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Perils and Paradoxes of Adoption: Q&A with Megan Culhane Galbraith

I first met Megan Culhane Galbraith over 20 years ago when I was a returning student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. We bonded over the weird intersections of being both left- and right-brained, and the ways we were trying to unite the technical with the creative. Since I read her wonderful memoir, The Guild of the Infant Saviour, released in May of this year, she and I have reconnected across distance (I now live on the west coast) and spent a few hours this past month on Zoom catching up. We reminisced about how we used to meet up a couple times a year for conversation, cocktails, and charcuterie at our favorite place in Saratoga Springs, NY. We called it “Meat Night” and laughed over how our salty, briny indulgences were going to give us gout. These gatherings were part personal, part professional; we talked about family and relationships, our day jobs, and our writing. 

Her debut memoir, excerpted last month in Bloom, proves that Galbraith has succeeded in grand unification on the page, creating synergy between historical research and personal essay, heartbreak and humor, vulnerability and empowerment. And, by recognizing that intersection brings relationship, she has turned difficult experiences and emotions—anxiety, abandonment, shame—into opportunities for revelation and transformation.

Susan Sechrist: We first met at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the late 1990s. We met up again about ten years later at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College, a four-week intensive residency in poetry, fiction and non-fiction. You credit Phillip Lopate, a well-known non-fiction author and one of your instructors at the Institute, for getting you started down this path—could you talk a bit about his mentorship and the epiphany that followed?

Megan Galbraith: How time flies, right? I love how our paths intersected then and how they have again. It’s a great gift to be talking with you now and to see how time has only made us better and brought us closer. I remember meeting up in the halls at Skidmore between our workshops to gossip and laugh, and then meeting later for cheese and cheap wine at the receptions after the readings. That was such a rich summer wasn’t it? 

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I’m going to be completely honest and confess that I had no idea who Phillip Lopate was before his workshop at Skidmore. This is very much in keeping with my life path of stumbling into good things.

I remember seeing him at the opening reception and admiring how laid-back and approachable he seemed in his quirky printed Hawaiian shirts and offers to play tennis. He was thoughtful and soft-spoken in workshop yet commanded the room. He had this habit of passing back your work by sliding the papers across the table with the tips of his fingers and muttering under his breath. If you could catch the mutterings they were absolute gold. When it came time to workshop my piece he slid my papers toward me and muttered something about metaphors that I didn’t quite catch, so I asked him to repeat himself. He looked straight at me and said, “This piece has potential, but you need to lose the sewage-encrusted metaphors.” I laughed so damn hard. I wrote it in big letters in my notebook. To this day, it’s the best goddamn piece of writing advice I’ve ever received.

Part of being in those workshops was getting an hour alone with the instructor to talk one-on-one. Phillip was kind and generous. We’d laughed that we’d had similar career paths as ghost/speech writers for prominent people. I wanted to begin to take my writing more seriously and I’d asked him for advice about MFA programs, knowing he was directing the Columbia MFA and teaching at Bennington. He talked to me a bit about it and then just flat out said, “I’m happy to write you a recommendation for Bennington.” I was floored. I hadn’t asked him to do that. It meant so much to me that he offered and that he believed in my work. It was the universe telling me to apply to Bennington, so I did. It was the only place I applied. I figured my chances of getting in were very low. He set me on a new path. Honestly, he’s the reason I’m where I am now.

SS: You’ve been engaged in this project for a long time, and I know you’ve had spans when you put the book away in a drawer. First, what inspired you to finally take it out of that drawer, and, second, what was the benefit of the long gestation period and blooming as an author with its publication later in life?

MG: Fear made me put it in the drawer, and fear inspired me take it back out. It had been locked away for nearly two years. It was right before the pandemic and I’d just finished healing from a badly broken ankle. I thought, “If I don’t do my best to get this book into the world I’ll regret it.” I don’t want to have regrets and the book had received solid feedback from agents, many of whom requested the full manuscript back when I was showing it around. I made a pledge to myself to get up every morning in order to puzzle together this book. I asked for help from friends who read it and gave me suggestions.

The benefit of putting something down for a while is that you return to it with fresh eyes. I’d grown so much and this book reflects that growth. I grew braver and more courageous while it was lurking in that drawer. Turns out I needed to be the warrior for my own voice.

SS: I’ve had the unique pleasure of seeing The Dollhouse, the actual physical dollhouse, along with all of the “booby, leggy” plastic dolls, all horrific versions of women trapped by their feet permanently molded into high-heel shape and their gigantic breasts that would only be useful in the unlikely event of a water landing. Can you tell us how the Dollhouse became an art project, and how the visual art nurtured (or complicated) your writing process?

MG: I love the constriction and complication of those dolls exactly because they can’t move. It feels like a metaphor for writing and life. There will be complications, setbacks, places I feel stuck and times when I bump up against something immoveable.

I’ve thought a lot about how the body reacts to fear. Most people know the fight or flight response, but we forget there’s one more “f” when we perceive a threat––to freeze. I was frozen in my own trauma. I couldn’t fight it or flee it because it lives inside me. I had to surrender to it and speak it into the world or I’d stay frozen and silent forever like those dolls.

The dolls and the dollhouse nurtured my writing process and in many ways drove me to explore things I hadn’t seen before. They allowed me to examine issues from an angle of removal. It became a safe place to question things that were literally “playing themselves out” in front of me. Some of the singular essays in my book, like “Hold Me Like a Baby,” emerged as art projects first. The artwork you see in that essay was in a gallery show at CollarWorks here in Troy, NY and the essay began as my artist’s statement.

Play has become the bedrock of my work and the way I teach students how to write.

Do you still have your virginity, or just the box it came in?

“Do you still have your virginity, or just the box it came in?” Image courtesy of Megan Culhane Galbraith.

SS: You are the associate director or the Bennington Writing Seminars, working with emerging, and blooming writers all the time, helping them hone, shape, and challenge their craft. How has that process been for you, to be a support system for others while you were also working toward your own finished manuscript?

MG: Our students and alumni are so talented, committed, bright, and collaborative. I love my job. I felt like I was working right along with them trying to produce new material and assemble a manuscript I was proud of. It’s funny because what they go through––imposter syndrome, smacking up against the publishing world, struggling to write one good sentence––are universal struggles. It can be helpful sometimes to talk them through these things because it makes me give myself the same necessary talk.

We are a low-residency program so many of our students are older and have had successful careers, or have been our own boss. The most important part of being a student again is to be vulnerable and willing to take direction and change course. I came to Bennington at one of the most vulnerable and lowest times of my life, which felt quite scary. When prospective students ask me “What was your path to Bennington?” I answer in the most honest way I know … “Well, I had a nervous breakdown …”

As a student, I vowed to stand in the discomfort of my vulnerability and let the place have its way with me. I didn’t know how to do anything else. Being honest and vulnerable is sometimes terrifying and difficult, but it’s the best place to be as an artist and a writer.

SS: I know a woman who is an adoptee—but she only found out because she had an argument with her mother when she was 12 years old and her mother blurted it out, ostensibly to illustrate how deeply she didn’t understand her child. I can’t even imagine how mind-blowing and world-changing such a revelation must have been. What have you learned about being an adoptee from other adoptees with various familial experiences? Is there any particular relationship or moment that stands out as pivotal to your understanding?

MG: Writing essays and memoir has exploded my world. I’ve learned so much about my family, my friends, other adoptees, and how to stand in my truth and my power. Your question cuts right to the heart of the paradox of writing memoir and also the shame and secrecy of adoption.

It’s important to talk openly about difficult experiences, especially as an adoptee and a writer, otherwise shame wins. I have nothing to be ashamed of. The only way to defuse the pain of my close family’s reactions is to openly share it.

Those closest to me in adoption––my two siblings, father, and birthmother––reacted quite negatively to me using my voice in this book. My sisters have been outright cruel and have now excluded me from family events. My father was the only one willing to have an honest conversation with me about it, even though I had to push him to talk. Among other things he said he was “hurt,” and “betrayed.” Those are difficult things to hear, but my book is not an indictment of him as a parent––I grew up with loving parents and told him that readers have commented as such.

My siblings called me crazy. They’ve accused me of lying.

Showing my vulnerable throat has been quite interesting. I’ve watched people’s reactions closely and they’re quite telling. Not one of these family members said, “Hey, I’m so sorry for what you went through,” or “I had no idea that was how you felt, I’m here for you.” Their negative reactions say more about them than they do about me. They’re projecting their shame on to me. They’re gaslighting. That’s not just me saying that, that’s my therapist who specializes in adoption.

I’m overcoming the hurt of realizing they’re incapable of being my support system. I’m grateful to them teaching me a painful lesson.

Most importantly, I’ve learned who really is there for me. My cousin has been my biggest support, along with my children (especially my stepdaughter,) my friend family, and the adoptee community. I have a choice who remains in my life and I will focus on the people who reciprocate my support, kindness, and love, and those who appreciate begin vulnerable and honest.

I won’t be shamed back into silence.

SS: The book is such a glorious tapestry of investigative, empirical journalism shot through with threads of the deeply personal. I found it a fascinating juxtaposition, how you go so effortlessly from investigating the disturbing history of the domestic economics education program at Cornell to confiding in Mary Gaitskill that your lover recently dropped some upsetting news on you. How did you weave these together so beautifully? Where in the writing process did those nodes present themselves obviously and where did you have to work hard to connect them?

MG: I want to insert a heartface emoji here to thank you for saying that. Truthfully, my answer is I don’t know! I worked hard for sure, but the connections arose and I grabbed at them like necessary threads (to torture your tapestry metaphor.) Sometimes I channel my writing in the same way I channel my art. I try not to think hard about what I’m putting into the draft of an essay, but the hard work begins when I have to kill my darlings and shave the piece down to its essential parts. This is why I love to play with various forms and genres. I think of each essay as its own container, holding something glorious and different: a prismatic way of seeing a subject.

I have a desperate need to “know” things so I go deep, deep, deep into research and lo and behold the ideas show themselves. I realized early on that I wanted this to be a cultural exploration of adoption practices and the shaming of women, among other things. Adoptees deserve to see ourselves within a continuum of something larger even if that is shot through with trauma so I began to explore the idea of adoption and memory as a coping mechanism through my lens and via research and journalism.

I was very careful in this book to maintain a through-line. The essays are held together with common threads, complemented by artwork and photographs. That was intentional and it’s the reason it’s called a memoir-in-essays.

SS: The reference to the chapter “Confession” brings me to another question about women’s stories specifically—why so often are our voices heard as confessions, laments, and protests? Why are women’s perspectives about sexuality, intimacy, family, community, and society (and all the attendant political, scientific, philosophical and artistic components therein) so often treated as on the emotional fringes?

MG: This is such a smart and important question, Susan. I wish I had the answer to it because it slices to the core of our patriarchical society.

I was just talking to a class at NYU about how angry I was that so many women artists and writers, among others, are condemned for being crazy and our stories are marginalized. Women are told to hush, to stop being shrill, to be grateful; we are talked over, told to sit down and stay in our box. What would happen if women weren’t ignored like Cassandra, or punished like Pandora, or abducted and imprisoned like Persephone, or burned at the stake as witches, or beaten and jailed for trying to get the vote, or punished as heretics and called hysterical. What would happen if we believed women?

I think of the bravery of women and all of them who have been truth tellers throughout time. I think of what we’ve collectively endured for our bodies, our minds, and our existence.

SS: The memoir is a hybridized narrative that I think gets at the slippery, Heisenbergian quality of memory—you can only know one particular feature about a memory at a time, and when you focus on that quality, the others are lost or indistinct. I think this is why the book feels like a profound mystery to me: you use that natural incompleteness to tantalize us with possibilities about the origins of your birth and adoption; the potential relationship between your adoptive parents and your birth mother, Ursula; and why Ursula began to shut down access to her own memories as you got closer to the truth. Have you solved any of those mysteries since writing the book?

MG: I’ve solved no mysteries, to be honest. Adoption is an unsolvable mystery. I’ll never get to “the truth” because there is no “universal truth.” I’m glad the book feels like a mystery because it IS. The incompleteness is the point, actually. I’ve had to make peace with that.

I realize now how I need to be strong for myself as an adult the same way I was as a baby in that foster home. It’s obvious I need to be my own emotional support system and that it’s always been that way.

I talk about this within the adoptee community and we seem to all feel adrift in some way or another from our families. My life’s work is learning how to be here for myself, and in understanding that I am enough, and that I am worthy.

SS: One of the most poignant elements of the book for me is the empty picture frames – this was because you didn’t get permission from someone to use certain photographs. Did it feel like a hole, those missing, withheld pieces, or just another secret passage that you had to explore?

MG: The original photos you reference appear at the end of each essay as artifacts that bookend the images staged in my dollhouse. In this case the three images were of my birth mother graduating from middle school, a photo of her in her 20s in Canada, and one of our reunion in New York City.

Part of the early editing process is to get permission to use the photos so I set about asking for those from my birthmother, Dad, siblings. My birth mother wrote me a certified letter saying she wouldn’t grant me permission unless she could read, edit, and revise the manuscript. My sister demanded the same thing and threatened to sue me, even thought she’s not identified or mentioned in the book.

It saddened me that my birthmother wanted the images withheld, and that she requested anonymity, but challenge creates opportunity. I talked with my editor who suggested just not using any photos at the end of those essays but that didn’t sit well with me because it felt incomplete and not genuine to what was happening. I began to think about how to render what was happening in a meaningful way.

One day I was walking around my apartment, feeling quite sad and my eyes landed on the baby photo I keep on my bookcase. What you see in the photos is a sterling silver frame from Tiffany engraved with my initials. My mom listed it in the registry of gifts in my baby book. I grabbed it off my bookcase and frayed a piece of white flannel to look like a baby blanket. When reviewed the photos I’d taken I was stunned at how they evoked erasure and withholding.

Speaking pain into the world is the only way I know how to cope. I turned an intense, tender time in my life into relevant artistic expression. Sadly, it strengthened and reinforced the adoption narrative of shame, erasure, and abandonment.

SS: Lastly, can you tell us anything about your next project?

MG: Ahhhh, I’d love to tell you but it’s probably best not to talk about it here. It feels like it will diffuse the power of it. Let’s just say it’s a continuation of me examining silences and female desire. It will include my art and likely art from friends working at the intersection of these ideas.

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Megan Galbraith is a writer and visual artist. Her work was a Notable Mention in Best American Essays 2017 and has been published in Tupelo Quarterly, Redivider, Catapult, Hobart, Longreads, and Hotel Amerika, among others. She is associate director of the Bennington Writing Seminars and the founding director of the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont Young Writers Institute.

Featured image courtesy of Megan Culhane Galbraith.

 

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