It's time for another installment of the Baren Bitches Book Brigade. Today's book is The Mistress's Daughter by A.M. Homes. Please hop on over to Mel's for more discussion of the book-- Group A and Group B. There you can also find the online interview with the author. (And you can sign up for the next book on this online book club: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (with author participation).)
A.M. Homes writes with economy and clarity that sketches scenes and people with unnerving brevity, precision that can make you chuckle or shudder, or move instantaneously, from one of these reactions to the other. I have to say that, perhaps for that very reason, I found the book at times both challenging and difficult to read. The details about her adopted family she chooses to highlight in the early parts of the book made me uneasy, made me want to ask her a million small questions, to tease out a million small details. Experience is inherently subjective, and that is usually good enough for me. With this book, however, I often found myself wondering what a given situation looked like from the other side.
It was very interesting for me to observe that as the book went on, and as the author delved deeper and deeper into the stories of people who shared some of her DNA, and people who only shared last names with the people who shared some of her DNA, she also seemed much more comfortable claiming her adopted family as her own. She seemed more comfortable in her own skin, and in claiming what is hers from every part of her identity. In the interview, she talks about now being the person her adoptive parents hoped she would be, and that made me smile. But even beyond that, she seems much more at peace with herself and her story by the end of the book, much more integrated. Thinking about this point, I wonder if this is why the early part of the book was such a tough read for me-- there the author is very raw and exposed, jagged, conflicted. It's as if I feel awkward looking at a person who presents her own vulnerability to thoroughly, as if I am afraid that the very act of looking is somehow violating, or that it can hurt. A.M. Homes of the latter chapters seems a much sturdier being, if not healed then integrated, ok. I wonder, also, whether she could've gotten to that point had she not gone through the process of learning, and rejection, and hurt, and learning more that was set in motion by her birth mother looking for her.
Our community often speaks of the injustice of the homestudy process. From our parent-in-waiting eyes, is seems incredibly unfair that some can become parents at the drop of a trou, while infertiles to have to go through the judgments by a third party of their innermost selves to prove themselves worthy. Homes' book, however, shows not the parent perspective but the adopted child's. She talks about the effects of coming into her parents' home just months after their son died, about the burden she felt to heal her family. "I grew up doused in grief." She wonders (a few times) why an agency would give her parents an infant so soon after a child had died. Does reading from the adoptee perspective change your opinion on the homestudy process? Who is responsible for making sure hopeful parents are ready to parent a child borne to others? To what degree should hopeful parents be cleared of their grief, and who should determine this? How should it be determined? Should people stuck in grief NOT pass a homestudy? How should the desires of the hopeful parents be balanced with the rights and needs of the child?
Unsurprisingly, this was the part of the book I had the toughest time with. I wanted to stand up for the adopted family, for A.M.'s adoptive mother. I felt personally judged by that psychiatrist who asked A.M. whether she found it strange that an agency would place her with a family that lost a child six month before. Why was it strange, I wanted to know. Does loosing a child permanently disqualify one from parenting again? From parenting adopted children? From parenting until the parents are "cleared of their grief?" And what does that even mean to be cleared of the grief? I resent the hell out of this. I am grieving, and parenting. And if I should be so incredibly lucky as to have this pregnancy end with a live birth, I will parent both an older and a younger sibling of my dead child. I've been at this long enough to know that I will never be "cleared" of my grief. It is a part of me. Does that make me "stuck in grief" or just a parent?
That said, I work hard to make sure Monkey doesn't think she has to make up for her missing brother, and I think we have by now established that. I will work equally hard to make sure that my subsequent children do not think themselves replacements. This was one of the things I wanted to ask the author as I was reading-- what exactly made you feel like you were responsible for healing your family, what made you feel like a replacement? In the interview, A.M. Homes says that her mother tried to shield them from her grief, but that it was still there. So I wonder, still, whether the perception was due to the author being a sensitive and attentive child, placing emphasis on her adopted status, wondering about her place in the universe and in her family, or whether it was in fact something her family did or said.
In the case of the homestudy process, I would argue that setting the bar at "getting over" the grief is unrealistic and harmful. And what grief are we talking about? Would dead child grief be permitted, but years of IF grief would not? Or vice versa? I call bullshit. There is a world of difference between making peace with your grief, learning to live with it and "getting over it." Looking into what role in the family the prospective parents envision for their adopted child is fair and necessary. There is a huge difference between hoping for joy a child would bring to the family and hoping that child would make everything ok. They won't, because they can't. Not everything can be made ok. Understanding unique challenges of parenting an adopted child is important for adoptive parents, whatever led them to the homestudy point. Assuming that parents who lost a child and are trying to add to their family in the aftermath are in fact looking to replace their dead child is absurd and insulting, and extremely unproductive.
Why do you think the author's biological father went through the DNA testing if he was still going to go along pretending she didn't exist? How did you react to that emotionally as the reader?
I also felt uneasy about the author's attachment to her biological father in the first part of the book. It seemed to me that she was overlooking many faults, raising and then dropping tough questions. It isn't until a friend asks her many years later why she is surprised by his behavior that A.M. Homes comes to see the pattern. She then constructs a blistering series of questions, a mock deposition of her father, hitting again and again questions of how he sees his own identity, his own morality.
I see him as a man who might have lofty ideas and good intentions, but prefers to do what is easy. Seeing Ellen for seven years was not too hard, and fun, I am sure, so he did it. Leaving his family to marry her was hard, so he didn't. He called Ellen's mother to ask for her hand, but then didn't do a thing. He may have wanted to marry Ellen, but doing something principled, something hard to accomplish, giving up his lifestyle perhaps, having to pay alimony and child support to his wife and provide for his new family, that would've been hard, and there were only so many slices of the pie, as his lawyer said. Did he promise Ellen to ask A.M. for the kidney? Promising was easy, so he probably did. Following through would've been hard. Giving blood and paying money for the paternity test was the easy part. Following through on the results, telling his other children what happened, standing up to his wife to insist that while he undoubtedly wronged her, his daughter did not, all of that was hard. In the end, he seems to me a sad man, a man who constructs his own mythology to justify his inaction, who can convince himself to think that having his daughter call him in the car because his wife is not often there is as good as inviting her to family holidays, to claiming her as his daughter outloud because he is very practiced at this sort of thing, at convincing.
Genealogy -- the quest to learn more about her birth family's history -- forms a large part of the latter half of the book. On page 152, the author notes, "I remind myself that the quest to answer the question Who am I? is not unique to the adoptee." How much do you know about your own family history? Is it something that interests you? How has it influenced your decisions related to infertility treatment (if at all)?
My decisions about dealing with IF were much more about wanting to experience pregnancy than about DNA. My thoughts are a little more garbled now. After A died, I also realized that I hoped to one day give birth to another boy (but I also thought that our next baby would be a girl).
Genealogy, though. For us looking for our roots is complicated by the move from the Old Country. There are branches of the family that left many years ago, and are not easy to find. There are probably family stories that are now lost forever. I tried to have my grandmother write some of the family history down, but her mind started slipping just then, and it has not worked. Tracing our family history in the paper chase way is something I am vaguely interested in. The stories are much more what I would like to retrieve, somehow. Thinking that they are gone is so sad that I try not to focus on that thought much.
The other thing that does interest me is the much more longer-range view. The literal things our DNA can tell us. What is in my mitochondrial DNA? What is on my father's Y chromosome? Are we really part Sephardi as our last name suggests? What is in his mitochondrial DNA? Can we find the son of my grandfather's brother to see what we can know of that paternal line? Can we find any offspring of his sister's to learn of their maternal line? Both of my grandmothers' fathers' information is gone-- no surviving sons for either of my great grandfathers, no male heirs for their last names or their Y chromosomes. This project we can actually do, and are about to start. My sister caught a break from her grad school and is about to have her mitochondrial DNA (same as my mitochondrial DNA) sequenced. I guess we better start that fund to pay for all the other tests we want to do.