Monday, March 11, 2013

Secondary Rejection: Painful by Any Name

Spoiler Alert: This post reveals aspects of the plot of Laura Moriarty's novel The Chaperone.

The main character in Laura Moriarty's novel The Chaperone is Cora Carlisle, a middle-aged Midwestern woman who had arrived in Kansas years ago by way of an orphan train. In the novel she returns to New York City with hopes of learning something about her personal history. The nun she speaks with at the Catholic-run “Home for Friendless Girls," where Cora lived prior to being placed on the train, is dismissive of Cora's desire for information, condescendingly telling her to leave well enough alone. But with the help of the orphanage handyman, Cora is able to get a hold of her records.

In them is a letter from woman named Mary O'Dell, who claims to know Cora's mother. Cora and Mary arrange to meet at Grand Central Station. When they meet, Cora recognizes immediately that Mary is not merely a friend of the family; she is Cora's mother herself. Mary does not deny it. They have one hour to spend together before Mary must get back on the train to return to her life in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

In that hour Cora learns the story of her early life (Mary had given birth to her in secrecy, as a young, unwed mother), as well as some of the details of Mary's life after Cora's birth. Mary is married now and has other children. For a moment Cora's heart leaps. Siblings! But Mary is firm and clear. She has told no one in her current life about Cora. She has always thought of Cora and is pleased to know she has done well, but there will be no meeting beyond this one. Cora understands Mary's position, to a certain degree, and yet she is also wounded and angry. And she is not comforted when Mary offers her a weak platitude, telling Cora she will remain "a rose in her heart."

"Secondary rejection" is a term that is used to describe situations like this, in which an adult adoptee reaches out to the original parent, with hopes of establishing a relationship in the present, and is told, in some way or another, "no."

I imagine that a casual reader of Laura Moriarty's novel -- one without a personal connection to adoption -- might read the reunion scene with interest but without intensity of emotion. It was not so for me. Every muscle of my body was tense throughout the scene. That night, after reading it, I slept restlessly, my heart aching for the fictional character and for all of my friends who have had similar experiences -- friends who have heard such words as "I never wanted you," "I never wanted to hear from you," and "Do not ever contact me again."

I have often heard it said that such women are not really rejecting the child, but rather are "rejecting the pain." It doesn't matter. It is a pushing away. It is a denial of relationship. It is a wall.

It doesn't matter what you call it or how you explain it, it is what it is. And from what I can tell, it hurts like hell.


  1. Yep. As one who has been there, I'll just say I'd rather slide down a razor blade into a vat of alcohol than face it. Worst. Experience. Ever.

  2. Agree with Deanna - worst experience ever. But, I'm still relieved to know my truth - as ugly as it is. I don't regret looking, finding and knowing. I wish that there had been a nicer person at the other end of the search, but it is what it is.

  3. I have the opposite problem having found my daughter more than 10 years ago, but never having that face to face reunion. Ten years of being kept at arms length...feels a lot like rejection to me.

  4. I cannot even imagine how someone could say "I never wanted you" to another human being. I know it's the pain talking but the fact that someone could use those words is beyond my comprehension.

  5. I am going through somewhat of the same thing, only I am a natural mother being rejected by my daughter... :( We had a good reunion until she met her natural father. Now, thanks to his and his family's lies, she wants absolutely NOTHING to do with me. However she will stay in touch with my mom - her grandmother, at my request, so go figure???

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