Monday, June 25, 2007

A Daughter, a Mother and Her Mother's Married Lover

The Mistress's Daughter by A.M. Homes (Viking, 2007)

I have been an admirer of A.M. Homes since I first read her short story collection The Safety of Objects (1990). The stories are odd and mesmerizing, unlike many other things that I had read at that time. Again, I think my partner had a hand in introducing her work to me. He has a talent for finding new unusual authors.

For some reason, I had always pictured her as a acerbic teenager or young adult laying waste to the mediocrity and oddity of suburban life (which perhaps she was at the time) and I was unaware of her history as an adopted child. We are in the midst of an international adoption so I am intrigued and anxious to read about the adopted child's experience.

Amy M. Homes, always, to my mind, brutally honest and forthright as a writer, has written a memoir of her experiences when her biological mother (the mistress in the title of the book) contacted her when Amy was in her early 30s. Amy is alternately alarmed, intrigued, dismayed, captivated and curious about her origins.

Her biological mother Ellen Ballman's story was not a happy one: a 17 year old growing up in the buttoned down southern state of Maryland in the 1950s when she had a relationship with her boss Norman Hecht, a married man in his 30s with a family of his own. The affair lasted seven years.

Despite repeated promises to leave his wife, his schemes to relocate the pregnant Ellen to Florida (she returned a lonely three months later after he failed to join her) and a failed 4 day attempt to live together, the couple parted and Ellen decided to put the baby up for adoption immediately after Amy's birth. Half Jewish herself, she insisted that the baby be adopted by a Jewish family.

She was. By all accounts, she was adopted into a loving, liberal minded, intellectual progressive family that had recently lost a child which created a strange dynamic for Amy. For the much loved little girl she must have felt like the replacement child with so much emotionally invested in her arrival and survival.

Ellen Ballman had made no effort to contact Amy for the the first 30 odd years of the child/woman's life but inspired by "Oprah", she claimed to her daughter, she did so in 1992. Amy's fantasy, which I think is likely a common one for adopted children, that her parents were some sort of powerful, wealthy, majestic people is deflated by her encounters with Ellen and later with her biological father Norman. Adopted or not, don't many people imagine that our "real" parents are royalty of some sort? Something fantastic and wonderful?

Ellen shows up at readings unannounced, completely unnerving the author, calls her incessantly and insists that they meet despite Amy's anxiety about doing so. Amy is overwhelmed when they do eventually meet and begin to have constant contact by telephone (mostly involving Ellen calling her). Ellen is needy, damaged, near completely ruined by her relationship with Norman. She never married, never has another child, drifts from job to job, sometimes encountering legal difficulties, is never settled and offers up the bizarre proposition that Amy adopt her. She is clearly searching for Amy to take care of her, to fill the void after all these years.

But as overwhelming and difficult as this may be, her encounter with her father is more so. At their first meeting, he blithely informs her that while he too is half Jewish, he is not circumcised and is not particularly "Jewish". He meets her only in hotels, never at his home which he still shares with his wife, or else in coffee shops. He never introduces her to his other children except for his eldest son who sometimes accompanied him to visit Ellen when he was a boy in the 1950s. Norman insists on a DNA test to prove that Amy is his daughter, reveals the test to be conclusive then later refuses to share the test with her even when a lawyer requests the documented results on her behalf.

There is a odd and disturbing sexual current running throughout these meetings ... the hotels as meeting places (always at his suggestion), the secrecy required as he instructs her to call him in the car so his wife won't pick up the phone and he refuses to tell the whole family of her existence, his open criticism of her appearance as if he is disappointed that she is not feminine enough and does not dress appropriately for his tastes, Norman's wife's unrelenting anger towards Amy as if she is the mistress. At one point Amy even blurts out that she is not his mistress and that he should stop treating her that way. But truthfully, Amy feels something too for a time, acknowledging her desires, her fantasies about her father. Her almost physical need for him.

Later, after her mother's death in the late 1990s, Amy catalogues the ways in which she failed her mother. She starts to rethink the whole relationship between her parents. She is less judgmental of Ellen and more unforgiving of Norman's role in the affair, his carelessness, selfishness, his lack of responsibility. In the end he disappoints Amy much as he disappointed Ellen with his extreme self-absorption and thoughtlessness.

She admits her class biases, her shame at the uncouth behavior of both of her biological parents and casually acknowledges how vastly superior she feels her adoptive family to be politically, intellectually, emotionally, socially. She mocks her bio parents' inflated sense of superiority which she feels is unjustified, inconsistent with her view of what honorable people are.

These are extremely brave but unhappy sentiments that few of us would care to admit to. But Homes seems to determined to paint a brave face on the whole business by the end of the memoir.

She begins to obsessively research and catalogue the lineage of the four sides of the family: biological mother, biological father, adoptive mother, adoptive father. She discovers fascinating, wonderous things about her families. and other families with similar names. which she stumbles upon. Perhaps this triggers the desire, heretofore dormant, to have a child of her own.

She conceives a child after many attempts to start a family after the age of 40 (a difficult task at the best of times at that age, more difficult when you face the stresses of sorting out one's identity). She ends the memoir with a sort of homage to her daughter Juliet and her adoptive grandmother Jewel Rosenberg as if to say that her poisonous relations with her father will not serve as the last word.

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