Remarks made at the launch of Detachment: An Adoption Memoir
at McNally Robinson, Winnipeg, Sept 5, 2014
Many of you will wonder why I wrote this book. Perhaps your wondering will include some questioning of my sanity or parenting credentials. Believe me, that’s appropriate.
Detachment is a quest for connection, really for spiritual and emotional empathy with the suffering, the humour, and the humanity of other people. Detachment tries to be realistic about the challenges of family life post-adoption, and about the specific struggles I've had understanding my kids and their damaged history, as well as my dad with his scarred past, and with my wife over my own failures to attach. But even with the necessary darkness, I wanted to take the reader along an arc where the future became brighter for me and my family.
A lot of things were tough about this book. One of the toughest things was I had to decide what could be public and what had to remain private. For the book to be compelling, it needed to be intimate, but I didn't want to hurt my kids or other family members either. God knows if I got that balance right.
I structured Detachment like a novel because most of the memoirs I admire borrow storytelling techniques from fiction: Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Mary Karr's The Liars' Club, Warren Cariou’s Lake of the Prairies are such books, all of which have inspired me.
I struggled with how to tell the story in Detachment for five years; meanwhile the story kept changing while I lived it. The breakthrough came for me in Banff three years ago, when Michael Crummey, one of the faculty members, pointed out that I could start the book with my sessions seeing a psychologist, in crisis. Michael observed that shrinks are like priests: they can't ever reveal what you might fictionalize; he also has the best bullshit detector of anyone I've ever met, aside from my wife Betsy. That first chapter now forms the prologue, which I called "Shrinking." From there the book moves back to 2005, when we adopted our sons, and the adoption story is told chronologically. But the story of my father's childhood is interwoven in flashbacks.
The book is dedicated to my sons: the younger two Peter and Bohdan, and my oldest, Jeremy, who was born here in Canada and was also affected by my past, including the fact that I'd had 34 addresses by the age of 17, and for whom I was an often absent and detached father. All of us need to make sense of history on our own, but I hope that this book will help my three sons figure out their own roots. As one of Patrick Friesen’s characters in his long poem The Shunning puts it:
Do you understand this? where we came from?
it all adds up
figure it out for yourself
I have many people to thank, starting with Betsy. As the Beach Boys say, “God only knows what I’d be without you.” The short answer might be homeless. But really on top of eating much worse and going to the gym less, without you what I was trained in childhood to call my spiritual life, something I still believe in, would be irretrievably damaged. I can only be a whole person with you.
Then I must thank my aunt Lil, who told me the story of my grandfather’s disappearance, my grandmother’s rape and early death, and explained so much to me about my her and father’s struggles to overcome the horrors of their childhoods. Someday maybe I’ll be as good a storyteller as she is.
As you know, Mennonites are not Italians; we have trouble expressing ourselves emotionally sometimes. My father, an orphan at the age of ten whose earliest memory is a Holocaust atrocity, would now be described as having PTSD, and possibly a form of attachment disorder. By telling his story in this book, I gained empathy for him, a father who was at times detached himself, and being a more empathetic son helped me understand and empathize with my own sons.
I hope that this book speaks to the experience of children who have suffered neglect and abandonment, and also to the experience of children who are war refugees like my father was.
Like Dorothy Parker, I take more pleasure in having written than in actually doing the work. Parker also said brevity is the soul of lingerie, but that’s another topic.