I’m rereading Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs in the hope that others who have read it will want to start a conversation about it. In terms of honesty, this novel does more to open a conversation about adoption that many non-fiction books that preach, pontificate, advise, or otherwise report “expert” views. Moore’s novel is not just about adoption, though. It is a beautifully written, deeply moving story of the complexities of family. It is also a commentary on our lives, and our responsibilities to each other and the world, in the wake of 9/11.
Moore’s opening sets the stage for a critical look inward, if as a reader, you are willing to take the plunge into the icy cold of the Wisconsin winter that is the omnipresent backdrop of her story. “The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard…startlingly, the birds had disappeared. I did not want to think about what had happened to them. Or rather, that is an expression–of politeness, a false promise of delicacy–for in fact, I wondered about them all the time: imagining them dead, in stunning heaps in some killing cornfield outside of town, or dropped from the sky in twos and threes for miles down along the Illinois state line.” I’ve thought about those birds — who are they? Children, soldiers, us, our enemies, even? Caught off guard, like most of us are, by the events of life, the birds lingered too long, inaction bringing them an early death.
Moore subtly informs us that her book begins shortly after the 9/11 attacks. We are not really aware of the political fallout, nor are we besieged by characters who perseverate on this event. Rather, the event frames the plot while the character’s lives play out to the 9/11 backdrop that is almost mirage-like in its opaque presence in the story—that is, until a character in the novel becomes part of the official response to 9/11.
Moore’s narrator, Tassie, a college freshman, introduces us to Sarah, and her husband, Edward, two white professionals adopting a biracial two-year old girl. Tassie’s position as hired nanny for Mary Emma, the adopted child, allows her to observe and comment upon the adoptive family and to compare that family to her own. Sarah hires Tassie before she adopts, and Tassie is initially not sure about the expectations of this new job prospect. After her initial interview with Sarah, Tassie wonders about whether she is in any position to take the job of nanny to an adopted child. “I didn’t know anything about adoption. I’d known only one adopted girl when I was growing up, Becky Sussluch, spoiled and beautiful and at sixteen having an affair with a mussed and handsome student teacher that I myself had a crush on. In general, I thought of adoption much as I thought of most things in life, uneasily. Adoption seemed both a cruel joke and a lovely daydream—a nice way of avoiding the blood and pain of giving birth, or, from a child’s perspective, a realized fantasy of your parents not really being your parents. Your genes could thrust one arm up in the air and pump up and down. Yes! You were not actually related to Them! Strangely, at the stamp machine at the post office, I had recently bought the newly issues adoption postage stamps—Adopt a Child, Build a Family, Create a World—and gleefully adhered them to my letters home to my mother. It was a form of malice I felt entitled to. It was quiet and deniable.” Despite the statistics and the rise of awareness about adoption, it is still a rare occurrence, and Tassie’s admission that she knows only one adopted girl speaks to the reality of the isolation of adoption, for both the children and parents. Her other admission, that adoption makes her uneasy, is one that I wish more people were willing to reveal. Admission makes it easier to address, to confront, and to honestly discuss. Maybe adoption makes us uneasy because we are already stunned by the unexpected dissonance of genetically constructed families and this layer adds more than we can bear. If genetically related family members can feel so disconnected and isolated, then how much more can we stretch the thin membrane that connects adopted — non-genetically related — family members?
I wonder what the fantasy will be for kids who are adopted. I remember thinking that I couldn’t possibly have the same genetic makeup as the rest of my family, and it somehow made me feel free, at least in the moment, to explore other possibilities, or at least to invent explanations for feeling isolated in a pool of common DNA. How do adopted kids rail against the injustice of being in a family where they want to break down the walls, shout at parents, and escape? Is this the moment, instead, that Gorilla Girl will shout, “You aren’t my real mother.”? I suppose it might be. And hopefully, having been through my own adolescent rebellion, I’ll recognize the severing of ties for what it is, and give her the space, emotionally and physically, to create her own fantasy family.