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April 3, 2008

Books, Journals & More: A Closer Look: Marianne Novy

When she was 5 years old, Marianne Novy was told that she was adopted and that she should never tell anyone. She honored that directive from her adoptive until she was in her 20s.

Carrying that secret has influenced her entire personal life, and later her professional life, said Novy, today a professor of English and women’s studies, whose experiences led her to study the untapped “literature of adoption,” culminating in “Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama.”

Released last year in paperback, “Reading Adoption” draws on Novy’s scholarship and research spanning centuries and genres, including ancient Greek literature (Sophocles’ “Oedipus,” “the ultimate adoptee,” Novy says) Shakespeare (“The Winter’s Tale” and other plays with a parent-child reconciliation theme), 19th-century British literature (“Silas Marner” and other George Eliot novels) and late-20th-century American drama (including plays by Edward Albee, himself an adoptee) as well as contemporary literature (including works by Barbara Kingsolver).

Novy’s book explores the ways literature represents adoption, especially how novels and plays portray the connections linking adoptees, their adoptive parents and their birth parents.

But the book also is a hybrid — equal parts autobiography and scholarship — a deeply personal memoir of a woman coming to grips with being an adopted child, interwoven with an examination of the adoption theme in literary classics.

Novy applies lessons from her childhood growing up with her adoptive parents, through her struggle to meet her birth mother, to accepting herself as a adult adoptee, to smoothing over strained relations with her biological daughter.

“This is one of the reasons I’m so driven to talk about this now, having gone through this period where I had this secret that I couldn’t talk about,” Novy said. “I wasn’t unique in this way. I’ve found other people who were told they should keep this a secret in their lives — although there also are those who were even worse off when they discover upon their parents’ death that they were adopted and then they have to totally revise their understanding of their own lives. People who are what they call late-discovery adoptees usually are totally devastated by this.”

Citing the example of George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” who belatedly comes to a kind of acceptance of the man whom he assumed was his birth father, Novy said, “George Eliot really traces his uncertainty, his feelings of not belonging, his noticing that he doesn’t look like the people in the family, his feelings that people are saying things about him that he doesn’t understand. The novel is a terrific analysis of growing up with this uncertainty.”

Novy also wrote “Reading Adoption” to counsel people who have adopted children. “I wanted them to think about things that they could do that would be more helpful or less helpful to the children. For example, telling somebody you shouldn’t talk about this is not helpful,” Novy said.

In laying out the basic theme in her book, Novy writes, “There are two simple views that public discourse about adoption fall into easily. One is the view that only adoptive relationships matter; the other is the view that only birth relationships matter. Some people have articulated a third viewpoint, that both can matter, but probably in different ways, that it depends on the circumstances, that adoptees can have a choice about how to negotiate their identity and their relationships. But this approach is not as widespread as it should be. I hope this book, by analyzing places in literature where simplifications are found and places where they are transcended, will show more people how the world looks with that third view.

“We adoptees are hybrids with heritages full of questions,” her text continues. “But our position has, as well as a personal history, a cultural one — how adoption has been envisioned in the past — and in this book I attempt to claim, explore and analyze some of that history.”

She added, “Most adoptees who are articulate about their desires say we have the right to know our own history,” which is why she favors open birth records and supports the “birth search movement.”

Novy’s experiences also have informed her teaching, she said, although she stressed that she has taught many courses where the subject never or rarely comes up, such as Historical Discourses of Gender, Shakespeare’s Comedies, The Renaissance in England and Contemporary American Women Writers.

But in courses where the adoption theme is explored, students are essentially starting from scratch. “Most people miss the theme of adoption entirely in what they read. People tend to notice things that relate to their own interests,” she pointed out.

However, one recent course was a notable exception, as several students in the class had personal interests at stake, Novy said.

“When I taught Adoption and Literature at the undergraduate level to a class of about 15, there were several people in it who said they were hoping to adopt children themselves and there were a couple people who were themselves adopted. There was one woman who on the last day of class told me she had given up a child for adoption. Since I had talked about my own situation from time to time, this might have helped them eventually to talk about their situations.”

Before she began teaching courses on adoption, Novy often found herself assigning novels that she now would characterize as adoption novels. “So I was working into this gradually,” she said. “This term I’m teaching a course on recent women playwrights and there are several plays where adoption is an issue, including ‘The Heidi Chronicles’ and ‘Top Girls.’ I don’t spend a lot of time talking about adoption in class, in fact I don’t think I’ve even mentioned that I’d written a book about it, but it may be that the topic had some influence in my choice of plays.”

Novy is developing a new graduate course, Adoption and Culture, that she will teach this fall. “While my previous graduate courses mostly involved reading plays and novels, many of them discussed in the book, this one will consider more memoirs, and also some writings by historians and anthropologists, as well as a few novels published since my book. One of the exciting things about these courses is that they tend to become learning communities in which everyone can contribute insights,” she said.

“It’s also exciting to think that you’re teaching a course that’s part of a new field, that this is something that your students wouldn’t be able to learn about almost anywhere else.”


“One of the main things that made me want to write this book was having had the experience of meeting my birth mother and finding very clearly that in spite of the fact that she provided half my heredity I was not very similar to her,” Novy said. “I was glad to have the opportunity to meet her and know about what my heredity was, but I did appreciate my adoptive mother much more after the experience and I appreciated how I had received benefits from my environment.”

Part of the thinking behind the legal sealing of an adoptee’s birth records, laws that are still on the books in most states, is that adoptive parents have a fear that if the child finds the birth parents, the child will leave the adoptive parents behind, something that occurs in most literature written before the 19th century that touches on the subject, Novy said.

“I wanted to write this book because that is something that very seldom happens and when it does it’s usually because there are already a lot of serious problems in the adoptive family,” she said. “It’s really important for adoptive parents to realize that their children may want to know their heredity, but that doesn’t mean they will be replaced. Adoptees want to keep the connection to the adoptive family. That’s also why it’s unfortunate that so many people use the words ‘real parents’ to refer to the birth parents.”

Most social scientists agree that both environment and heredity are influences on a child. “Environment does after all affect which part of your heredity can be displayed. It’s not either/or,” Novy said, adding that her daughter is a star athlete while neither she nor her husband is the least bit athletic.

Attitudes regarding adoption have changed drastically since her childhood, Novy maintained, recalling a friend of her adoptive mother who wore gradually larger pillows under her clothing to feign pregnancy in preparation for adopting a child.

“It’s clear that in the United States there is a lot less stigma to adoption. People talk a lot about adoption now, when they didn’t when I was growing up [in the 1940s and ‘50s]. There’s more positive feeling about adoption, it’s more visible and, as a matter of fact, it happens less often now. There are many fewer children [in the United States] given up for adoption now. That’s partly due to Roe v. Wade and the fact that it is possible and more acceptable for a single parent to raise a child. There also is welfare that supports single mothers. So, a lot of women choose to keep their children. It’s more possible to get guidance, to know other adoptive parents and for adoptees to get to know other adopted children and talk about what they have in common.”

What the change in American attitudes also means is that many more adoptions are international, often making the adoption more visible when a child comes from a noticeably different ethnicity, Novy noted.

“In the United States, the dominant tendency seems to be that adoption agencies encourage parents to be positive about the culture the children came from, to try to get involved with it, to get together with other children from the same country, and to have celebrations and things like that,” she said.

Novy chose the subtitle of her book — “Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama” — in part to make sure readers knew she was writing about literal adoption in the family and in part to say that the adoptee is different in the family.

“I’d like to think that in our society today parents are more likely to accept the differences that their children have from them. After all, parents really can’t make their children just like themselves even if they want to,” Novy said. “One reason why a lot of people are interested in reading or writing about adoption even though it isn’t part of their personal experience, is that it can be a metaphor for the sense that there are differences between parent and child in any family.”

With divorce and re-marriage being more prevalent, there are many more step-families and blended families, she said. “So we have the concept that family can mean a lot of different things and adoptive families are just one of those differences.”

—Peter Hart

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