Monday, February 4, 2013

ORFAN -- Book Review: Reflections on Adoption

Corie Skolnick’s sweet, sorrowful coming-of-age story of Jimmy Deane (JD for short), a mixed ethnicity infant adoptee born in Illinois the late 1960s, wove its way into my heart, then it left a lasting, hopeful impression. Knowing that Ms. Skolnick is not an adoptee herself, rather a psychologist trained in all aspects of the adoption triad; I read the first chapter with trepidation.

 You see, ORFAN opens with an OB nurse’s view of a young unwed mother giving birth to the main character, JD. The so-called “birth story” for adoptees, in which relinquishment comes a short time later ... was one of the most traumatic events of our lives. Of course we don’t remember it, but this pre-verbal memory is imprinted upon our psyches in ways we don’t always understand.

I’m in reunion; I know my birth-and-relinquishment story. I know my first mother loved me. And still, as I read the novel-slash-fable, my heart pulled for this tiny baby being taken away from the only person he knows, wants and needs. I nearly stopped reading. Skolnick’s small details -- such as how the labor nurses “forgot” to put socks on the young mother’s ice-cold, blue feet before setting the laboring woman up in stirrups -- was truly upsetting, considering the context. Then, add to it how much pain I know this woman is going to feel after she relinquishes her baby.

Trouble Ahead for an Adoptee

ORFAN is an incredible, layered work of fiction that shows how adoption and reunion can bring out both the best and the worst in people. And, it does get worse for JD before it gets better. However, each foreshadowing “coincidental” element (or fateful, depending upon one’s perspective) of the story shines light on the small kindnesses of strangers that help make life’s troubles a little more bearable.
Take a key chapter written from the perspective of JD’s South Florida kindergarten teacher. In her own way, Mrs. Weis tries to help JD fit in, but she can easily see the long, hard road ahead for a bright child, whose skin color is not white. Through the teacher’s eyes, we can see the changing attitudes of race relations in the United States, individual-by-individual. Mrs. Weis admits that while at teacher’s college up north she had friends of many ethnicities, and even marched for civil rights. However, if she is honest with herself, the thing she notices about a person first is his skin color.

Shifting ably through different points-of-view, including the first person and third-person omniscient, we see that while his Southern white adoptive parents have every intention of giving him unconditional love for the rest of JD’s life; well of course that’s not the way it turns out. But JD is gifted; crazy-smart, an all-around unique individual. People seem to be drawn to him, so he’s able to survive in spite of the racism, abuse and general meanness around him.

Understanding the Effects of Adoption

Without giving much away, I want to share a beautiful quote that describes a teenage JD in one of his moments of deep despair (but not deepest, that is yet to come). His only true friend in the world has just left him, and Elizabeth, his adoptive grandmother (who does not acknowledge him as a grandson) has given him a day to pack his things and move out.

But Jimmy Deane was not normal. He was burdened by a poisonous shyness that no amount of rational thought could counter, a feeling that somehow he lacked some essential information or some important quality that everyone else had. Without it, without such elementary knowledge, he was consigned to orbit around this tiny house and the tiny life he had lived in it forever. He could never leave. He would have to beg Elizabeth to let him stay.

I would guess that any adoptee could spot the “essential information” that is lacking when one doesn’t know birth history. For me, those important qualities could include genetic mirroring, a natural sense-of-belonging, a lack of grief for the unknowing, are things that that non-adoptees take for granted.

Aside from being an amazing work of fiction, I would recommend Corie Skolnick’s ORFAN for anyone interested in understanding more about adoption attitudes in the United States in the last part of the 20th century.

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About Corie Skolnick -- Born in Oak Park, Illinois, and raised on Chicago’s south side, Corie Skolnick has lived her entire adult life in Southern California. She is a California licensed marriage and family therapist and a “sometimes” psychology instructor at California State University, Northridge and Moorpark College. Among the many courses she has taught at both colleges, her very favorite is The Psychological Aspects of Parenthood. She has two grown children, both of them in the arts, and she is married to the social psychologist, Paul Skolnick. ORFAN is her first novel. AMERICA’S MOST ELIGIBLE will be published by Mannequin Vanity Publishing next year!
ORFAN is available in ebook and paperback on Amazon.
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Check out tomorrow's interview on Lost Daughters with the amazing Ms. Skolnick. Laura Dennis will ask about her writing inspiration for resilient adoptee characters.