Me, mum and dad

5th August 2005 at 01:00
All families have stories to tell. Adoption adds an extra emotional twist, as Victoria Neumark discovers

Family Wanted: adoption stories

Edited by Sara Holloway

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What is a family? Blood is thicker, they say, than water, love is stronger than death, the pen mightier than the sword... If all these are true, writing about families ought to be the best route to immortality. But what if the family is an adoptive one?

This eclectic set of reflections by adoptees and adoptive and birth parents runs the gamut of possibilities, from Bernard Cornwell's forthright repudiation of his harsh upbringing to Mark Wormald's joyous celebration of his pair of adopted boys. There is great drama and deep thought, as editor Sara Holloway says, but also humour and tenderness, be it Jeanette Winterson's caustic portrait of her adoptive mother or Meg Bortin's joyful tribute to her new daughter from Mali.

Such a kaleidoscope of experience opens new casements on the world inhabited by hundreds and thousands of people (nearly 6,000 people were adopted in the UK in 2003. See be they adoptees, adoptive parents or birth parents.

It used to be thought that it was better for everyone to make a clean break, that young women shamed by "illegitimate" babies should put their mistake behind them, that the babies should go on to a new life and that the last thing the new families wanted was haunting memories from the past.

And for some people, this seems to have been true. But for many others, even those, like cartoonist Martin Rowson, who feel that their adoptive family is the best possible, lingering curiosity and the pain of having been given up hang like wisps of smoke at the back of the mind.

The real parents, such as Dan Chaon's ne'er-do-well long-lost father or AM Homes's stalker mother, may disappoint, but their blood lineage is indeed strong - stronger than water? And sometimes, as in Jonathan Rendall's gothic piece, the attraction may lie well outside the expected, as its title, "Oedipus Descending", suggests.

Greater moves towards openness, the removal of stigma from births outside marriage and a tidal wave of desire to reconnect with family lineage have superseded these attitudes. Now, everyone has a right to know, and it bugs them if, like Dominic Collier, they can't find out for sure.

Pressure from adoptees in the 1960s and 1970s led to the 1976 Adoption Act, which granted permission for adopted people over 18 years old to gain access to their birth records. For parents, a contact register was set up in 1993, and the self-help group NORCAP also runs a register (

As one might expect, there are as many varieties of adoptive families as birth families and this book echoes that diversity. There are the lovely, nurturing new families, in the most unlikely shapes, such as Paula Fox's Uncle Elwood, a preacher in a southern church; or ditzy, exuberant New York writer Tama Janowitz's sleepless passion for her little Chinese daughter; or, most movingly, Martin Rowson's declaration that "my adoptive parents, my father, my mother and my stepmother, were my real 'real' parents and that what really counts is not what you are, but who you are. The rest is merely information."

There are the dysfunctional adoptive families, too: the elderly, slowly disintegrating set-up which Robert Dessaix endures, as his father declines and his mother runs mad; the terrible contrast Sandra Newman experiences between her crazed, suicidal adoptive mother and her successful birth father, a film producer; and the religious fundamentalism, underpinned by fierce denial of sexuality, which pinned down the young Bernard Cornwell and Jeanette Winterson.

This collection is a joy to read, though, because it does not just dwell on the experiences of children, as a Dickensian tradition in fiction has done, but gives space also to the voices of those who give up and take on the most precious of inheritances. Paula Fox gave up a child for adoption, having been adopted herself; Priscilla T Nagle and Wanjiru Wa Muigai speak movingly of the pressures of surrendering a child when still scarcely adult themselves; Lynn Lauber confesses that she was glad to give up her daughter but even happier to be tracked down.

With changing times, new adoptive babies in the West are as likely as not to be from the developing world, where mothers give up their children to save them from hunger, massacre, ostracism. The writer Matthew Engel has a daughter from Russia, Emily Prager, an American writer, has one from China, and Mirabele Osler's daughter is from Thailand.

These are the purest kind of love stories, stories of surrender to the charm of infant eyes, of being needed, of meeting need. And these love stories stand stoutly against the daily deaths that other children still face, in orphanages, in wars, in times of famine. Differently, though, these new parents keep the memories of birthplaces and parents alive: a better kind of immortality, perhaps?

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