I was one of three guest authors invited to talk at a recent Speakers Forum hosted by Counsellors Tricia Dearden and Brooke Bengston at the Post Adoption Resource Centre, Sydney. Alongside Margaret Watson who spoke about her book Surviving Secrets, and Gwen Wilson who reflected on her memoir I Belong to No One, I talked about my adoption experience and search for my mother relating to my book Secrets, Spies and Spotted Dogs.
A brief account of this event is recorded here for people who are affected by adoption who may wish turn to writing as a therapeutic exercise or who have a strong desire to tell their own story through writing.
In speaking first I began by quoting Albert Camus who said ‘narrative art’ is an imposition of order on our chaotic, closed and very limited life experience and… that it organizes life in such a way that we can reflect on it from a distance and experience it anew.’
I did not know I was adopted until I was 19, and it remained a family secret until my adoptive parents died. I met my half-brother and my cousins in London for the first time in 2005 when I was 58. This led to unimaginable joy and an emotional roller coaster ride that lasted for years. I longed to understand my mother, so stopped work and began researching and writing as a way to understand her and her role in World War II as a British soldier and spy. Writing was hugely therapeutic – it helped me find words for and work through my feelings at a time and place and at a pace I could control. Connecting with PARC, their library and others impacted by adoption was invaluable in leading to a richer more balanced perspective.
Gwen’s memoir covers her first twenty years, growing up poor in western Sydney, illegitimate, without a father, her schizophrenic mother frequently hospitalised, and her brother taking his role as ‘stand-in’ father too literally. At sixteen she had a baby, and, driven by the stigma of illegitimacy, married the father. Her book details the marriage breakdown, leaving without her baby, and how ensuing events led to her being ‘persuaded’ to surrender him for adoption, at age two.
Gwen said that giving up a child to adoption caused such extraordinary pain that she believes having survived that, she was immunized for life against anything ever touching her as deeply again. While acknowledging the value of catharsis, she didn’t write as a way of working through repressed emotions, as she felt she had long ago ‘settled her demons’. She is now twenty years down the track of a reunion with her son, and has spoken at many PARC information meetings.
Through the writing process she discovered patterns in her genetic and family history, raising her awareness of the impact on the following generations. Those patterns affected her choices too, for example, domestic violence in her childhood led to her accepting this behaviour as a young adult. She was 22 before she recognized the patterns and stopped being a victim of violence.
Margaret said she came to PARC 25 years ago and was their first late discovery client. She discovered she was adopted in a most surprising way when she was forty. It had a huge impact and her life turned ‘upside down’. She found there was no reading material available about the issues faced by late discovery adopted people. Battling with other life crises, she found herself also having to face and cope with a major identity crisis. Margaret spent many years with a therapist who helped enormously and who also encouraged her to write. She began her physical and spiritual journey to find her birth family and her true self.
She found writing journals extremely therapeutic, she edited her writing along the way, and grew out of the experience. Margaret said that in trauma, people have a need to tell and retell their story to assist with the integration of experiences into their reality and sense of self. Writing and rewriting made it possible for her to let go of some things, especially her dark feelings. This was helpful.
After we had each spoken, questions and a lively discussion followed covering a broad range of factors about researching, reflecting and writing a book about key life experiences.
Where and when did you write?
Margaret said she wrote in a friends’ home in the country and loved the solitude and writing there. I wrote at home. Gwen wrote on Saturdays while working full-time in a demanding corporate role, and later as often as she could fit into a busy life.
How long did your book take to write?
Margaret published her book in 2010 after writing many drafts over 15 years. I wrote about 14 drafts over 9 years and published first in 2014. After reading the book, our children, and my newly discovered relatives in the UK asked for their real names to be used and this led to the publication of the second edition in 2016. Gwen took 10 years to write and publish her book. She wrote 20 versions on her laptop, and several more in response to suggestions from her publisher before it was published in 2015.
Why did you publish your story?
Gwen believed her experience with adoption was a story that had to be told and that her experiences were of value to others. I wanted to expose the long-term impact of secrecy on families affected by adoption and to honour both sets of my parents – they were as much victims as I was in the way my adoption was arranged. Although there is less secrecy in adoptions now, it continues to be an imperfect social institution created by society.
Margaret, on the other hand, had always planned to write a book and this became a source of inspiration and focus which helped her to keep on writing. Although she initially resisted letting go of ‘her project’ to a publisher, when her book was launched, she found this to be a ‘freeing’ experience, especially when it was well received.
Are memories always true?
Gwen spoke about the importance of doing fact checks, and that she used Trove, at the National Library of Australia, for this. It was also true that people (and siblings) can experience the same events and upbringing quite differently.
Do you write for yourself and when do you consider the reader?
Initially we all wrote for ourselves, but once we decided to publish, then it became important to take the reader’s perspective into account. Text has to flow, have context around stories and continuity. Good editing is essential.
Gwen suggested that she found it useful to imagine she was having a conversation with someone, someone she was taking into her confidence. I overcame initial difficulties in writing by imagining a conversation with my mother. The words flowed, but eventually this had to be rewritten in the third person with the reader firmly in focus.
What about the impact of our writing on family members?
Part of the benefit of our first bit of writing is being able to express our feelings and the catharsis that comes with that. But once we decided to publish, we found we evaluated our writing with our readers and our family members in mind and found that in some situations, we needed to express our feelings more appropriately and differently. This inevitably led to changes. Margaret said that when reviewing her writing, there were times when she had to just let go of the dark feelings, and this in itself was very helpful.
What helped you with the craft of writing?
Gwen said her publisher insisted she write all the chapters in the same tense. She mentioned how writers are often encouraged to ‘show not tell’ by describing scenes using the five senses and to read in the genre one is writing in. Interestingly, I tried this and found my feelings were too raw to read about other people’s pain. We also noted it is not essential to write a full length book. Many publishers are looking for novellas, and ebooks are often shorter.
Where do you find help with writing and publishing?
Patti Miller is the author and mentor in “Life Stories Workshop”. The NSW Writers’ Centre and Varuna are there to help budding authors, and there are many writers’ blogs on the internet that will help with peer reviews.
One needs to be cautious about accepting writing advice. I was advised to split my story into two – one about being adopted, and the other about my mother and her World War II spying career. While they are two stories, this missed the point – mine is an adoption story attempting to connect my two families. So fearing rejection by publishers I, with my husband, created our own publishing company and published the book ourselves. I’m very glad to have done that.
How did you feel once the book was published?
Gwen highlighted the need to be able to be introverted while writing, then being an extrovert when finding a publisher and marketing the book. Publishing a book, and having one’s story ‘out there’ can lead to feeling very exposed, but this fades. One has to be fairly thick skinned with negative reviews and focus on the positive ones.
We have all had to promote our books and this takes time and effort. Gwen’s publisher set this up for her to do and Margaret too has had significant public exposure. I obtained publicity by initially contacting libraries and the ABC. Gradually, as the book became known, invitations came without being solicited and that is so much easier.
The diversity of our stories and experiences led to a very thought-provoking discussion and the evening took on a life of its own. Gwen wrote afterwards that ‘it was a pleasure to have a ‘safe space’ where she could talk openly with an understanding and supportive group’ and Margaret said ‘it was a great night with a lovely warm ambience. I think those attending seemed to get a lot out of the evening.’
Sharing the discussion with Margaret and Gwen was a pleasure. Listening to their life stories and writing experiences was both thought-provoking and very inspiring for me and others.
Cover image: ‘The Moment – The first glance that bonds mother to child‘ by Ron Gomboc, Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi, 2014. Ron is a western Australian sculptor who has created a series of sculptures about life cycles and family. Photo: T. Graham