I wasn’t who I thought I was, and yet I didn’t know who I was. It was interesting to realize how fragile your identity is. Even when you’re thirty-something years old, and you’ve written a bunch of books, and you think you know who you are, the reveal of a piece of information, an addition or subtraction to your known narrative, can yank it all out from under you.
A. M. Homes, recalling the experience of writing her memoir of adoption The Mistress’s Daughter
Write hard and clear about what hurts.
It was ten years ago, more or less, on a beach in New Zealand, that I first realised I was falling apart. My identity, which had already gone through several fairly challenging evolutions, was pulled away from under me and I went into freefall, completely unable to catch myself. I reached out for handholds wherever I could; from a phone box on the seafront I tried calling my parents’ home, a 12 hour time zone away. There was no answer. In despair I called a friend. No answer again. There was nothing… nobody to turn to but myself. I walked over the grey shale of the beach, gulping down childish sobs, unsure of the source of this seemingly bottomless well of grief. After I while I more or less composed myself and headed back up toward the promenade.
At that moment a voice called out to me from beneath a nearby palm tree. “Hey! How are you?”
It was a German girl from the hostel I’d been staying in. She was short, happy and nut-brown, with a pageboy haircut and an attractive snub nose. She was dressed for exercise – had been out jogging, and then had halted to stretch by the tree.
I wandered over to her, hands in my pockets, shoulders slumped in misery. “I’m OK,” I said. “Actually not so good. Bad news from home.”
She looked at me searchingly and then wordlessly reached out and held me for a long time in a hug. I broke down again. Eventually I subsided, and she turned and took my arm and together we walked back like that to the hostel. She never asked me what it was about – simply reacted by instinct. It was – still is – one of the kindest gestures I think I’ve ever encountered. I never knew her name.
I’d come to Napier purely at random. It was described as an Art Deco town, and I imagined something like Aalesund. It was pretty enough, with curling ‘30s architecture like swirls of ice cream, a palm-fringed promenade and a rather bleak and stony beach. But one evening in the hostel, idly checking my emails, I received one from a researcher in Ireland who I had contacted to try and find out more details about what had become of my birth parents. Even now I am not entirely sure why I did this; I had all the best, most rational explanations you could find, enough to satisfy the most sceptical of psychologists – to let them know I was alive and well, ostensibly – but ultimately I think it was an attempt to find the source of my inner disquiet, the crashing depressions, the sense of an absence, a hole in my life of unspoken trauma. I had everything – a loving family, an established career as a travel editor, a home in England. And yet some impetus took me off on a one way ticket as far away as I could go, and I ended up in New Zealand.
Your birth parents were called James and Mary. He was the son of a wealthy farmer in Tuam, Co. Galway, she was from a poor family in a nearby village. When her father died of cancer she was sent out to find work, and was employed as a maidservant at the farm. They were very young, teenagers, and they fell in love. When she became pregnant he went to his father and announced that he wanted to marry her. His father forbade it, and told him he could forget about ever inheriting the farm. They ran away together and took the boat to England. In Ireland abortion was illegal, and unmarried women who got pregnant were put into institutions run by the church where they were treated with appalling cruelty. After they gave birth they had their babies taken away for forcible adoption.
James and Mary arrived in London in 1973 and took a room in Kilburn. You were born in Enfield General Hospital, and spent a few minutes together with them before being taken away by the nurse and put up for adoption. They told the nurse to give you his first name and her surname.
They found work locally – he at a nearby factory, she as a cleaner in the hospital. They moved to Tottenham and in 1975 they married. They moved back to Ireland and he took over the farm (the assumption is his father passed away). They looked after his younger brother who was described as “educationally subnormal”. They were together for 11 years and then they separated. She went back to her village.
I hope this information has been of use to you. If there is anything else I can do, please let me know.
The trouble with Pandora’s Box is that when you don’t merely open the thing but actually blow it apart, those closest to you get hurt by the fallout. “We use each other like axes to cut down the ones we really love,” said Lawrence Durrell. I didn’t really understand how much at the time, or that ten years later I would still be trying to deal with it; or more accurately, blowing it apart over and over again. It was as if the constructed self of my personality was binding me too tightly – I simply couldn’t handle being me any more, whoever I was. I knew my life was valued, sacred, even – not something to be discarded lightly. And I came to realise something which years later I saw put into words:
The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my own existence. What was the point in continuing to live with this burden of misery? Why carry on with this continuous struggle? I could feel that a deep longing for annihilation, for non-existence, was now becoming much stronger than the instinctive desire to continue to live.
“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind.
Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.”
Eckhart Tolle – The Power of Now
It took Tolle some months to process what had happened to him during that dark night of the soul. He came to the conclusion that his intense suffering had caused his consciousness to withdraw from its identification with the unhappy and fearful self, which was a construct of his mind. The false self collapsed, and he achieved a state of consciousness, or sense of identity, which was somehow purer, uncontaminated by the endless noise and destructiveness of his mind.
When I first read those lines, it left me deeply shaken, because I realised that I too had undergone just such an experience – not once, but several times. I am going through it again now, in a way. Perhaps we never truly stop doing so. Some seem to live their lives in a state of blissful optimism, free of such agonising. Others perhaps resolve such issues earlier – or think that they have, and then find that they get sent back to repeat it long after they’d thought it nailed because somewhere along the line there was a crucial point missed, a lesson imperfectly learned. It’s disconcerting, and hard at times to see such challenges as gifts – moments of enlightenment which offer opportunity for growth. But it’s not a level playing field; we each have our own individual issues, different backgrounds. Never compare yourself to anyone else. Everyone’s got a story. This is mine.
The bus was entering the outskirts of a grey and rainy industrial estate. Car showrooms lined the highway, sodden flags hanging limp outside. I saw one dealership frontage marked Tuam Opel. I turned to the girl next to me and said: “Is this Tuam?”
She unplugged her earphones. “Huh?”
“Tuam. Is this Tuam?”
She smiled slightly. “Choom. Yeah, it is.” I had been saying it Twam all these years.
We entered the town centre, past rows of small shops – a florists, a pub that looked closed. A woman in her 50s was battling gusts of wind in a transparent plastic raincoat as she made her way along the pavement. There was the inevitable fortress-like church. Funeral parlour. Petrol station. So utterly banal. It looked bleak. I’m glad I’m not from here, I thought. We turned a sharp 90 degree bend and entered what looked like a housing estate, and I noticed something extraordinary. In the row of suburban semis, just like any that you might see in a London suburb, every other house was boarded up. Sometimes every third. They had plywood nailed over the windows and often graffiti across the walls. It was a dying street – evidence of the housing bubble of a decade before that had nearly brought down the whole Irish economy when it burst.
The bus stopped at the end of the road, where a couple were waiting to board. They must have been in their early 60s. He was puckish and spry, a loose strand of lank hair curling down in a forelock, wearing a beige windcheater and jeans, and he ushered his wife aboard, taking her bag. She looked tired – auburn hair going grey, a heart-shaped face now lined – an ordinary, rather dowdy Irish couple. Perhaps she had once been pretty. They settled into their seats ahead of me and I found myself studying his rather large ears. The thought occurred to me with an almost extraordinary detachment: is that James and Mary? It might well be. I felt… nothing at all. Utter dissociation.
I had often wondered – increasingly so as I aged – who I looked like. I had never seen pictures of them. We grow into our faces, as adults, the signs writ large on us of character, disposition, the mark of disappointments and griefs. But there’s also usually some shared genetic basis that can be discerned. Growing up, people had often commented on how I looked like my adoptive father, and he’d sort of give me a wink and joke about how it was the ears. But it was his way of saying, it’s deeper than that. I have, in many ways, aspects of his character that I have internalised, shared values, a kind of unspoken moral code. He’s my father. But I also had a wildness, a volatility, my fiery nature quite unlike his own. Where did that come from, I’d wonder? I had read the social worker’s reports from the adoption, the psychologist’s assessment of James and Mary. Certain lines from it stood out. “He’s quick-witted and fiery, a born rebel. Very bright, though not educated – expelled from school for refusing to learn Irish. A real live wire. If the child turns out to be anything like his father he’s going to be quite a character!”
Well now. Quite a character indeed. Did he, I also wondered – uncharitably perhaps – have a drink problem? It is a characteristic of the Irish, as many would admit. I had battled with drink before – won, lost, won again, lost again – and yet had no reason in my upbringing for it to take such a hold. My parents drank in moderation, sensibly, my father telling me that he’d been drunk perhaps twice in his life, as a student, and had felt so ghastly that he’d never wanted to feel like that again.
But drink for me was like chucking petrol on a fire – the key into the locked down emotional cage. I’d feel liberated, lighter, happier, free. But it couldn’t last. There’d be a huge flare-up, and I’d get wilder and wilder, only to quickly crash, having burned all my resources away, leaving me bereft and utterly despondent. It unleashed a monster in me, a sinister Irish alter ego (how apt the term), which was, frankly, terrifying to see, let alone to possess. I had read reports that indicated the high prevalence of alcoholism in adopted people anyway, compared to the general population – the highest still being when it transpired that one or both of the birth parents had a drink problem. The genetic link coupled with the consequent trauma of adoption – the Primal Wound, as Nancy Verrier titled her book. She went on to say:
Adoptees’ trauma occurred right after birth, so there is no ‘before trauma’ self. [They] suffered a loss that [they] can’t consciously remember and which no one else is acknowledging, but which has a tremendous impact” on their sense of self, emotional response, and worldview.
Nancy Verrier – The Primal Wound
She also noted that, even in adulthood, adoptees may unconsciously perceive the world as “unsafe and unfamiliar,” remaining in a near-perpetual state of heightened anxiety and “constant vigilance,” – something common to sufferers of PTSD. Rejection and abandonment issues, unsurprisingly, predominate. Drinking or substance abuse was a very common way of finding escape from it – the obsessive, tormenting, negative thoughts. One adopted woman in the US who got sober found that nearly half of her support group were themselves adopted; prior to that she’d only ever met a handful of people. “I don’t do relationships,” she went on to say. “I don’t know how, because I feel so completely destroyed when they end.”
Or was adoption just an excuse, a handy calamity to possess to justify bad behaviour? I knew how manipulative alcoholics could be – they could… we could… come up with any excuse to drink again, like playing mental chess against yourself where black always wins. In the endless cycle of self-doubt it was a reasonable question to ask. In my case I felt it went some way toward explaining the inexplicable – to have been sober for 16 years, so much work done, progress made, a whole new personality carved out, and yet to still have crashed off the wagon. It felt as if there had to be some deeper reason – that I had not been fully healed and happy when sober, because always there was this thing that crept up on me. At first I pinpointed it roughly to March and the onset of spring, which seemed perverse; surely autumn was the time for bouts of astonishing gloom and uncertainty? Then I read an account by a remarkable adopted woman who described her deep sadness at not knowing why she looked the way she did. There it was, in two simple lines: “Yet every year, every single goddamn year, as my birthday approaches, the thoughts find their way in, and I am filled with a plethora of emotion and wonder.”
I was born in April.
Ireland, it has to be said, does not have a happy history. There are places that have suffered, in history, where the air of trauma is almost palpable: Cambodia, South Africa, Rwanda. I felt the same of Ireland. The Famine, the years of occupation and conflict, the mass emigrations… all have taken their toll on the Irish psyche. Theories have been posited about the national character – that they… we… are a mercurial people due to the inclement weather, which can run through four seasons in a day. Quick to laugh, quick to anger, quick to tears of remorse and then back again to laughter. And perhaps there’s something in it. Perhaps too, the strictures of Catholicism, overlaid upon a deep and often brutal pagan mythology, led to this endless cycle of outburst, guilt and remorse. The Celts had sacrificed people in bogs. In more recent times many of the disappeared of the Troubles lie there still.
I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.
Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring
the memories of love.
before they punished you
Seamus Heaney – Punishment
There was something else I knew about Tuam that was on my mind as I looked out at its blustery streets. An article that I had read earlier that year, in Goa, with the egrets croaking in the palm trees outside, and the heat like an oven’s glare off the stone floor. The piece had pitched me into a cycle of mood swings lasting several days – an episode, the shrinks might call it – which was devastating yet revealing. It was in The Guardian. “Mass grave of babies and children found at Tuam care home in Ireland.” 800 skeletons of children and infants, found in a septic tank at the home, run by the Bon Secours Sisters, a Catholic religious order of nuns, who received unmarried pregnant women to give birth. The women were separated from their children, who remained elsewhere in the home, raised by nuns, until they could be adopted. Those who survived.
Eight hundred. In the sewer. In one home. As Catherine Corless, the Tuam historian who discovered the records indicating the mass grave pointed out, this was no different to other homes across Ireland. They all had the same mentality: that these women and children should be punished. The scale of this national trauma is only just beginning to be understood.
Whatever I know about James and Mary, I know they had no choice but to flee to England. They did have another choice available to them, though. Those boats were full of pregnant Irish women seeking abortions in England. Still are, in fact: abortion is still illegal in Ireland. But they made the choice to put me up for adoption. Whatever I know about them, they did the best they could in appalling circumstances, wanting what was best for me, and made, perhaps inevitably from my point of view, the right decision.
I am, incidentally, totally and utterly committed to a woman’s right to an abortion. 100% Pro-Choice.