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How Many Pieces Does It Take to Make a Person?

Review of The Mistress's Daughter by A.M. Homes (Penguin Group, 2007)

"I am an amalgam. I will always be something glued together, something slightly broken." So writes A.M. Homes, not long after her first contact with her birthmother, as Homes begins the process of putting together the pieces of who she is.

In this memoir, Homes tells with raw, honest emotion the story of uncovering the mosaic that is her identity after being contacted by her birthparents for the first time when she was 31. Her tale is, first and foremost, an adoptee's quest. Within her mosaic, however, lie multiple tiles of Judaism, passed down to her from both her biological and adoptive ancestors, revealing to her a world where Judaism is sometimes welcomed, sometimes rejected, but always part of her.

A. M. Homes Book CoverReligious identity was at times confusing for Homes, even in her Jewish adoptive family. For years, the family celebrated Christmas; then, when Homes was 9, her mother abruptly pulled the holiday from their repertoire, saying only "we're Jewish" by way of explanation. Like any reasonable 9-year-old, Homes protested the sudden loss of Christmas stockings and the thrill of leaving cookies for Santa, particularly objectionable because her family did not celebrate Hanukkah either. As an adult the December holidays simply feel barren to her, which makes them all the more ripe to be injected with emotion when she discovers that her biological roots are not only Jewish, but interfaith.

Often a difficult time for any adoptee, Homes's birthday also happens to fall in December. "[M]y birthday is in the middle of the holiday season; it features not only all the standard natal elements, but also the ongoing and age-old battle of the Christians versus the Jews, which oddly turns out to be among the battles of my biological origins." Homes discovers that her birthparents are each half Catholic, half Jewish; her birthmother considers herself to be Jewish, while her birthfather identifies more with his Catholic side.

As Homes gets to know her birthparents, their sometimes shocking, inappropriate behavior plays out in part against their religious backgrounds. For example, one of the first things Homes's birthfather says to her when they meet is, "I'm not circumcised." From this announcement, Homes deduces that what he wants her to know about himself "is that he's distanced himself from his Jewishness and that he's obsessed with his penis." The reader has no trouble sympathizing with Homes's bewilderment about her origins.

Homes's interaction with her birthmother, Ellen, is no more soothing to her than that with her birthfather. Ellen soon becomes Homes's virtual stalker, making demands and accusations and strongly implying that somehow, Homes has an obligation to "take care of" her. Homes expresses a sense of relief as she gets to know Ellen: "the more Ellen and I talk, the happier I am that she gave me up. I can't imagine having grown up with her. I would not have survived." Yet she is still drawn to learning more about her birthmother as a critical component in her desire to understand herself.

Homes learns early on that Ellen wanted Homes to be placed in "a very special home--a Jewish home." Even though Judaism is clearly important to Ellen, Homes is confronted by a measure of religious ambiguity when she goes through her birthmother's belongings after Ellen dies: "In a corner of the kitchen there is a menorah and then, just behind it, a crucifix, and in front a framed photograph of a dog." Just which object is the most important of the three serves as a singular example of the myriad mysteries Homes is left to unravel.

Homes eventually does find a degree of clarity about her identity, though she leaves unanswered many questions about Judaism, her religious heritage and what of this background she now values for herself and her young daughter. Many years after beginning her exhausting emotional journey--a journey which includes a dizzying genealogical research project delving back many generations into both her biological and adoptive families' histories--she comes to realize that she is "a product of each of my family's narratives," of all of the biological and adoptive threads of her lineage.

Though she begins the book with her frustration with her adoptive parents' failure to share all they knew with her at an earlier time, Homes's link to her adoptive family and their roots seems to be strengthened through her process of discovery. She concludes her story with a discussion of her adoptive grandmother, to whom she dedicated this book. This woman was the matriarch of her family and a figure of primary importance to the author; a woman who was once told, early in the twentieth century, that she would never obtain a teaching job because she was a Jew. Homes's grandmother ultimately becomes the inspiration for Homes' own desire to have a child, and it is around her grandmother's ancestral solid wooden table that Homes now sits with her daughter, a biological confirmation of all of the varied threads that weave and twist together to make up a person.

The story Homes tells in her memoir is an adoption story, a story of a person broken into pieces at the time of her birth who must then discover those pieces and learn how to put them together. But it is also an interfaith story, and I couldn't help but wonder as I finished the book how many people who grow up in interfaith households also feel splintered to some degree, even without experiencing the sense of loss of history that burdens so many adoptees. For individuals who are searching for any measure of their fractured identities, Homes offers a hopeful resolution in what is, for the most part, an artfully told story.

A ceremony created by the Reform movement as a way for young adults to show their decision to embrace Jewish study and reaffirm their commitment to Judaism. Confirmation is typically held at the end of the tenth grade. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.)
Tracy Hahn-Burkett

Tracy Hahn-Burkett is a writer who focuses often on family topics, including interfaith and multicultural family issues. She blogs at UnchartedParent.com.

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