The Mistress's Daughter
The novelist talks about the birth father who twice rejected her and the birth mother who wouldn't go away.
By Kate Fillion
Novelist A.M. Homes was adopted at birth. As she recounts in her memoir The Mistress's Daughter, her 22-year-old birth mother had been having an affair with her much older, married boss for five years. In 1992, when Homes was 31, her biological mother sought her out, and in short order put her in touch with her birth father.
From Oprah and Maury and other talk-show hosts, we have a kind of cheesy picture of what reunions with birth parents look like. What was it actually like for you?
It's interesting, because both Oprah and Maury Povich were what prompted my birth mother to find me, she cited them as examples of what gave her the courage. That said, my first experience of meeting her was when she stalked me to a reading I was giving -- so, a slightly different experience from those talk shows! The television version of a reunion isn't just the idealized version, it's also the very condensed one where people are on their best behaviour. I think that's very different from how people really are or how the thing plays out over time. My birth mother was somebody who was incredibly needy, and came to find me to meet her own needs. I think other times birth parents come back to say, "I'm here if you want to talk, but if you don't, that's okay." They offer themselves to the child, they don't hurl themselves.
She comes off in your book as a girl who never really grew up, whose kittenish qualities did not age well. Were you embarrassed by her?
I was overwhelmed by her. It was too awful to even be embarrassed by, honestly.
When she was stalking you, phoning constantly, your instinct was to turn away, but after she died you began almost compulsively digging up genealogical clues to her past and your genetic history. If she were still alive, what would you want to ask her?
Everything. Like a detective does on CSI, I would ask her the same questions over and over again, because I would be interested both in how the story shifts as she retells it, but also how it stays the same. I would ask her about her family, her past, her father, how she felt about herself and her life. The difficulty being, of course, she wasn't really equipped to answer those questions, I'm not sure what kind of development was missing. She thought she was sophisticated, in a kind of Frank Sinatra, going-to-a-show-in-Las-Vegas way. But she wasn't at all emotionally sophisticated.
Your birth father, who's still married to the same woman and has a family of his own, insisted you take a DNA test to confirm paternity, though it was never really in any doubt. What did your own parents think?
They were horrified. The whole thing upset them. On the one hand I think they felt somewhat threatened that my biological parents would somehow return and claim me, and they would lose me in some way. I also think they were really worried that I'd be hurt, either disappointed or emotionally upset, and obviously I was.
One of the most striking aspects of your fiction is that you make bad characters, or characters who do bad things, likeable. Yet there's nothing likeable about your biological father, at least as you portray him. He just seems like a beefy coward, a phony.
I wanted to like him. I liked how he tried to be charming and affable. But that outward display and persona completely contradicted his actual behaviour. I think what unfortunately is going to be seen in the next few weeks as the book comes out is that various magazines and newspapers have contacted him, and you'll see more of it, his behaviour is completely in character.
You write about feeling like an embarrassment, like somebody's dirty secret. It must feel strange, and unjust, given that you're actually a respected writer.
Yes. That part is incredibly painful to me. In a letter to my biological father a long time ago I said that I had worked very, very hard to make a good life for myself, to be a person that anybody's parents would be proud to have as a child. And instead, I have somebody who's essentially embarrassed about my existence, whose wife says, "Oh, your father would like to introduce you to people but that's not possible."
Why did you name him in the book?
I felt, doing all the genealogical research, it would seem very odd to go back through time and change generations of people's names. And it felt in some way as though I'd be changing history, and colluding with some secret, and it was just disingenuous given my whole enterprise. Does it worry me? Sure. I'm human. I didn't want it in any way to be hurtful for [his family], but I did want to tell my story.
Why, given everything your birth father revealed about his true character, did his second rejection, his failure to deliver on promises to introduce you to your half-siblings and even to provide you a copy of the DNA results, hurt so much?
I just really would've hoped he would behave differently. I tend to be a person who's in a funny way almost naive, who expects the best, or at least the better, of people. Thank God, because I think it would in some ways be very difficult otherwise. Last year, when my novel This Book Will Save Your Life was coming out, the New York Times was reviewing it two weeks early, and some naive part of my brain thought, "Wow, they must really like it!" But of course, Michiko Kakutani slammed me, two weeks ahead of publication, so every paper that hadn't written its review yet picked up hers and cribbed from it. This year the Times asks for a childhood photo of me, I guess for the review of this book, also early, and again my first response was, "Oh, they must really like it!" I'm like Sally Fields. With Alzheimer's.
When you were growing up, how much did you think about being adopted?
In some ways I thought about it a lot. I definitely felt rejected, I felt that I had been given away. And I didn't have the vocabulary to express that, or any way of understanding how that might affect me. So as a child I didn't think, "Oh, this affects my ability to make attachments with other people," or, "This affects how I view myself." Even when I went to talk to counsellors about it, they would say, "How do you feel about being adopted?" And I'd say, "Fine." Because that wasn't really the right question. One of the things that's so interesting in the evolution of how we talk about adoption is realizing that it's not a one-time event, it's an ongoing process in a person's life.
Now there are so many books about discussing adoption with your child -- I'm an adoptive parent, I've read them all. But on some level they're not helpful.
Exactly. We had this two-book grey set, The Adopted Family, there was a volume for the parents and a volume for the child. I remember not really understanding the book but knowing it was somehow important; that's how a child processes it. I always knew I was adopted, and I knew other kids who were adopted, but I didn't have any sense of what that might mean, or how it might affect me, except for feeling angry. When I was very upset I would say, "I want my real mother." My mom would say, "I am your real mother." Which was true. Now, as a parent, I think, oh my God, that would hurt so much if my daughter said that to me. I wasn't saying it to be hurtful, but there was some longing for something other than what I was getting. That said, after I met my biological mother, I never had that feeling again! I don't know if what I really was craving was some mythological thing that never could have existed, some goddess mother who was just so perfect and knowing and different.
You must have been an extraordinarily self-possessed kid. I read somewhere that at the age of nine you wrote to director John Sayles and he became your pen pal.
I think it was some need and desire to make contact with the outside world. I wrote to lots of famous people, but it wasn't really about their fame -- it just didn't seem prudent to be writing to random people in the phone book, you don't know who you're going to get. I was interested in their work, actually. John Sayles would write to me about his films and his writing, and Pete Townshend from the Who would write to me about the records he was making, and I would talk about what I was doing in school, and how my day had gone, and who was mean to me or not.
If one or both of your birth parents had raised you, do you think you'd have become a writer?
If I'd grown up with my birth mother, I'm not sure I would've survived. She was so ill-equipped that I don't know how she would've raised a child, and her mother made her take the bus home from the hospital after giving birth, she didn't even go pick her up, so there wasn't a lot of support. If I'd grown up with my father, the best-case scenario I could imagine is some really bad version of Cinderella. Would I be a writer? I don't know if they would have let me out of the kitchen! I feel that I am an amalgam of all four of my parents, and without all of them I wouldn't be who I am.
You've said writing a memoir was not cathartic. But at least in the book, you do end up somewhere different than where you began.
I'm 10 years older, that's one of the reasons. Getting older, you don't feel as fragile, and I've had the good fortune to have a substantial career. I no longer feel that at any moment someone's going to say that I don't belong here. That's a big change, I really felt when I was younger that at any moment I could get kicked off the planet. The concept of being illegitimate isn't the same anymore, but I grew up always feeling on the outside. It was excruciatingly painful to turn my eye on myself and my experience and really take it apart in the way I do with any other story. One of the things that compelled me to finish is that I thought perhaps it would open up the conversation in different ways. In adoption literature, people always write with an agenda. I feel it's a complex thing for everybody, there is no right or wrong point of view, no right or wrong experience. I also wanted just to open up the question of identity in a larger sense. I don't think people who are adopted have a unique identity crisis, I think it's sort of like the electron microscope version of an identity crisis, which just means it's the same questions all people ask -- who am I? where did I come from? -- but it's a larger, almost exponential frame.
There's a new orthodoxy about adoption, that openness is the better way.
It's an interesting thing that all of adoption law really protects everybody but the child. I do believe that even when you have a child and give it up, it does not mean that you give up all responsibility. It means that you say that you're not equipped or able to raise this child, but you still have an obligation to answer.