On Being Conspicuous: A Review of On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain
I’m the pale-skinned, fair-haired American mother of two children with Asian features. We live in a small farming community of multigenerational families in one of the most conservative corners of Japan, where pretty much everyone else is Japanese. In other words, we are conspicuous. When we go out, we get looks. When we visit South Carolina, where my parents now live, people ask, “Where did you get those kids?” or “Why are you taking care of them?” Strangers are quick to point out that my children look nothing like me.
So I found much to relate to in Debra Monroe’s new memoir, On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain. Like me, Monroe is a teacher and a writer of fiction. Like me, she lives in a small, conservative town. (When she goes house-hunting the realtor tells her, “It’s hard to rent here. It’s so inbred. You have no idea.”) And like me, Monroe is the mother of a child of a different race. Both of us are living outside the norm.
While I intended to live and raise a family abroad, however, Monroe didn’t set out to be a fringe dweller. In fact, at first blush she seems quite conventional. For instance, her dream from early on is to get married and have children. She is partial to wearing dresses, cooks and bakes well, and prides herself on keeping a clean house. On her wall there is an antique sampler: GOD BLESS THIS HOME. Monroe writes: “I like its kitsch look. I also like its sentiment. I mean that I can’t tell if my decorating style is an ironic comment on retro domesticity, or if I’m retro, domestic.” Even the black-and-white book cover photo of Monroe and her daughter sitting on a storefront bench is evocative of earlier times. (Check out the rotary phone!) The only thing that makes the photo seem modern is the color of their skin. Monroe is white; her daughter is black.
Monroe married early, divorced, and married again. During her first marriage she suffered two miscarriages. During her second, she miscarried again and she discovered that her infrequently employed husband had a violent streak. She left him. By age thirty-two, she was twice-divorced, and had published two books, landed a teaching job at a college in Texas, and bought a house that needed some work. The house was located in an affordable neighborhood in a small town outside San Antonio.
Having learned her lesson with husbands number one and two, Monroe grew picky about men. Her newfound husband prerequisites were a handsome man with a job she’d admire, someone who saw her ambition to write as praiseworthy, someone who’d help raise their children and “once the door was locked at night, take my breath away with the way his hands moved, the words he spoke as he stripped me down to desire, took me from daily responsibility to a white-lit moment.” Although she had a number of suitors, including the guy who puts in her new septic tank, she couldn’t quite find The One. Instead of waiting around for the perfect father and husband, Monroe decided to adopt.
For many years black social workers were opposed to interracial adoption. In 1996, however, the Multiethnic Placement Act was amended to address the fact that black children waited for years to be adopted because there were not enough black families with whom to place them, while the reverse was true for white adoptees. As Monroe points out, most single adoptive parents are white women. Only one percent adopt a black child.
But Monroe was not aware of these statistics when she said yes to her black infant, Marie, shortly after the Act went into effect. She simply wanted to become a mother as quickly as possible, and to her, race was no barrier. The combination of a white woman and black child in rural Texas did, however, invite curiosity if not out-and-out racism. White strangers asked if Marie was a crack baby, or if maybe she was from Haiti. Blacks worried that Monroe wouldn’t know how to style Marie’s hair. They were also haunted by “the spectre of history — humans bought and sold.”
Monroe’s is not, however, an angsty story about interracial adoption. Her journey into motherhood is full of love and joy, and a decision she never once regrets. At her daughter’s six-day check-up, she writes, “I set her on the baby scale, and I felt tremulous and awestruck at the wrenching elation of loving a child — letting my heart exist outside my body, and, as she’d grow, letting my heart roam around the risky world.” For Monroe, the world is indeed a risky place. She worries over her daughter’s health when Marie shows signs of an illness associated with pituitary disruption which can cause blindness, deafness and scoliosis, among other things. Monroe herself suffers from a little-understood condition which requires her to eat protein almost constantly. At one point, she nearly dies after a botched operation.
Between these worries, however, Monroe does her best as a single mother while continuing her search for a possible husband. She dates men, she breaks up with them, and fends off advances by the subcontractors working on her house. All this without her daughter’s knowledge — or so she thinks. One evening as Monroe and her daughter, now a kindergartner, are out in the yard picking up after the laborers, Marie says of her mother’s most recent lover:
“We wouldn’t have wanted a French guy anyway. We had to work so hard to understand him.” I was too surprised to answer. She said, “Have you deleted him out of your cell phone?” I hadn’t. She said, “Give it to me when we go inside.” I continued to stare at her. “I know how,” she said. “It’s easy.” A minute later, she said, “You could get us a dad like that” — she snapped her fingers — “if you would focus.” This time I got mad. “It’s harder than you think,” I said. “He’d have to be a good dad.”
Monroe, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, writes, “The sprawling mess of life is why we need stories…a fleeting sense of order, so we return to life with the unproven but irresistible conviction our mistakes and emergencies matter, so life might make sense too.” Monroe shares mistakes — her first husband, her battering ex-husband — and her emergencies, which add drama and tension to the story. Her material might have made for a grim, grey read, but with a fiction writer’s attention to detail and a wry sense of humor, she has succeeded in crafting a memoir as engaging as any novel.
By the end of this book, Monroe is about to get married again and move to Austin. Marie is ten, and a seemingly happy, well-adjusted child. Yet I, as the mother of eleven-year-old twins who identify more with their father’s Asian culture than with mine, can’t help but wonder what kind of challenges Marie’s adolescence will present to Monroe, especially since that is typically the time when kids begin to ponder their identities. But maybe, hopefully, that’s the subject of another book.
As it is, On the Outskirts of Normal is the perfect memoir for parents of nontraditional families. Although Monroe’s struggles may seem epic at times, her love for her daughter is steadfast. Any mother who has ever felt herself to be a little different will find a friend in Debra Monroe.
2 replies on “On Being Conspicuous: A Review of On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain”
Love the little girl’s insight to her Mom’s companionship needs. Out of the mouths of babes.
Excellent review Suzanne. It’s certainly highlighted for expat folks, but “family,” I think, always defies “normal.” Isn’t that what drives fiction (and keeps my husband, a psychiatrist, in business!). Good work