The politics of point of view.
By Ann Hood
New York: Norton, 2010, 304 pp., $23.95, hardcover
Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other: In Praise of Adoption
By Scott Simon
New York: Random House, 2010, 180 pp., $22.00, hardcover
Dreaming a World: Korean Birthmothers Tell Their Stories
Edited by Sangsoon Hoon
Saint Paul, MN: Yeong & Yeong, 2010, 215 pp., $22.95, hardcover
A Gate at the Stairs
By Lorrie Moore
New York: Vintage, 2010, 322 pp., $15.00, paperback
Stories of children losing and finding parents will always grip us. The mythic dimension of adoption stirs something deep, pulling forth an almost reflexive response to life's apparent randomness and cruelty. Fate is the main actor in the all-too-familiar motifs of both Maternal Sacrifice, in which a noble birthmother gives up her baby, bundling little Oedipus or Moses into a basket, and It Was Meant to Be, in which heroic parents take in a child who transforms them from heartbreakingly barren to emotionally healed. But if a writer's goal is to convey the reality of adoption, such paradigms pose real challenges.
The experience of adoption can be described from a variety of perspectives. Fiction or memoir, the stories can be narrated in the first person by adoptees, adoptive parents, birthparents, or a combination. Or, the narrator can be omniscient-the third-person voice of the journalist or novelist. Regardless, the choice of the point of view from which to tell an adoption story is inevitably political. Point of view determines what is revealed and what remains secret, which unsavory aspects are held up to the light and which ethical complications are explained away as being beyond anyone's control.
Adoptive parents from elite professional or academic backgrounds have far greater access to publishers and news programs than do most adult adoptees and their birthparents, especially those in developing countries. Some of the adoptive parents who have recently chosen to tell their stories are quite well-known, like the National Public Radio reporter Scott Simon and the novelist Ann Hood. Although they may have the best of intentions, these parents often reiterate adoption myths defiantly, defensively, or with the same old stars in their eyes.
In this review, I compare two recent novels--Hood's The Red Thread and Lorrie Moore's literary splash A Gate at the Stairs--and Simon's memoir to first-person accounts by Korean birthmothers in the anthology Dreaming a World. The latter stories testify to the enduring loss felt by birthparents: "My alter ego and my daughter!" one woman writes years later of the baby taken from her at birth. "I can't quite look at you with my own eyes, but you are always with me and will be always. You are my other life."
Yet these birthparents generally lack the storytelling polish of the professionals, and the contrast reveals just how much power a well-told tale has to convince us that an individual truth is the Truth. When point of view isn't factored in, disturbing questions about adoption often end up excised. Even smart literary writers, to use a Lorrie Moore phrase, "fail us."
As true as the paradigm of It Was Meant to Be may feel to families such as Simon's--and the title of his book is an explicit nod to this--it serves the interests of adoptive parents more than anyone else's. Desperate would-be parents get a baby. Babies who have been cast aside, under circumstances ranging from abuse to extreme poverty, get loving parents with financial resources. Birthparents find relief in knowing their children will be well cared for.
Hood's title image of a "red thread" also depicts the way fate brings her adoptive-parent characters together with their Chinese daughters. Hood, who herself adopted a daughter from China, opens her book with this epigraph, supposedly based on a traditional Chinese notion:
When a child is born, [an] invisible red thread connects the child's soul to all the people--past, present, and future--who will play a part in that child's life. Over time, that thread shortens and tightens, bringing closer and closer those people who are fated to be together.
When you adopt a child, the love that blossoms indeed feels fated. It is hard not to feel awed. I know how strong my love is for my son, who was born in Vietnam. It seems we were meant to be together. But I also know that my husband and I had the financial resources and clout to will our family into existence.
We chose to adopt internationally, even though we were aware of the moral ambiguities this would involve. The Red Thread fails to take any of these into account. The fictional director of the book's Red Thread adoption agency, Maya Lange, spends most of her time stapling forms and mooning over photographs of the hundreds of little girls she's brought to a better life in America:
The pictures told Maya that these children, once abandoned somewhere in China and brought to orphanages where they often slept two or three or four to a crib, these children were now happy. In fact, not just happy, but special.
The directors of real-life agencies are often, like Maya, deeply committed; but they also understand that to bring American adoptive parents together with children from China or Russia or Latin America, money must change hands. The process often involves bribes. Birthmothers may struggle with emotional conflict. Maya seems naive about all this. Just how she came to run a large agency is glossed over; rather, the novel focuses on her struggle to overcome a personal tragedy.
Hood's third-person narrator tracks the experiences of a group of prospective parents from "Orientation" to "Referrals" to "China." Interrupting the narrative of the parents' pitfalls and dilemmas are italicized sections that tell the stories of the Chinese mothers who gave birth to the baby girls the Americans will adopt. Here's Chen Chen in Hunan, after birthing twin daughters:
Everyone entered the room cautiously, avoiding Chen Chen's gaze. Until the third day, when her mother came to her and sat beside her on the bed. One baby slept across her lap, the other rested beside her. Her mother brought her aloe for her cracked nipples. And tea for strength. "The second one," her mother said, choosing her words carefully, "is small and slow."
Hood's portraits of the Chinese birthmothers aren't one-dimensional. They are full of telling details. Her American plot also has its pleasures, even though there's no suspense about which parents will end up with which Chinese baby. The daughter of the poorest birthmother goes to the wealthy career woman Nell for example. And Chen Chen's "small and slow" daughter goes to Susannah, who has struggled with the animus she feels toward her disabled biological daughter.
The problem with a narrative approach that focuses on the adoptive families, though, is that the birthmothers' stories always end the same way: each woman is suspended in the moment when she gives up her child, while the American characters progress through a story arc. They grow and change over time.
The birthmothers" decisions are difficult, and they make real sacrifices, especially those who are forced to give up babies they want to keep. But they appear in The Red Thread only as victims--of cruel men, of patriarchal societies, of tyrannical government policies. They are denied stories of their own or even a complicated range of feelings--anything that would risk upsetting the adoptive parents' belief in a kindly fate. And if birthmothers are victims and their adoptive parents saviors, then no one has to grapple with the ethical problem of grieving mothers who give away their babies.
After the one-note fictionalizing of The Red Thread, Simon's Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other feels more honest. Simon's book is part memoir and part polemic; he weaves together the story of how he and his wife Caroline adopted two daughters from China with anecdotes about adult adoptees and adoptive parents, all meant to illustrate why adoption can be, as he puts it, "a miracle." However, Simon pulls no punches in accusing the Chinese government of a "mass crime" against women with its one-child policy; he interviews therapist Nancy Verrier about her notion of the "primal wound" adoptees suffer.
As self-aware as Simon is of the difficulties he and his family may face down the road, however, he fails to perceive his privilege. The limits of his point of view are obvious in the stories he tells about adult adoptees, most of whom are celebrities or successful professionals.
For example, Thomas Lauderdale of the retro musical group Pink Martini, says, "I enjoy being some kind of 'mystery Asian' that fell out of the sky." Chris Leonard, the birthson of the clothing designer Alexander Julian (who is a close friend of Simon's) describes happy reunions first with his birthmother, then with his famous birthfather.
Simon's fellow NPR reporter Steve Inskeep says, of the insecurity he felt as an adopted kid, "That was my plotline.... But," he goes on, "I was comfortable being the outsider, the stranger who has somewhat different attitudes than everyone else in town."
Simon wisecracks: "An outsider with a different attitude who tries to fit circumstances into a plotline. Steve Inskeep was becoming a journalist."
While Simon does allow adult adoptees such as Inskeep a voice, the birthmothers in his memoir do not present their own perspectives; when they appear at all in his tale, their experiences are recounted by the adoptees or by Simon himself. While it is often difficult to persuade birthmothers to speak on the record, Simon could have quoted from some of their moving (and complicating) memoirs. The fact that he doesn't implies, however unintentionally, that these women's point of view isn't worth much.
The rarely aired perspective of birthmothers in Dreaming a World (and its 1999 precursor I Wish for You a Beautiful Life) is what makes this unusual anthology so important. In it, single mothers who stayed at the Ae Ran Won home for unwed mothers in Seoul, South Korea, as far back as 1984 and as recently as 2004, tell their own stories. The home's director, Sangsoon Han, adds a concluding note to each woman's account, often updating it and offering more context.
Until a 2006 amendment to Korea's Single Mother-Child Welfare Act, Han notes in her introduction, the Korean government provided no state support for single mothers, and many Koreans still judge them harshly. "Our society is full of injustices, especially toward unwed mothers," writes Jinyoung, who bore a daughter in 1997 and is now a skilled cook. "Even at an adoption agency, unwed mothers sense the sharp judgment and criticism cast upon them by looking into the caseworkers' cold eyes."
Almost all these single mothers grew up in poverty, cruelly treated by boyfriends or husbands, or raped, like Jinyoung, the first time she got drunk and "disoriented." Many had to fight against the pressure to get state-sanctioned abortions, and their stories make clear that abortion is not a woman's "right to choose" under oppressive regimes.
Some describe themselves as victims, just as Hood and Simon imagine them--yet when they speak for themselves, articulating the sexism that undergirds Korean society, they become the subjects of their own lives rather than noble objects. Their narratives continue over time, as any real person's does; they are not defined by the moment when they gave birth. One woman begins by quoting from her diary from 1990, when she was waiting to give birth to her son:
What is life, and what does it mean? The theory that is not experienced is useless. Never useful. Why did God grant pain I can't cope with? I will be mature. My body and also my mind. I'll forgive.
Later, she writes, "After giving birth, there were a lot of changes in me. Through counseling, I decided to keep studying, which I had stopped.... [I] passed the qualification test for high school graduation." She now has four children and a supportive husband who "panicked a little and wavered" when she confessed that she'd given away a son for adoption in the United States.
"But," she says, "that was only for a moment."
The stories in Dreaming a World ring with authenticity; they don't appear to have been massaged or shaped except for a bit of copy editing. Yet perhaps for that reason, many sound the same. A novelist should be able to transcend the limits of first-person accounts, and a big fat social novel seems exactly the right form for revealing hard truths about a fraught issue like adoption.
That's why Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs is such a disappointment. Her novel made some "best of" 2009 book lists, but plenty of critics found it problematic for literary reasons such as its overstuffed plot and lack of clarity. In the end, A Gate at the Stairs founders badly. I would add that its problems originate in its limited narrative point of view, which is especially troubling because of the adoption theme. Pinpointing why says a lot about the ethical potholes so many well-educated Americans seem willing to leap over.
Moore herself is the adoptive mother of a mixed-race teenager, and many of her observations are on target: the bureaucratic domestic adoption process, the frightened birthmother, the cynical social workers, the foster family reluctant to release two-year-old Mary to her prospective adoptive morn, Sarah Brink (who renames the child Emma). Yet Moore ultimately sidesteps the big questions by choosing an outsider, the college student Tassie Keltjin, who takes a job as nanny to Mary-Emma, as her story's narrator.
Statistically, the adoptive mother Sarah Brink could be me--a middle-aged, affluent, white adoptive parent of a child of color--but she's a kooky, sauvignon-blanc swilling, Lorrie Moore parody, constantly in self-examination mode yet thoroughly opaque. Still, I wish that Sarah had been telling the story, at least some of the time--not because adoptive parents need yet another soapbox, but because she's so far from conventional depictions of adoptive parents. She's squirrely and self-absorbed. Her narrative could have revealed the cognitive dissonance so many of us adoptive parents live with: the guilt, the love, the occasional sense of unreality, all the taboo thoughts about what we're doing.
A passage toward the end A Gate at the Stairs is the key to its problematic point of view. Tassie, the college student, says:
Tragedies, I was coming to realize through my daily studies in the humanities both in and out of the classroom, were a luxury. They were constructions of an affluent society, full of sorrow and truth but without moral function.... Where life was meagerer, where the tables were only half full, the comic triumph of the poor was the useful demi-lie.... And to ease the suffering of the listener, things had better be funny. Though they weren't always. And this is how, sometimes, stories failed us: Not that funny.
Tassie is Moore's mouthpiece here. It's easy to fall for the lulling belief that in the "suffering sweepstakes" it's all relative. But when storytellers wring their hands and deny the tragic dimension to human existence, however "tragedy" is defined, they fail us.
Maybe it's not fair to ask Moore the novelist and adoptive parent for a different narrator. But if she had gone with Tassie as she is by the end of the book--struggling with her own grief--her narrator could have been the equivalent of The Great Gatsby's Nick Carraway. That Tassie could have exposed Sarah Brink in all her Gatsbyesque, self-made glory. She could have loved Sarah, condemned her, and sympathized with her failed attempts to construct an identity as a mother. She would have understood how the green light across the water beckons all adoptive parents, who dream of creating something fine, even noble--without the expense of another person's suffering.
Certainly there are plenty of benign reasons why adoptive parents are attracted to red threads and happy endings. I hate to imagine my child ever feeling abandoned; if I could, I'd smooth away every psychic scar. But in fact, my son has felt and will feel abandoned. He's going on nine years old as I write, and he has questions about his birthparents. How I tell his story feels increasingly limited by my own perspective as his adoptive parent. He will need to tell it himself.
Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. She has published in Utne Reader; Brain, Child; and Salon, among others. A former editor at Haraard Business Review, she is currently a contributing editor and blog manager at Women's Review of Books. Martha also teaches in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School. Find her at her blog, Athena's Head.