are essentially fictional, fixed, and when they are all piled up together, incoherent. Dissonant. A badly written piece of music. The melodies and harmonies contradicting each other, bouncing off each other, smashing up against each other.


Let’s start with the smaller, easier-to-tackle identity construction–my birth mother. She starts out, in “Bedtime Stories,” in my father’s voice, as this Blessed Mother figure, this saintly woman who gave me up to give me a better life. The ultimate unselfish mother–she loved me that much.  


And then Angel Guardian letter comes and it feels official and real and correct, natural–vague though it is; she is given a physical description, a nationality and an ethnicity, a few character traits. There is no reason to doubt that my birth mother is 5’3”, that she was born in Canada, that she is Italian and has brown hair and brown eyes, that she went to college for one year, that she is articulate and artistic and soft-spoken.  And this does little to change my father’s narrative, except to make my birth mother seems slightly more alive, slightly more than a character in a bedtime story.


And then I begin, fooling around, bored at school one day, to develop alternate letters that Angel Guardian could have sent–letters that create other young women that could have been my mother, letters containing fictional characters loosely based on Angel Guardian’s non-identifying information, having romantic liaisons, making devastating mistakes or youthful indiscretions, living out amusing anecdotes, having tattoos and nearly engaging with Communists, going to Woodstock.


And my birth mother shatters into a million possible pieces.


Whenever people hear that this project is about our adoption story, that I am adopted, that I am writing about it, they ask, “Have you searched? Have you found your birth mother?” And my stock answer is, “No! If she showed up, it would f#*k up the whole thing!”


Is the narrative of my birth mother the only true possible post-structural subject representation– because I don’t know her? Can’t know her? Can’t pretend or even seriously attempt to represent her? So I am forced to (mis)represent her in myriad and varied ways, in all of her possibilities?


On the other hand, an editor pointed out to me that finding my birth mother would turn a fictional character into a real character, a real person that I can no longer control. I can control the fantasy, and I am ultimately in charge of her various narratives and incarnations as long as she exists on on paper. But if she turned up all of a sudden, she’d become real, fixed.


I have all the power as long as she is a fantasy. In exchange, I lack any form of certainty.


And it feels to me like post-structural autobiography is a lot about giving up certainty. Giving up the certainty that your life is being lived toward one ideologically, culturally, religiously, whateverly constructed goal–that all the pieces of your life, from your fall off the swing set when you were eight to the random section of Anthropology 101 you were assigned in freshman year to the guy in the seat next to you in row L on the plane from Edinburgh talking about Joseph Beuys, are each important parts of the creation of your personality and What Your Life Was Meant To Be. An ideologically appropriate narrative. Meant to be. Naturally.


Ideology orders things for us. Structure orders. Makes them seem natural and inevitable. Post-structural autobiography is disorder. It’s holding disparate pieces together in your mind and not forcing them into some kind of order. Letting them be. And that’s hard to do. It’s like holding all the pieces of a 1000-piece puzzle in your hands and not putting the puzzle together. No. It’s like holding 1000 random pieces from 1000 random puzzles in your hands and someone telling you to put them together but the edges just don’t match up. You can shave them off, force them, bend them to fit, squeeze them, alter them, but that’s not what we’re about here.


Wait, then. Post-structural autobiography must be partly the responsibility of the reader. It’s up to the writer, yes,  to present culturally dominant narratives, and then disrupt them, contradict them, to find ways to represent the unrepresentable subject, the contradictory subject, the incoherent subject, the subject that won’t stop shifting. But it’s up to the reader to read all of this and to hold it in her mind, in all its disparateness, and not recess the broken parts.


A side note: curiously, my birth mother constantly slides along a spectrum of the knowable, over the course of my life, from being a character in a bedtime story, as real and as touchable as Betsy Ray, as Laura Ingalls, as Anne Shirley, to a distant relative you find evidence of on a census from 1890, to someone slightly more human and complicated but even more constructed by the time frame (literally–the brief still frame in which I am offered a glimpse of her) and less certain in unwed mother narratives, to . . .wherever I am now with her. As I have become more enmeshed in post-structural thought she has become at once more real and more complicated while each still depiction of her becomes more fictional. 


The letter from Angel Guardian that made her seem, momentarily, real, is actually a construct, a fiction, a story dependent upon the discourses dominant in that particular time and place, Angel Guardian, Brooklyn, 1966.


And yet I read more stories of unwed mothers in 1966, and more “research” by social workers in the 1960s, my birth mother breaks into more and more and more shards of mirror, and the possibilities for her seem to become more fully, complicatedly human.


The project, in a nutshell

Posted in The Blog on August 7, 2012 by chateaucone

The project, in a nutshell