The Mistress’s Daughter Teacher’s Guide

By A. M. Homes

The Mistress's Daughter by A. M. Homes

READERS GUIDE

Questions and Topics for Discussion

INTRODUCTION
In her critically acclaimed novels and short stories, A.M. Homes has proved herself as one of this generation’s most fearless authors. Now, in her latest work, The Mistress’s Daughter, Homes moves from fiction to fact, shifting the focus to her own life and the families—biological and adoptive—who have shaped it. Applying the withering honesty and wicked wit for which she is known and celebrated, Homes tackles issues of identity and personal history from a fresh perspective, using her two sets of parents to illustrate the age-old debate of nature versus nurture.

A.M. Homes was put up for adoption before she was born. Thirty years later, she was contacted by her birth mother, and Homes’s childhood fantasies about who that woman might be were revived—only to be dashed by meeting her in person. Rather than the beautiful, capable goddess Homes had dreamed of, her mother proves to be a complicated, unsettling woman who demands too much, too soon; who fails to respect Homes’s personal boundaries; and who requires mothering rather than providing it. Homes’s biological father, meanwhile, treats his relationship with his daughter much like the illicit affair that created her, promising much but delivering little. Homes alternately pulls toward and away from her newfound parents, wanting something from this “new” family yet unsure exactly what and uncertain as to how it would fit with the family she calls her own. In this way, the author explores the confounding nature of heredity—as much as she feels alienated from her birth parents, she in equal measure recognizes herself in their tics, mannerisms, and physical characteristics. Ultimately, Homes moves beyond both her biological and adoptive parents, widening her net of family by looking back into her genealogical history and looking to the future in the form of her baby daughter. It is in this extended family picture that she finally finds her peace.

Central to The Mistress’s Daughter are themes of personal character, love, and forgiveness that extend beyond the events of adoption. Homes’s achievement is that she has taken her unique experience and made it universal. While fans of her fiction may be especially interested in catching a glimpse of the inner workings of the author’s psyche, those readers who are new to Homes’s work will be impressed by her bravery, her sharp humor, and her elegant prose. Her exploration of the point at which identity and ancestry both meet and diverge will ring true with anyone who has felt a disconnect between themselves and their family—which, plainly put, includes all of us.

 


ABOUT A.M. HOMES
A.M. Homes is the author of the novels, This Book Will Save Your Life, Music For Torching, The End of Alice,In a Country of Mothers, and Jack, as well as the short-story collections, Things You Should Know and The Safety of Objects, the travel memoir, Los Angeles: People, Places and The Castle on the Hill, and the artist’s book Appendix A:

In April of 2007 Viking will publish her long awaited memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter, the story of the author being “found” by her biological family, and a literary exploration and investigation of identity, adoption and genealogical ties that bind.

Her work has been translated into eighteen languages and appears frequently in Art Forum, Harpers, Granta, McSweeney’s,The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Zoetrope. She is a Contributing Editor to Vanity Fair, Bomb and Blind Spot.

She has been the recipient of numerous awards including Fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, NYFA, and The Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library, along with the Benjamin Franklin Award, and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis.

In addition she has been active on the Boards of Directors of Yaddo, The Fine Arts Work Center In Provincetown, The Writers Room, and PEN-where she chairs both the membership committee and the Writers Fund. Additionally she serves on the Presidents Council for Poets and Writers.

A.M. Homes was a writer/producer of the hit television show The L Word in 2004-2005 and wrote the adaptation of her first novel JACK, for Showtime. The film aired in 2004 and won an Emmy Award for Stockard Channing. Director Rose Troche’s film adaptation of The Safety of Objects was released in 2003, and Troche is currently developing In A Country of Mothers as well. Music For Torching is in development with director Steven Shainberg with a script by Buck Henry, and This Book Will Save Your Life is in Development with Stone Village Pictures.

Born in Washington D.C., she now lives in New York City.

 


A CONVERSATION WITH A.M. Homes
Q. To you, what are the most important and universal aspects of the story you are telling in this book? What do you want people to take away from it?

A. This is a book that explores coming to know one’s self. It’s about the very odd sensation of finding out that I was not who I thought I was, and yet didn’t know who I was. It wasn’t until my biological parents found me that I realized how much identity is really about narrative, the stories we are told about our family history. In The Mistress’s Daughter I explore the power of family narratives and go further, looking into how one does family research in the twenty-first century. The question “Who am I?” is not unique to the adoptee; it’s something we all wrestle with. My hope is that readers take from this book a deeper awareness of the adoption experience and that the story will prompt people to think about their own family narratives and their own identity.

Q.You are best known for writing fiction that takes risks—exploring the psychological worlds of your characters from the inside out; how was writing a memoir different from writing fiction?

A. The memoir was much more difficult. My greatest pleasure as a writer comes from inhabiting people whose experience is different from my own. In fiction one can travel the imagination, exploring the unknown, but in memoir, one essentially picks at a wound, again and again, revisiting the most painful complex moments of your life. Autobiography is limited where fiction is limitless and that’s why I love it. With this book I spent months, years really, trying to find language for what was the most ethereal and biological—almost chemical—emotional experience of my life to date, an experience that on many levels defies language. The degree of difficulty was very high . . . it was brutal, unbearable at times, which is why it took so long.

Q. So why do it?

A. That’s a good question. Part of it was the challenge of giving voice to something so difficult to describe. As the events were unfolding it all seemed so horrifying that I was sure I would never forget them, sure that everything would remain perfectly etched in my memory—that every phone message and the sound of my biological mother’s voice would echo in my head forever. I also felt the need to portray the peculiarity of it all—to be able to show it to others, and ask, “What do you think—does this seem odd?” The return of my biological family was traumatic—paralyzing—and I just wanted to capture the events without processing or analysis, to deliver the story back to myself, as though by writing it down, it would begin to make sense.

Q. Did writing this bring closure or a sense of relief?

A. Not really. I don’t think there is such a thing as closure on this kind of subject matter—it’s ongoing. I’m still adopted, there are still enormous things I don’t know about my own history. Writing this book was not cathartic—it was intense, it took more than ten years as I struggled to figure out who I was in relation to where I had come from. That said, am I different or changed now that it is done? Yes. No doubt there are subtle ways in which I feel stronger. Having survived the psychic annihilation of being willfully unknown by my biological family, the good news is I no longer question my right to be alive—I have earned a place here on earth.

When I started writing this book my motivation was to create a document for myself but at some point I started thinking about others who might also be fighting to feel like they have a right to be alive. My hope is that the book would have meaning for others. As much as I feel more exposed than I would with a novel, there is a kind of honesty to it—an inescapable clarity that just is. This is who I am; this is my life—forty-five years of sadness, joy, achievement, and failure. It is really a book about a life lived and how we learn to accommodate our selves and our families.

Q.In the section of the memoir called “My Father’s Ass,” in which you write about going for a DNA blood test with your biological father, you see him at the lab walking away from you and you recognize his ass as your own. Is there an unavoidable legacy, a biological inheritance that one can’t escape?

A. Before I was “found” I had a rich fantasy life about who my parents were—there was enormous freedom in not knowing my background, a wonderful innocence. I could be anyone. As far as I was concerned, my parents were Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. It made perfect sense—and still does—when one thinks about who one is informed by. Sontag and Kerouac were my chosen legacy. When I met my biological parents, I saw fragments of myself in them and was terrified. I wondered if I would keel over and die at a very young age as some of them did, or have a mid-life crisis that would ruin all that I’d built for myself, as both biological parents did independent of each other. Would I be “crazy” like my mother and so on. For the first time, I could feel the thumb print of DNA on my body. Having never known anyone related to me, I had to be told by others that I looked like my biological parents. Having never seen myself before, I didn’t know what I looked like. No doubt there is biology that one can’t escape, but at the same time, one can also hope to develop and improve upon that biological root.

Q. All of your work deals with identity in some form or another—characters struggling to reconcile the dissonance between their public and private lives. And this book too is not just about adoption but about universal questions: Who am I, where did I come from, how do I describe myself? Can you talk a bit about your identity and how it’s changed over time?

A. My identity—that’s a good one. Woody Allen’s film Zelig, about the “human chameleon,” had enormous resonance for me—that feeling of almost unconsciously shifting to accommodate is something I relate to. I grew up with enormous unknowns—questions but no answers. On the positive side, the flux or fluidity of my identity has been helpful to me as a writer—allowing me to crawl inside the experience of others. People always ask how I’m able to write from a male point of view and for me it’s entirely natural to be someone other than myself. The two areas where I have a more fixed identity are as a writer and, more recently, as a mother, and even those have their moments of identity crisis. When I was pregnant, Philip Roth came up to me at the National Book Awards, looked at my giant belly and said, “What did you go and do that for?” As though by becoming a mother, I’d given up my spot as a writer and/or by becoming a mother, I’d gone from being this mysterious ambisexual writer into being a girl. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a good thing. But if I was being honest, I would say that in many ways I am like a shape-shifter, reflecting what is already out there and yet I’m sure I must have an identity of my own. Let me keep looking, maybe I can find it around here somewhere.

Q. One of the most fascinating chapters of this book is “The Electronic Anthropologist” and your experience doing twenty-first-century genealogical research. Can you talk a bit about that?

A. I felt as though I’d stumbled down a wonderful rabbit hole—also known as the World Wide Web. I was able, through looking at such things as census documents and ship manifests, to locate an amazing amount of information from people all over the world. Even five years ago that would have been impossible to do. What was so invigorating about this chapter was that, despite the hard time my immediate biological relatives gave me, this research allowed me to reclaim my enthusiasm about my own history. I was able to connect not just to my biological parents but to hundreds who had come before me, and within that there was power, drama, and narrative—thousands of stories to be told. My imagination began to expand and that allowed me to take back the experience as my own, having been paralyzed by the early part of the story. And I loved dipping into history—looking at dozens and dozens of birth certificates and death certificates and trying to sort out the “right” people—the ones who were actually related to me—from the wrong ones. Sometimes the wrong ones were just as, if not more, interesting to find out about.

Q. There are a lot of well-known adopted people—from Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s to Apple Computer’s Steven Jobs to other writers such as Edward Albee and Jeanette Winterson. Can you talk about how being adopted may have influenced your work

A. Well, first off, if you’re going to have a club of famous adopted people you better do a bit more research, you’re leaving off the serial killer category: Son of Sam, Joel Rifkin, and so on. There are whole Web sites about adopted killers. But seriously I do think being adopted changes a person; it causes a dislocation, a kind of fracture that disrupts things.

In his books on becoming a writer John Gardner spoke about how all good writers have a chip on their shoulder or something they have to get over. I’m not sure it’s a chip on my shoulder, having grown up feeling on the outside. I sure worked hard to be known, to deliver myself to a larger world in some way. No doubt my sense of being an “outsider,” more an observer than a participant, has informed my writing. I don’t think there’s a particular “adopted” point of view, but clearly my experience of feeling removed gives me a way of looking at the world that is perhaps different from others and a perspective from which to write. Also I tend to notice things that others don’t—emotional details. The combination of my constitution and my experience taught me very early on to clue into the emotional states of others.

Q. If your biological parents hadn’t come looking for you, would you have looked for them? Are you sorry they found you?

A. No. I would not have looked for them. Someone once gave me a phone number for a woman who, for a fee, could reportedly find anyone in twenty-four hours. I carried that number with me for a long time and then curiously decided I wouldn’t call. And of course, it was just a few months later that my biological mother “found” me—which is somewhat unusual. It always seemed ironic—that only after I chose not to search did the information come to me. Am I sorry that they found me? As I say at the end of the book, “Did I choose to be found? No. Do I regret it? No. I couldn’t not know.”

 


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • As part of the process of discovering herself, Homes pursues genealogical research, uncovering her family tree and even having her DNA mapped. To what degree have you ever been interested in discovering your family history? Why does ancestry matter to us?
     
  • What do you believe is the source of identity—nature or nurture? Use your own experiences growing up to make your argument
     
  • Adoption is a popular topic in the news and a current celebrity trend. What are your views? Would you consider adopting a child?
     
  • What was your reaction to Homes’s birth mother? Her father? Her adoptive parents? Where did your sympathies lie in reading the book?
     
  • Do you think Homes would have been better off not knowing her birth parents? Explain your answer.
     
  • How do you define “family”? How did you develop that definition?
     
  • Had you read any other memoirs before this? If so, which ones and what did you enjoy about them? If not, how did the experience of reading a memoir differ from reading a novel?
     
  • If you could ask Homes one question, what would it be?
     
  • People write memoirs for a number of personal reasons but the books usually center on one theme or event. If you were to write a memoir, which theme or event would you focus on? What title would you give your book?
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