Canadian Council of Natural Mothers' Library

Chasing Away the Shadows: An Adoptee's Journey to Motherhood
Zara Phillips

This autobiography is very moving. It begins with the story of Zara Phillips (not the one who's the daughter of Princess Anne of Britain) as she is adopted into a Jewish family. It follows her childhood in a family of two children, mother and father, as she and her adoptive brother, Grant, grow up. In this book, she details the difficulties she had growing up, although it's easy to see that she and Grant hid a great deal of the difficulty she had from her adoptive parents. This is a common theme among adoptees who describe their upbringing: they hide their feelings to protect those of their adoptive parents. They feel themselves to be responsible for the feelings of the adults who raise them, in fact.

Troubles really come to the fore for Zara during her teen years, as is so often the case with adopted children in these accounts. She and her brother slide into addictions and desperate behaviours. One has to wonder how her parents managed not to see the deep difficulties of their children. In fact, in their children's teen years, these parents bought a weekend flat, often leaving two teenagers alone in the house for long weekends. If a natural, single parent were doing this, they would be charged with neglect.

A theme throughout this description of childhood is that adoption was never mentioned in their home. That this deeply affected both children is clear: it denied their existence, their souls perhaps, and sought to have them re-created as those they were not, the biological children of their adoptive parents. They never received support for examining who they were, or establishing which parts of themselves came from their natural parents and which from their upbringing. Zara describes this as an inner emptiness in herself.

Zara goes on to describe her graduation from college and her drift into a musical career. This particular scene left her with ready access to drugs and her addictions began to take a stronger hold on her. Somehow, she tires of the lifestyle and begins a 12 Step Program to sobriety. A large part of the book then describes her healing and search for her natural mother. She begins to see that she has been repeatedly re-living the initial rejection of her life: the loss of her mother.

She makes an interesting comment that her family knew she was attending the 12 Step meetings, but didn't talk with her about it. Similarly, though it was suggested that the family go into counseling when Grant goes into treatment, their parents decided "it wasn't for them." So here it is also: the children are left to manage as best they can on their own. Zara says, "It wasn't a secret, yet like adoption, it was never discussed."

This point affected me deeply, because when my son found me, he said after a short time, "I feel seen for the first time." What he meant was that I paid attention to the person he was. (I was, in fact, fascinated by him, just exactly as I had been with my daughter during the first months and maybe even years of her life.) What he meant was that his essential self was acknowledged. He no longer had to be the shadow of the son his adoptive parents would have had or wanted. They saw what they wanted to see or could see, but they did not enquire into who he was. Similarly in Zara's experience as described in the book, you get the impression of fairly loving, but distant parenting. She was certainly not bonded with her adoptive mother, though she may have been anxiously attached to her.

Zara says that "genuine intimacy never entered my life." This also is common to many adoptees. If there is not that close and intimate bond in the first days of life with the mother the child have known in the nine months together in one body, it is not surprising that the child is unable to re-create something later that it has never known after leaving the womb. This may be augmented in the case of adoptees, like Zara, who spend enough time in a foster home to begin attaching to that mother, only to have this link also broken with the move to an adoptive home.

Because records are open in England, it was relatively easy for Zara to obtain her first name, Paula Sampson, and the information she needed to find her natural mother. The process of the search is described in some detail. In finding her file, she finds that when her adoptive parents were notified she was available, they had already booked their winter vacation, so they simply paid her fostering fees, took their vacation and then picked her up afterward. This was mirrored when she found her natural mother, who at that point had family coming to stay and a family trip to Italy planned, and so suggested delaying their meeting until after this.

Zara did not tell her parents she was searching. It is very, very common for those adopted to feel disloyal to their adoptive families for wanting to know their natural families. Why are adoptive families based on loyalty? The strain of trying to keep the two families apart in one's life must be wretched.

The initial meeting between Zara and her mother went very well, and I was touched to see her recognize how hard it was for her mother to look at the photos of her growing up. Much as we sometimes want these mementos of our children growing up, they are also reminders of our separation from them. Zara is discrete in her descriptions of difficulties in the reunion with her mother. She is troubled that her mother does not wish to discuss her father in detail and will not help her find him. She shows little empathy for the pain her mother must have experienced in re-visiting her pregnancy and the loss of her daughter. In fact, her mother has little information to give Zara about her father, and it appears that Zara blames her for what was not really her fault. There is no hint in the book anywhere that Zara recognizes that her mother might well experience similar pain at being excluded in significant ways from her first daughter's life. For example, Zara excludes her natural family from her wedding, because she 'didn't want the day spoiled with strained feelings.'

Karen Lynn, President of the Canadian Council of Natural Mothers, says of mothers that, "the line of our denial is the line of our pain." I think this statement must apply to both mother and offspring in adoption. Both Zara and her mother experience the pain of what they are denied--Zara, knowledge of her father, and Pat, her mother, the continued exclusion from significant events in her daughter's life. Pat is not allowed to express her disappointments, such as when Zara's emotionality destroys a family evening. Her mother is still culpable in Zara's mind for not accepting any and all emotionality on Zara's part. There is no reciprocation in this sad story.

Throughout the book, Zara describes her separation anxiety. This is explicitly commented on in her visit to California, meeting her husband, their courtship and her permanent move to the United States. When she begins to have children, her fear of separation becomes extreme. She fears her children will be taken from her as she was taken from her mother. Both mothers who lose a first child to adoption and mothers who were themselves adopted fear separation from their children, she suggests. It's one of the pathological effects of separating mothers and children for purposes of adoption.

One of the most moving parts of the autobiography, and one that is rather new in the literature, is the experience of a mother who is herself adopted when she is pregnant, gives birth and raises her own children. I found this the most valuable part of the book. She describes many emotions being released by these events. She describes them as a type of cellular memory, or memory coded deeply into the cells of her body. These memories are pre-verbal, and happen at the level of the body for the infant. Hence, they are difficult to deal with when they arise, because they cannot be explained easily in words. They can seem overwhelming to the adult, who experiences them but does not know their source.

Zara's story is ultimately very hopeful, as you see her reach for happiness, growing with and through the experience of parenting her children. This book will offer much for other mothers who are adopted, as they raise their children. It will help natural mothers to understand their daughters lost to adoption, and can also help adoptive parents to understand the lifelong traumatic effects of taking a child from its mother.

Reviewer: Sandra Falconer Pace
Baltimore: Gateway Press
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