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Owning the Narrative

March 16, 2013


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Last week I attended an annual conference sponsored by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs [AWP].  The topic of one of the panels was titled “My Son is Perfect: Writing (Honestly) About Your Own Kids.”  One of the issues the writers on this panel discussed was the “fine line” they walk between writing honestly but also protecting their children.

Since becoming a mother, I’ve engaged in self-debates about this very topic myself.  Since writing about my adoption and reunion with my birth family, those debates have ramped up considerably.  But the “ethics of writing” is a topic that I’ve been researching and writing about well before I had my first child, and well before I discovered my birth family. In fact, I don’t know a literary nonfiction writer—from student to well-established author with multiple volumes behind his/her name—who hasn’t addressed this issue at some level although resolutions range widely.

For me, I decided long ago that I would always write as truthfully as possible and as responsibly as possible.  But, as I’ve learned over the years, it’s not as simple as it sounds for no matter what my intentions, no matter how careful and deliberate I am, my words take on a life of their own once they leave my fingers.

Last week, I wrote an entry here on Twinprints that I titled “Grieving Life.”  In it, I wrote that at age 31, I blamed my “bastard genes” on my becoming pregnant so quickly after losing my father and getting married.  My use of the word bastard led to a string of venomous attacks on my character and my writing that don’t bear repeating here. Suffice it to say, bastard touched a nerve.

I don’t regret using the word.  It’s an awful, shocking word, even today.  It’s a word that is used to describe children conceived out of wedlock and that was once written on birth certificates of “illegitimate” children.  Bastard does not refer to the two people who conceived the child.  No, when it comes to this particular word, it is the child who bears the responsibility—the label, the shame—of the actions of others.  Looking back, I think I used the word in self-derision as a way of taking ownership of it, of what I knew about myself, and of what I did not know.

And then there’s this: My sister and I grew up in a conservative Christian environment, one that reminded us repeatedly, in no uncertain terms, that sex outside of marriage was wrong.  In the adoption narrative our parents told us for as long as I can conjure memory, they always referred to the “mom” and the “dad” who had given birth to us but who could not care for us.  Image 1When, as a teenager, I read the notes from their caseworker and learned not only that our birth parents were never married but also that our birth father had rejected our birth mother after finding out that she was pregnant, I went through a period of emotional upheaval.  My sister and I were a mistake, a sin, I concluded, and didn’t the secrecy surrounding our closed adoption prove just that?  Such a discovery did not translate into any kind of judgment against my birth mother—then, or now.  I still admired her for her act of courage, for giving me life, and for letting me go.  No, any discomfort I had with this new narrative—and even this version was not entirely true for our birth father said he did not know of the pregnancy—was with who I was, not with who she was.

For nearly four decades, I lived with, grew with, and was shaped by what it meant to be a product of closed adoption, of a system that by its very nature whispers, “hush, hush,” whispers “shame, shame.”  My reactions to this part of who I am may not seem logical to others who have not lived my particular set of experiences.  In “Grieving Life,” for example,  I write how absurd it was to think that I got pregnant just because I had suffered some kind of terrible loss and yet such thinking brought comfort and order to disordered times in my life.  It may also seem absurd how terrified my sister and I were of getting pregnant out of wedlock when we were younger because of our perceived hyper-fertility, a perception that I still have trouble shaking, even today.  Instead of concluding in “Grieving Life,” though, that my birth mother and I share some kind of oops-fertility gene, I decided that perhaps our bodies shared a propensity to turn loss into life.  However nonsensical such ways of understanding might be to others, I own those understandings. They are part of my story.  They are about no one else but me.

Except that they are about others, too.  And in the last few years, the others have acquired names.  They have their own stories, their own complex emotions and responses to pregnancy, to adoption, to family, and to ancestry based on their experiences.  Until a few years ago, I never gave a moment of thought to anyone but my birth mother.  I didn’t think of birth grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, or cousins.  I didn’t think about, or even care about a genetic line.  I spent four decades telling myself, and being told by my family, that beyond my twin, such things did not matter.  We belonged to them, to our adoptive family, in every way that mattered.  As I grew, all I could bear to process was the woman who brought me into the world.  That’s all my head, and heart, could handle.  Sometimes it still is.

IMG_0428Last summer I had the privilege of meeting some of my birth mother’s family.  My own narrative has expanded to include a whole lot more people, wonderful people.  With that expansion, however, come even greater challenges for me as a person who was adopted, and for me as a writer.  How do I own, without apology, what I know to be true of my own life?  How do I share this story, my story, without inflicting pain?

I could choose silence.  But I can’t.  I won’t.  For me, writing offers a way out of Plato’s dark cave and into a world of truth, into a world that can be frightening and unpleasant at times but also far more enlightening and rewarding than deception, not just for the writer but also for her readers.  I am no hero in my own story, and I am far from perfect in my attempts to tell it. But I believe I have a right to tell it, and the responsibility to do so with care.  With my birth mother’s blessing, I will continue to try, knowing full well what she risks—vulnerability, exposure, pain—in offering that blessing, in allowing me to pull her, and her story, out of the cave, too.  Over 40 years ago, she let go, despite what she wanted for herself.  I am so grateful for her courage once again.  I step forward with this gift in my hand, more determined than ever to find the way.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. lucewriter permalink
    March 18, 2013 5:52 pm

    I’m actually not surprised because I’ve found that the B word still carries a lot of negative power. Shocking really, and weirdly, I wonder what percentage of young people even know what it means. Your piece here is well argued, and I loved your grief post.

  2. March 18, 2013 3:28 am

    “I own those understandings” said it all. Please continue to share with us. It is a privilege those of us in your audience share, and one many of us do not take lightly.

  3. March 17, 2013 12:16 pm

    Thank you for sharing your brave struggle, Jenny. Sorry that you were misunderstood in your greiving piece. It was, to me so lovely. You are a person of great integrity and courage, a result of all your genetic and love-based ancestors.

  4. Dina permalink
    March 16, 2013 2:19 pm

    Perfect. I am so glad that you have the courage to continue to share your story. I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.

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