ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
Mary Anna King grew up in poverty in a housing project in southern New Jersey with her older brother Jacob and struggling parents; a father and mother who were, in her words, great at making babies, but not so great at holding onto them. Her parents went on to have five more kids, all girls and all were given up for adoption, as was Mary. Mary Anna King's new memoir "Bastards" tells the story of her fractured upbringing, her search for family and attempts at reunion. And Mary Anna King joins us now from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Thanks so much for coming in.
MARY ANNA KING: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.
WESTERVELT: So you spent the first part of your life in New Jersey with parents really just scraping by. Your father was mostly absent or in his own sort of dreamy, negligent world. You biological mother had her own big challenges. She was a runaway, a foster kid, a high school dropout. I found myself rooting for your mom. I mean, she tries really hard, but in the end, she sort of just can't handle raising kids alone. What do you think was her kind of undoing as a mother?
KING: I think she always hoped when she was younger and we were younger that by wanting things to work out and buy working for things to work out that they magically would, that somehow love would be enough. And she tried, she tried very hard. But the problem is when you - when you're struggling financially and you're living in poverty, it takes twice as much effort to do anything. And I think at a certain point, she just felt that it was so hard and maybe it would be better for us if she could get us away from those destructive forces, even if it meant giving us up, that that was the best thing for us.
WESTERVELT: Do you remember her sitting you down and talking to you about that issue, saying I think you might be better off with your parents?
KING: I do, very vividly. It was right after my grandfather had brought up the idea of adopting my sister and myself. And I was speaking to my mother on the phone, and she said it's up to you. You can choose whatever you want, but I think this is the best option because it will be easier for health insurance. It'll be easier for schooling. It'll just be easier. And in a lot of ways, it was easier. But in some ways, it felt traitorous, and that was not easy to leave my mother behind because she was poor - was really how it felt as a child. I understand now, of course, it's much more complicated than that. But as a 10-year-old, that's what it felt like.
WESTERVELT: Your relationship with your grandfather's wife, Mimi, who adopted you and your sister, was a rocky one. I mean, you paint a picture of a cold, strict, largely unaffectionate woman, yet she rescued you from the dysfunction and poverty of your biological parents. How do you think about her role in your life today, her legacy for you personally?
KING: I know so many things because she taught them to me. I know - it was funny, I was at - I was in a friend's wedding, and right before we started walking down the aisle, someone's zipper broke. And so I spent the last few minutes before we walked down the aisle slip stitching the zippers shut, which is something Mimi taught me. She taught me how to take care of myself, and to a certain extent, it felt like she taught me those things because she knew I would have to take care of myself. And I think that was her way of showing love - was arming me and my sister with the tools she knew we would need.
WESTERVELT: You know, at various times you meet all four of your sisters that you didn't know. And I was struck at how there was this immediate intimacy. It wasn't awkward. Were you surprised at how quickly you were all able to bond?
KING: I was shocked by that actually. I always felt certain that my sisters would come looking for me and that they would find me one day. And I imagined we would say hello, we would share stories, we would be friends. But I never really thought long and hard about what it would feel like to have another face that looks just like my face looking back at me. And we pretty much across the board instantaneously - they walked in the door, and we hugged. And then we just - we held hands, and we stroked each other's hair, and we gave each other a hard time about things pretty much immediately.
WESTERVELT: Well, your memoir is a lot about the search for family, but no two of you seven kids were raised the same sets of parents start to finish. You all led such different childhoods. In the end, who do you think of as your family today, and did writing this change your view of what family is?
KING: Writing the book definitely changed the way I define family. I spent a lot of my childhood trying to pass, trying to make my family appear normal and trying to pass thereby as a normal person. And I always thought of family as this one thing. It is a nuclear family. It is mother, father, sister, brother who all match and who all go together unquestionably. But then through writing the book and through meeting my sisters, honestly, they're all my family. My sisters are my family. My grandparents are my family. My birth parents are my family. It's complicated, but it it's true. And sometimes the truth is complicated.
WESTERVELT: Mary Anna King. Her new memoir is "Bastards." Thanks a lot for joining us.
KING: Thank you so much, Eric.
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