Looking for the first list of The Mistress's Daughter bloggers? It's right below this post. Click here to jump there immediately. But wait, don't you want to read the author's thoughts? And if you're intrigued, know that another group of bloggers will go up this evening (including my own post) and you can start signing up for the next book in the book club, Water for Elephants.
The first AM Homes book I ever read was Jack and I bought it while in high school. I remember being unsure whether the author was male or female. The initials threw me off. There was a male protagonist, but a feminine hand moving the story. It was my first experience feeling as if the author was probably just as interesting as the characters themselves.
I was drawn to The Mistresses's Daughter because of the backstory about genealogy. I too am a keeper of family trees and in my case, it is merely an exercise in cataloging and organizing. I do it automatically, hording information. Gathering it wherever I can. I had never looked at the bigger picture, tracing roots, trying to find meaning within family. I think that is the mark of a good book--it can take the commonplace--the well-worn paths--and make them look as if they have just been presented for the first time.
Talented sums up AM Homes with a single thought. She is beyond talented with words--one of the great writers of our generation. But what The Mistresses's Daughter shows (and never tells) is how we are so much more than single words--mother, daughter, writer, friend. We are these hugely complicated beings that defy definition and we are elusive--ever-changing--as new information is introduced into our world. I thought this book was so important because it unwraps this period of her life like a gift, revealing these small nooks and crannies of her being and reminding us that we can never have someone completely figured out--an important lesson to keep in mind always.
AM Homes and I sat down in the figurative sense (in other words, via an email exchange) at the Virtual Lushary and she answered these questions that I gathered from other members of the Barren Bitches Book Brigade.
Mel: Thank you, AM, for talking with us today. Would you say that for you, Knowing (no matter what that was) was absolutely preferable to Not Knowing? Is there anything you might have found about your biological parents that you would rather have not known?
AM: I think there is danger in holding off information, it takes enormous energy to deny what you already half know. So knowing that someone was looking for me—and then deciding not to find out who they were would have taken a lot of effort for many years. As much as folks say knowledge is power, I can also recognize that information can be painful and hard to deal with—but I’m all about not running from what is hard to deal with. And in the end, yes I found out who my biological parents were, but there’s an enormous amount about their lives, their histories, personalities and relationship that I’ll never know.
Mel: What did your journey to wholeness -- shining light on your genetic origins as well as researching your cultural lines -- what did this knowing of yourself have to do with your decision to become a parent, and to the type of mom you are?
AM: It had nothing to do with my deciding to become a parent. I grew up always wanting children—and knowing I would have them—either biologically or through adoption. A lot of people mistakenly think that for adopted people the desire to become a parent is somehow different than it would be for someone who grew up in their biological family-and I’m never sure why that is.
Yes, being a parent and having a child is complex for adopted people, but it is for everyone. It stirs issues about intimacy and attachment as well as feelings of what we did or didn’t get from our own parents.
Mel: We were interested in the part where you saw your ass on your father's body. One of our book club members is an adoptive mom. She said, "I look into my daughter's face and wonder what it would be like to see my own features there (at the same time, I am not wishing she were any different). It feels like an insidious thought of betrayal. I am ashamed of these feelings and want to squash them, hide them, lest she ever sense them. Yet your book spoke to me about the importance that openness, Light and Knowing have for an adoptee. If my daughter ever asks me an LA Law-type question such as, 'did you ever look at me and wonder about the daughter you didn't have?' should I tell her of my feelings? (I know there is no blanket answer, but I would appreciate your thoughts on how you would have liked your mother to handle)."
AM: First—the good news--as a adoptive parent, you’re conscious of your feelings and the complexity of them. The difficulty is being able to hold contradicting emotions at the same time. It’s ok to love your adopted daughter and also wonder what a biological daughter would be like—there are differences, and yes we all know a biological child can be very different from its parent—but there are for sure links, hardware and software that echo the history of many generations. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your feelings—they’re entirely legit. And if your daughter ever asks the question, you can try and tease the two prongs apart—ie tell her, I look at you and am amazed at what a wonderful person you are, but yes there are times I am sad that I didn’t or wasn’t able to have biological children. And ask her—do you think when you grow up you’ll have adopted or biological children or both. It’s an ongoing conversation—and a complex one on both sides. The most important thing is to allow yourself and your daughter to have the full range of feelings—there are no right and wrong emotions about adoption. There are hopes and dreams and, yes, pain and grief as well.
Mel: Have you continued your genealogical research, and if so, how far back have you been able to trace your ancestors?
AM: No. I’ve stopped searching for now. The last straw was when I made the plan to meet one of the relatives—and at the very last minute he canceled on me. It hurt a lot and I realized I’d had enough for a while.
Mel: Towards the end of the book you briefly mention infertility treatments & two miscarriages before the birth of your daughter. What kind of an impact has this had on your life?
AM: The good news is that the impact—ie the stress, difficulty, sadness is mitigated the fact that I now have a happy, healthy child. So I feel very lucky, and mindful of how lucky I am. And I guess given my background I’ve always been VERY aware of how complex and ever changing life is—ie how horrible things can/do happen to people and it keeps me very humble.
Mel: When you started writing the book, did you consider changing names/"protecting the innocent," putting in some sort of disclaimer, or was it the absolute catharsis of naming names and drawing those lineal connections in black and white that you needed most?
AM: Yes. When I was first writing the book—in the section that appeared in The New Yorker, I used "other" names for my biological mother and father. But as I did the geneological research, I realized that to change all of the names, going back more than 100 years would be to change history, and also/importantly, that by changing the names I was somehow colluding with the idea that there was something to be ashamed of. And so it seemed important that despite the potential pain—it was key to use everyone’s "real" name. There should be no shame in having had a child and given it up for adoption—nor should there be shame in having adopted a child, or in being that child. It’s time for all the "shame" about adoption to be put behind us.
Mel: Even though it is not their story to tell (it is yours) and the book is about you piecing together the origins of your identity, how did your adopted family feel about all of this? Did you have to prepare them for its publication?
AM: My adoptive family read the book long before it came out—and despite that I’ve written numerous novels and short stories this is the book they are proudest of. They know how painful it was/is and how honest the book is. I wasn’t sure that would be their response, so it’s a deep relief. I felt it was important to tell the story truthfully and as much as I didn’t want to hurt feelings that was a risk I had to take.
Mel: You state several times that you had felt like a replacement or a consolation prize for your parents loosing Bruce. Is this feeling something that was reinforced by your parents or others, consciously or not, during your childhood? Was it exacerbated by your feelings about being adopted, or do you think you would've felt the same way had you been born to your adopted mother six months (or nine months, or a year) after Bruce's death? Do you still believe that now that you have a daughter yourself?
AM: I think there was no escaping the complexity and grief associated with the death of my mother’s first child. Bruce lived for nine years and was sick much of the time, so it was a huge ongoing event. And while my mother I think tried to shield us from her grief—it was there, also strange things like my birth mother never signing the papers to give me up—added to the stress—my adoptive mother feared she might lose me as well for the first year which didn’t help her attachment. I think one has to be mindful of history, and the ways in which we play out our history on our children, adopted or biological, it’s all about allowing yourself to have your feelings and learning to tolerate complex feelings that may be in opposition to each other.
Mel: Throughout most of the book I felt that you were hiding a big piece of the picture from us by not talking about your thoughts on starting a family of your own, and I was grateful to read about your daughter in the last chapter. Your brief description of how and why she came to be, besides making me happy for you, seemed to me a validation of my earlier feelings of the incompleteness of the story. Why did you make the decision to talk about your daughter only in the last chapter rather than in the chronology of events as they were unfolding? Do you think that knowing this piece about your story illuminates your relationships with your parents and you as a person forming and changing those relationships at the particular time described in the book?
AM: Thanks for this question, I have a couple of brief responses. I always wanted to have children, I love them, admire kids for their freedom their imaginations, their very intuitive intellect. The adoption story and my deciding to start a family are not as connected as people want them to be. I didn’t want to write a lot about my daughter, mostly because the events in the book happened long before she was born and aren’t about her. Also, I feel she is entitled to her private life and I’m not going to write/talk a lot about her, we’ll save that for her to do later.
Mel: The book is short on the descriptions of your childhood, and some of the memories and reconstructions presented in the early part of the book do not paint the picture of a particularly happy one. How did you make the decision on how much of your childhood memories and the description of the family dynamics to include? Does the shift to highlighting more of your positive family experiences later on in the book indicative of your increasing level of comfort with claiming your adopted family as your own, an indicator of the prevailing winds, so to speak, or a coincidence?
AM: As the author I don’t have the same perspective as a reader, so this is a hard one to answer. When I was a kid, I was angry, I felt I’d been rejected by my mother—and very much like an outsider. I also think my family dynamic was complicated by having an older brother who had died. I don’t know that my childhood was so happy or unhappy—it simply was and honestly compared to some friends who had REALLY lousy childhoods, I feel lucky. I had lots of fun adventures, I had a grandmother who I adored, and I was able to get a lot from her and I grew up learning lots about art, music, books etc. The kinds of things my parents introduced to me as a kid fed me and clearly had a lot to do with the person I’ve become. I look at my life now, at my daughter, at my family and think—after so much rebellion I’ve become EXACTLY the person my adoptive parents wanted me to be—deeply responsible, hard working, socially conscious and there I am dragging my kid to museums every weekend just like my parents did with me. But I do feel I am NOT just my adoptive parents child but really an amalgam of all of my parents and all of their histories...
Mel: Thank you so much, AM, for answering our questions. For everyone else, join the Barren Bitches Book Brigade in order to ask authors your questions and chat about books with a kick-ass group of women and men. All from the comfort of your living room.