Why I hate biographies

I have a friend who loves biographies. She’s always telling me to read accounts of dire lives turned around, the fall and rise of a star or a tragedy overcome.

But I can’t. Biographies and especially autobiographies unsettle me. It is not the sweep of grand lives that leaves me undone. It is the minutiae.

In ‘I Always Wanted to Go to Patagonia’ a short story by Bruce Chatwin he describes tiny details of his childhood. A book from his aunt, a wooden camel from his father, a pink conch shell. Each piece is a talisman, freighted with meaning and connection. Then he says, "The Chatwin's were fanatical sailors."

Such a small comment. And yet, it all reeks of belonging. Of all the pieces of his life fitting together like the internal workings of an old clock.

I have none of those types of memories. No special objects. No touchstones to take me back to another time. Because I was not there, not really, not in any emotionally tangible way.

It’s an adoption thing. To not be present, to be in a dissociative state, fragmented and ambivalent.

Nancy Verrier, nn Coming Home to Self, talks about growing up with genetic amnesia. Where you have no reference points for one’s being, no reflection of one’s Self.

She says some adopted people are aware of this (while feeling abnormal). Others, disconnected from emotion and not knowing anything else may think their experience is normal.

That was me. Because closed or secret adoption is a form of gas lighting.

Not your everyday gas lighting where one person works to warp another’s mind. It is more of top-down abuse.

In her paper Adoption Law in New Zealand: the rights and well-being of the child, Catherine Moody argues genetic determinism dominated adoption law. “Since most adopted children were ‘illegitimate’, and were therefore considered to come from sinful families, it was believed that the sin would be passed on to the child."

A complete break was the only answer. Nurture over nature was the only way to save the child from the immorality of the mother.

That was the job of the adopting parents. They had to wipe out their kids pre-loaded sin by pretending they were their natural children. It was a big ask. And it was a big lie.

But truth nibbles at the edges of everything and that’s where the dissonance creeps in. Adopted people often describe their childhoods as shrouded in fog.

My childhood is like a half-remembered dream. And yet the pressure to stay asleep is huge. It’s not enough to be an adopted person. You have to be a good adopted person. And good adopted people do not need to know about their origins. And I wanted to be good.

Because at the edge of the fog was a vast and lonely desert. A place reserved for adopted kids when they let down the people who worked so hard to nurture them.

Of course, not all adopted people feel this way. But aside from one person I know, who seems to like living in his fog, I’ve not met any.

I guess that's what strikes me about Chatwin's writing. He lives inside the life he is living. He is confident and complete. He is so taken up by his life that he never stops to question his right to it. And why should he? He knows without question that he owns his story and by extension, that of every Chatwin who came before him. In essence, to make sense of a life story, you need an authentic history.

So I avoid biographies. Not because they are poignant or sad or dramatic. But because they make me aware of all I missed out on while living a lie. All the time and energy expended in trying not to be me.

Now, I am gathering myself to fight to end the rule of the archaic Adoption Act 1955. And I think of myself as a salmon swimming upstream. I will never conquer the waters downward flow. It is a torrent of bureaucracy that has defined the lives of adopted people for over 60 years.

Instead, I am trying to catch the counter-flow. Tiny streams of water within the cascade that help to push the beleaguered salmon upstream.

But a salmon knows where it comes from and it returns there with eerie accuracy every year.

While an adopted person has no such surety of identity. And when you don’t know where you come from, there really is nowhere to return to.

Thanks to Mary Trainor Bigham for your contribution