Blood Strangers, a new memoir by Kathy Briccetti is both a coming out and coming-of-age story as well as a genealogical mystery, which untangles a multi-generational chain of adoptions, family secrets, and fatherless children. Briccetti earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the Wright Institute in Berkeley and an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast program of the University of Southern Maine. In 2009 she was awarded a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. She currently works as a school psychologist and writer/editor in the Bay Area where she lives with her two sons. Briccetti talked with Berkeley writer Suzanne LaFetra about birthing her book, the significance of Father’s Day in a two-mom household, and the way family ties bind us through the generations.
Suzanne LaFetra: When did you first recognize that you were continuing a generations-long pattern of adoptions and fatherless families?
Kathy Briccetti: In 1997, I was taking writing classes and I was also nearing the culmination of my decade-long search for my father’s birth parents. But it wasn’t until a member of my first writing critique group handed me notes on a chapter of Blood Strangers and pointed out that my kids were the third generation to be adopted that I finally recognized that pattern. I’d been writing about it for a couple of years, but I hadn’t seen it. I was too close to it — this is why we writers need readers along the way to help us see what we can’t.
SLF: You write exquisitely about things that happened so many years ago in great detail: the scratchy texture of a plaid fabric against your cheek, the crunchy feel of gravel under your sneakers, the smell of your stepfather’s True Blue menthol cigarettes. How did these memories surface?
KB: I carried that memory of the gravel crunching under my sneakers all these years. It was a distinct tactile memory that I finally wrote down. Then I wrote the others, gradually filling a large binder with dozens of childhood memories. One memory would spur another until I felt almost purged of them. It’s funny, but once I committed those memories to paper they cleared out of my head. I feel like I moved them out completely and I’d have a hard time accessing them now if I didn’t have that binder full of snippets. I wrote more about what helps me remember for Tiny Lights.
SLF: Battles rage in the literary community about truth-telling in memoir. How did you approach the material in Blood Strangers, and what does “creative nonfiction” mean to you?
KB: Such a huge question! It’s a form I love, both to read and write, because of its intimacy and emotional and intellectual evocativeness. At the most basic, creative nonfiction is writing about what really happened and turning it into literature, making art of it, often by borrowing techniques from poets and fiction writers. It’s what I studied in my MFA program. I was interested in turning life stories into literature while keeping to the truth. I originally wrote the story exactly as it happened with phone calls and letters reproduced accurately, and readers noted the distanced, less intimate quality, so I changed a few of them — not many, though.
I love what Vivian Gornick wrote on this subject: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
SLF: You wrote an op-ed for the L.A. Times about Prop. 8 that garnered a lot of responses, some of them quite vitriolic. How did you cope with the stream of commentary?
KB: When the comments started showing up online and in my e-mail box, I read them all eagerly. Most were positive, supportive, grateful, and lovely. But the negative ones stayed with me. One person said, “Your homosexuality is a mental illness.” Another said I should “submit for mandatory treatment or be hunted down like dogs.” He continued, “I will gladly . . . be the hunter of your kind and bring you back clamped in irons to be made normal.” I wanted so badly to respond, to defend my position, to show him how ignorant he was. But I resisted. I figured I had had my turn writing the piece, so I stayed quiet. But then the most amazing thing happened. Other readers started commenting about the hateful comments, arguing just like I had wanted to, quoting facts I had wanted to quote in order to set these people right. It was so gratifying. I wasn’t alone; I didn’t have to do it all. And I’d started a conversation.
SLF: So why do you think some people are still so resistant to the idea of same-sex couples having children together?
KB: I think people are simply ignorant. They just don’t realize how typical most gay families are. It’s also about people not being comfortable with those who are different from them; they lack experience with individuals from other races, lifestyles, and cultures. Unfortunately, it’s also parents teaching their kids that homosexuality is wrong, passing down this belief over generations. What really saddens me is that some churches, houses of God where tolerance should begin, are perpetuating fear, anger, even hate.
SLF: In the book you’ve candidly explored your feelings about your own romantic inclinations. Where do you come down on the “choice” vs. “biology” theory about homosexuality — or do you feel that attraction and love merit a different sort of discussion altogether?
KB: Sex is only one part of a romantic relationship. Some of us don’t choose where we are on the sexual orientation continuum, or whether we stay in one spot. And some of us do. Some of us are biologically attracted to one gender while some of us simply seek the attachment, regardless of gender. There’s a new buzzword, “sexual fluidity,” the idea that sexuality can shift over time. I have a piece in an anthology being published this fall by Seal Press called “Dear John, I Love Jane,” that explores this topic in depth.
SLF: You do such a good job of candidly portraying complex and ambivalent feelings. Things are rarely black and white, but ambivalence can be difficult to write about, as it can be less neat and tidy for a reader. Was getting your conflicting feelings down on the page ever a frustrating or unnerving experience? How did you push past it?
KB: Thank you. This was one of the hardest parts of writing the book. Early drafts were simple accountings of what happened. Some drafts were snarky and judgmental and read like a pity party for me. The most important thing I learned in the MFA program, and I didn’t really get it until my last semester — I can be kind of dense about certain things — was how to find the right voice. I needed to learn how to write my story, much of it taking place during my childhood and young adulthood, from the perspective of an adult who had a healthy perspective. I needed to figure out how to be a narrator who readers would want to follow. Finding the balance between self-critical and forgiving was hard work.
SLF: What was the most challenging part of writing Blood Strangers?
KB: I fought with the structure for many drafts. Chronological? Two parallel stories? I ended up simplifying. It’s mostly chronological with some flashbacks. But probably the most challenging task for me was getting the emotion on the page. Reader after reader told me, “I don’t feel what you’re feeling here.” I have degrees in psychology yet this was one of the hardest tasks for me. I wrote my MFA master’s thesis on how to craft emotionally evocative prose. Then I used it to improve the book. I hope I succeeded.
SLF: Piecing together the puzzle of several layers of your adopted family was a journey you diligently followed for a large chunk of your life. Did the completion of Blood Strangers settle anything that had been rumbling around, unresolved, in you?
KB: It took me ten years to find the people I was hunting for and another ten years to finish the book. Finishing it was the culmination of all that persistence — it just felt so good to get it done. Getting it out in the world was incredibly gratifying. The searching for people, bringing folks together, and learning the truth of our story was what settled me the most. There had been secrets and so much unspoken that the uncovering and “making things right” was what I’d been after.
SLF: Did you ever worry that untangling the knot of secrecy surrounding your ancestors’ circumstances might unearth some things you would rather not know? What kept you moving ahead in your search for the truth?
KB: Yes, I worried I’d find we were related to ancestors who were ugly people — slave holders, criminals, morally bankrupt folks — as if we have any control over our ancestors’ behavior. I was also worried that my father’s birthmother would be someone I would regret finding for whatever reason. But mostly, I was worried she’d not want to have anything to do with us — that we’d learn she didn’t want my father and that she’d reject him again. This is not what I wanted to happen, but I did keep going even when my father voiced his ambivalence.
My curiosity kept me going about the ancestors. Genealogy has always been a fun challenge for me; it’s like putting a huge puzzle together. The adoption search was challenging, trying to get the information when records were sealed and information was kept from me because of laws and policies. That unfairness just pissed me off and spurred me to continue the fight.
SLF: “Coming out” with your story, in so many ways, is a kind of exposure. Have you had any reactions from family members who perhaps don’t want the information made public?
KB: Most of the more distant relatives were agreeable, even excited, to be included in the book. Or at least that’s what they told me. My immediate family members definitely preferred I not write about them or those years that were sometimes emotionally painful. They are private people and not writers. While I ended up not honoring their preference, I did change their names in the book so they could at least have some sense of anonymity. When they read the advance copies, I feared they would be angry at me, or that they would be hurt by what I’d written. I imagined them not speaking to me. But they have surprised me. My brother informed me that I got a detail about our stepfather’s car wrong, my mother (to whom the book is dedicated) has been carrying her copy around like a newborn baby showing it to everyone, and my father wrote that he enjoyed it “very, very much.” I was so relieved I fell into bed and slept ten hours!
SLF: You write about the tough balancing act between following one’s passion (like researching a family tree and writing a book) and mothering. What impact has Blood Strangers had on your boys?
KB: My sons grew up with me writing this book; it was like a sibling to them. I started when they were preschoolers and finished when they were in middle school and high school. I spent weekdays in a writing studio and some weekends typing.
I read them all the sections in which they appear before it went to press to make sure they were acceptable to them. My younger son couldn’t wait to start reading his copy. Once, he startled me by saying, “I just read the part where you got knocked up.” Because there are sensitive subjects in the book, it has provided us with opportunities to talk about things we might not have otherwise. I hope they’ve recognized the hard work and persistence they’ve witnessed and they take that with them in life. I think they love their book sibling and they are proud of me.
SLF: What does it feel like to finally see your “baby” in print and what has the response been to its publication?
KB: I spent at least ten years writing this book. I look at the time as my apprenticeship. I was mentored, I studied, I practiced. It was a steep learning curve, and the book got better and better — with a lot of help along the way — something I am profoundly grateful for. But I’m also proud of my persistence and belief in this “baby.” I can’t adequately express the relief, gratitude, pride, and sheer exhaustion I feel now that it’s finished and going out into the world.
Although I’m disappointed that the large review publications (and Oprah!) have ignored the book so far, I’m getting used to the idea of being a “quiet” book.
The e-mails and comments I get from readers who have been adopted, or are making alternative families, and even those who have nothing in common with my story, are so gratifying and heartening. I’m touching people and this makes all the hard work worth it. Of course this makes me hope we can get the word out and reach even more readers.
SLF: What are you working on now?
KB: I’ve already written a second memoir, very different in subject matter and form. It’s called A Buswoman’s Holiday, and it’s about working as a school psychologist with children on the autism spectrum while raising a son with Asperger’s Syndrome. It was a finalist in the New Rivers Press 2010 contest and I am looking for a publisher.
Right now I’m working on a novel about the aftermath of a tragedy that occurred in South Dakota in 1968. It’s much more difficult for me to make up stories than document and interpret real events, so it feels like I’m back beginning another apprenticeship, asking for help, learning as I go.
SLF: Now that your book is out in the world, does this Father’s Day hold any special significance for you?
KB: Our family has never celebrated Father’s Day. I used to worry that our kids would be hurt by being left out of this greeting card holiday, but it never happened. One year on Father’s Day, the father of one of our sons’ friends wanted some time alone, so he told the kids to hang out at our house since we weren’t celebrating the holiday. We laughed about that. Maybe future Father’s Days will hold some special significance for us if our boys decide to find their biological father, the sperm donor. This possibility is mentioned in the book, but that meeting, and any relationships that develop among us, might just make for a fascinating sequel to Blood Strangers.