|Lorraine, not quite incognito|
I say, Oh really, where, when?
He says, At a party like this. When you wrote a book about adoption...are you still involved in that?
Well of course my ears prick up like a horse on high alert and I say, Oh. Yes, I am still involved in that, but how is it that you remember me?
We adopted a daughter thirty-five years ago.
I nod, and we manage to move on rather quickly. Our paths do not cross again. We are both so neutral about what we have just stated that I have no idea whether we once argued, whether he was upset with me and my message, or ever cracked Birthmark, my "book about adoption." Because what I do remember is being passed nasty notes at parties just like this the summer before Birthmark came out, in the fall of 1979, thirty-three years ago. A My Turn column in Newsweek that October, Who Is My Daughter?, further spread the news of my shocking and outlandish memoir. I remember hearing from friends who were at a dinner party around that time with Ben Gazarra, the actor and director, that he pounded the table in anger: Who was this woman and what gave her the right? Who does she think she is?
Pounded the table? I asked my friends Marilyn and Ed. Yes, they assured me, pounded the table.
Oh. Better stay away from Ben Gazarra. I was not sad when I heard he died recently; I thought: one more down as attitudes change.
BEING 'THAT WOMAN' WHO WROTE 'THAT BOOK'
I remember knowing that people whispered stuff about me, that I was pointed out as "that woman," that some adoptees got so angry that I had the nerve to even suggest that I wanted to know my daughter whom I relinquished back in the good ole' days that they shouted at me until they got red in the face. I remember Lee Campbell, founder of Concerned United Birthparents, going on a The Phil Donahue Show--as popular as Oprah in the day--with her identity masked by a veil. I remember my book publicist telling me that some talk show hosts--such as Larry King and Sally Jesse Raphael (both on the radio then, with huge followings)--would not even consider having me on "because their bookers said they were adoptive parents." I remember strange headlines in newspapers about me and the book, hostile interviewers, angry adoptive parents. Very angry adoptive parents.
That was little over three decades ago. We've come a long way, baby.
Four days later I am with some folks on a boat (I do live in a harbor)--and adoption comes up in that one of the women is telling another about her friends she brought to the above party and their two-year-old adopted child and how they had to submit a book of photographs of their lives and write a "Dear Birth Mother" letter, and how the "birth mother" selected them, and my friend looks up and asks me, Have you ever heard of that?
Well, yes, I say, I have heard of that--what I actually say is there is not much I do not know about adoption today, which I suppose is a snippy answer--but I realize that now much much more is being demanded of me, about how this "Dear Birth Mother " letter/picture book is common practice and so on. And so on.
So now while seven of the eight people on deck are now listening to me, I say a few words about how a great many adoptions are what is called semi-open, the mothers-to-be choose the couple or single parent based on the photographs et cetera, adding that many if not most such adoptions close anyway, or are not very open at all because the parties do not actually ever meet or know each other's names, and I can feel my blood pressure begin to rise, I can feel my heart beat jump up six notches, and wonder if this adoption now on the table is really an open one, and I guess I'll have to ask. Do I need to go into the whole concept that this adoption--if they got a newborn in this country, and was this baby the desirable white infant--probably should not have happened in the first place, and the (most likely) young mother is in for a grim awakening about the longterm negative impact on her life? I can feel myself sinking into an emotional quagmire where I do not want to go. It had been such a pleasant afternoon. One of the other women and I had worked at a yard sale (proceeds for Obama) the previous week and all day Saturday and made $8,000, and we were going over the ups and downs of a community yard sale when Wham. Adoption. Time to educate.
CAN WE CHANGE THE SUBJECT?
Well, yes that one is "open," the woman I do not know well says, but the birth mother has not wanted to come and see the child, and I say, Well, it is so painful for some mothers they cannot handle it and the real grief may emerge later, I have this blog that I write with another FIRST mother, we hear from women ten, twenty, thirty years later and...I realize I could go on and give a ten-minute disquisition of Modern Adoption Practices and what is wrong with adoption today, and how you never truly get over giving up your baby, how you do not go back "to the life you had before" because nothing is the same again ever, and not-so-incidentally, you are a totally changed person. Suddenly a pleasant afternoon cruise is turned into what feels like being interviewed on television and while it is worth doing for the cameras to get our side of the story out there, I just can't do this today, in this place, at this moment, at what up to then has been a pleasant social event, the birthday of the boat's captain and owner.
So I take a page from what Florence Fisher told me years ago: when someone starts in on adoption at a social event, she simply says, I don't talk about this at social events. Today I stop myself mid-stream and say: Can we change the subject?
There are times when you just have to speak out and save yourself.
I add, Can we talk about being raped instead? My friend reaches out and we shake hands, she too had been raped. (Legitimately, in case that brilliant reproductive genius Todd Akin is lurking here and wonders.)
MANY WAYS TO COMMUNICATE
As I was saying goodbye to the woman who has the friends with the adopted child, she says quietly, I am so sorry...I say, It's okay, don't worry about it, this adoption business is something I just can't talk about unemotionally. I email my thanks to the other women, the hostess who does know my story quite well, and explain why I had to change the subject, and she says she is so glad I mentioned it because she was feeling terrible because she is the one who drew me into the conversation about adoption. She writes that she had overheard me tell the husband of the woman with the friends with the adopted child that I was working on a followup to my memoir and what it was about, and she thought it was all right to do so, since I was talking so openly to him. Yes, I had, somehow I had sensed that I could tell him without getting all worked up, and I had and he did not do anything but sympathetically acknowledge that this was a subject worth writing about. He did not begin to tell me about their friends with the adorable two-year-old.
Well, obviously, the message communicated is that this adoption business--from the point of view of a mother--is tricky, nearly always emotional, and still difficult to talk about calmly nearly a half century later. Maybe that was the point. --lorraine
For more on the same subject:
Talking out about adoption is not always easy. In fact, almost never.
Birth Mother to Adoptive Parents: You Make Me Uncomfortable
Explaining Adoption Reform Issues to the Hip, Educated Masses
Telling a Stranger What It's Like to be a Birth Mother
And there's Ann Fessler's book, above The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade From an Amazon reviewer: "I got this for a family member who was/is one of the 'Girls Who Went Away'. Turned out that my younger brother had already sent her a copy. She rated it 5 stars as an accurate depiction of the subject in that era...." Click on icon to order book, and if you are going to, please order through FMF.