“Every Adoption is a Ghost Story”: An Interview with Jennifer Gilmore
April 25, 2013 | by Amy Benfer
I first knew of Jennifer Gilmore as the author of two ambitious, warm, hilarious novels (Golden Country, 2006, and Something Red, 2010) that, placed side by side, provide an admirably thorough and thoroughly amusing take on the some of the most interesting ideas, inventions, characters, and past-times of the twentieth century—television, immigration, two-in-one cleaning products, radical politics, Joseph McCarthy, cults, and Ian MacKaye.
I first met Jennifer Gilmore on an early spring day nearly two years ago when we both went to meet the same writer friend for a late afternoon drink at the same Brooklyn bar where another writer friend bartends every Tuesday. We soon discovered that we are around the same age, live one Brooklyn neighborhood apart, and have many more than two friends in common. That spring, Jennifer was working on her third novel, told from the perspective of a woman trying, and mostly failing, to adopt a child through the byzantine process of domestic open adoption. I was about to go back to my twentieth high school reunion, during which I planned to visit the school for pregnant teenagers run by the Salvation Army where I spent the spring of 1989 believing I would release my own daughter to another couple through domestic open adoption. Jennifer and her husband, like the fictional couple in her novel, The Mothers, released last Tuesday, had already imagined themselves into the lives of many mothers and their children, only to find that the mother had chosen another couple, or decided to parent her own child, or, in the most outrageous cases, was not even pregnant at all. In 1989, I became that kind of mother when, two days after my daughter’s birth, I told the couple I had chosen to be her parents that I planned to do it myself instead.
Jennifer had read some of the stories I had written on my own failed adoption when they had appeared in Salon (where I was once an editor, and to which both of us have contributed essays). Although we had been on opposite sides of the story, our mutual fascination with what we sometimes referred to as “The Topic” was one of the reasons we became friends. We had both read and thought and obsessed over the tangle of race, class, and politics throughout the institution’s history. We both knew about orphan trains and maternity homes and the Hague Adoption Convention. We also both knew well how sometimes the end of the story could feel like just plain dumb grief all around.
Last month, Jennifer and her husband brought home their son. Last week, Jennifer and I met for a late afternoon drink on a early spring day at Lavender Lake, the Brooklyn bar with the name that references the exotically colored Gowanus canal that connects our two neighborhoods, to discuss her new novel, first person vs. omniscient narrators, open adoption and all the intellectual, political, and emotional issues it raises that should be fascinating to anyone at all.
Your first two novels were sprawling, multi-generational social sagas: Your first novel, Golden Country, took place in your grandparents’ era and covered, among other things, the Jewish-American immigrant experience, World War II, the World’s Fair, and fortunes built on mob life, cleaning products, and the invention of television. Your second novel, Something Red, which takes place at the end of the seventies inches closer to your own childhood. That novel dealt with radical politics, the Cold War, and the D.C. straight-edge punk rock scene.
The Mothers is totally different: it is your first novel narrated in the first-person, and your narrator, Jesse, along with her spouse, is trying to adopt a child through domestic open adoption, as you have also done. You also wrote the novel while you were going through the process of trying to adopt. After so many years of writing your fictional characters from a certain distance, what like to write a character whose experiences veer so closely to your own?
If I was going to come closer to myself in this particular trilogy of history, I wouldn’t have chosen this particular book. Given the situation, I just wanted to make my life interesting to myself, as opposed to wanting to blow my head off.
I wanted to write this differently than I have my other books. Otherwise, it would have been written in the third-person, and take place on one of the orphan trains from the past, or something like that and doing what I’ve done previously, which is, in part, illuminating how the past haunts and invigorates the present. It just felt so device-y. You see the gears turning in everyone’s novels anyway. I thought, “I’m interested in these ideas but not in this way.” It doesn’t have to have a broad sweep. It doesn’t have to have this narrative voice, you know, “It was 1912 in the Dust Bowl.” That just felt fake to me.
What felt real was finding this particular voice—which is not my voice. Jesse’s a pretty desperate protagonist. It’s first-person, she’s not perfect. Even though the voice came to me easily, it took me awhile to throw it in a cage or a structure that it was appropriate for. In the end, what was interesting to me in that moment was the immediacy of wanting to have a child, not being able to get a child, and then the fall-out from that. It was more about wanting, just wanting, and less about the social history of adoption.
So what was going on at the time that made you want to blow your head off?
We had so many “situations” with birth mothers, going to meet them, flying places, having relationships with them, my spouse and I imagining having that child and then it not happening, or sometimes finding someone was just being cruel and wasn’t even pregnant at all.
It’s like: Okay, this Hispanic woman from Arizona has called the agency. She has four children, she can’t parent this child, she’s due in three months. So then my spouse and I think, “Okay, in three months we’re going to have this Hispanic child—my husband is a native Spanish speaker—great. Now we’re going to find the adoption community that suits this child.”
You imagine that child’s face. Then that child slips away.
Then you’re involved with an African-American woman from Washington. She’s due in two minutes. Then that slips away.
Remember Ally McBeal? That dancing baby? One of the first holograms? Well, that baby was a white baby and our imagined baby could have been any race. But there’s just this idea of this nameless, faceless glass baby.
It does seem like a very novelistic way to live your own life, to imagine your way into so many different possible parenthoods. And then re-imagining the imagining. It’s practically post-modern!
I’m sure you’ve had this experience with something—if not just by having a child and watching that child grow—that when you are in something, you don’t know the narrative arc, you don’t know how the story will end, or if it’s ever going to end. It’s a lot to bear.
I felt as if I was in a state of prolonged grief. I mean, it wasn’t a war and nobody died. It wasn’t sickness. But it did feel like the constant dashing of our hopes and dreams. Not every hope and not every dream, but it had taken over my life. But then I thought, “Oh, I’ll write about it to make it interesting to myself. All these ideas about race and class and motherhood and what it means to be a parent and what it means to not be a parent and the culture of that in this country, I’ll turn that into a novel.”
Let’s be clear: this is not a memoir, and even though you and Jesse share similar experiences, her voice is not your own.
I found this story I had written when I was sick in my twenties. It was so angry and immediate and entirely in the moment. I don’t even remember writing it. And I dismissed it at the time, because it was so unprocessed in many ways. When I re-read it though, I thought, why did I dismiss this? It’s such an unusual voice. And then I thought, “If I don’t write about what is happening now, I’m going to forget that part of this story.”
This is not a memorial. The ideas were interesting to me. And also because I was like, I want to mark this, tattoo it, I need to remember what it was like.
I think we were talking sometime last fall about your illness in your twenties and my pregnancy in my teens. You were saying that you had put off writing directly about that illness in your fiction. And I have told you that I used to write about anything but being a teen mother, because I was afraid people would think it was the only story I could tell.
Oh absolutely. At first I didn’t want to write this story about wanting, and about domestic things, because I want to be taken seriously as a writer. These are important ideas that should not be dismissed, and yet, they are dismissed. At the time I was working on this novel that takes place in Greece. I’m working on it again now. It’s this big, sprawling Greek novel …
We should also perhaps point out you have some personal experience with Greece, where your husband is from, though it would be unlikely anyone would confuse your sprawling social novel with autobiography...
I do have personal experience with Greece, too, yes. But I thought, no, I’m not going to push this adoption story aside. Not because of the commercial aspect. These stories are always less lucrative when you write them as novels as opposed to memoirs. But I had to make myself believe that these were significant ideas. And of course, the work is always better when you write what you fear.
As writers we don’t just need to write about poverty or war or the immigrant experience. My last book was about the decline of radicalism in several families, and it involved the grain embargo, and punk rock, and as much stuff as I could throw in there—and isn’t is so smart? I love that book and it is smart, but not any smarter than this book. Why do we dismiss first-person, contemporary books about women’s inner lives?
This is the whole “experience” vs. “ideas” debate.
Right. Lived experience vs. researched experience.
Perhaps this is a good time to point out that you were one of five women out of thirty-three fiction writers recently asked to give your opinion on Philip Roth’s work in New York magazine. You had a somewhat critical take.
That was very strange to me and yet why should it be strange? Women are dismissed a lot. It’s an old cry but it’s a true one. And yes, Roth writes about himself, constantly. When a man writes about his inner life, and sticking his dick in a woman, it is important. It somehow gets to stand for everything. When a woman writes about her inner life, it stands only for her particular experience.
I love that we are talking about this. It was a jump for me to feel that I should write about “domestic” issues. There’s something important about all of this and not just to women. I’m not one of those writers to say, “Plenty of men have read my book and loved it!” But parenthood is important to men, too. They don’t get enough credence for that.
But going back to adoption: This is a place where the personal is extremely political. You’ve got race, you’ve got class, you’ve got international politics and international law. You’ve got the history of reproductive rights in this country. You’ve got the issue of parents from first world countries taking third world children back to their countries to raise as their own, as opposed to say, offering global aid that would allow third world parents to raise their own children.
Right. So after Roe vs. Wade, the number of babies available for domestic plummeted. After the Korean war, international adoption became the big thing. But then Russia closed, as we all know. Guatemala closed because of the Hague laws and accusations of child trafficking. People are turning again to domestic adoption. What year did you almost place your daughter for adoption?
So adoption wasn’t largely open. Now it’s ninety-five percent open.
Mine was open. But it was so uncommon then, I had to draw my own map. I have a purple Esprit shoebox in my office that used to be in my closet in my childhood bedroom. It has my adoption contract from 1989. It said things like I would receive cards and updates and photos annually. I don’t think I was even going to be allowed to talk to her until she was eighteen. Even that was so crazy that I had to hire a private lawyer that my parents ended up paying for when I didn’t go through with it.
The adoptive parents would have paid for that now. You could have said no, and we still would have paid for it. You have no idea how much we spent. I’m not an heiress. It just depletes everything.
That’s so odd, because birth mothers have historically been told that if they are “good” mothers they will choose adoption to give their children the financial security they can not. But just as birth mothers are encouraged to judge their fitness as parents by their financial resources, adoptive parents are too. And it discriminates against them, too.
It would be a lie to say that people are coming to adoption with joy at all times. Hope, perhaps, but it would be disingenuous to say that every part coming to an adoption isn’t seriously grieving. Some people make the decision to adopt first and foremost and they don’t even try to have their own children. But most people have been through a lot before they get to that point. They’ve been sick or done several rounds of IVF. Likely, it’s put a strain on their relationship, or if they are single, it’s really made them think about how they are alone.
The birth mother is placing the baby out of love. I still believe that. Well, the ones we’ve dealt with who were actually pregnant, anyway. But it would be a lie to say you would be like, “Hey take her. I’m on my way. Everything is fabulous.”
That is the lie that historically people tried to bury. The lie used to be that younger women or poorer women just didn’t feel the same way about their babies. That motherhood was conditional. You could just be an incubator and that just knowing you weren’t old enough or stable enough or “good” would insulate you from all the feelings.
With regard to socio-economics, domestically and internationally, I’ve thought about this a lot: If they can’t afford to parent, why don’t we just give them the money to parent? Jesse thinks a lot about how adoption is in fact very selfish. And also altruistic. It’s both of those things.
When I take my baby around, people will say to me, “Oh, you’ve dropped the weight so fast.” Then when I say he’s adopted, people fall all over themselves. “Oh my god, that’s amazing.” I get bigger scoops of ice cream, better seats, because people think it’s so altruistic. But really, I would have thrown someone into traffic for this baby.
At some point, you will do anything for a baby. At some point, I stopped thinking, “That person who has done seven IVFs is fucking nuts” and went to, “Oh my God. I don’t know what I wouldn’t do.” Yeah, I would go to Ethiopia if I was told there is no other way. And to clarify: My earlier reasons to not go to Ethiopia would not be that it was a black child. We were open to children of any race or ethnicity. But what is my connection to Ethiopia? I’m happy to learn about it, but you have to give the child some of their cultural background.
Right, and let’s clarify that besides all the alleged ethical violations in some international adoptions, the issue of transcultural domestic adoption has been hotly debated since at least the seventies, when the National Association of Black Social Workers came out against interracial adoption, claiming that, among other things, adoptive parents from different cultural backgrounds are not as well-equipped to raise children as adoptive parents from the same background.
Someone would have be in serious denial to think that two white parents could adopt a black baby and do nothing to address that difference. My friends who are white who have adopted black children will often be stopped on the street by people who will say, “Where did you get that kid?”
And they answer, what, “The shopping mall?”
When they say, like, “Pennsylvania,” people seem disappointed. They want them to say “Africa,” as if Africa, the continent, is one place.
It should be noted that with all of our talk about how we were open to all races and all cultures, we ended up with a white, half-Jewish baby. It should be said that I am Jewish.
I wanted a baby of color, to be honest, because I wasn’t attached to the idea that I look like the biological mother. I liked the idea of the adoption being clear; it was and is not something I am interested in hiding. I like my inside to match my outside. When Jesse imagines adopting an African-American child she thinks about how her husband will speak Spanish and Greek to him, and then she’d take him to Hebrew school? In a way, that child would have been a magnificent child of the world. But that child is also taking on a lot.
That’s interesting—the idea of choosing whether you want your story to be visible or invisible. I’ve been a mother for twenty-three years. And every single year, the fact that I am a young mother becomes more visible, not less. We look closer in age now that she’s in her early twenties and I’m in my late thirties than we ever did when I was in my twenties and she was a small child. Of course, we have had decades to get used to it. But it can be absolutely exhausting to have to haul out the story over and over again to complete strangers.
You could be perceived as lesbians.
That’s in one of my stories! One of my bosses when I was in my twenties said that to me. “Hey, when you are thirty-four and she is eighteen, you will be hot!” And I thought, “You realize that is an incest fantasy?”
But it’s interesting: the institution of adoption historically is extremely conservative—the idea that a financially stable, two-parent family is so important that it trumps even biological ties. But contemporary adoption is also on the forefront of new ways families can be assembled—single parents, gay parents, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, even international families.
I said earlier that in adoption, everyone is coming to it with grief. That’s not always true. Young lesbians and gay men are not always coming to it with grief. Many are arriving only with hope. Many of them haven’t been trying to get pregnant for years, they haven’t had rounds of IVF, it hasn’t ruined their sex lives, because the parameters are set.
Back in the late nineties at Salon, we ran a story on a study that had come out at the time that claimed gay parents, as a group, scored even better than straight parents in general markers of good parenting and child welfare. Our writer’s explanation was that gay parenthood is pretty deliberate. There are some gay families formed out of previous straight relationships, but most of the time, gay families are meticulously planned. As my friend Laurie Essig wrote in her story at the time, “You don’t accidentally fall on the turkey baster and get pregnant.”
When you’re sixteen—or you are thirty-three and you have sex with your husband once and suddenly you are a mother—you are just in it. You might not have had the opportunity to ask all these questions I’ve been asking myself for ten years. Like, “Who am I as a person if I am not a mother?” You don’t really know until that baby shows up. But I’ve had an extensive amount of time to investigate that idea. You hear parents complain about the dailiness of taking care of a child. But I don’t mind that at all. He’s been kind of airlifted into our lives at the most hectic time—I teach, I have this book coming out. But the rhythm of caretaking, taking care of an infant, I enjoy that partially, I’m sure it’s because I’ve had so much time to think about it.
We’re talking about narrative in novels, but there is also a very distinct narrative in adoption, right? In the absence of a biological tie, adoptive parents are encouraged to create ownership by believing the baby they eventually receive is the only one for them—that it is fate, or destiny.
That is some of the coded language that adoption has. It’s fate. You have been on this path because you were waiting for this baby to come. I talk about that in the book. And maybe that’s true. I can’t say. But like so much of our thinking it is magical.
Every adoption story is a ghost story.
What is your daughter’s name again?
If you placed her, she wouldn’t have been named Sydney.
No. She would have been named Chelsea. It’s funny you bring that up, because I still know that. These are the kinds of things you come up against in open adoption. As you say, you imagine these other lives. It’s true for both sides of an adoption. Names may be trivial, but it’s little things like that disrupt the fantasy. Chelsea is a perfectly fine name, just not one I would choose. From the other side, you are, or at least I was, trying to imagine that the adoptive parents would be just like me, but you know, slightly older, slightly more stable. But then there are little things like that make you realize …
… Those people aren’t me.
Exactly. It’s the me/not me thing. I think this is true, too, of all adoption stories. It’s a kind of courtship. But instead of looking for someone to complement you, as you might in a marriage, you are looking for you, but slightly better. Your idealized version of yourself.
That’s interesting. Sometimes it’s hard to be who you are—and say you live in New York City, not in a sprawling ranch house in San Diego. My husband and I are in the arts. This is how it works out. Someone like you who wanted to move to New York City and become a writer would have found my spouse and me terribly attractive. Of course not everyone does. In the baby-making sections of the country, New York is not often seen as a good place to raise a child. I talk about this is in the book. One couple talks about how they chose the adoptive parents and one of them says, “As long as they’re not in New York. Everyone gets shot there.”
I like that phrase. The “baby-making parts of the country.” But that’s the mismatch, right? The parts of the country where the largest percentage of women choose adoption rather than abortion are often not the same parts of the country with the largest percentage of potential adoptive parents—gay couples, single women, those infamous career couples who have delayed childbearing. When I was pregnant in Idaho, I would have died to have found a writer and a bilingual artist living in New York. I would have loved to find a gay couple. But all the adoptive couples in the folders were rich religious conservatives with ranch houses. Or people who pretended to be rich religious conservatives with ranch houses, because that’s what they were told birth mothers were looking for.
I never found a you. And you never found a me. But we weren’t ourselves yet when you were sixteen.
We’re also a bit close in age. Sixteen-year-old me could have called up nineteen-year-old you and said, “Hey Jennifer. You want a baby?” But you probably wouldn’t have gone for it.
Let’s go back to how you made your decision. When you made the switch, it’s not because they named her Chelsea. It sounds like your decision came from within.
I do remember being bothered by being told that they were so glad they knew I was pretty and smart and from a good family. I’m sure they meant it as a compliment, but at the end, it made me wonder: What if I weren’t those things? Would they still want my child? What if my child turned out to not be those things? At the time, it made me furious and made them seem intolerant. But now, twenty-three years later, when I hear some of the things you went through, I feel much less inclined to judge anyone for that.
I had to go give this talk in Palm Beach soon after my son arrived. Afterwards, this woman came up to me and said, “I know people who have adopted. Boy, are you in for it.” A week later, another woman came up to me and said the same thing.
So the idea is that adopted children somehow come with more genetic risks than biological children?
They said that the people they know have mentally ill children, or children with genetic diseases. But this is something I touch on in the book: I can’t speak for you, but if you lay out the medical history of my family, you will see some serious problems. Everyone’s family tree has some terribly broken branches.
Oh, absolutely. Every family has bad genes lurking around. Parenthood is always a gamble. I guess that’s why we are both turned off by the idea that you can somehow protect yourself. My decision, in the end, wasn’t so much about rejecting the adoptive parents as rejecting the idea that choosing to keep my daughter was choosing to give up everything else—college, leaving home, becoming an adult. When I remember to think about it, I’m still sort of shocked that I ended up going to college and becoming a writer living in New York, just like the imagined parent I never saw in the brochure. But last time I was in my hometown, I drove past a house being sold by the man who would have been her father. He was a realtor. Later, I saw his photograph in his company’s ad in the paper. It was so odd.
The ghost story for you is: Let’s say Sydney became Chelsea. Whatever you relationship you had with them may have stayed or may have fallen away. But you would have been haunted by that. As I imagine are haunted by the Chelsea they never had.
As you know, we got a baby a few weeks ago. But there is also all the ghost stories of the babies we didn’t get. Their due dates passed and they did not arrive. Or the baby we had and we had to give back. He’s a ghost.
It’s funny. I did an interview the other day, and the interviewer began a question by saying, “You write that motherhood is like memory …” And I said, “I don’t remember that, what was the next sentence?” It was as I was saying earlier: I have already forgotten the writing of it. It was like a possession.
I know the line she’s talking about. It’s true. As a parent, you do get your childhood back, but in weird fragments you wouldn’t expect.
It is. When you put on the Desitin, you are like, “Oh my God, I remember that smell.” You are not in control of how you are triggered, which is always true with memory. But you lose that, right? I have a ten-week-old. I know I will forget what it is like now. But you also want to fix the past. Take what you want from the past, leave what you don’t. And yet, here I am with the Desitin, doing the same things my parents did.