The Unnatural Story of My Natural Mother

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.


One Response to “The Unnatural Story of My Natural Mother”

  1. Food for thought: writing these narratives doesn’t give you control over who your birth mother is, it acknowledges that you will never know who she is because she only exists in the world of imagination. If you really wanted to “know” who she is you would try to meet her. Yes, then her possibilities diminish, and she is now more finite. The volume of space she takes up in the world is measurable. You don’t want certainty. You control who she is, not through the stories, but by choosing not to meet her. You established her value to your world, at the present time, as a real person, as ZERO!

    Naturally, the readers have an active part in all this post structural “thingy”. The narrative “lives” in their minds and interpretations multiply as a consequence. For you though, as the author and subject matter (yup, this is all about you baby) it is all about the journey, clichéd but true. We can play formal/intellectual games, but what is the point? It can go two ways that I can see. One is that all possibilities are valid, of equal importance and therefore meaningless (when everbody is special nobody is) or does it, for the reader and writer, become an opportunity for discovery, and become meaningful. How do the various possible mothers make the daughter feel about herself? Does the reader agree, disagree, or not feel invested enough to care? Why, to both questions?

    Your paper is a manifestation of an intellectual exercise. Perhaps the difficulty you have writing the “what teachers are supposed to get out this part” and the other conclusion chapter/stuff, is that it forces you to apply a traditional methodology over a non traditional method. A non-conventional structure should allow the reader to explore meanings (or ways of thinking) that would not have been achieved otherwise. Ultimately, the reader will most likely assess the success of the narrative in doing so, using conventional ideology.

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