On Being an Orphan

The other day I was on a panel at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge when the moderator asked me a question that would have sent me hiding under the table just a couple of years ago. But now, with a memoir forthcoming next spring and people asking more and more about my personal life and how it intersects with my writing life, I was actually happy to be asked this. It was probably one of the best questions I’ve ever gotten in an interview, in fact. And so I want to talk about it here for a minute.

So what did the moderator ask me?

He asked what effect my being adopted had on me as a writer. I was thrilled by this question because I have been thinking a lot about its answer lately. And it came at just the right moment, as all good things tend to do.

To start with a little background, I’m someone whose biological father did not want him and whose mother was unable to take care of him because she was mentally ill. As a result, I was eventually at the mercy of relatives who took me in as their son. I was suddenly part of a new family with an older sister and a younger brother, a family with new rules and ways of being that I hadn’t been used to as an only child, one whose mother doted on him as a prodigy one day, only to leave me in bed all morning in a dirty diaper the next.

I wasn’t (mis)treated in either of these ways by my new family, thankfully. But there was a consistency in the fact that I always felt like an outcast, a child with “problems”: emotional, mental, and even developmental problems. I was taken to a child psychologist. I was now no longer a prodigy, but just a weird, creepy little kid, one who was watched with a careful eye to ensure I didn’t hurt animals or my younger brother—the telltale signs of a budding serial killer, a psychopath. I’m being serious here. I really felt as though I was perceived this way. I’m still pretty sure that I was. And I never really did anything to deserve this image.

Anyway, when I was about eight or nine, I wasn’t sure why, I started drawing comic strips. It was the most natural form for me at the time. I wanted to tell stories and that’s how I could do it. After that, I started filling little notebooks with short stories and fragments of novels I thought up while sitting outside in a tree or in a field behind the woods of our trailer. I never showed these things to anyone. As I got older, in high school, I wrote poems and song lyrics. I kept these to myself as well until I realized that some girls my age were interested in reading them. That they’d give me attention I would have otherwise been denied had I not a cool story or poem or song in my notebook.

I don’t think I realized all of this at the time, though, but now I know that what I was doing was trying to impose order on my life, trying to take control of my situation that I also now realize left me feeling utterly helpless and out of control. It was also around the time when I started writing that I started to exhibit signs of OCD (another form of attempting to maintain control over one’s life), which would snake itself in and out of my world in various forms over the years. I still suffer from the illness today, though it’s less severe.

What I’m really trying to say is that I think my being born to a mentally ill mother, often being left to fend for myself and sometimes even take on the parent role with her, then being adopted, “taken away” from her (that’s how my then two-year-old mind saw it, anyway), is what led me down this particular path of reading and writing books. It was all about order, control, structuring the things I couldn’t understand into a manageable form—and for me, it was stories.

As I grew up and had my own family and started to write more professionally, trying to make an honest-to-God living at it, I started to think a lot about all of this, and so I think this is my attempt at an answer to the moderator’s question: I write because I have to understand my life of being an orphan, and maybe in doing so, I can help someone else better understand his or her place in the world. It’s really that simple.

I’m pretty sure I’ve finally found my place in this world: as a dad, a husband, a teacher, and finally maybe even a writer. I feel lucky for that. And even though it may feel tenuous sometimes, I have to say it feels pretty damned all right.