'Mistress's Daughter' Tells of Unfulfilled Promises Adopted as a newborn, A.M. Homes discovered the truth of her origins when she was 31: She was the child of a young, single woman and her older, married lover. She writes about meeting her birth parents in The Mistress's Daughter.

'Mistress's Daughter' Tells of Unfulfilled Promises

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

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

A.M. Homes was adopted as a new born. Later, she would learned the barest outlines of her birth - that she was the child of a young, single woman and her older, married lover. A.M. Homes became an acclaimed novelist, and when she was 31, she learned that her biological mother was looking for her.

She writes about meeting both of her biological parents in her memoir titled, "The Mistress's Daughter." In this section, A.M. Homes describes her first phone conversation with her birth mother, Ellen Ballman.

Ms. A.M. HOMES (Author, "The Mistress's Daughter"): (Reading) "The phone call is thrilling, flirty as a first date, like the beginning of something. There's 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, mean 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."

BLOCK: You end up speaking rather often with your birth mother, but you only get together with her intentionally once, and you seem quite determined to keep her at bay. Why is that?

Ms. HOMES: I found her scary in the sense that she was very, very needy, and probably more disturbing that her view of me or vision of me really had nothing to do with me as I knew myself at all. She lived largely kind of in a fantasy world that was lost in time, that was very much about the moment where she gave me up - which obviously, had been 30-some years earlier. And her own life had sort of fallen apart, and she would say things to me like, you should adopt me and take care of me. Or, you know, go up to the roof of your building and jump off because you didn't send me a Valentine. So it was a very difficult relationship at best, and one I felt the need to kind of protect myself from.

BLOCK: You do meet quite a few times with your biological father. You learned about him. You learned that his wife has known about his out-of-wedlock child all this time. He has a large family of his own. What were those meetings like?

Ms. HOMES: They were both odd and kind of incredibly compelling. I found myself very drawn to him. He's a very kind of charismatic and charming person. And at the same time, he kind of consistently behaved in character and treated me much in the same way that he'd treated my biological mother. So it made very difficult to sustain any kind of relationship with him. And he also, early on, sort of made promises about wanting to take me into his family, and, of course, never did that - and also never really told his other children about my existence.

They only found out accidentally by opening a letter I had sent to him. So again, it was rather painful and disappointing, but I actually did like him.

BLOCK: You know, it struck me that, in a way, it seemed that your biological father is doing the same thing to you that you did to your biological mother - pushing you away, keeping at some distance - because it is maybe so frightening, or maybe there's just a need for some real privacy there. Do you see any parallels to that?

Ms. HOMES: Not really, because I think that the largest difference in what you're talking about is that my biological mother really had a hard time dealing with reality and what she wanted from me and demanded from me. With my biological father, I had actually said to him, you know, neither of us asked for this to happen, in the sense that neither of us asked to be revealed to each to other, introduced to each other. But now that it has happened, we should deal with it with some measure of grace.

And it was actually my biological father who asked that I take a DNA test to, in fact, prove that I was his child, with the intention that he would take me into his family. So I think there are very different sets of circumstances and very different sort of personalities involved.

BLOCK: You ultimately find out that your mother has died quite suddenly. And you become very interested in doing genealogical research into all sides of your family. And one thing you want to do is join the Daughters of the American Revolution, and to do that, you need a copy of that DNA test. What happens?

Ms. HOMES: My biological father had mentioned to me that I was eligible for the DAR. And at the time, we'd done the DNA test together. It hadn't really occurred to me to ask him for a copy of the test. So I had a lawyer call and ask for the copy of the test, and we were refused.

BLOCK: Now, this is all going through lawyers. Was there a point when you thought, I'm just going to pick up the phone and call him myself? He knows me.

Ms. HOMES: Not really. I think that the last phone call I had with him - which was probably two months after my biological mother died - ended in a way that I found made me very uncomfortable, which was that my father said after I was explaining to him that I didn't want to go through the difficulty of my biological mother's death again when he died, in the sense of being a strange from somebody.

And he said, oh, you can call me anytime. You know, call me in my car, my wife's not usually in the car - which was again setting me up in some way in the position of being the mistress. And I said to him, you know, I'm not your mistress. I'm your daughter, and I'm not calling you in the car.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

Ms. HOMES: And that was our last conversation.

BLOCK: Do you think you ever came to understand how uncomfortable it might have been for him if you were to have, say, called him at home, or some place where his family would have been?

Ms. HOMES: Well, I had over the earlier part of the relationship - if you can call it that way - called him at home, and he had told me it was fine to call him at home. I mean, what I honestly believe is that if a person engages in a seven-year affair with somebody and has a child who's a product of that relationship, they need to take some responsibility for that. And his shame and his embarrassment is really his issue.

I remember meeting with my father and his wife at a hotel in Washington, and his wife saying to me, you know, your father would like to take you places and introduce you to people, but that's not just possible. And I honestly feel that I had worked so hard in my own life and in my work as a writer and in my work with all the organizations that I am involved with to make a life that most people's parents would be incredibly proud of, and that I, you know, didn't need to deal with somebody else's embarrassment at my existence anymore.

BLOCK: You write at one point in the book, I am a person without a past. And when I read those words, I started wondering, what would her adoptive parents think as they read these lines? Would those be very hurtful words to read?

Ms. HOMES: I don't think so. I mean, I think, you know, the good news and the interesting thing about adoption is first and foremost, a person is entitled to their feelings. And my past is not the same as my parents' past. I am not the child of my biological parents, and I am not the child of my adoptive parents. I am the child of all of them together and the life that I make for myself. So I think that my adoptive parents view of the book is actually warmer and more generous than I even would have expected.

My mother has read the book two times now, and actually thinks it's the best thing I've ever written - which I, of course, is a novelist finding credibly ironic because I work so hard writing all the fiction, and I wouldn't have expected that she would think this was the best.

BLOCK: Well, A.M. Homes, thanks very much.

Ms. HOMES: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: A.M. Homes - her memoir is titled "The Mistress's Daughter." By the way, A.M. Homes does name her biological father in the book. She says she hasn't heard from him about the book, and leaves it up to him to contact her. You can read an excerpt from the book at npr.org.

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