Writing about Adoption While Drinking Tequila
I have been quiet lately.
It’s been a year and a few days since I came back from New York with the manuscript for You Don’t Look Adopted. I don’t know what I thought the future would look like. I had the deep bone belief that writing about my real thoughts, writing about adoption, would kill me, and to come home from New York and to face the wreck I’d made of my life (no home, no job, no money, no clear future goals aside from getting my daughter her allowance every week and feeding myself) was depressing. I was scared. I had no idea what I wanted to happen next. I had the feeling I was in big trouble, that I’d pushed the limits, and I was swirling down the drain.
I also knew I had done the “right” thing, if “right” means one of the only things I felt I was put on the planet to do. I was the only person who could write my memoir. If I didn’t do it, no one ever ever ever would. One could argue that the world could do without yet another memoir, but my self was programmed to write a memoir—I’d been trying to write it for over thirty years—so as a deathbed kind of thing, it was important. If I hadn’t written it and if death had come suddenly, I’d have felt I’d died only a partial realization of myself. I had witnessed my mother dying before she’d finished her book, and I was determined not to follow in her footsteps.
I’d gone from months of living in a dream-like East Village apartment to sleeping on the floor of my friend’s house. With the help of another friend, I self-published my book and slept lightly, waking up in headachy freefall. Sometimes I would wake up crying. I felt so bad about who I was and what I had done and what I was doing. Like most things emotional, my state of being was complicated because I was also wildly in love with the fact that I’d had those three months and that I’d done the one thing I’d said I wanted to do before I died.
When the person slays the dragon, there is supposed to be a boon, but I felt I was living in punishment, and it made me question myself. Maybe the universe was upset. Maybe I’d crossed one too many lines.
For me, writing about adoption was a declaration of Adoption is Trauma and a list of I Am Not That. The brain works better knowing what is instead of what it is not. But it was a start.
What I have found in the following year was that, as hard as talking about the negative effects of closed adoption, as hard as defining what I’m not was, defining what I am is even harder. As an adoptee, I feel like I am finely trained to do and be what others want. It has to do with mirroring. When I looked at my mom, my dad, my brothers, I saw people I knew were my family, people I felt were my family, but people who did not mirror me unless I changed myself to mirror them. I had no pictures of my birth mother or father, no stories about them aside from the basic lines the adoption agency had told my parents. (She plays the recorder. He is healthy. That kind of stuff that often is not even true.)
I had two dolls I loved when I was small. Only one survived. Annie Baby was a plump white blond sack of doll. She had eyes that opened and shut when you moved her and stiff black lashes. The last time I remember seeing her, a long time ago, she looked like a patient in a mental institute. I’d cut her hair into ragged chunks and I’m not sure she had any clothes on. I can’t remember. I don’t know what happened to her finally. I just know she is gone.
The other was, my mother liked to remind me, a Madame Alexander doll. She was black, with short black curtly hair. Her hair opened and closed when you moved her and her legs and arms moved. She had pursed lips and at one point there’d been a bottle so when you fed her water, she peed. One day, in an event I had many nightmares about in the years to follow, I pulled off Baby Ellen’s head and saw the thin red tubes for the water. In my memory, there were many, like veins. I was horrified I had taken off my baby’s head, horrified there were wires inside of my baby.
Baby Ellen wore a short-sleeve wool dress someone, I think, had knitted for her. She is over fifty years old now and, I hate to admit it, in my storage space. She has been there for a year. I feel bad about that. I think she has feelings. Okay, I don’t think: I know she has feelings, and she’s heartbroken I put her in storage. I harden my heart to Baby Ellen because the space is tightly packed and I have no idea where she is, so I pretend she doesn’t matter to me. That I’m okay with her being in the dark with all my stuff while I wait to find a place of my own to live.
Maybe I should have given her up for adoption.
I’m joking of course. If she were up on the shelf at some other home, she’d feel weird. She’d wonder what was wrong with her, why her owner had given her away. I’m guessing Baby Ellen would take a year plus in a quiet storage space with Bob Dog (I forgot to mention I’d packed her with the stuffed dog my parents’ adoption lawyer, Bob, had given me when the adoption was official. The adoption. Mine. My adoption.) over a year with new people. But who knows. She’s a doll, and dolls, like so many adopted people, don’t tell you what’s on their mind.
Why did my parents give me a black doll? Why do we give black children white dolls? Imagine a baby trying to find refections of herself in the faces of those around her--both human and doll-- and feeling gut confusion of something is not right. (As a side note, I loved and still love Baby Ellen. I'm not saying it's wrong to mix races with dolls and children. I'm just curious how it affects a child who needs mirroring.)
So enough of all that: I’m ready to be me.
Here’s what I know so far: I was most myself during select times in my life. For example, when I first got into the M.F.A. program at the University of Oregon. I remember walking down the sidewalk of Eugene, eating a huge cookie. To eat a (huge) cookie in public felt like a radical act (I am so over that, by the way.) I felt like ME. I was in Oregon because someone had thought I was a writer. I ended up not writing a whole lot while I was there because I lived outside of my mind, and had no idea what it meant to tell a real story, and so I played with punctuation and talked with others about famous writers and all the reasons why I myself wasn’t writing. I used every word to describe the blank page except, I think, fear. The one truest word.
The next time was when I held my baby daughter in my arms. That one is still going on. I made her. She is mine, even though, now, at 20, she is hers. (Mine.)
The third time was when I walked into Kitty’s apartment in New York City and saw that someone believed in me enough as a writer to give me a palace. As a child, I had thought I was a princess and that one day my mother the queen was going to come back to get me. This was the closest I ever got to that fantasy. It went on for 93 days. And I didn’t even have to deal with some Mom Queen. I got to be the Queen of my own land, and I got to listen very carefully to myself and to realize my dream of finishing a book.
The most recent time was the relationship I’ve been building with HBL. I met him before I went to N.Y., and he’s been there every day for me since then. I can be myself with him in a way I haven’t been with anyone, especially since I dove headfirst into this adoption blender where I realized I was pretty damaged. Not pretty. That’s a sweet word. Just damaged. I didn’t know I could fall apart in front of someone, repeatedly, and he wouldn’t get sick of it or be confused into anger or silence. I didn’t know someone could just keep holding my hand, asking questions, telling me I was perfect just the way I am.
And that is the scariest thing of all: being told I am good when, perhaps since the moment I was relinquished some key part of my brain was telling me I was wrong. Change, even when it is good change, can seem like a threat, and this has been work for me, accepting that everything, including me, is okay.
I still can’t believe when people adopt kids both parents and kids don’t get adoption handbooks. Giving a baby to parents who know nothing about trauma is like giving a baby seal to an elephant.
We can do better.