Catapult’s Adopted Essay Series
This week, I’m highlighting two essays from the recent Catapult series on adoption, which was expertly collected and edited by my friend Nicole Chung, managing editor of The Toast. The voices and experiences of the essayists are diverse and wide-ranging, but each piece is exquisitely crafted and exceptionally moving. The stories encompass the complicated nature of families and examine the human need to know who you are and where you came from: the common longing to see yourself in someone else. Many wish to focus on differences with their blood relations as much as they pray to uncover similarities. I highly encourage you to check out all of them.
Jasmine Sanders’s “Mama“
Sanders and her sister were adopted and raised by their grandmother—their mother drifted in and out of their lives when she wasn’t in rehab or jail—a situation more complex and volatile than other adoption stories. When her grandmother died, Sanders went to live with her verbally and emotionally abusive mother. It’s a rich, introspective essay that examines how distancing yourself from others can be a radical act of self-love, ponders what the title of mother means, wonders how to know which relationships are worth fighting for, and navigates the sometimes-terrifying terrain that is a family legacy of mental illness.
Trauma, like wide hips and myopia and peach cobbler recipes, is a part of my matrilineal legacy. Perhaps it’s unfair to place so much blame on my mother’s shoulders when I know that between slavery, institutional racism, lack of resources, poverty, and social stigma, mine is the first generation of young women in my family to even have access to mental health care. There is no precedent for black girls in my family to talk about mental illness, with our mamas or with anyone else; the language doesn’t exist yet. Perhaps we have to lend ourselves and our foremothers grace as we make it up.
Michele Leavitt’s “Buckle and Sway“
This haunting, sparse essay is dripping with meaning and insight. It centers around the scene of the author meeting her mother’s half-sister, Rose. Her mother has passed away, but used to live next door to Rose’s trailer, so she has a multitude of photos and memories to share. Her mother was a wine drinker: she liked to “get drunk and sway.” She also had severe asthma, like Leavitt. Rose and Leavitt are nearly the same age, and Leavitt finds solace in their sameness: their looks, physicality, movements, their taste in men. What seems to hit Leavitt the hardest is Rose describing how her mother would dote on her children. She dares for a moment to imagine herself as the child in her mother’s lap.
Rose opens the shoebox. It’s full of old Polaroids and Instamatic prints, and my eyes are greedy for them. I have an insatiable appetite for photographs of people who look like me. No one in my life has ever looked like me. Rose passes them to me one by one and explains each photograph: who is in it, when it was taken, why it was taken. …I spent the evening with her last night to hear her stories, sucking them into my body like a blood transfusion, even when I suspected her stories were wishful thinking.
Meaghan O’Connell’s “The Patronizing Questions We Ask Women Who Write” in New York Magazine’s The Cut
There comes a pivotal moment for every aspiring memoirist and essayist where they ask themselves whether what they’re writing will ruin every personal relationship mentioned in said work. Most successful nonfiction writers who draw inspiration from their lives push past this insecurity and write on. In MFA programs, it’s almost a rite of passage. Meaghan O’Connell, columnist for New York Magazine’s The Cut, has been writing about her life in sometimes graphic detail for more than a decade, including an essay in a collection she co-edited called Coming & Crying, which is exactly what you think it is. Her contribution recounts sex in a bar bathroom. Now older, wiser, and writing about motherhood, O’Connell can’t help but notice a different set of questions around her choice of subject matter, not coming from her, but from concerned readers. “Are you worried your son is going to hate you when he grows up?”“What are you going to do when your kid Googles you?” are questions that might seem innocuous at best and accusatory at worst, but point to the different standards women are held to when writing autobiographically.
“We don’t ask male artists to consider the consequences of their work, we don’t reframe them as fathers or boyfriends or sons. We don’t keep trying to pull them back down to earth, to admonish them, the way we do women… My writing about parenthood is not about my son. That it’s about me and not him feels like an important distinction to me, and it comes up when my writing involves anybody else. But that’s not really what people mean when they express their concern, is it?… Let me say this: I am embarrassed and worried all the time, and that is why I am a writer. You do not need to bring up hypothetical consequences of my work as if in an effort to trap me, to surprise me, to make me turn red and throw my laptop in a river. I go through all of that every damn day, in the hour or so it takes me to work myself up to open a Word document.”
O’Connell explains that she writes because it is fulfilling, and it isn’t worth keeping herself up at night to wonder how her family will hypothetically react to her writing in ten years.