“there is never easy redemption”

Posted by

It starts with Eve. Yes, that Eve.

Megan Culhane Galbraith‘s memoir The Guild of the Infant Savior (The Ohio State University Press, 2021) starts with “the first woman on Earth,” Adam’s rib, serpent, apple. And it’s important to start my response to the memoir with the context of Eve, as well, including and especially the questions the archetype raises about the shaming and blaming of women, about who gets to tell a story and from what angle.

I think there’s a reason Galbraith opens with this gesture. Most synopses of the book describe it as being “about” an adoptee’s search for and reunion with her birth mother. And while that’s not wrong, the book’s scope is larger. Galbraith’s choice to start the memoir with Eve (and sister story Pandora) places it firmly and immediately in the slippery territories of agency and identity — and how the right to them is often gendered. The book’s opening essay, “Talking Points,” makes this clear. Yes, the thread of adoption is what we follow through the maze, but the core questions propelling us forward are about sex, pregnancy, mothering and what builds — or detracts from — personhood.

It starts with Eve.

Here’s Galbraith in an interview with Los Angeles Review of Books:

As women, our very existence is a war for control of our voices, minds, hearts and bodies. Every woman carries intergenerational grief passed down from Eve, or Pandora, or whoever you believe came first in your image. With all of this history of control, how could I not marinate in these topics? Collectively we could burn down buildings with our focused female rage. This first essay in the book, “Talking Points,” allowed me to tap a vein of white-hot rage that had been building for years. …

I like to examine sin and shame through a prism that includes my personal experience. I was born of what was then deemed a “sinful,” “shameful” act. As a baby born out of wedlock in the ’60s, I was the embodiment of shame. I lived in a body I hated for a very long time. Among other things, I tried to slowly kill myself with an eating disorder. I kept myself quiet. I let men use my body. I was aiming for invisibility even as I was screaming to be seen. Grief and shame live in our bodies unless we face them head-on and begin to heal.

“Talking Points” was an essay that hounded me until I got it down on paper. I wrote it in two weeks. As I was arranging the essays for the book, it became obvious it needed to come first. I feel like it’s a road map for what’s to come in the book.

Megan Culhane Galbraith in an interview with Los Angeles Review of Books

I read “Talking Points” four or five times before moving onto the rest of the book. I spent a lot of time with the essay and the way Galbraith weaves personal stories with visitations from various mythologies and their apparitions: Eve, Pandora, Madonna and Child, plus clay vessels, Judy Blume, serial killers, abortion, invisibility and the Oklahoma state legislator who referred to women as “hosts.” I’m just beginning to trust myself enough to examine the power some of these myths have in my own stories, and so I watched carefully how Galbraith paid homage, how she made meaning and how she paired their gravity with her own history.

In all these stories, the woman is the receptor, the chalice, the jar, the grail. She is molded from, come into, killed, cleaved, boxed and sold, imbued with the evils of the world. Her origin story is a paradox. She is set upon the earth to be both gazed upon yet reviled; to imperil and seduce; to be made impure and discarded–a slut, a whore. I cannot unsee this. I cannot look away.

I experiment with agency, pushing into something before shamefully walking back my desire. I’m trying to abandon the box I’ve neatly packed myself in.

Megan Culhane Galbraith in The Guild of the Infant Saviour (p. 14-15)

The list of collective and personal stories is haunting. The ghosts accumulate. They fill every room. It makes us claustrophobic, and we want out. And that’s the wish of the book: that we can push our way through the crowded corridor, break down the door and burst out into the exact kind of open space our One True Narrative needs in order to show itself.

But even as The Guild of the Infant Saviour expresses the longing to be free from other stories and to find our own, it butts up against the realization that we don’t necessarily know how to tell the difference. I ride shotgun with Galbraith here, constantly struggling with which versions of me belong to me, unsure of what materials I came with vs. what’s been crafted (by family, culture, trauma, etc.). As an adoptee, Galbraith writes, “We collide with the paradox of having to prove our identity without having any proof of our identity. We are two people in one body” (p. 271). At least two, I think (speaking only of myself).

The result is a gaggle of selves bumping into one another, squawking for space, getting testy. You may recognize this mayhem in your own experience. It comes up a lot and never fails to beguile and intrigue me. Even as I was reading Galbraith’s memoir, another fellow writer mom (and Sylvia Plath expert) Emily Van Duyne shared this:

“So much of the tension of Sylvia Plath’s life was pitched on the idea that she had to choose a single self— would she be blond and wild or dark-haired and scholarly? Was she a virgin or a slut? As I wrote back in 2017, when the internet had a solar meltdown over seeing Plath in a bikini on the cover of her first volume of Letters, I look to Plath for permission, ‘To be beautiful, and to be smart, and sexual, and to never, ever fall into the foolish trap that these cannot coexist.'”

Emily Van Duyne in “Sylvia Plath & Mean Girls,” a recent post on her Substack

Foolish trap, indeed.

Which brings us back around to Eve.

And whatever way we choose to resolve the chaos — to allow all the versions or trust only some — getting there is a process of trial and error. For me, anyway. And perhaps for Galbraith, too. She writes,

I’m fascinated by the scrim of memory; how and why we remember what we do in the way we do. Memory can be a lacy veil, a different lens through which to see a past, and a coping mechanism for trauma. Family folklore recounts events as a way of passing down a common family identity and as a creative expression of a collective past. It is raw experience distilled and transformed into bedtime stories, photo albums, family heirlooms, recipes and traditions. Over time our stories become polished, embellished and reshaped according to various fears, needs and desires. None of this is wrong or untrue. None of this is bad. As families reshape themselves through birth, adoption, marriage, divorce, tragedy, triumph and death, our oral histories change as well. The same story can be told and retold by a different family member in myriad ways. Facts and stories that do not enhance the image of the family, for example, often go unsaved and untold. The painful ones may be edited or removed entirely from the fragile strands of the family narrative, and those who choose to speak of the pain often become estranged. Aren’t we all unreliable narrators?

Megan Culhane Galbraith in The Guild of the Infant Saviour (p. 267)

The structure of the book, which includes some repetition of stories essay to essay, embodies this trial and error, this trying on for size, this ongoing framing and reframing.

The Guild of the Infant Saviour opens with a list of talking points and ends with another list. The last chapter walks us through what Galbraith ultimately knows and does not know, which questions have satisfactory answers and which continue to frustrate, what she is able to prove and what still inspires doubt/wonder. In other words: the search for the “right fit” narrative may never be over. Thankfully, however, that’s not the bad news you’d assume it to be. Ultimately, there’s a freedom in The Narrative being a work in progress.

And anyway, processing (and re-processing) isn’t all tension and irritation. There are moments of grace, and Galbraith documents those, as well. In an essay that holds False Self and True Self side-by-side, Galbraith writes, “She was determined to live openly from a place of tenderness and vulnerability” (p. 206). Describing an exchange with a friend about confessions related to sex/romance, she writes, “I wince, but she has a benevolent gleam in her eye. It tells me have no sin to confess–no bad behavior. I am holy and so is she” (p. 247). And after squirming a bit in the stillness of a writing residency, she says, “I was being tested to sit with my own grief and shame. … Could I learn to be a good mother to my child self” (p. 259)? I’m grateful for these moments, for their suggestion to try a little tenderness.

Aren’t books terrific little guides? Here, Galbraith is writing about a dynamic between herself and her adoptive mother: “I had a sense that she knew my emotional pain intimately, even though I couldn’t locate it yet myself, or even register that it was pain” (p. 138). Stories of all sorts are a kind of enchantment. Even when stories are painful, we can remain under the spell of their familiarity a long while. There’s an ironic comfort in them. Books, like this one, help us entertain other options. Even as they allow us to register and sit with pain, they grin mischievously, knowing that as we turn the pages, we’re learning how to give ourselves (and other Eves) more than a smidge of grace.

I’d like to get back to the form of the book for a bit. Aside from wanting to read the memoir after bumping into Galbraith on Twitter and realizing we live fairly close to one another in New York’s Capital Region (#albandoesntsuck #enjoytroy etc. etc.), one particular description on its back cover won me over. The blurb calls the book a “dizzyingly inventive hybrid memoir.” As someone who also tries to put books together, I was intrigued. Add to that its inclusion of Galbraith’s art project/photographs? I rushed toward this book. (I’m a visual artist, too.)

The Guild of the Infant Saviour is a collection of essays — each with a different structure, voice and tone, and Galbraith’s stories blossom in the freedom of this approach. Each chapter/essay offers us a different interrogation of the stories Galbraith considers and reconsiders. Each piece does its thing, and then the whole is something of its own, too. In this case, the whole offers a kind of amnesty for its narrator, whom we understand is simply trying to sort it all out. It makes room for vision and revision.

But don’t take my word for how this kind of thing works. In a 2020 Lit Hub article, Elizabeth Kadetsky writes, “The more traditional memoir focuses on seeking and attaining redemption. [But] the nonlinear structure of an essay collection reveals that there is never easy redemption, never clear resolution: bad things happen for no reason; overcoming one trial does not lessen the need to adapt in the next.”

I love being privy to how others figure out which aspects of themselves bring joy and which bring discomfort, how they come to trust or to question and what they ultimately accept or reject. The visual I land on is that despite their variety, the essays are all in the same room, picking at the wallpaper. Each pulls back a different layer. Altogether, as a book, the essays give us a fascinating angle from which you can see dozens of layers of wallpaper at once. We imagine how each made its mark on the room and discover how far down they go.

The view is enhanced by the photographs in the book. They capture fresh aspects of family stories and showcase The Dollhouse, Galbraith’s visual art project. Like essays, art can be part of processing, digging and framing, and Galbraith’s dollhouse photos are critical here as another method of examination. As she explains in the prologue,

I staged the Cuties and babies in household situations and photographed them from the outside looking in. I realized it was a voyeuristic way of seeing a situation from an angle of removal. It gave me the space I needed to examine my adopted life through a different lens. It emphasized a dystopia perhaps that was right there before my eyes.

I’d been the subject of many photographs — my dad being the photographer — but now, playing with these dolls, I realized I’d also been an object: a doll. Behind the lens of my camera, I am the director of my narrative. I’ve reclaimed a sense of control. Play calmed me down, allowed me to turn off my brain, and when I did, thoughts flooded in; memories returned. I became curiouser and curiouser. I began to ask uncomfortable questions. A window opened to a new way of seeing my reality.

The Dollhouse became a lens through which I could see my birth mother and myself. I could safely question my personal history and interrogate the myths of adoption, identity, feminism and home.

Megan Culhane Galbraith in The Guild of the Infant Saviour (p. 2-3)

I’m grateful to this book. I’ve been dabbling in essays (both here at the blog and on that other Blank Page), and The Guild of the Infant Saviour is helping to illuminate a path for how I may explore some of my own stories outside poems. I lean toward collage and association vs. strict narrative, and it’s delightful to see one way those elements can be executed in memoir. In addition, its timing is serendipitous, as these things tend to be. I’m in a period of rehashing so many of my own stories and unpacking some of their cultural, familial and historical baggage.

The point of revisiting a thing isn’t to relive the pain, but to place it in a different register, to know it differently. Galbraith writes, “It took time for me to figure out the right questions to ask and of whom” (p. 279), which is exactly what I’m doing. I don’t have my talking points yet, but poetry has taught me that you don’t know them going in. They’re revealed in the writing, a process of telling and retelling that unbinds us.

We may not get to the One True Narrative, but that’s not the only desired outcome. There’s value in the True-Right-Now-As-I-Understand-It narratives, too. When we make / name / claim our stories, we grab their power for ourselves. And for Eve, too.

Leave a Reply