Reviewed by Emily Webber
The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book (Mad Creek Books, May 2021), Megan Culhane Galbraith’s remarkable hybrid memoir in essays, focuses on the adoptee experience, identity, and motherhood from both a personal and historical perspective. Approaching these subjects with tenderness and power, Galbraith adeptly uses different forms of writing and images to tell her story.
Early in the memoir, Galbraith is preparing to become a mother herself when she begins to search for her birth mother. She heads to the New York Public Library’s genealogy section with a friend, armed with nothing but an adoption number. They spend the entire day scrolling through rows and rows of numbers in thick bound books hoping to come across the one that matches Galbraith’s number. It is an astonishing image—all those numbers representing yet another adopted person’s story. A person whose identity and past are concealed from them. While Galbraith’s memoir is very much her own story, it also contains echoes of the voices of all adoptees and the unique struggles and trauma they endure. As Galbraith searches for her birth mother, who she eventually finds and meets, her search shows how limited the information and resources are available to adoptees seeking their birth parents.
Galbraith seamlessly weaves in her own journey as an adoptee with historical journalism. Galbraith’s research explores our cultural beliefs on family, child rearing, motherhood, and women’s bodies. She focuses primarily on the Domestic Economics (Domecon) program at Cornell, where babies were taken from orphanages and loaned to the university for a year so that women could practice mothering and domestic arts based on ideal scientific methods. In their time in the program, babies were paired with many different “mothers” on a daily or weekly basis. These babies were highly sought for adoption, their real names changed, and their identity records destroyed. Galbraith also explores some of the longer lasting impacts, like attachment disorders, both from her experience and research.
The photographs included in the memoir are ones from Galbraith’s childhood paired with photographs of the miniature models she created as part of her art project, The Dollhouse. Galbraith explains on her website that the art project originated from the desire to have some control over her world as an adoptee. “Children play to control the world. Tiny themselves, they create even smaller worlds populated by all sorts of figures, friends to have tea with, monsters to defeat, new microcosms to explore what is inside them via the outside world.” The dollhouse dioramas not only give insight into Galbraith’s process to untangle her past, but they are also jarring to look at against the real photographs from her childhood and from the Domecon program. The scuffed up and broken bodies of the dolls, the blank stares, the impersonal backgrounds call up the fact that, while our narrative — especially in the United States — is one we like to tout as pro-life and child-centered, many of our practices and policies are the opposite.
Another theme that runs through this memoir is the shifting nature of truth and memory. Galbraith has a loving relationship with her adoptive mother even though they don’t always understand each other. She loses her too early to pancreatic cancer and marks the passage of time by the anniversary of her death. When Galbraith writes about her it is with a fierce, protective love, but she regrets that she didn’t get to ask her adoptive mother more questions before she died. She worries that her birth mother, Ursula, gives her inaccurate information because her stories are constantly changing. Galbraith’s relationship with Ursula is rocky, and her birth mother does not give consent for any of her photographs to appear in the book. Galbraith yearns to unravel a complicated past, and Ursula can come across as indifferent in Galbraith’s telling. That piece of the story feels incomplete, perhaps because it lacks openness and consent from one party. In the descriptions of how adoptions were managed, one can only wonder what unprocessed guilt, shame and regret Galbraith’s birth mother feels when it seems so many young women were coerced into giving up their children. It was not that these women chose to give up a child, but rather that it was the only option presented to them. Ultimately though, Galbraith owns this as her story, her memories, and her truth. She doesn’t apologize for that.
Through reading both novels and nonfiction written by adoptees over the past few years, my views on adoption have changed drastically. If you’ve mostly been told that adoption is simply what is best for the mother and the baby, this memoir, along with other writing from adoptees, will challenge you to think more deeply about all facets of this complicated subject. The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book is a remarkable and challenging memoir of a woman striving to understand her past and what it means to be a woman and a mother.