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The Comfort of Lies, a review

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When the 80s brought successful novels based on courtroom drama, I began to seek out novels with an adoption theme, for I know that adoption has as many interesting story lines as the legal field – sometimes even the same stories!  Thus I eagerly looked forward to reading Randy Susan Meyers’ book, The Comfort of Lies, published in 2013 by Atria books, a division of Simon and Shuster.

The novel links three women who are bound by an adoption that is five years old (or in adoption jargon:  five years post-placement): Tia, the birth mother; Caroline, the adoptive mother; and Juliette, the wife of the man who fathered the child.  The connection comes when Tia forwards photographs sent to her by Caroline per their open adoption agreement, and Juliette intercepts the photographs addressed to her husband.

The comforting lies are trifold:  Tia hopes that when he sees the pictures of the daughter who was placed for adoption, Nathan will leave his wife and two sons, return to Tia and fulfill her fantasy of a perfect life; Caroline has hidden her feelings of personal failure because she hasn’t lived up to her expectation of the ideal mother; and Juliette, without a word to her husband, lures Caroline and the child into her lair and then builds her own fantasy incorporating this female child into her family peopled with boys, half brothers to the adopted girl child.

The novel is set in Boston, and recent events in Boston lent a special cache to sitting down with a book and reading of Brandeis University, Jamaica Plain, Waltham and South Boston neighborhoods.

What the author got right:  the expectation by participants that an infant adoption will solve problems on all sides of the adoption circle; the dilemma involved as modern women choose between career and family.

What left me unsatisfied: Sadly, this is book expands the ‘otherness’ of birth mothers in general; and, in an effort to wrap up all the flayed ends of this drama, there’s an oversimplification of how the main characters arrived at their transformations.  Will Tia be successful in staving off her flirtation with alcoholism?  How will Caroline accept her husband assuming more parenting their daughter?  Will Juliette ever communicate to Nathan what she wants from him?  The affects on the child are virtually ignored, without a hint of the potential trauma that awaits the child as she grows up.  These issues provide cliffhangers.  Perhaps this begs for a new saga from the child’s point of view when she grows up and incorporates these three women – Tia, Caroline and Juliette – into her understanding of “mother.”

There is precedence for correcting adoption misinformation in one book by writing another.  In 1988 Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, The Bean Trees, was published. The story involved an adoption of a three year old Cherokee by a single woman ‘just passing through’ Oklahoma. This first novel met with much literary acclaim, but the world of adoption screamed at the author’s lack of awareness of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which dictates how a Native American child can be adopted.  In 1993 Pigs in Heaven, Ms Kingsolver continued the story with the same characters in a chase to complete the adoption by Indian Child Welfare rules.

Leaving the reader calling for more is a good way to end a novel, isn’t it?

Written by bethkoz

May 3, 2013 at 4:21 am

Well, I Never!

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“Well, I never!”  These words followed the slam of the telephone receiver onto the cradle in the office next to mine.  I took this as a summons, and edged onto the chartreuse plaid love seat in Mrs. Tisher’s room, and stared at the chartreuse carpet on the floor.  It was almost Christmas, 1979; she would be leaving for two weeks, and I would be in charge.  For eleven months Mrs. Tisher had been telling me stories to help me understand the mysterious world of adoption.  The lesson for today: how to handle an inappropriate call.

“Would you believe this:  I could barely understand what she said, she was talking so softly, she says, ‘How do I tell my son that he’s adopted?’  ‘How old is he?’  ’Fifty-eight, we just never told him.  Now I have cancer and I don’t have long to live, do you think I should tell him?’ ‘Was the adoption handled by this agency?’  ‘No, it was before we moved here; our family attorney handled it, and he’s been dead for years, and my husband, too.  Should I even tell him?’  ‘Well, I’m sorry, but you’re just going to have to find your own way!’ And I hung up!  Can you believe it!  She’s asking me for help for something she never took care of.”  “Did she give her name?  Or her number?” I asked.  “Are you kidding? She could barely ask her question; she was too ashamed to say who she is!” 

Not our job.  Or was it?

Over the years since then, I’ve met several ‘late discovery’ adopted people who’ve shared their pain of loss of identity and loss of story – many of them finding out after their parents have passed.  Whatever clues their parents might have been able to give them are gone, and they are left to search on their own, often with almost no information.  I’d like to tell them how the world of adoption has changed.  The openness and ease with which most adoptive parents today approach the ‘telling’ is something that’s come late to adoption.  Adoption used to be treated with shame.  Shame borne from secrecy.  Shame of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy; shame of being unable to conceive.  This shame often leaked over to the adoptee, who felt ashamed to be adopted.  Why not?  If no one talked about it, it must be something to be ashamed of, right?

So Late Discovered, I want to say:  Please try to see your parent from the vantage point of the times.  Your parents wanted to shield you from the shame of being adopted.  Yes, they did you a disservice by not telling you when they had the chance, but they didn’t tell you, because they loved you.  There are lots of mixed messages in adoption.  To the adoptee:  “Your Birth Mother loved you so much that she gave you away!”  So if you love me, will you give me away?  To the birth mother:  “Forget this happened” Then, when they couldn’t forget, they thought something was wrong with them.  To the adoptive parent:  “Love your children as if they were born to you; but never forget that they weren’t born to you.”  See?  It’s a crazy-making world sometimes!  But only if you let it.  There; I did it again.

OK, Mrs. Tisher, I get it that it wasn’t our place to give service to an adoptive mom that wasn’t ‘our’ adoptive mom, but I wanted to help her. It must have been then that I chose the role of adoption educator to the world.

Blog away, Adoption Educator!

Written by bethkoz

December 31, 2011 at 12:06 pm

In a Fog . . .

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I sit at the patio table and watch the sunrise.  I am still caught in my dream . . .

I have returned to The Agency, to visit.  Everywhere I see young mothers with newborns, some with their mothers in tow.  I’ve just come to visit!  There’s a staff meeting;  I open the door  to ask:  “Where’s Jeanelle? Where’s Becky?  I need a pregnancy counselor out here!”  Melissa smiles at me and says, “They aren’t here yet.  I’ll send them when they get here.”  I turn.  A light-skinned bi-racial woman holds her baby; I realize I knew her when she was Black!  I don’t have time to figure this out.  I say, ‘Follow me,” and we head to the conference room, the one with a big table.  There are other mothers and their mothers gathered here, each holds a newborn.  Two men are sitting at the table, laughing and smiling.  “Excuse me, why are you here?” I ask.  The swarthy man turns to me, beaming, says, “We’re Israeli.  We are friends of ____.  They said when we came to the States, we should go to the agency to see where they got their baby!” ( He doesn’t look Israeli; he looks like the East Indian pharmacy tech who hands me prescriptions at Costco.)  “You’re in the wrong place,” I tell him.  “Go back to the front desk and ask for an adoption worker.”  He and his friend vaporize, as possible only in dreams.  A young blond woman holds her baby up to me.  “You don’t have to do another adoption!” I say to her.  “But I promised I would!” she tells me.  I am prepared to tell all these women they are strong, they can mother their own children, they do not have to do another adoption.  Elliot reaches through the dream skin and gently tugs on my big toe:  “It’s 6:30.  Time to make pancakes.” 

 

I sit at the patio table.  I’ve finished my pancakes and my coffee is cold.  I am haunted by my dream. I still have work to do.

Written by bethkoz

December 18, 2011 at 12:29 am

Movie Review: Mother and Child. Written and Directed by Rodrigo Garcia.

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I wanted to see Mother and Child a second time before writing about the movie, to test my memory before recording my observations here.  I got so much out of the post-movie discussion with my friend Linda after seeing the movie once, that I wanted to see and discuss the movie a second time in the company of other friends, some of whom are birth mothers, to get their unique take on it.  We planned a party; six of us would attend the movie together, and discuss it over lunch.  Alas, it had too short a run in Phoenix!  We missed it by one day. 

From interviews on NPR with writer/director Rodrigo Garcia and from the website for the movie, I knew that the writer started out to make a movie about relationships of longing, not necessarily an adoption movie.  After interviewing a few birth mothers and adopted persons, as well as adoptive mothers who longed for a child to love, he knew that in adoption, he’d found a subset of relationships to highlight the soul’s longing for its own missing piece. 

The end result — though Mr. Garcia probably didn’t intend for it to be — amounts to a visual demonstration of the changes in adoption practice over the last forty years.  This feat of showing change is accomplished by juxtaposing three characters and their stories: a grown birth mother, an adult adoptee and a prospective adoptive mom.  

Karen (Annette Bening) is a frustrated fifty-ish, never-married woman who fantasizes about the daughter she placed for adoption when she herself was 14.  As the daughter’s 37th birthday approaches, Karen tells her elderly mother of the impending birthday.  Her mother looks at her daughter with a blank stare, reflecting the societal judgment common to birth mothers in the years of adoption secrecy.  Karen turns to her constant companion, a notebook where she records her thoughts in a never-ending Dear Diary entry to her absent daughter.  At work as a physical therapist at a Los Angeles nursing home, she notices and is noticed by a newly hired physical therapist, widowed Paco (Jimmy Smits) whose efforts to befriend her are rebuffed by Karen’s extreme over-reactions.  Karen, at this stage of the movie, is stuck at 14 in her emotional development, a not-uncommon side effect I have observed in some teen pregnancies.  Karen’s transformation to adulthood gives the actor a wide swing of character development, which she does with believable grace and ease.  As her relationship with Paco grows, he encourages her to begin a search for her daughter.  With Paco at her side, Karen cautiously approaches the adoption agency that took her baby for placement, where Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones) explains that she can write a letter to her daughter to be placed in the file. If her daughter contacts the agency, she will be given the letter; otherwise, the case cannot be opened.   Karen hesitates (also a true-to-life reflection of beginning searchers). The significance of the support she gains from Paco helps Karen in her evolution, and allows Jimmy Smits to show a rare soft side of the masculine role in the adoption community.  By the time she does bring her letter to the agency, a mature Karen is ready to face the future. 

The second story line involves Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) as an aloof, self-assured attorney interviewing for a job with the head of a large law firm (Samuel L. Jackson as Paul) in her home town of Los Angeles.  When he asks for details about her personal life, she tells him her father died when she was young, she has no current relationship with her mother; she is adopted and therefore knows nothing about her background.  In a twinkling, she reveals just enough for the viewer to suspect she is the daughter born to Karen.  She soon reveals a flip side to her over-bearing professionalism, as she revels in vindictive sexual promiscuity (another legacy of the secrecy era of adoption: the adoptee with no information may assume her mother was ‘of loose morals’ and therefore, follows suit). Nearing her 37th birthday, Elizabeth decides to start a search for her birth mother.  She visits the adoption agency, where Sister Joanne tells her, as she told Karen, to write a letter to go into her file.  “It works!”  Sister Joanne insists; indeed, as an adoption agency worker for 30 years, I can confirm that such letters can lead to matches!  When Elizabeth returns to the agency, a different worker accepts her letter.   And again, I can confirm that the matching of letter to file is an art that sometimes stumbles, as the process does in this story where a misfiled letter causes a delay that is significant to the plot.

The third story line, the adoptive mother’s longing for a baby to love, is shown through the character of Lucy (Kerry Washington), who with her husband Joseph (David Ramsey) interviews with Sister Joanne to discuss their need for a child to love.  Sister Joanne sets up a meeting between Lucy and Joseph and a 20 year old pregnant woman, Ray (Shareeka Epps) who is searching for the right family to raise her unborn baby.  At her bakery, Lucy is badgered by her mother (S. Epatha Merkerson) who struggles to accept this new style of adoption.  Nevertheless, the mother pulls it together to become her daughter’s main support as she faces the unknown future.  Ray is clear, when they meet, that this is serious business:  she will pick them only if Lucy answers her pointed questions truthfully.  Lucy has been carefully framing her demeanor to help them get a baby; finally she drops the effort to make Ray like her, and answers with the bald truth.  The couple leaves the interview sure they’ll not be chosen, but a call from Sister Joanne soon informs them that Ray has chosen them to be parents for her unborn child and invites them to the hospital for the delivery. 

What follows weaves these three stories into one, reflecting the serendipity of life.  Race and ethnicity is an unspoken theme in this movie and, as one reviewer has noted, the movie weaves white, Hispanic and African-American characters without joke or innuendo and (to that reviewer) is ‘the elephant in the room.’  To the contrary, it seems to me that this movie accurately reflects today’s melded communities and models tolerance in a positive way.  Indeed, acceptance of difference, whether race, personality, aptitude or attitude, is integral to the world of adoption.  

To prepare for writing this review, I read other posted reviews of Mother and Child.  Most negative reviews were penned by males who decry the piteous, thin portrayals of men in the movie and declare this a ‘chick flick’ thereby dismissing the power of the issue of adoption.  Indeed, if I were to make changes to the characters portrayed, I would have fleshed out the role of Joseph, who states:  “Lucy, I don’t want to do this; I want a child of my own.”  I would have stuck with Joseph until he discovers, much to his amazement and to his wife’s relief (and like many couples I’ve worked with), that he is up to the task of loving a child not born of his blood line.  And, we don’t need another adoption movie with a prospective father who, like Jason Bateman’s character in Juno, bails out of the adoption, pre-placement!

One more thing about the way the movie looks on screen:  the colors are muted, the sets seem to be real places, the over-all feel is one of authenticity.  The dulling effect is subtle, and contrasts with the highly emotional issues dealt with in the movie.  This is Los Angeles without the glitter; it is the busy ‘burbs without adornment.  None is needed.  The issues are real.  Rodrigo Garcia has, I believe, accomplished his goal of making us aware longing for ‘the other’ of these relationships. 

I still wish to see the movie a second time, and it is unfortunate that this appears to be a movie with limited distribution.  I pledge to post the DVD release date on my blog when I learn it.  When the DVD comes out, I know there will be a screening party with friends, colleagues and adoption circle members – including birth fathers, adopted men, as well as adoptive fathers and significant others.    I invite readers to hold your own screening parties and share your impressions here.  If you write about this movie on another blog, let me know and I’ll cross-reference-link to your blog.  We’d better plan a late night for our screening parties; there will be lots to talk about when the movie ends!

Explore Ebooks at Tapestry.com

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First published on February 27, 2009 by bethkoz.wordpress.com

Tapestry Books sent out an announcement that they have an e-book, “A Birth Mother Perspective on Open Adoption” available on its website.   Actually, it is a Two-in-one of first person accounts by birth mothers Patricia Dischler and Melissa Nilsen.  It’s good to for an adoption-focused site to give space to birth mothers, the often silent side of adoption. For a limited time, this is downloadable for free. Take advantage of the offer and connect to these two articulate women and their personal stories.   Included are links to each author’s blogs.  Take a look.

Written by bethkoz

June 6, 2010 at 7:01 am