The Mistress's Daughter
By Jane Ciabattari
As a memoirist, A.M. Homes, whose often-shocking fictional tales from the underbelly of suburbia have brought her substantial literary cache, takes a characteristically fierce and fearless approach. And she has a whopper of a personal story to tell in "The Mistress's Daughter."
An adopted child, Homes was contacted by her biological mother for the first time in 1992, when Homes was 31. She discovers that her mother had become pregnant while having an affair with a married man, the owner of the dress shop in the Washington, D.C., area where she had worked since she was 15. Their child was one of 1 million or more babies given up at birth during a phase in American history when single mothers were shunned. Homes' birth mother never married, never had another child.
Homes already knew she had been adopted as a newborn, within months of the death of her adoptive mother's oldest son at age 9. She was raised with a brother whose birth had caused such complications that her mother could not have another baby. "I always felt that my role in the family was to heal things . . . to replace a dead boy," she writes. "I grew up doused in grief."
Meanwhile, she fantasized about her birth mother as "a goddess, the queen of queens, the CEO, the CFO, and the COO. Movie-star beautiful, incredibly competent. . . . She has made a fabulous life for herself, as ruler of the world, except for one missing link -- me."
This contact from her birth mother, Ellen Ballman, precipitates an identity crisis. As Homes eloquently puts it:
"The fragile, fragmented narrative, the thin line of story, the plot of my life, has been abr uptly recast. I am dealing with the divide between sociology and biology: the chemical necklace of DNA that wraps around the neck sometimes like a beautiful ornament -- our birthright, our history -- and other times like a choke chain."
After a few weeks, Homes calls Ballman for the first time. "Hers is the most frightening voice I've ever heard -- low, nasal, gravelly, vaguely animal." The phone call is "flirty as a first date" but leaves Homes uncomfortable. The next time she calls her, Ballman is angry. " 'You should adopt me -- and take care of me,' " she whines. Homes, understandably, is scared. "I am horrified at the way I see myself in her -- the loose screw is not entirely unfamiliar." She figures her biological father might have a similar reaction and writes him a letter introducing herself.
In the beginning, Homes withholds information from her mother: her last name, her address and phone number. Then Ballman leaves a message on her answering machine: " 'I know who you are. . . . I'm reading your books.' " This is birth mother as stalker, with menace in her voice. She is a nightmare, a character who would fit into one of Homes' novels.
Ballman appears at Homes' reading in a crowded bookstore in Washington in 1993, where her family and former classmates are present. Homes instinctively recognizes the stranger nervously twisting an umbrella. After all the books have been signed, Ballman approaches. " 'You're built just like your father,' " she says. Faced with two mothers in one room, Homes urges Ballman to leave. (Homes does not mention in her memoir the title of the book she was introducing that night. It was her third novel, "In a Country of Mothers," a psychological thriller about abandonment, guilt, mother love and obsession, in which a married therapist begins to believe her talented new patient, an adoptee, might be the daughter she gave up years before.)
Homes is not just any adopted daughter. She is a well-regarded novelist. It is tempting to wonder if her mother would have been so eager to track her down if this were not the case. As Homes puts it when her biological father responds to her first attempt to reach him only after a review of the new book has appeared in the newspapers, "If I'd been flipping burgers in a McDonald's instead of writing books, would I have ever heard from him?"
Homes meets the father at his attorney's office. She agrees to a DNA test, which proves she is his child. He promises to weave her into his family but meets her in clandestine places, treating her as if she were the mistress, not the mistress' daughter. He introduces her to his wife, who makes it clear she is not willing to have Homes introduced around Washington as his child. And that is the end of that.
In January 1994, Homes, who lives in New York, agrees to meet Ballman at the Oyster Bar at the Plaza Hotel. An unnamed friend waits nearby in support. Homes is barely ab le to breathe as she encounters this woman who seems from another era, with her rabbit fur coat and beehive hairdo. After devouring a lobster, Ballman asks for forgiveness for giving her away. " 'You absolutely did the right thing,' " Homes responds, and flees. There are further phone conversations in which Ballman makes wheedling demands, but Homes avoids meeting again.
In summer 1998, Ballman dies of kidney disease. Homes goes to the funeral. Accompanied by two unnamed friends, in a scene made powerful by understatement, she sorts through Ballman's home. This is the closest she will ever be to her mother. At one point she puts her hands into the pockets of Ballman's black jeans and discovers a wad of money, loose bills. "This is exactly the way I keep my money," she writes. She puts several boxes in storage and doesn't touch them again for years.
During the discovery part of the memoir, the push-pull of Homes' choices whether or not to follow through, to expl ore further, drives the story with great suspense. Ambivalence is at the core of these new, uninvited relationships. Homes' attempts to maintain her privacy, and her equally strong wish to be recognized by two people who it turns out are incapable of mirroring her, are poignant. Having been given up, then reclaimed, then asked to pony up a modicum of daughterly care, she withdraws.
Midway through her memoir, it seems Homes might have mined her story to its end, leaving only the tailings -- myriad odd findings like physical resemblances, habits in common. What is there to learn beyond her mother's death in 1998 and her father's ultimate rejection in the same year? (When she needs a copy of the DNA test to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, which he told her she was entitled to do, and which she hopes will give her further information about her ancestry, he refuses and denies that the test results exist.) She confines her story to its essence, offering relev ant scenes in a vacuum, avoiding reference to the people in her adult life other than a few unnamed friends. This heightens the sense of isolation.
What propels the book forward is a phase of intense, even obsessive genealogical research. Homes' "electronic dig" into her complex web of family history moves her story beyond the personal. In tracking her DNA, documents and family trees of biological and adoptive parents, she joins a community of researchers equally obsessed with excavating nature and nurture. Her perception of her situation shifts, her brilliant imagination takes fire, and she begins to engage with the broader realm of history.
She is "thrilled" to hear for the first time, at 44, her adoptive father's story of having as a boy seen 20,000 unemployed World War I veterans and their families march on Washington in 1932 demanding early payment of a cash bonus. "I feel as though I'm slowly reconstructing an ancient lost tapestry," she writes.
She handles her biological father's serial rejection of her mother, of her and of her lawyer's attempts to reach him in a section that consists of one side of a "deposition" in which she frames all the damning questions she wants to pose. Finally, almost sweetly, she settles into a coda, a section called "My Grandmother's Table," in which she reconnects with her adoptive grandmother and meditates upon a future generation.
"The Mistress's Daughter" does not end like most of Homes' fictions. At the end of this book, a dark journey rife with betrayal and calumny, the heroine is, it seems, redeemed by love.
Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire," a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle and a regular contributor to the board's blog, Critical Mass, at bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/.