At the beginning of the year, I was picking out books to read for the Adoption Reading Challenge I started. As I hopped around adoption-related books on Amazon, I came across one that would be released in May 2011: Jessica Lost: A Story of Birth, Adoption & The Meaning of Motherhood. I put it on my initial list of books I wanted to read -- and one of the authors contacted me!
As a birth mother, I was exceptionally interested in this book as it is written by a birth mother, Bunny (Faith) Crumpacker, and an adult adoptee, Jil Picariello. They alternate chapters leading up to and through their reunion, telling their story with a beautiful and complementary flow. I found myself nodding when Bunny was writing, having experienced similar emotions and challenges in my journey. I found myself struggling with some of the things that Jil experienced regarding adoption, wondering if or when my own relinquished daughter would endure the same things. At times I had to put down the book because it was too real, too in my face, but I couldn’t put it down for long. I simply had to finish it; I was so drawn to their words, their shared but separate experience.
I was honored to interview Jil about the process of writing this adoption masterpiece (that’s right, I said masterpiece), about her thoughts on adoption and adoptees’ right to their original birth certificates, and about reunion in general. She was kind enough to share her thoughts on the manner in a way that I think is of interest to book lovers and families alike. Whether or not you have experience with adoption, this book (and the following interview) should be of interest.
Warning: There may be a few spoilers in this interview. Obviously we know that Faith relinquished Jil, but there are a few other things that you may not want to know until you read the book. This serves as your heads up!
1. How did you and your birth mom come up with the idea to combine your stories in a memoir? Did you work together or separately?
I honestly don’t remember whose idea it was. In my memory the idea of writing a book together seems to have sprung into both of our minds simultaneously. After we found each other, and told our stories to friends and family, the universal reaction was, “Wow, that’s an incredible story, you guys should write a book.” And being that we were both writers it seemed like the logical thing to do. As an aside, Faith had two lifelong dreams: to find “The Baby” and publish a book. “The book and The Baby” was her mantra. The day that I found her -- literally that day -- was also the day that she received the contract for her first book.
In terms of how we worked on it, we sketched out the chapters before we started, with a pretty clear outline of what would happen where. Other than each losing a chapter later on in the editing, that ended up being how the story unfolded. We wrote separately, to a schedule that we created, and showed each other a chapter or two at a time. We were each other’s first reader and editor.
2. What's the one thing you want readers of your book to take away from your combined stories? What do you think your birth mom would want them to take away?
First of all, I hope they enjoy reading it and find it an interesting and even a moving story. I also hope that, if they are not someone who has experience with adoption, they learn a bit about it, and their eyes are opened to the fact that it’s not the magical band-aid so many people pretend it is. And also, for kids who grow up, as I did, feeling so broken, with such a fractured and damaged sense of self -- for those who don’t fit in and feel that it’s entirely their fault -- maybe they can see that we don’t always have to feel that way, and life can have happier endings in store. I would never presume to tell someone what to do, but I would encourage any adoptee considering searching to do so. Whatever it is they fear is unlikely to be any worse than the emptiness of not knowing who you are and where you come from.
I don’t feel comfortable answering for Faith. I know that, as she expresses in the book, our finding each other helped to heal a lot of wounds for her, as it did for me. Maybe she would want other women who had given up children to adoption to know that what seems so scary -- being reunited with your lost child -- can be very wonderful. It doesn’t change the past and it doesn’t (just like adoption) magically make everything all right. But it does go a long way towards becoming whole.
3. I'll admit, the epilogue caught me off guard as I forgot that your birth mom died (during editing, right?). When she apologized that you didn't have more time together, I just lost it. Do you wish you had searched sooner?
Faith got sick in the late fall of 2009, while we were working on the last few chapters of the book. She was in and out of the hospital but somehow she managed to finish writing and even begin the editing. We had a very talented editor who brought our massive manuscript (we are both major over-writers) down to reasonable size. Most of the editing was done by the time Faith passed away in July of last year.
I absolutely wish I had had more time with Faith. I miss her enormously. I miss her emails, I miss talking with her (she was an amazing listener), I miss her wisdom, I miss her love. But I couldn’t have searched any sooner; I wasn’t ready. It took me a long time to get to where I could even acknowledge needing to know more about where and who I came from. So although I don’t wish I had searched sooner, because I couldn’t have, I do wish very deeply that we could have had more time together.
4. What advice would you give to adult adoptees considering the start of their search?
I would recommend that they read some adoption reunion stories so they know what they’re in for -- not necessary the details of the story, because everyone’s path will be different -- but the intensity of the emotions. It really caught me off guard how overwhelming it all was. I had never experienced anything like it. I would also tell them to take it slow, because it will be overwhelming -- and not to feel rushed, or pressured by anyone. There are so many people with a point to prove and an axe to grind, and it’s easy to get caught up in what someone else thinks is best for you. I would also recommend that they have support and people to talk to, whether family, friends, an adoptee support group, or a good therapist with some experience in adoption issues.
5. As you did have 13 years of reunion together, I'm sure you came across some issues in your relationship. What advice would you share with those just entering reunion with regard to managing their new relationship?
I have to say that I was really blessed in the birth mother that I found. First of all, we were so much alike that I could usually tell what Faith was feeling or how she would react even before she said anything. Also, she never pressured me in any way. She let me set the pace of the relationship, which in the beginning was very important to me. I was overwhelmed, emotional, dealing with so much. If I had also felt pressure from Faith it would have been very disturbing. So we really didn’t have any big issues in getting to know each other. It was kind of love at first sight. But I would advise any adoptee starting a search to try to be true to their own needs -- to stay in touch with how they’re feeling, how they’re reacting, and be gentle with themselves as well as the new relationship. They don’t have to fit anyone else’s idea of what’s right for them. Take it slow, do what feels right, expect a lot of emotions, and follow your instincts.
6. What was the hardest chapter to write? Similarly, which chapter of your birth mom's was hardest for you to read?
The hardest chapters to write were definitely the ones about loss -- the epilogue, which talks about Faith’s death, chapter 14, “Loss,” which is about the deaths of three people I loved very much, and the chapter about my mother’s death. It was sad to live and sad to write, and I cried a lot. In addition, the chapter about the birth of my first son was hard to write, because it was such a painful time for me, and I still have so much guilt and shame about it, and also because the thought of his reading it, and feeling bad that his birth had caused me pain, was hard. I talked to him about it, to make sure that as hard as it was to live through, I have always been happy to be his mother, and that he has brought me so much more joy than pain. It also gave me another chance to apologize and ask forgiveness. I think we’re past it now, which is great. He recently turned the age that I was when he was born -- 28 -- and when I said, “I was your age when I had you,” he was sort of stunned for a minute, and then said, “Wow, you really were too young.” So maybe he understands it a little better now.
Although there were parts of my story that I know were hard for Faith to read (she always wished, however absurdly, that my life had been filled with nothing but sunshine and lollipops), I can’t say there were any particular parts of her story that were hard to read. She had a lot of sadness in her life, which I wish were not true, but I wish that for everyone I care about.
7. There are many misconceptions about birth parents, adoptees, adoptive parents and adoption in general. I think your book helps people who may not be touched by adoption understand certain aspects. Was that a purposeful intention or is that just what happens when people are willing to share their stories? If it was your intent, what is the one misconception you wish people would stop perpetuating about adoption?
Although it wasn’t exactly my intent in writing the book, I’ve always been struck by how difficult it is for people to comprehend what it means to be adopted. If I could have one wish, I would like for people to stop thinking adoption is the magic wand that makes pain and trauma go away. There’s a lot of pain in any adoption -- the pain of the birth mother losing her child, the pain of the adoptive mother dealing with infertility and the abandoned hope of bearing a biological child, and the pain of the adoptee’s loss of connection to biological family. It doesn’t make adoption bad, but it does make it different. And saying it’s “just like any other family” isn’t true, and trying to pretend it is makes everyone feel even more pain. There’s an enormous need for recognition and honesty.
8. Did your birth mom inform Jake and Quint about the story being published? Did anyone in your family react poorly (or positively!) to the book?
Both Jake and Quint (not their real names, by the way) knew that Faith and I were working on a book. I think it made Quint nervous, because of his celebrity, but I think we’ve disguised him enough to make him difficult to identify. I’m not sure how Jake feels about it. We spoke briefly after Faith passed away so he knew when the book would be coming out, but I haven’t heard from him. I was worried about how my cousin Jon would feel about it, since so much of the story is as painful to him as it is to me. But he has been really supportive and has read it and loves it. He said that although he’s known me his whole life, he now feels like he knows me better than ever before. My husband has also read it, and is very proud and supportive. I was worried that my sons would feel invaded or misused and I asked them, early on, if they wanted to read the MS and request changes. They both said the same thing: “I trust you.” That made me very proud and happy. A couple of other cousins have read it, and so far (fingers crossed) everyone is very positive.
9. I love how you detailed your search. I pictured you in the library with your finger going along each line. What are your thoughts on adoptees not having access to their Original Birth Certificates?
It seems a complete absurdity to me -- like something out of an alternative universe -- that anyone could not have access to something so basic as their birth certificate. I think non-adoptees can’t imagine how insane that is, they take it so much for granted. But it is symbolic of how much has been taken away from the adopted, and how little right they have to their own identity. And not only are they not supposed to ask questions, to want to know more, to search—they’re actually expected to be grateful! I can only imagine how much harder this is nowadays, with foreign adoptions, where the birth information is so much more difficult to access, and the gratitude is expected to be so much more profound. I feel a lot of sympathy for foreign-born adoptees.
10. An adoptee blogger recently wrote about synchronicity and biological ties. Did you have any experiences like that with your birth mom?
Actually, we had so many strange synchronicities and similarities that it was one of the reasons we wanted to write a book! In Chapter 26 I share some of what we called the “List of Similars” that Faith and I started keeping when we first met. It was much longer than my editor let me put in the book! In addition to looking alike (no surprise, although it sure was surprising to me), we had the same taste in movies, books, and music. We liked the same actors. We had the same political viewpoints. We had similar writing styles. I have been an ardent foodie and cook my whole life, and briefly had a catering business and have taught basic cooking classes in my home. Faith wrote about culinary history and her last book before this one was a cookbook. We love New York City, travel, unpretentious restaurants, and people with strong opinions and a great sense of humor. Faith and I both spent years working in the public schools, both paid and unpaid, even doing some of the same work—I wrote and published a weekly newsletter in my sons’ school, she did public relations work for her children’s school district. Our husbands had some striking similarities and we had a lot of the same issues with our children. We even had some strange little habits that I’ve never, ever seen in any other person -- we both liked to stroke smooth, cool surfaces, like a glass of cold water (when my husband first saw both of us doing this in a restaurant he was shocked), and we both, if annoyed by someone, would “write” nasty things about them in the air or on our legs under the table, where they couldn’t see. How incredibly strange is that? I was more like Faith than anyone I’ve ever known. While this makes perfect sense, to me it was stunning, amazing, and incredible.
11. Why do you think this book works so well -- because it does. The flow is phenomenal between your stories. Besides being amazing writers with a compelling story, what is it about your book that makes it so unique?
Thank you! That’s a really hard question to answer without sounding self-important. I think one of the things that works well is that both Faith and I had similar personalities and similar stories in so many ways. We were both passive people who had to learn to take charge of our lives, to grow more confident, to be the captains of our own ships. I read the book for so long in bits and pieces that when it finally was put together, the flow amazed me. We did almost no changing of order or re-arranging. We were so much alike -- in our approach to life and to writing—that it was a completely unconscious synchronicity. As for what makes it unique, I don’t think there’s another book like it. There’s an adoptee-birth mother reunion book that is epistolary, and an amazing story written by identical twin sisters who were separated at birth and adopted by different families without ever knowing—in fact, without their adoptive families even knowing -- that they were each a twin. But I don’t know of any other book co-written by a birth mother and daughter telling their story of loss and connection. And for anyone interested in adoption issues -- for anyone interested in being a mother or daughter of any kind—it is an unusual and, I hope, fascinating story.
I want to thank Jil for taking the time to answer these questions for me and for our readers. I share in Jil’s sadness that Faith is not here for the launch of the book, but I am so happy she was able to share her journey for a broader audience.
Jessica Lost: A Story of Birth, Adoption & The Meaning of Motherhood is now available for purchase. I most definitely recommend it.
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