February 2006

Arts & Letters

‘Family Wanted: Adoption Stories’ edited by Sara Holloway

By Anne Manne

Happenstance, Daniel Menaker calls it, the utterly contingent nature of our lives. Family Wanted is an anthology of essays by some very fine writers about lives shaped by adoption. It confronts us with the brute fact that one’s existence can hang by a mere thread, such as the chance of a split condom.

As the viewpoint shifts between adopted children, relinquishing birth mothers and adoptive parents, it is in turns savage and moving, raw and detached, comic and cruel. The theme of rescue one expects, yet some adopted children seem not so much to be rescued themselves as to rescue their parents. Others, like Robert Dessaix, felt “almost dangerously wanted”. Dessaix’s father held his small son aloft “like a trophy, head back laughing with the unearned joy of it”. But poor overwrought Jean, her Calvinist soul wound up too tight for love, was the wrong mother for Dessaix. Wrongness of fit, psychologists politely call it; a family life spent staring at each other in bewildered incomprehension.

Priscilla Nagle, a relinquishing mother, hears “screams which never die”. Her son “is always alive, and you don’t know where, and you don’t know how”. After Lynn Lauber spends “sodden, lethargic months” in the Friends Home for Unwed Mothers, her baby is taken away straight after birth, “without sight or sound”.

In contrast, stories by adopting parents are full of hope. Meg Bortin adopts a scrap of skin and bone called Djeneba from a Malian orphanage. Bald through malnutrition, at nine months she weighs the same as a healthy four-month-old. Bortin bonds with her daughter after watching her fall asleep with exhaustion after eating fifteen grains of rice. By the story’s end Djeneba is five, “a scamp and a rascal … full of life”. If Bortin had not taken her, she would likely have died.

And there it hovers, over every story: happenstance.

Anne Manne

Anne Manne is the author of Motherhood, the Quarterly Essay ‘Love & Money’ and the memoir So This Is Life. Her most recent book is The Life of I: The new culture of narcissism.

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