The Mistress's Daughter
“Christmas 1992, I go home to Washington, D.C. ‘We have something to tell you,’ my mother says. ‘Someone is looking for you.’ After a lifetime spent in a virtual witness-protection program, I’ve been exposed. I am the mistress’s daughter. My birth mother was young, unmarried, and my father older with a family of his own. When I was born, a lawyer called my adoptive parents and said, ‘Your package has arrived. . . . ’ The fragile narrative, the plot of my life has been abruptly recast. In my dreams, my birth mother is the queen of queens, and she has made a fabulous life for herself, as ruler of the world, except for one missing link—me.”
A Q&A with A.M. Homes, author of The Mistress's Daughter
You are best known for writing fiction that takes risks—exploring the psychological worlds of your characters from the inside out; how was writing a memoir different from writing fiction?
The memoir was much more difficult. My greatest pleasure as a writer comes from inhabiting people whose experience is different from my own. In fiction one can travel the imagination, exploring the unknown, but in memoir—one essentially picks at a wound, again and again, revisiting the most painful complex moments of your life. Autobiography is limited where fiction is limitless and that’s why I love it. With this book I spent months, years really, trying to find language for what was the most ethereal and biological—almost chemical—emotional experience of my life to date—an experience that on many levels defies language. The degree of difficulty was very high…it was brutal, unbearable at times, which is why it took so long.
So why do it?
That’s a good question. Part of it was the challenge of giving voice to something so difficult to describe. As the events were unfolding it all seemed so horrifying that I was sure I would never forget–-sure that everything would remain perfectly etched in my memory—that every phone message and the sound of my biological mother’s voice would echo in my head forever. I also felt the need to capture the peculiarity of it all—to be able to show it to others, and ask what do you think—does this seem odd? The return of my biological family was traumatic—paralyzing—and I just wanted to capture the events without processing or analysis, to deliver the story back to myself, as though by writing it down, it would begin to make sense.
Did writing this bring closure or a sense of relief?
Not really. I don’t think there is such a thing as closure on this kind of subject matter—it’s on-going. I’m still adopted, there are still enormous things I don’t know about my own history. Writing this book was not cathartic—it was intense, it took more than 10 years as I struggled to figure out who I was in relation to where I had come from. That said; am I different or changed now that it is done—yes. No doubt there are subtle ways in which I feel stronger. Having survived the psychic annihilation of being willfully unknown by my biological family, the good news is I no longer question my right to be alive—I have earned a place here on earth.
When I started writing this book my motivation was to create a document for myself but at some point I started thinking about others who might also be fighting to feel like they have a right to be alive. My hope is that the book would have meaning for others. As much as I feel more exposed than I would with a novel, there is a kind of honesty to it—an inescapable clarity that just is. This is who I am; this is my life—45 years of sadness, joy, achievement and failure. It is really a book about a life lived and how we learn to accommodate our selves and our families.
The section of the memoir called My Father’s Ass—in which you write about going for a DNA blood test with your biological father—at the lab you see him walking away from you and you recognize his ass as your own. Is there an unavoidable legacy, a biological inheritance that one can’t escape?
Before I was “found” I had a rich fantasy life about who my parents were—there was enormous freedom in not knowing my background, a wonderful innocence. I could be anyone. As far as I was concerned, my parents were Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. It made perfect sense—and still does—when one thinks about who one is informed by—Sontag and Kerouac were my chosen legacy. When I met my biological parents—I saw fragments of myself in them and was terrified—I wondered if I would keel over and die at a very young age as some of them did or would I have a mid-life crisis and ruin all that I’d built for myself as both biological parents did independent of each other. Would I be “crazy” like my mother and so on. For the first time, I could feel the thumb print of DNA on my body. Having never known anyone related to me, I had to be told by others that I looked like my biological parents. Having never seen myself before, I didn’t know what I looked like. No doubt there is biology that one can’t escape, but at the same time, one can also hope to develop and improve upon that biological root.
All of your work deals with identity in some form or another—characters struggling to reconcile the dissonance between their public and private lives. And this book too is not just about adoption but about universal questions; who am I, where did I come from, how do I describe myself. Can you talk a bit about your identity and how it’s changed over time?
My identity—that’s a good one. Woody Allen’s film Zelig, about the “human chameleon,” had enormous resonance for me—that feeling of almost unconsciously shifting to accommodate is something I relate to. I grew up with enormous unknowns—questions but no answers. On the positive side, the flux or fluidity of my identity has been helpful to me as a writer—allowing me to crawl inside the experience of others. People always ask how I’m able to write from a male point of view and for me it’s entirely natural to be someone other than myself. The two areas where I have a more fixed identity are as a writer and, more recently, as a mother, and even those have their moments of identity crisis. When I was pregnant, Philip Roth came up to me at the National Book Awards looked at my giant belly and said, “What did you go and do that for?” As though by becoming a mother, I’d given up my spot as a writer and/or by becoming a mother, I’d gone from being this mysterious ambisexual writer into being a girl. Whatever it was…it wasn’t a good thing. But if I was being honest, I would say that in many ways I am like a shape-shifter, reflecting what is already out there and yet I’m sure I must have an identity of my own. Let me keep looking, maybe I can find it around here somewhere.
One of the most fascinating chapters of this book is The Electronic Anthropologist—and your experience doing 21st century genealogical research—can you talk a bit about that?
I felt as though I’d stumbled down a wonderful rabbit hole—AKA the World Wide Web. I located an amazing amount of information, ranging from census documents, ship manifests, to people all over the world—each with information, resources that five years ago would have been impossible to identify and tap. What was so invigorating about this chapter was that, despite the hard time my immediate biological relatives gave me, this research allowed me to reclaim my enthusiasm about my own history. I was able to connect not just to my biological parents but to hundreds who had gone before me, and within that there was power, drama and narrative—thousand of stories to be told. My imagination began to expand and that allowed me to take back the experience as my own—having been paralyzed by the early part of the story. And I loved dipping into history—looking at dozens and dozens of birth certificates and death certificates and trying to sort out the “right” people from the wrong ones.
There are a lot of well known adopted people—ranging from Dave Thomas who founded Wendy’s to Steven Jobs who started Apple Computer and other writers—Edward Albee, Jeanette Winterson etc. Can you talk about how being adopted may have influenced your work?
Well, first off—if you’re going to have a club of famous adopted people you better do a bit more research, you’re leaving off the serial killer category—Son of Sam, Joel Rifkin, etc. There are whole web sites about adopted killers. But seriously I do think being adopted changes a person; it causes a dislocation, a kind of fracture that disrupts things.
In his books on becoming a writer John Gardner spoke about how all good writers have a chip on their shoulder or something they have get over. I’m not sure it’s a chip on my shoulder, having grown up feeling on the outside. I sure worked hard to be known, to deliver myself to a larger world in some way. No doubt my sense of being an “outsider,” more an observer than a participant, has informed my writing. I don’t think there’s a particular “adopted” point of view, but clearly my experience of feeling removed gives me a way of looking at the world that is perhaps different from others and a perspective from which to write. Also I tend to notice things that others don’t—emotional details. The combination of my constitution and my experience taught me very early on to clue into the emotional states of others.
If your biological parents hadn’t come looking for you, would you have looked for them? Are you sorry they found you?
No. I would not have looked for them. Someone once gave me a phone number for a woman who, for a fee, could reportedly find anyone in 24 hours—I carried that number with me for a long time and then curiously decided I wouldn’t call. And of course, it was just a few months later that my biological mother “found” me—which is somewhat unusual. It always seemed ironic—that only after I chose not to search did the information come to me. Am I sorry that they found me? As I say at the end of the book, “Did I choose to be found? No. Do I regret it? No. I couldn’t not know.”