When I was a little girl, my older sisters and I watched a movie on television, Our Very Own, a 1950 melodrama about adoption. For the rest of that day, they convinced me I was adopted, until I ran crying to my mother, who assured me I was not. A silly sibling prank—but for several hours, it shook my world. I remember looking at my family with a sense of horrified displacement: who were these people, why was I with them, and where did I really come from?
For adoptees, such questions are acute and sometimes lifelong. Our genesis, grounded in parental bonding, plays a primal role in the formation of our identities. Even those of us raised by birth parents are never fully satisfied by our family histories, the clues we are given to understand ourselves. Megan Culhane Galbraith examines this yearning in her moving, tender debut, a memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book.
The Guild of the Infant Saviour was a Catholic home for unwed mothers in New York City, where Galbraith’s mother, Ursula (a pseudonym), was sent in 1966. She gave birth to baby Gabriella, who went to a foster home until she was adopted at six months and renamed Megan. Twenty-nine years later, a new mother herself, Galbraith seeks out and finds Ursula.
Galbraith describes her book—comprised of linked essays, prose poems, collage, and photographs—as “part memoir, part social history, and part bedtime story.” That last nod to childhood is deliberate, and informs the book’s structure, which integrates photographs of doll reenactments of real-life events with the language of fables and fairy tales, subverting those familiar tropes in a narrative told from different angles, fitting together the puzzle pieces of her life to create a fractured whole.
The plastic dolls in Galbraith’s photographs are a mixed assortment, from tiny babies to a set of six-inch womanly figurines from the 1960s called the Campus Cuties, with wasp waists and bullet bras, plus a token male doll in a double-breasted suit, comically (perhaps intentionally) half the size of the women. Some scenes are photographed inside Galbraith’s vintage tin dollhouse. Disproportionate scales between the varied dolls and furnishings suggest destabilized environments, something not quite right—a metaphor for psychic trauma, and the slippery nature of memory. They portray seminal moments from Galbraith’s family history (sometimes alongside the real photographs), with straightforward captions: “Ursula graduates from St. Bernard’s School, Pittsburgh”; “Gabriella. Your first baby photo (in your foster home)”; “You could play by yourself in your playpen for hours.” The doll baby on the book’s cover is named “Little Megan,” and she is floating, unanchored, wearing what looks like a christening gown.
The reenactment photographs are culled from Galbraith’s visual art project, The Dollhouse, inspired by her early obsession with The Lonely Doll series, a children’s book series popular in the late 1950s and ’60s. The books featured staged, sometimes fetishized photographs of Edith, a doll proxy for the author, Dare Wright (for those who want to go down this rabbit hole, I highly recommend Jean Nathan’s biography of Wright, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll). Galbraith’s images strike a different register, ranging from winking jabs at patriarchy to evocative tableaus of loss and isolation.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the chapter “Hold Me Like a Baby,” which describes a degree-granting program at Cornell University that ran from 1919 to 1954. Over the years, hundreds of Domecon (short for Domestic Economics) babies—ranging from three weeks to a few months old—were taken from orphanages and asylums and “loaned” to the college for one year. Each baby was assigned to a rotating group of up to six female coeds, so they could practice mothering skills. Other domestic tasks included making meals, cleaning and ironing, and household budgeting. Fake apartments and nurseries functioned as backdrop for these classes, with one-way mirrors for observation. Galbraith’s doll babies in these classroom reenactments, based on historical photos, are especially haunting for their mute compliance, encapsulating the performative aspect and lack of agency in being “a good child.” They are props, as were their human counterparts, shunted from one pretend mother to another, unable to bond with any. This lack of nurturing aligns with Galbraith’s own experience for the first six months of her life, “the primal wound” from which would stem her anxiety and fear of abandonment, the longing for and mistrust of intimacy, and her stoicism in its absence.
Though Cornell’s program ran for several decades, its practices were so inhumane that society’s only response could be erasure, which history has obliged; most people today have never heard of Domecon. It’s shocking such a program could have even existed. But, at the time of its inception, leading thinkers like John Broadus Watson, former president of the American Psychological Association, believed that human behavior could be regimented by scientific control, and that showing children affection was detrimental (he would ultimately be dismissed by the APA, and his views deemed unethical).
One can only wonder what would have happened if actual mothers had been consulted for these practices. Galbraith, a self-professed feminist, deftly conveys the imbalance of living in a society where men’s needs and opinions continue to override women’s. As much as the book is an account of her adoption, it’s also a subtle indictment of patriarchy, whether institutional or in the realm of personal relationships.
In the chapter “Consider the Lilies,” she offers a snapshot of her adoptive parents’ marriage through her father’s annual Christmas gifts to her mother—always a bottle of Shalimar and a crisp white blouse with a lace collar: “I remember her face being flat […] as she replaced the tissue paper and put the box with the blouse on the floor… I think now that her expression was one of muted pain for living with a man who didn’t understand her enough to know that Cotillion was the perfume she preferred.”
Later, in “The Girl, the Garden, and the Key,” that spousal myopia is paralleled in her own marriage. Her husband, a skilled craftsman and woodworker, resisted using his skills for a business. Money was often tight. She became the breadwinner while he stayed at home with the kids. Still, she allowed him to control the budget, needing permission to spend the money she earned. He liked the comfort of a family unit. She wanted something beyond it. She felt constrained by his complacency; he was mystified by her unhappiness. “Things will get better, he’d say, or It’ll work itself out, as if magic was supposed to fix things. As if inaction was action.”
Women will recognize this dynamic of good men who love them but never really see them, therefore rendering their love insufficient. Galbraith acknowledges her role in this, writing about herself in the third person:
She was hiding bits of herself from him—her deepest thoughts and desires. She kept those in the secret walled garden inside herself. It was a place she’d go to be alone and she got upset when he tried to follow her there. And yet, she clung to [him]…It was neither fair to him, nor satisfying to her, but she equated being alone with being abandoned. After many years she realized she’d abandoned herself.
Galbraith’s adoptive mother lived in an era when divorce was less common. Had she survived the cancer that killed her in her fifties, it’s likely she would have stayed in her marriage, unfulfilled but resigned. Not so for Galbraith, who finally left hers once the children became adults.
Speaking of husbands and fathers, I found it interesting that Galbraith seems less impacted by the absence of her biological father. Though she speculates who he could be, through Ursula’s clues and her own sleuthing, he is less significant, relieved of culpability. His involvement, after all, was fleeting and anonymous—ejaculation followed by escape. Whereas the mother, who carries the child, must also bear the guilt of abandonment, even if they believe (or are told) that their sacrifice will give their baby a chance for a better life.
Galbraith’s reunion and subsequent relationship with her birth mother proves to be bittersweet. Ursula, who wanted to be found, told her upon first meeting: “Ask me anything.” Years later, out of the blue, she cut the questions off. She knew her daughter wanted to write a book about seeking her identity. She gave her family stories, photographs, and a gold watch fob containing a lock of hair from Galbraith’s maternal grandfather (also born out of wedlock, later adopted by his mother’s cousin). When Galbraith called to tell her that the book found a publisher, Ursula expressed happiness. She sent a loving, congratulatory card. And then, silence.
Several weeks later, she informed Galbraith that she did not want her real name exposed, and would only grant permission to use the photographs if she could read and revise the manuscript (years ago, her ambition was to be a magazine editor). We can only speculate, along with the author, what provoked this retraction of support. Seeing one’s story in print can be daunting. The Ursula portrayed in the book is sassy, rebellious and, at times, defensive. It has been almost a year since their last communication.
To have lost, found, and then lost again seems especially wrenching, a kind of unmothering. One of the photographs Galbraith hoped to use was of her and Ursula, taken on the day of their reunion. In its place is a reenactment with two adult dolls. And, even more poignant, there is a photograph of an empty picture frame with the simple caption: “Permission not granted.” In her book, as in her life, Galbraith must make do. What she has is not complete. But for this reader, at least, it is enough.