Pittsburgh poet's memoir explores the trauma of being an adopted child
Who, a reader might ask, is Patrice Staiger, whose haunting epigram “This story begins at an impasse, since I am writing to you as someone who was never born?” prefaces Jan Beatty’s new memoir, “American Bastard”?
“Staiger” is none other than a stand-in for Beatty herself, employing her birth name to set the tone for this blend of narrative and poetry that doubles as a searing critique of adoption culture in America.
While “American Bastard” (Red Hen Press) is Beatty’s first work of nonfiction, its themes and even a few of its stories will be familiar to readers of this veteran, Pittsburgh-based poet and educator’s six collections of verse.
Beatty was born in 1952, at the Roselia Foundling and Maternity Asylum in the Hill District, known in the parlance of the day as a home for unwed mothers. She grew up with an adoptive family, mostly in Baldwin. She didn’t learn her birth name until she was 32, though she later tracked down both her birth mother and the man she considers her birth father.
By way of telling this story, “American Bastard” takes a sledgehammer to what Beatty regards as the reigning myths about adoption — chiefly, that adoptive children are “chosen babies” who should be grateful for their adoptive family. The truth, Beatty contends, is that adoptive children are traumatized by “the loss of medical history, the loss of our names, the broken bond with the birth mother, and how that is a primary lifelong loss that no one discusses.” An adoption can be many things, but at heart “it's a business transaction, it's a sale of an infant, and no one really discusses it in the way it actually happens,” Beatty said in an interview. “I think that's really a problem to pretend it's otherwise.”
Beatty is also widely admired for her teaching. She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University and also heads the Madwomen in the Attic poetry workshops there.
Some of her trauma as an adoptee was due to the laws and mores of the era in which she was born, when births out of wedlock were heavily stigmatized and adoptions were “closed,” meaning children were legally barred from learning about their birth parents.
Beatty knew she was adopted from early childhood, but more importantly, she felt it: She looked nothing like her parents or her older sister (who was also adopted), let alone her cousins. Having been given away once already, she writes, she lived in constant terror of being abandoned again and faced the unrelenting challenge to prove herself worthy. The adoptive child, she writes, “is trying to build a right way out of nothing, out of watching others, trying to figure out what it is they’re doing to make themselves acceptable children.”
Beatty’s birth mother, a working-class woman from Garfield who lived with her sister and widowed mother, gave her up largely because of her dire economic straits. Beatty’s adoptive parents were more stable financially — her father was a mill worker — but her home life was fraught. Beatty says she and her adoptive mother “had really not one good moment — like not one.” As a child, Beatty often hid in the attic and read; her father, whom Beatty recalls “a great guy,” built her a wooden platform in her hideaway and was much more sympathetic.
But Beatty emphasizes that her critique of adoption culture isn’t a matter of her personal relationships. “I’ve read all the books I can find on this subject, and I usually throw the books across the room because there’s this whitewashing going on. It’s like, this need to make it pretty, to make it good, this good thing that people are doing, saving these babies, and no acknowledgment 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 book on public policy, Beatty said in an interview that, at a minimum, she’d require adoptive parents to undergo therapy to understand their true motives — and she’d like adoptive parents to tell adoptees, “I’m sorry for your loss” rather than insisting, “Everything’s going to be OK.”
For Beatty, the desire to know one’s birth parents is as inborn as the traits one inherits from them. As an adult — and before she moved from social-work jobs and waitressing into poetry and academia — Beatty found her birth mother. They would meet only three times, and the relationship was awkward, to say the least. But Beatty saw echoes of their blood kinship in their fashion choices at the time: On first meeting, they both wore the same style of dress, and her mother wore a pair of shoes she could have borrowed from Beatty’s own closet.
While her mother was deeply reluctant to discuss the circumstances of Beatty’s conception, Beatty learned enough to track down, in 1988, the man she considers her birth father: the late “Wild Bill” Ezinicki, a professional ice-hockey player who won three Stanley 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 would have been how Beatty’s mother met him, in 1951. (The Hornets played at the now-vanished Duquesne Gardens, in North Oakland.)
On Beatty’s first meeting with him, she writes, Ezinicki said it was possible he was her father, though he later phoned her to say that he wasn’t. But Beatty is sure of it, and traces to the hard-playing, Winnipeg-born Ezinicki — a noted cross-checker who once led the NHL in penalty minutes — everything from her youthful love of hitting things (softballs, tennis balls) to her compulsion as a young adult to travel to the Canadian West. “Before I knew my birth father was Canadian,” she says.
“The body and the blood is everything to an adopted child, and I think to everyone” she adds. “I mean, they may not think about it as much because it's part of their natural existence. But if you don't have that connection, if you don't have that link to your blood, it becomes really important.”
Beatty says she has been trying to write this memoir for decades — perhaps even, in a way, for her whole life. But she needed time.
“I feel like I needed to do more work in therapy to get to get to these places,” she says. “And also, I needed to grow as a writer to learn how I could possibly 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 saying anything like this because they were all making it nice, and that was driving me insane. And I wanted it written down that, ‘Hey, look, this is this is how it was for me, and this is how it is, I know, for a lot of other adoptees.”
She quotes her dedication to the book: “This is for the lost ones who never knew where they came from. This is against the ones who pretended the loss never happened.”
At 7 p.m. Sat., Oct. 23, Beatty and White Whale Books host 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 by 8th Street Rox. Facemasks and proof of vaccination are required for entry.