With twenty-four million children in the US living without their biological fathers, the question "Who's your daddy?" isn't always an easy one to answer. Is a father defined as the man whose sperm made you? Or the person who raised you? If the latter, then who's the former? And if neither, then what?
Katherine Briccetti's debut memoir Blood Strangers is a brave book, written by a mother contemplating the question of fatherhood for the sake of her sons, and also, perhaps more poignantly, for herself. Spanning three generations of adoptions, this story is blessed by the author's restless intelligence and sensitive heart. She finds herself perplexed by her choices and caught in the wake of her past -- a past fraught with divorce, dislocation, and multiple missing fathers.
The book begins with Briccetti's truth: "I am drawn to fathers and sons because my two boys were conceived with the sperm of a stranger." From this wrenching line forward, the narrator dives into the scenes that built her emotional history: moving away from her biological father as young girl, being legally adopted by her stepfather, and falling in love with a woman to whom she says, "I'll give up the wedding for you, but not the babies."
Blood Strangers isn't a glib coming-of-age story or a cathartic coming-out story--it's an honest book made beautiful by Briccetti's clear voice. In questioning her own decision to have children who may not know their father, she writes, "I might be fooling myself when I say my children can't grieve something they never lost, that it could be a different kind of pain they feel, but I still see the difference between having a father and losing him and never having him to begin with."
As a never-married parent, I've seen my twelve-year-old son struggle over the "Who's your daddy?" question. I've heard him lie -- for ease, for acceptance, or simply to skirt a long explanation that involves a biological dad who lives far away and a "stepfather" who has cared for him most of his life. As a mother, I'm wary of my son's duplicity, but I don't correct it. I can't. I've done the same thing myself.
Briccetti is no stranger to the verbal hide-and-seek unconventional mothers use to protect themselves and their kids from judgment. As a lesbian mother, she "became adept at leading conversations off in another direction." When asked about her spouse, she "simply dodged pronouns." But when it came to the issue of fathering, she worried that "even if we did everything right -- told the truth, didn't get uptight and pass our anxieties on to our kids...raising them without a father, would screw them up." (She later learns that "children raised by single mothers, widows, and grandmothers not only survive, but flourish. The literature now says so, and, if you look closely, you will find these fatherless children all around you.")
While Briccetti's motherly concern is normal, her situation is undoubtedly unique in that she holds a PhD in psychology and an MFA in creative writing, and she is also a hetero-turned-homosexual, living in a cozy marriage in relative affluence in Berkeley, where she works with children as a school psychologist. From wondering if she really is gay ("Maybe someday I'll learn how it is I spent thirty years on one side of the sexual seesaw and then switched sides, without falling on my ass") to selecting a donor and dealing with discrimination, Briccetti's story isn't my story, but it is no less compelling for that. Just as moving a lamp might reveal different truths about a space, Briccetti's vantage point illuminates the truths that shape all families: loyalty, attachment and love.
Stepping into Blood Strangers, I was conscious that I might get tripped up. Set in thirty-four segmented chapters, the book meanders through three generations, moving frequently among various periods in the past. I worried that the narrative might jerk from one scene to another and provoke a kind of psychic whiplash. However, this was not the case; each section was thematically linked to the next and united by Briccetti's understanding of the recurrent themes in her life. She writes, "My children are the third generation of our family to be adopted in some fashion and the third generation to grow up without their father. These repetitions fascinate me. I'm attracted by the pattern: the thirty-year spread between each of these events -- from the nineteen thirties to the sixties to the nineties -- the numbers suggesting a type of balance, or symmetry, like a repeating design in a quilt."
The quilt metaphor is apt, not just for the image of a family heirloom made from disparate cloths, but also for the craftsmanship Briccetti brings to her work. A self-proclaimed obsessive, one has the sense that she sized up her life, cut out slices of memory for closer inspection -- a courtroom adoption, a teenage bus trip to visit her lost father, a tender moment with her son -- and then trimmed them before sewing her narrative together with measured stitches. Her prose reads with this precision. Consider these parallel sentences, stacked, as they are, to refract loss: "I was a four-year-old saying goodbye to my daddy. I was seventeen, knowing my stepfather was packing a U-Haul and driving it away. I was thirty-nine and didn't know who my father was."
An exemplary memoir is one in which the author not only tells the truth, but also writes to find it. Blood Strangers is just such a book. One has the sense that the author worked hard to earn her understanding, and worked harder still to make those reflections resonate for the reader. In our blog-a-day world, Briccetti's patient exploration of multiple themes, and the depth and breadth of her search for truth, reflect a rare mastery of the memoir craft. She often steps back to wonder how "my family's legacy, what feels like an invisible blueprint, has influenced my choices." There is no easy answer for Briccetti. Hers is a satisfyingly rich and complicated blueprint, drawn in myriad forms of longing.
In the end, I had to wonder how a book so calm and well wrought could provoke so much emotion in me. But Blood Strangers is sly, beguiling in its intensity. It proceeds by inquiry, asking not just "Who's your daddy?" but also bigger questions that matter at some point to every mother: What is it like not to have a father? Or to have had fathers and lost them? And what is it to be related to people, but set apart, like blood strangers?
These questions aren't easy, but they are precisely the kind of questions Briccetti must ask of her past in order to make sense of her life as a mother. Looking back becomes a way forward -- for her, for her family, and ultimately, for her children. Fortunately, also for us.