- "It Steadies Me to Tell These Things":Memoir and the Redemptive Power of Truth-Telling
In March 2016 I published a memoir, An Affair with My Mother. It told the story of my life and that of my birth mother Sarah—not her real name—who gave birth to me outside of marriage in Ireland in 1972 and, with no other choice, handed me over to a Catholic agency for adoption. In 1999, when I was twenty-seven years old, Sarah and I reunited. An affair is a provocative word to describe a relationship between a parent and child, but it was the only way I knew how to portray the subsequent fifteen years that I spent getting to know Sarah on condition of the strictest secrecy. Our relationship—hidden from her husband, children, and friends—was conducted entirely undercover. Bound by conditions set by Sarah, we emailed, texted, and met at locations far outside the perimeter of her social circle. Not once did I knock on her door or call her cellphone outside the appointed time. Desperate to keep her in my life, I obeyed the rules. "Take your time," I repeatedly told Sarah, "I can wait." What I did not understand in those early days of our relationship was that Sarah would need a lifetime.
In truth I wrote An Affair with My Mother with just one reader in mind: Sarah. As a journalist and daughter, I wanted to understand the competing forces that kept Sarah and me at arm's length: her desire to preserve a life carefully constructed in the wake of my loss and my desire to be fully acknowledged as the child she once gave away. I saw the book as a love letter to her; an attempt to explain to Sarah the powers that had conspired to destroy her life back when she was twenty-two years old and in love. I wanted to publicly exonerate a woman who still believes—to this day—that she alone is to blame for falling pregnant outside of marriage in Ireland in 1972. [End Page 299] Blinded by her shame, she does not consider the responsibility of the man who impregnated her and walked away, nor the culpability of the Catholic church, with its culture of institutional dishonesty and shame, and the Irish state, which allowed the church to dictate the terms on which unmarried mothers and their children were treated.
It seems strange to admit this now, but in the process of writing the memoir I never thought of other readers. I imagined Sarah reading the book, and my parents Liam and Mary, and I agonized over what they might think. But I found it hard to visualize how the words I was writing might travel beyond my laptop and into the lives of others. Imagine my astonishment in the anxiety-filled days following publication when dozens of emails and social-media messages began to pour in. They came mostly from Ireland but also from around the globe: the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Spain, France, Malta, Australia, New Zealand, Tunisia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Most were from secret adoptees like me, insisting that the story I had written belonged to them. Many more were from birth mothers, anxious to explain why Sarah felt the need to keep me hidden. I heard from adoptive parents and from people who had discovered late into adulthood an older sibling given away. I heard from adults who had grown up without a parent and others raised in a home weighed down by a family secret. I heard from a woman who had undergone an abortion, and another who wished she had never been born. An email from a woman in Boston was typical of the messages that arrived in the immediate days following publication: "My Irish mother also has kept me a secret for almost fifty years. She has also completely rejected me. The pain is too much to bear without a feeling of connection with other adoptees who can understand and relate." As was this communication from an Irish woman living in London: "Since I met my birth mother almost...