by Carolyn Nash
Reviewed by Shari MacDonald-Strong
Imagine for a moment that you’re the writer-parent of an adopted child with a traumatic past, and you want to write honestly about your adoption and parenting story. Or, say, you want to read the real-life story of an adoptive parent. Maybe you’re considering adoption yourself or perhaps you’re just curious. In any case, you want the honest scoop on how challenging it can be to raise these kids. Here’s the dilemma: How do you write (or find) a memoir that is brutally frank and also protective of the child’s history and privacy?
As a writer and as the mother of five children, three of whom were adopted following challenging pasts, I am keenly aware of the lack of literature on the subject of raising traumatized children. Prevailing writerly wisdom says that we are all welcome to pen our own memoirs as we see fit, but our children’s histories are a different matter. Their stories are their own, not ours, to tell and that’s part of the quandary. As their parents, it’s our job to protect them from anything that might harm them, including telling the story of how we fiercely love, and have been hurt by, our wounded kids.
It’s a perplexing dilemma and one that Carolyn Nash (a pseudonym) bravely confronts in writing Raising Abel, the story of raising her foster, then adopted, son.
In Raising Abel, Nash is the protagonist, but it is her child’s narrative arc that largely drives the story. At the book’s outset, Nash is single, childless, in her late thirties, unfulfilled and suffering from poor self-esteem. On a whim, she accompanies a friend to an adoption information seminar, and soon the wheels of adopting of a child are turning, seemingly before she’s fully thought the matter through. Nash’s relative lack of preparedness is not surprising; I know many adoptive parents who say, “I wish I’d been better prepared.”
Yet it’s hard to imagine what could have prepared Nash for the experience of parenting a child who had suffered the worst traumas imaginable. Indeed, Abel’s history is horrific. Understandably, this leads over the years to behaviors (including violence, property destruction, hospitalizations and suicide attempts) that make parenting him difficult, to say the least, and Nash pulls no punches in reporting how bad it got or in admitting her utter helplessness in the face of his struggles. This transparency, and Nash’s willingness to report back from a darker side of adoptive family life, is where Raising Abel is strongest.
But that darker side is not the full picture. Thankfully, Nash gets therapeutic support for Abel, and in the process finds herself in a therapeutic relationship that brings her face-to-face with her own suppressed traumatic past. Together and individually, she and Abel wrestle the hard work of personal healing, taking alternating steps backward and forward. As they grow, they embrace new challenges, in Abel’s case, deeper relationships with family and, as an adult, with women, and in Nash’s case the adoption of another child.
Raising Abel doesn’t wrap up neatly, but it does conclude hopefully — even as Nash admits that the ups and downs of the journey continue. She writes of her current life with her now-grown son: “At times it seems the wind is blowing waves in my face, trying to drown me, but there are other times when it seems I’m floating on a calm and perfect sea….”
At points, I wanted Raising Abel to draw in closer, to show more, to bring me as a reader more intimately into Nash’s experiences and emotions as a mother. Indeed, I got the feeling that while Nash, as a writer, wants to share Abel’s story, as a mother she is profoundly aware of the need to protect him from disclosures (including disclosures of her own past negative emotions and thoughts, no matter how temporary) that could hurt him still. This is one the most extraordinary things about Raising Abel: the degree of care with which one boy’s story is handled by the woman who stepped forward to love and defend him when the very people who should have done so failed.
May every child be protected by a love so tenacious.