Canadian Council of Natural Mothers' Library

Surrendered Child
A Birthmother's Journey

Karen Salyer McElmurray

This personal memoir begins with the birth and loss of McElmurray's son. She was sixteen at the time. The story then goes back to the life which lead to that moment and then beyond it. Karen Salyer grew up with a mother lost to obsessive-compulsive disorder in a time when mental illness was neither well understood nor treated. Her father put up with her mother's obsessions and agoraphobia for many years, but finally, when he could stand it no more, he took his daughter, left and re-married. Karen however found another life, pregnant, on the streets and with drugs. Brought back by her father, Karen married her boyfriend but decided to give her son to adoption anyway, despite her father's pleas to allow him to raise his grandson as his own son.

This is not the whole story of Karen Salyer McElmurray's life, but it is the beautifully written memoir of her life as it led to and from the birth and loss of her son. Lyrical language describes the harsh difficulties McElmurray faces; the contrast of the polished language with the raw experiences heightens the impact of what she says. She re-creates the sense of confusion of those times in her alternation of time periods. She distinguishes storyline and comments through the use of plain and italic fonts and the reader comes to see the complexity of one of the situations in which adoption loss is created.

I was particularly interested in understanding how McElmurray, who was married at her son's birth, still came to give him up to adoption, despite the offers of help she had from her father. The everyday cruelty of her mother during her childhood gives some clues about her daughter's reactions to motherhood, making her confusion and decision understandable.

I particularly will remember the clear image of the young girl squeezing breast milk into her bathwater, a painful image of loss. Her unflinching descriptions of her search for love also show that the damage of losing her son to adoption compounded the damage of her upbringing. This is not an easy book to read, but the force of its honesty and the precise sensitivity of its language make it compelling.

We know that there is much in McElmurray's life that goes beyond the loss of her son: the quality of writing in the book is proof for the awards she has received for her writing. Her professional life is tangential to her purpose here, and supports but does not intrude upon the story she is trying to tell. The book is defined by the loss of her son; we don't know if her life is defined by it.

McElmurray originally wrote the book and was to have published it without having found her son. Her search for him, her inability to remember his birthday, the routine cruelty of hospital records staff lying to her about his birth date, the infantalization of the mother of a child lost to adoption are all familiar to those of us who are caught up in the stupidity of sealed records laws. One Thanksgiving however, a person searching for a book on the Internet comes upon her publication, and writes to ask if she has already found her son. Subsequent emailing and checking proves that indeed her son's fiancé has found her, and that he wants to reunite with her. The final chapter of the book chronicles this reunion and the joy it brings both she and her son. I was especially intrigued to see the similarity in writing styles between the book I had read to that point, and her son's first email to her. Can genetics really influence writing style?

I showed the reunion chapter to my son, with whom I have now been reunited for almost ten years. He was interested to see the mother's side of reunion and understood the mother's viewpoint better having read it. He asked about whether I had reacted as McElmurray had when he and I met again. In fact, there were many similarities: cleaning, calculating the hours till his arrival, the nervousness to be in some way ready for and worthy of him. This chapter, in itself, would be valuable for any adoptee to read, or a mother to read to see that her reactions are normal for these abnormal situations in which adoption places us.

This book is a wonderful place to come to understand what 'choice' might mean in adoption, what the effects are on the mother who loses her child even when this is a choice, and how a woman's gifts and strengths can build a life despite the terrible loss of her child. Ultimately, it is a hopeful book, and one that many involved in adoption would learn much from reading. I would recommend it especially to adopters and social work professionals for understanding that even very young mothers in difficult circumstances can redeem their lives and overcome their challenges, and that therefore, adoption should not be an automatic decision. If young mothers considering adoption could read about the effects of adoption grief on mothers who lose their children, they might be more honestly prepared for the 'decision' others want them to make.

Further, the book is worth reading by anyone simply for the beauty of its language.


Reviewer: Sandra Falconer Pace

(2004) Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press
ISBN: 0-8203-2681-X

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