Reunions: Meeting her birth mother only leaves behind more myster

By ELIZABETH BENNETT, Special to the Times
Published May 13, 2007

Imagine what it must be like to discover, at 31, that the mother who gave you up for adoption at birth suddenly wants to meet you. Imagine your dismay at learning that she's a lonely, needy person whose past life is cloaked in mystery. Imagine how you must feel when she begs you to adopt her and take care of her.

A.M. Homes is a New York novelist (This Book Will Save Your Life) and short story writer (Things You Should Know), but in The Mistress's Daughter she's not imagining any of this. She's telling the story of her own adoption, and like much of her fiction, which has gotten considerable critical acclaim, this memoir is dark and disturbing. She's known for writing books that take risks – one critic called her "the female shock jock of contemporary fiction."

Her story in The Mistress's Daughter begins in December 1992, when she goes home to Washington, D.C., for the holidays. Her adoptive parents tell her that her birth mother, Ellen Ballman, has tracked her down and wants to meet her.

It's a shock for Homes, but she has wanted to learn the truth about her adoption all her life, so she contacts Ballman and they talk several times before getting together. She discovers that Ballman has never married, has an empty life and has few friends.

"The more Ellen and I talk, the happier I am that she gave me up, " Homes writes. "I can't imagine having grown up with her. I would not have survived."

Homes' discoveries about her father, a married man with four other children, are equally unnerving. When she contacts him, he meets her and asks her to get a blood test to confirm she really is his daughter. After both get tested, he refuses to give her the results and eventually breaks off communication.

When Ballman unexpectedly dies of kidney failure, Homes goes to her home in Atlantic City, packing up four boxes of meager possessions in hopes of learning more about her. Emotionally drained by Ballman's death and her father's dismissive behavior, Homes can't bring herself to open the boxes until 2005. Then, finding more questions than answers, she begins an intensive search of family records.

In 2004 the New Yorker published an essay by Homes about her adoption. Now she brings the story to closure, but fans of her fiction may be disappointed. All the years of not knowing where she came from left her with what she calls "pathological complications . . . adoptees don't really have rights, their lives are about supporting the secrets, the needs and desires of others. . . . To be adopted is to be adapted, to be amputated and sewn back together again. Whether or not you regain full function, there will always be scar tissue."

Such feelings of deprivation may account for her sometimes whiny tone, while at other times she comes across as snappish and demanding. And do readers really want to read every detail of her in-depth genealogy search?

Even so, Homes' strange journey of self-discovery, conducted over more than a decade, should find a wide audience, particularly among adoptees. It's an extraordinary story of one woman's search for her roots.

Elizabeth Bennett is a freelance writer in Houston.


The Mistress's Daughter

By A.M. Homes

Viking, 238 pages, $24.95