Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Unreliable Narratives

I was thinking this morning about points of view and William Faulkner and The Sound and the Fury. It was one of my set books in English, my junior year of high school. It was probably the first novel I'd read in which I was asked to question the motives of each narrators. "Whose narrative do you believe, and why? Whose story is the most reliable?" (Remember, I was educated in public school in Missouri up to this point, so my education was mostly me teaching myself. My private school was an oasis of self-discovery, in which I was shy at first. My classmates who had been there since seventh grade would jump right in and debate loudly about anything and everything, with all sorts of license. I was impressed.)

It was liberating to think that I didn't have to take any of Faulkner's text as gospel, and to know that it was a puzzle: I needed to consider the contexts and backgrounds of each narrator in turn. Plus The Sound the Fury was full of tragedy and terrible family secrets and took its title from a line from Macbeth. What could be more exciting for a morose teen-ager?

My adoption narratives have much in common with The Sound and the Fury.

There's the story I recounted the day before yesterday, the one my aparents were told by the agency, which the social worker fabricated from some of the fabulae my mother shared back in April, 1969. I don't remember not knowing I was adopted. I apparently begged my aparents to tell me this story, over and over, ad nauseam. My earliest memory is of my amom telling me to stop asking her to tell me the story of my "biological parents." The one that went, "They were young and in love, finishing college. Both tall, wearing glasses. She was going to be a teacher. They planned to marry, but broke up. She discovered she was pregnant, but knew it was best for you to be raised by two parents."

Nice story, not even close to the truth. I spent hours, days, months of my youth imagining that couple. Sad.

When I was a teen, I found a manila folder in my aparents file cabinet labeled, "Kara: Adoption Papers." Inside there were bills from the lawyer, communications from the agency, the decree, my amended birth certificate, and my pre-adoptive agreement. The pre-adoptive agreement named me as "Baby Girl Neuman." I took the paper to my aparents, and asked them if they thought that was my nmom's last name. They said, "No, no way." "Why?" I asked. "She wouldn't want you to know that," they responded. So I didn't say more, but I thought to myself, "If it were really a made-up name, it would be 'Baby Girl Doe.'"

For years, I thought of the tall woman with the tall man with glasses, and called her "Miss Neuman" in my head. I thought she was German.

When I dated a Jewish guy, he was convinced I was Jewish. "Neuman is a totally Jewish name," he said. "You'll see." Nice story, not at all true, it turned out.

I finally paid for my non-identifying information and received the packet of grammatically incorrect half-truths. It was typed out, as I have complained before, by someone who wasn't a very compassionate writer. That upset me because I believe someone in that job should be extremely sensitive as the caretaker of other people's stories. Who knew what she was leaving out as unimportant? Wasn't it a grave responsibility, to edit? The papers I held were all about choices, HER choices, not mine, and yet it was MY story. It was creepy that she singled out the fact that my father came from a "well-to-do" family. Because, yes, money makes everything "nice"? Seriously?

I did end up knowing more about my mother, and feeling more connected to her. She was a double-major in Spanish and French. Check, language geek. Very thin, small boned? Nope. Must have been from my dad. Brown eyes and hair? Check. Midwestern. Check.

I learned that they had dated for six months, but not seriously. He didn't have to work because he was "wealthy" but had a job in a pizza place, nonetheless? There was never any talk of marriage. And he never knew about me. Never. He had gone to Vietnam (supposedly) without knowing he had a daughter. Was he alive or dead? It was a completely different narrative than the one I'd grown up with, and it threw me for a loop.

I get the casual dating, casual sex. I have done it myself. No judgment. But back in 1997, when I had read the books about adoptees being the "love child," it was hard for me to realize that that narrative didn't apply to me. And even back then, I had NO idea of how much I was NOT a love child. NOT. AT. ALL.

This smashing of my childhood narrative was difficult. I became a puddle on the floor for a few days and had to have an ex-boyfriend scrape me back together. He was nice enough to do so, because he knew how very fragile I could be and that I was a wreck. I am forever indebted to him for the generosity he showed me at that time, as a friend. Some people truly get it and still love me at my absolute worst.

My adoption story essentially remained stable until I was able to talk to my nfamily (except for the episode when I demanded that the CI tell me EVERYTHING she could over the phone). It's both changed and fleshed out considerably in the ensuing three years. I would imagine that it will continue to shift, as I age and my relationship with my mother deepens. My conception and adoption were traumatic for her, and she remembers the summer of 1968 not very clearly. I can understand how her memory is compromised by trauma. Memory can be painful, beyond painful.

From where I stand, I am relieved and happy to know the truth; it's much better than the smarmy tale the agency cooked up for my aparents. I am not one of those people who would choose to hide my head in the sand. If something is difficult, it's difficult, but it's better to hear it than be lied to. This was my history, my life, after all. I never needed to think I was a fairy princess, or that my nparents had some special love affair. There are too many people out there in the adoption industry who try to make all narratives fit a mold, and it's not necessary. We are individuals.

So I was born "Baby Girl Newman," actually. I am Irish-English-Scottish American, with ancestors who fought in the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. They've been here a long time, and in the Midwest a long time. (Shout out to my friend Zack for the awesome genealogy! Woot, woot!) My kids are German, not I. I am half Spanish-Basque. I was rereading the journal I kept when I did the Camino de Santiago in 2001, meandering through Northern Spain. Did I cross paths with any paternal relatives? Who knows? Were they bloodthirsty conquistadores or terrible priests in the Inquisition? LOL Time to reread M.G. Lewis' Gothic novel, The Monk, to feed my crazy imagination. I should definitely have been a Romantic.

I am sure that William Faulkner would have had a field day with all the stories (and oh, my Southern-Midwestern nfamily loves them some Faulkner, and my maternal agrandmother was a Faulkner). Small world.

Best of all, the narrative isn't over yet.

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