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Thursday, July 29, 2010

41. My Reading Life (5) Blumenthal: All My Mothers and Fathers

Of late – that is to say: over recent months – my reading life has been focussed on memoirs. In particular I have sought out accounts of adoptions – stories of women who have relinquished children; stories of children who grew up in orphanages; stories of children who discovered, earlier or later in life, that they had been adopted; tales of abandonment, tales of the quest for one’s roots.

Michael Blumenthal’s All My Mothers and Fathers is such a book. Blumenthal is younger than me by 6 years; he was born in 1949, the child of Germans Jews who migrated to America just before the Second world War, refugees who escaped the atrocities suffered by Europe’s Jews.

Michael Blumenthal is a poet, and was Director of the Creative Writing program at Harvard University for a decade.
When Blumenthal was 10, his mother – the woman he had always thought was his mother – died of cancer. It was soon after this that he discovered that his aunt and uncle were in fact his biological parents. Like me, Michael was adopted by a childless couple who longed to have a child. His adoptive parents were well off; Michael was ‘traded’ for material gain – his birth parents were set up in business in return for relinquishing their son. His birth parents already had two children ; Michael grew up believing them to be his cousins, when in fact they were his brother and sister!

The ‘all’ in the title of the book – ALL my mothers and fathers – relates to the fact that Michael’s adoptive father remarried; so Michael has three mothers – his biological mother, his adoptive mother, and his step mother.
The memoir traces the lives of one family of German Jewish people who sought ‘find their voice’ in what Blumenthal refers to as the rich cacophony that is America.

Although Michael was aware from an early age of his adoption, his origins were shrouded in secrecy. Eventually, in 1992, at the age of 43, he decides to write to Berthold and Nelly – his birth parents, to seek clarification. What prompts him is the birth of his own son – whom they are about to meet for the first time.
He writes:
I am writing to you today about a serious matter ...I have realised for many years ... how painful it has been fro me that neither (or both) of you, nor anyone in my “other “ family, has ever fully explained to me the circumstances surrounding my birth and adoption ... I have had to live with this imperfect knowledge – and you have had to live with the pain of keeping the “secret” of it for the past 43 years. It seems to me that now – while we are all still alive – it is high time that someone told me the WHOLE truth ... or at least what you know and can tell. I deserve to know, my son deserves to know...

My own adoptive families – the Carozzi family (my father’s side) and the Kipping family (my mother’s side) – shared the secret of my birth and adoption for 66 years. The information that I was adopted only came to light in a chance conversation between my aging Aunt Doreen, who would have been 80 at the time, and my ex-wife.
‘Of course you know Barry was adopted,’ Aunt Doreen said.
‘No,’ my ex wife replied.
‘Oh – well – you mustn’t tell him. We were all sworn to secrecy.’
So for two years my ex wife didn’t tell me. Eventually she told our sons, and they me – the next day! I am so grateful to them for their thoughtfulness, their understanding that I had some rights in this matter, that I had the right to know.
Blumenthal’s letter continues:

I would like, and deserve, to know what occurred during that strange time now almost half a century ago when I was born. No one should have to go through their entire life, as I have until now, with the story of their birth and adoption such a mystery. And I don’t think either of you has any idea how much pain and suffering and confusion these “mysteries” have caused me ... and may yet cause my son if they aren’t clarified.

What is it like, not to know?

For years I believed that the sense of separateness I felt stemmed from some fault, some flaw in me; that my ‘only child’ status, and the love that Linda and Herbie poured on me, the sacrifices they were willing to make, their determination that I should not have to go through the poverty they experienced during the years of the Great Depression, their determination that I would have a better life – that these things had made of me a spoiled brat, a ‘show off’, a self-centered child who thought (to use Linda’s words) he was ‘the only pebble on the beach’, someone who needed to be brought down a peg or two.

I was part of the Carozzi family, part of the Kipping family, and yet – not part. Somehow on the outer, on the edge. Tolerated. Memories flood back. The first story that I wrote, probably around the Christmas of 1949, after my first year at school...

We’re at my Aunty Vonny’s, and I’m sitting on the couch, writing a story about a farmer and a crow, while my cousins are outside playing tiggy or hide and seek among the sheds and out houses and fruit trees in Aunt Vonny’s back yard. I’d always framed that story accounting for my separateness as a result of my peculiarities. I was a strange little, ill at ease among his cousins –nearly all of whom were older - living in my own world.

Perhaps I was simply an outcast, not included, because I wasn’t really one of them. It is difficult not to conclude that what was at issue had something to do with the primitive notion of ‘blood’ – the belief they held, probably unconsciously, that I was not of the same ‘blood’.

Michael Blumenthal puts it like this:
I belong entirely to no one. I’m not really my father’s... I’m not really my aunt’s and uncle’s... I am not really anyone’s. I am piecemeal, dismembered, scattered, my paternity divided, my maternity – or what I know of it – deceased... I am a boy with two homes and the keys to neither.

One of the things I found it hardest to cope with, in that first month after my ‘enlightenment’ was the collusion of my whole family, of both my families, in the secret that my mother had insisted be kept. Every cousin, every aunt and uncle, knew. And had known for decades. Even my youngest cousin, almost 20 years younger than me, had known since she was a teenager.

My father died in 1989, my mother in 1991. Why didn’t they tell me then? The question kept gnawing away at me.
During the final three years of Linda’s life, as her health declined, several people had tried to persuade Linda – my adoptive mother – to tell me. But she had kept that secret for almost 50 years. There was no way that she could change. She must have believed that I would react badly, that I would disown her, cease to love her, cease to regard her as my mother. That would have been too much for her to bear, I think. And so she maintained her silence, to the grave. As had my father.

Some of my cousins said, ‘We thought you knew.’
One, perhaps feeling the guilt of their deception, the injustice of their silence a little more keenly, said, ‘Did we do the wrong thing, keeping it from you?’

Discovering the truth has had many positive aspects. Many aspects of my life and of my personality began, suddenly, more explicable. More importantly: I discovered that I have a brother. He had not known of my existence. He was three when I was born. Our mum had left Heyfield and given birth to me at The Haven, a home for Unmarried mothers, in Fitzroy. As far as I can ascertain, no one in the Bertram family knew of my existence.

When I met my brother for the first time, we stared at each other for many minutes. I saw the deep dimple in his chin. My beard masked my dimple, but I assured him it was there. We stared at each other – examined ears, hair line, the shape of our noses, the colour of our hair – looking for similarities.
‘When you were little,’ he said, ‘what colour was your hair?’
‘Blond,’ I told him. ‘I had blond curly hair till I was four.’
He slapped his thigh triumphantly, like a punter winning a bet.

The next day, when he took me to our mother’s grave, and we stood there looking at the dull rectangular concrete, with her ‘married’ name EDWARDS, I found myself holding back tears. Before we parted, we hugged.

‘What, finally, is blood?’

What is this feeling of connectedness that is so strong and deep and primitive?

Michael Blumenthal puts it this way:
What, finally, is blood? Who are these people? What are these people to me, and I to them? What force, what inexorable claims of destiny and blood, have brought us together once more?

There are two contrary forces within each of us, two impulses. One is the impulse to be tribal, to have our place within the tribe. Over the last 50 years we have witnessed the slow disappearance of extended families, the drift towards nuclear families, a plunge into fractured families. The tribal family – in which, as the old saying goes, blood is thicker than water, is a rarity these days. In the forties and fifties, almost the whole the Carozzi clan – my father’s clan – lived within walking distance of each other. Grandma Carozzi, Aunty Rita, Aunty Ina, Uncle Arthur, Aunty Vonny, and my dad. Garrie, all lived in Coburg. All lived within easy walking distance. Most of the Kippings lived in or near Hamilton until the late 40s and early 50s, when the drift to the city began.

Families, churches, football teams, political parties, even local neighbourhoods – these tribes , often interlinking, drew people together, gave people a sense of belonging. Tribes allow people to define insiders and outsiders.
The other impulse is our human impulse to individuation – to be ourselves. It is the impulse to be an individual, and not to be contained and stifled within the narrow expectations of ‘the tribe’. And so we are pulled by these tidal forces, toward the two competing hemispheres – the hemisphere of the instinctual tribe and the hemisphere of the individual, the separate self.

While Blumenthal doesn’t deal with the aspect of our being in these particular terms, the longing for absorption into the tribal, and the pressure to be one-self, is everywhere apparent. Perhaps these discomforts are particularly strong for those of us who are adopted. As Michael writes: I am a boy with two homes and the keys to neither.
One particularly potent observation of his resonated with me:
He refers to ...the classically Freudian counsel to a prospective father: that the best thing a man can do for his son is to love his son’s mother. But how, I wonder, can a man with a past like mine ... love anyone ? In the schizoid world of my psychological needs, two sometimes opposed desires – the craving for passion and the need for security – dwell side by side. And if a divided heart, as Faulkner suggested ..., is a prerequisite for writing, the inkwell of my heart must surely house ...a James Joyce – or , at least, a Phillip Roth – in the making.

And then there is the whole question of multiplicity, of the multiple selves who are tenants in this ‘tenement of clay’:
Whitman was large,... contained multitudes. Why is it, then, that I, a medium-sized man trying to make himself at home in a world not entirely of his own choosing, can’t I manage at least to contain a small crowd?

He goes on the further explore his problem – which, I recognise, is my problem as well, and echoing William James' take on the multiplicity that lies within each of us:

One chooses, if one can, from some sort of stable centre, from the self’s locus of constancy amid all its external flux. But I, it sometimes seems... have no center: I am both a Gern and a Blumenthal, a chicken farmer and a furrier, an immigrant and an American, a son and a stepson. I am blood and water, divided and dismembered, a man trying to put all his eggs in a single basket.

There is, in Michael Blumenthal, a deep dissatisfaction, a deepest sadness that comes from not knowing his place. He describes how, despite having a great teaching job at Harvard, fantastic students in a beautiful city, with marvellous friends and a history of sweet, generous, interesting loves’ he is, nonetheless, glum. Which brings him to ask of himself: ‘Amid such plenty, how can such ingratitude exist?’

Like Michael, I have much to be thankful for in my life. Although I’m well past retirement age, I continue to teach, and almost every day I enjoy my teaching; I teach year 8, year 9 and year 12, and for the most part, they are decent, friendly young people who treat me with respect; I have a loving partner and five loving children; I have friends; and I have had a brother for almost a year.

Michael’s friend describes him, though, as always up on the diving board, and never relaxing on the lounge chair. And maybe that is true of me, too. Two of my oldest and closest friends, Meryl and Peta, both say of me: ‘I don’t know anyone else who could do what you have done – come back to secondary teaching and make a go of it.’ Another of my friends who has retired has pretty much chosen to relax in the lounge chair: golf, walking, catching up with old friends ... the full catastrophe.

But it’s true – I do choose the diving board. Have done for as long as I can remember. My brother is much calmer, much more settled that I am. Our mother’s life throughout the 1940s was turbulent; she moved around a lot, from one place of work to another – as a station cook, a housekeeper, a barmaid. She gave birth to my sister Lynette in Deliniquin in 1947; worked as a housekeeper in Balnarring; lived in Melbourne for a time. But throughout those years, and the various men she became attached to, and who – it seems – used and abused her, Heyfield remained her tribal home, where the extended Bertram clan loved her, accepted her. As Robert Frost wrote: ‘ Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’

Michael Blumenthal finds in ‘the circumstances of his birth and adoption’ – or rather, in the secrecy surrounding these things, clues to why he is as he is:
Suddenly I understand why I have become what I am: a man who needs to bear himself into the world each day by speaking his life. I see how the tidal surge of grief needs to come ashore, how the force that drove no water for so long needs to well up inside the tangible body of flesh until a new wave can rise behind it. I see how , for almost thirty years, I have dipped the wafer of my grief into my mother’s dying ...

As for me, I look back on a life of always being up on the diving board, a life of needing to do more than others needed to do to gain acceptance, a life of feeling an outsider, a life spent desperately trying to join –or create - a tribe in which I had a place. And I have become a man like Michael, who must ‘bear himself in the world by speaking his life’.
Roland Barthes wrote: ‘If there is no longer a Father, why tell stories?’ My brother and I may have had the same birth father. When our mum was 16 she fell in love with a local man. I’ve given him the cryptic name: Marty Person. He may be my father too.

Garrie, my adoptive father, was a loving and kindly man, a very simple man of little education, who learned to neither read nor write, and left school at the age of 14 from Grade 5 at the local Catholic parish school in Coburg.
Is it for my fathers that I write? Is it for my fathers that I am always on the diving board, driven to climb up there where others will see me, and constantly face the awful abyss in front of me?

One final insight that MB has introduced me to; he writes:
Years later - when I first discover the psychologically astute insight that the best thing a man can do for his children is to love his wife, and when I first experience problems trying to sustain intimate relationships with women – it begins to occur to me that, in part at least, the source of my difficulties is that the love of my father’s life has never been either of his wives...

How can a man love his wife if he cannot love himself? And how can a man love himself if he does not know who he is?
A ‘psychologically astute insight’ that has come to me as I read MB’s book is this:
I am one of the lucky one. The couple who adopted me, while not without their faults, were loving. My mother, in particular, was perhaps too loving, at times smothering me with her own need to be loved. I cannot bring myself to resent their silence on the matter of my true origins.

Even had they told me, I doubt that I could have avoided the emotional turmoil of my mid 30s. Although I do think that, had I known I’d been adopted, I would have spent less time in therapeutic care, less time on the psychoanalytical couch, delving every few days into the stories and emotional complexities of my life.
And had they told me, or had me relatives told me, I might have been spared some of the resentment I now feel. Had I been told, I would have had the chance of meeting my sister, who died in a car accident just 9 years ago. Told early enough, I would have had the chance to meet my other sister, who died in 1977, at the age of 30.
In October, 2009, I went to the 89th birthday party for my Aunt Nesta, the older sister of my mother Gwendoline. When I arrived, my aunts and cousins looked me up and down.
‘You know who he looks like, don’t you?’ they said to each other.
And as one they said, ‘Tiger.’
Tiger was my grandfather, Nigal Arthur Bertram.
‘He’s got the Bertram nose,’ they said.
I was welcomed warmly into the Bertram clan.


  1. Brilliant writing Barry. I found this post most enlightening and I resonated with many aspects, particularly the feelings regarding the secrecy. I think, while I was not adopted, that there is a need to separate and distinguish between thoughts and feelings about being adopted and thoughts and feelings about being lied to for so long and by so many people. The trust that has been damaged I can completely identify with - as my family kept the truth about my biological father a secret from me for 16 years. The trust is the issue that floors me when I least expect it - esp in relationships. Just my two sense Barry. xMisha

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