I spoke to Jane Eales about her book Secrets, Spies and Spotted Dogs.
Jane I have read your book which gives a detailed account of your late discovery that you were adopted and subsequent search for family, particularly your mother. It’s a great title and absorbing read. Did writing the book come easy to you?
After the exhilarating discovery of my birth family in London and spending six months with them in 2005, we returned to Sydney. I was flooded with a jumble of family stories and fragments of information that didn’t make sense.
I yearned to talk with my birth mother, but she died in 1963.
I tried to write. And then rather tentatively I began an imaginary conversation with her, and the words just flowed.
I asked questions and found myself considering what her perspective might have been given the times she lived through. Gradually her life made more sense, insights came and so did the tears.
And at last I was facing what I had spent the best part of 40 years avoiding. This led to the first draft of the book and it grew from there.
I did enjoy the early chapters reflecting on your life in southern Africa having originated from that part of the world myself. What is your fondest childhood memory of growing up in what was Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)?
Life in Salisbury in the 1950’s was certainly different to life in Sydney today. I have many happy childhood memories like going with Dad to the new gelato ice cream shop that had just opened in Salisbury or learning to use chopsticks in the newly opened Chinese restaurant. On Sunday afternoons, we might drive to the Aloe Park and wander through the garden famous for its succulents, or drive up to the Salisbury Kopje to see the city of Salisbury spreading on the plain below. From the age of nine, I cycled to school and all over our suburb and loved the freedom this gave me. I felt at home and safe.
Your adopted parents compelled you not to tell anyone about your adoption or to search for your mother. What toil did this take on you trying to keep your adoption secret and in dealing with other family silences around your origins?
The secrecy obligations imposed on my adoptive parents in my closed adoption were a tragic mistake and could never be undone. This robbed us of spontaneity and trust and permanently distorted all our relationships.
I was told of my adoption at age 19, and they insisted that I keep my adoption a secret. I had been the only one in our family not to know. I felt betrayed, alone, excluded and crushed.
From then on I was aware of two faceless ghosts (my natural parents) banished to the back of my mind. I couldn’t be honest with those I really wanted to connect with. Yet I loved my adoptive parents, and freely acknowledge they very generously gave me a family and home. My adoptive mother understood, and before she died, as I was wheeling her around in the hospice she said, ‘Jane if I could have my life over, I would do things differently’. She was too tired to talk more…
Jane, your mother had died long before you knew of her existence. In your search to find her you found siblings and extended family. How important have these family members being in getting to know your mother and your personal history?
Finding my natural mother’s family was the start of a wonderful and ongoing journey of discovery. I used an intermediary, and carefully planned the first contact. There was an instant synergy and ease in our relationships, and I was overwhelmed by their warmth and inclusiveness.
Meeting my natural half-brother, Paul and my two cousins and other relatives was thrilling. They told me a whole lot of family stories and information that no one else would have known. Many questions about Mother were answered. Sadly Paul has since died. I now treasure the relationships with my cousins.
You devote several chapters to exploring your mother’s role in World War II as a spy for the Allies. How much of this intrigue was a motivation for you to complete the book?
At our very first meeting, Paul told me Mother had been a spy in World War II. I was sceptical and needed to substantiate his stories with independent evidence. Paul and I visited museums, libraries and explored her wartime history together. I was fascinated by the story and I thought readers might be interested in it too. An unexpected outcome was that we began to feel differently about her and ourselves. From now on I was the daughter of a brave and intelligent British soldier who was a spy for the Allies and risked her life for her country.
In reading your book it soon becomes apparent you have become highly adept at family research. I certainly admire your tenacity and determination in leaving no stone unturned in your search for information. This included tracking down family members and your mother’s military war time record. It also lead you to exploring your mothers hobby of breeding Dalmatians, opening another door in getting to know her. Based on your research experience what advice would you give to people who are about to start their own searches for lost family?
I wish I had started my search earlier. I might have had more time with Paul before he died and I might have found my father alive.
Each adoption is different so start the search when it feels right to do so.
Know where to find support as significant emotional turmoil is inevitable. Reading about adoption in books and websites made me aware of my situation in relation to other adoptions. I consulted with professionals experienced with post adoption issues and reunions and they put me in touch with other adoptees involved with searches. Meeting others in a similar situation provided perspective, encouragement and helped me clarify what I needed to do.
Anticipate roadblocks and plan strategies. If appropriate consult your adoptive family to smooth the process. Proceed slowly and carefully.
I’m very glad I didn’t approach my family directly and would never use Facebook. Reunions are more likely to succeed if an intermediary is used who can personally advocate on your behalf.
There is a general misbelief that adoption is a closed event that happens in our early childhood and once we are given a new family and home, all is well. That there are no long term effects. What have been the major effects of your adoption on you during your adult life?
After being told of my adoption, I had little choice but to ignore it and make the best of life. Once I had a husband and children to care for, we had other concerns and my adoption took a back seat.
It was only after starting my search did the underlying insecurity and loneliness surface. Late one night when the feelings were particularly difficult to resolve, I made the amazing discovery that this was something many other adoptees had experienced (see the epilogue in my book). Now I knew my private issues were not due to personal shortcomings but due to being adopted and the way my adoption was arranged. I then felt able to seek out help and information about adoption and this was the best decision I could have made.
What remains in your search for family? Have your reached the end of the road or is there more you would like to pursue?
I don’t know who my father is.
I have explored almost all I want to about my natural mother, but there is always more that could be done.
The key for me was attempting to understand the perspective and historical context that both my mother and my adoptive parents lived through. Now that my book is published, I’m at peace and I hope that my story will inspire others to reflect and consider their adoption in a new light.
I love being connected with my newly discovered cousins and I treasure being able to honour Mother, tell her story, feel proud of her and for my children to have an intriguing grandmother.
Thank you Jane for giving us further insights into your book. It is an important addition to adoption memoirs especially for those who learn late in life that they are adopted and the impact this has on their adult life.