This engaging, multifaceted creative nonfiction memoir is exquisitely written and effortlessly draws the reader into a series of philosophical issues. Ostensibly the narrative concerns the narrator’s quest for her biological mother and medical history through the Catholic Charities following the death of her adopted mother. However, it soon develops a series of narrative threads moving back and forward in time, which concern nature versus nurture, motherhood, authenticity and mapping a life. What emerges through short, stabbing paragraphs of gritty, self-deprecating and emotionally charged versions of being raised by foster parents is the trail of how that narrator was formed and became the woman who writes.
The story of the search for her birth mother highlights Jakiela’s extensive narrative gifts. She is sharp, insightful, adept at the use of detail to show the wider social-economic or family context, brutally honest and concerned with using language to uncover deeper layers of meaning. Her use of language with its movement from staccato jazz to the darkly funny is reminiscent of Geoff Dyer in The Colour of Memory and Paris Trance. However, Jakiela offers another layer than Dyer in that she is concerned with probing the archaeology of words. This takes two forms. One is a concern with naming and names, and the other is a fascination with adding words to develop vocabulary and selfhood. Both concerns are shown in the narrator’s exploration of her daughter’s first word, ‘abre’ meaning open and her son’s first word, ‘duck’, which she views as ‘blood things’. There is also a sense that words carry possible transcendence through the uncovering of older meaning. Like Dyer, Jakiela wears her learning lightly and is a joy to read.
Years ago, I saw a palm reader in a basement storefront in New York. She held my wrists, turned my palms up, both hands. “This,” she said, tracing a finger down the lines of my left hand, “is what you were born with. ”Then she traced a finger on my right palm. “And this,” she said, “is the map you make yourself.”
The she asked for $50. She took MasterCard and Visa, not Discover.
Blood is a strong motif running through the memoir. There is a moving scene in her in-laws’ kitchen when the narrator has received a series of abusive messages from a woman purporting to be her birth sister following her efforts to contact her mother. This is cleverly juxtaposed through the décor of pears reminding her of Odysseus’s use of pears, his homelessness, her old classics Professor’s urging her to read the original, and cutting her palm when trying to slice a bagel in two. “Cut away from yourself,” my mother always said. She inspects the ragged cut between the heart and life lines, and the blood ‘coming up in spots, flecks.’ The scene builds up through a series of emotions. ‘Anger comes after grief and fear, a logical thing, but I can’t sort this. I want the truth and I want the lie I was born with. I want connection and I want to get as far away as possible.’
Underlying the narrative are some interesting premises, such as the desire to write to discover what one does not know, and the boundaries and limitations of one’s own life story. Jakiela is a knowing and explorative writer seeking to expand and grow. An adopted person’s story, she writes, ‘is someone else’s secret.’ Indeed this leads her to write an imagined and seemingly authentic account of her birth mother’s situation at the time of her birth. Her birth mother subsequently refuses to acknowledge and communicate with her daughter. Here lies the agony, the persistent unease, and joy of this well filtered narrative. From the darkness of a crippling past, Jakiela finds light.
Her quest for connection ultimately stems from her own selfhood, family and relationships, and an ability to draw from literature and upon the life experiences of other writers and poets, such as Anne Sexton, Gerald Locklin, whom her son is named after, and Lucille Clifton. Beneath that is a quest for the roots of words and an understanding of the role of translation.
My birth mother’s name is such an ordinary one, as ordinary as podium, as plant, as pen. “Do you ever wonder about that?” Lucille Clifton wanted to know, how something plain could have so much power. But in Grimm’s fairy tale, Rumplestiltskin demands the queen learn his name or lose her child. Ancient people believed to know someone’s name was to know that person’s essence. To change a name meant to change destiny. The name I was born with means work and strain. The name I was born with was a wolf.
Lori is a laurel tree. Lori is a celebration.
A name can be a transformation or a cage, both.
Lori Jakiela is a most accomplished writer. You will not be disappointed by the range and scope of this provocative memoir.
David Caddy 16th April 2015