Seeking a Mother’s Touch
In America, adoption is widely regarded as a positive experience. A child who is unable to stay with her parents is adopted by a family who can care for her, and everyone’s happy. Right? But although many adoptions provide safe and loving homes for parentless children in the United States, not every story ends so happily. According to memoirist Jennifer Lauck, adoptive families are unable to recreate the psychological bond that exists between a birth mother and her child. And Lauck, the author of Found: A Memoir, should know—she was adopted not once, but twice. In Found, Lauck goes on a search for her birth family and discovers herself in the process.
Besides Found, Lauck is the author of a slew of other memoirs about her life, including the New York Times bestseller, Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found. But readers who haven’t read any of Lauck’s prior work won’t feel out of the loop while reading Found. The first half of the book catches the reader up to speed: Lauck’s birth mother was still in high school when she got pregnant. Because unwed, teenage mothers were a big no-no in 1963 in Reno, Nevada, Lauck was whisked away immediately after her birth and adopted by the delivery room doctor’s accountant. “Dr. Smernoff pulled strings to get Bud and Janet off a three-year adoption waiting list,” Lauck writes. “He didn’t mention Janet’s medical problems, which included a recent surgery to remove an eleven-inch tumor from her spine . . . He didn’t talk about Bud’s financial ruin, due to Janet’s medical bills.”
Janet died when Lauck was seven, and Bud married the wickedest of stepmothers, Deb. When Lauck was ten, Bud died, and Deb sent her to a variety of temporary homes, until Lauck was finally adopted by Bud’s sister and her husband, who treated her like dirt. Throughout her childhood, Lauck was verbally chastised, physically abused, molested and treated like an outsider. Lauck recounts the trauma of her past in sparse, matter-of-fact sentences. “I went to San Francisco, stayed a few days, and in the night my cousin’s boyfriend crawled into my bed,” Lauck writes about being molested as a child. She doesn’t seem to be complaining, creating drama, or searching for sympathy. She’s simply stating the facts as she remembers them, and the effect is both harrowing and heartbreaking.
A bit of research will uncover that Lauck’s adopted brother and stepmother spoke out against Lauck and her first book, Blackbird, suggesting that the memoir was fabricated. In the 2001 Salon article “Family Feud,” the evil stepmother, who is known as “Deb” in both books, e--mails the website: “I want a sort of mental taser [sic] or aqueous foam to immobilize the bitch, hoping to sober [Lauck] up and make her think twice before going after other people with her dolorous tales of misery.” It’s certainly possible that Lauck could have misremembered details or used poetic license to make her tale seem more “dolorous” than it really was, but Deb’s statement is at odds with Lauck’s language. In Found, Lauck’s bare-bones account of her childhood is haunting and understated. It’s not the work of a person who is trying to get attention, but a woman who is trying to work with the life she’s been given.
In Found, Lauck handles the media attention with poise and grace—she doesn’t mention it. She calmly explains her estrangement from Deb and her adopted brother, but she doesn’t point fingers or fuel the he-said-she-said fire. Instead, the author bravely focuses on her own feelings and emotions, rising far above the name-calling. Had Found contained a rebuttal against the critical Salon.com article, it would have taken away from the tenderhearted story that Lauck so gracefully tells. She takes the high road, and touched readers will thank her for it.
Readers of Lauck’s prior memoirs may find the initial accounts of her childhood repetitive, but the majority of the book is new material. Unlike Blackbird, Found focuses on the effect that being adopted has on Lauck’s adult life. When she gives birth to her first child, Spencer, Lauck has a vivid memory of her birth mother, even though they have never met. “As if time had split in half, I was back in 1963,” the author writes. “I saw my own mother—helpless on a table. I saw myself being brutally separated from her. I felt a rush of intense emotion—shame mixed with fury.” Lauck describes her life in dual timelines. In one, she is Jennifer Lauck. In another, she is living in Reno as the lost daughter of her birth parents.
Although Lauck makes strong points about the psychology of adopted children, she doesn’t use Found as a soapbox to state her views on the adoption process. She does add a small endnote, discussing her strong political opinions about Americans adopting children from third-world countries, which can be either read or skipped, depending on the reader’s interest. But Found is the story of Lauck’s own experience—it’s not a textbook or an adoption manifesto.
Lauck tries two marriages, Catholicism, having kids, therapy and Tibetan Buddhism to fill the void of abandonment, but she still feels angry and grief-stricken. “Initially, I believed my condition was the result of the many traumas of my past—the deaths, the sexual assaults, the terrors, the lies, and the betrayals. But I had examined all of these experiences with microscopic attention. I had written books, seen therapists, and studied. Certainly, through conscious attention to myself, I should have been able to heal; yet my inner Self wasn’t intact,” she writes. There’s only one thing left to do. After careful consideration, Lauck decides to search for her birth mother, hoping that she will provide the answer she has been looking for.
We’ve seen hundreds of birth mother and adopted daughter reunions on Oprah. They’re tearful and joyous, and the women hug and hold hands. Lauck’s first meeting with her mother Catherine at the Portland Airport is every bit as touching as the weepy television version. But in Lauck’s reunion, the camera rolls for months afterward. When Lauck asks if Catherine ever wondered about the child she gave away, Catherine confesses that she had planned to keep the adoption a secret forever. “Deep in me, though, pushed low and flat, another story rises,” writes Lauck. “I finally feel what Catherine worried I would feel—a seething rage that turns the contents of my stomach to toxic waste. She made a life without me. She made a life as if I didn’t exist. She kept me a secret for forty-four years. She has even told me she would have never searched. Never!”
Lauck doesn’t find the nurturing mother she’s been searching for. And when Lauck learns that she has a full blood brother, feelings of abandonment and jealousy bubble up inside her. “I cannot fathom how [Catherine] went on to marry my father and how they had a son, who they kept, just three years after my own birth,” Lauck writes. “I cannot understand how they didn’t talk about me—at all.” When she realizes that her family functions quite well without her, Lauck feels even more alone and unwanted—a notion that’s never discussed on Oprah. The author’s story is one that’s rarely told, but it’s likely that many mother-and-daughter reunions turn out this way. Lauck acts as a spokesperson for estranged families everywhere—you may be related, but you might still feel like strangers.
At first, Lauck is too consumed with her own grief to realize that her birth family might not be ready to accept a new daughter into their lives. She expresses fear and anger when her brother isn’t ready to see her, because she’s been waiting for a family her entire life. He already has a loving family—who is he to deny Lauck the same joy? But for once, the author doesn’t add her new relatives to the long list of people who have mistreated her. Instead, she admits that her neediness may have been too much for her new family, and that they might need time to adjust to such a big change. Her new ability to reflect on her relationships is a mature, adult notion. It proves that the author is becoming wiser—she is no longer caught in the murky waters of her past. In front of the reader’s eyes, Lauck has developed a new, subtle self-awareness that has evolved through years of reflection and pain.
Ultimately, Catherine dismisses Lauck and the relationship fizzles out before it even begins. The author wants Catherine to mother her, but Catherine isn’t prepared to raise another child. Found doesn’t have a happy ending, and it doesn’t wrap things up into an optimistic, little package. Lauck doesn’t find the loving mother she needs in Catherine, but meeting her is a journey Lauck must take for her own sake. It’s refreshing to read a book that doesn’t try to compartmentalize the story, getting all warm and fuzzy like Chicken Soup for the Soul in the last twenty-five pages. But even though Lauck’s reunion with Catherine is unsuccessful, Found is a beautiful, fragile memoir. Before our eyes, the author transforms from a scared child to an adult full of wisdom. And even though Lauck’s mother doesn’t understand that, the author chooses to surround herself with people who do.
Lauck focuses on loving and being loved by her own children, and learns to forgive the people that wronged her in the past. The maternal bond between Lauck and her own children is pure and deep, and she is able to give her offspring the very gift that she had spent her whole life looking for. “I have grown as a human being in this human family,” the author writes. “And I get to ponder how the suffering we go through has the potential to make us more vivid and alive. I remind myself of the pressure a rock must go through to become a crystal. I have experienced that pressure myself. I feel refined.”
Books mentioned in this column:
Articles mentioned in this column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.