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.