Why did you write Not My White Savior?

Somedays I’m not sure. I’m a very private person so being public about anything has been, well, interesting. Sometimes I want to close my eyes and pretend I don’t see anything public about myself. When I started to read my poetry at open-mics, other adopted Koreans wanted a copy or wanted to talk with me about my poems and I wasn’t ready for that. I just wanted to read because it was therapeutic. Now I’m ready to share and talk and if it’s helpful to someone, then it’s worth it.

Near the beginning of your book, you say that the fact that you never knew your father who had been blown dead off a destroyer at Okinawa was no big deal.

It was just the first fact of my life and I never dwelt on it, never shed a single tear over it. But around the time I turned 28, as old as he ever got, I told my story to a French couple who had lived through the war and they started weeping. They couldn’t believe that my mother and stepfather changed both my names—from Peter Simmons to Craig Vetter.  Somehow that kicked my father’s ghost loose and I decided to read the hundreds of letters he and my mother had exchanged over his four brutal years at sea in the Pacific war.

You can tell from the shipboard notebook my father started when he was twenty-three years old that he wanted to be a writer. You can read him practicing, can feel the young soul that wants to render the world into words, wants to get better at it, wants to have readers.

By the time I’d become a professional writer, I had no idea that my father had had the same ambition, because I never knew him. He was blown to pieces off the fantail of a destroyer into the shallows near the Japanese island of Okinawa.


It’s a workday, Monday, and Catherine is dressed up for being in the office. She wears a silk blouse and slim-fitting pants in a pretty color of green. When she sees me in the lobby, she rushes over.

“There you are,” she says, taking hold of my arm in a strong mother’s grip. Her hand is soft but strong. Purposeful. “I was worried. What took you so long? Are you okay?”

She can already tell what’s going on inside of me—like a mother—and it’s unnerving. “I’m just nervous,” I say. “Is he here?”

“Yes, he’s already sitting down. I’m sorry,” Catherine says, “I know I sprung this on you at the last minute but I just want to get this over with. Just meet him and then that will be done.”

She leads the way through the packed restaurant, a place called Chili’s, which is a favorite of Daniel’s.

She holds my hand and walks with great, long, confident strides. I shake so hard, I feel like I will throw up.

She turns a corner and leads us down a long row of tables. Pretty soon, we are in front of a huge, red, plastic booth and there he is, the man I’ve seen in all the photos. Daniel.

When he looks up from his menu, his expression is not that of a stranger. He is so familiar—his face is my own. Daniel has gray white hair and one of those rough whiskered faces, as if he forgot to shave only it’s fashion. His jaw is chiseled like a Marboro man, he has a wide generous mouth and bright, alive eyes—blue with glints of white light. The man is electric.

“You’re Jennifer?” he asks.

I nod like yes, since words are lost. This man is my brother. My brother!

He takes me in from head to toe and back up again and laughs like I am the best joke in the world. A punchline. He sounds so happy and surprised and even delighted. In the sound of his laugher, so much like my own, I’d swear I’ve known him my entire life even though we look at each other for the first time.

Catherine stands back and laughs too, hand over her mouth. “I told you,” she says, tears in her eyes. “I told you.”

Daniel tries to stand up but his thighs hit the table and it’s a little awkward to reach each other. After a scoot and push, finally he comes around the edge and we hug. Daniel feels just great and what a skyscraper of a man.

It hits me again, like a wave from sea. A brother! I’ve had a brother all this time.

Just what is the mystery contained in DNA? What is the energetic wavelength that moves within family units? What don’t we know, despite all our scientific strides and advances? As I hug my brother and see my own mysterious knowing fall into place, I can only say that I knew of his existence—I did.

Daniel ushers his wife out of the booth and says she is Rona. I offer my hand but then that seems weird and instead we hug too.

Why not? We’re one big happy family now, right?

Rona is a small woman with deep-set eyes and a pretty face. She says, “You sweet thing, you’re shaking like a leaf.” She holds my hands and seems very sincere.

We all settle into the booth again, the three of them on one side with Daniel in the middle and me on the other side. Water arrives in giant, red, plastic tumblers as if they are standard issue here in the Biggest Little City in the World.

I stare over my mega-sized cup and study this brother.

Daniel, doing the same, puts his elbows on the table and holds his hands together, just like Jessie did yesterday at breakfast. I sit back and hold my own hands in my lap.

Somehow, like a miracle, food gets ordered and Catherine claps her hands like calling this meeting to order.

“Well, here we are,” Catherine says and she laughs as if she has told a joke.

Daniel laughs with her but then rolls his eyes like he she’s on his last nerve. Rona laughs in the same way and coughs into her fist.

“When Catherine said we were all meeting for lunch . . . ” Rona begins, from the far side of Daniel.

“ . . . Well, I told her forget it. No way. I have a million things to do today,” Daniel says. He makes big gestures, like I do, like Catherine does, using his hands while he talks.

“Which isn’t to say he didn’t want to meet you . . . ” Rona explains.

“ . . . No,” Daniel says, “of course not.”

“Daniel just has so much going on and Catherine caught us by surprise . . . ” Rona says.

The two women smile at each other and Catherine does a quick shrug like everyone just needs to get over it. “ . . . I just wanted you to meet my daughter. After all, she’s here,” Catherine says, finishing the sentence.

“She has a way of catching us all by surprise,” Daniel says, with another eye roll.

More laughter all around.

I nod like I understand and it all makes sense but really, I don’t know what to say. I think Daniel says, without words, that he’s pissed that his mother never told him about me. Like everyone in this family, I’ve been my mother’s secret for all of my life and most of hers. I guess he’s pissed about it as if he has right to his mother’s whole story just by the fact of being her son, the one she kept and raised and loved.

I bite my lip and keep how I feel about things inside. This is not the time to set Daniel straight.

When the laughter dies down, Daniel becomes serious. “Mom says you’re a Buddhist, is that right?”

“Well, um,” I begin. I glance at Catherine and she grins and nods like I should go ahead and confess. “Something like that.”

Daniel is like a laser beam of focus, all-business now, and I’d hate to negotiate with him. I bet he’s tough!

“So what’s the bottom line here? Do Buddhists believe in God?”

I steal a quick look at Rona, who seems equally interested and then I can only look at my own hands. I shift my fingers around as if they can tell me what to say but there are no words there.

“Well, um,” I hear myself say again. “I suppose.”

“Oh, Daniel,” Catherine says, slapping at his arm, “leave her alone.”

After that, we downshift to politics and since it happens to be an election year (McCain versus Obama), they collectively talk about the possibility of “that man” making it into office. “That man” being Obama. Catherine talks about her admiration of Sarah Palin and how she hopes this country has the good sense to put such a bright lady in office.

I can only shrug and say I’m not really political.

Finally, we make an even deeper downshift and find the mutual ground of children. Daniel and Rona tell me about their daughter. I talk about Spencer and Josephine.

“I’m just dying to meet them,” Daniel says.

“Daniel just loves kids,” Rona adds.

“He’s wonderful with them too,” Catherine adds.

Pretty soon, salads are eaten and the water is gone and Daniel, Rona, and Catherine are like a team of stockbrokers before the exchange opens. They check their watches, read their text messages and tap at their phones. Time to get back to work.

As we leave the restaurant, Rona and Catherine pull together a loose plan for all of us to meet for pizza tonight. Rona wants me to meet her daughter, Brittney, and Catherine wants Jessie to bring her kids over too.

I sway a little, imagining another layer of family and my stomach rolls with nausea. All I want to do is sleep again but I nod like yes, pizza would great.

Daniel is quiet and when he hugs me, emotion rises in him—some old sadness that I don’t know but that I certainly recognize. I want to ask what’s going on but he lifts a hand between us like I need to give him room. Tears spark in the edges of his bright blue eyes.

Later, Rona will tell me that this was happiness. Daniel was just so happy to meet me.

After they leave, it’s just Catherine and me again. We stand close to each other, in the parking lot, next to her car. Our bodies—so much the same—do not touch.

“That went great, didn’t it?” she says. “I think that went really great.” Her blue-gray eyes look tired, as if this meeting took a huge effort.

“It did,” I say. “You did a good job.”

“Me?” she says. “You did a great job. I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so glad you’re my daughter.” She touches my cheek, the lightest glance of a touch and in that moment, I am so thankful I had the guts to come to Reno and to endure meeting all these people.

In a Reno parking lot, I am someone’s daughter and I get to feel how it is to have my mother be happy to have me around. It’s the best gift. Better than gold, and no, I have not made a bad gamble with my heart.

I was going to write a long introduction about the author Summer Wood so you would know something of her heart and her poetic touch with language, but her answers in this interview do just that. You’ll see! So let me tell you, instead, about her novel, WRECKER, set in California, where a young boy with a short fuse and a reckless nature needs a home after his mother is sent to prison. It’s a story about the aftershocks of abandonment, the hunger for connection, and the surprise in store for the untraditional family who dares to take him in.

Please welcome Summer, and if you like, you can make her book launch special by leaving her a note at the end.

Photo Credit: Miriam Berkley

I’m interested in your background as a foster parent. How did you come to taking children into your home? How are you different for it, and how did you let them go again?

Well, we were living in a small village in northern New Mexico, and we knew a lot of kids who, for one reason or another, were in and out of the foster care system. Our own three sons were not quite in their teens, and we had a little extra space. We figured that, if a kid in our area needed a home for a night or a weekend—a temporary refuge from a family crisis, or a night away from their foster family—we could offer that.

It didn’t really turn out the way we’d planned, though! Our first call came from a social worker who asked if we’d consider taking four small brothers. Indefinitely. The oldest was four. If we couldn’t take them, she said, they’d be split up and sent to different homes.

We hemmed and hawed and then we said yes, and embarked on one of the most harrowing and rewarding experiences of my life. I fell in love with them. We all did. And it wrecked our home life. Seven boys in the house, the oldest almost 13, the youngest 8 months— we weren’t prepared at all. But I guess, more than that, we weren’t prepared for the feelings, the deep bond that developed between us all. And the terrible sense that, in spite of doing everything that you can, sometimes it still is not enough.

When they left—well. We rooted for the parents. God knows we wanted them to succeed. We became friends with them and a kind of kin to the kids, and we helped out whenever they asked. But in spite of their best intentions the parents couldn’t hold it together, and the boys were adopted out to separate families.

Let go? I haven’t let go. I wrote WRECKER because I guess I can’t let go. You never really let go of the people you love, do you? You send them off, you wish them well, you let them be, but you go on carrying some part of them with you until the day you die.

One of the emotions you really explore in WRECKER is hesitance. The hesitance to trust. The hesitance to commit. What did your characters learn, and what did you learn through them, as they risked being vulnerable and being in roles they didn’t expect to play?

I don’t like getting hurt. Right? Who does? You lose people you love, it’s a terrible feeling. Why do we go in for this love thing at all, when it could backfire so badly?

For me, the touchstone character in the book—the single one I could rely on when things went south—was Ruthie. She knows everything there is to know about love and loss, and she doesn’t blink an eye before diving in to love Wrecker. She knows where the relationship is likely headed. The boy is there temporarily, and she has no claim on him. But she dives in anyway.

The rest of the characters wear their injuries front and center. They know a dangerous situation when they see one. They know it’s safer not to trust, not to get involved. But—and this is what I love about human beings—slowly, with varying degrees of hesitance, they let themselves love, anyway. They can’t help it. Even Willow, the most self-protective of the bunch, can’t help herself. And, loving, it’s one step, one action, after another toward committing.

Did I learn from this? I’m not sure. I do know this: never go to the pound unless you intend to come home with a puppy. The heart leads, the feet follow, and the head is left way back in the hinterlands trying to make sense of what just happened.

Raising someone who’s been dealt a blow but whose background is largely a mystery is a real task for his new family. What qualities do you think they had that allowed Wrecker to begin to settle in?

Well, first of all, they had the advantage of living in a magical place, out there amid the tall trees, the gorgeous wild backcountry of Humboldt County. And although Bow Farm isn’t exactly utopian—they’re too lazy for that—socially, they sure didn’t buy into the status quo. Each of them allows the others considerable privacy and latitude regarding their former lives. I think it was natural that Wrecker would be accorded that, too—that they would, more or less, take him as he was.

But, even more than that—and I’d never thought of it this way before, so thank you!—I think each of the characters has a kind of natural curiosity about Wrecker, that develops into a unique personal affinity. They aren’t sorry for him so much as they’re interested in him. They see him as one of their own: odd and damaged and unpredictable, but their boy.

So much of what makes parenting of any variety so difficult is the mighty internal-external choir of disapproval. At Bow Farm, there wasn’t anyone there to tell them they were doing it wrong. They had to make it up, by trial and error.

Well. Hardly anybody.

Wrecker’s mother has a small but crucial role in this book. I think you’ve given her the weight that a real birth mother might have in a child’s life—she’s decidedly absent, and yet very emotionally present—almost a ghost, a phantom limb in the family. What were your feelings about this mother as you were creating her?

Mixed is not the word. I loved her fiercely, and I was furious with her for failing to protect her son, and I feared for her every step of the way, and, for some reason, I could not let her catch one single break. Her life is the story of bad choices and worse luck, and she is one of the most beautiful women I think I’ve ever known. Is it fair to say that about a fictional character? It’s true, though; that’s how I feel.

I’ve been amazed to find how many readers write her off as a bad mother. I felt she was a really good mother, who, through her own actions and some terrible luck, had her son taken from her. The pain of that—just imagining it blinds me. And I stand in awe of the courage it takes to survive that.

But the great thing about fiction is how amply it accommodates different readings. I kind of love it that other people feel differently about the characters and the situations and the outcomes than I do. It reminds me that a story is a live thing, and that the author’s responsibility is to write it, not to interpret it.

I think my favorite part of your book was that none of the adults that ended up taking in Wrecker had sought out being a parent, so we’re watching them learn how to do it. We’re seeing them almost reluctantly falling in love. I want to go back to your own experience with parenting again and ask you to tell a story where you stepped outside of your comfort zone or known strengths—and how that turned out.

Oh, wow! Well, that’s still happening, all the time. Parenting is the best way I know to make a fool of yourself. Our boys have grown into men, now—gorgeous, amazing human beings—and I still say dumb things, worry too much, bug them unnecessarily, embarrass them—but they’re very generous about it all.

I can actually remember when I learned that it was okay—no, it was necessary—to apologize to them when I messed up. Just a straightforward, Look, I overreacted. Or—I shouldn’t have done that. Or—I was wrong. No big deal attached to it. And how astonished I was that they said, oh. Okay.

Just like that. No big deal.

But what a weight off my shoulders! Because, if you have to pretend you’re perfect or infallible or whatever, or you pretend that your bad behavior never happened, then you miss the chance to relate to them as you are. You prevent them from knowing you, and knowing what matters to you. They may not forgive you entirely, then or ever—and maybe they shouldn’t. But they know that you’re saying, That’s not the way the world should be. It’s not the way I intend it to be.

But you’re still their mom. And you’re still there. Flawed and funky and listening to the same bad music in the car, over and over.

Book Trailer for WRECKER

My wife and I recently had a wedding here in Finland. We’d already been married in the eyes of America last winter, but we decided that we wanted more gifts, so we did it again.

Instead of going on a honeymoon or paying the mortgage, we also decided to give gifts to ourselves. For a long time it was a toss-up between a solar-powered hydrofoil or a refurbished Ukrainian tank, but in the end we decided to get two dogs. That way we could stuff them under the blankets to help thaw our feet after walking to the bathroom.

Raisa immediately starting perusing the ads on an online adoption site, but she wasn’t satisfied with your average Canis lupus familiaris bearing two ears, a tail, and fur in all the right places. No, she wanted the ones with bits of tongue missing and prison tattoos where their balls used to be. Within minutes her heart was set on two gnarly looking Russian dogs being extradited for matters of national security.

Desperate for help, I made some hot chocolate, crawled under the sink (it’s warmer there), and wrote a letter to Santa Claus, known in Finland as Yule Goat.* Mr. Goat has an office in Northern Finland, so I figured my request for two fluffy, photogenic, poop-free dogs would be expedited.

Alas, it was not to be. By the time my ink fob had thawed, Raisa had already paid for our dogs via RublePal, rendering the deal all but done. Now all we had to do was meet the dog dealers near an abandoned munitions factory along the Finland-Russian border, sign a non-disclosure/non-litigation agreement, and take our animals and their troughs home.

As we made our long and arduous journey through the Finnish countryside, I mentioned to Raisa that the deal seemed a bit shady. She told me not to worry, since Finland is considered the the least corrupt and most democratic country in the world. However, the closer you get to the Russian border, the grayer the market becomes. As do the trees, the food, and the atmosphere. We drove for hours through rain and fog and icicle storms, and when we got within 10 km of Russia, the GPS told us to turn around and never look back.

Undeterred, we navigated via dead reckoning toward the heavily guarded tower on the horizon. When we finally did locate the meeting point, we found one Cadillac-size dog squeezed into a Fiat and the other chasing his shadow through a poppy field. We managed to lure the animals into our car with hunks of maggoty reindeer flesh, at which point the dogs promptly went about tearing some skin from each others faces (which Raisa said is a custom in their home country).

While the dogs tended to their wounds, I finally asked Raisa why exactly these dogs were being given up for adoption. She told me not to worry about it, but when my wife tells me not to worry about something, it means that something is deeply, truly wrong.

Turns out that when the youngest of our Russian canines is left alone, he tends to rip knobs off doors, shred clothes, and tear pipes out of walls before finally opening a window and leaping to his freedom. At one point there was evidence of these crimes, such as photographs and insurance claims, but he ate those too. The other guy, an older hunting dog with a litany of scars and claw marks decorating his face like tribal tattoos, has never learned basic commands. Or his name, apparently. He mostly just stands there smiling and wagging his crooked, truncated tail while we beg him to climb down from the top of the television.

Luckily, both dogs know not to take their massive dumps in the house. Unfortunately, like many Russians, the dogs have terrible smoking habits** and prefer potato spirits over boring old water. Despite these deleterious traits, the dogs are as strong as Mongolian llamas. They’re also ludicrously competitive: on our daily 100-km jogs, they insist on chasing down every runner and cyclist and tearing the rubber off the athletes’ shoes (or wheels). When we really want to wear out the dogs, we yoke them up with the polar bear and have the trio plow our street.

I personally share a special kinship with these dogs, being a fellow expatriate***. The dogs and I often gather in a drunken heap on the floor and reminisce about our respective motherlands, which have been at war since before the sun was born. Sometimes, when the discussion lands on on current transnational commerce barriers or disarmament talks circa 1988-1993, the mood grows downright ugly. Fur flies. Flesh is ripped. Epithets are hurled. Curses are unleashed. Raisa is forced to send us to our respective cages. After a good nap though, we forget what the fuss was about. Our comradeship survives another day.

Yes, we love our Russian dogs. (If we don’t, who the fuck will?)


* Yule goat – a frighteningly ugly little beast – actually demands gifts from children.

**And Finland is increasingly becoming a bad place to be a smoker, even if you’re a dog. Strangely, the Finnish government is striving to eradicate smoking from its borders, despite the fact that marathons, bike races and quilting bees are all conducted while the participants are puffing away. The dogs had better be careful though, as it will soon be a crime to give a cigarette to an underage smoker (seven years old or younger) or to smoke on your balcony (which is strange since 75% of the country is covered in forest and the other 25% is balconies). In the near future you won’t even see cigarettes in stores unless the cashier is getting them out of the kryptonite safe beneath the register. The dogs are worried.

***Whenever I call myself that, I feel like I’ve betrayed my country, or have been fired from a football team.

Everyone said I’d fall in love the minute they laid her in my arms. She was beautiful – a broad alabaster face with slightly-slanted deep brown eyes. She was a flirt: at 6 months she knew how to flash a dimpled smile, like a come-hither starlet. I was awed by her perfect features as the fleshy woman pressed her into my arms, swaddled in a blanket. A few minutes later she said, “Feed baby,” and handed me a bottle filled with a brown tea concoction. I took the bottle hesitantly and tipped it toward the baby’s pursed lips. How would I know when she was sated or whether she needed to burp? I felt as though someone had lent me an expensive camera I was afraid to fiddle with.

I always thought I’d be a great mother. The love I expressed for my animals reinforced the notion I had great capacity to nurture. At the airport waiting to leave Siberia I had our baby on my lap. Suddenly I heard a pop, then a mountainous ooze of putrid yellow diarrhea exploded from her diaper. I was horrified, unable to stand the smell of the stench. I thrust the baby into my husband’s hands. Calmly he changed her diaper and pulled out a clean snowsuit.

Terrified my first instinct was to push this baby away from me rather than come to her aid, I wondered how in the world I would be able to care for her. I was 40 when we went to Russia, in a second marriage, one I trusted would last. Becoming a parent was the next thing to do, like ticking a chore off an errand list. My husband and I had tried basic, non-invasive fertility treatment because we couldn’t conceive; when that failed we moved on to adoption without any real aching over the lost hope of having a genetic child. I was secretly relieved because I didn’t want to expose my body to more aggressive, hormone-altering fertility treatment like in vitro fertilization. Maybe I felt ambivalent about motherhood and didn’t know it.

Like a hiker guided by woodland blazes I moved forward, following what I thought was an obvious path. Never did I sit myself down and think, I mean really think, about how I felt about motherhood. Six months after the social worker from the adoption agency called and said, “We have a baby for you,” our daughter was in a makeshift nursery carved from a windowless alcove in our small apartment in New York City. There were no mobiles dangling above her crib or animal-themed borders running along the wall. We’d had just enough time to assemble a borrowed crib, an IKEA bureau of drawers and a changing table. The space was so teeny we couldn’t even fit a rocking chair.

No one had thrown me a baby shower. I had not read a single book on preparing for parenthood. In the months leading up to the adoption, my husband lost his job. At times I wondered whether we should go through with it, but he convinced me we should. “We’re both 40,” he had said. “There’s a baby who needs parents.” I remember the steel-grey November day I got the call from the agency. I heard “Siberia” and “passports” and “arrange flight,” but all I could think about were my writing deadlines.

Pregnant women get to arrange the spice rack. Nature slows them down. They come to their baby slowly, symbiotically. When we first brought the baby home she weighed 15 pounds. I had long-term neck and back injuries from sports so I could barely carry her. Putting her in a snuggly was out of the question.

During the first year I fed her and changed her diapers and sang to her before putting her in the crib, but I could just have easily been loading a dishwasher, paying bills. I was numb. Ironically I wasn’t suffering from sleep deprivation because life at the orphanage had taught the baby to sleep 11 hours a night in a bed by herself. But I had not had a chance to welcome the mother in me. I had not mentally prepared for time to slow down – to be so needed. I hired a part-time nanny but I was terrified to let her leave the apartment with the baby. So through the sounds of my baby squealing with delight at Elmo or crying because she was groggy and resisting a nap, I slogged away at my computer in the next room, teeth clenched, stomach churning.

I didn’t believe I had the right to use the term “postpartum” depression. I had not given birth; my hormones were not awry. But I was as blue as I’d ever been and I’m pretty sure I felt what despairing birth mothers feel – isolation, angst, regret. Was I unsuited for motherhood? I’d look down at my gorgeous child sitting on the floor with her little feet out in front of her, surrounded by blocks and other toys, and feel a surge of guilt.

At Mommy and Me groups other babies sat dutifully in mommy’s lap. Every time we got to one of these classes my baby’s first instinct was to bolt around the room, even when she was still crawling. I’d smile wanly at the neighboring mommy and say, “Oh, my little astronaut.” Inside, I was screaming with rejection from this child.

I had gone to the end of the world to get this baby, yet we were not bonded.

I began to think I was damaged goods. Or she was. Perhaps I was not bonding to her because she was not bonding to me. There is a syndrome suffered by many adopted children where they do not attach to their new mothers and fathers. Psychologists say the infant is so traumatized at birth she instantly develops an unconscious self-defense mechanism that leaves her unable to trust adults. She is convinced that the only one in the world whom she can rely upon is herself.

This clinical explanation made sense. Whenever I tried to hold her, she flexed in the opposite direction. Her instinct was always to flee, rather than cling. She would not look me directly in the eye. When she was 16 months, I hired a young, spirited Polish nanny who took every pain to care for the baby as if she were her own. She could not understand why the baby wouldn’t bond with her.

During her toddler years, my daughter adapted to nursery school and later to kindergarten. But her patterns with adult care-takers, particularly women, mimicked what went on at home. She was hyper-active, demanding, even charming, but somehow she couldn’t be satiated. She spent every ounce of mental energy figuring out how to control her universe.

It was exhausting. I was exhausted. I didn’t know what to do. My daughter was an open, pus-oozing emotional sore I couldn’t heal. We were both sinking. I had shut down. On the last day of nursery school during a year-end recital I was shaken from my stupor: when I watched my little girl disrupt the concert, and the nursery school teacher take her aside and restrain her, I cried hard for the first time. I was wild with anger and grief. Failing as a mother was unacceptable. That evening I went online and researched Reactive Attachment Disorder, the syndrome that prevents adoptees from attaching. I saw parallels with my child’s behavior and suggestions about how to bond and raise these children. Many of the parenting skills needed in these cases are counter-intuitive. That’s because a child afflicted by this often doesn’t mind punishment or isolation. Unconsciously, that’s often the result they’re courting.

For the next year, my husband and I focused on trying to interrupt our daughter’s hard-wired circuit. We’d say the kind of things you’d never imagine saying to a child such as, “I know you are afraid for mommy to love you. But I do love you.” Rather than allow her to isolate herself in her bedroom, which she did often, we kept her closer to us. I became more aggressive about organizing playdates, and reunited with my estranged sister, in part, to let my daughter meet her cousins. By now I’d realized that punishing her by taking something away had absolutely no impact: she was not truly bonded to anyone or anything. She never had a favorite teddy bear or blanket. The best form of punishment was not to punish her at all.

Children afflicted with Reactive Attachment Disorder thrive on chaos and upheaval. It gives them a feeling of control, yet they stay at an emotional distance, which is what they want. Feeling warm and fuzzy actually causes discomfort. Realizing this, my husband and I undermined our daughter’s efforts to cause disruption by responding with calm indifference to fits and taunts. Sometimes we’d even laugh a loud hearty guffaw in the middle of a tantrum and she’d stop and break into a giggle. We took away her power to play us against one another. Our strong united front threw her off. Research on the syndrome says it’s important to keep these children off-balance. It disrupts their circuitry, which is a good thing.

My husband and I banded together and made it our life’s work to read everything we could on the syndrome and dialogue constantly to gauge how things were working. There are tragic stories of women resorting to violence against adopted children because they feel isolated and unable to bond. In the absence of knowledge, they blame themselves.

Last year when my daughter started first grade, we began to find each other. She still had a hard-wired defense system but now she was exercising an intellect that allowed her to ponder behavior and its effects rather than just act reflexively. She could reach for my hand without feeling deep inner ghosts.

Over time, we knit into a unit. We replaced distance and indifference with fierce love and hate. I don’t worry when she tells me she hates me because it shows we’re tied up, finally, in the tumult of a mother-daughter relationship.

One recent day I was walking alone around the lake near my house. Through the brush I spotted a deer milking her fawn. I wasn’t more than six feet from them. They saw me too, but the doe kept feeding her young, who couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. I froze in my tracks. Tears streamed down my hot cheeks. I felt a mixture of joy and pain. Here in these woods I beheld the most gorgeous tableaux of primal love. A pure absolute moment. Nothing other than how nature meant for it to be. Something I missed out on. Julia and I were not united by amniotic fluid or mother’s milk. We came to each other along an unnatural path, and we stumbled. Slowly we learned to love each other. Because in the end that was the only way it could have happened in our circumstances.

I was seven months old when I attended my first Mardi Gras parade. It was cold by New Orleans standards, so I was bundled up like a teeny tiny Michelin Man. From what I can tell from the photos, I couldn’t bend my arms, much less catch beads. I’m sure my grandmother took care of that for me anyway.

Mardi Gras nuts run in my family. My grandfather and great grandfather both rode in multiple parades each year. My grandmother’s house was right on the parade route, and her porch was THE place to be. She’d cook tons of delicious food throughout the Carnival season. She dove for beads and dabloons like a woman half her age and kept an ice chest of cold beer at her side to trade for the most prized throws.

I definitely got the Mardi Gras genes. At the height of my participation in Mardi Gras, I was in four parades and made nine costumes, including one for the dog. I bought my house in 2001 partly because of its proximity to a particularly choice portion of the parade route. When I decided to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I set the closing date for the sale of my house after Mardi Gras so I wouldn’t have to find another place to stay.

I’ve been a NOLA expat for nearly four years now, and I’ve only been back for Mardi Gras once, the first year. I met other expat friends down there, and we had a ball. I did all my usual things, but it was different.

Since then, I’ve had really good reasons not to go back. In 2008, I had just started a new job. Finances were tight as I was still paying for the adoption of my daughter who would be coming home later that year. I teared up a bit in my cube that day. Last year, I was a new mom and not ready to take on the Mardi Gras crowds with my baby. We went home for St. Patrick’s Day instead. As I boarded the plane to return to North Carolina, I swore that I would be back for Mardi Gras this year.

The economy has caused me to tighten my belt quite a bit, but in all honesty, I could have afforded to go home this year if I really wanted to be there. Fact is, it just didn’t seem that important. As the time grew near and I knew I wasn’t going to be there, I waited for the homesickness to rear its ugly head but all I felt was, meh…

Mardi Gras is a magical time, but it’s more magical when you live there. Waking up in your own bed, wading through the glitter and feathers covering your house to find your costume, and making your way past neighbors who are dressed as butterflies, giant crawfish, or demon George Bushes is what makes that magic. Once you’ve had that experience and you go back as a tourist, it just doesn’t measure up to the memories of having Mardi Gras happen in the middle of your regular life. 

I don’t feel sad that we aren’t down on Frenchman Street this afternoon. I grieve that my daughter will never know what it’s like to run into her teacher dressed as a cancan dancer in the French Quarter. And beyond Mardi Gras, she’ll never be playing in the back yard on a regular Saturday afternoon in the spring, hear a brass band leading a Second Line parade in the distance, and run through the house to the front door to join the folks dancing behind the musicians. She won’t go around the corner to a neighbor’s house to get a lucky bean or delicious Italian cookie from their food-covered St. Joseph’s Day altar. Even though those things are really wonderful, New Orleans lacks many of the other things our multiracial family needs. Despite all the magic of the City, I’m not willing risk my daughter’s future on a place as fragile as New Orleans.

So it’s two o’clock in the afternoon on Mardi Gras, and I’m in a coffee shop nowhere near New Orleans working and writing an essay. I’m okay with that.

I wake up before 7:00 on the morning of Tuesday, June 4, 1996 and know three things instantly: I’m in labor, I have to return the car to that awful man, and I have to go buy another car. If I don’t, I won’t have any way to get myself to the hospital. I am twenty years old.

The pain in my belly and lower back is intense and I flop over onto my knees and bounce up and down, which wakes up my roommate Tim, who sort of doubles as my boyfriend.

“I’m in labor,” I tell him.

“Are you sure?” he asks, having just spent the last week listening to me declare the same concern regularly. Tim’s on standby, as is my sister, Kim, who has a flight arranged from Kansas City. The moment she hears word that I’m at the hospital delivering she will grab her packed luggage and the diaper bag she’s had waiting, probably since the moment I agreed to let her, and her new husband, adopt my child.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I tell Tim. “I’m going to go buy a car.”

I’m in an elevator, with my 10 month old twin daughters in their obtrusively large twin stroller. We are headed to the pediatrician’s. Several other people are in the elevator with us, and most of them are staring at my daughters, which is a common response to babies in general, twin babies in particular, and Chinese twin babies with a Caucasian mother most of all. Though I have only had the girls for a few weeks at this point, I am already used to the stares. My husband says that going out with them is like going out with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (who are still married; it is 2001) because of all the attention. We make jokes like this; we think we are unflappable. We think people who adopt children from other countries and then freak out because people stare or ask questions are freaky and uptight.

A woman in the elevator turns to me and says, “Oh, they’re darling!” and I smile. I am still smiling when she says loudly, “How much did they cost?”

Here is a list of some of the more insane/offensive things I have heard in reference to my daughters:

*Aren’t you worried about bad genetics?

*Are you planning to teach them English?

*(in a public restroom: one friend calling to another in a toilet stall) Oh my God, Mary! You have to get out here and look at these adorable little twins this lady got in China!

*What a wonderful/heroic/noble thing you did! You saved those girls!

*So, have they attached to you yet? (I think they were 3 at the time we were asked this. We adopted the girls at 9 months of age.)

*Oh, Madeleine and Kenza are great—but you’ll see (I was pregnant with my son at the time), there’s nothing in the world like having your own baby!

Yet through it all, nothing has ever topped “What did they cost?” Perhaps because every other asinine question or statement has simply been . . . well, asinine (um, no, I was planning to converse with them in Mandarin forever and shield them from the English language, because the moment the adoption papers went through, I immediately became fluent in Mandarin through some kind of Republic of China thought control . . . ) Whereas the question “How much did they cost?” has a concrete answer—because every parent who adopts a child, in the United States or elsewhere, has to eventually make their peace with the fact that their child was once “for sale.”

In 2001, adopting twins in China cost roughly 23K. My husband and I called it the “two for one special,” since adopting a single child was at least 20K. The vast majority of the costs go to agencies in the United States, which is why getting two babies is barely any more expensive than getting one: the paperwork is the same. In China, there is mercifully little worry that somehow your child was “bought” from her birthparents as has been the case in Vietnam and other countries, since child abandonment, especially of girls, is common and no one would need to bribe an unwilling mother to part with her child. (Incidentally, on a statistical level a greater percentage of women in the U.S. give up their babies for adoption than in China, but because of China’s staggering population, a greater number of actual babies are available in China. Still, this is worth specifying since the U.S. conception of the Chinese tends to be that they’re tossing baby girls out as a norm, but a greater percentage of Chinese keep their babies than Americans.) Yet even if babies are not being “bought” from poverty-ridden parents, economics is what drives most who abandon their girls to do so.Prohibitive taxes on second children make admitting to having one impossible for many poor, rural families, and these same families need to have a son so that there is someone to work the land and care for them in their old age. In China, girls go to live with their in-laws when they marry, so elderly couples with only a daughter would be abandoned on a farm they can no longer work. In China, more than 75% of the country still farm for a living. In China, there is no Social Security.

They told us to bring crisp, new bills. This gave us the creeps. We felt like drug dealers. To assuage our feelings of uneasiness, we took the following photograph of our daughter Kenza Ling with the spanking new money we would turn over the next day to “purchase” her and her twin as our own:


We made jokes about Demi Moore and Indecent Proposal. We wanted a baby more than anything, and I was (at the time) infertile.  We would have done anything, you see.  Crisp new bills were nothing.

Now I wish they could have asked for something else. A kidney, maybe. A piece of my lung. My left hand. I would have given it gladly, in exchange for my daughters. If I had given a kidney instead of crisp new bills, when someone asked how much they cost I could say “Fuck you” and show them my scar. Instead, there is a concrete answer: “They cost 23,000 U.S. dollars.” An answer I obviously would not give in a crowded elevator, with my daughters right there. An answer I carry.

In the United States, I have heard of couples desperate for a white newborn paying six or seven times the amount I paid, often with most of it going directly to the birth mother. Yet because their children look like them racially, they are not asked this question in parks, in elevators. They will not be asked it someday, ten years from now when the fact of their adoption is so old hat that we barely even think of it, while helping to buy their daughters dresses for prom.

A kidney. A lung. My right hand. Take them. You can have them all.

I just want my daughters.

I nearly choked on my morning oatmeal when I stumbled upon this article from the BBC.

From the article:

Pet Shop Boys reject PETA request

Pop group Pet Shop Boys have revealed they have turned down a request by animal rights group PETA to rename themselves the Rescue Shelter Boys.” PETA Europe has written to Pet Shop Boys with a request they are unable to agree to,” reads a post on the band’s official website. But the band admits the request “raises an issue worth thinking about”.

Now, I’m an amateur semantician at best, but when you first heard who sang West End Girls, did the cognitive assembly of those three words: Pet. Shop. Boys. make you rush right out to the mall and pick up a scrappy pup when you were freshly into your teen years? Did you suddenly think: “I, too, want to be a Pet Shop Boy (or Girl)” and start saving up for your very own Petland franchise? Would it have made a difference if they had been called The (almost certainly career-destroying) Rescue Shelter Boys?

No. More than likely, you spent time scratching your head, trying to figure out if it wasn’t a rip-off of One Night in Bangkok.

(It wasn’t. But it’s a good argument. Chess was released in 1984, West End Girls was first released in 1984, but to little notice. So they re-recorded the tune with a new producer and released it a second time in 1985 to wider acclaim, capturing the Number 1 spot in the UK in 1985 and in the US in 1986. But I digress…)

So with this plea, 25 years after The Pet Shop Boys first burst onto the scene and 29 years after PETA was founded, what, exactly does PETA hope to accomplish now? Shouldn’t they have seized the moment when the band first came out, like the initial outrage over Joy Division? Are they suddenly running to the forefront waving long-lost statistics of the influence of a single British technopop band’s one-hit wonder on the spike in demands for puppy mill puppies? A noticeable decline in animals adopted from the pounds across America circa 1986???

Interestingly enough, Pound Puppies also arrived in the early ’80s, and I don’t know about all you other Gen X girls out there, but didn’t you hum “Pound Puppy, you’re my one and only puppy love” almost as much as you hummed the Monchichi song?

If The Pet Shop Boys drove the angsty ’80s teen-traffic to the puppy mills, I’m certain the ‘tween girl set drove equally as much, if not more, traffic to the ASPCA to have a real, live pound puppy of your very own. Why isn’t PETA, instead, focusing on the positive influence of the Pound Puppies? Or eschewing dogs altogether and instead, touting Cabbage Patch Kids for adoption?  I mean, hell, if you want to adopt something, adopt a child – and one that grew out of a VEGETABLE GARDEN to boot, thus keeping right in line with PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk’s own ‘hippo’-cratic oath: “Therefore [animals] are not ours to use – for food, clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or for any other reason.”

Why does PETA have to be so damn preachy and negative? Ingrid Newkirk lives in Norfolk, Virginia. Didn’t all her time spent living in the South teach her that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar? But I suppose that would be inhumane to flies, so nevermind…

Now don’t get me wrong, I love animals and I sympathize with animal advocacy. I do.  I have had four animals adopted from rescue groups. I have worked with rescue groups. Hell, one of my best friends even RAN a rescue group for years and years. And I’ll confess, I like the underlying principles of PETA. I think puppy mills are bad. I think throwing bags filled with litters of kittens into the river is bad.  I think mistreating the animals used for medical advancement is bad. I think we should adopt pets from pounds, rescue shelters and directly from reputable breeders, and I think pet owners should be, above all else,responsible pet owners.

But I also wear my great-grandmother’s mink stole when I go to the Opera and, like Lenore, had a beloved white-rabbit coat when I was a little girl.  I believe that feral and dangerous animals should be humanely euthanized, rather than left to live out their days in a cage. I’m thoroughly enjoying Claire Cameron’s ongoing and highly-entertaining TNB series: A Guide to Thinking About Urban Chickens. I would rather that scientific research be tested on rabbits and chimpanzees than on my nieces. I do.

Oh. And I eat meat. Red meat.  Often. Saignant. I think it’s why we have incisors. And why God made cows and pigs and chickens and fish taste so damn delicious.

Now, I didn’t learn these things from bands’ names. I didn’t learn to eat meatloaf from Meat Loaf, I don’t appreciate fish because of Phish (truth be known, I don’t even like Phish), I don’t love bacon toffee because I also sing along to Pigoletto, and personally speaking, I prefer rotisserie chicken to Electric Chicken.

But it doesn’t mean that, because I’m a meat-eating, fur-wearing, frequent Kittenwar website-visitor and Stupid Pet Tricks-watcher, I’m going to challenge your equal right to be up in arms about leather, orBabe, or lab rats, or Steak tartare.

So give it a rest, Ingrid.  People aren’t so impressionable that we’re going to think anything of a band’s name other than it’s just another stupid band name.

Which most of us had forgotten about.

Until now.