'Mistress's Daughter' Tells of Unfulfilled Promises

A.M. Homes

In her new memoir, The Mistress's Daughter, A.M. Homes tells the story of meeting her birth parents. Marion Ettlinger hide caption

itoggle caption Marion Ettlinger

In her new memoir, A.M. Homes writes: "I grew up furious. I feared that there was something about me, some defect of birth that made me repulsive, unlovable."

Adopted as a newborn, Homes later learned the barest outlines of her birth — that she was the child of a young, single woman and her older, married lover.

When she was 31, Homes — now a fiction writer — learned that her biological mother was looking for her. She chronicles what unfolded after that in The Mistress's Daughter.

Homes talks to Melissa Block about her disappointments with her biological mother, who "lived in a fantasy world that was lost in time, that was about the moment she gave me up."

The author also describes the pain and bitterness she felt after meeting her charming and charismatic biological father — who asked her to take a DNA test and refused to include her in his family after promising to do so.

Excerpt: 'The Mistress's Daughter'

Cover of 'The Mistress's Daughter'

Hers is the most frightening voice I've ever heard — low, nasal, gravelly, vaguely animal. I tell her who I am and she screams, "Oh my God. This is the most wonderful day of my life." Her voice, her emotion, comes in bursts, like punctuation — I can't tell if she is laughing or crying. In the background there is a flick, a sharp suck of air — smoking.

The phone call is thrilling, flirty as a first date, like the beginning of something. There is a rush of curiosity, the desire to know everything at once. What is your life like, how do your days begin and end? What do you do for fun? Why did you come and find me? What do you want?

Every nuance, every detail means something. I am like an amnesiac being awakened. Things I know about myself, things that exist without language, my hardware, my mental firing patterns — parts of me that are fundamentally, inexorably me are being echoed on the other end, confirmed as a DNA match. It is not an entirely comfortable sensation.

"Tell me about you — who are you?" she asks.

I tell her that I live in New York, I am a writer, I have a dog. No more or less.

She tells me that she loves New York, that her father used to come to New York and would always return with presents from FAO Schwarz. She tells me how much she loved her father, who died of a heart attack when she was seven because "he liked rich food."

This causes an immediate pain in my chest: the idea that I might die of a heart attack early in life, that I now know I need to be careful, that the things I enjoy most are dangerous.

She goes on, "I come from a very strange family. We're not quite right."

"What do you mean, strange?" I ask.

She tells me about her mother dying of a stroke a couple of years earlier. She tells me about her own life falling apart, how she moved from Washington to Atlantic City. She tells me that after she gave birth to me her mother wouldn't come to the hospital to pick her up. She had to take the bus home. She tells me that it took all her strength and courage to come looking for me.

And then she says, "Have you heard from your father? It would be nice if the three of us could get together," she says. "We could all come to New York and have dinner."

She wants everything all at once and it is too much for me. I am talking to the woman who has loomed in my mind, larger than life, for the entirety of my life, and I am terrified. There is a deep fracture in my thoughts, a refrain constantly echoing: I am not who I thought I was, and I have no idea who I am.

I am not who I thought I was, and neither is she the queen of queens that I imagined.

"I can't see you yet."

"Why can't I see you?"

I am tempted to tell her, You can't see me right now, because right now I am not visible to anyone, even myself. I have evaporated.

"When can we talk again?" she asks as we are hanging up. "When? I hope you will forgive me for what I did thirty-one years ago. When can I see you? If you said yes, I would come there right now. I would be at your door. Will you call again soon? I love you. I love you so much."

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Mistress's Daughter. Copyright (c) A.M. Homes, 2007.

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