Who, a reader might ask, is Patrice Staiger, whose haunting epigram “This story begins in a dead end, since I am writing to you as someone who was never born?” Foreword to Jan Beatty’s new memoir “American Bastard”?
“Staiger” is nothing more than a substitute for Beatty herself, who uses her maiden name to set the tone for this mixture of narrative and poetry that also serves as a burning criticism of the adoption culture in America.
While American Bastard (Red Hen Press) is Beatty’s first non-fiction book, its subjects and even some of its stories will be familiar to readers of the six congregations of this veteran Pittsburgh-based poet and educator.
Beatty was born in 1952 at the Roselia Foundling and Maternity Asylum in the Hill District, known in the vernacular of the time as a home for unmarried mothers. She grew up with an adoptive family, mostly in Baldwin. She did not find out her maiden name until she was 32, although she later found both her birth mother and the man she believed to be her birth father.
To tell this story, American Bastard takes a sledgehammer to what Beatty sees as the ruling myths about adoption – primarily that adoptive children are “chosen babies” to be thankful for their adoptive family. The truth, Beatty claims, is that adoptive children are traumatized by “loss of medical history, loss of our name, broken bond with birth mothers, and that this is a primary lifelong loss that no one talks about.” Adoption can be many things, but basically it’s “a business transaction, the sale of an infant, and no one really talks about how it actually happens,” Beatty said in an interview. “I think pretending it’s different is really a problem.”
Beatty is also widely admired for her teaching work. She heads the creative writing program at Carlow University, where she also leads the madwomen in the Attic poetry workshops.
Part of her adoptee trauma was due to the laws and customs of the era in which she was born, when extramarital births were heavily stigmatized and adoptions were “closed,” which meant that children were legally prohibited from learning about their birth parents .
Beatty knew she was adopted from an early age, but more importantly, she felt it: she didn’t look like her parents or older sister (who was also adopted), let alone her cousins. Already given away once, she writes, she lived in constant fear of being abandoned again and faced the relentless challenge of proving herself worthy. The adopted child, she writes, “tries to build a right path out of nothing by observing others, trying to find out what they are doing in order to make acceptable children for themselves.”
Beatty’s birth mother, a Garfield worker who lived with her sister and widowed mother, gave her up mainly because of her economic hardship. Beatty’s adoptive parents were more financially stable – her father was a mill worker – but their personal lives were strained. Beatty says she and her adoptive mother “really didn’t have a good moment – like none.” As a child, Beatty often hid in the attic reading; her father, whom Beatty describes as “a great guy”, built her a wooden platform in her hiding place and was much more personable.
Beatty stresses, however, that her criticism of the adoption culture is not a question of her personal relationships. “I’ve read all the books I can find on the subject and I usually toss the books across the room because there’s so much glossing over here. It’s like this need to get it pretty, to do it well, this good thing people are doing to save these babies, and no appreciation that, ‘Look, you might be doing this for yourself.’ ”(Exceptions include the writings of the late adoption reform advocate Betty Jean Lifton, whom Beatty quotes several times in the book.)
While American Bastard is not a public policy book, Beatty said in an interview that she would at least require therapy from adoptive parents in order to understand their true motives – and she wants adoptive parents to tell adoptive parents, “I’m sorry for your loss “Instead of insisting:” Everything will be fine. “
For Beatty, the desire to get to know one’s birth parents is just as innate as the qualities one inherits from them. As an adult – and before switching from social work and waitress to poetry and science – Beatty found her birth mother. They would only meet three times and the relationship was awkward to say the least. But Beatty saw an echo of her blood relationship in her fashion choices at the time: they both wore the same style of clothing the first time they met, and her mother wore a pair of shoes that she could have borrowed from Beatty’s own closet.
While her mother was very reluctant to discuss the circumstances of Beatty’s conception, Beatty learned enough in 1988 to track down the man she believed to be her birth father: the late “Wild Bill” Ezinicki, a professional ice hockey player who played three Stanley’s – Victories won cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the late 1940s. Ezinicki, a winger, also played several seasons with the Pittsburgh Hornets of the American Hockey League, which is how Beatty’s mother would have met him in 1951. (The Hornets played in the now-defunct Duquesne Gardens in North Oakland.)
At Beatty’s first meeting with him, she writes, Ezinicki said it was possible that he was her father, although he later called her to say it wasn’t him. But Beatty is sure of it, and goes back to the hard-playing Winnipeg-born Ezinicki – a well-known cross-checker who once led the NHL in penalty minutes – everything from her teenage love for hitting things (softballs, tennis balls) to her Young adult forced to travel to West Canada. “Before I knew my birth father was Canadian,” she says.
“The body and blood are everything to an adopted child, and I think it’s everyone,” she adds. “I mean, they may not think about it that much because it’s part of their natural existence. But when you don’t have that connection, when you don’t have that connection to your blood, it really becomes important. “
Beatty says she tried to write these memoirs for decades – maybe even her entire life. But she needed time.
“I feel like I need to do more therapeutic work to get to these places,” she says. “I also had to grow as a writer to learn how to write this book.”
But it was a book she had to write, she says, because “I couldn’t find it anywhere. I couldn’t find anyone to say that because everyone was doing it nice and that was driving me crazy. And I wanted it to be written down, ‘Hey, look, that’s how it was for me and that’s how it is, I know, for a lot of other adoptees.
She quotes her devotion to the book: “This is for the lost who never knew where they came from. This is against those who pretended that the loss never happened. “
At 7pm on October 23, Beatty and White Whale Books are hosting a book launch for “American Bastard” at Lotenero Art Studio, 2708 Penn Ave., in the Strip District. The event features the poetry of Ed Ochester and live music from 8th Street Rox. Face masks and proof of vaccination are required for entry.