Down Memory Lane: A Conversation with Megan Culhane Galbraith
By Taylor LarsenJune 28, 2021
Megan Culhane Galbraith is a writer and visual artist. Her work was a Notable Mention in Best American Essays 2017, and she has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. In addition, she has been published in Tupelo Quarterly, Redivider, Catapult, Hobart, Longreads, and Hotel Amerika, among others. She is associate director of the Bennington Writing Seminars and the founding director of the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont Young Writers Institute.
TAYLOR LARSEN: I love the ways in which, through your own personal experience with adoption, you are able to crack open myths and stigmas surrounding “sin,” the condemnation of the feminine, and the obsessive male need to categorize, contain, and control female sexuality. You do this by exploring everything from the origin of the word “box,” to abortion laws, to serial killers obsessed with the female body. Have you been pondering these topics for your entire life, and can you tell us more about them?
MEGAN CULHANE GALBRAITH: As women, our very existence is a war for control of our voices, minds, hearts, and bodies. Every woman carries intergenerational grief passed down from Eve, or Pandora, or whoever you believe came first in your image. With all of this history of control, how could I not marinate in these topics? Collectively we could burn down buildings with our focused female rage.
This first essay in the book, “Talking Points,” allowed me to tap a vein of white-hot rage that had been building for years. In my previous professional career, I was a speechwriter and media relations consultant for college presidents. I wrote in their voices, not my own. For interviews with media outlets like NPR and The New York Times or The Washington Post, I’d distill an issue down to a few persuasive “talking points” they needed to hit. It’s no accident that’s the title and the form of the first essay in the book.
I like to examine sin and shame through a prism that includes my personal experience. I was born of what was then deemed a “sinful,” “shameful” act. As a baby born out of wedlock in the ’60s, I was the embodiment of shame. I lived in a body I hated for a very long time. Among other things, I tried to slowly kill myself with an eating disorder. I kept myself quiet. I let men use my body. I was aiming for invisibility even as I was screaming to be seen. Grief and shame live in our bodies unless we face them head-on and begin to heal.
“Talking Points” was an essay that hounded me until I got it down on paper. I wrote it in two weeks. As I was arranging the essays for the book, it became obvious it needed to come first. I feel like it’s a road map for what’s to come in the book.
You write: “I have never been able to get what I felt were straight answers out of my parents or Ursula about my adoption. The absence of clear answers felt like everyone was keeping secrets from me.” Do you think this book would exist if things had been explained to you with more cohesion and empathy at a younger age?
I don’t know of any adoptee of my vintage (during the era of closed adoptions) who feels they’ve received straight answers about anything.
I’m unsure if cohesion and empathy are the correct words to be honest. I wasn’t prepared with coherent questions about my adoption as a young child, nor is anyone truly prepared to answer those questions because of a veil of secrecy around adoption. There are many things my parents likely didn’t know about the child they were getting. Gabrielle Glaser’s book American Baby recounts the outright lies told to both birth and adoptive parents about babies awaiting adoption. My adoption was never a quote-unquote secret as much as it was something that wasn’t talked about, which is another form of a silence.
There was no counseling for adoptive parents to give them the language or coping mechanisms to use with their newly adopted children. Many children who are adopted right away come to their adoptive parents inconsolable and wailing for their birth mother. My Mom said my adopted sibling cried viciously for a month when she came home and that nothing would soothe her. I remember Mom questioning the flat spot on the back of my head and telling me she didn’t think I was held much in “the home.”
Secrets and lies are the blood of this closed system; and they are poison.
Can you tell us how the Domecon records housed in Cornell’s library added an entire new layer to your book?
Cornell had the first scientific degree program for women in the country. Coeds could get a degree in Domestic Economics, which made a science of all manner of homemaking and mothering. In the program, they used orphans and foundlings from nearby asylums as “practice babies.” The 119 babies that went through the program all shared the last name Domecon, short for Domestic Economics. When they were adopted all identifying records were destroyed, but these sad/weird archival photos remained.
The images for that essay, “Hold Me Like a Baby,” came before the words. The accompanying art was originally a gallery installation at the COLLAR WORKS Gallery in Troy, New York. I’d submitted the series for a show called “What is that Leaping Inside Your Chest” curated by Alexandra Foradas, the curator of visual at MASS MoCA. People stood looking at my work and said, “Is that real? That can’t be real.” I decided to expand the artist statement into an essay. Those babies had much more to say.
Finding those babies opened up the idea to pair images with words. I began restaging my own baby photos in the dollhouse. Play freed up my mind, and I found I could be less anxious on the page if I tried to bring the same childlike curiosity to the words as I did the images. This essay falls in the middle of the book and creates a bridge to the pieces to come that explore sexuality and desire, among other things.
The Domecon practice babies helped me see the parallels with own adoption and my experience in foster care. I recognized myself in the ephemera of those archival photos and documents as similar to those in my baby book. Those babies basically showed me how to structure my book.
I’m impressed by the structure of this book. It is both purposefully fragmentary and yet stays faithful to a central heartbeat of womanhood and motherhood over a series of repressive and confusing decades in American history. Did this structure emerge organically or is it carefully crafted? Did you and your editor have to do a lot of work to keep it balanced and well structured?
Thank you. The structure is significant because we adoptees don’t come by our information in a linear way. We receive it in bursts and dead ends, or it’s nonexistent. I had to find a structure that would hold space for that.
This book was accepted within one week of me submitting it. The acceptance email came on Mother’s Day, 2020, which felt auspicious. In the email, my editor Kristen Elias Rowley wrote that she couldn’t put the book down and had interrupted Joy [Castro], the series editor on the weekend to say, “You need to read this.” I was floored. Still am.
When we talked the first time, Kristen told me how clean the manuscript was. Most of her changes were suggestions to eliminate redundancies. I don’t remember her making any structural edits. She was very supportive with some necessary late edits when my birth mother requested anonymity and refused to let me use three photos in the book (one of which was of our reunion). But even that didn’t change the structure. As hard as that was personally, it had an unintended consequence of strengthening the narrative of erasure.
To convey that erasure, and to account for the three missing images, I placed a frayed piece of white flannel reminiscent of a baby blanket into a silver engraved frame that once held my baby picture. It was an artistic challenge and it worked, even if it did bring about a second abandonment by my birth mother.
Children’s books pair word and image perfectly. They tackle thorny adult issues with grace and simplicity of words. I feel I was giving a nod to children’s books and wanted to pay homage to my favorite book as a child, The Lonely Doll, with its themes of abandonment and loneliness.
Playing with the dolls opened up a window to the story I hadn’t considered until I became curious about why I was playing with those specific dolls in that specific dollhouse. My art-making felt so free, the work happened quickly and wasn’t precious. On the page, on the other hand, I constantly worried about being “literary.”
This seems to be the central theme of your book:
I realize now that I don’t need to apologize for my existence. The Dollhouse became a lens through which I could see my birth mother and myself. I could safely question my personal history and interrogate the myths of adoption, identity, feminism, and home.
How many years did it take you to figure this out and articulate it?
There’s a meme that begins “I was today days old when…” Well, I am today days old and still figuring out how to articulate so much about my adoption. There is a phrase adoptees use called “coming out of the fog,” the fog being a suspended state of denial many of us live in because facing the trauma of being separated from our mothers at birth is overwhelming. I’m lucky to have a therapist who has specific experience about attachment and adoption, and because of this book I’ve found a supportive community of adoptees and I realize I’m not alone.
Can you speak to your inclusion of the story of the “false self” and the “first prince”?
That essay is about the demise of my marriage and reclamation of myself. I tell it in the form of a fairy tale because the biggest fairy tale sold to women about marriage is all of them. As girls, we’re sold a Cinderella fairy tale about marriage, a prince, and a happy ending — but it’s bullshit.
Traditional fairy tales are like instruction manuals for the male gaze and how women should behave according to the patriarchy. We’re fed this stuff before we even think to question it. Doesn’t that piss you off? I wanted to turn those tropes on their head as a way of reclaiming my power.
I left a marriage of nearly 25 years. There was no cheating, no abuse, no addiction; he is a lovely person, but I’d been self-abandoning for years. I was the one busting up the “fairy tale” marriage for my own “selfish” reasons. Imagine that! A woman leaving a “perfectly good man” because she wanted more for herself! I could hear the tsk tsks and whispers of people I thought were my friends and close family. I could sense my boys’ bewilderment. I kept thinking, “Is this how low the bar has been set for my happiness?”
The judgments seemed to come from everywhere: “You shouldn’t make a rash decision — you’re probably going through menopause.” “Did you give him a second chance?” and “Did you try hard enough?”
As an adoptee I was basically chosen from a lineup. Because of that, I grew up feeling I had no agency because if I spoke up I might be sent back. Rejection is baked into us. I felt unworthy of choosing for myself, and choosing myself, so I self-abandoned. This essay was about escaping from a prison of my own making.
Recognizing that I’d been living so long as that “false self” was a first glimmer of self-understanding as I came out of the adoption fog. I realized I had worth and agency and that I get to have a say about what I want in my life.
In claiming my agency I turned to a narrative structure — the fairy tale — that traditionally takes away female agency.
You bring in classic stories/myths such as that of Persephone and Demeter. I feel an obsessive desire in your narrative voice to make sure that each particular reader can relate to your story, and this desire for inclusion and connection with the reader is quite bonding. Was this intentional? And does it come from your own identity and experiences as feeling like an outsider and desperately wanting inclusion?
I like the term obsessive desire. I’m so glad you feel that in my work. There’s a saying that the most personal is the most universal. Adoption is a diaspora, and I’m curious and aware of how our stories and feelings intersect regardless of class, race, culture, or country of origin. That is not to say my story is universal with someone who is a transracial or an international adoptee. As a white person adopted into a white family, I do not have that lived experience. While we may have similarities as a community of adoptees, there is an urgent importance that those specific communities share their important narratives and that we read them widely.
All that said, I’m grateful you see this in my work. Inclusion and connection are absolutely two things I feel desperate for. I hope other adoptees feel as seen by the words in my book.
This is such a unique book — which authors or books were an inspiration in creating this?
I got to know experimental forms, innovative structures, and how to do elastic things with essays by reading Ander Monson, whose work has been a consistent influence, especially the limited edition of Letter to a Future Lover. He edits DIAGRAM, which is one of my favorite journals.
Karen Green’s Frail Sister is absolute genius. And Ann Fessler, an adoptee and the author of The Girls Who Went Away, is a visual artist I admire. Her gallery work is astonishing for how it conveys the searching and loneliness of adoption. Maggie Nelson is always on my reading pile. Someone once said my voice was reminiscent of hers, and my heart skipped a beat.
As fellow adoptees, Nicole Chung’s and Matthew Salesses’s books are phenomenal for different reasons. I felt seen by Nicole’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, and adoption and identity are a consistent theme throughout Matt’s work, especially The Hundred-Year Flood. I’m glad their voices are in the world.
Lastly, I came upon Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s graphic memoir Palimpsest after my book was written and I wish I’d read it sooner. I highly recommend it.
This book is deeply personal. How did you navigate writing from a place of such vulnerability?
Simply put, I wrote my way out of the secrecy and shame that conspired to keep me quiet.
As adoptees, we’re told to “hush.” We are self-contained and do not make waves because of the ever-present threat (real or imagined) that we will be returned to the agency that facilitated our adoption; abandoned again. The fact we were given away somehow translates into the idea that we aren’t deserving of nice things.
Vulnerability is strength. An essayist’s job is to expose a throbbing nerve, then lick a salty finger and stick it right in the wound. Darin Strauss says, “If nonfiction is any good, it has to be harder on the protagonist than on anybody else.” The reader can flinch, but the writer must be unflinching.
I’m letting myself feel all the things that go with publication of this book. In many ways, this book wrote me. It had something to teach me. It will keep teaching me. I need to let it do its work.
I’ve spent too long feeling numb and terrified. I finally feel free.
Taylor Larsen is a graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction writing. Taylor taught fiction writing at Columbia University as part of the Columbia Artist/Teachers faculty and at the Sackett Street Writers Workshop, as well as literature courses for Pace University.
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