By DJ Lee
Megan Culhane Galbraith is a writer, visual artist, and an adoptee. The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book is a hybrid memoir-in-essays. Megan’s work was Notable in Best American Essays 2017 and her writing and art have been published in Tupelo Quarterly, Hobart, Longreads, Hotel Amerika, Catapult, and Redivider, among others. She is the Associate Director and a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars and the founding director of the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont Young Writers Institute.
Megan, what really intrigues me about The Guild of the Infant Saviour is how you use different forms. One chapter is written as a fairy tale, one written as a Q&A, and some are straightforward narrative. Even “Talking Points,” the first chapter, sets us up for the fact that this will be a formal experiment. Can you talk about that?
The word “experiment” evokes such a childlike state, doesn’t it? It’s like another word for curiosity. I want to always try to stay as curious as I can about myself, the world, and other people. The meta-narrative of the book is about memory as a coping mechanism, and the structure plays with that idea too. I got curious as to why my birth mother remembered what she did. I’d struggled to write a linear memoir but it failed. As an adoptee, I got my information in a non-linear and fragmented way, and the structure had to marry that. So the essay form lent itself to a sort of beautiful fragmentation and breathing room. Readers are smart and can fill in that white space. There’s been a great generosity among my early readers being open to these different forms.
You did a great job of answering the questions that the narrative has us wondering about. That created this linear momentum at the same time you’ve crafted a circularity and sense of play. Do you want to talk about the notion of play in the book?
Yes! Play is so important because playing with those dolls opened up so much of this narrative for me. It started with the Domecon babies—they were the orphans and foundlings used as “practice babies” for the co-eds in Cornell’s Domestic Economics program that began in 1919. I recreated their archival pictures in my dollhouse at the same time I was trying to write this book at a residency. I began to ask: why am I playing with these particular dolls and with this particular dollhouse? And then I realized: the vintage of this dollhouse is of the same time period that my birth mother was sent away to have me. I also realized I was playing with the idea of home. These themes were right in front of my eyes, but “playing” with these concepts opened me up to actually seeing them.
You do bring that play to the page through the different forms you use. I was also blown away by your ideas about intimacy, closeness, and attachment. By the end the reader feels an intimate bond with you. I wondered how that dovetails with adoption.
I choked up when you said that, thank you. A big struggle for me as an adoptee is having the agency to speak about this primal, and still healing, wound of early abandonment. That’s where a lot of my exploration of intimacy comes from. I want to know what makes me tick. I desire deep intimacy above all else, yet here I was abandoning myself at the very same time; keeping myself small. I’m so glad you felt that intimacy. It makes me feel seen. That’s all I’d ever want from readers. As writers we have to make ourselves vulnerable on the page because being honest with ourselves is paramount; the reader demands it. I feel that writing from a deeply personal, perhaps painful, place opens an opportunity to speak to something that’s also universal. That’s the challenge of creative nonfiction, isn’t it? To be vulnerable but not whiney or victim-y: to create intimacy but not overexpose, or cheapen, or sensationalize.
Can you talk about the images in the book—there are the dolls and the photographs and collages. How do you see the images operating?
My friend Walter read a late version of the manuscript at a time when I was struggling with the structure—not the language structure, the essays were all laid out—but something wasn’t coalescing. And he said, what if you structured this like your baby book? I played with that idea a lot.
I went back to look at my Adopted Child’s Baby Book and began sketching and making collages. Then I remembered the way I’d recreated the images with the Domecon babies and thought, wait a second, I can do the same thing with the photos from my baby book. From there it fell together. I began curating the images, and as I looked deeply at the images I thought about my dad photographing this baby—me. There’s so much love in the pictures he took, but there’s also a tension. I was posed. I was an object, a doll. I’m not a quote-unquote photographer and that’s important because the images are reminiscent of photos your mother or grandmother would take, where the photo is grainy and your head is half cut off. None of it is precious at all. In complement with the narrative, I hope the images show the dystopian or surreal aspects of adoption. Here is a baby being looked at and maybe not truly seen. It captures the “othering” I felt and that many adoptees say they feel.
The dolls strike the reader, or viewer, first on a visceral level.
Yeah, people think dolls are creepy. I can understand why, but I find them fascinating especially for all the things we project onto them. I remember holding one of those doll babies in the palm of my hand; staring and it and thinking about it, like you do, and I thought, wow, this is such a fragile little thing. This doll is the size of a three-month-old fetus, which, as women, we know is the threshold for viability and for legal abortion. I thought, whoa, what I’m doing is much more than just playing with dolls. I’ll never stop thinking about how young girls’ bodies are fetishized in the dolls we’re given to play with, like Barbie, or the overriding implication of motherhood as a destiny that baby dolls imply.
The dolls I use are called “Campus Cuties.” They’re made of molded plastic and are hyper-sexualized—like they’re super thin, booby, and leggy in a way I rail against as a female archetype through the male gaze. I wanted to infuse these dolls with as much power as I could because they were helping me find my own agency and my voice. When I play and create art, I have an immense sense of freedom. I’m present. That’s the kind of freedom I struggle to bring to the page.
I like the idea of surrender in the book as opposed to “giving up” a child or “putting up” a child for adoption. Was that a moment of recognition for you?
I thought a lot about the word “surrender.” Those phrases set up a savior complex narrative, like “these children were given up, and we must save them by adopting them.” Research shows that most women didn’t abandon their children. Many times babies were actually taken from their mothers. Or mothers didn’t know they were signing away parental rights on the forms put in front of them. Sometimes it was their mothers who betrayed them by signing. They had no agency. It was a tragic system. The shame spilled out everywhere.
So you had to learn to mother yourself—which is the title of one of the last chapters.
Yes, I only understood that idea thanks to my therapist. Re-parenting myself is daily hard work. I realize I have a hard time asking for help, or asking for what I need. Deep down I know it goes back to being in that foster home and probably crying and not being comforted. I remember Mom saying she didn’t think I was held much in “the home” because I have a flat spot on the back of my head. I likely just lay there.
When I met my birth mother, I’d had all these expectations of what our relationship would be like. I thought, “oh, this will surely close the circle.” I know now that’s the paradox of adoption. It takes hard work to come into someone’s life as an adult daughter. She hadn’t had any other children. She didn’t really know how to be a mother. Yet after the devastation of losing my mom so young, I really, really wanted my mother.
That’s such a heart-wrenching part of the book.
It was hard to write. I have to continually find ways to comfort myself and it’s hard work. Like, I don’t need a fairy tale prince to rescue me, but I wish every damn day that my mom was still alive to hug me and tell me it’s going to be OK.
It’s like the epigenetics you talk about—memories inherited from your family that you may not even know.
I think a lot about the epigenetics of shame. Being born of a shameful act in the 1960s and my birth mother internalizes the shame of being unwed and pregnant. Not only was I born of a shameful act, I was the embodiment of that shame. That is an enormous grief I carry in my body, but it’s not mine to carry anymore. It’s hard to put something down when you’re so used to carrying it.
Was writing the book a way to answer some questions and do some self-investigating?
Absolutely. I’m all for the self-examined life. Asking: “Why do I do these things? How can I be a better person in the world?” I think that’s what intimacy is: loving myself, showing up for myself, so I can love and embrace other humans and not be afraid they’re going to abandon me or leave me. I’m the person I need to be most intimate with.
I was fascinated by the research you did throughout the book. It’s compelling how you intertwine the research with your own narrative. Can you talk about that?
Research is my favorite rabbit hole and also the best procrastination technique out there, but it leads to surprising gems. I had no idea about the Domecon babies. I’d just wanted to go to the Cornell library to get some books and stumbled onto the practice babies program. The program was applauded for being cutting edge and feminist for its time, but the underbelly of that—and I always look for the ugly, soft underbelly—was that they used actual babies as experiments. Babies could be returned to the orphan hospitals anytime they didn’t suit a need. And they were fattened and raised like lambs before being adopted. It made me sad to realize what was missing was the exact thing a baby needs most: love. There’s no scientific equation for love.
As an adoptee I paid attention to details that no biologically born child would. I remember sitting down and charting various dates on a calendar—my birthday, the day I was adopted, etc. And I was like, wait a minute, where was I for nearly six months? Only from that did I figure out what questions to ask. I was doing this research in order to reconstruct who I actually was.
And what are you working on next?
I’m writing what I call a nonfiction novel because I don’t know how to write a novel. My birth mother told me that my biological great, great grandfather had been a foundling at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. I researched this and found that of the 10,000 children left at the nursery at the fair, only one was never reclaimed. He was a boy. I believe he was my great, great grandfather. He was adopted too.
My working title is “The One.”
by Megan Culhane Galbraith
Mad Creek Books $21.95
DJ Lee is a creative nonfiction writer whose work includes over thirty pieces in magazines and anthologies and a hybrid memoir Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots (Oregon State, 2020). She has also written or edited seven books on the environment, 19th-century literature, and oral history. She’s taught creative writing at The Johns Hopkins University Conference on Craft and Science Writing, and currently at Washington State University. She’s also been an artist-resident at Hedgebrook, the Women’s Studio Workshop, and the Arctic Circle Artist Residency. Find out more at www.debbiejlee.com.