Playing House: A Conversation with Megan Culhane Galbraith


Punctuating the essays in Megan Culhane Galbraith’s debut memoir The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book are a series of photographs that, on a surface level, represent lived events in Galbraith’s own history or recreate the photographed histories of others. She recreates one of the first photographs taken of her in foster care by placing a baby figurine on a small lawn chair and photographs a plastic cake to represent one she ate during her childhood. She photographs doll women vacuuming, doll babies waiting to be fed, and plastic doll mothers holding their plastic children.

These pictures offer information about real events, and also highlight the constructed nature of not only photography but of memoir: who is holding the camera or the pen? What agency does the subject being photographed or written about hold? And who is privy to the often thorny histories and narratives behind the artificiality of the photographs or faint memories?

In her hybrid work of creative nonfiction, Galbraith seeks to better understand her own history as an adoptee. A tireless researcher, Galbraith turns to her birth mother to tell portions of her life story that might otherwise remain unknowable. When gaps in her narrative still remain, she combs through archives in search of answers, and there discovers a study called “Domecon” in which foundlings or orphans were used as “practice babies” in home economics classes. In lyric, brilliantly researched prose interspersed with photography of her dollhouse collections, Galbraith grapples with the “primal wound” of adoption and searches for wholeness, or at least a meaningful narrative she can use to make sense of herself and her life.

Galbraith and I spoke recently about writing into trauma, weird Google searches, agency, valuable intersections between different art forms, and the importance of play.


The Rumpus: You open your book by explaining that The Guild of the Infant Saviour is a hybrid work of creative nonfiction—you include essays, prose poems, collages, photographs. It is part memoir, part social history, and part bedtime story. As a reader, I feel like it works so well, but I can imagine it took some time to figure out what shape this story might take. How did you find your way into this form?

Megan Culhane Galbraith: It took many tries to figure out the structure of this book because as an adoptee my narrative was not linear. Information comes at you in waves and at different times, followed by long periods of silence. Much of it is unreliable, and I found myself piecing things together like a jigsaw puzzle doomed to always be missing a few pieces. Very late in the process a trusted friend suggested I structure it like my baby book.

Much of the book was my thesis manuscript from Bennington, where I got my MFA and where I now work, so the words definitely came first. At the time, I was pawing through a lot of papers and things I’d saved, trying to find a way in to some piece of my story. I came across a dollhouse-sized pink plastic high chair and it spun my mind back to memories of playing with these toys at my grandmother’s house. It made me curious about what vintage they were and what kind of dollhouse they went with. Turns out these were used in tin dollhouses of the 1960s.

Once, at Bennington, we had an afternoon off and I collected a bunch of my friends in the car and took them to this local antiques place. There, on the top shelf, was the dollhouse that I now use for my work. It was like a beacon. I bargained the price down, shoved it in my car, and made my friends sit on each others’ laps. Then I began collecting furniture—it’s inexpensive, maybe $10 a piece for this stuff—and the dolls that went with these houses. They’re weirdly hypersexualized dolls. I have one set of them called “The Campus Cuties.”

The dolls can’t move their arms or legs and it lends to their awkwardness, like they’re frozen in time. They can’t bend or hold things. I like the restriction of that. Everything is out of scale, and that’s the point.

Rumpus: And the photos you take capture that, too.

Galbraith: The photographs in the book mimic the photographs that your mother or grandmother might have taken of you as a kid: your head is a little cut off or things are out of scale or there’s a weird angle on it. A photograph is like writing in the third person. It’s voyeuristic, which is what a dollhouse is. It’s a window. You’re always looking in: observing.

Dolls have no agency. They are always acted upon. In my work, I’m trying to give them agency and give myself agency to use my voice through them. As I played with the dolls and the dollhouse, memories began to return. The act of playing broke open my brain. The act of observing freed up my mind and allowed me to get curious about things, which is a very childlike way of seeing the world.

Over the years, I began wondering why I was playing with this particular dollhouse and then I realized it was the same vintage (the ‘60s) as when my birth mother was sent away to have me. The parallels made me curious. As an adoptee, I felt numb growing up. The minute I was able to start questioning why I felt something, that’s when stuff really started to get interesting and those dolls were the way in. Asking questions is a dangerous thing. I was trying to find answers, and if those answers aren’t there, I’m going to dig and dig and dig.

Rumpus: You deal with several unreliable narrators in this work: your birth mother, who changes her story several times, and your adoptive family. What’s your relationship to truth?

Galbraith: What’s my relationship to truth? [Laughs] What’s anyone’s relationship to truth? There is no one universal truth. I was writing to figure out my truth. I still don’t know for sure because so much of our stories as adoptees are built upon obfuscation and lies. Many of us don’t have access to our original birth certificates. We have no baby photos. Shame is powerful and adoption is loaded with shame. I think the meta-narrative of the book is that memory is a coping mechanism.

There’s no doubt my birth mother felt the stories she told me were true. Memory is like that, especially traumatic memory. She suffered great trauma, being sent away to have me in secret. She was just an average teenage girl who got pregnant and had to bear her family and society’s shame. As much of an unreliable narrator as she seems on the page, I empathize with her stories. I understand why they exist. I want to honor them. But I also want the truth of what happened. I’m sick of secrets. I had to realize that some people don’t want to be curious about their lives or just aren’t ready to meet me at that same place, you know?

Rumpus: In your photographs, the dolls have so many different connotations: there is the hypersexuality that comes from the form of these dolls; there are questions of agency in terms of who is doing the photographing; there is the history you bring to the page of feeling like a doll when your adoptive parents took pictures of you. The images paired next to each other also highlights how crafted everything is. It prompted me to think about the shape of each essay, as well as who was telling the story. And, to go back to your definition of truth, the dollhouse recreations of real, lived events reminded me that both stories were true—that there’s a plurality. It’s such a rich medium for exploring so many of the themes you explore in your book: what does it mean to be a mother? What does it mean to be a woman? What stories do our bodies carry?

Galbraith: You get it! It’s back to that meta-narrative about this being a meditation on memory. No one’s memory is “the truth,” but it is your memory. I have this Lucille Clifton poem on my refrigerator titled, “why some people be mad at me sometimes.” She writes that people want her to remember things their way, and they get mad at her for remembering them her way. It gets to the heart of the paradox of being adopted. People might not like what you write because it doesn’t agree with their own unexamined life.

My birth mother told me she would be my “open book” and I don’t think she realized how much I’d dig in and poke around. I was going to read that “open book” a thousand times, and question everything, because that’s how I’m wired. When you start questioning other people’s narratives, they get upset. That’s okay, but it doesn’t mean they can silence my voice.

Rumpus: As you include in your book, Nancy Verrier calls adoption “the primal wound.” You’ve been talking about the ways that trauma shapes memory and how, as an adoptee, you are trying to locate yourself in a past that might not exist in a way that you had hoped. What was it like writing into that?

Galbraith: I called it sitting in my own poopy diaper.

Rumpus: Which, honestly, is fitting with the dollhouse in some ways.

Galbraith: Yeah. One thing they don’t tell you about book publishing is how many times you have to go back into the manuscript. I must have gone back into it four or five times in the editing process. I traumatized myself again and again by reliving the memories through really hard line-by-line edits. At one point, I began thinking, What’s my birth mother going to think? My father? My siblings? My kids? I had to take walks and not let myself get into that place. I couldn’t let those voices live rent-free in my head, you know?

As an adoptee, I was silent for a very long time. My mom would implore me to “be myself” and I would think, I don’t know what that means. So here I am using my voice in a very public way, and a bit terrified that I’m going to be abandoned for doing so. That stabs right into the heart of the adoption wound. You have to lick your salty finger and stick it right on that raw nerve.

Rumpus: That sounds painful.

Galbraith: It is. When you’re writing from trauma, you’re constantly re-traumatizing yourself. I had to find ways to soothe myself. I tried to go back to what my therapist said and comfort my inner child the way I would my own kids. It’s something I have to practice every day.

Rumpus: You talk a little about young Megan in these pages. Have you thought about how she would feel about this book?

Galbraith: Well, now that I allow myself to embrace that little girl inside me, I see how fierce she was and how she stayed silent as a means of self-protection. It’s a way of ensuring you don’t get abandoned again. This book is such a necessary part of me. I think that’s why the doll on the front cover is so poignant—because she embodies me.

Before I understood what adoption trauma was, I didn’t have any words to frame it. The minute I began to put words to things, it was immediately healing.

Rumpus: Your attention to language is such a beautiful way through which you share empathy on the page, too. There’s a part where you think about the difference between “abandonment” versus “surrender” in relation to your birth mother.

Galbraith: The more you read about unwed mothers, especially in the ’60s, many of those women did not abandon their children. In fact, many of them wanted to keep their babies. The system was set up against them. I was very interested in the way my birth mother expressed herself and I began to realize the harsh way she talked to me sometimes was the byproduct of how she was talked to as a child—by her mother, by the nuns, by her caseworkers. It was tragic.

Rumpus: I’m obsessed with the research in your book. From using your birth mother’s diary to write with her to the cultural research, I was blown away. How do you find your way into all of it?

Galbraith: I was obsessed, too. The thing with research is like, when do you stop? I have so much stuff that I’d added in and had to take out. It’s hard to decide because all of it seemed so precious. I love doing research. I love the hunt. It’s a curiosity trail. I will follow it deep underground like some fierce little hunting dog.

I’m so glad the internet exists. You can go down some great rabbit holes. Please, nobody come look at my Google search history.

Rumpus: Isn’t that every writer’s fear?

Galbraith: Yeah. The part that I didn’t write about are all of the answers you can’t get as an adoptee. There was a lot that I couldn’t get out of Catholic Charities. At one point, I wanted to understand the economics of adoption—babies don’t go to poor mothers; adoptive parents have to demonstrate that they have money under whatever capitalistic BS the agencies overlay onto parenthood. I wanted to find out what questions were asked of my parents to determine whether they could be “good” parents. I thought surely they would give me the home visit application, but no. First, they told me that my dad had to sign off in order to let me see my file so my dad wrote a letter. Then they told me they couldn’t show it to me for legal reasons.

There were records of my birth, too, from the charity hospital where I was born. I found out where they were being stored in New Jersey. I asked my birth mother to write to the place to request her records and they told her they’d been destroyed. There were a series of dead ends. There is always something around the next corner if you know the right questions to ask.

Rumpus: How did you find the Domecon study at Cornell, the one where they used orphans and foundlings as “practice babies?”

Galbraith: I found that by accident. I was at a residency at the Saltonstall Foundation, outside of Ithaca. It was my first residency and I had no idea how to spend a month, by myself, working on a book. The other writer there was in his room all the time with the door closed and I felt like I was just flailing around. All I wanted to do was look out the window and feel bad about myself.

One day, I decided to go to the library to get out of my own head. I remember looking for books to read that were adjacent to adoption. I don’t remember the string of words I put into the search engine, but somehow I ended up in the Ag library and I found the practice baby archive. I requested as many boxes of material as I could and sat at the table shaking my head and muttering, “Oh My God.” It was the most dystopian project under the guise of a scientific degree program. Domecon is short for Cornell’s program called Domestic Economics. The beginnings of the program coincided with some strange scientific theories that “motherhood” and “child rearing” could be taught. It was tragic because what was missing, of course, was love.

I’m not sure if I was supposed to, but I took iPhone photos and went back to my studio feeling like I’d stolen something. Every time I felt frustrated on the page, I’d look at those photos of the “practice babies” and recreate a scene from the “practice apartments” in my dollhouse. I started printing the photos on the black-and-white printer at the residency and sticking them on the bulletin board in my studio. I used found objects in my work and found a sewing kit in the dresser next to the bed (leftover from another fellow, perhaps.) I started sewing the pieces of paper together. I didn’t intend it to be “art” at all, I just kept doing it. It reminded me of how I used to practice sewing using those cards I’d had as a kid. I strung up all the images on a clothesline with doll-sized clothespins that garnished the cocktails we’d been drinking. At some point I realized I was replicating the “domestic arts” they taught the young coeds in the Domecon program. I was “playing house” just as they were.

From that work, came a gallery show and from that show came the essay, “Hold Me Like a Baby.”

Rumpus: It’s such a testament to play, and to following your instinct.

Galbraith: That’s why I love these hybrid forms. I’m so interested in the many ways I can express something: words, images, all of it. I’ve written some essays using stop-motion images and my voice and just want to keep playing into that space because it feels limitless. An essay doesn’t have to be simply words on a page.


Photograph of Megan Culhane Galbraith by Beth Mickalonis.

Jacqueline Alnes has published essays and interviews at the New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, Longreads, and elsewhere. She writes frequently about running and neurological illness. More from this author →