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I attended a craft lecture entitled “Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Woolf: The Marriage of Life and Art” at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. The lecture was given by Margot Livesy, a Scottish fiction writer whose six books include Banishing Verona, The House on Fortune Street, and Criminals, to name a few. While her lecture focused on braiding together the complex narratives of Woolf’s novels with Woolf’s personal life, I was most struck by her description of what she called Virginia’s “hauntings and banishings” — which refers, in part, to the sensation of writing a personal narrative out of a personal history. “Virginia Woolf,” she said from her perch at the podium, “felt a great sense of relief when she finished writing To the Lighthouse, having mourned her mother’s death from the ages of 13 to 44, and having completed a story based on what she remembered of her mother, suddenly found the hauntings of her quite inexplicably gone.” Woolf, as far as she has been portrayed after her death, struggled with mourning the death of her mother for nearly all of her short life. This is due, in large part, to her father’s insistence that the family not mourn the passing, and that they instead continue as if nothing transpired at all.
The inability to discuss and mourn her mother played a significant role in Virginia Woolf’s writing, as well as her notorious mental breakdowns and sense of self and place in the world. In a letter to a friend, Woolf described this uneasiness “as if I were exposed on a high ledge in full light. Very lonely. L (Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband) out to lunch.. No atmosphere around me. No words. Very apprehensive. As if something cold & horrible – a roar of laughter at my expense were about to happen. And I am powerless to ward it off: I have no protection.” (Lee, pg. 187) In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa “always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”
Listen. Despite the fact that I have been at this creative writing conference in a kind of strange time warp for the last ten plus days, I am not trying to turn this into an undergraduate thesis on unease in modernist thinking/writing. However, the lecture on Virginia Woolf was also presented to me at the same time that Riese’s amazing article on loss was being circulated around (even by Cheryl Strayed! Ahh!!!). So, coupled with the nearly 25th year anniversary of my own mother’s death, I’ve had loss and belonging on the brain. Though my own story is different from the two brilliant babes I just mentioned, it got me spinning my wheels about what belonging and loss mean to a sense of identity, particularly in the queer community, where a sense of belonging and origin is so fragmented and complicated and even, for some, rooted in intense trauma depending on how/when/why/if we come out. Whether or not you are out in the world, being queer and belonging to a community of marginalized folks (even if it’s a community you only align with in a spiritual or distanced way) has its own problems with feelings of enoughness and the disenfranchisement or everyday trauma of living with an identity that is consistently questioned or belittled. To say nothing, of course, of how queerness intersects with race, class, ability, gender identity, etc.
But what about how identity interacts with having a dead parent? Woolf was a cisgendered, educated white woman who has been re-appropriated into the “queer canon” of literature, and even in the comfort of her relative privileges, the loss of her mother (and reaction of her father to that loss) was enough to un-self her for the majority of her short life. With the information, how does this show up in my own story, having two dead parents and an adoption narrative? How does queer identity make more difficult feelings of belonging, and how does it seek to repair it? On a more basic level, what resources are even available to adoptees, and is there a community to speak of where one can find themselves reflected in others who share similar stories of origin? These questions, of course, have basis in my own history. I lost both of my parents before the age of five and bounced around the Arizona state housing system until I finally moved to California to live with my maternal aunt. I was adopted by her when I was eight, in 1994.
These were also the questions that I was asking myself in 2010 when I stumbled across a blog called Bitch, You Left Me which was started in 2010 by queer writers Liz Latty* and Mariama Lockington, who saw a lack of representation and community in adoption narratives. The two connected at a reception for a literary reading that was part of the AFAAD, or Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora Conference in Oakland, CA.
Bitch, You Left Me is “a collaborative effort between adoptees to create a space where we are ‘allowed’ to explore our rage in an environment where we will not be chastised for being ungrateful or fucked up for being really pissed off about our experiences as adoptees. We are interested in building community and healing through creative expression, transforming our fear of attachment into action, and reclaiming our authentic voices, the ones that have been silenced by the fear of losing family and home.” The name comes from the lack of representation of anger and rage in adoptee communities. “We were most troubled by our own feelings of anger and where to put them since adoptees are usually never given space or permission to explore those particular feelings. Seeing that anger reflected back to us in an adoptee-only space (the reading) that was a safe container really struck a chord with us,” Latty said of the project’s title. When I reached out to her to ask her about queer adoptee identity and the origins of BYLM, she responded with this:
“It really did feel like a new reality, an atmospheric shift. I think that adoption so often happens in forced isolation — either because of closed adoptions and old school thinking about disclosure, or adoptive families don’t have or don’t try to create community for their kids around this experience. You know, sometimes parents want so desperately to pretend we are their bio kids, or that we’re just like every other family and generally not call attention to the whole ‘one of these things is not like the other’ situation, that we’re forced into wearing this thing in isolation. And besides feeling like you inherently don’t belong where you are is just isolating in some ways even if your family does have adoption community or if you have adopted siblings.”
Latty has an excellent point. Depending on the specific situation, adoption tends to happen away from the public eye, on the complicated precipice of trying to merge backgrounds and people into a streamlined family. In the most general sense (which assumes that an adoption is relatively ‘straight-forward’, or occurs while the child is young, by strangers, is an amicable arrangement, etc), adoption attempts to bridge the gaps between families and individuals utilizing a(n arguably deficient) model of nuclearness that has little give and elasticity for accommodating differentness. Add any one of many other factors (transracial adoption, adoption of older children, international adoption, adoption with unclear boundaries, adoption of children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, adoption of queer or trans children, etc), and the stakes of belonging and integrating get even higher.
What’s interesting about the point that Latty makes is one of public versus private: if adoption (generally) happens in insolation, and queerness (generally) happens in the public eye (assuming, of course, that the adoptee in question is out), then how do we merge the two potentially conflicting identities in a way that holds up and makes space for all of their complications? The closet is particularly complicated for adoptees, who have much at stake when considering being open about something that has historically incurred rejection, compounding the initial trauma in particularly traumatic ways. Many adoptees feel as though coming out as queer is a risk that could lead to further alienation and abandonment by their families.
“I honestly felt like I grew up not knowing anyone else who was adopted. There was no one to talk to about it or reflect my experience back to me. I felt very, very alone in the world. It wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I sat in this room full of adoptees at the AFAAD reading and heard this deluge of words that I now understand, in part, as is the language we (adoptees) use to talk about ourselves and our experiences to each other. When it’s safe. When there’s no one around we have to protect or stroke. It was fucking mind blowing. Does this have anything to do with queerness? I’m not sure where all the intersections lie, but and I’m really interested in that investigation.”
When Bitch, You Left Me first came across my table in 2010, I was eager to submit and was thrilled when one of my poems was chosen for publication. When Latty sent me the proofs of the poem, along with a copy of my bio, I saw that she had listed me as “July Westhale is an adoptee living out of Oakland, California … .” Horrified, I emailed her immediately and asked her to remove the identifier from the page. I didn’t identify as an adoptee. I didn’t know anyone else who was adopted. I was taken into a family that was related to my bio fam, and so I felt more like I’d had a different experience. I wasn’t a plant in a new, foreign garden; I was a cutting transplanted into familiar pastures. Though this analogy is flawed and actually not true of my experience of my adopted family, I was nonetheless unenthused about claiming an identity that, until very recently, I hadn’t even thought of as an identity. Latty obliged, but was curious about my hesitation, and asked gentle, probing questions about my decision. Over the course of following months, we had an illuminating conversation in which I found myself much changed: I felt seen, heard, and validated in my experiences just simply having another person who mirrored back to me a common landscape.
As for how adoption relates to queerness, I recognize the problems of paralleling and making similar two such distinctive experiences and identities, particularly when the margin for differing intersections is so high. However, both identities struggle with a sense of belonging, or of lacking. Both identities struggle with how to reclaim family if and when their bio family fractures. To bring it back to the opening of this essay, Woolf was living in a time when queer women were thought of as ‘inverts’, and homosexuality (or genderqueerness to speak of) was considered to be a result of mental illness or deficiency. Considering that both identities fall into the same fault lines of family and how the individual takes up space in the world or sees themselves reflected in the world, it’s not horribly far off to believe that the two can be in conversation with each other.
*Liz Latty is the author of Split (Unthinkable Creatures Press, 2012). Her work can be found or is forthcoming in make/shift magazine, Jupiter 88, The Feminist Wire, and HOLD: A Journal, among others. She was a 2012 Lambda Literary Fellow and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, as well as the Jackson, Phelan, and Tanenbaum Literary Awards from the San Francisco Foundation. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Goddard College and lives in Brooklyn.