Archive for adoption

White Archival Gloves (Maybe), and My Dead Sort-of Grandmother

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2019 by chateaucone

That’s “sort-of” modifying “grandmother,” not modifying “dead.”

I finally finished my Scotland essay, which I’m sure we are all sick of talking about, and now I have this idea for an essay that would somehow combine the story of my adoptive mother’s biological mother (AMBM), and my biological, paternal grandfather (BPGF). They’re not exactly going to be about transgenerational trauma, but that’s the idea that got me started. AMBM spent most of her life in Letchworth Village, upstate NY, and I want to know more, and write more, about her. Anyone interested in visiting an abandoned mental hospital with me? BPGF spent at least a few months (still not clear on how long) in a Nazi POW camp, and I want to know more about him, too. I’m pretty sure a trip to Germany will be Absolutely. Necessary.

My abbreviations above are not going to work. I see that now. Too confusing, not to mention inconsistent.

But my family tree looks something like Sheldon’s 3D chess game. I’m going to need some kind of keyboard short cut for identifying my family members. I have a lot of grandparents and identifying each of them requires at least two qualifiers. There are the adoptive ones, maternal and paternal, and the biological ones, maternal and paternal, and the adoptive-biological-maternal, maternal and paternal. That last bit is a little confusing, but how do I identify my adoptive mother’s biological mother and father? I don’t think that’s it.

Here are my ten grandparents:

Julia and Angelo (adoptive maternal)
Henrietta and Frank (adoptive paternal)
Adalgisa and Pascal (biological maternal)
Elizabeth and Charles (biological paternal)
Louise and ? (adoptive-maternal biological)

I feel like that hyphen is in the wrong place. Or the words are in the wrong order.

(Last names removed so I’m not virtually handing over my social security number to some identity thief.)

(How do I have ten grandparents and I only managed to have two of them in my life, and neither long enough to really remember them? I think I am due some serious spoiling.)

But really, do I get to count them all? I mean, between me and Louise, we have two adoptions, no blood whatsoever, and tons of sealed records—a big blank lifetime.


Here is a rather glarey photo of Louise, before her life went off the rails.

And I’ll never get those records. I spent a good part of today trying. Apparently, unless I can convince my doctor that the mental health records of my adoptive mother’s biological mother, who my adoptive mother never knew, are somehow related to my mental health. I could maybe make some long and convoluted argument about transgenerational trauma, but no judge is going to buy it. I don’t even buy it. I could write on behalf of my mother, and that might be acceptable, but we don’t have any legal proof that Louise was her mother, because those adoption records are sealed. The other option is to wait 27 years, at which point Louise’s records will become available. And to bitch about HIPAA in the meantime. I mean, Yay HIPAA! for protecting my privacy, but BOO HIPAA! for protecting my dead sort-of grandmother’s.

Nonetheless, I want to know more about her. Give her a voice. She was put away and kept secret (I do know that much) and I want to let her out.

I’ve been deep in research about Letchworth Village for a few days. This is what we’re dealing with: Letchworth’s Annual Report to the NYS Legislature in 1915, just a decade or so before my grandmother was there, is asking for additional funds for the “segregation of all defective and delinquent dependents.” It says:

Few persons except those who are forced to come in contact with the defective realize the extent of the great burden imposed by the rapid increases of the subnormal part of the population both through immigration, and because the feeble-minded are more prolific than the normal part of the community. That it is cheaper to provide permanent custodial care for a feeble-minded girl than to be forced to care not only for her but also for her defective children admits of no argument.

There’s my grandmother, as defined by her caretakers: a feeble-minded girl with defective children.

In lighter news, I have a list of libraries to visit.

I need a book from St. Joe’s library, fortunately just up the street.

There’s also a book I need at Stony Brook. Whatevs. Just kidding. I do like going back there now and then to see what’s up. But the library is neither beautiful nor inspiring of great work. It looks like a very big bomb shelter, or at least it did. It inspires you to run away screaming “Save yourselves!”

But best of all, I found two boxes of archival material from Letchworth from 1906-1970 at Columbia’s Library–so exciting!—because I get to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which I’ve been to, but not for actual research I was doing. More as a tourist. So yay! Doing real research in the Rare Book room. Cool, no? I really, really, really hope there are white cotton gloves.

Don’t call me a nerd.

And, I’m making a plan to go to Letchworth. Other things keep coming up, but I’ll get there.

Somewhere in all of this, I will, I hope, come across at least a blurry and faded photo of Louise. And maybe, if I’m really lucky, someone will take pity on me and let me see her records, violating every HIPAA statute in the world. I’m kind of concerned that this person, trying to help me see the records, will be using subtle signals—like on tv when a nurse pulls a patient’s record up on the computer and then announces loudly, in earshot of the person who wants the record but should not have it, that she’s going to grab a snack—and I will totally miss them.

I’m also practicing crying on demand—the kind of crying that makes people want to give you whatever you’re asking for just to shut you up. Square mouth. Runny nose. “Please, please save my life by sharing my grandmother’s records! Sob! Sob!” I could really milk it with, “My own mother never knew her mother! More sobbing!” Okay, so my mother was three when her mother was institutionalized, and besides that, she’d already been adopted, so it’s not like she really missed her, except in that adopted-abandonment-primal-wound sort of way.

What’s research without a little law-breaking?

The Birth Mother/Birthday Clairvoyance

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , on January 24, 2013 by chateaucone

My birthday just passed, and it was, once again,  that weird day every year when I think I have some sort of mystical connection with my birth mother.

I figure my birthday is the one day of the year that she’ll definitely be thinking of me. I mean, she may be thinking of me on other days, but I can’t be sure of  which days those days are. Presumably, though, on the day I was born, 46 years ago, assuming she’s still alive–I mean, isn’t that the one day she’d be most likely to think of me?

So my birthday is sort of my place to stand in relation to my birth mother. I don’t know anything else about her (and as recent posts about DNA will attest, I don’t even know what I thought I knew).

And sometimes I need a place to stand.

Angel Guardian refused to give me that place, literally. I wandered around that building with my mother and our tour guide and asked all sorts of questions to determine if my birth mother had even ever set foot in any spot in the building at any time, and all I got was, “She may have, but she may have blah blah blah instead.”

“Just give me a spot,” I wanted to say. “A place she stood. For a minute. Forty years ago. C’mon.”

I can only stand in time, in a moment, think about her, and wait for something. I don’t know what. A sign. A shiver. The snap of a synapse. A flash of recognition in the mitochondria of a brain cell–so fast and small as to be very nearly missed, only felt in the echo.

This is somehow less satisfactory than being on a different continent than someone you love and looking at the same moon at the same time.

And anyway, here’s what really happens around my birthday. On the days leading up to my birthday, I think, “Oh. I have to remember to think about my birth mother on my birthday, because that’s the one day she’ll probably be thinking of me.” And then, on my actual birthday, I forget to do it. Or I do it sort of incidentally or half-heartedly. Not hard enough. Not in a meditating sort of way. Not in the engaged, forget-the-world-around-me sort of way that a spark would need to leap across the psychic synapses.

And then I feel bad for not trying harder. For forgetting to try harder.

This much didn’t even occur to me until I was about 40. All those years of possible psychic connection, wasted.

And what about her? What if my birth mother, after, say, thirty years or so, now goes through the whole day of my birthday without thinking of me, and remembers, maybe, only as she’s going to bed? Or only if she happens to write a check? How would she feel then? Would she feel bad for forgetting? Would she feel relieved? Relieved that she made it through the day, the big day, without thinking about the child she gave up, without being sad? Is she sad? Isn’t it a bit presumptuous of me to assume she’s sad? It’s been nearly half a century. Maybe she just put it all behind her. Maybe she repressed the whole thing and never thinks about it. I make all these assumptions–everyone around me does–that of course she thinks of me on my birthday. Of course. Of course.

But what do those assumptions mean? That she’s been miserable and missing me for 46 years? That’s not cool.

How do I want her to be feeling? What message do I want her to be sending me?

Just like the one I want to send to her: “Hey. I know you’re out there. I’m good. I hope you are too.”

Adopted: A State of Being

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , on December 27, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 26

I got a phone call from the adoption agency today and I foolishly thought I was going to be given information of some sort.

As it turns out, a guy that works there was calling to tell me that a letter I’d sent–ages ago, I couldn’t even remember exactly when–needs to be notarized before the agency can answer my questions. For my own protection, of course. Ha.

One wonders why someone could not have called when they first received the letter to say it has to be notarized, instead of waiting for month, nearly a year, to respond at all. Feels like more “for my protection” nonsense.

After a lot of virtual (and fruitless) digging around on my hard drive, I found a copy of the letter that I emailed to myself, from my office computer, on March 27, 2011. Here is what it says:

Thank you for speaking with me on the telephone this morning. As we discussed, I am sending you this letter asking for some additional information regarding my adoption, which took place on 6/29/69.  

In 1994, I wrote to Angel Guardian asking for non-identifying information. The letter I received, a copy of which I have attached, said that my birthfather’s ethnic background was Indian-German. I am wondering whether the terminology, “Indian,” as used in 1967, would have referred to American Indian or Native American, or perhaps Indian, of Middle Eastern descent. Is there any additional information in my file that might clarify this part of my background?

Thank you for any information you can provide.

The question is now, after the DNA wrinkle, probably moo (a cow’s opinion) but I still want to know what Angel Guardian thought it was telling me, if that makes any sense. I am not assuming anything they tell me will be the truth.

And that brings me to today’s question: Why do I say, “I am adopted,” and not “I was adopted”? Being adopted is not like being Italian, or being British, or being of Middle Eastern descent, as the case may be. It is, presumably, a completed act. Right? I don’t know. Am I implying that it’s part of my very being, my DNA, somehow? A permanent condition?

During my dissertation defense, one of my readers asked, “What if we just said you’re not adopted?” He was asking, I think,  what if that category just didn’t exist? What if it’s just a discourse, language that was made up to differentiate something that really doesn’t need to be different? He said, “You were born. You have parents. They raised you. Who cares how you got them?”

At the time I was adopted, in the late 1960s, it was all about matching–about creating “natural” families out of the two social problems of unwed mothers and infertile married couples. If the child matched the adoptive parent, the adoption could be invisible.

I’ve argued in my dissertation and elsewhere that our adoption story was so good as to make my adoption seem like a fairy tale, like an incidental part of the story of how we became a family. It so naturalized our family that it removed, for me, the need for questions at all. We were meant to be a family. And we are.

This is one way, perhaps, of thinking about my reader’s question. But other families, I think, took that in another direction and actually hid the fact of the adoption, and the hiding makes it seem somehow wrong and sinister.

Both, though, silence the fact of the adoption, regardless of the intention.

What if we abolished, somehow, the distinction? Or, can we abolish the . . . I don’t know. . . the difference the distinction implies? And do we want to?

I guess it would be a beautiful thing if how you became a family was invisible–if the how didn’t matter. Kind of like if skin color became invisible, and we stopped identifying as one thing or another, and just were.

But wouldn’t it be just as beautiful a thing if how  you became a family was totally visible, and always celebrated, in all its myriad facets? And I think today that’s the more likely scenario. Or else I’m very naive. And that just might well be the case.

I think I’ve gotten away from the discourse part of this discussion, though. What does it say about our ideologies of family and blood and genetics and unwed mothers that we make this distinction? Is it separate but equal? Can it be?

What does how we write and talk about adoption tell us about just how this social practice fits into our values and beliefs about families? Can the very fact of the distinction between “adopted” and  “born to” be innocuous and benign?

DNA vs. The Discursive Production of Identity; or, Holy Crap, Can That Be Right?

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 15

(Although this is a rather large epiphany, as epiphanies go, and not so much an epiphany as a discovery.)

Since I was small, my parents have told me, having been told, themselves, by the adoption agency, that I am of Italian, German and Indian ethnicity. And while I guess we were never quite sure about the Indian part, we were sure enough that there was at least one Native American headdress in my childhood, which I brought to kindergarten show and tell.

Later, the adoption agency told me that my birth mother was Italian; her parents had emigrated from Italy to Canada to the US; I found her last name in the New York City birth records and it seemed to confirm her ethnicity. The alleged birth father, as the adoption agency called him, was Indian-German. Last year, I wrote to Angel Guardian to ask what they might have meant by “Indian” in 1967–because my parents assumed it was American Indian–but they never wrote back.

Meanwhile, I grew up in an Irish-Italian family, that primarily identified itself as Italian American, at least in terms of food.

Today, I got the results of an DNA ethnicity test I took recently. Turns out, my ethnicity is 83% British Isles, and 17% Middle Eastern.

My first thought was that it was a mistake–that mixed up my saliva with someone else’s. But the whole thing was barcoded and registered and tagged and secure. I mean, sure, someone could have just mixed up the test tubes. Who knows?

My second thought was that I must have been, not only adopted, but switched in the nursery, because while I could see my birth mother reporting my alleged birth father’s ethnicity wrong, she seems pretty damn Italian. And how would she get that wrong? Unless she just lied. Again, who knows?

My third thought, in order both chronological and degree of outlandishness, was that it suddenly made sense that for the past nine years, ever since I first set foot in Edinburgh in 2003, I have been saying that Scotland is where I was meant to live. I must, therefore, be Scottish. My very blood was calling out to the land, my DNA recognizing itself in everyone around me.

The truth is, I have no idea what to do with this information. And before you say, “What does it matter? You are exactly the same person you were before you got this information, back when you were Italian and German and Native American,” I get that.

And that’s not what I’m talking about.

Nor am I having some sort of identity crisis.

But I am, I guess, sort of, like, “Hmm. . .”

I’ve just written 375 pages about the discursive production of subjectivity, and how we are written by narratives inscribed and reified by our nationalities, our ethnicities, our local communities, our religious beliefs, and so on and so forth.

What does it mean that I grew up believing I was Italian, in an Italian family? What does it mean that I am in fact English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh, instead? How would that have changed the stories I told about myself as I grew up? How does it change the stories I tell about myself now?

Maybe the Italian part is a bad example; being Italian in an Italian family, your various kinds of traits sort of disappear in the crowd, into naturalness. Being Native American in my family, though, was a difference, a difference that made a difference, that made me special, and interesting.

And now I’m not that anymore.

My dissertation doesn’t look specifically at ethnicity and adoption; perhaps that’s because it seemed like a non-issue. My father cheerfully called us the United Nations; of course, we were a United Nations made up entirely of European nations. How does someone of Middle Eastern descent fit into that family?

I am, though, of Middle Eastern descent much the way I was of Native American descent–in name only, in ways that I would never claim on a census form. Still, how will the discourses of the Middle East, the wide and varied discourses we Americans write and subscribe to about people of Middle Eastern descent, now begin to change my narratives?

Part of my story, the story I tell about who I am and where I come from, has shifted, if only because new historical and ethnic narratives have become relevant; new discourses have become available to me.   And that changes things.

I’m just not sure what.

My 18-Year-Old Self Writes Autobiography: Or, How (Not) To Drag Poststructural Thought, Kicking and Screaming, into the Classroom

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , on December 15, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 14

During my dissertation defense, I was asked to consider the ways in which breaking the narrative–learning to tell stories about our own lives in different ways–could be disempowering, instead of empowering, as I had been claiming, in a rather Pollyanna-ish way, for 375 pages.

The thing is, I don’t know. By which I mean, I can’t think of any specific examples. I can only use, as I have been for 375 pages, myself and my own experiences. And I can tell you this–that if some English professor had asked me to rewrite, or even reconsider, one of the ways in which I described/defined/narrated my life at that point, I would have said that there was nothing to rewrite, nothing to change. It was all good.

And if that professor had pushed me to write about being adopted, I would have resisted mightily. Or, I’d have written some beautiful (by which I mean trite and sappy) ode to adoption as the most wonderful, uncomplicated practice in the world.

It wouldn’t have been disempowering so much as un-empowering. Lost on me. Thumbs parallel.

Of this I can be fairly sure, vague and indistinct though my 18-year-old self is. People have reacted with fascination to the news that I was adopted all my life. And I have reacted with something like fascination to their fascination. Why were they so fascinated? I was adopted. Big deal. No, I’m not curious about my birth parents. I have parents. No, I’m not searching. No, I don’t have abandonment issues. No, no, no to most of their questions.

But I often said no to those questions with a vague sense of guilt, as though I should have more to say, since the people asking were so obviously invested in hearing more. But to me, there was no story. There was no narrative to break. There were no holes in our adoption story. It was all there. My parents told us everything. What else could I possibly need to know?

(Of course since then I’ve spent years in therapy rewriting stories, learning to think in different ways about issues and experiences. But that’s another blog post.)

Interestingly, it was my 18-, 19- and 20-year-old selves that were writing journalism stories, reading Hunter Thompson, Michael Herr, Truman Capote and George Orwell, and Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism, and wondering about truth in writing, truth in reporting. It was those selves who took a course called “Phenomenology” as a junior and learned about how we perceive and experience reality, and who took, for six credits,  “Propaganda,” and learned all about manipulation and persuasion and ideology, and argued at some point that all writing was propaganda because it was always trying to persuade, always coming from a specific viewpoint–and that it wasn’t all evil. Those selves wrote about the connections between phenomenology and journalism and how no writer can objectively reproduce an experience in language; no writer can represent the essence of anything.

And so the seeds of poststructural thought were being planted–the idea that Truth and the subject are contingent, partial, multiple, fragmented. unstable, shifting and contradictory. I could see it in other writers’ work, in all communication. But it never occurred to me, I never took it so far as to reread the adoption story, to start to rewrite it.

Had some well-meaning, all-fired-up English professor attempted to help me to see that the my subjectivity and my stories are discursive, and that certain discourses dominate certain communities, and that maybe there were other ways, even innocuous, tame, safe, ways, to talk about being adopted, I would have resisted. I would have said, politely, “No, really, there’s nothing to talk about.” Because I didn’t think there was.

So, I don’t know. Is the lesson here to start outside the self, the subject? To introduce students to these ideas in ways that do not ask them to step outside of the safe zone and to break the constructed narratives of their lives that are at best unnoticed, invisible, and at worst, harmful? And what would that mean?

I had all kinds of fun in college writing about the atrocities of mainstream news coverage of the Vietnam War and our protests of it, and even, sometimes, the circumstances, the dominant discourses, the unexamined ideologies and political realities that prevented THE TRUTH from being told. I had fun thinking about how objectivity can’t exist. I had fun thinking about how we can never know the truth of any experience, how democracy was its own form of indoctrination, and how power shaped everything.

I never extended any of that thought to myself and my own stories, though, which remained whole and complete and pretty and unexamined until a catalyst in my own life forced me to reexamine them. Was it enough that the seeds of the idea that stories might be told in different ways, from different perspectives, was there when I needed it?

Is there some college professor of mine out there now, reading this, saying, “Oh. My. God. She finally got it!”?

And would that be considered success?


We Built This City (Or, the Happy Side of Deconstruction)

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , on December 1, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 1

When I was little and my dad was putting me to bed, we’d kneel and pray. I’d pray for Jaci-Joni-Dave-Steve-Jay-Bobby-Carol-Tommy-Richie-Billy-and-KathyAnn–my cousins, all in one breath, and then my aunts and uncles and parents and brother, and Captain, our collie. (Adrienne was born later.)

Now, my dad has dementia. and reciting all my cousins’ names in order is how we help him remember who we’re talking about, or which cousin belongs to which of his sisters.

My dad has a story for every one of my cousins—the year Carol got an “Easter Bastard” from the Easter Bunny; the time Richie repeatedly spilled the bucket of soapy water my father was using to wash the car until my dad threw a wet soapy rag at him and it wrapped itself around his face; the time Grandpa Cone threatened to spank Jay, and Bobby, in turn, threatened, “I’m going to kill Grandpa,”; the day Jaci colored in Steve’s face with a magic marker as he lay in his crib, and said, “I thought it was paper”; all the times Joni was woken up and allowed to dance on the kitchen table late at night when she was a toddler; the time my dad gave 4-year-old Dave a cigarette on the back stoop of the house on E. 2nd in Brooklyn, because, as Dave said, “All working men smoke, right, Frank?”

In October, we had our first official grown up Cousins Weekend–Jaci-Joni-Carol-Adge and me. (Kathy Ann is in Florida.) I don’t know why it took us this long, but I have to thank Joni for getting us together, just for the sake of being together.

That weekend, we sat in my living room, and on the porch, and in restaurants, and remembered being little together, although we weren’t all, actually, little together, and talked about who spoiled who, and put together family secrets of which we each knew only parts.

I don’t know if it is this way for my cousins, but it is for me. We are family more because of our shared history, our shared stories, our communal narrative, than because of blood. We are our own community of practice, as we’d say in more professional contexts.

We share a memory; we share a discourse, a vocabulary. We have our own jargon.

Does it feel this way because I am a collector of stories? Am I a collector of stories–family stories–because I am adopted? (My brother would say yes.)

What would it mean to challenge our meant-to-be-a-family story emotionally, for me? I’m not sure I know how to do it.

Too many of us are adopted to say our family is “natural;” but our family has long been naturalized.  Our family is forged of things more ethereal than blood and bones and DNA.

We built this family, story upon story, lives and souls imbricated in narrative.

Adopted Babies, Adopted Identities

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , on September 1, 2012 by chateaucone

My office mate and chief idea-discussion-partner D. asks,  “Do we give birth to an identity, or do we adopt an identity?” I am perhaps at once exactly the wrong person to answer this question and exactly the right person to answer the question, having been adopted, having had my adoption, my identity, my various identities as a Cone, a DiStefano, an adopted child, a meant-to-be-member-of-the-family blurred over so sweetly, so smoothly by narrative, by identity construction, so as not to ever really feel adopted. D. says “We adopt, over and over–multiple identities. The adoption is never fixed. Adopting multiple identities is like being born over and over and over again–constant yous being created and then constant theys-readers–being created.”

And then he says, “All autobiography is always already in a state of becoming, always in delivery, always about to be born, always becoming.”

And again, exactly right and exactly wrong. Our family, always and already in existence. I joined a narrative in motion, moving forward with me in its stream. But one that was inevitable, natural, no other way it could go, its path determined.

I think this is not exactly what D. means. “Always becoming” seems to suggest newness, not pre-determinedness.

Is that narrative, the meant-to-be-a-family narrative, always and already in motion, in a state of becoming, as well? And nonetheless killing off other possible narratives, other projections, in its path?

Can a narrative be multiple, with room for multiple, shifting, constantly being born identities, and still shut off avenues to other possible identities? Or is it an illusion that a narrative can have room for multiple, shifting identities?

I think this is like when your mother offers you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a ham sandwich, and you think you’ve been given a real choice, but she’s actually set boundaries for you, set the agenda, controlled your thoughts, confined your choice within certain discourse, while creating the illusion of wide openness.

Someone posted this on FB last week and attributed it to Joseph Goebbels: “What you need to control a media system is ostensible diversity that conceals actual uniformity.”

I googled it–having shared a good quote recently and been told later it was wrongly attributed–and couldn’t find it. Then, someone responded to the original post, calling the guy who posted it on its authenticity and he said, “The original quote comes from Goebbels (sic) diaries, and as you’ve keenly observed, I’ve taken some artistic freedoms with it 🙂 The original quote used a word that would more closely be translated as “cultural environment” than as “media system.”

(You can see the conversation here.)

“Cultural environment” works even better for me.

We’re talking about mind control, after all, right? Just doesn’t feel like it. But then, what successful mind control feels like it?

And it’s not just the media, obviously, propagating it.

Either way, then, we don’t give birth to an identity so much as adopt one that’s already out there, written for us.

Is there a difference between constructed and being adopted?

Constructing sounds like you have more agency–but not if the materials with which you construct are subtly limited and limiting.

Then, perhaps, constructing and adopting are not so far apart.

And if we adopt identities, don’t give birth to them, from where are we getting them? From Epstein’s “proprietary powers” and “dominant structures of authority”? And if not, how do we know we’re not?

And if I’m good at it, this shifting of identities, this living of fractured subjectivities, does that mean I notice it less? Or notice it more and play it? Am I more or less controlled by the powers that be if I’m good at my fitting into my (appropriate?) identity? If I am good at the game, how aware of it can I be?

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.

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.