November is Adoption Awareness Month, which puts the spotlight on issues facing families with adopted children. And so this month is also the perfect time for a conversation with Maurice Mierau, author of Detachment: An Adoption Memoir. Detachment tells the story of Mierau and his wife's journey to Ukraine in 2005 to adopt two small boys, and describes the joys and challenges of their early days as a family of four. With humour and honestly, Mierau writes about the process of learning to be a father, and also about how this experience affected his marriage, his relationship with his own father, and that with his son from a previous relationship.
49th Shelf: I love the line that comes early in the memoir, delivered by a psychologist: “So you’re writing a book about people you ignore.” It highlights the contradiction inherent for anyone writing about family life—children can be so inspiring, but they keep you away from the actual work. Detachment is very much about your evolution as a father and a husband, but can you tell me about the evolution of the book itself? What was the book that you set out to write and how did it become this one?
Maurice Mierau: The book evolved slowly. I started writing it in 2003, thinking that it would be about my father’s traumatic childhood fleeing from Soviet Ukraine with the German army in 1943. There’s certainly enough there for a book, but because of the significant factual and chronological gaps in that story it would have needed to be a novel, to allow me to fill the gaps with fictional material based on research. But I didn’t want to write a historical novel; something about the nature of the story said memoir to me late at night, and kept speaking to me when we went to Ukraine to adopt children two years later, in 2005. While we were there I kept a diary, and I’d already read a lot about Ukrainian history and especially the Second World War period.
Somehow the story of my father’s childhood, I thought, was connected with the story of adopting my sons. It took many drafts and about six years of on-again and off-again effort to figure out the narrative structure. In 2011, I went to Banff with the manuscript, and Michael Crummey was instrumental in helping me craft the opening and figure out what the through-line was. One publisher’s rejection note encouraged me to write more about my kids: that was eye-opening too.
49th Shelf: There is a perception (at least in conversations I’ve partaken in!) that books about parenthood written by fathers are received differently than those from a mother’s perspective—the latter has never won the Charles Taylor Prize for Non-fiction, for example. What are your thoughts about this difference? Have you perceived it at all in the reception of your book so far?
MM: Can’t say that I have perceived such a difference. My feeling is that reception of a book like this has less to do with the gender of the author, and more to do with unexamined assumptions that denigrate parenting and family life as worthy literary subjects. It could also be that I’m blind to my own male privilege.
49th Shelf: In your memoir, the decision to adopt has already been made as the story begins, the narrative taking the decision for granted. But was the reality more complicated than that? Were you aware of how demanding parenthood would be once you adopted your sons? Did you ever imagine it might be easy?
MM: Yes, the reality was somewhat more complicated than the memoir reveals, although I deal with the decision briefly in a flashback. My wife and I really wanted to have the experience of raising our own family, including all the highs and lows, so when we could not have a biological child the adoption decision seemed logical. In some ways skipping infancy (our boys were three and five when we adopted them) does make things easier, but no, I was not aware of how demanding parenthood would be in our circumstances.
I don’t think that a single slide in a “parenting education” class prepares you for dealing with the psychological trauma (of whatever degree) that adopted kids have experienced.
The challenges we faced were not only because of my older son Peter’s issues with attachment disorder, but really with the whole issue for both the boys of why was I abandoned by my mother? Why was I ever in an orphanage in the first place? And of course I struggle to tell that story both in the book and in real life. My wife had a more realistic view of the situation, as usual, but both of us were unprepared for how difficult it was during the time that Detachment deals with.
49th Shelf: As an avid reader, I had a sense when I became a parent that too much attention to narrative had steered me a bit wrong. I kept waiting for the denouement, for the easy part to start. How did you deal with this problem as a memoir writer? Did you ever feel dishonest in giving your book an end?
MM: Parenting as a narrative is chaotic, denouement-less as you say, and so memoir that focuses on storytelling, like mine does, is somewhat artificial; but literature depends on contrivance, as all avid readers know. Narrative problems were what made this book challenging and also fun to write. Opening the story with visits to my psychologist and then flashing back to the adoptions, and further back to my Dad’s childhood, was one way to defer the ending and keep readers going, so they’d know that the part set in Canada would not have an easy denouement either. Detachment ends in the middle of things in 2010, with a hopeful sense that various possibilities exist, which does seem honest to me.
49th Shelf: Your book is literature, a memoir, but would you recommend it as a guide for potential adoptive parents as well? And if so, should it come with a caveat?
MM: I would recommend my book to potential adoptive parents, because I wish that I’d had access to stories like this, that are franker and more specific about the adoption experience than one is likely to have access to otherwise.
There does need to be a caveat: I’m not an expert on international adoption, or attachment disorder, or child psychology; I’m a poet who owns too many books. Although it’s categorized as a parenting book in the marketplace, I’d be frightened at the notion that someone considered Detachment a source of expert parenting advice.
49th Shelf: Have there been any surprises to you in how the book has been received, either by those close to you or by strangers? Are there surprising points that readers have focussed on?
MM: Yes, I’ve been surprised by how positive reader reaction has been. I’ve had several emails from complete strangers talking about how they read the book in one sitting, and how it reminds them of intimate details in their own lives connected to adoption stories and experiences of being a war refugee similar to my father’s. “I was so disappointed that the book was over” is a typical reader comment online. Various readers have commented on my honesty and been congratulatory about making the reality of adoption more a matter of public discussion.
On the other hand I’ve been surprised not to get more negative reaction of the kind I’ve gotten from one person on Facebook, who accused me of exploiting my children and making them likely to require years of therapy in the future as a result of the book. This is not a criticism that I dismiss lightly; there are problematic ethical issues involved in revealing what’s normally private, including not only my kids but my relationship with my wife.
49th Shelf: What Canadian books have been fundamental to your understanding of how memoir works, in particular those about parenthood and family life?
MM: Several Canadian memoirs have had a big impact on me. One is Clark Blaise’s I Had a Father: A Postmodern Autobiography, where he writes that “middle age is the final orphanage,” by which he means that midlife is when we have our final separation from our parents, when we have to make sense of the past for ourselves. I love this passage:
Our life is one long novel and as we work our way through the second half it’s small wonder we never escape those crucial first pages, when the light was set for all time, when the world was an intimate place, and all its inhabitants were known by name. They were all at the dance and they got their hands stamped on the way out. They can wander back without paying, without warning, any time they want.
Then in terms of subject matter and also her beautiful, metaphor-rich style, I have been influenced and inspired by Susan Olding’s Pathologies, especially the essay “Mama’s Voices,” where she discusses writing about her adopted Chinese daughter.
Two other Canadian memoirs that helped me craft my own were Warren Cariou’s Lake of the Prairies, with its elegant narrative shape, and Madeline Sonik’s vivid, unforgettable book of autobiographical essays, Afflictions & Departures.
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