I Belong to No One is the memoir of Gwen Wilson. The story of her life, from family violence, teenage pregnancy and forced adoption, how she dealt with all of that and became the woman she is today. The book is published on June 30, 2015. I hesitate to use the word ‘gritty’; although Gwen’s story is harsh and at times difficult to read about, at the same time her flowing writing style makes the pages turn.
How many years did it take you to write your book, and what was the trigger that made you start?
The initial trigger was my 50th birthday party, way back in 2005. Part way through my speech, it dawned on me that each of the guests represented a distinct part of my life. Family, friends, and colleagues – it was like a map of my life’s journey. The fact that I was even there – well-dressed, financially secure, a successful career woman, with a supportive husband at my side – was a source of wonder. My life could so easily have gone a different way.
As I spoke, I felt the spiritual presence of those people – particularly the women -who had supported and guided me in my early years. I had triumphed over adversity and I had reclaimed my life – but part of the credit belonged to them.
I went home determined to document my story as a way of acknowledging what they had done for me. Whenever I had a spare Saturday afternoon, I wrote down my memories, using triggers such as letters, photographs and miscellaneous receipts. It was slow work, though, and I bogged myself down trying to hone each chapter to perfection. Three years later I had ten chapters, and still hadn’t had my seventh birthday. As well, the style and tone was like a family history account – nothing like the book it is now. And the working title, by the way, was: Tried Poor: Didn’t Like It.
In late 2008 my husband retired and we moved away from Sydney. I expected to go straight into another logistics role but our move co-incided with the global financial crisis. So I found myself living extremely comfortably in a five-star complex, marvelling again at how I even came to be here, promising myself I would get back to writing, and daily finding an excuse to procrastinate.
A short while later my cousin died unexpectedly, and in the midst of mourning him, and reflecting on the role he had played in the woman I became, I chanced across this quote from Sandra Day O’Connor: “We don’t accomplish anything in the world alone, and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one’s life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that create something.”
I opened the laptop, started typing, and continued writing without editing until I had a coherent story with a beginning, middle and An End.
You could say that I Belong to No One took 30 years to create: 20 to live it, and ten to write it.
There must have been occasions when you wondered if things should be written about, or left private. How did you approach those decisions?
No, not when I was in the creation phase of the writing. I wrote everything I remembered, the good times and the bad times. The more I wrote, the more I remembered. Everyone in my circle knew I was writing, yet I doubt that anyone, including me, ever seriously considered I would get published, so I didn’t feel the need to censor myself. There was a horrible moment though when I lost the document which contained the rape scene. It had been hard to write, but I had persevered because my story didn’t make sense if I left it out. It was another month before I could bring myself to write about it again.
In the editing phases though (and there were many!), especially once I knew I had a publishing contract, I did ask myself whether including certain sections added any value to the overall story, and if the answer was no, I cut them out. That includes many “nice” stories, as well as the delicate ones.
I refused a request to include a few paragraphs about one family member. There was no pressing purpose to say anything, and I felt that anything I said, good or bad, would not have been appreciated by that person.
There are some paragraphs, also, where I toned down the language slightly. Words such as “belt” and “thrash” can come through on the printed page more strongly than intended, and I had to think of alternative descriptions, not in order to condone, but rather to ensure that I hadn’t inadvertently embellished a situation.
I have resigned myself to expecting that some people will find my memoir confrontational, and one of those people will be me. Imagine me writing about the rape and continuing to live in a village-like complex with all my neighbours knowing. What was I thinking! Lilly Hawkins, a friend who lives in the States and who features in the book is very supportive. She said to me, “Gwen, this will start a discussion. People don’t talk about these things.” I said, “Which bit?” and she said – “All of it Gwen!”
Are you afraid that your book will upset people who perhaps didn’t know the whole truth at the time? And how do you deal with that?
Yes. I cannot think of one person who knew me at the time who will know everything there is in the book. I asked myself many times whether I was sure I was writing the truth, and cross-checked my accounts with other people and source documents. The truth though, still has the capacity to hurt.
Along the way, I showed relevant sections to friends for their permission to proceed, particularly one whose personal story I was exposing. When I was offered the publishing contract I contacted them again, to ensure they understood we were no longer in make-believe land.
My brother “Steve” and child “Jason” have both supported my right to tell my story, however it is a delicate area. I leave it to their discretion to decide whether or not to read it.
Why did you decide to write your story as a memoir – more truthful, unflinching – and not fictionalize it, which may have been ‘safer’?
In a sense, it was my naivety as a writer that underpins the decision.
The writing began as a life history and homage, as explained earlier, so there was no need to fictionalise it. Even though my upbringing was tough, it was ordinary in my eyes, so I didn’t realise I was writing about things that others may find extraordinary. Another friend called her family memoir, “You Can Only Play the Hand You’re Dealt”, and that was how it was for me. I was writing about the hand I’d been dealt, and how I’d played it. Where was the harm in that?
Early in the piece, one close friend questioned my wisdom in taking that approach, but I decided to press on since it wasn’t a complete manuscript at that stage. When it was, it would have been a full re-write to novelise it, and I don’t think it would have rung true. The reader would have known in a heartbeat that it was autobiographical and may have felt cheated.
Once the serious editing began though, and the true shape and power of the story emerged, it had to stay as a memoir. Too many important social issues are addressed, and it would be a shame to miss the opportunity to open discussion by passing them off as a made-up story. In the words of my first editor, Irina Dunn, “This memoir exposes the hostility of certain social attitudes and the barbarity of institutional practices within living memory, which have only been exposed and improved in the last decade or two, and from which many people are still suffering acutely.”
It is fair to say I had no idea what I was doing. All the same, sometimes, I think I was meant to write this story.
Summarize what life was like in Australia in 1974, just to put things into context. Some people may read your story and think it exaggerated, that ‘that couldn’t possibly happen’. Explain the background of forced adoption in Australia.
After twenty-three years of a paternalistic, ultra-conservative Liberal-Country Party coalition government (like Britain’s Conservative or America’s Republican Party), Gough Whitlam led the Labor Party into power on 5 December 1972.
His platform was “It’s Time!” This clip has the best sound track but not the lyrics – but I think you get the message: “It’s time for freedom, time for moving, it’s time to begin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqMCZBjvmD4
Not everyone thought it was time for change, as evidenced by the local council member who said “if we allow women to be elected to our council, we will no longer be able to hold meetings on Mondays; because that is the day they do the washing.”
The Whitlam Government came into being at a time of tremendous social change, and they were at the forefront of changing legislation. Many gains for women: equal pay, contraception, single mother’s benefit, women’s refuges, no-fault divorce, paid maternity leave for government employees and an Office for the Status of Women were some of their legacies. The Whitlam Government brought our boys home from Vietnam too. We can even thank Gough for bringing a flushing toilet into western suburbs homes, something the Conservatives would never have bothered about for the working class poor who lived there.
Unfortunately, the changes were too fast and furious for the old conservatives. The Dismissal of the Whitlam Government on November 11, 1975 was the most dramatic political event in the history of Australia’s Federation. The man who wielded the axe was the Queen’s representative in Australia, Governor-General Sir John Kerr.
My son was born in mid-1972, and surrendered for adoption exactly two years later, just as the era of Forced Adoption was in its death throes, with a major reason for that being these social changes and their political backing.
The background of forced adoption in Australia:
The practice of removing babies from unmarried mothers, for the purpose of passing those babies to infertile couples, runs from the 1950s until the mid-1970s. Following several enquiries into this era, this practice has come to be known as “forced adoption”.
There are no definitive figures on how many babies were adopted in these decades in Australia. Some estimates suggest 250,000 is a feasible number. The number peaked in 1972. Almost 10,000 children were surrendered in that year.
There are two key features of adoptions in this era:
- They were “closed” adoptions, i.e. the relinquishing parents did not know where their baby had gone, and the adoptive parents did not know where the baby had come from. Records were sealed so that all parties, including the adoptee, remained permanently unaware of the identities of the other persons in the triangle.
- The “clean break theory” determined that it was better to remove the baby from its mother immediately at birth, often with no contact taking place. Many women were drugged during delivery, and/or a sheet or pillow placed in a manner which prevented sight of the baby. The mother was discharged from hospital within hours, and the baby remained in the hospital nursery to be placed with an adoptive family within weeks.
- The “clean break theory” could also extend to never telling the child they were adopted. The term Late Discovery Adoptee refers to those children who find out late in life that they were not born into the family of their upbringing. You can imagine the shock they receive, particularly if they find out from a third party who had always known and withheld the information.
It is a commonly held belief that babies given up for adoption were unwanted and surrendered willingly by their mothers; with all haste some would like to think. Perhaps, sub-consciously, this was a way for everyone involved at the time to convince themselves that the above-mentioned practices were ethical.
Mothers signed the adoption papers as if indicating that it was their decision not to raise their own child. In truth, there was rarely an alternative choice. Apart from the very real practicality of how a single mother could afford it, there was the shame and social stigma to be faced. The parents of an unwed woman were frequently unwilling to allow the baby to be brought up within the family, fearing the censure of their relatives, friends and neighbours. As I say in my memoir, “a single mother was not permitted to rejoice in the knowledge that she was bringing a new life into the world, to anticipate the arrival, make plans for the future, daydream about the looks and personality of their connected being.”
It was hammered into single mothers that any desire to keep their baby was selfish. They were being selfish towards their baby, and selfish towards the adopting parents who desperately want to have a child, and who could do everything for that child that its own mother could not. They were told that if they attempted to keep their babies, they would grow to become resentful of the baby for changing their life.
Mothers were persuaded to sign the adoption papers in the best interests of the child, and many women were convinced they were doing the right thing. They were urged to spare their baby the stigma of illegitimacy, besides which, could they not understand that a woman who had sinned by having pre-marital sex was unfit to mother a child?
Those mothers who signed adoption papers were told to forget they had given birth, and that when the time was right, they would have their family then. Some women, like me, never went on to have another child.
What we were not told was that we were the sole legal guardian of our babies until that Adoption Consent form was signed, and many were not told they had a 30-day revocation period. Furthermore, some who exercised their right to revocation were told their baby had died in the meantime.
Women who were inclined to push back suffered extreme duress: harassment by the authorities of the unmarried mothers’ homes, church moralising, family exclusion, threats, intimidation, tricks, lies, drugging and brute force. Relatively few managed to buck the system. Right from the first ante-natal visit, an unmarried woman’s file would be stamped: BFA. It was years before we learnt what this stood for: Baby for Adoption.
The majority of young girls were sent to unmarried mothers’ homes, which were like a prison, where they were locked out of sight, and constantly reminded of the shame they had brought on their family. Six days a week they were used as free labour for heavy, menial tasks such as the government hospital laundry, floor polishing, and kitchen duties.
The woman’s delivery in a nearby teaching hospital was witnessed by up to ten interns who were there to learn about childbirth and episiotomies. The woman was frequently drugged to the point of incoherence, and after the birth was transferred back to the unmarried mothers’ home which was some miles from the teaching hospital, sometimes unaware she had given birth.
Having said that, my experience – as outlined in I Belong to No One – was quite different. By some miracle I was never sent to an unmarried mothers’ home. It took another two years for the system to catch me up. But it did – eventually. By 1974, the year I signed consent, the availability of babies was reducing dramatically, and the powers-that-be were desperate to gather up as many as possible to fill their waiting lists. They persuaded me too, even though Jason was already two years old.
A couple of years later a senior social worker, commenting on the lack of babies for adoption, was quoted as saying, “We can’t just grow babies in a flowerpot.” (Fewer Unwanted Babies, The Canberra Times, Wednesday 19 May 1976, p18).
Therein, I believe, lies the definition of Forced Adoption, the one I have used in my memoir: “It was a system of baby farming, sanctioned and upheld by state, church and society.”
How did you turn your life into a positive force, to put yourself in a position where you could start to trace Jason? It must have been an enormous emotional journey.
Some months after signing consent to the adoption I moved to Adelaide, about nine hundred miles from Sydney. It was too difficult to live in the same city as Jason and not be able to have any contact with him. I lived in Adelaide for four years, the majority of those in a torrid live-in relationship with a man prone to violence. It is not unusual for mothers to report that they became victims after giving up their babies. We were not offered any counselling. Quite the opposite. We were told to keep our secret, not to talk about it, and to forget it had happened. Many women became alcoholics, drug addicts, emotionally insecure, and some, like me, the victim of domestic abuse. After several failed attempts to leave the relationship, I finally managed it when I got on a plane to Europe. I lived in England and on the Continent for four years, until Margaret Thatcher cancelled my visa. During that time, I was supported by a wonderful woman and her family, and she allowed me to come and go at will, using her house in Kent as not only my base, but my family home. She treated me like a daughter. I was in my early twenties, a hard worker, but also an adventurer; and I blossomed in those four years. I learnt more than I would have at university. When I returned to Australia I got a steady job, and met the man who would become my husband. We married in 1986, by which time my surrendered child was already 14 years old. My husband also had two boys, 15 and 13 when we married.
In April 1991, new legislation of the New South Wales government lifted the lid on adoption secrecy, and my search for Jason could begin.
The journey was emotional, yes, and there have been many highs and lows, even after a reunion. Before the change in law was enacted, the only avenue to finding each other was a thing called the Reunion Register, which had about a 5% success rate. When I registered, I left a letter for my son, explaining how his adoption had come about. In the weeks it took me to write that letter my sleep was disrupted, and during the night I was often confused about where I was, and when it was. I went through a time where I felt I was back living those years over again.
On the day the new legislation became law, my boss had enough wisdom to let me rush straight to the relevant office and put in my application, as he knew I would not be able to concentrate on work. It was a similar thing when the adoption certificate was put in my hands. He let me start my search immediately, and within a week I had a current address.
It was my husband who first put the brakes on though. He was scared I would be hurt if my approach was rejected. I also found it better to let each new piece of information settle on me before I took another step. So months went by and I did nothing but think and mull, and get used to the idea that I now knew where he was.
Curiously, my husband and his first wife had adopted a boy, and it was his mother who made the first contact. After the dust had settled on that reunion, it was then I decided to make my move by contacting Jason’s adoptive parents.
His parents were great, but Jason was not so keen at first. We didn’t get off to a great start, but little by little we formed contact.
Along the way, I turned to the Post Adoption Resource Centre, a counselling service of the Benevolent Society, for support and advice, and since then I have become an occasional speaker and presenter for them.
If you could talk to your 17-year old self, what would you say?
I bore Jason less than two weeks after my 17th birthday, and went home to a psychiatrically ill mother. My brother and I had stopped speaking by then. Any talk that would have circumvented that situation would have needed to be with my 15-year old self. Under the circumstances, with what my 17-year old self was dealing with, I think I she did pretty well in hindsight.
However, if I could have my time over again, I would have confided in Kulpie (my childhood carer and surrogate mother) and made it clear I needed her help, and/or shared my fears with my Aunt Myra and asked her how the heck I could get out of the mess I had created. AND, and it is a very big AND, on the eve before my wedding, when presented with the opportunity to call it off, I would have grabbed that lifeline with both hands and never let go until my boyfriend was out of my life forever.
Has writing the book exorcised the ghosts? How has the process of writing changed your memory/acceptance of your past? Has writing this book been, in fact, a kind of therapy?
I suspect it is a commonly held belief that writing personal stories is a cathartic experience that allows a release of long held-back emotion, or makes sense of a recent trauma, or allows the author to “vent”, to “get something off their chest”.
That was not my experience. In I Belong to No One I tell the story of my first twenty years, a story I have lived with all my life and spoken freely of in conversation and at various forums since my mid-20s. If there was ever a point in my life where I felt that I could not move forward with my life until I exorcised those ghosts – and I don’t feel that there was – I had passed that place by the time I started to write. On the other hand I didn’t feel as if I had put everything behind me and locked it away, so I didn’t need to unearth those secrets in order to write. I found that as I wrote, however, I remembered more and more. In the beginning, I was absorbed in capturing and recording all those memories whatever they were. So, in the early drafts, distressing stories were interspersed with happier stories such a being my cousin’s flower girl, or getting my first camera, or commenting on social history. It was in the editing drafts, as I worked towards the core of the story, deleting anecdotes and delving deeper, that it became more difficult emotionally. However, I was still so focused on the task of writing that it wasn’t until the proof-reading stage, when I had my “reader’s” cap on, that the full emotion really hit me.
I also became very emotional when I was shown the cover for the first time. I had been writing for so long, managing to remain objective and keep my feelings in check, but when I saw that image – so haunting, and with such personal meaning – I was instantly struck to the core. The flood-gate was open. It was twenty-four hours before I regained my calm.
The major re-assessment of my past memory was realising that critical information was with-held from me at the time I signed the adoption consent form. As I say in the memoir, I gave my consent, yes, but it was not informed consent. Whether having that information would have influenced my decision I cannot say, and I address that in the epilogue.
I also make it clear that bitterness I felt towards my mother, on account of her inability to nurture me, has been replaced by compassion over time. I had reached that point before I started writing, so it was actually a challenge to bring that hurt back to life, but it had to be done in order to give a true picture of how confusing it is for a child to be brought up by someone suffering severe mental illness.
This piece, which briefly appeared in very early drafts, may show more than I can tell here: “As these threads weaved from one to another it became clear to me. Loss is a part of the tapestry of life, we cannot avoid it, and we cannot change it. All we can change is how we react to it, and in that decision lays the creation of something. Loss can destroy, and it can build.”
What’s next? Are you planning to write another book? Memoir or Fiction?
Many of your followers will be aware that my blogging journey began with “55 Days with Gwen” the daily journal of my travels in the Balkans in 2013. I made an attempt to turn that into a humorous travel memoir in the style of Bill Bryson. I opened with sleeping with Stalin, and lamenting that I would rather it was Che Guevara. It was going splendidly for a time, but a recurrent theme kept interrupting.
In 1980 I lived in Yugoslavia, and came close to marrying and staying there. It was only the death of Tito that brought me to my senses. On my return in 2013, I was constantly meeting young persons who had lost their childhood or adolescence to the most recent Balkan War. Over and over I thought: if I had stayed in Yugoslavia, married and had children, this would have been the experience of my own children.
That subject is too serious to be treated in the light-hearted manner I was attempting, so that manuscript is now moulding in a bottom drawer, waiting for its time.
The most obvious other story to write is the sequel to I Belong to No One – the story of how I found my father, and then later found my son. My father has since passed, and his living relatives would be delighted if I wrote about him. That is not the case with Jason, however. To tell my story would be to tell his as well. While he has been generous enough to support my decision to publish I Belong to No One, it would be crossing a boundary to write the sequel.
Meanwhile, I don’t feel I can write of one without the other, as loyal readers would be keen to know what happened in both cases. So in this case, I am erring on the side of caution.
The theme of family trauma dogs me however. There is a scene in I Belong to No One, where I am threatened with losing custody of Jason because I have committed adultery. It was still a real threat in 1973, believe it or not. In 1890 my great-grandmother (Louisa) lost custody of her first two children for precisely that reason. I discovered that in my book research, and I was astounded. I was doubly astounded when I also discovered that one of her daughters died in a mental asylum in Sydney in the 1920s, only a few years after Louisa had died in an asylum for destitute people. Insanity, illegitimacy, destitution, asylums – this signature keeps recurring in my family line like an inherited gene.
So I went to Bradford last year in search of where Louisa’s story began. I discovered that she came from a comfortable middle-class family, father – until his early demise – was a master cordwainer, mother the daughter of a Baptist minister.
I came to the conclusion that whereas I Belong to No One is the story of a young girl who triumphs over adversity, despite being born in tough circumstances, Louisa’s is the other way around.
That is the book I must write next, and if anyone would like to help me research the UK end, all assistance would be gratefully accepted! I will treat it as a prequel to I Belong to No One, but intend to fictionalise it, as I cannot possibly know all the facts.
What did you learn about the writing process while writing ‘I Belong to No One’? What will you differently this time?
I learnt that writers fall into two categories: the plotters and the pansters. For I Belong to No One I was definitely the latter. I had no idea where the story was going, how long it would be, what voice it would have, and so on and so on. For goodness sake, I didn’t even know what the core story was for the first 60,000 words, which is as much as some people consider a book!
I had never heard of these concepts, had not done any courses before I started writing. And you know what? My girlfriend who teaches creative writing (in the States, so I was far away from her influence), thinks the end result flows so seamlessly she cannot believe that I did not work to a strict story board.
Would I do it again? Well, I’d like to think not – but I probably will. In my corporate work-life I was ultra-organised. I think for me, writing is such a contrast to that life that I rebel against myself and just fly by the seat of my pants. But! Never again will I create separate word documents for each chapter, as I did for the first two drafts; and I will not attempt to edit or finesse until I have one complete manuscript in front of me.
I may investigate another writing programme, such a Scrivener, but the problem for me is that I consider these things only as tools, and if I have to stop and learn how to use the tool, when all I want to do is write, then I will probably just bash away on Word, even though people tell me that it is inferior. If it does the job I need, then that is good enough for me.
Do you have any advice for other birth mothers who may read this and be currently undecided at searching for their own lost adopted child?
It is a good thing to search for your child but you must go very carefully and preferably seek support of a counsellor or intermediary who is not an immediate family member. As you go through your search, and find a new piece of information, give yourself time to find a place for the emotions which arise before you make another move. When you are ready to make contact you may wish to do so through the intermediary. Do not advertise your search on Facebook, or stomp up to the front door unannounced! Don’t believe those television programmes which show happy re-united people throwing themselves into each other’s arms. Yes, it happens sometimes. Sometimes even, a mother and son can “fall in love”. But it doesn’t always. You may be embraced, you may be rejected. Over time, you may have both experiences! You may discover your child has been looking for you too, or you may have the door slammed in your face because they think you abandoned them. Never think these reactions are “forever”. Everybody is dealing with emotions they need to process before they can react rationally.
One benefit in a reunion is that all parties know the facts. The facts of how the adoption took place, the facts of how the lives of everyone turned out afterwards. In the absence of those facts, our imaginations can play all types of scenarios which are not always helpful or realistic.
The above is a simplified response to the question. This is an area in which I have much experience and can point to many resources, so if any women reading this wish to go into greater depth off-line then I am happy to do so.
Gwen Wilson started writing her memoir in her fifties. Essentially self-educated, Gwen worked as a motel receptionist, dental nurse and switchboard operator until at nineteen, in the exciting days of the pre-container era, a chance opportunity saw her land a role in customs clearance on the male-dominated Port Adelaide waterfront. A stable marriage and successful career in shipping and logistics followed until she retired, after which Gwen entered university for the first time and now holds a Master’s degree in Electronic Commerce. Gwen and husband Bill live in Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia
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