Monday, June 22, 2015

Q&A with Mary Anna King

Mary Anna King, photo by Braden Moran
Mary Anna King is the author of the new memoir Bastards, which she describes on her website as "the true story of how my six biological siblings and I were adopted by five different families, grew up in homes from Oklahoma City to the Jersey Shore, and eventually found one another again." She lives in Los Angeles.

Q: Why did you decide to write about your family, and how was the book’s title chosen?

A: I started compiling notes for this book when I was 14. Initially, it was a precaution against forgetting who I had been and where I had come from. Also, I wanted to be able to tell my sisters our shared story when they came looking for me. 

So this story was bequeathed to me, and I always felt that it needed to be told. Because the story of my siblings' and my separation and reunion is not as uncommon as one might think. At every single event I have done so far for Bastards people approach to tell me how this is their story, too; they are one of eight children split up by foster care, or one of three siblings split amongst family members.

They, like us, have difficulty navigating some basic first-date questions, like "how many siblings do you have? What is your family like?"

Over the years when I've chosen to share this part of my life with friends and acquaintances a funny thing happens; people's reflex is to identify for me who my "real" family is. Depending on the audience, my "real mother" is the one who gave birth to me, or the one who adopted me; my "real sister" is the one I grew up with and the rest must be "more like friends."

They are not being malicious--it's an attempt to distill something complex into a clearer narrative--but claiming that one person is "real" suggests that another person is not. Initially it makes me giggle, because if my mothers or my sisters aren't "real" what are they? Unicorns?

But in the end, the implication is that if someone isn't real, she doesn't matter. She is a ghost, a shadow. Since shadows can never be injured, can never feel sorrow or loss, there is no need to make room for a shadow to exist, to acknowledge its humanity.

The title sprang from the constant suggestion that one or more members of my complicated family are knock-offs, counterfeit; the bastard version of a sister, brother, father, or mother.

The truth is that everyone is real; that is what makes adoption complicated. The couples bringing children into the world are as real as the couples longing for children; the struggle of one is as real as the fierce desire of the other.

The children gain one real family while losing a real family. Everyone and everything is real, and no single claim is strong enough to erase the others.

So, the title is a bit in-your-face, but I felt that it needed to be.

Q: How much of the book came from your own memories, and how much did you need to research?

A: My family members had already told me so many sides of our story that when I sat down to write there were few things that needed true research. I dug into the journals I had kept since high school to confirm some timelines and also remind myself of my true emotional states at certain key points.

I was surprised to recall how much I had feared my adoptive father in my adolescence; that was a state in our relationship that we have moved so far past that I had completely forgotten about it. But to preserve the truth of our journey of becoming a father and daughter to one another, it was an important element to remember.

I did speak with my sisters, my brother, and my birthmother when I needed to confirm some fuzzy details. Especially ones from my early childhood.

For example, I had this very vivid memory of sitting in my birthfather's Oldsmobile when I couldn't have been older than two and a half. It's the earliest memory I have. My mother, father, brother and I were all wearing coats, but it was still freezing.

I ran this image past my birthmom, and she reminded me that yes, we did wear our coats in the car and yes it was still cold because the heater didn't work and there were rusted-out holes in the sides.

I wondered why some part of my brain had preserved this memory, and my mom reminded me that this was the day we met my first (then unborn) sister's adoptive parents. This was truly a day when my life changed irreversibly, forever.

Q: You write, “Love was a word that confused things.” How do you think you viewed love during your childhood, and how do you see it today?

A: As a child I understood love as deep, surprising, unprovoked affection. The sort of emotion that fills you without you encouraging it, that fills you even when you attempt to discourage it.

My birthmom's love for me played on her like she was merely an instrument for it; it was written all over her body. Her hands always open, her face always relaxed, her voice always softer with me and my brother than they were with other people.

While that is certainly a type of love, perhaps the primary definition of it, it is not the only kind. I say it so often that it has become a personal mantra—Love is showing up for people. Love is showing up even when you don't know what to say, even when you know there is absolutely nothing you can do but show up.

What made the word love so confusing during my own adoption was that I knew what love looked like. I had seen it and felt with my birthmother.

My adoptive parents and I did not share that same connection. They did not spark like a campfire when I walked into a room. But they nurtured me in ways that were not discernible to a child.

Our connection was like converting soil into a garden. Before you can have beautiful rose bushes, you have a long period of muddy, mucky business to deal with. You have to show up every day with the water, with the sunlight, with the "Miracle Gro" and trust that it will pay off in the end.

While I have been lucky to experience that first type of love—the effervescent, effortless adventure—I make every attempt to always show up for the people I care about. Especially in those times—illness, deaths, after tragedies or arguments—where showing up is the only concrete thing I can do.

Q: Have your family members read the book, and what do they think of it?

A: My birthmom, my brother and my sisters have all read the book. My sister Becca has read four or five drafts of it, actually!

I have offered many times to send a copy to my adoptive father, but he wants to read it after it is published. He knows what it is covered in the book; he knows that his character has some tough scenes, but he knows that this is my story and my perspective. I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the support my family has given me so far in this journey.

There was a key moment in the story where I wrote about my own nervous breakdown at the age of 23. In talking about that dark chapter of my life, I revealed some darker turns in the lives of my siblings.

My editor and I had several conversations about whether it was necessary (or fair) to include my siblings' related struggles. My editor worried that they would feel violated.

So I appealed to my siblings directly. And to a person they not only allowed me to tell those parts of their stories, they wanted me to. We all thought it was important to show how a journey of separation and reunion can tear at the threads of a person's identity.

The struggle was not simply mine, it was a struggle that we all felt, universally. And if seven of us, separated, adopted, and raised apart all felt similar aftershocks, then perhaps this difficulty is something commonly felt by many adopted people, and something we needed to share to help others feel less alone.

Getting that level of commitment from my sisters and brother was incredibly humbling. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My siblings and I are actively working to bring all six of them to Los Angeles for the book launch...We have actually never all been in the same place at the same time. Not once. Not ever. So for the past couple weeks I have been in a whirlwind of e-mails and flight itineraries and skulking around the Air BnB website into the wee small hours of the morning!

As for writing, I am nearing completion on a play about two sisters dealing with the aftermath of a disrupted adoption that I am very excited about. Also in the preliminary stages of a second memoir set in the hospitality industry.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If there is one thing that I wish people would take away from Bastards, it is the idea that adoption is complicated. If there is a second, it would be that people stop telling anyone who their "real" families are. Now more than ever families are built in complex ways. No matter what they look like, they are all real people, in real families. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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