Archive for August, 2012

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

The Unauthorized Autobiography of Elizabeth Cone

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , on August 4, 2012 by chateaucone

You guys are awesome. Keep the comments coming!

L., can you come to my defense? More on memory later.

Here’s the problem with the Official Analysis Chapter. There’s no Official Lit Review Chapter, or Official Methodology Chapter, or any other Typical Dissertation Chapter in my dissertation. And that was all well and good when things were moving along and I was creating, and writing, and refracting, and playing. But now I have to say something about all of that, and I don’t have a format in which to do it. A style. A voice.

And here’s the second problem with the Official Analysis Chapter.  Nowhere in this project have I acknowledged that it is, in fact, a dissertation. It’s a post-structural autobiography.  Well, an attempt to see what a p/s autobiography might look like. All the Traditional Dissertation pieces are there, but all (one hopes) in service to the autobiography.

Which brings me to The Big Problem Of the Whole Project. How does one end a post-structural autobiography?

One does not.

To end it would be to fix it permanently, at which point, when it is no longer in flux, in motion, unstable, inconstant and fluid, it becomes a fiction. If it wasn’t already a fiction. Which maybe it was.

How might one keep ink on a page in flux? Fluid and inconstant?

How do I keep my story from being squeezed into some final interpretation? How do I keep it from serving some cultural or religious or social ideology?

Any sort of ending chapter would appear to be the definitive chapter; the authoritative chapter, the chapter with the answers. The Chapter That Brings Together All the Disparate Pieces of my Story in the Service of One Coherent Goal. One Ideologically Appropriate Goal.

(I have to stop with the capital letters already.)

You know. The kind of structure that says, “And all of these things happened because Augustine was meant to confess.” Or “All of these events naturally led to George W. Bush becoming the 43rd President of the United States.”

You can see my problem.

We can’t subscribe to the traditional biography/campaign literature philosophy of “recess the broken bits.”

On a positive note, I listened to an interview with Cheryl Strayed on WNYC the other day, and something she said about personas and voices, that my good friend D. also said in his comments (the small of which I have incorporated, the large of which I am fascinated by but not yet writing about) has given me an idea about how to proceed.  And since another NPR interview, three years ago, gave me the idea for the whole of Chapter 2, voice, structure, content, degree of snark, fracturedness, blah, blah, blah, I’m cautiously hopeful. And I’ll just say this: it’s about adoption, on levels that are still occurring to me, and, I hope, keep occurring.

And I’m reading Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, and it is wonderful. Stories within stories within stories. And layers within the stories. I’m halfway through and climbing back toward some sort of edge, I hope, from which I’ll be able to see it all, stretched out before me.