The crudeness of the title hardly prepares you for the delicacy and sheer gorgeousness of Mary Anna King’s memoir — the bittersweet story of a family that fragmented and then (mostly) reunited.
“Bastards” describes the author’s own struggles, amid that fracturing, to find love, identity, and a place in the world. It provides an unusually unflinching look, too, at the fallout from adoption, highlighting its costs as well as benefits. Here is King on the subject:
“I had always told myself that adoption was a kind of triple-win scenario — birth families relieve the pressure of a child they are unable to care for, adoptive families gain a much wanted child, child gains a stable, loving family — but I was beginning to see that there was a flipside. There can be no winners without losers. So in a triple-win, there must be a related triple-loss. Once adoption was on the table, everyone has already lost — lineage, origin, the vision of the future lives they thought they would live — and all our losses were attached to someone else’s gain in an endless, confusing loop.’’
King’s parents, Peggy and Michael Hall, lived at the financial margins, in a relationship that was fiery and unstable. “Their passions burned like an incinerator and swung wildly from love to hate and back again,” she writes.
The two were barely able to care for their first two children, Mary and her older brother, Jacob. The freak death of Mary’s paternal uncle in a gun-related accident caused her father to spiral downward. Even as the marriage splintered, her parents produced five more girls in quick succession. (They opposed abortion, reports King, and their recourse to birth control was evidently spotty at best.)
The youngest four girls were relinquished for adoption to strangers. Peggy made the adoptive parents promise to teach them about God, send them to college — and allow for contact with their family of origin once they turned 18.
The first of the five girls, Rebecca, had a more complicated trajectory. Ill as an infant, she was taken “temporarily” from her New Jersey home to Oklahoma City by her maternal grandfather and her step-grandmother, Mimi, who could better afford medical care. Before her sixth birthday, Peggy reclaimed her. “By the end of her first month with us,” King writes, “Rebecca was no longer surprised by meanness or danger; she expected it.”
But when the Hall marriage finally ended, Jacob, Mary, and Rebecca were all sent to Oklahoma. The girls were adopted by their grandparents, the Kings. Jacob, who never fit in, returned to New Jersey, to his father’s custody.
King struggled, too. At times, she hid beneath the dining room table, wanting “to be everywhere and nowhere, to be anything but human, anything but a child.” Later, she would experience panic attacks.
Raised with “the tepid hand of obligation and the safety of distance” by her adoptive parents, King continued to adore her birth mother, who checked in regularly by letter and phone. Despite “a handful of sepia-toned memories,” she became estranged from her birth father, a musician and DJ whose negligence she was never able to forgive.
Toward her grandfather and especially Mimi, what she feels in retrospect is mostly gratitude: for material comforts, much-needed stability, an introduction to the world of literature. It was Mimi, she writes in the acknowledgments, who introduced her “to my greatest love, this wild, wonderful world of words.”
The memoir brilliantly attests to that love. The chronicle of the Hall and King families is surely a logistical and emotional muddle, nothing we would wish on anyone. But not so King’s telling of it, which is always eloquent and precise.
Its emotional payoff comes when each of King’s sisters, in turn, seeks out her lost family, and the siblings gradually, gloriously reunite. The first message King receives, while still in college, is a foreshadowing and a culmination: “My name is Lisa. You don’t know me, but you’ve known about me your entire life.”
The memoir’s title, we learn, is not meant literally, but as an evocation of the illegitimacy King and her siblings felt as they shuffled between families. Though happy to know her sisters at last, King remains bracingly candid about the emotions involved: “The girls around this table were people I loved, people I lost, and people whose existence had ripped my family apart. All of these things were true. None of these truths was strong enough to erase the others. It would be easier if one of them could.”
BASTARDS: A Memoir
By Mary Anna King
W.W. Norton & Company, 256 pp., $25.95
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.