' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Dusky weaves the personal with the political

Friday, August 14, 2015

Dusky weaves the personal with the political

Janet Mason Ellerby
Lorraine's new memoir brings together her story as well as the larger tale of adoption in the 20th mid-century and the imperative for change. This is the message of  Janet Ellerby's engaging review of Lorraine's new memoir,
Hole In My Heart, published this week in the CUB Communicator.--jane

“Until I had answers, I would be stuck in a mire of remorse and recrimination...I could not move forward into my next act, until I found her.” Thus writes Lorraine Dusky in her compelling new memoir, Hole In My Heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoptionShe continues: “For mothers like me, adoption has no closure as long as we do not know what happened to our children.”

At the heart of Dusky’s memoir lie the emotional and psychological wounds natural mothers must endure after capitulating to adoption, whether open or closed. But closed adoption, Dusky argues convincingly, is especially egregious. It is not only exploitive and cruel but ultimately legally and morally wrong.

With Dusky as informed guide, readers first traverse the “baby scoop” era, the 60s, when Dusky surrenders her newborn daughter and closed adoptions are by and large the only option for unwed mothers; then on to the 70s and 80s, as Dusky joins a cadre of adoption activists; and finally, to the near-present, as the struggle continues to open sealed birth certificates and put an end to recruiting vulnerable teens and poor mothers to provide babies that end up “being transferred [as]...cash transactions,” products of the billion-dollar adoption industry that still tries to sell adoption as a completely “good thing.”   

Dusky’s personal narrative is not extraordinary. It follows the canonical seduction plot and its punishing aftermath for female characters. It is a plot that has informed Western literature from Persephone, to Clarissa, to Hester, to Tess: the young naïf, seduced by the sexually experienced rake, must face grim, sometimes deadly penalties. Stories like Dusky’s continue to captivate readers as well as film and TV audiences who hungrily consume chronicles of passion, capitulation, and calamity. 

But what makes Dusky’s so worthy of note is the historical and political context she provides.  By putting her extensive experience as a journalist to work, Dusky not only tells her own story of seduction, surrender, reunion, and loss, she also gives us a chronicle of adoption practices, both domestic and world-wide,  for the last sixty years. She expertly weaves the personal with the political and the result is not only one natural mother’s story of sorrow, frustration, and helplessness, but also the advent of an imperative social change. As the moral values that inform our culture evolve and the social penalties for unwed motherhood and illegitimacy diminish, Dusky’s memoir insightfully reflects these cultural shifts. But her memoir does more than simply mirror these shifts. With fierce perceptivity, Dusky demonstrates how the genre itself can do important cultural work as it challenges and subverts the prevailing moral standards that affect the lives of natural mothers and the children they surrender.
Jane and Lorraine, reunited, here in 1983

Dusky does find out what happened to the baby she relinquished. With remarkable facility, a mysteriously cloaked “searcher” finds her daughter, Jane, in Wisconsin. Jane and Dusky are reunited with the support of Jane’s accommodating adoptive parents, Ann and Gary. The reunion does, in a sense, allow Dusky to move forward, but it is far from the transformative revelation she anticipated: it does not yield the lost key that would unfasten the dead weight of remorse and recrimination that could finally allow her a sense of closure.  

Dusky gives us crucial insight into the assumptions made about such reunions, that they are the cure-all for the trauma of surrender and secrecy. Jane’s life is fraught with difficulty, and Dusky cannot help but think she is to blame, that she failed Jane, that the daughter she would have raised, “would have not had to endure so many trials.” However, all the laborious justifications for the adoption fall away as she realizes,” I made a mistake...A terrible mistake. I shouldn’t have done it.” These simple words were a revelation for me. Like Dusky, I too have tried and tried to account for the decision to surrender my newborn daughter to a closed adoption. How freeing to say, “I made a mistake, a mistake for which I will always be sorry.”

And it is a mistake that is hard to live with. Reunion can help; an ongoing relationship with an adult child can be ameliorative; open adoption might be more merciful than closed; but ultimately, these rectifications cannot erase our regret or right our wrongs. Rather, Dusky shows me why we must continue to tell these sad stories of defeat and loss to whomever will listen. She shows me why she arrives at the following far-reaching conclusion:  If a mother cannot raise her child, “the best solution...is for the child to be absorbed into the larger biological, natural family of aunts and uncles and cousins, with the child growing up always knowing who his mother is.” 

Dusky and I know there can be no unequivocal happy ending for mothers who surrender. The baby cannot be restored. The longing cannot be assuaged. Yet we can be heroic. We can, like Dusky, lead productive, resolute lives. We can join her in making sure that the dramatic economic and racial inequalities that continue to compromise adoption practices are exposed. Reading this book will help all of us to be better able to contest the unexamined and harmful assumptions involved when it comes to “choosing” adoption.  
Janet Mason Ellerby is a natural mother herself and professor of English and Women and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is the author of Following the Tambourine Man: A Birthmother's MemoirHer most recent book is Embroidering the Scarlet A: Unwed Mothers and Illegitimate Children in American Fiction and FilmI googled her and discovered she received her B.S. at the University of Oregon, in the state where I live. The many Oregon/adoption connections never cease to amaze me.  It's a small state, with only about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population.

TO ORDER either book please click on the links above or the jacket image. The more noise we make--no matter how we make it--the more our message will be heard, the sooner change will be happen, the fewer babies will lose their original mothers, the more mothers will not know our heart break.

For more about CUB click here:

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Nonprofit support, resource, and advocacy organization that advocates family preservation. Includes articles, bulletin board, and list of regional branches. 


  1. Spot on review. Especially this: "what makes Dusky’s so worthy of note is the historical and political context she provides." As a contemporary of Jane's and as an adoptive mom 40 years later, I found Lorraine's context helpful in understanding what things have been like for people in all corners of the "triad" to live in adoption under the policies of the day.

    My own review of Hole in My Heart is on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/review/R17JDWKA5D7YG4/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0692455930

  2. Hi Lorraine,
    Please let us know when the "Kindle" version of hole in my heart will be ready. Many of us depend on the larger font option to feed our passion for reading.


  3. There is a glitch from Amazon with the link above under the name of the book. It doesn't show there is a kindle version. It takes you to a page that lists various outlets selling the book, though why they are is a befuddlement to me. However, if you get to that page, click on "RETURN TO PRODUCT INFORMATION" and that lists the Kindle version. Let me know if that works, though god knows how I would get this to be fixed!

    Will try!

  4. here is the link to Hole in my Heart

    Link: http://amzn.com/0692455930

  5. Look to Lorraine Dusky's "Hole In My Heart" to keep you riveted to each page as she tells of her decision to give up her baby girl for adoption. Though this story deals with emotional issues on many levels, Dusky's ability to laugh at herself by using a breezy, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, keeps the narrative upbeat and positive. Dusky's writing style flows, her prose is exceptional, and quite simply, you won't be able to put this book down.

    She begins with her catholic upbringing in the Midwest, falling in love at eighteen, the loss of that love, and as a naive twenty-something journalist, falling prey to a handsome 'Lothario' whose only wish "is to possess a reluctant cherry."

    She puts the Lothario aside swiftly, and with her journalism career burgeoning, she falls in love with an older man, a journalist and a colleague, but he is not available. No matter his honest intentions and promises that they will be "together forever," life and circumstances intervene. Dusky becomes pregnant. Single and alone, and facing the mores of the 1960's, she makes the painful decision to relinquish her child for adoption and the promise of a better life with a two-parent family.

    At thirty-eight, she meets and marries the love of her life, but even with her new-found happiness, wondering, sadness, and grief haunt Dusky, until when her daughter is almost an adult, the two are reunited. What happens after their reunion, chronicles her emotions and those experienced by her daughter, Jane, and her adoptive family.

    Dusky discovers that Jane was diagnosed in childhood with epilepsy and resultant seizures, and that the adoptive parents were rebuffed by the agency when they tried to locate her and gain critical medical information. By writing "Hole In My Heart," Dusky brings to light the truth about closed adoptions, and how maintaining secrecy can perpetuate physical and emotional pain for every member of an adoption triad.

    With the acquiescence of her adoptive parents, Jane spends some of her school vacation periods with Dusky. Together they discover the "sameness" in several genetic traits and idiosyncrasies, like their similar tastes in fashion (remarkably, fedora hats) and in their physical dealings with serious bouts of PMS.

    Jane's dealings with seizures and having to wear a helmet for head protection during her elementary school years, cause her feelings of "being different" and leave their life-long mark. After meeting Dusky, many of Jane's questions about her life are answered, but she deals with undulating emotions, and periodically withdraws from contact with her natural mother. Dusky endures months of silence with no communication, then a happy Jane suddenly telephones for a newsy 'catch up,' as if they had experienced no time of separation.

    Make no mistake, you will laugh with Dusky and her very personal anecdotes. Then, as life-changing events unfold, you will cry with her. But be guaranteed that you will not find it easy to forget this extraordinary story by a courageous woman who is unafraid to tell the truth.



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