A conversation with novelist Caroline Leavitt about Girls In Trouble
Why a novel about adoption?
Well, I hadn't intended to write about adoption and then life intruded. After my husband and I had had our son, I had a medical condition which made it impossible for me to have more children, so we thought about adoption. We have a relative who did open adoption, and that seemed the way to go for us.
Open adoption is different from regular adoption isn't it?
Yup. In the past adoption was very secretive. The birth mother would give away the child, sometimes not even knowing who the adoptive parents were, and the records would be sealed. Not a great thing for either the birth mother or the child. People thought this separation was necessary for bonding, and but actually, what it does is create a hole, which is why years later you have birth mothers searching for the children they gave up, and those children searching for their birth parents. It's natural to wonder where you came from. Open adoption says that not only can birth mothers know who is going to adopt their child, they can choose the parents. And there can be continual contact. As much as all agree on. Sometimes it's once a month, sometimes it's once a year.
How do they choose?
Well, you place an ad with a 1-800 number so the birth mothers can call and talk to you, and see if they like you. And you make a scrapbook for the lawyer to give anyone who calls. The goal of these calls is simply to get the birth mother to like you, rather than to find out details about who the father is, if she's seeing a doctor, etc. etc. It's like dating--you really try to put your best foot forward, show how versatile you are. And I remember, our adoption lawyer told us we could fudge certain issues, like saying we're spiritual instead of religious, for example. But we tried to be really honest.
Did the girls fudge, too?
There were a few scams. One woman called with two twin babies, which we weren't equipped to take. And it turned out she wasn't pregnant at all! It happens.
So what brought this whole adoption idea to the novel?
I found that these girls were so desperate for someone who would approve of them, that it was heartbreaking. They wanted to stay on the phone with me for hours, just talking about clothes and movies and makeup, and not about their babies at all. And I couldn't get them out of my mind, I couldn't forget their stories.
Would you say it was like they wanted you to adopt them, too?
Now you wrote a piece for salon called Dating the Birth Mother that had some repercussions?
Yup. Although it was reprinted in adoption magazines, Salon sent me a few very nasty letters, one saying that someone like me should never be allowed to adopt, and another saying my piece was a cautionary tale.
Why was that?
Well, because the piece was about how to get a baby, you have to win over the mother, you have to court. And people who yearn for babies will often try to transform themselves into what they think the birth mother wants in order to get a child. Just as birth mothers who want you to take their babies might hide information, too. It's just the way it can be because there can be such desperation on both sides. But people took real offense that anyone would lie in such an important process. I was just trying to show the human aspect. And the difficult fact is, that at some point, a birth mother will relinquish certain decisions. You can get a family that is religious but you can't guarantee they won't lose their religion when the child is five. Just as adoptive parents can't guarantee that they're going to want the birth mother to be a part of the family ten years down the road.
So are you anti-adoption, Caroline?
Absolutely not. I have many friends who have adopted successfully, and a relative has a wonderful open adoption with a fabulous young woman. I just think the system needs some fine-tuning. They make it really difficult for both adoptive parents and for birth parents. There was that terrible Baby Richard case, where the newspapers were full of all these pictures of a four-year-old being torn from his parents' arms and returned to the birth parents, but what people didn't read about was the fact that his birth parents had petitioned to win the baby back weeks after Richard's birth and it had taken four years for the case to be settled. Was this four-year wait fair to the birth parents? Absolutely not. Was it fair to Richard? Certainly not. Fair to the adoptive parents? No. And in the end, nobody won. There was also a terrible case in Ann Arbor about a two-year-old girl wrestled from her adoptive parents. Both sets of parents ended up divorced. Who benefits from that?
So what's the answer?
I don't know. Maybe the answer is better counseling of birth parents so they never feel railroaded into giving up their children. Maybe the adoptive parents need better counseling, as well Adoption is a wonderful, wonderful thing. And there are so many children who need good homes, surely we can fix such an important system to make it work for all.
Are you still trying to adopt?
We've given it up for now, but still think about it.
Let's talk about the novel. It's about a 16 year old honor student who gets pregnant, has an open adoption, and falls in love with the adoptive family with disastrous results. Is it an anti-adoption novel?
Absolutely not. All my novels are character driven and so is this one. It's about the yearnings to bond with someone, and how you get into trouble-becoming a "girls in trouble" when you can't. There's no villains in the book, just flawed people.
Obviously it struck a nerve. You had fifteen advance blurbs!
I was hoping for just two, but to my surprise and delight, people seemed really affected by the book, which is every writer's dream. The book was sent to Suzanne Beecher who writes a book column for Working Mother and runs DearReader, a bookclub that goes to zillions of libraries and subscribers, and she left a trembling-voiced message on my machine after she read the book, saying only that I had to call her. I was sure she hadn't liked the book, so I called to find out why, and she told me that she had been pregnant at sixteen as well and she felt the book was speaking to her, that it was the first time she had wanted to not only talk about that time in her life, but to claim it. That was especially gratifying for me because when I was writing the book and showing it to people, a few people said, "oh, that would never happen to an honor student," when it fact, it does happen, and all the time.
bYour last book is in paperback now, right? Coming Back To Me--about a young family grappling with sudden tragedy. If I remember, it had raves from The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and a host of other places.
Yes, it's out on the heels of the new one.
And you write a book column for the Boston Globe.
Yes, I do. It's lots of fun.
You and your husband are both writers and work at home. What's that like?
It's great, we're across the hall within waving distance. And Jeff is nonfiction, so he catches me saying someone took a northbound route when they're driving south, and I push him to make his nonfiction more dramatic, much like any good novel is. Plus we both understand what it is to be a writer, to deal with reviews and the solitude and the business. We're each others' biggest fans, I think.
And what's up next for you?
I'm about halfway through a first draft of a book centering around a car crash, a mysterious woman who dies in it, but I'm superstitious and can't talk about a book until it's finished.
Caroline Leavitt discusses Coming Back To Me
Is it true that Coming Back To Me is based on a true event?
Well, yes and no. I did have a dream pregnancy, and three days later, I did indeed come down with a medical nightmare, a potentially fatal blood disorder called Factor VIII inhibitor, where my blood stopped clotting. My baby came home a few days after he was born. It took me five emergency operations, three near deaths, and two months later, before I could come home, too.
Why base a novel around such a traumatic time?
To exorcise it, and to create memory where there was none. Because, like my character Molly, I had memory blockers, I couldnt remember much of what had happened, and I needed to remember in order to get beyond it and to process it. I had to create a fictional memory for myself so I could begin to heal. And as I wrote, as I got lost in my characters world, I began to feel better.
So the book is a memoir?
Not at all. The situation is true, but the characters and the plot are all imagined. My sister is nothing like Suzanne! And my husband and I werent as alone as my characters. We had round-the-clock nurses and baby nurses and my mother came and stayed with us.
The book talks a lot about the importance of community. Can you comment on that?
Molly and Gary start out as outsiders in a tight-knit community, and I loved it that those who were most suspicious turned out in the book to be the most nurturing. I think, like Gary thinks, that people can surprise you, that throughout life, there are all sorts of different communities that form around you. There was one point when our medical bills were over a million dollars and the insurance company was refusing to pay. Desperate, I offered to pay my doctors in installments. One of my surgeons told me he wouldnt think of billing me for another two years. My obstetrician told me he wouldnt bill me at all. Unexpected, and wonderful! A community of my doctors!
Whats on the horizon for you now?
Im writing another novel and were raising our son.
Your characters dont end up feeling safe. Do you feel safe?
No, not totally, but I feel very lucky, and I have wonderful people in my life, and thats enough.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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