Two US Reviews of I Belong to No One lead me to further thoughts on adoption…

Fellow blogger and musician, Lavinia Ross of Salmon Brook Farms in Oregon, read my memoir earlier this year and gave me some wonderful feedback. She has now gone on to post a five-star review on Amazon.

A gripping memoir from Australian writer Gwen Wilson
Set in Australia back in the day when women had far fewer rights and far more concerns, Gwen’s story begins in childhood, innocently enough in her introduction of the reader to family, chosen family and friends who would continue to shape her life and choices. An excellent storyteller, Gwen Wilson has slowly and carefully woven the threads of mental illness, illegitimacy, and being a female coming of age in Australia into the fabric of her memoir. It was difficult for me to put the book down. I highly recommend it, especially to those needing a reminder of how far society has come since then, and how far we still have to go. Her story is told with a sincere, open heart and mind. Gwen not only survived, she came out the other side of life’s difficulties like a rainbow after a storm. I am in awe of her fortitude. A must read!

A couple of years ago, fellow blogger, writer and poet Luanne Castle of Arizona, also published a five-star review.

Can’t-put-down memoir of growing up in 1960s Australia–family dysfunction, poverty, neglect, abuse

This book is a coming-of-age and family dysfunction memoir, set in Australia. Australian Gwen Wilson, writer of the blog Garrulous Gwendoline, has published a memoir called I Belong to No One. On the cover it also reads: “One woman’s true story of family violence, forced adoption and ultimate triumphant survival.” I wasn’t sure what I would find when I started to read, but I was immediately hooked by Gwen’s storytelling voice. As you might expect from a woman who bills herself on WordPress as “garrulous” and says in the memoir that one of her favorite words is loquacious, Gwen’s voice expertly tells her story and imparts her personality. Her voice is strong, confident, and positive because so is the woman telling the story of her childhood and youth. She also comes across as humble and sincere. This is the successful, mature adult looking back at her upbringing. And while she was clearly always very emotionally strong and generally positive, she was not always confident because the life experiences she went through from a young age tried to grind her down. But Gwen didn’t let them keep her down. Whenever she could catch a lucky break, she would run with it. Finally, she caught one in the form of a job in the shipping world and was able to move forward with her adult life. Nevertheless, with Gwen’s muscular and straightforward prose, the majority of the story details what she had to overcome. Legally, she was raised by a single, mentally ill mother who was not capable of parenting her. But in reality, Gwen was raised by her older brother Steve and a series of surrogate moms in the form of neighbors, aunts, and friends’ mothers. This patched-together group of “moms” are where Gwen learned how to be a woman. The topics covered from Gwen’s first person perspective include domestic abuse, illegitimacy (in a time when that really mattered), forced adoption, child neglect, poverty, and rape. The rape scene and how it was handled afterward should be mandatory reading for anyone who is unsure of the #metoo movement. It reminds me of how things were when I was young (so we need to remember that we have made some improvements in society and law regarding rape). Gwen truly had nobody to turn to—and no rape crisis centers as they hadn’t been invented yet. Gwen’s descriptions of her homes and the people in her life are carefully and wonderfully drawn. I find it difficult to move from under the spell of her story and back into my own life. Gwen was born the same year as memoirist Mary Karr. There are similarities in topics, but Australia in the 60s and 70s was much different than the United States. And Gwen had less advantages than Mary Karr had. But anybody who found The Liar’s Club or Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle fascinating will find Gwen’s book just as hard to put down.

Reviews such as these are not easy to write. I am grateful to Lavinia and Luanne for the thoughtfulness they have put into them. Others have also written wonderful reviews (thank you), but for this post, it is those from the USA that have spurred my thoughts.

I Belong to No One had a soft release in the USA in January 2017, eighteen months after its initial publication. At the time, I was told there would be little demand as Americans have so many of their own stories, and mine would not be seen as relevant. Lavinia and Luanne’s words, together with a few others on Amazon US, would suggest otherwise. Some themes are universal.

As Lavinia and Luanne say, my book is a coming-of-age story, all about me (‘cos it’s a memoir), but as the story progresses, the central point becomes Forced Adoption. This term, coined in Australia, applies equally to the USA and in some respects, they lag Australia in dealing with the consequences (no offence intended). Forced Adoption refers to the era, roughly 1946-1980, when babies were routinely removed from unmarried women in favour of them being raised by married heterosexual couples. It had two key components: (1) adoptions were “closed” meaning the records were sealed for life, and (2) authorities subscribed to the “clean break theory” being the expectation that if a baby had no chance to bond with its mother, it would grow to take on the personality and characteristics of its second family (nurture over nature).

Should it come as a surprise that adoptees have a different take on decisions made on their behalf? Both in Australasia and the USA they are rising up to claim their voice. This has little to do with turning their backs on the families who raised them, and much more to do with issues of identity, belonging, and self-determination.

About this time last year one group of American writers who identify as adopted volunteered their time and energy to launch an online conference called the Adoptee Literary Festival. You can read more about that here.

This has inspired some of us on the other side of the Pacific. I am part of a volunteer group who are trying to run something similar, albeit in our case we expect to include mothers such as myself. We’re floundering a bit at the moment about how to bring it all together, but it is taking shape, and we are targeting November which is Adoption Awareness Month. (If there are any website designers or project organisers out there who wish to work for free or a nominal amount to make this happen for us, please raise your hand now.)

So in this respect we lag the States, but in terms of unlocking the secret box which allows adoptees to know where they came from, we are ahead. I’m not aware of any jurisdiction in Australia who has kept the records closed, but in the States, it is easier to list those which have completely unrestricted access. I’ve lifted this list off the internet, so am happy to be corrected: Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon, and Rhode Island – nine states out of fifty. As for the rest, many continue with a blanket ban, others need the adoptee to jump through hoops, such as obtaining a court order.

I’ll venture the opinion that something these State Legislatures have not considered is the exponential popularity of DNA kits. These are being given willy-nilly as fun Christmas and birthday gifts, but they often pack a surprise no-one saw coming. Surely it would be better to open adoption records, and then back that with counselling, support, mediation and introduction services such as was established in New South Wales when our records were opened in April 1991.

On 21 March 2013, the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard apologised on behalf of the Australian Government to people affected by forced adoption or removal policies and practices. The national apology was delivered in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Canberra. You can read her speech here.

The tenth anniversary is now upon us, and I am one of those nominated to return to Canberra to participate in commemorative functions. (I’m still waiting to find out if I’ve made the cut.) When the apology was first given, I hesitated to attend, as I was not sent to an unmarried mothers’ home, and consequently was one of the few to leave hospital with my baby. But I was persuaded to attend, and consequently realised my place was there also. Although my baby was two years old when I relinquished him, I was as much a victim of the system as those women I stood beside.

This blog post is not intended as a criticism of adoptive parents, and many adoptions were highly successful, as in my own son’s case. But in writing I Belong to No One I played a role in giving mothers their voice. Now it is time for us to step aside and hear from the adoptees.


In the below comments, Derrick Knight and Lavinia Ross bring our attention to the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. This topic is too important to be left languishing below. Former residents of the “mother and baby” homes have been fighting for redress for many years, and it seems that the Irish Government has at last reached a stage where they will set out their proposal.

Derrick provides a link to the film made on their experiences and you will easily find much more on the internet. Lavinia drew our attention to the song created by Joni Mitchell. That link would not play past the opening line for me in Australia, but I found another in which she explains, hauntingly, how she came to write it. It is powerful, and I recommend you listen. (Joni Mitchell – The Magdalene Laundries, Live in Toronto 1994)

In Australia, we did not call the institutions Magdalene, and the (religious – but also charitable and State) organisations who ran them were not limited to the Catholics, but this same system of unpaid incarceration existed in Australia. The main difference was that the babies were removed at birth in the hospital and the mothers “discharged” from the home almost immediately afterward. The only mother I know who came out of a home with her baby is Kate Howarth. And this only happened because she was evicted from the unwed mothers home in late-stage pregnancy for the crime of repeatedly refusing to sign the adoption consent authority. You can read all about that, and her experiences in the laundry – which in her case was washing and pressing the linen and other materials for the attached public hospital – in her memoir Ten Hail Marys.

39 thoughts on “Two US Reviews of I Belong to No One lead me to further thoughts on adoption…

  1. What super reviews Gwen from lovely people. Lavinia is very supportive and I love listening to her music. We were doing family trees once at school and that was the first time I realised my Nana and Grandad both didn’t know who their father’s were and were raised by their grandmothers one not knowing his sister was his mother until later life. A very different time and it must have been hard to write for you. I’m so happy you’re doing so well in the States with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, stellar post, Gwen! As an adoptive mom, I know that it took a long time for adoptees to find voice and we still don’t have good ways for birth mothers to share their voices. For so long the narrative was told first by the “state” and then by the adoptive parents. At first I was one of many ignorant pawns in the process, but after running an adoption blog with my daughter for several years, I learned so much! So excited to hear what you’re involved in! By the way, do you read Elaine Pinkerton Coleman’s blog? She was adopted mid-century and writes about adoption.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Two excellent and thoughtfully considered reviews – brilliant for you and well deserved. I, too, recalled the Magdalene Sisters as I was reading although I didn’t know that Joni Mitchell had written a song about it. I do remember watching a video on YouTube where she talks about having to give up her baby daughter and the terrible system and treatment of unmarried mothers in Canada in the past. There’s been an ongoing campaign here in UK too to get an apology from the government for forced adoptions.

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    • Yes, the so-called enlightened democracies all ran this system e.g. USA, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand (probably South Africa also, although I don’t know much about that). The best you can say is that they “meant well”.
      The Guardian article is excellent, and much of what it says is what has already happened in Australia. The numbers quoted surprise me though. In Australia, since so many organisations were involved, with various record-keeping, we can only estimate – but that is around 250,000. I would have thought your numbers much higher.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I would agree with you about the numbers being higher, but we do have a tradition of minimising as much as possible anything negative that the traditional class viewed as distasteful. The authorities probably didn’t keep great records in the first place and then were not diligent in properly securing information for future enquiries. It is surprising how many records go/have gone missing during the process of digitisation.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You make good points, and they are probably correct. I wonder, though, whether more women were able to keep their babies, earlier than us? If you go by “Call The Midwives” there does appear a softening of attitudes earlier than in Australia – which continued in diminished numbers to around 1980 and even a few years beyond in some places.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I don’t know much about ‘Call the Midwives’ as it is shown here on BBC Sunday evenings in the family slot. I personally don’t know of any forced adoptions, but I do know of a couple of illegal abortions in the 1960s. My sister and I would quietly amuse ourselves whilst listening to my mother chatting to the wives of my father’s friends. Two of the women were ‘encouraged’ to end unplanned pregnancies and afterwards neither was able to have children in the future. I know that at least one of them felt it was her life’s tragedy and when she remarried her new husband was too old to adopt.


  4. You deserve each and every word of praise, Gwen!
    Lavinia and Rick were kind enough to plant a sequoia tree in memory of my son. I am thrilled she gave you such a wonderful review.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. This sounds like a difficult read, in terms of subject matter, but necessary. I’ve read “Glass Castle” and “Angela’s Ashes” and “A Boy Called ‘It;'” This sounds like you’ve a similar life and I’m sorry.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You deserve all those lovely words said about you! Your book is written with such feeling & explanation of how things were then. We feel priveliged to have you as a cherished friend along with your husband Bill, and hope we have many years of friendship ahead.


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