An Affair with My Mother by Caitriona Palmer

It seems a strange title for a book, until we understand it is a memoir of adoption, of secrecy, of a love denied, forbidden. And the woman writing it, comes to realise, how very similar the continued secrecy surrounding spending time with her birth mother is, to conducting an illicit affair. So she calls it that. It’s like an unwritten 13th commandment: Thou shalt not have any relation whatsoever with thy illegitimate child.

It’s set in Ireland, a country reluctant to let go of old ways, still in throe to a traditional family culture that shamed, blamed and punished young women for being the life-bearers they are – insisting they follow a code of moral behaviour documented by a system of domination, upheld by the church, supported by the state – a system that bore no consequence on men – young or old – who were equally responsible for the predicament of women.

“If there is anger in this book it is anger at the profound and despicable sexual double standard in Ireland. Men walked away without ever having to confront their role in these relationships.”

Eventually women in Ireland were given access to a means of preventing unwanted pregnancy, though not until Feb 20, 1985 when the Irish government defied the powerful Catholic Church, seen until this day as lacking compassion, in approving the sale of contraception, and more recently in a 2018 referendum, repealing its abortion ban (outlawed in 1861 with possible life imprisonment), acknowledged as a dramatic reversal of the Catholic church’s domination of Irish society.

For years, Ireland created and implemented what is referred to as an architecture of containment, institutions such as the Magdalen laundries (also referred to as asylums) removed morally questionable women from their homes (young women who became pregnant outside of marriage, or whose male family members complained about their behavior). They removed their children if they were pregnant then put them to work, washing ‘the nation’s dirty laundry’, thanks to lucrative state contracts provided to the institutions to fulfill. The last Magdalene laundries closed in Dublin in 1996 and the truth of what happened to those unmarried mothers continues to be investigated through the CLANN project.

Book Review

Caitriona Palmer was born in Dublin, raised in a caring family with two children of their own, the parents adopting after a miscarriage and recommendation Mary (the mother) should have a hysterectomy. If they wanted another child, adoption would be the only path.

She had a happy childhood and grew up in a very happy home, defiantly happy in fact, she would tell people early on she was adopted, almost proud of it she said, in her mind it had had no impact on her life, it didn’t change her or make her who she was, however she was constantly shadowed by a consistent ache, something she refused to confront or admit had anything to do with being separated from her biological mother at birth.

The book opens as Caitriona is about to meet her birth mother Sarah (not her real name) for the first time, a highly anticipated event, and yet as it unfolds, and she hears someone walk up the steps, about to fulfill a desire she has initiated, she becomes filled with dread and as the woman rushes towards her, repeating her name:

I said nothing. I felt nothing.

‘I’ll leave you both to it then,’ I heard Catherine say.

‘Don’t go’, I wanted to scream at her. ‘Please don’t go. Stay. Stay here with me, please. Don’t leave me alone with this woman.’

It is the beginning of the many conflicted feelings she will encounter within herself as that aspect of herself she was born into awakens as an emotional itch deep inside her she can neither locate or explain, at a time in her life when outwardly, living life as the person she was raised to be, she couldn’t have been happier. She was 26 years old, working in a dream job for Physicians for Human Rights in the US, in love and happy.  She put her anxiety down to problems with her expiring student visa, though when her employer found a solution by transferring her to Bosnia, it didn’t heal the anxiety, if anything it made it worse.

There, a small team of forensic scientists was overseeing the exhumation of hundreds of mass graves left after the war and attempting to determine the fate of over 7,500 missing men and boys from the UN safe haven of Srebrenica, which had been overrun by Serb forces four years earlier.

After a day when she and a small team broke into an abandoned hospital in search of records, the source of her own anxiety presented itself to her.

In that moment, filling our arms with the dusty paperwork, I felt a sliver of illumination. Driving back to Tuzla later that afternoon, our pilfered medical dossiers on our laps, the mood in the car jovial, I returned again to that moment, massaging the memory, trying to knead to the surface the revelation lurking beneath. What was I doing helping to search for the files of dead strangers when it was plainly obvious that I needed to search for own?

Though there could be no comparison between her loss and that of these families, it was this extreme situation that revealed her own source of anxiety and set her on a path to do something she had denied she would ever do.

She embarks on her search and despite the difficulties many encounter in Ireland, where Irish adoptees have no automatic right to access their adoption files, birth certificate, health, heritage or history information she manages to access information about her birth relatively easily. The agency traces her birth mother and facilitates that first and many subsequent meetings.

Despite the initial shock, they develop a close relationship, but with one significant and ultimately destructive condition, that she remain a secret, for her birth mother continued to harbour great shame and was terrified of the impact this knowledge might have on her current life.

By the close of that year, I had come to detest the power imbalance in our relationship, seeing myself as the cause of Sarah’s shame and paranoia, her sadness and regret. I hated being invisible to her husband, evidently a good man who adored her, and to her three children, half-siblings that I longed to meet.

Palmer digs deep into the history of adoption in Ireland, armed with journalistic skills (now a freelance journalist in Washington DC) she researches archives and interviews her parents and birth mother as if subjects of a news story, to get to the heart of this institution that wrenched families apart and caused such fear and trauma in young Irish women, leaving emotional scars many of them would have all their lives.

Feminism might have been on the march, but the women in Sarah’s world … had conspired to punish her for stepping out of line. ‘If you want to get people to behave, show what happens to those who don’t,’ an Irish historian once said to me about Ireland’s culture of female surveillance and the institutionalization of unmarried mothers. ‘Make them feel part of that punishment.’ Her Aunt’s verdict – “Nobody will ever look at you again. You’re finished.” – echoed constantly in Sarah’s mind.

One couple she researched, were married with more children, but didn’t want to know the child they had parented and given away before marriage.

“What is that? How can this legacy of shame even prevent a couple from accepting their own biological child? Why can they not open the door?

“This book was meant to answer that. But I don’t know why Ireland has let so many people down. I was meant to grow up and be grateful and never want to look at my past. Because things worked out well; I was given a wonderful family and have done well; that’s meant to be enough.”

For an adoptee or a birth mother, it’s both insightful and an extremely painful read, especially given the author’s own awakening from that happy dreamy childhood and early adult life that held no place for her unknown genetic history, or for any other familial bond or connection. She couldn’t recognise what she hadn’t known or experienced and because her adoption was something known, it seemed as if this life could be lived without consequence. In a recent interview post publication, Palmer describes this:

What I didn’t understand was that that primary loss impacted me, it did change me, I’m still grieving her. Despite my wonderful happy life, amazing husband and children… I’m internally grieving, this woman, this ghost, that’s a love that I’ll never regain in a way, memoir is an attempt to grasp at that.

I wanted people to know you can grow up happily adopted and still have this hole, I always feel like there is a hole deep down inside of me that I can’t quite fill, in spite of the abundance of love that surrounds me, this primary loss is profound.

It’s a story that doesn’t end on the last page, and will leave readers like me, curious to know what impact this book had on the relationship. The podcast below, brings us up to date with where things are at since the book was published, including mention of the hundreds of letters that Caitriona has received, the many people who have had similar experiences, heartened to learn that their experience brought solace to some, in their ability to share with her their stories.

Asked, given what has transpired, would she still do what she did, she responds:

I would have done the same, as it was approached ethically and with love – but I wouldn’t allow it to remain a secret so long, the weight of a secret… every human being wants this sense of belonging and yet we are expected to express gratitude and get along, we are a part of each of those things and that’s a beautiful thing…

The big gap in all this, and for this entire process, is the lack of facility for healing, for giving adoptive parents, birth parents and the children affected by adoption, resources to help them understand what they might go through and if they do, how to manage that, how to heal from that, live with that, recognise the characteristics that come with having lived though such trauma.

The world we live in today is a long way from being accomplished at providing that, and some countries are no doubt better than others, hopefully it is coming, it doesn’t take too much digging if one can find tools of well-being that might bring about individual change and healing.

Further Reading/Listening

Caitríona – I’m Still Grieving Her – Podcast – on building a relationship with her birth mother, the heartbreak of being kept a secret and the high cost she’s paid for sharing her story

The State has a duty to tell adoptees the truth Caitríona Palmer: Shadowy adoption system is the last obstacle to a modern Ireland – June 2018

CLANN: IRELAND’S UNMARRIED MOTHERS AND THEIR CHILDREN – establishing the truth of what happened to unmarried mothers and their children in 20th century Ireland, providing free legal assistance

A Long Way Home (Lion) by Saroo Brierley, Larry Buttrose (ghostwriter)

I saw the film when it was on at the cinema about a year ago and like everyone who has seen it, I thought it was extremely moving. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a 5-year-old boy who is out with his teenage brother, who has told him to wait for him at a quiet train station near their home, and feeling tired, he climbs into an empty carriage, falls asleep and when he awakes, it is moving, the carriage locked and he will be transported, far, far from his home, which he won’t see for another 25 years.

The book only confirms how incredible and moving his story is, on top of the emotion it provokes, was the amazement at how many situations 5-year-old Saroo got into that he was miraculously saved from, often by his own well-honed instinct, other times sheer luck, and occasionally, surely, divine intervention.

Like befriending the teenage boy he trusted and went home with, who would be the first person to make an intervention on his behalf that would lead him to 25 years of safety, before he could find his way back home and be reunited with his family again. In the meantime he would spend those 25 years in a middle class Australian family in Hobart, Tasmania – far from his culture and birth family, learning another language, getting an education and developing a way of life that would benefit them all by the time his story comes full circle.

It’s a bittersweet story with a thrilling beginning as he falls asleep in the wrong place at the wrong time and his life is hurtled, like a rocket capsule, into another hemisphere, with a few obstacles to overcome on the way.

It’s sad because he was a boy who became lost from his family in a large country, he had difficulty pronouncing the name of the town he came from (and even his own name) and in the city he arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata), he spent weeks riding trains hoping one of them might take him back. Nighttime brought an element of danger, and even in the day while having fun with other children in the river, danger was never far away, he would be rescued a couple of times that might have been life-threatening, had not well intended strangers come to his aid.

Saroo with his adoptive mother

The childless (through their own choice) couple that adopted him, were open and inclusive regarding his culture, furnishing his bedroom with a large map of India and items reminiscent of his country of birth, they joined an association connecting Indian families to their culture. However, unwanted memories could arrive unbidden, sometimes reconnecting with stories from India awakened his childhood trauma. He describes seeing the Hindi film Salaam Bombay:

Its images of the little boy trying to survive alone in a sprawling city, in the hope of returning to his mother, brought back disturbing memories so sharply that I wept in the dark cinema, my well-meaning parents unaware of the cause. Even sad music could set off emotional memories. Seeing or hearing babies cry also affected me strongly, but somehow the most emotional thing was seeing other families with lots of children. I suppose that even in my good fortune, they reminded me of what I had lost.

A few years later, his parents adopted another boy from India, who became his brother, the book doesn’t delve too deep into this relationship, however the film did bring out the contrast in their characters and the difficulty his parents, particularly his mother, who was a relatively quiet and calm woman, had in parenting him.

Mantosh and I were very different, partly because of the natural differences between our people, but also because of our different experiences in India. It’s one of the things that makes people who adopt children, especially from abroad, so brave: often the kids they’re taking in come with troubled backgrounds, having suffered in ways that make adjusting to their new life difficult, and which can be hard to understand and even harder to help. I was reticent and reserved; Mantosh, at least at first, was loud and disobedient. I wanted to please; he rebelled.

According to an interview, Mantosh was unhinged by the film, his protracted adoption wasn’t able to be finalised within the two month grace period the children’s home were given, so he was sent back to the large orphanage where lost or abandoned children would encounter all manner of youth, including bullies, criminals and abusers, the time he was obliged to spend there awaiting the administrative outcome scarred him physically and mentally. He didn’t have the good fortune of his brother, whose story is all the more remarkable for him having avoided abuse, though he was certainly close to encountering it, as his story shows.

“[His grandmother] couldn’t keep Mantosh in her care anymore, while he was waiting to come to Australia, once we’d accepted him. So he had to go back to [the orphanage] where he was burnt, raped, beaten, you name it. And I’m very bitter about that.” – Sue Brierley

There is most certainly a very different and equally important story to be told, if one follows Mantosh’s experience; it was interesting to listen to his mother speak on that in an interview recorded here. At least, she says, it did result in him beginning to open up more about his experiences and they were able to seek help for him, he represents the other side of adoption; the adoptive mother admitted they weren’t prepared for what it would mean to raise a child who’d been through such trauma, she didn’t have the support needed and experienced discrimination in the medical community when she did try to seek help.

When Saroo really becomes intent on tracking down his family, (another element that is much more vividly portrayed in the film) no one except his girlfriend knows how obsessed he has become, he has had periods of searching in the past, spurred on by meeting other students who grew up in India, who’d make guesses as to where he might come from based on his memories, but when, with the help of Google maps and tracing railway lines out of Calcutta, he began to spend hours every night doing his research, he kept it to himself, in ways and for reasons many adoptees will recognise.

I didn’t tell many people what I was doing, not even my parents. I was worried they might misunderstand my intentions: they might think that the intensity of my search revealed an unhappiness with the life they’d given me, or the way they’d raised me. I also didn’t want them to think that I was wasting time. So even as it took up more and more of my life, I kept it to myself.

He was fortunate to have such a supportive girlfriend, he felt she would have been within her rights to feel alone in their still-new relationship, he was treading a fine line and would catch her looking at him sometimes as though she thought he was crazy. He was driven, determined and you knew he wouldn’t give up until he’d found something he recognised, the memories and maps in his head so well preserved over the years, surely he would find them if he kept going.

Perhaps to some extent sharing something so fundamental to me strengthened our connection – and that came through when we talked about what it all meant to me. It wasn’t always easy to articulate, especially as I was trying to keep a lid on my expectations, trying to convince myself it was a fascinating exercise, not a deeply meaningful personal quest.

In the book, Saroo spends a lot of time rationalising and expressing his gratitude, it’s clear he doesn’t wish to hurt anyone in his portrayal of the story, he understands he treads the line between two families in a topic that is almost a cause, that attracts fierce activism especially on the part of those who are pro-adoption, however he also acknowledges what many adoptees need to hear, the aspect that was healed in him in taking this journey, by his perseverance.

Rightly so in his case, as he wasn’t abandoned or given up in the first place. The trauma his mother must have gone through in finally accepting that he had disappeared, and what strength and love, to have believed for so long he may return, so strongly she believed it that she refused to leave the town they lived in, to join her other children and be nearer them and their families.

After being lost, I’d been lucky enough to adopted by a loving family, and not only lived somewhere else, but had become someone else from the person I might have been had I stayed in India. I didn’t just live in Australia, I thought of myself as an Australian. I had a family home with the Brierleys and had made my own home in Hobart with my girlfriend Lisa. I knew I belonged and was loved, in those places.
But finding Khandwa and my Indian family also felt like coming home. Something about being in the place just felt right. I was loved here too, and belonged, in a way I’d not thought much about beforehand and found hard to explain. This was where I’d spent my first years, where my blood was. When it was time for me to return to Hobart – a time that came around far too quickly – I felt the wrench of leaving deeply.

Buy a copy of the book via Book Depository

Journey Of The Adopted Self: A Quest For Wholeness by Betty Jean Lifton

I haven’t read an adoption book in many years, and in fact I have only ever read one,  one that is considered a classic in adoption literature Nancy Verrier’s The Primal Wound.

I decided I should increase my awareness and familiarity with the issues, as I’m writing down the story of – as the author, scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell would put it – my ‘hero’s journey‘, learning who I was ‘born to‘, which is necessary if we wish to learn more about who we were ‘born to be‘, something which is neither about the family we are raised by, nor the one we are biologically related to, but that in-between place, where we carry influence from each, which once unravelled, allows us the space to detach from them both, to pursue a life we can truly claim as our own.

Journey of the Adopted Self, follows that traditional quest, and for each element in the journey, the responding to the call (the decision to search), the departure (actively seeking), meeting the mentor (finding help) crossing the threshold (making contact), the challenges + the ordeal (dealing with the aftermath), the reward (unravelling the mystery), the road back (the new ordinary life) and the elixir (the transformation and the life lesson) the authors discusses a range of issues that can arise and gives examples in brief snippets from the many case studies she has had access to as an adoption counsellor.

Each person has a unique experience, so in the journey there are many reactions likely to be encountered, but the one thing that all adoptees have in common, is that they have experienced what is referred to as the ‘pre-verbal trauma’ of separation from the mother. That may have been immediately after birth or soon after, some babies may never have been held by the mother who carried them for those nine months, others may have been for a few hours or days, or even a few months.

According to the Austrian psychoanalyst and contemporary of Freud, Otto Rank in his book The Trauma of Birth, everyone experiences significant trauma at birth and that trauma or separation from the safety of the womb is healed over time by the bond created and the physical proximity and nurturing provided by the mother, whose heartbeat, smell, voice and very being are a comfort to the baby, who has known these things without seeing them from within.

Adoption adds another layer to the trauma, as the bond with the mother who gives birth is severed and the nurturing is to be provided by another, who has not been infused with the maternal hormones of pregnancy that nature creates to ensure the mother mothers her child. The adoptive mother in her head and heart wills herself to be and provide that role and is a good substitute, but that doesn’t avoid the fact that the baby will have experienced that initial double trauma of separation, first from the womb and then from the human it was connected to that birthed it.

Because this experience happens so early in the life of a baby, it is possible the trauma can lie so deep that for some it may not rise to the surface until very much later, or it may be possible to live without realising or recognising the behaviour patterns that are a common thread to those who have experienced this at birth.

How well adoptees overcome the traumas inherent in adoption and the additional ones they encounter in their specific families will be determined by their genetic susceptibility to stress – some children have more than others – and their ability to find an empathic teacher, friend or mentor to give them emotional support.

The author describes a range of different responses her clients (adult adoptees) experienced in the many aspects of the journey. Any adoptee who reads it, is likely to resonate with a number of passages, which may relate to their own experience in navigating the triad of adoptive parents, birth parents and siblings and the adoptee themselves, in particular if they have been involved in the closed adoption system, where all ties with the biological family are severed, the child’s name changed, legally becoming another person in another family.

This book then, is about the search for the adopted self. It is not the literal search in the material world, where one sifts through records and archives for real people with real names and addresses; but rather about the internal search, in which one sifts through the pieces of the psyche in an attempt to understand who one was so that one can have a sense of who one is and who one can become. It is the quest for all the missing pieces of the self so that one can become whole.

Essentially it is a healing journey, although that may not be something consciously embarked upon, and inevitably in any kind of healing journey, there are likely to be disruptive elements as we realise and confront aspects of ourselves that we haven’t been aware of.

At a psychiatric meeting in Ireland I was asked by a young doctor whether an adoptee must search in order to heal, or whether there were other ways.
It was a very good question and one for which there is no definitive answer. “There are other ways to heal, of course,” I replied. “But if possible, finding one’s heritage is the best, for it enables the adoptee to become grounded in biological and historical reality. The very difficulty of the search is a commitment to the transformation of the self.”

It suggests that adoptive parents should also familiarise themselves with the potential issues before considering adopting a child and that it is a responsible idea to also seek help/therapy while raising an adopted child. This seems so obvious and yet, in the era my siblings and I were raised, society and the system considered us ‘a blank slate’, so old-fashioned parenting would suffice, and everything was dealt with “as if” you were an ordinary child and parents were just expected to get on with it, as if they too had not been through their own trauma that might need healing, prior to the appearance of a child. Adoption was seen as a cure-all, with no healing required.

There are so many passages I could share, however it is a book that will be personal to each reader, depending on their role, perspective and experience. I found it an insightful and helpful read, leaving me with much to reflect on.

I’ll be reading a few books on this subject in the coming months, as part of my research and writing, which is why there have been less reviews and reading of fiction. It’s not easy to read fiction while writing, even though I feel the lack, but I’ll try to keep posting, as I travel the writing path.

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