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Friday, February 1, 2013

Bloody Good Book

I haven't mentioned it yet, but I'm adopted. I mention it now by way of saying that any book that features adoption as a theme is inherently interesting to me. Which is why I picked up By Blood  by Ellen Ullman. I read a brief review of it that sounded interesting, and mentioned that it featured a search for a birth mother (been there, found that), and then I read something about the author and it mentioned that she was adopted, so I figured she would know what she was talking/writing about (as so many authors, when writing about adoption and adopted characters, do not).

I hesitate -- a bit -- to mention the whole adoption thing, because for so many adult adoptees, adoption is the focus, the defining issue, of their lives. While I do believe that adoption actually is the defining issue of an adoptee's life, since it leaves an emotional and physical (yes, I believe that, too) imprint that can never fully be eradicated, I also have a visceral distaste for the adoption-defines-me bandwagon. I don't want any one thing to define me -- my race, my religion, my sexual preference, my taste in music, my love of dachshunds, my allergy to guinea pigs. I don't want to be put in the adoption-is-my-life-my-life-is-adoption corner. (Sudden memory: There was a girl in my high school whose yearbook quote -- I kid you not -- was "Zionism is my life. My life is Zionism." Guess where she lives now? I so wish the answer to that was Miami, but it's Tel Aviv.)

However -- shameless self-promotion to follow -- I also have to admit that I co-wrote a book with my birth mother about that very issue. Not Zionism, adoption. It follows my birth mother's story of finding herself with an unwanted pregnancy at 20 and giving up the baby and how it affected her life, and my story of growing up adopted and how it affected my life, and our finding each other many years later. Just in case you're interested (didn't I make it sound fascinating?), you can buy it here. And if you want it digitally, here.

Writing the book was a deeply healing experience, one that the adopted character in By Blood (look, I'm getting back to the point! and it only took three paragraphs!) could use. She is a confused young woman, in therapy for her difficulties with her adopted parents, her romantic partner, her life. Unbeknownst to her and her therapist, the man in the next office -- the narrator of the story -- is listening to their sessions. Our unnamed narrator becomes slowly and inextricably drawn into her life (she is also unnamed, her refers to her, quite creepily, as "my dear patient"), until he actually and anonymously intervenes in her story.

The book casts a sinister and disturbing pall from the very first sentence: "I did not cause her any harm." The story is set in San Francisco in the mid-seventies, a depressed and anxious time. Patty Hearst has been kidnapped, the Zodiac killer is on the loose. The narrator is a university professor on forced leave for what slowly reveals itself as -- no, I'm not giving anything away. There are many mysteries in the book -- the mystery of why the professor has been disgraced, the mystery of the origins of the "dear patient," even the mystery of the therapist herself, who has a colorful past of her own that she is hiding. All of these mysteries are wrapped in the unsettling fog of whether or not the narrator, despite the claim of his opening sentence, will harm his dear patient. Despite his frequent protestations of innocence, he also fears what he might do, even praying to God: "Help me, remember she is the patient, my beloved patient, not like the others, nothing like them at all!"

But who these "others" are, and what he has done to them, remains a mystery.

The prose is seductive, and the story unfolds like a reverse origami. There are mysteries upon mysteries, and even though at the end, not everything is clear, the intense journey has been satisfaction enough.

Buy (or borrow" By Blood. And my book, too.

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