A Bit About Me
I was born in Canada, adopted by American parents, and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. It was there that I spent the first sixteen years of my life and had many of the foundational experiences that drive my writing. I now live in Sacramento and began working on a memoir in Spring 2016 when my daughter urged me to document my extraordinary and arduous past.
Family is one of the most important things in my life. I have strong relationships my daughter, son, and grandson in addition to the daughter I was reunited with eighteen years after giving her up for adoption. I am also close to my brother and 92-year-old mother, who live nearby and have helped to fill in many of the blanks of my past. After being reunited with my biological family, I began traveling to Canada. I also make frequent visits to Anchorage, the land of my youth.
My writing focuses on identity, rebellion, self-doubt, and—most importantly—personal growth and overcoming difficult circumstances. I love to write in the early morning hours when my world is quiet and my mind is open.
Thanks so much for taking this journey with me. I’m excited about the places it will take us.
February 16, 2018
When I met a former English professor in Seattle last summer, she said to me, “Why are you writing your memoir? What has caused you to take this journey?” I didn’t have an immediate answer. Initially, I’d started writing to share my story of being adopted, meeting my biological family decades later, giving up my own child for adoption when I was 15 years old, and then being reunited with her 18 years later. When I was confronted by the professor’s question, I realized my motivation for writing had changed, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how. I just knew that my reasons were deeper than a desire to tell my life story. I suspected it had something to do with my pain.
When I was in my early 20s, I found comfort in Johnnie Walker Black and cocaine. I told myself that I was just partying, but I was really numbing my pain. I couldn’t stop thinking about my little girl, but I never cried for her—I drank and used drugs instead. I wondered, What does Mary Monica look like? Does she have straight brown hair, and will she be short like me? Mary Monica will be starting third grade this week. Mary Monica is eight years old today. Mary Monica will blow out candles at her birthday party this afternoon. I wish I could watch her open her presents. I also wondered what would happen if she died. I was her mother, but I would never know.
I named her after myself—my full name is Mary Monica Hall. I thought it might help when she began searching for me. She was sure to receive non-identifying information containing her original name, just like the information that appeared on my own adoption order. I thought she might wonder if I’d given her my name so she could find me more easily.
She was always so close, but also just out of my reach. For almost two decades, I counted the years, months, and days till I could find her. When people asked how many children I had, she was always included in my answer. As her 18th birthday approached, I began sharing my excitement with those around me. It was then that I started getting pushback from some of my friends. “What if she doesn’t want to meet you? Maybe you should wait and see if she wants to find you first.” I was angry that they weren’t more supportive. I responded indignantly and even considered purging the doubters from my Christmas card list. “No! I know she’s just like me,” I’d say. “She’ll want to find me just as much as I want to meet her. There’s not a doubt in my mind.”
I had been sober for seven years in early 1991, and my daughter would turn 18 in six months. Waiting another half a year to begin my search felt like an eternity and I couldn’t wait, so I called the adoption agency from my office cubicle. My arm shook and my heart was pounding as I brought the phone to my ear. What if they turned me down or blocked my search? I took a deep breath and explained that I wanted to get in touch with the daughter I’d given up for adoption 17½ years earlier. I was told to wait the six months and write a letter, which they would forward to her parents. If the parents approved, the agency would facilitate a reunification. What I heard was that it was all up to her parents. They might let me meet their daughter, but only if they were open to a reunification and liked what I wrote.
While I was pregnant, the nun who organized the adoption, Sister Mary Clare, told me I could write my baby a letter that her parents would keep for her, but I never did. I knew it would mean the world to her, just as it would have for me if my birthmother had written me a letter, but what could I say? I love you and I’m sorry, but I can’t keep you because I’m only 15? Everything I thought to write sounded trite and shallow. I felt powerless. My mother even gave me an example written on notebook paper to get me started, but it, too, sounded empty. In fact, I still have it, along with the pretty pink floral stationery she bought for me to write on. I kept it in the box of keepsakes from Mary Monica’s birth, right next to the pen with which I signed the adoption papers. Sadly, I never wrote that letter. It is a regret I carry to this day.
I resigned myself to waiting another six months. Then, about four weeks later, I was at work when my phone rang. It was the adoption agency. This surprised me because I hadn’t expected a call back. I was just planning to wait for six months until I had to agonize over writing yet another letter. The woman said, “I’m sorry. We’ve been so busy that we haven’t had time to get back to you, but we have a picture here.”
I was confused. “A picture of who?” I asked.
“Of a young girl…your daughter.”
When she spoke those six words, the dam broke. I lost it.
The woman told me that she would mail the photo right away. She also explained that within a few weeks of my call, my daughter and her mother had contacted the agency to start the reunification process. My daughter later told me that she wanted to get an early start in case I was hard to find and locating me took longer than six months. Just as I expected, she couldn’t wait either. (My daughter’s need for instant gratification doesn’t fall far from the tree.) For her 18th birthday, her parents sent her out to meet me. I cannot describe the joy I felt at hearing that news. I was finally going to meet my daughter.
When the adoption agency called to tell me about the photo, I was blindsided and speechless for the first time in my life. Between the sobs and snot bubbles, I managed to get out a barely audible “thank you.” Beneath the sheet of tears, I couldn’t even see the phone to hang it up. My coworkers rushed to my cubicle wondering what was wrong and who had died.
For 18 years, I hadn’t been able to cry for my daughter. The pain was too great. I had shut it off so that I could survive. When my mom and I drove away from the hospital, after we’d said goodbye to my daughter for the last time, I looked over my shoulder at the grey-and-ocean-blue walls of Providence Hospital. I had never felt such tremendous pain and grief. Eighteen years was an eternity, and the void in my chest was more than I could bear. Out of desperation, I began repeating to myself what would become my mantra: “I just won’t think about it right now, I just won’t think about it right now, I just won’t think about it right now.”
Before the birth, I told Sister Mary Clare that my baby was going to be the only person in the whole wide world who was a part of me. Just as a sunflower reaches for the sun, I needed to see her. Sister Mary Clare kindly made arrangements for me to spend time with my baby even though other birth mothers weren’t allowed that luxury. Of course, her middle toes were long, just like mine. I fought back tears and tried to be brave during those three days that I got to hold her, count her toes, smell the innocence in her warm tiny neck, and stroke her velvety soft cheeks with the back of my finger. She cooed and smiled at me. She knew I was her mother.
On the day I expected my daughter’s picture to arrive, I rushed home from work during my lunch break. I pulled the envelope from the mailbox and settled into a chair on my sunlit porch among the baskets of pink begonias and rose bushes. My heart was pounding. I felt queasy and held my breath. I paused in reverence as I held the envelope in my trembling hand, absorbing the warm spring air and the sweet fragrance of blooming roses. I carefully took the photo from the envelope and gazed at my daughter’s full-grown face for the first time. She sat leaning to one side, posing in a professional full-length photograph taken to commemorate her high school graduation. It was the weirdest feeling. I felt like I was looking at someone familiar—someone I knew. I felt like I was looking at myself. I was flooded with relief and elation to finally see her face and was awed at how much she looked like me. It was surreal. I raced inside to call my mom and share my excitement.
After waiting for what felt like a lifetime, I finally met my daughter in person a few months later. She was close to my spitting image, same height, potty-mouth, crooked teeth and all. Like me, she grew up in a very conservative Catholic family—and like me, she is anything but conservative. Her mother once told me that she’d always thought nurture triumphed over nature—that people’s development is determined 80% by their environment and 20% by genetics. That was before all three of her adopted daughters were reunited with their birth moms. Now, she’s convinced it’s the other way around.
Initially, I thought my memoir was about my adoption stories, reunifications, and crazy years growing up in Alaska. But after writing for more than a year, I realized that I might be writing to find myself and heal my pain. If I were to write it all down and dissect every little piece of my seemingly screwed-up life, maybe I would understand why. Why what? Why all this crazy shit happened? What it all meant?
While writing my memoir, I tried to remind myself of the things I have heard over the years, like “everything happens for a reason” and “there are no mistakes.” For decades, I have had the sense that the seemingly bad things in my life were preparing me for something. I just didn’t know what. When I began writing two years ago, the call to investigate my past bordered on obsession. Once I began scraping the bottom of my memories, I couldn’t stop. I kept with it even when I considered giving up writing altogether because I questioned my sanity at dredging up so many painful experiences. Through writing it all out and investigating the torrid details, which triggered depression and weight gain, I have arrived at a place where I can forgive my younger self. My guilt and shame has been replaced with compassion and gratitude.
My daughter’s parents named her Mary Claire after the nun who handled her adoption, so she shares my first name. She is now approaching 45. That tiny olive-toned baby girl has blossomed into a beautiful woman and a loving mother. She gratefully accepts the kindred relationship we have and the wisdom I am able to share. This brings my life full circle. Had I not gone through all that pain, I wouldn’t be able to experience the immense joy of knowing her and watching her life unfold. As a fifteen-year-old girl, I couldn’t have realized that my sacrifice and pain would lead to strength, character, and wisdom. I did the right thing. I gave my daughter a better life, just as my birth mother had done for me. Because of this, I know in my bones that the cliché is true—everything does happen for a reason.
December 31, 2017
Even when I was young, I was compelled to know my biological family, a quality that is absent in many of the adopted people I know. It makes me wonder if my aboriginal Cree ancestry has something to do with my deep need to understand my roots. The Cree were a nomadic people who traveled and lived together and had a deep bond with their extended families—unlike my adopted family. We were isolated and living in Alaska, far away from California, the birthplace of my adopted parents and their limited smattering of relations. I had no link to grandparents, cousins, or the place I called “home.” I loved my adopted family, but I craved a connection to something bigger—something Florence and Howard Hall couldn’t provide.
I was 22 when I joined the Adoptee Liberty Movement Association (ALMA) and began searching for my birth parents. It was a time before the Internet, open adoption records, and open minds. My original birth certificate was sealed and I was incensed to be denied my birthright, the most basic of human rights and the truth of my origin. Still, I knew I had been adopted from a foster home in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada when I was three-and-a-half months old. That was something. I also had access to my adoption order, which listed my original name—the name my birth mother gave me. The name she spoke with her lips, the name she wrote on that paper with her own hand. I was Gloria Debra Reed.
At the time of my adoption, my parents were given a document containing non-identifying information about my birth parents. That document was the only thing that tethered me to my origin. From it, I learned that my birth mother was a member of a large Catholic family and had six brothers (but no sisters). It stated that her heritage was Irish—something I later found to be untrue—and my birth father was French, also untrue. Since Reed wasn’t a French surname, I concluded that my mother was unmarried at the time of my birth.
After countless dead-ends, I contacted the Edmonton library to obtain the phone book listings. I hoped that one of my birth mother’s brothers might remain in Edmonton. I called each Reed with a made-up story; I didn’t want to cause problems for her family in case my birth and adoption were a secret. I also worried that one of the family members would provide misinformation and block me from finding my birth mother
“Hello, I’m Monica Hall calling from California. I’m doing genealogy research. My grandfather told me that I have some distant relatives in Edmonton with the last name of Reed. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” All the responses were positive, so I continued. “My grandfather told me that the Reeds are Catholic and there were six boys and one girl in the family. They would be somewhere in their 50s now. Are you from that family? Or do you know of that family?” Without exception, each person I spoke to was welcoming and helpful—but not one of them was related to my birth mother.
I had called all of the Reeds listed in the Edmonton phone book that morning, approximately 60 in all, but some of the calls weren’t answered. In the evening, I once again dialed the numbers. I was standing in my bedroom with the phone pressed to my ear when I heard my uncle’s voice for the first time. “Yah, yah,” he said. “There are six boys and one girl in our family.” My heart raced and my whole body trembled because I knew I was talking to my flesh-and-blood uncle. He had company and needed to cut the conversation short, but he told me to call back in a few days.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Anxiously, I lay awake as every possible scenario crop-dusted my mind. Would my uncle deny my birth? Would I soon hear my mother’s voice? What did she look like? Did I resemble her? Was she happy? Would she cry when she found out I’d contacted her brother? Had she told her family about me?
I called him back the very next evening. After a brief chit-chat, I said, “Pat, I haven’t been completely honest with you.”
“Does the name Gloria Debra Reed mean anything to you?”
He paused a moment and then said, “No.”
“Well, I’m Gloria Debra Reed, and with all the information you’ve given me, I have reason to believe that your sister Ida is my natural mother. I was given up for adoption.”
Silence. My heart was in my throat. He said nothing for a few moments, and then, “Hold on.” I later found out that he had set the phone down to ask his wife if she knew anything about my birth. As I waited, questions raced through my mind. Where did he go? What is he doing? Is he running away? Is he thinking of a lie? My birth mother was so close. She couldn’t slip away from me now.
After what seemed like an eternity, he came back to the phone. In a matter-of-fact way, and with a playful rhyming cadence, he said, “Evidently…I’m your uncle.” I had never felt so elated in my whole life. Nothing compared to the feeling of knowing my birth mother was in sight.
For years, I had yearned to talk with her. I had dreamt of meeting her and asking questions—most importantly, why? But my uncle told me it wouldn’t be possible. She had passed away from a brain aneurysm when she was 30, leaving behind my three young siblings.
The first of many visits to Canada quickly ensued, and I discovered a clan of family that had settled around Lac Ste. Anne (first called Manitou Sakhahigan, Lake of the Spirit) in the 1880s. That was a time when the government and province gave aboriginal people a bit of money and land to relinquish their native rights. My great grandparents, Kohkom and Mosom (Cree for “grandmother” and “grandfather”), had settled on 160 acres. The land is still in the family, and there are annual reunions on that property, complete with a tepee.
My birth father’s family had settled on the other side of the same lake, and every year 30 to 40 thousand aboriginal people travel from all across North America to attend the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage for spiritual and cultural rejuvenation, and for the healing contained in the lake’s waters. This event happens to fall on my birthday.
I knew I belonged the instant I met my family and the moment my feet hit the ground where my ancestors had walked. The connection was immediate—I was home. I soon learned that, like me, my birth mother loved fashion. She was also gregarious and generous. And she had wanted desperately to keep me. I also learned that she thought no one would want to adopt me if she revealed my aboriginal heritage because of the intense racism and prejudice during that time. Shortly after she gave me up, she met the man she would marry and then tried to get me back—but I was out of her reach. Her husband told me that she cried herself to sleep every night, pining for me until she died.
When I picture my birth mother grieving for me during those few years before she died, I can feel her pain because I had given my own daughter up for adoption when I was fifteen years old. Before I was reunited with my daughter, I often wondered if she was OK. When she was little, I feared that I would never know if she died or if something bad happened to her. Many times, I saw children playing in a schoolyard and wondered if my daughter was among them. On her birthdays, I always sat in a dark place and concentrated, sending her love, knowing that we could somehow connect through the ether. I knew she would be thinking about her birth mother on her birthday, just like I thought about my birth mother on my own birthdays.
It’s interesting to anylyze the fathers I picked for the two children that I got to keep. Becca’s father has seven siblings and Quin’s father has five. It’s as if I subconsciously picked men with large families so my daughter and son would have the connection that I hungered for. Reunifying with my birth family filled a huge portion of that hole, but it also created a different kind of emptiness. There are no words for the deep ache and longing I feel when I see my birth family’s Facebook posts, photos and text depicting events that I am absent from. That emptiness will never be totally filled; it’s not in my destiny. My home is here in Sacramento with my adopted family, my two children, and my grandson. I could never leave them, and I wouldn’t want to.
I was reunited with Mary Claire, the daughter I gave up for adoption, when she turned 18. During one of her visits, I slipped out of the house for a late-night walk while the kids were asleep. The air was brisk and cool on my cheeks, the moon was bright, and the streets were still. But something felt odd. It was a feeling of warmth and peace, something I had never experienced before. I felt complete, like the last puzzle piece had clicked into place. All my babies were safely under my roof. I hadn’t even recognized that particular emptiness until it was filled. I had lived with that hole for so long it had become normal.Mary Claire is now 44, has two daughters, and lives over 2000 miles away from me. She longs for her birth mother just as I do. She called me the other day when she was emotional and needed some advice. She said, “I wish I could just come over for a cup of coffee.”
Nine years ago, we took the trip of a lifetime to the land of my roots. It was a dream come true. I traveled with my three children. Mary Claire was even brought her two-year-old daughter. We were also with my birth mother’s daughter, Sharon, my life-and-blood sister.
We attended the Pilgrimage and met many of my birth father’s relations. Standing out amidst the throngs of pilgrims, I’ll never forget the glow of pride and joy on his face as he guided us into the lake for a blessing. Later, we traveled to the other side of the lake and visited Kohkom and Mosom’s farm, where my siblings had run barefoot, spoken Cree, and spent their early childhoods surrounded by aunties, uncles, and cousins.
I stood in the middle of the meadow that July afternoon, surrounded by birch, alder, and poplar trees, amongst the tall, translucent blades of grass as they waved in the breeze. It was as if my ancestors were welcoming me home. In the middle of the clearing were the old well and the dilapidated home that had once been a place of music, dancing, and laughter. I collected pieces of the flowered linoleum that my ancestors had danced on and scraps of wallpaper that whispered their songs. I also collected pieces of wood from the house and wildflowers from the land. I later pressed them between pages of a book about the area’s history.
That day, in the warm summer breeze, I stood perfectly still while the meadow’s fresh scent kissed my face and enveloped me in the perfect moment. The sound of my children and granddaughter’s laughter as they bounded through the tall grass filled me with peace. All the missing parts were in one place. I knew I was finally at home. I was complete.
November 25, 2017
A few months ago, I was going through a box of keepsakes from 1973—the year I gave my baby up for adoption. Inside were the treasures I carted first from Alaska to California and then through eleven additional moves over the last 44 years.
I pulled from the box the pen I’d used to sign the adoption papers, a vintage-looking hospital pregnancy food menu, my patient wristband, and Catholic holy cards that the sweet little French nun had brought every time she visited my hospital room. There were also greeting cards from my parents, brother, best friend, and the nosey and judgmental Catholic neighbor lady who I’d hoped wouldn’t find out about my pregnancy. I wondered what ran through their minds when picking out a card. Congratulations weren’t in order, nor were “Get Well Soon” wishes. “Our Condolences” would have been more apropos, but no one had the guts to give me that card.
My 12-year-old brother’s card featured a seagull’s silhouette, maybe reminiscent of the then-best-selling book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The bird covered the large card’s entire front and was positioned against a background of emerald green with a smattering of sunlight sparkles dancing on the jeweled water. Inside the card was printed, “Miss You.” Beneath it, he wrote, “From Tim.” My sweet and mostly adoring little brother was torn apart by me giving up the baby. He stood at the nursery window for hours and talked to all the parents and visitors that came by, providing commentary about each baby. He wanted me to bring mine home; was inconsolable, my mom said; promised to babysit.
There was also the card from my mom. It was white and had a tasteful and artsy line etching of a sleeping baby in a flowing gown on its front. It was titled, “An Unspeakable Joy.” Inside, it said, “Your brand-new baby….” The card was signed, “From her loving grandmother.” My artist mom may have thought she picked it for the lovely drawing, but I wonder if it was also a subconscious choice. It had been, after all, an unspeakable pregnancy.
I hadn’t received a card from Paula, my childhood best friend. Our houses were so close that we once strung a makeshift phone between our bedroom windows. It was made of string with cans attached to each end. Our families had been friends since Paula and I were two, even before we lived next door to one another. Her family was also Catholic and very involved in the church, just like we were.
When I was a teen, Paula told me that her mother hated me (probably more like a deep disapproval) and thought I’d had something to do with stealing and vandalizing their camper. She also blamed me for every little trouble Paula got into, which wasn’t much next to my shenanigans. I was a shit of an adolescent and probably deserved her condemnation, but I’d had nothing to do with the camper. By the time I got pregnant, Paula and I rarely hung out because I was off with my “bad” friends. Because of the unfounded accusations, Paula’s mom was the one person who I didn’t want to know about my pregnancy.
Even though I was a juvenile delinquent, I had valued my virginity. Virginity was like a torch in my family—or at least it appeared that way. When Mom wasn’t around, Daddy would say things to my brother and I like, “Mama was a virgin. She is a saint. I couldn’t even get her in the sack till we were married.” Virginity, sainthood, and Mama were synonymous, and they were clearly the ideal.
Paula later told me that when her mom found out I’d given birth and was giving the baby up for adoption, she’d said, “It’s too bad for the baby.” For more than four decades, I haven’t been able to forgive her for that. What was too bad? That my baby was born? That she was going to be with a wonderful loving family? And what did that say about Tim and me? We had been adopted, too. Was it “too bad” we had been born? Was it “too bad” that we had been adopted? I pictured Paula’s mom—my judgmental neighbor—shaking her head in reproach while standing in front of the card rack, picking through as if she was removing lint from an unkempt sweater.
It wasn’t until that day a few months ago, going through the box of keepsakes, that I saw her card for the very first time. The front showed a charcoal sketch of forget-me-not flowers and was paired with an Abe Lincoln quote: “The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.”
Inside, she wrote,
We truly respect you for the heartache you have had to accept.
May God bless you always,
The Winton family
Seeing that card kinda took the wind out of my sails. How could I have missed it?
I moved away from Alaska soon after giving birth, but I have remained in contact with Paula over the last four decades. Every five years or so, we have a phone call to catch up. During our conversations, I always ask if her mom still feels the same way about me. Paula has conveyed that I turned out to be a good mother and person, but her mom never stopped disapproving of me.
Over the years, I’ve realized that I wanted Paula’s mom to love me like she had when I was the talkative little second grader who felt enough at home to walk through the front door without knocking. I wanted her to love the same girl about whom she teased, “Mary Monica could never be a Carmelite Nun.” (I was too chatty to take a vow of silence.) Because I was so deeply hurt by her comment about my baby and the dislike and judgment she had for me, my heart formed a protective crust of bitterness and resentment. But after discovering that card, I began to envision a different story.
I couldn’t be deeply hurt by someone I didn’t care about, nor could she have expressed such compassion in that card without caring about me in return. I began to wonder if her feelings toward me may have come from a place of fear: If this could happen to the sweet Mary Monica I knew and loved, then this could happen to my child. Maybe she was projecting a fear of inadequate parenting onto me. After all, if my “saintly mother,” her old friend and neighbor, could raise a child like me, then couldn’t it also happen to her? Or perhaps it came from something from her childhood—a trauma or belief system she had in place. Or maybe she was just pissed because she thought I stole her damn camper.
While thinking about all of this, I came to the conclusion that nothing is really how it seems. Our anger, judgment, and resentment comes from within and has nothing to do with the person we direct it at. Had I opened that box years before, I doubt I would have had the ability to look at the deeper meaning of these things. Forgiveness was always right there where I left it—sitting in that box, patiently waiting to be found.
Twenty-six years have passed since I was reunited with the daughter I gave up for adoption. Even though we have a close and wonderful relationship, I have avoided reflecting on the time surrounding the pregnancy, birth, and adoption. For 44 years, I also hauled around the journals that my mom and I wrote in during that time. Over the years, I’ve known that I should give them a read, but I couldn’t bring myself to open them until recently. Maybe I’d been avoiding them for the same reason that I failed to notice the sweet card from my neighbor lady. Examining that time in my life held too much sorrow. It was just too dark inside Pandora’s Box.
While digging deeper into the box, past the pen, wristband, greeting cards, and other mementos, my eye caught on Sister Clare’s business card. The plain white card was stuck under the flap of the cardboard box. She was the sweet nun at Catholic Charities Adoption Services who counseled me and found parents for my baby. My mom took me to see her every week during my pregnancy. I made a mental note to drive by the old building when I visited Anchorage a few months later.
During my trip, I first cruised my rental car past the houses I’d lived in, getting a feel for my beloved town. There is something magical about Anchorage in the summertime with its majestic crown of mountains bordering the city, its cool, fresh air, and its lush midnight sun vegetation. “There is no place like home” kept ringing in my ears. Even though I only lived there for sixteen years, I’d felt called to return throughout my life to search for something I couldn’t define.
I didn’t have the address for the old Catholic Charities building and I hadn’t brought Sister Clare’s card with me. I used my phone to search for the map and navigation, and when I did, a phone number also popped up. As the phone rang, I wondered why I was calling since I’d found directions to get there. I told the receptionist that I’d given a baby up for adoption 44 years earlier and wondered if I could visit the office building to look inside. Minutes later, I received a call back. Lisa, the director, was completely and totally gracious, even honored to talk to me. She said she would love to meet me and told me to come right over. She also thanked me and told me what an incredible woman I was.
I was embarrassed by her praise. A part of me must have still felt shame for the pregnancy and having to give my baby up for adoption. I expected that I would be interrupting by showing up in the office—I certainly didn’t imagine that I would be treated like a visiting dignitary. I was completely taken aback by Lisa’s eagerness to accommodate my visit. As I sat across the table from her, it hit me that maybe this was the moment that I had been searching for on my many trips to Anchorage and through all the decades of toting around my keepsakes and journals.
“You are only as sick as your secrets” is a saying I’ve heard quite a bit, and I had kept my share of secrets over the decades. My mother had taken me to Catholic Charities for weekly counseling sessions to help me, but they weren’t as effective as they could have been because I never told Sister Clare what was really going on. I wasted an hour each week with meaningless chitchat and told her only what I thought she wanted to hear. I don’t remember much about what I said during those sessions. The only thing I truly recall was the lie I told her about my baby’s parentage. I said that I had heavy-petted with a boy who ejaculated on my thigh. I was still a virgin, I said—a lie that she seemed to buy.
I didn’t tell Sister Clare that the pregnancy was the result of being raped when I was a virgin. Or that I was afraid Paula’s mom would find out and have confirmation that I was the slut and horrible girl she perceived me to be. I didn’t say that my dad had abused me in a hideous wire hanger beating, or that when I was 13 he’d raged at me about the disgusting things sluts and whores do and how he loathed and despised that kind of women—said this as if I was one of them, said things a young girl should never hear (especially from her father). I didn’t tell her that being adopted myself, the only person in the world who would be a part of me was the baby she and my parents wanted me to give up for adoption.
Lisa, the present-day Catholic Charities director, was roughly the same age as the daughter I’d given up. She sat across the table from me with compassionate light blue eyes and short brown hair. Her voice was gentle and kind. At first, I wondered if it was contrived and practiced, like a funeral director’s, but as I poured out the things that I should have told Sister Clare 44 years earlier, tears pooled in her eyes. She was just the angel I needed in that perfect moment.
I finally understood the reason I hadn’t been able to let go of the journals and the box of keepsakes. I had been subconsciously waiting—or maybe something greater than myself was grooming me for this healing. I was finally at a place in my life where I could face the pain from my past and let it go. As I spoke, I could feel that something wonderful was happening. My regret rose like a flock of doves lifting a heavy robe from my shoulders. I realized that I needed to tell the truth—not just to my friends or in my memoir, but in the setting of the adoption agency. I was doing what I didn’t have the courage to do at 15. I had shown a brave face back then, but I was really just a scared little girl all alone with her shameful secrets.
October 7, 2017
There is a saying that “beauty is wasted on the young.” This is so true. Over the years, I’ve looked back at old photos of myself from a time when I thought I was too fat, short, crooked-toothed, thick-waisted. Holy crap—I was gorgeous! Even now, when I look back at photos from four years ago, when I was a size 6 and at least three bra sizes smaller, I think, “Damn! What was I complaining about?”
My beautiful thirtyish daughter is going through something similar right now. She had a baby 17 months ago. Disappointed that she doesn’t look the way she did before her pregnancy, she has recently been bemoaning her perceived “mom body.” Maybe the fear of being outdated and out of shape is a universal phenomenon among new mothers, or possibly it’s hereditary, because it sure plagued the hell out of me.
I was 26 when I gave birth to that daughter. She weighed in at 10 pounds 14.5 ounces, and when I stacked her up next to her Cabbage Patch doll, they matched like a couple of book ends. Not knowing I had developed gestational diabetes, I gained 50 pounds during my pregnancy. The weight hijacked my face, leaving me looking like a squirrel with nuts packed away in its cheeks. Not only that, but my ankles were as thick as piano legs. Yes, I developed kankles.
I felt miserable and invisible, and I needed a quick fix. My hairstylist was a former roommate and a good friend, and he assured me that all I needed was a fresh, new, un-mommy hairstyle. I have always been a slave to fashion, and—I’m reluctant to say—also a bit vain. I was feeling immensely fat and frumpy, so the thought of looking cute again was exciting. All I needed was a new ’do. I was clearly under the delusion that a simple new hairstyle would fix me.
My First Nations heritage meant that I was born with dark, straight-as-a-string hair that lacks even a hint of a bend or cowlick. It was the mid-’80s, when spiked hair was in vogue. My friend had been my hairstylist for years, and I trusted that he knew what he was doing. Excited to be fashionable again, I let him go to town, but to my utter horror, he cut off my entire perm and gave me a short punk style that accentuated my squirrel cheeks. Pat Benatar meets Mama Cass.
I had an appointment for my new baby’s first checkup the following morning. I jumped out of the shower and attempted to spike my bangs with gel, like my friend had done at the salon.
I was mortified by the result.
There in the mirror was my high forehead jutting skyward beneath a wall of hair that shot straight up, like a rocky cliff on a sandy beach. I panicked. I was going to be late if I tried to fix it. My only other option was to wet it down and go to the doctor with my hair plastered to my head like a drowned rat. I opted for the sheer cliff look.
I entered Kaiser Hospital and went straight to the appointment without making any eye contact. I went up the elevator and down the long hall to the doctor’s office, cursing my former friend under my breath and hoping I didn’t see anyone I knew. I felt the stares on the back of my neck like a cool breeze.
My embarrassment reminded me of a similar humiliating experience from a few weeks before. I had been getting situated in the hospital room I was to share with three other new mommies. My husband was sitting just outside the door when one of the mothers rushed into the room gushing like she had just spotted Jon Bon Jovi. She looked at her friends and said, “Who’s that hot guy sitting in the hall?”
“That’s my husband,” I said.
All incredulous eyes turned to me. They didn’t believe that I, the bloated one, could have such a good-looking husband.
The witch said, “That’s your husband?”
They had completely ignored me when I’d entered the hospital room about 10 minutes earlier. It was obvious that they had already formed a new mommy click and I was an unwelcome addition. They didn’t want anything to do with me—that is, until they spied my husband. I felt like Cinderella, being shunned by the homely stepsisters who assumed I would never have a chance at the handsome prince. I wanted to say, “If you had only seen me nine months ago, bitches!” But really, I was just humiliated. I kept my head down and said nothing.
I drove home from my baby’s check-up, bangs still sky-high, in what was probably the ugliest car on the planet at the time, an AMC Spirit. (Its only competition might have been the AMC Pacer.) Not only did it look like a space ship, but it was also beige, the color of an anemic mannequin—the most uncool color known to automobiles. I was sitting at a traffic light, probably thinking about how stupid my hair looked, when I heard and felt a ping as an empty pop can bounced off my car and rolled across my hood.
At first I paid no attention. Then I heard yelling. “Hey you! Ugly!” There was another ambush of pop cans and laughter. I looked over my shoulder. Behind the vehicle next to me was a car full of teenage boys hanging out the windows and yelling, “Yeah, you! Ugly!”
They were yelling at me! I was incensed. How dare they, the little bastards. I’d been a babe just a few months earlier. If they’d seen me then, they would have been gawking instead of mocking my space mobile and Joan Jett impersonation.
I raced home and called the police because a serious crime had been committed. A very understanding highway patrol officer came to the house, where I explained that I had been assaulted and insulted. I can imagine how hard it must have been for him to keep a straight face while looking at me in all my gel and indignation.
“They called me ugly!”
He kindly agreed that it was wrong for the teenagers to throw cans at my car, but it didn’t go much further than that. After I gave him the plate number, what else could he do but assure me that he would call the little pricks’ parents? But I think that he really did pity me. After all, I had a new baby and I was ugly.
August 28, 2017
One of my coworkers is a middle-aged screenwriter, a former sports editor, and a nice enough guy with a dry sense of humor and sarcastic wit. Let’s call him Ben. Great life, great wife. You know the type. During the fifteen years that we’ve worked out of the same branch office, we’ve chatted a number of times. When I began writing my memoir, I approached him for his take on the whole writing thing.
We sat in the lobby of our office building, a crown of skylights overhead, cool ceramic tile floor at our feet, and rays of sunlight streaming in on the leather couch where we sat. Ben had just read an early draft of my essay “A Lousy Lay,” which is about being raped as a fifteen-year-old virgin and will eventually become a chapter in my book-length memoir. I was anxious to hear if he thought I had potential as a writer.
Ben looked directly into my eyes, as if he was seeing me for the first time. He said, in a seriously concerned voice, “Have you had therapy for this?” It wasn’t his words that hurt but the way that he looked at me—not so much with pity but as if I was the victim of a debilitating internal burn, like I was permanently scarred on the inside. His eyes showed me how “normal” people view those of us who have experienced violent trauma and messy pasts.
Or was it just my imagined perception, filtered through a thin veil of shame, that made me see it that way? Regardless, I was embarrassed by his concern. I had never felt like a victim; if anything, I blamed myself for the rape. My ego didn’t want his pity—or was it compassion? I couldn’t tell. I felt like I had scabies. I wanted to say, “Oh no, it’s not contagious. I’m OK. What you read on the page, that thing, it didn’t really hurt me.”
Ben didn’t know that I had been unable to see the truth until I put my words onto the page. Through writing, I let go of the lies my emotions had told me and I finally saw the raw facts about the rape. Once I started writing, I saw that shame had been hovering in my subconscious, influencing many of my life decisions.
Over the following months, I wondered why my feelings about that conversation kept nagging at me. Eventually, I realized that what I’d seen in Ben’s eyes was true: I had been scarred by my rape. Anyone would have been. I just didn’t want to admit it.
For decades after the rape, my egocentric mind kept saying, “No, I’ve got this.” I’d pressed on with my life, proving to everyone else—and to myself—that I was OK. I’ve had a lot of success, and on the surface, it seems as if I’ve always had my life together. That’s the image I’ve presented to the world. But I saw from Ben’s look that he had a different assessment.
I assured him that of course I’ve had therapy. “You know,” I said, “it was 43 years ago.” But I didn’t tell him that my therapy had been for the other difficult stuff that I’d experienced, not for the rape. How could I? I already felt like a freak.
Months later, I consulted with Ben again, this time about starting a blog. He agreed that it was a great idea for a new writer to build a following, and he shared one of his favorite blogs with me. It was raw, funny, and slightly vulgar. Weeks earlier, he had read another piece I had written; it was also in a funny, vulgar vein but not a part of my memoir. He said, “You can call your new blog My Crazy Fucked Up Life!”
My immediate thought was, “Ouch.” The next thought was, “You don’t get it. It’s My Beautiful Fucked Up Life.” It’s because of all the shit, the muck, the sludge that I am who I am. Not because I survived it, but because I somehow emerged from it with compassion for myself and others who are seemingly damaged goods. My wonderful mom said it best: “From cesspools and slimy things come beautiful flowers.
July 2, 2017
OK, I’m going to tell on myself. Something has been on my mind all week, eliciting a cringe every time I think about it.
We’ve all known people who go on and on about the drama in their lives, getting so wound up in talking about it that it makes you wish you could pole vault into another state to get away from them. I don’t ever want to be that person. Unfortunately, I have been that person—as recently as this week.
When I was at my favorite lunch spot, I ran into a woman who had been my neighbor twenty years ago. She is one of those artsy, slightly reserved, seemingly grounded, natural types. In other words, my neighbor is my complete opposite. She holds workshops and art classes for Empowerment and Freedom Through Emotional Healing in her home, for Christ’s sake. We quickly caught up with the “what are your kids up to?” pleasantries. I asked her questions about her life because I was genuinely interested, but then she made the mistake of asking me what I’ve been doing.
If you’ve been reading my recent blog posts, you know that I’ve been working on a memoir that includes a chapter about being the victim of an abduction attempt when I was fifteen, an event that followed right on the heels of my rape. I have rewritten it about eight different ways during the past year, dissecting and investigating what happened, approaching it from all different angles in an attempt to discover who my abductor was and what he planned to do with me.
So basically, I’ve been in obsession mode for the better part of a year. While speaking with my old neighbor, I started out in a slow roll, telling her about writing my memoir—and, of course, the abduction chapter. I felt the wheels of obsession gaining momentum, but I ignored them. It wasn’t until I was knee deep in the drama that I caught a glimpse of panic in her eyes. It might have been there for a while, but I don’t know for sure because I was too busy talking.
Horrified that I’d become that person, I quickly snapped out of it, muttered that I probably needed her services, and asked for her business card while I tried to excuse myself without further invading her personal space and increasing my humiliation. I can’t clear from my mind the image of her slowly opening her purse, retrieving her card, and handing it over like she was parting with a winning lottery ticket.
I hoped to never run into her again.
But then I called her. I learned decades ago that if someone or something is bothering me, I should write about it and examine my role in the situation. Where was I at fault? Did I owe her an apology? Ugh.
To my surprise, my neighbor sounded genuinely happy to hear from me and was very sweet. (She may have been hoping I would sign up for her Cellular Release Therapy.) I apologized for invading her space and she assured me that it was fine, not to worry about it, that she had just been distracted at the restaurant.
At first, I wondered why I cared so much about what she thought. I hadn’t seen her in twenty years and we had never been close. But, after spending this last year writing, I’ve learned that what I feel influences what I think, which in turn changes what I feel. My feelings are then overlaid with a myriad of invisible layers of crap, most of which have no basis in reality. There is a well-known saying: “Don’t believe everything you think.” I think I should practice that more often.
When thinking about the incident with my neighbor, I searched through twenty years of my memory banks and wondered why my perceived intrusion on her personal space bothered me so much.
I recognized that the judgment I felt from her at the restaurant was familiar. I recalled that I hadn’t liked her twenty years ago and had felt judged by her even back then, but I couldn’t remember why at first. A while later, I remembered that my then-twelve-year-old daughter and I had taken a Coming of Age workshop from our neighbor, complete with a moon circle and the crafting of medicine bags. It was in that setting that my daughter revealed some of her painful personal history. I also flashed on another incident—my neighbor didn’t want her kids, particularly her son, to play with my daughter based on that personal history. Never mind that her son was the same little shit who shot my darling angel in the leg with a BB gun. This all happened during my Birkenstock and hairy-leg years. Maybe that’s why it initially slipped my memory. It’s no wonder I hadn’t liked this woman. I realize that she is probably a nice enough lady and that I may very well need her Cellular Release Therapy, but I won’t be calling her any time soon.
I know that self-awareness is a good thing. As I write and revise, I peel back the flaky skin of the onion to reveal what may turn out to be a sweeter onion, like those Vidalia onions that you can eat raw. The onions that don’t make you cry when you chop them up and put them in the quesadilla you’re about to eat because your now-adult daughter has put you on a diet to help you lose the twenty pounds you gained while writing your memoir and the only things left in your fridge are two corn tortillas and some Parmesan cheese. And maybe an onion.
June 17, 2017
Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I’m pretty much an open book. That’s what I thought, too—until I started writing my memoir.
I’ve told my kids many crazy, entertaining stories from my past, but I’ve also told them about some of the bad things that happened to me when I was a teen. Initially, it was my daughter who urged me to write my memoir. I have kept a journal on and off since I was twelve, and I’d published some industry papers in my entrepreneurial years, but never had I considered writing a book, least of all a memoir. Even so, my daughter insisted that my life would make fascinating reading. I thought, how hard can it be?
I began writing and almost immediately felt an urge, like the bearing-down pains of childbirth. This story wanted—needed—to come out, and nothing was going to stop it. As I wrote, I discovered that some memories stay buried for a reason.
I had been working on the memoir for almost a year when, through a series of seemingly unrelated events, I happened upon a developmental editor, Signe Jorgenson, who earned her master’s degree in Anchorage, Alaska, where I grew up and where much of my memoir is based. She lived there many years after the wild oil boom that was the backdrop for my eventful childhood and teenage years, but she had heard the stories.
I’d been told that if I wanted to publish my memoir, I should create a few standalone pieces and submit them to magazines and literary journals so I could accumulate some publishing credits and develop an audience for my work. I wasn’t quite sure how to do this, so I sent my editor one of the more difficult and painful chapters, the one about the 1972 rape that I had kept secret for fifteen years, and worked with her to turn it into an essay.
Working on the essay was like therapy, only deeper. I did about five revisions, each of which was met with six or more pages of developmental notes and a corresponding annotated version of my manuscript. I once asked my editor if she had a background in psychotherapy. She didn’t, but because of her training and years of teaching writing, she knew the deeper questions to ask. An example: When I wrote, “I hung my head in shame,” she asked me to write about why I was feeling shame. Strangely enough, the why had never occurred to me. Deeper and deeper I dug, uncovering memories that I had buried in my subconscious for decades.
My meditation practice, spiritual connection, family, and recovery friends were not enough to get me through this process. I quit drinking thirty-three years ago and I don’t take medications. Instead, I ate many, many times when I wasn’t physically hungry while working on this essay. I knew what I was doing as I sat on the couch with a fat bag of chips, temporarily numbing my pain, but I did it anyway. I would tell myself, “It’s OK. You’ll get a handle on the eating and lose the twenty pounds when you finish the essay.”
Memories are funny things. When I began writing about my rape, I still felt the shame and guilt I had felt when I was a fifteen-year-old girl. I was transported back to that time and place, and to that mindset. I would write my memories and then talk them over with my sweet 91-year-old mom, then write some more. Once I had it all on paper, every single detail of that night, from what the room looked like to the way my rapist smelled and the words he used to shame me, my mom walked me through it from an adult’s perspective.
Gradually, I began to see the rape with my grown-up mind and not my fifteen-year-old feelings. I discovered that I had never directed the blame, rage, and judgment toward the perpetrator. I had placed it all on myself, the victim.
I doubt that I will ever mend completely, but the writing and revision processes have allowed me to gain a much deeper level of healing. I’ve also found compassion for the fifteen-year-old girl who was forced to grow up way too fast.
Now I’m at work on another essay, this one about an abduction attempt that occurred just months after I was raped. I’m going through that same process of mining my memories and reconciling my teenage perspective with my adult understanding. But this time, I am not eating my way through it.