Archive for adoption

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.

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.