Searching for a True Image

Dog Flowers by Danielle Geller
Book Cover of Danielle Geller’s memoir, DOG FLOWERS

Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Danielle Geller shares her efforts to reclaim her mother in a quiet, yet powerful voice that’s substantially free of retrospective editorializing. For readers who want to learn a life lesson along with the memoirist, this absence of “and now I know” observations may disappoint. For me, it was refreshing to read a memoir that kept that sort of clutter out of a story.
Geller’s mother leaves her home on the Navajo reservation at nineteen, marries Geller’s father, and has three daughters. Alcohol takes over her life and she’s unable to care for her children; Geller grows up with one sister and their paternal grandmother. She has little contact with her mother and none with her mother’s family, and when her mother dies, Geller gradually takes steps to understand her mother, her mother’s family, and her mother’s culture. Her search for a true image of her mother has universal elements beyond the personal details of her story. Adoptees, foster care survivors, and others separated from their mothers as children will recognize the complexities of a child’s feelings toward an absent mother, how one carries those feelings into adulthood, the drive to connect with blood relatives, and how family separation creates generational loss. As an adoptee in reunion with my maternal family, Geller’s words rang true. As a writer and reader, I was swept up in the story, the structure, the imagery, and the wisdom. Looking forward to Danielle Geller’s next book.




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Two New Books by Adoptees for Spring 2021

The world, and especially the U.S., needs more #adopteevoices.

The U.S. adoption industry operates now and historically as a money machine rife with corruption, misogyny, oppression, racism, and exploitation. All of these institutional characteristics work to silence adoptees. So when a book by an adoptee gets released, I celebrate!

Cover of Cleave

Cleave is a poetry collection of magnitude and fascination. I started reading it one evening after dinner and stayed up late with it, still reading. As one critic notes, “With breathtaking lyric beauty and formidable formal range, Nobile details the intimate effects of the international adoption industrial complex on children and parents caught up in a system’s unrelenting hunger. This is a book of remarkable compassion and real horror. Its stories will be news to many and all too familiar to others.”

I’m a domestic adoptee, and Tiana Nobile identifies as a Korean American adoptee, so there are important distinctions in our two experiences of adoption, but her stories are “all too familiar” to me.” Most, perhaps all, people who are adopted by strangers experience feelings of loss, alienation, of not fitting in.

Adoption doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The adoptee experience of loss and alienation can be exacerbated in transnational and transracial adoptions in a country like the U.S., where racism and anti-immigrant hate poison communities, families, and individuals. Tiana Nobile’s poems place a personal experience of adoption in that wider community and in a historical continuum. This is a critical book for critical times.

It’s also an aesthetically rich book, full of sensory delight in language and provocative use of many traditional elements of poetry like internal rhyme, organic form, alliteration, and startling imagery.

The poems in Cleave make expert use of a wide variety of intriguing formats. For example, in “Where Are You Really From?” Nobile employs a prose poem format that’s a list of place names in the U.S. that create a mystery narrative — one that illuminates the the empty past of people separated from family, culture, language, and history. A series of poems titled “Abstract” begin with white space, illustrating the absence of knowledge. The famous “monkey love” science experiments that separated newborn monkeys from their mothers is a recurring source of images.

Many of the poems mine science (or pseudo-science) for information on the mother-infant bond and details about fetal and infant development, a technique shared by the writer of the second book discussed here. Nobile’s poem, “Lost First Languages Leave Permanent Mark on The Brain, New Study Reveals,” uses this headline format to to introduce a meditation on what is lost:

How do I translate

the sound of my mother’s

moaning? It’s a soft wail

I hang on the wall

of my windpipe

Published on April 6, 2021, Cleave can be purchased directly from the publisher or wherever books are sold.


* * * * * * * *

Cover of The Guild of the Infant Savior

Megan Culhane Galbraith‘s genre-bending book, The Guild of the Infant Savior also kept me reading late into the night. I finished this 300 page collection of essays and visual art in two sittings. Galbraith’s artwork consists mainly of compositions of dollhouses and dolls from the 1960’s, the era in which she was born and then adopted. The visuals work in conversation with the text, but also with the history of women and motherhood.

The text often relies on poetic devices like juxtaposition and repetition to create meaning without overt explanation. But there are also plenty of insightful and direct observations about the adopted state, like these:

“As an adopted child, I’d felt like a thing to be played with instead of a person with her own identity.”

“Many pro-life groups use the term proadoption, but I am not their poster child.”

“I continually try on identities and feel like an actor in my own personal theater productions of The Good Child or Don’t Ever Leave Me Again or See, I Am Worthy of [insert here: Love, Kindness, Joy, Pleasure].”

Like Tiana Nobile, Galbraith explores historical and scientific beliefs about maternal separation. Her installations of period doll houses and dolls (photographed for inclusion in the book) re-create a “mothercraft” degree program at Cornell University in the 1960’s that used infants from orphanages as “practice babies” for students. Like the creators of the “monkey love” experiments, the architects of the Domecon program demonstrated a callous disregard for the emotional states of their subjects, in this case human babies who were put under the care of a rotating series of undergraduates. These babies were seen as in need of middle class remediation, and were later adopted anonymously. Galbraith herself was not a “Domecon baby,” but she spent her first five months in foster care wearing a mechanical brace to correct a medical condition before being adopted anonymously. The parallels are apparent.

The Guild of the Infant Savior publishes May 21, 2021. Pre-order the book here

Many thanks to the publisher, Mad Creek Books, for providing an advance review copy.

When Families Get Sober

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

One of the happiest parts of aging for me has been seeing many of my nieces and nephews get free from addiction.

Addiction is truly a family disease — not only a genetic predisposition that people can inherit, but also a disease that can thrust a whole family into chaos along with the individual who is actively addicted.

All five of my brothers died young from addiction-related conditions. Those that had children passed addiction on. When the first young person in my family got sober, it had a domino effect. It showed others that being free of drugs and alcohol was possible for people in our family, and that life could be immeasurably better.

Here’s a friend link to a story about addiction and incarceration in my family.

Serial Stories

Screenshot of timeline showing publication dates of famous literary novels (Count of Monte Cristo, Vanity Fair, Uncle Tom's Cabin, North and South, Madame Bovary, The Woman in White, and A Tale of Two Cities.

Would you read a longform story if it was divided into shorter pieces published once a week?

(Image credit: Books On the Wall)

In the nineteenth century, serial publication was common. Authors and magazines released long stories bit by bit, enticing readers to stay tuned. Often, each piece of the story ended on a cliffhanger, which left readers and listeners eager for the next installment. Perhaps the most famous serial author is Charles Dickens, who somehow kept up with a grueling production schedule to produce classic novels like The Tale of Two Cities — and without the convenience of digital tools.

Advertisement for Great Expectations

Are today’s readers too accustomed to immediate reading gratification to be interested in works in a serial format? Or are our attention spans and free time limited in a way that makes the serial format convenient and manageable for us?

This month, I’m experimenting with the serial format by publishing one chapter per week of Walk Away, my 2016 Kindle Singles memoir of my experience with teenage intimate partner violence.

Here’s a “friend link” to the first installment that will open Medium’s paywall for you. Meanwhile, best wishes from my teenage self — who survived with the help of her friends.

Writing Memoir: Scene and Summary

“A crowd dances in the street in Guelph with their arms spread, looking upward” by Nadim Merrikh on Unsplash

Time is the difference between scene and summary in any kind of writing.

Summaries compress time to deliver necessary information, often background information or transition information.

Scenes approximate real time. Action is described in a moment-by-moment fashion.

For me, summaries are easier to write than scenes. But summaries, as necessary as they can be, won’t carry a story. They don’t give the reader that sense of immersion that most readers crave. But they do help us skip over time that’s boring or isn’t relevant to the story, and they transport us from one scene to the next.

Scenes don’t come as naturally to me. Still, I force myself to slow down and write, as best I can, in a moment-by-moment way, but only when I’m at a particularly dramatic or emotional point in the story. It’s getting easier.

Here’s an example of an interaction between summary and scene from an essay about seeing my niece BeeBee for the first time since she’d been released from prison. The first paragraph is a summary giving background information about what I know (or think I know) about addiction. The next three paragraphs are my attempt at a moment-by-moment scene.

I breathe into the risk of places where people are mired in active addictions. There’s just no telling what can happen in those places. But I’m hopeful, too: I’ve read about studies showing the neural circuits that fire up during drug-seeking also fire up during prayer. Belief in God, or a Higher Power, can substitute for getting high. Prayer is certainly safer and healthier than meth.

I pull into the driveway of the discipleship house. It’s a two-story building that sits behind a small bungalow, just one block from the beach. This close to the ocean, there’s no oak canopy, no shade, and the light bounces off the pale concrete and sand.

When I shift the car into park and turn the ignition off, BeeBee is coming out of a door. I jump out and wrap my arms around her. In the embrace, I can’t tell if she is really off drugs, but I can tell all the things I absolutely need to know. She’s alive. She’s healthy. She can still love.

She’s anxious to show me her home, and she pulls me by the hand to follow her inside. The door opens onto a hallway with a poster assuring me “You are beautiful!” I like the affirmation. A tiny Yorkshire terrier yips happily from the stairs. “Angel,” BeeBee says, “this is Aunt Michele.” The dog is adorable, groomed, and ribboned. Someone has put the needs of this little animal above any need to get high. An excellent sign.

Chuck Wendig, who I’ve quoted before in this series about memoir writing, advises that “The scene should begin as late as possible.” By this, he means that the scene shouldn’t begin until something actually happens — something important.

Maybe I should cut those first two paragraphs.

Wendig’s craft book, Damn Fine Story is audience-centered; almost all of his advice has to to do with keeping the reader engaged. Much of his advice can be crystallized in these few words: “Don’t waste your audience’s time.” He does acknowledge that some scenes need time to build, and some need breathing room. For folks writing contemplative memoirs, his action-focus may not strike the right chord. But I agree that if we’re writing for an audience, we need to know them, respect them, and write in a way that appeals to them.

Writing Memoir: Against Procrastination

A sloth hanging out in a tree, probably just being a sloth and not procrastinating at all. Photo by Javier Mazzeo on Unsplash

Sloths get a bad name. They move slowly, it’s true, but they’re animals, for goodness sake. They don’t have deadlines or to-do lists.

I’m big on deadlines and lists when it comes to my writing. Although I don’t always live up to the goals I set down, my production would no doubt be lower without them.

Because writers love to write, just plunking down in front of the notebook or computer and getting a few words written is often enough to set the process in motion. The writer’s brain wants to write, like the runner’s body wants to run.

Setting precise goals has helped me overcome procrastination because they jump-start me. Most people who write do so because they love to write. It’s head-games like insecurity, fear of facing some truth, and impostor syndrome that make us procrastinate when we’re otherwise healthy and able to write.

Setting goals that are in tune with the current stage of writing is key. Stages of writing a memoir can include:

  • generating,
  • revising,
  • seeking feedback, and
  • submitting for publication.

The ambitious goal of “I’m going to write a memoir” can be overwhelming. It’s far more manageable when broken down into goals for the first stage: generating. Some general goals for that stage might be:

  • Setting aside time and space to write
  • Collecting materials like journals, diaries, letters
  • Enlisting the support of loved ones
  • Resolving to write for a short time each day.

Some writing coaches believe that writing at the same time every day can condition your brain and spirit to be ready at that time. And if procrastination is a habit, it stands to reason that a new habit can replace it.

Breaking my goals up into smaller goals — what some people call “chunking” has been helpful. For example, instead of swearing to “finish my memoir by X date” (although I do that, too), I’ve set goals about how many words to write in a day.

The words-a-day goal is great when generating new material. But since revision can and often should include cutting material, words-a-day doesn’t work well for the revision stage.

In the revision stage, I’ve turned to a minutes-a-day goal, and for me, that’s been 90 minutes, which is not terribly ambitious. On a few days, I’ve spent less time, but on many days, I’ve spent more than 90 minutes.

[Note: I quit my day a year ago and don’t have childcare or elder care responsibilities.]

I’ve written elsewhere about using a time tracker for accountability and for figuring out when I write best. When procrastination threatens me, though, I’m ready to chase it off with my goals.

Just 500 words now, I tell myself, or Just 30 minutes now. Usually, I end up becoming absorbed and plod past my goal — because I really do love writing.

Writing Memoir: Letters from Loved Ones

Last summer, I spent a few hours transcribing letters from my niece Christina, who died in 2013 at the age of 27. It’s been my habit to save the letters from anyone I cared about, and I’m grateful for that habit. The letters from family members who’ve passed away are especially precious.

Christina’s letters range from when she was quite young, 7 or 8, until she was 18. At that time, I moved back to the Southeast and we were able to see each other in person enough so that letters were less necessary. She became a mother then, too, so she was busy with her little girl.

My grief over losing her has made it harder for me to write about Christina than it has been to write about my other nieces, although I have many happy memories of her as both a child and as an adult.

Transcribing these old letters directly into my memoir manuscript can give me an “out” if I put them in a separate chapter or integrate them into other chapters. It would be a way to make her story part of my memoir-in-progress without the pain of crafting my memories of her into my own words. I’m not sure that’s the best decision from an artistic standpoint, but it was the best emotional decision to make last summer.

A helpful article, written by Amber Lea Starfire, answers some common questions about using letters in memoir, like whether to edit for spelling and punctuation, and whether it’s okay to use excerpts. She discusses making use of letters, whether you summarize from them or quote from them.

If you’re lucky enough to have source materials, such as journals and letters — either your own or belonging to key characters in your memoir — you possess treasure. Yet having these materials can also cause confusion. For example, should you include excerpts of these materials in your memoir or just to use them to verify details and solidify your recollections? And then, if you do decide to include excerpts, which ones do you choose?

I’m lucky to have many letters from Christina and from other family members. Sometimes, they’ve served a fact-checking purpose. In one case, I replaced my own faulty memory of why another niece, Brandi, was kicked out of a group home with part of a letter she wrote to me about the incident. I felt that using her words showed important parts of her personality, including how articulate she was, and how she’d planned her rebellion.

Amber Lea Starfire also has some good advice about deciding whether or not to include an excerpt from a letter or write a scene in your own words: experiment and get feedback.

If you’re questioning whether to use an excerpt or not, try writing your passage both ways. In the first, include the excerpt. In the second, include a scene that portrays the same message or event. Which one is stronger and works better for your purpose? Not sure? Get some feedback from your critique group or a friend who can be trusted to tell you the unvarnished truth.

I so glad I encouraged my nieces and nephews to write letters when they were kids, but today we communicate mainly through text and Facebook messages when we aren’t together. Still, the tradition of letter writing survives in my family, and families like mine, with loved ones in prison. Postage is still cheap. Cell phones are still forbidden in prisons and phone calls at many institutions are routed through expensive third-party carriers.

Letters can be touched and held on to. For all families whose loved ones are far away, having a physical artifact is comforting. For memoir writers, incorporating letters into our stories can establish our reliability as narrators, and it can also give voice to our characters. I’m looking forward to seeing what my critique group thinks about my choices.

Meanwhile, I’ll be thinking of Christina.

New Essay – A Short History of Fraud

This memoir excerpt about discovering I was adopted was coincidentally published during November, which is National Adoption Awareness Month. The piece is also about the “secret mission” my adoptive father went on when I was ten years old.

If you’re reading this as an adult, you may already guess that the secret mission was not the heroic event I believed in as a child, but a story fabricated by adults to cover up a shame. Much as some adoptive parents (ncluding my own) kept adoptions secret to cover their shame at infertility or some other perceived inadequacy, the secret mission was a way of explaining a long absence. Hint: it invovled the FBI.

If you’re a writer who aims to be published, take heart from the publication of this essay. It was rejected at least 40 times before finally finding a home at Signal Mountain Review. From the time I first drafted it out in 2010 to this month’s publication, it went through many, many revisions. To some extent, getting published is about being tenacious and walking the fine line between believing in your own work and being willing to consider criticism.

You can read the full essay here.

“Maternity Cave” for #NAAM2018

November is National Adoption Awareness Month, which began in 1976 in Massachusetts to promote awareness of the need for adoptive families for children in foster care. While the “celebration” has continued to promote adoption from foster care, it’s also been co-opted by the for-profit adoption industry.

Every adoption begins with the breakdown of a family, and for this reason, a national celebration of adoption can bring up feelings of loss and alienation for adoptees and first parents. Adoption is complicated, and its effects are lifelong for everyone involved.

In my family, there’s a rich history of mothers giving up their children — most often to other family members, though. “Maternity Cave” is a story about how that history, and the tragedy of family breakdown, has played out for me and for one of my nieces.

Click on the image to read the full story.

Maternity Cave