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.