January 2012 in Provincetown.
Ten years ago today, on New Years Day 2012, I arrived in Provincetown with the intention to write a book.
Just six weeks before, I’d learned the identity of my birthmother. Due to the insanity of adoption law, and its quirks state-by-state, I was allowed to know her name because she died. Connecticut, rather than humanizing its laws to enable easy contact between us in life, determined that the contract of confidentiality it held between us was void after one party’s death. When my birthmother’s sister called the case worker who was conducting a search for me, ostensibly to offer health information since she died so young, the case worker was obliged to call me. Finally, I knew her name.
I quickly learned she’s buried on Cape Cod. I also learned that she died ten miles from my home in Providence and that she lived a quarter-mile from me for several years (even though neither of us are from Providence originally). When I told that case worker I found that unbelievable, she replied nonchalantly, ‘It happens all the time.’ After scouring the adoption literature, I found coincidences like this are not at all uncommon. Standing over her grave, however, I recognized that any sentimentality over proximity was painfully shortsighted. Her name, etched in stone, provided no more familiarity or feeling than the recognition of any anonymous neighbor’s humanity. We may have inhabited the same space, but that offered solace to neither of us. In a sense, it’s a redoubling of our shared tragedy.
The absence of my birth parents was always a troubling void for me and, if the news of her death didn’t fill that void, the search for my origins now had a shape. I figured writing my adoption story might give it greater form. I reasoned that writing about her might be easier if I were on Cape Cod, too. Of course, that was a justification, She’s buried in Bourne, the same distance from Provincetown as from Providence. I really came here because I needed to make a break from my previous life and, most importantly, I’d wanted to live on Cape Cod since I was a child.
It took several years, but I did complete a manuscript. It’s a memoir about grief, and in retrospect it’s a convoluted mess. The premise is sound: children adopted at birth can experience deep trauma at being taken from their birthmother. Because they don’t have language to process their experience, it lives in them somatically. Invisibly. As the Queer Ecologist, Catriona Sandilands, taught me, suspended grief — the grief we’re not allowed to process — weighs heavy upon us, changing who we are. It’s a kind of gaslighting — refusing to acknowledge that your feelings are valid in order to perpetuate the cultural myths about adoption. Adoption as a form of suspended grief makes sense to me. I’ve always had a melancholy streak, and I get anxiety attacks disproportionate to the circumstance whenever my sense of security is jostled. The feeling in my body is the same I sense from screaming babies — deep, fearful, existential. I’ve made a lot of choices with the sole intention of avoiding that dread. But as Vivian Gornick has written, the situation is not the story, and my memoir tries too hard to reconcile my adopted father’s death, and the deaths of two very close gay friends, with my primal loss. I suspect I threw the kitchen sink of circumstance at the project as a way to avoid my real feelings.
I wrote on my own for a year or so, but eventually enrolled in a graduate program to complete the manuscript. Completing an MFA in Creative Writing was a good experience. Not only did I benefit from a period of self-investment and study, but I received good mentoring as a writer. When I began the program I was convinced that I as leaving the visual arts behind to become a writer. Yet life has a way of self correcting, and shortly after starting the degree I was invited by Liz Carney to show paintings at Four Eleven Gallery. That invitation has been the real transformational pivot in my creative life. Indeed, I began my graduate thesis with the line: ‘Nothing got me back to the painting studio faster than completing a degree in writing.’ That’s not the negation of writing it might appear to be. I love writing and literature, but pursuing a degree in writing forced me to accept that foremost I am a picture maker.
As a consequence of adoption trauma, I’ve become very good at performing what other people need from me. In a sense, to hold onto the sense of security I desperately needed, for most of my life I accepted that I had to play the role of my adopted parent’s un-conceived child — compromising my own needs to conform with their (unexamined) expectations. I don’t think this is true for all adopted people — indeed I know some who challenge their adopted parents at every turn as a way of establishing a sense of agency. But for me, performing my ‘goodness’ has always been my way of securing stability — no matter the cost to my integrity. While I can recognize these dynamics in me, it’s not to say that I didn’t constantly experience resentment or act in resistance. But like a bridled horse, I generally complied. Moving to Provincetown helped me to unpack these parts of my psychology, and to reinvent in accord with my aspirations. It’s not to say that I’ve conquered my trauma, but I’ve learned that I don’t have to do things that I’m good at just because I’m good at them. I don’t have to please people to feel secure. I can choose what I want to pursue and chart my course of discovery.
I started writing about my birthmother six weeks after I learned of her death because I was convinced I need to get it all down before I lost the moment. Today, I recognize that I’m barely ready to make sense of the data I collected during those heady days of discovery. I might get back to the manuscript, I might start over, or I might let the project manifest in other ways. That’s not the point. The process of pursuing the truth of my origin changed me, helped me become more honestly myself. That’s enough for a single decade.