Maud Lewis – Tragic Birthmother

I am attracted to tragic birthmother stories. That is what I feel that both of my biological genetic grandmothers were. So last night we watched the movie Maudie. It is the story of the Nova Scotia woman, Maud Lewis, who’s folk art which sold for nominal prices during her life and has skyrocketed into value since her death. I am attracted the her famous painting of the white cat with the sad face.

In the Hollywood romanticized version of her story, her husband Everett Lewis was not a social person and is known to have been was born at the “Poor Farm” in Marshalltown, Digby County. In the movie, he frequents an orphanage. It is unclear whether his mother was a resident or an employee at the Poor Farm, and nothing is known of his father. The movie depicts Maud and Everette Lewis as two misfits who found each other and married.

When Everett wants to have sex with Maud, is ostensibly there as his housekeeper but in living with him, there is only one bed in the house – his bed. She confesses to him that she once ended up pregnant, had a severely malformed baby who died and was buried while she was asleep. Later in the movie, her Aunt Ida who had partially taken care of Maud before she went to work for Everett but didn’t want to die with regrets, confesses that the baby was perfectly normal but that Maud’s brother Charles sold her to a rich couple because he did not believe Maud was capable of caring for her.

Later, Everett tracks down Maud’s daughter and takes her to see the girl but Maud only secretly looks at her hidden next to their car, outside of her house and isn’t willing to go to the girl. One gets the sense that she may have felt the daughter would reject her for her deformities, caused by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (which was not treatable in the time period she was growing up). And that could be the true version – which is sad and tragic enough.

There is some dispute about the movie version compared to the actual true story and that would not be surprising as movies are meant to entertain. Everett is said to have been much worse towards Maud than the movie depicts him as being. The author, Lance Woolaver, visited Maud’s famously hand-decorated with her paintings house as a child and has been fascinated by her story all his life. He wrote a heavily researched 500 page book – Maud Lewis The Heart on the Door.

The book is described as a full-length biography including detailed accounts of her disabilities, due to a childhood battle with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that twisted her hands and joints. Despite this deepening and painful affliction, she completed and sold thousands of bright pictures and Christmas cards from her little one-room house. Throughout her marriage to the illiterate fish peddler, she suffered from poverty and loneliness, yet triumphed over all with her brilliant, colorful and happy paintings. Everett Lewis was murdered after Maud’s death in 1970, on New Year’s Day of 1979 for his lockbox filled with money from sales of Maud’s pictures.

This author’s perspective on the tragedy of Maud Lewis as a birthmother was that as a young woman in Yarmouth, Maud fell in love with Emery Allen. Woolaver believes he was the love of Maud’s life. However, after she became pregnant, Allen abandoned her. He also believes there was no reconciliation between Maud and her daughter. Whether Maud believed the lie initially told her or not, it is said that she rejected her daughter, Catherine, when she reached out to know her mother saying that her child had been a boy who was born dead. A subsequent attempt by the daughter to contact her mother by letter also failed to bring them back together.

Catherine Dowley was born August 13, 1928 in Nova Scotia. She was not aware that she had been named for her mother, Maud Catherine Dowley. Later in life she did know that Maud was her original mother and that Mamie Crosby was her adoptive mother. Catherine’s visits to connect with Maud in Marshalltown upset Mamie, who like many adoptive mothers felt that she had been a loving and good mother to Catherine.

Catherine (with glasses) with her adoptive mother, Mamie Porter.

Catherine married Paul Muise in 1949 in Yarmouth county and several years after their marriage, they moved to Ontario. They were the parents of about 4 children. Catherine died before Lance Woolaver’s book was released.

Everett was know locally as a dirty old man who would take advantage of young women for sex. Maud may have known there was that aspect to him and sought to protect her daughter from predation. Just questions without answers such as those I have in my own parents’ adoption stories. Those that know have died with the answers I will never have.

Small Sacrifices

A friend commented on a music video I posted to Facebook inspired by today’s full moon, known as the Wolf Moon, this – Unfortunately, that song always reminds me of the woman who shot her kids to be with a married man. This song was said to be one of her favorites. Yikes !! Talk about unintended consequences . . .

It does appear that my friend was at least correct that a natural mother (not the first time as the news goes in general) shot her own children and then made up a story to cover for the deed – She claimed she was carjacked on a rural road near Springfield by a strange man who shot her and the children. Upon arrival at the hospital, the oldest child, Cheryl who was age 7, was already dead. The youngest, Danny age 3 was paralyzed from the waist down. The second child, Christie age 8 had suffered a disabling stroke. The mother had been shot in the left forearm.

In 1973, she had married a man she met in high school. Her first child was born in 1974. The next in 1976 and the youngest in 1979. However the couple divorced in 1980 because the husband suspected the youngest child was not his but the product of an extramarital affair of his wife’s. The prosecution argued that the mother had shot her children, so she could continue her affair with a married man who did not want children.

Sometimes, a parent really is not fit to raise their children. In prison, the woman was diagnosed with narcissistic, histrionic, antisocial personality disorders and labeled a “deviant sociopath”. And the judge intends that he dies not intend for the mother to ever be released from prison in her lifetime. The two surviving children went on to live with the lead prosecutor and his wife, who adopted them in 1986. Prior to her arrest, the mother became pregnant with a fourth child. She gave birth to a girl, who was seized by the State of Oregon and adopted. That girl has appeared on national television saying that she regards her mother as “a monster.”

John Murry’s Adopted Relationship to William Faulkner

John Murry

It’s not hard for me to be drawn into any adoption story. As a writer, I am of course aware of William Faulkner. As a result of disappointment in the initial rejection of his work, he became indifferent to publishers and boldly wrote his next novel in a much more experimental style. In describing the writing process for that work, Faulkner would later say, “One day I seemed to shut the door between me and all publisher’s addresses and book lists. I said to myself, ‘Now I can write’.”

But really, this blog is not actually about Faulkner but about a related adoptee, John Murry. The name Murry actually runs down a long line of Faulkner’s. William Faulkner’s father’s and brother’s first names. John Murry had been adopted by his adoptive parents by an agreement made before his birth. His biological mother was a Cherokee schoolgirl and his adoptive parents thought they couldn’t have children. Also not unusual in cases of adoption, his adoptive mother gave birth to a son a year later, who John was raised with as a brother for a period of time. While growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi, John’s relationship with his parents was troubled (also not unusual for adoptees).

With the birth of their biological son of more importance to them, John was eventually sent away to be raised by his grandmother. She was a first cousin of William Faulkner, who considered her to be like a sister to him. John Murry’s grandparents were related to the Faulkners – on both sides. Mississippi is that kind of place, he says. Murry often refers to Faulkner’s book, The Sound and the Fury. He says that his adoptive parents hoped to model him after a character, Quentin Compson, who appears in that book. John feels more identified with Quentin’s brother, Benjy. Quentin had gone to Harvard University. John says his adoptive parents gave little thought to the fact that Quentin commits suicide in that book.

Faulkner died 15 years before John Murry was born. His grandmother and Faulkner had been inseparable, and his grandfather was a pallbearer at Faulkner’s funeral. When Murry was growing up, his beloved grandmother told him that, despite the lack of blood lineage, he was “obnoxious” and “more like Bill than any of us”. Obnoxious was the ultimate compliment, he says – it meant he challenged authority and called out can’t.

So the character Murry relates to, Benjy, is labelled an “idiot” in the novel. Today that character would have been diagnosed as autistic like Murry was at the age of 32 (confirming his own instincts about who he was most like). He struggles. At times he is in control of all the stuff going on in his head; other times, paralyzed by it. “I have an eidetic memory,” (More commonly called a photographic memory.) He says, “I can remember conversations verbatim. I can hear multiple conversations at once too.” He’s not boasting. Many of his memories torture him. “I don’t want to remember some of these things.”

Not wanting to remember is unsurprising because his childhood was violent. Murry is phenomenally well read, for which he is thankful for one thing: the shelf-full of books his lawyer father gave him. “I was 10 years old, and he puts books out there for me to read like The Communist Manifesto and the Autobiography of Malcolm X – books he didn’t agree with.” Although his parents were set on him going to Harvard, he had other ideas. He chose to play music and compose songs (another way of telling stories).

Murry spent three weeks of his childhood in a host family’s home with other dysfunctional children (who were also being treated at a fundamentalist Christian rehabilitation center). There, he had his first sexual experience, which was being repeatedly gang raped by three older boys. He says they discussed killing Murry in front of him. “I want people to know if something like that happens to you, that violence is not something you bring upon yourself, just as I didn’t bring it upon myself. I was the victim of it.” He blames a later heroin addiction that almost killed him to that time he spent in that Christian rehab as a youngster. “I think the thing that led to heroin was having to repeat again and again, ‘I am powerless over drugs and alcohol, and only Jesus Christ can save me from that’.” 

Giving up drugs and leaving America in a move to Ireland changed everything for Murry. Albert Camus is quoted by Murry as saying, “The first thing a person has to do in life is to decide whether or not to take their own life and once they’ve done that they can choose to live. I don’t want to die – I know that now. I slowly realized my perspective on things has changed. I’ve changed.” I recently completed reading Camus’ book The Plague (I know, a perverse choice in a time of pandemic perhaps but actually enlightening as regards the behavior of people under such extreme circumstances which it seems changes little over time).

John Murry’s story is sadly typical of many adoptees who have a higher rate of suicide, dysfunctional relationships, drug use and are more likely to be victims of abuse.

What Gives Me The Right ?

This is a tricky issue that I have encountered here on this blog. What gives me the right to talk about issues related to adoption or foster care ? Am I an adoptee ? No. Have I spent time in foster care ? No. I do have a connection to adoption – Yes, I do. Both of my parents were adoptees and both of my sisters have given up a baby to adoption – but these are not the reasons I have become passionate about the subjects I write about in this blog. I am almost 67 yrs old and honestly, until about 3 years ago, I was in what is called “the fog,” not seeing anything to be concerned about when it comes to adoption. And I needed enlightenment and educating.

So I joined a group where the voices (thoughts) of adoptees and former foster youth are “privileged,” meaning given the most deference. However, in the group are adoptive parents, foster carers, hopeful adoptive parents and oddballs like me. And so, I have read and read and read there. I have bought books to inform me from the perspective of adoptees and former foster youth. And I get it and now I care about family preservation. I know that most parents actually DO want to raise their own children and those children want to be raised by their natural parents. Most of the time, children are removed from their parents over issues of poverty or solvable problems. Many an unwed woman who finds herself pregnant ends up convinced and coerced to surrender her baby – often to her lifelong regret. That happened to both of my natural grandmothers.

So the issue came up in my all things adoption group today. The woman identified herself as being a hopeful adoptive parent when she was younger. currently a teacher and someone who would like to become a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) when her own kids are a bit older. She admitted that she no other links to adoption. Her question was – Should I stay out of discussions of adoption ? Or should I share opinions that I’ve gained from listening to the members of this group ? When I see posts in other groups or have conversations in real life, I’d like to amplify the voices of adoptees and former foster youth, but I’m wondering if that’s not welcome. She noted in closing – Obviously, you can speak for yourselves on posts like these, but I know it is with emotional labor and at the risk of being gaslighted and all of that.

Someone who tried to speak up was told that she needed a reality check because some adoptees value life and don’t dwell in the past, and that the only trauma is for birth parents who are found years later and have privacy violated. And this is old misinformed thinking. It is the adoption agency line as to why adoptions should be closed and kept secret and it has been proven to be abundantly false by many adoptees who have had successful reunions with their natural parents. Yes, some of these fail or are awkward or come at an inopportune time in a mature adult’s life, especially if they are now married with children from that current spouse. It happens and it is painful and heartbreaking when it does but fear of rejection (which honestly happened to some degree when the child was given up and they know this) is no reason to prevent the effort.

One adoptee shared her own experience – Most first mothers want to be found. Mine was terrified of it but I think she’s glad I found her.

Another one encouraged the effort – Preach it…..pffffftttt on those who fuss ….. remind them that they can not speak for anyone but themselves. The truth will ruffle feathers. That’s ok. I personally don’t mind a dialog about differing view points….but many adoption focused groups don’t want that and delete/block a naysayer.

The one who originally posted the question shared – the adoptive parent I was communicating with felt comfortable speaking on behalf of the child’s birth mother. It bothered me. To which someone else noted – Remind her that it is okay to share her own story but NOT the child’s story! Then it is further revealed –  She also brought up racism her daughter has experienced, so it’s a trans-racial adoption on top of everything. And clear that they are living in a very white neighborhood.

And so, in this particular case, it had become clear that the adoptive mother is wrapped up in some heavy adoption issues. Someone like that becomes so enmeshed, their only recourse is to carry on with adoption speak and in favor of what they created…..a big case of, pretend. That last word is an adoptee’s perspective on what adoption is – someone who pretends to be the parent who birthed you or that they have somehow saved you from a fate worse than death – called saviorism when it is trans-racial adoption.

So, this is partly why I write this blog. To spread some light in the darkness that has been adoption practice for decades as well as share my own personal stories, illustrating one or the other with one or the other. Yes, it has become a cause (family preservation) that I am admittedly passionate about.

Bastard Nation

I just learned about this organization today. Bastard Nation advocates for the civil and human rights of adult citizens who were adopted as children. Only the states of Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Hawai’i, Kansas, Oregon, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island allow adult adoptees to have unrestricted access to their own original birth records!

Bastard Nation asserts that it is the right of people everywhere to have their official original birth records unaltered and free from falsification, and that the adoptive status of any person should not prohibit him or her from choosing to exercise that right. We have reclaimed the badge of bastardy placed on us by those who would attempt to shame us; we see nothing shameful in having been born out of wedlock or in being adopted. 

As a 501(c)(4), Bastard Nation does not retain all of the perks associated with being a 501(c)(3) non-profit (donations are not tax-deductible), but in return we have the freedom to support legislation and political campaigns, and in general to move beyond the arena of education into political advocacy.

Bastard Nation has published The Bastard Chronicles: 20 Years of Adoptee Equality Activism in the U.S. and the Birth of a Bastard Nation, compiled and edited by Marla Paul. It features a diverse collection of Bastard theory, and practice, Bastard and Bastard Nation history, legislative and political action, personal stories, art, and literature.

During my own efforts to uncover my grandparents’ identities (both of my parents were adopted), I bumped up against sealed adoption records in Virginia, Arizona and California. Only recently was there success in New York in opening up the records for mature adult adoptees. Had my mom’s adoption not been a part of the Georgia Tann scandal, I would not have her full adoption file from Tennessee today.

In the Bastard Bookstore is a LONG list of books related to adoption.

Almost Good Enough

So this morning, I was reading the story of a couple who adopted a baby and finally got around to fulfilling their intention (when she reached the age of 6) to make this understandable to the child.  They used this book to open their discussion.

What is interesting is that within this adoption discussion community it wasn’t the book or that they had “done the right thing” in making their child aware of the circumstances around her entry into this family, but the issue turned out to be no effort to remain in contact with the original mother.  The couple’s response was – “Currently we do not have contact. When our daughter wishes to seek her out, of course.”

That did not sit well with this group.  She was told – “You shouldn’t wait until your daughter asks.”  And she was questioned as to why she had not.  Furthermore, “If you wait, it could be harder to find her first mother or something could happen to her (there’s no shortage of adoptees who have searched and found a grave at the end of the search – and I will note here, that is what my own adoptee mom found and it broke her heart). Also, what if she goes on to have other kids and your daughter has siblings? It’s another important series of conversations you guys need to prepare to have with your daughter.”

Another adoptee goes on to share, “I was too scared to ever ask anything about my birthmom because I sensed how anxious that made my adoptive mom. So, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that your daughter may have that loyalty we talk about adoptees having and not want to upset you guys by asking questions.”  I have seen this my self with my niece, who my sister gave up at birth for adoption.  It is a real and deep concern for many adoptees.  Very common.

Adoptees deserve their truth – however that looks – and however they process it.  It’s the adoptive parent’s job to be ready to help their child navigate the issues and to be a soft landing place as the reality sinks in.