Joan Didion's adoption of her daughter Quintana Roo has been on my radar ever since I realized she and her husband had adopted a daughter because their daughter was born within weeks of mine, and both girls were surrendered as infants. It wasn't until Quintana was ten or eleven that I paid more attention because one of my best friends in New York, who followed the lives of literati with interest, began insisting that this girl Quintana had to look a great deal as I must have as a child.
It was true. Except for the fact that I was a bean pole growing up, she did seem to me (and most assuredly to my friend) that she looked like I did as a kid. Photographs bore this out. Quintana was often mentioned in the magazine stories about her famous parents, including her age, and just as my daughter turned eleven, so had Quintana.
Now mothers who have surrendered their children in closed adoptions can do crazy things, and eventually it seemed as if I surely should write to Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and find out once and for all if we indeed shared a daughter. To add to the "clues" that seemed to be piling up, I myself had recently come back from the Yucatan, Quintana Roo in particular, and found the Mayan lore magnetic, mystical, mesmerizing: virgins sacrificed to the gods and the deep-in-the-jungle sink hole with water so black you could not see into it. At the ancient temple of Tulum, situated hard on the shore of the azure blue Caribbean, I climbed to the top and sat there alone--that was when you could do that, before there were crowds--for a long time and I remembered wondering that day, as the sun sparkled in a cliche of diamonds on the impenetrable sea, if I would ever find my far-away daughter, my daughter always out of reach, lost in a closed adoption. Was her name--Quintana Roo--indeed, a sign?
JUST ANOTHER CRAZY BIRTH MOTHER
I wrote to them; I waited; I got a kind letter back from Dunne telling me she was not my daughter. So I watched from a distance this girl, this teenager, this young woman, who was not my daughter, but had things in common with my daughter: both adopted; both born in 1966. Quintana on March 3; my daughter, April 5. Nineteen sixty-six. It is a year that would be significant. Not 1964, or 1968. Nineteen sixty-six. In Chinese astrology, the year of the Fire Horse.
I've told this story before both at FMF and first in my 1979 memoir, Birthmark. When my husband and I got together a couple of years after it was published some of his circle of friends--really girl friends of his former girlfriend--used this incident in the book as proof of just how crazy I was, how inappropriate I was for their friend's ex, and in fact, this was proof enough that I was nuts! I remember being taken aback and hurt. They think I'm nuts, is an odd way to feel about yourself. There is no way to prove that you, in this instance, are not. I wanted to tell them about the adoptive mother who had called me after she had seen my photograph: she was convinced--until I told her otherwise--that I was her daughter's other mother; I had to write to a teenager in Michigan to say I was not her other mother. Birth mother, how bitter the words sometimes feel in my heart. I do not use them if I can. I said nothing and these false friends drifted out of our lives.
Less than a year later when I found my daughter, The New York Times and Newsday and other publications would send reporters to interview us. She and I were photographed and included in Jill Krementz's book, How It Feels to be Adopted. So would Dideon, Dunne and Quintana. Did they remember I wrote them, so long ago? Here we were again, meeting in the pages of a book, now.
It was with all this in mind that I sped through Didion's new book, Blue Nights, as it is about the death of Quintana. She died at 39 in 2005. My daughter Jane died of her own hand at 41 in 2007. Jane had epileptic seizures since she was five or six, and took mind-numbing drugs to keep them at bay most of her life. She had all the attendant social awkwardness and neurosis often associated with people who have seizures, that can come at any time, in any place. There is no good time or place to have a seizure that makes you unconscious, that drops you to the floor, that rolls back your eyes and freaks out the people watching.
|Dideon and Quintana|
Quintana had no epilepsy, but her life was no less tortured. Her death came after a litany of illness as long as a menu: pneumonia, septic shock, pulmonary embolism, hematoma (bleeding) in the brain. She was in a medically induced coma when her adoptive father, Dunne, died; Didion wasn't able to tell her for weeks and then held back the memorial service for months so Quintana, I've read, could stand there in a black dress and later laugh with her cousins afterwards at dinner. Two days later, Quintana, who had gone to recuperate in the Malibu sun with her husband, collapsed at LAX and never really recovered from a massive bleeding in her brain. She was dead in five months. How could I not feel sympathy for Didion? Of her daughter's "quicksilver changes," she writes:
"Of course they were eventually assigned names, a 'diagnosis.' The names kept changing. Manic depression for example became OCD and OCD was short for obsessive-compulsive disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder became something else, I could never remember just what but in any case it made no difference because by the time I did remember there would be a new name, a new 'diagnosis.' I put the word 'diagnosis' in quotes because I have not yet seen that case in which a 'diagnosis' led to a 'cure,' or in fact to any outcome other than a confirmed, and therefore enforced, debility."
|My daughter Jane, before seizures|
Didion writes of excessive drinking, of depression, of suicidal despair, of a diagnosis of 'borderline personality disorder,' of Quintana saying as a very little girl, Just let me be in the ground and go to sleep, of a "Broken Man" who haunts her dreams when she is very young. When she was five, she called a mental hospital to find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy. Another time, she thought she had cancer; that turned out to be chicken pox. Didion continues:
"I had seen the impulsivity.
"I had seen the 'affective lability' [ED: unstable, rapidly changing emotions], the 'identity diffusion.'
"What I had not seen, or what I had in fact seen but had failed to recognize, were 'her frantic efforts to avoid abandonment.'
"How could she have ever imagined that we could abandon her?"
Oh. I thought--doesn't Didion get it? How can she be so obtuse? Nearly 70 pages later, we get an answer:
"All adopted children, I am told, fear that they will be abandoned by their adoptive parents as they believe themselves to have been abandoned by their natural. They are programmed, by the unique circumstances of their introduction into the family structure, to see abandonment as their role, their fate, the destiny that will overtake them unless they outrun it.
"All adoptive parents, I do not need to be told, fear that they do not deserve the child they were given, that the child will be taken from them."
Over and over Didion returns to the subject of adoption; if Blue Nights is about her adopted daughter, it is about the very idea of what that means, not only to her, the adoptive mother, but to the adopted, Quintana. It is obvious that no matter how much Didion tried to be a good mother in the sphere of her life as a celebrated writer and wife whose social set was the rich and famous, she understood adoption was "hard to get right," as she put it, and later: "We had...no idea that 'recovery,' like 'adoption,' remains one of those concepts that sounds more plausible than it turns out to be."
...more plausible than it turns out to be. From that you would think that Dideon understood the full nature of what adoption is, but she undercuts that insight because there is so much else where she proves totally oblivious. It is as if she had not read a single book about adoptee psychology--and there is now a bookcase full of them--about their deep longing to know one's whole identity, about their desire to feel complete. Didion is representative of all those mothers and fathers of that era who felt they need not know anything about the effect of being given up--which to the adoptee registers as abandoned--but instead are sure that they just need to take the child home and love her. With this mindset, Didion misses the repeated clues about how being adopted is affecting Quintana, though Quintana is practically begging to have them noticed. Didion's resentment of the girl's natural family also comes across clearly. Yet despite this, Didion gets it right a great deal more than all the I-am-so-happy-to-be-an-adoptive-parent books that come out one after another. Adoption may seem to be the only solution to a temporary problem, but adoption is hard. On everybody.
Didion does not pretend that adoption was not much more complicated than she ever imagined it would be when it was first suggested to her by a friend in the movies, Diana Lynn. Diana was adopted herself, and discovered it late in life--"when for some financial reason" it was necessary that she learn the truth of her origins. Diana found out when her parents told her agent, and her agent took her to lunch at the Beverly Hill Hotel Polo Lounge and told her. There is so much going on there that is wrong--was she getting less of the family pot in the will?--but that is a side story and not of Didion's making, and I'm glad she told it. Quintana, on the other hand, always knew, and Didion and Dunne wisely rejected any advice to not tell their daughter.
MAYBE NOT HONEST IN THE WAY SHE INTENDED
Didion mentions in brief that over the years they had received periodic communications from women who had seen mentions of Quintana and "believe her to be their own lost daughter, women who had themselves given up infants for adoption and were now haunted by the possibility that this child about whom they had read could be that missing child." Ah, hah, there were crazy ladies other than me who wrote to them.
This memoir is incredibly sad, lugubrious, all blue, no relief. Didion's prose, as usual, is pared down, full of short one sentence paragraphs stacked like pancakes. It is short--only 188 small pages--and you can read it in an afternoon. It is honest but maybe not in the way she intended, because my sense is that in some cases she did not quite grasp what she was imparting: the otherness of being an adoptive mother; one doing her best to be the "perfect" mother but nonetheless, an adoptive mother. She repeatedly refers to the "perfect child" that Quintana was supposed to be, in what seemed an attempt to convince herself that a girl/woman with myriad emotional problems was "perfect." What I read was that Quintana, this child they adopted, was supposed to be "perfect," not the bundle of complexities and contradictions they got. Such a person that Didion described is difficult to live with, has psychopathology issues that are off-putting, that make you crazy as you are drawn into their vortex. Borderline personality disorder? Perfect?
Only a mother who did not give birth to the individual in question would call such a person "perfect." Natural parents do not call their children "perfect." Numerous times Didion notes of the many illnesses that befell Quintana: "This was never supposed to happen to her." What I read: This was not supposed to happen to any child we adopted. Where is that "perfect" child we assumed we were getting, that we could shape with our privilege and knowledge, with all the fine things in life we could give her, such as triple lamb chops and private schools?
HIDING IN TUCSON
We learn that both Didion and Quintana's natural mother, through an accident of fate, a "bureaucratic error," knew who the other was; that the girl's mother was from Tucson. That when Didion and Dunne were in Tucson working on a movie, Didion became agitated once this fact bubbled up to her consciousness. Halfway through a noisy dinner with the movie crew, she got up immediately and found a pay phone with a phone book and looked her up. There she was. She showed it to Dunne. Without discussion, she writes, they went back to the crowded table at the Hilton Inn and told the producer of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean that they had to speak to him privately. She continues:
"It was imperative, we said, that no one should know we were in Tucson. It was especially imperative, we said, that no one should know Quintana was in Tucson....I asked him to alert the publicity people. I stressed that under no condition should Quintana's name appear in connection with the picture.
"There was no reason to think that it would but I had to be sure.
"I had to cover that base.
"I had to make that effort.
"I believed as I did so that I was protecting both Quintana and her mother.
"I tell you this now by way of suggesting the muddled impulses that can go hand in hand with adoption."
Quintana would have been four or five. It was the times, I suppose; it was the early Seventies then when the world was such a very different place, when adoptions were supposed to be closed. I was sorry that she made such an effort to keep Quntana's other mother away, but understood. Didion was trying to be a good mother in a difficult time. She was operating under the mistaken ethos that no contact between an adoptee and her original mother was best, or, at least, desired. Best for the mother, however? Didion is celebrated for her rigorous intellect and insight; I had a hard time believing that she truly thought she was actually "protecting" Quintana's birth/biological mother, but in writing it that way found a way to excuse her own behavior. Only a woman who had not given birth would think that. Didion was "protecting" herself, but can't bring herself to acknowledge that.
MISSING THE DISTRESS SIGNALS
If Didion's impulses were muddled, Quintana's reactions were crystal clear. Didion writes about them but seems to be blind to the distress signals the girl was sending out. In more than one instance, Didion notices things, but mostly does not acknowledge how they relate to Quintana's sense of abandonment or dislocation in a family other than the one she was born into. When she was thirteen or fourteen Quintana began a novel "just to show them," fine enough, but the novel involves a young girl named "Quintana" who gets pregnant and her parents say they will provide for an abortion, but "after that they did not care for her anymore." The novel fragment concludes: "On the next pages who will find out why and how Quintana died and her friends became complete burnouts at the age of eighteen." Didion muses whether the whole plot was just "narrative inventiveness" or a "manifestation of extreme emotional distress."
Really, you wondered? A story about a girl who gets recklessly pregnant? Do you not now, in fact, relate the list of psychological diagnoses listed elsewhere to this story line? And that maybe her sense of abandonment by her original mother might have been the root cause?
Elsewhere we learn that Quintana did a paper on Tess of the d'Urubervilles, a bleak story if there ever was one, of moving between social class (as Quintana almost certainly did). In her paper, Quintana focuses on the character Angel--the very one who made such a choice of where he belonged as he is intent on becoming a farmer and marrying a milkmaid, giving up the privileges of a Cambridge education and a parsonage. Didion mentions the paper in a list of stuff of Quintana's she comes across, but the connection to the dislocation common to all adoptees--and certainly her daughter--is lost on her. She writes more about the black wool challis dress she bought for Quintana when Bendel's was on 57th Street and Geraldine Stutz was running it. Huh?
Didion reports that Quintana is taken to see Nicholas and Alexandra "when she was four or five" and after watching the "story that placed both parents and children in unthinkable peril," after seeing harrowing execution of the whole family of Romanovs, Quintana matter-of-factually declares the movie will be a "big hit." For starters, Nicholas and Alexandra was a questionable movie choice for a four or five-year-old, but Didion merely hears in Quintana's reaction a precocious assessment of "audience potential," a result of her hanging out with their crowd; I thought: the little girl, uprooted from her own first family, has just witnessed the death of a family. I read: She thinks it's going to be a big hit: People like me can relate.
IS REUNION EVER--TOO LATE?
Despite Didion's attempt to keep Quintana apart from her original family, they do find her--that bureaucratic slip-up--when she was, as Didion writes: "...alone in her apartment and vulnerable to whatever good or bad news arrived at her door, the perfect child received a Federal Express letter from a young woman who convincingly identified herself as her sister, her full sister, one of two younger children later born, although we had not before known this, to Quintana's natural mother and father." Who had later married. Ouch, I reacted; this is a child who did not really have to have been relinquished and spend a life dealing with issues of abandonment and dislocation.
We are all vulnerable to life's unexpected exigencies at any time, but Didion emphasizes the "alone" and "Saturday" as if there could not have been a worse time. Would Sunday at brunch been better? I asked. Monday at work? Tuesday evening when she's having dinner with her husband? Saturday in fact seems like the best time, as you are not likely to be at work, when you can be alone with your emotions, when you have the time to absorb this huge hunk of your heart's puzzle.
Didion heralds the news as if it is obviously bad news--a reflection of her own feelings, almost certainly. But to judge from their own words, a great many adoptees are waiting for just such a package to arrive, Federal Express Saturday delivery, as Quintana's did, a fact she repeats over and over. Federal Express Saturday delivery by itself announces urgency and importance. Didion does tell the story dryly, without overt rancor, but the bitterness is embedded in the prose, even as she finds she cannot easily express what she thought about this, even though the day was expected; yet she says. "it now seemed too late." Too late?
Earlier, when Quintana was a child, she had made every effort to assure that it did not happen sooner, when it might not have been "too late." When would have been not too late, I wondered. Probably never, I answered. She writes: "There comes a point, I told myself, at which a family is, for better or for worse, finished." Of course Didion is not talking about her family; she is talking about Quintana's first family, the one she will always be related to by blood. In some cold intellectual way I understood why Didion felt that way--she was fearful she would somehow own less of her daughter--but the heart of me responded: Quintana will always be related to both families: one by blood and birth, the other by adoption and time. In the heart of an adoptee, there are always two families, often diametrically in opposition despite everyone's best efforts. Even with all the conflicts that emerge at FMF between adoptees and natural parents, I see them struggling with how best how to accommodate all the complexities and conflicting loyalties universal to those of us--and I do mean all of us, adoptive parents too--caught in the web that is adoption.
There was a reunion, a sister who arrived in New York and looked so much like Quintana that when her (adopted) cousin arrived, he greeted the sister as "Q." Wow. Knowing how powerfully emotional it is for adoptees to meet someone who actually looks like them--someone to whom they are related by blood and ancestry--I understood as well as anyone who has not been in those shoes what it had to have been like for Quintana to have a sibling who resembled her that much. There was a whole family who accepted her as one of them, a family that Quintana "was now calling her 'biological family,' strangers who welcomed her as their long-missing child." I could only read Didion's comment as an unwelcome reaction to even hearing the words, "biological family." Adoption is hard, sharing a child is hard, harder than anyone can imagine before they are somehow in the middle of sharing themselves. She also writes with distaste of Quintana's use of the language, being found: "Quintana who referred to the shattering of her world as 'being found.'" Didion does not reveal what language she would have preferred.
But reunion, we as know too well, is fraught. Later, when Quintana was back in New York and had a job as a photography editor at Elle Decor, her mother would call her in the morning as she was about to leave for work. Eventually, Quintana had the reaction of so many adoptees to "being found" that we are all too familiar with: she needed time to step back, that frequent morning phone calls are too much, and that she needed to "catch up for a while" with what she still considered real life. She wrote her mother and asked her not to call for a while.
We mothers know how much this letter might hurt--we want everything, we want a relationship, we do not want to be told a child we have been waiting and praying for has to "step back," we usually cannot even handle such news without our own internal collapse--but from everything we should have learned about reunions from the adoptees who write their comments here and the memoirs we have read, we know that reunion to the adoptee is mind-boggling, an emotional explosion, just as it is for first mothers who long to know their children. We know that meltdowns are common, and that for a great many the need to "step back" is overwhelmingly real. Quintana's mother then did something--yes, I'll say it--crazy: she sent Quintana a letter saying she had her phone disconnected. Didion realizes that Quintana's mother is as "muddled" as the rest of them. Which is a reasonable way of stating how muddled everything about adoption is in real life.
Though there is much for a mother like myself to digest in Blue Nights, when I finished, I wanted all those thirty-and-forty-something actors and writers who blithely talk about adoption as if it were as uncomplicated as apple pie to read this book. As a writer named Kate Bolick says in the November cover story of The Atlantic: "...if he and I decide we want a child together, and if it's too late for me to conceive naturally, I'll consider whatever technological aid is currently available, or adopt (and if he's not open to adoption, he's not the kind of man I want to be with.)" An actor from Private Practice made a similar comment the other morning on The View, something to the effect of, I'll either waddle around myself pregnant, or I'll adopt. They should all read Blue Nights. They might all learn adoption is not as plausible as it sounds.
There is more to Didion's memoir, of course: her own impending demise is on every other page. One gets the sense that at 76, this will be her last book. But that is not what sticks to you. This is her adoption memoir, even though she and John Dunne wrote about Quintana many times, and from what we can know, Quintana did not mind, and in fact, according to an interview of Didion, liked being a star, liked the attention.
THE MEANING OF THE FIRE HORSE
|Lorraine and Jane, 1982 or 83|
Earlier I referred to the year 1966, the year of the Fire Horse in Chinese astrology. It only comes around every six decades; the next is in 2026. But it is said that people--girls especially--born in the year of the Fire Horse will cause great trouble and discord not only in the house of their birth, but also the one they build for themselves. I read somewhere Asian countries have an uptick in abortions during a year of the Fire Horse. These years are bad not only for people born in the year of the Horse--as I was--they are troubling for families who have a Horse in the house. This is because the Fire Horse's influence can change from beneficial to malign, and during these years Horse families will become subject to illness, accidents and bad luck in general. A Chinese astrologer, an American woman who later adopted a Chinese girl, once did my horoscope and began the conversation with this question: Did I lose anything in 1966?
Yes, I said. I did. My daughter, and my life as I knew it before. --lorraine
See also: Wondering how one's "adopted" that is, relinquished, daughter is
The pictures I'd like to use I do not have permission for.
The pictures I'd like to use I do not have permission for.