The Mistress's Daughter
April 16, 2007
Moms de Plume
A.M. Homes, Writing in the Shadows of the Family Tree. By Bob Thompson
A.M. Homes is one of the last writers you'd expect to come out with a memoir. She doesn't even like to reveal herself in fiction.
Like all novelists, Homes, 45, has had to draw a personal boundary line between the imagined and the real. The Chevy Chase native may have just published a nonfiction book, "The Mistress's Daughter," but she has long favored the invented over the adapted.
She takes "absolute pleasure in inventing things," she says. "I don't by nature write autobiographically."
Are there reasons that Homes -- whose novels and stories have been both widely praised and frequently labeled "disturbing" -- chose to imagine the lives of a murderous pedophile, a suburban couple who torch their own house or a boy who conducts a violent, erotic relationship with his sister's Barbie?
Are these characters in any direct way autobiographical?
They are not.
There has been, however, one notable exception. Homes's 1993 novel, "In a Country of Mothers," is an intense exploration of the psychology of adoption. Adopted herself as an infant, Homes drew themes and details straight from her own experience. They ranged from the wording of the coded message her adopted character's soon-to-be parents receive when she is born ("Your package is here and it's wrapped in pink ribbons") to that same character's ambivalent answer, decades later, to the question, "Would you want to know who your mother was?"
"I'd take the information," she replies, "but I don't know what I'd do with it. It might mess me up."
In December 1992 -- with "In a Country of Mothers" written, edited and moving toward publication -- life veered crazily toward art. Homes's birth mother contacted the lawyer who'd arranged the adoption 31 years before. "She'd be willing to hear from you" was the message.
Homes took the information.
It messed her up.
There were some letters, delivered through a third party, and, finally, a phone call, initiated by Homes. The voice on the line frightened her. It was "low, nasal, gravelly, vaguely animal."
"Tell me about you -- who are you?" the voice asked.
Homes said only that she was a writer, lived in New York, had a dog. "I am not who I thought I was," she found herself thinking, "and I have no idea who I am."
More stressful conversations followed. One day, the voice showed up on her answering machine.
"Your cover is blown," it informed her. "I know who you are and I know where you live. I'm reading your books."
Homes strides into the West Village restaurant a couple of minutes late -- a bit rumpled, looking warmer and more natural than she does in her carefully posed book jacket photo -- and extends a hand:
"Are you you?"
It's her standard way of greeting an interviewer she's never met. But one can't help thinking it's also a version of the question Homes has spent a lifetime asking herself.
Are you you? And just who would that "you" be, anyway?
Growing up, Amy Homes was the kind of girl who loved the slides and swings at Candy Cane City, the Rock Creek Park playground near her house, and shot hoops in neighbors' driveways, pretending to be a Harlem Globetrotter. She also haunted the Chevy Chase library. She favored biographies and latched onto two famous figures in particular: Eleanor Roosevelt and Babe Ruth. Later she realized that both had been separated from their parents at an early age.
Two shadows darkened her childhood, she says.
One came from her adoption, about which she never quite got the full story. (At first, she was told it had been arranged, not privately but through the Jewish Social Service Agency.) The second was cast by the 9-year-old boy who would have been her brother if he hadn't died, from kidney disease, six months before she was adopted.
She couldn't help seeing herself as an outsider who could never fill the lost boy's empty shoes. She felt "that something huge had happened before I got there and that everybody was forever in the process of recovering from it and not particularly talking about it."
She and her surviving older brother took to playing funeral parlor, sprinkling the designated corpse with talcum powder. She found herself drawn to spend hours a day with a neighbor whose husband had just died.
As Homes got older, she discovered rock-and-roll. "I wanted to be in the Rolling Stones," she says, laughing, but rock was too high-risk and exposed, especially for young women in those days. Writing was a better fit.
It's "a very good way for a shy person to reach out to other people, because you don't have to do it in person," she explains.
When she was 19, a play she'd written won a competition that led to a production in Washington. That same year she wrote her first novel, "Jack," narrated by a boy who learns that his father is gay. It would be published in 1989 and would be followed, in 1990, by a much lauded collection of stories, "The Safety of Objects."
She published under the initials "A.M.," which she'd used on her school papers for years. "I thought: I like the space between A.M. Homes and who I am," she says. Interviewers would try to intrude, but it seemed important not to let that space disappear.
Ever since "Jack," people have been asking Homes if she is gay. "And I would say, 'I've dated men and I've dated women and there's no more or less to it than that,' " she says. "I mean, there really isn't!" For that matter, Homes asks why it is that when journalists interview a female writer, as she recalls poet Sharon Olds pointing out, "they ask either what she's cooking for dinner or all about her family."
Fair enough. Yet this line of argument raises an obvious question: How did the woman who says, convincingly, that "I am, and apparently always have been, this very private person" come to write something as personal and revealing as "The Mistress's Daughter"?
The simple answer: What happened when her birth parents showed up felt so surreal that, to make sense of the experience, she had to start taking notes.
"I felt like I needed a larger hard drive in my head," she says. "Because the hard drive that we have has two slots. It has a mother and a father slot. It doesn't have slots for extras."
'You Should Adopt Me'
"In my dreams, my birth mother is a goddess, the queen of queens," Homes writes. "Movie-star beautiful, incredibly competent, she can take care of anyone and anything."
In real life, sadly, Ellen Ballman couldn't even take care of herself.
The woman who'd put that pink-ribboned package up for adoption in 1961 turned out to have led a life that Homes shorthands as "really awful." Never married, financially and emotionally insecure, she had a neurotic neediness that reminded Homes of the Tennessee Williams character Blanche DuBois, "moving from person to person, desperate to get something, to find relief from unrelievable pain."
Head crammed with images of a fantasy being whom she had mythologized for decades, Ellen couldn't relate to the actual daughter she'd tracked down.
"You take better care of your dog than you take of me," she told her newly rediscovered offspring when Homes, wary and disoriented, wouldn't agree to an immediate meeting. "You should adopt me -- and take care of me."
Homes didn't know how to respond.
When they did meet, Ellen asked her forgiveness for letting her go.
"I forgive you. You absolutely did the right thing," Homes replied. But Ellen still frightened her. The disconnect was so great, she sensed, that she would never see this mother again.
That didn't mean she couldn't muster sympathy from a distance -- or that she wouldn't feel tremendous guilt when Ellen died, alone, in 1998.
Her birth father turned out to be unrelated to fairy-tale royalty either.
Ellen told Homes that she'd gone to work for Norman Hecht at a store called the Princess Shop, in downtown Washington, when she was 15 years old. The boss, who was married and in his 30s, took to driving her home, then out to dinner. Within a couple of years, she said, Norman was promising to get a divorce and marry her.
Homes wanted to meet him anyway. They met in his lawyer's office, where they talked about Ellen, among other things. "She was a slut who knew more than her years -- things a young girl shouldn't know," Norman said.
The Ellen-and-Norman story that Homes pieced together was filled with melodrama and pathos, and she ended up parsing competing versions. For example: Norman and his wife wanted to adopt her, he said, but Ellen nixed the idea. No way, said Ellen angrily: "He never even suggested it."
They agreed on one thing, at least. She told him she was pregnant on the day his mother died.
Norman asked Homes to take a DNA test -- it was his wife's idea, he said -- before he introduced her to her four half siblings. She showed up wearing linen pants and a blouse. When the test was finished, he said, "I would have liked to take you for a nice lunch if you'd worn something better."
Things went downhill from there, though it took a while. He told her the DNA test showed a 99.9 percent chance that he was her father. He introduced her to one of his sons, Norman Hecht Jr., but not to his other children. He arranged for her to meet his wife -- who, not surprisingly, didn't take much of a shine to the mistress's daughter. Eventually, though no one was suing anyone, he and Homes started communicating through lawyers.
After Ellen died, Homes went through her apartment and packed up four boxes of documents. She couldn't bear to go through them, so she marked them "Dead Ellen 1-4" and put them in a storage unit. When she finally opened them, they proved to contain more questions than answers.
Are you you?
Trying to fill out a dead-ended story, Homes found herself tracing her newly discovered ancestors in archives and through the Internet. Otherwise favorable reviews have suggested strongly that her chapter on Googling up a family portrait might be of less interest to readers than to the obsessed author.
As she wrote, she found herself employing a couple of fictional devices, which she was careful to label as such.
In a section called "Imagining My Mother," she tried to fill the gaps left by Ellen's death and by the fact that she'd never been "a very good reporter of her own life" anyway. As for Norman's side of the narrative, Homes constructed an angry, imaginary deposition filled with questions she'd like her birth father to answer. She called it "Like an Episode of 'L.A. Law.' "
Would you describe yourself as a family man? . . .
When your sexual relationship with Ms. Ballman began, how old was she? . . .
Did you have Ms. Ballman meet with you and your lawyer and together discuss the fact that "there are only so many slices of the pie"?
"I'm sorry, but he's not available," says a woman who answers the phone at Norman Hecht's current residence in the Washington suburbs, making it clear that he never will be and hanging up without identifying herself.
"Two words: No comment," says Norman Hecht Jr., also reached by phone. Asked if that is his father's policy as well, he adds: "He's 82, he has Alzheimer's. He's out of that game, okay?"
Suffice it to say that in the end, nobody involved came close to getting what they wanted from this reunion of parents and child.
Nature and Nurture
And yet: While Homes didn't get what she wanted, she just may have gotten some of what she needs.
For one thing, she has a new perspective on the parents she grew up with. "Tell me about your people," Norman asked her at one point. "My people are lovely," she shot back. "You couldn't ask for better."
Their connection has never been that simple, of course. When it is suggested to Phyllis Homes that being the parent of a writer isn't always easy, she bursts out laughing, then agrees. But of her daughter's new book she says, "I love it. I think it's the best thing she's written so far," and of the daughter herself, "We are terrifically proud of her."
For another thing, Homes has gotten more comfortable with her existential status as an unusually complex amalgam of nature and nurture. Her mental hard drive has in fact expanded, allowing her "to tolerate simultaneously a lot of contradictions and just accept that yes, it's contradictory."
The last chapter of "The Mistress's Daughter" attempts to acknowledge and resolve some of those contradictions. It does so by paying tribute to two of the people who've been at the center of her amalgamated life.
The first is a beloved grandmother from the family that adopted her. The second is her 4-year-old daughter, Juliet, conceived after her grandmother's death in part because "my family was shrinking and I thought: I don't want to be the only one left here."
Juliet, as Homes points out, is the only biological relative with whom she has ever lived.
This could be a subject for a whole other memoir, if it weren't for the obvious privacy concerns. But never mind that. She's a fiction writer! She can't wait to get back to inventing unreal worlds.
"This reality thing is painful and overrated," she says.