The Reader XIV II - The Invitation

The Invitation

A Memoir Of Family Love And Reconciliation

By Joan Haggerty
Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 218 pp., $16.95
Reviewed by Rick Ouston

They used to call us bastards, those of us born outside of wedlock. Illegitimate children. Sins. The mothers who gave us birth were harlots, sluts, whores. Sinners. We were a secret, given up for adoption, walked away from. Our mothers were expected to keep the facts of our lives a secret. Tell no one. Most of them suffered the love that dare not speak its name---the love of children born outside the bounds of marriage. Women gave the gift of life, then were forced by societal pressures to forget about the babies they bore. Under the terms of adoption, they gave up all rights they might have to their flesh and blood, knowing their motherhood only in secrecy and shame.

Joan Haggerty refused to buckle under those pressures. The Vancouver writer was travelling Europe in the sixties, already the mother of an infant girl, when she became pregnant again. Her marriage crumbling, the father of her unborn child in question, Haggerty gave birth to a boy she named Sean and gave him to a French couple she'd met just days earlier. In most adoptions until recently, birth mothers did not know the identity of adoptive parents. But Haggerty demanded , and received, a clause in the adoption contract compelling the adopting parents to keep her posted about her son's development. The Invitation tells the true story of her relinquishment and eventual reunion with her son when he invited his mother to a coming-of-age party in France.

After giving up the boy, Haggerty returned to Vancouver with her daughter, marrying and bearing another son, "but with Sean's ghost trailing behind them as they walked down forest trails. I thought I could see his outline, but the rest of him stayed transparent, as if sculpted in ice. Once, I hesitatingly sent him a card of an arctic iceberg, the transparent greens and turquoises soft around the edges. Token gestures, trying to stay on the sidelines as if there was any place for me in his life, his family situation; there wasn't, never had been, never would be. Sometimes keeping his existence under wraps felt like people were straining to hear me when I was shouting as loud as I could but they kept telling me to speak up."

Haggerty treasures the occasional photographs she receives of the son she's never known. "I used to look at these pictures for hours, trying to fill in the details and imagine what he did in the days that went by between snapshots. I never forgot, never forgot seeing them drive away and going back upstairs, never the look of him in her arms, never stopped feeling guilty."

The concepts of guilt and uncertainty run through all adoption literature, and Haggerty recounts a common litany of false starts, confusion over her role, wondering how to deal with her other children and her fear of posing a threat to the adoptive parents and to her own child's peace of mind. As son and mother get to know each other and each other's families, the layers of self-deception fall away, revealing individuals rendered now unmysterious but ever more human.

The Invitation ends shortly after the initial reunion. That could hardly be otherwise---the lives of Haggerty and her son are still unfolding. Just how mother and now-grown child will cope with the fall-out from the adoption will perhaps be stuff for a sequel. Even so, the book presents a unique portrait of that which is now know as an "open adoption" in which relinquishing mothers---and their children---at least know something about each other. As years go by and more families are reunited after open adoptions, the stories they will tell will add to our understanding of the phenomenon. For now, Haggerty's courageous work stands alone, the first in a new shelf of books which will add to the adoption experience, and force readers to wonder about their place in the world of families.

Rick Ouston is a Vancouver writer and broadcaster who was adopted as an infant. His latest book Finding Family, published by New Star Books, recounts his own transcontinental search for family members, and the aftermath of reunions with his mother and a sister who herself was adopted.

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