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When Real Life Intrudes on Fictional Onesby Caroline Leavitt
Girls in Trouble is a novel about open adoption, betrayal, and first love. It had its origins in reality, during one year when my husband and I were trying to add to our family. We had a toddler, an experience so sunny we couldn't wait to have another child, and since I couldn't have any more, we decided to adopt, using open adoption, where we would know the birth mother and she'd know us, and it would be better all around. We made up the "Dear Birth Mother" letters you're supposed to write, introducing ourselves and the way we wanted to bring up a child ("We?re both writers! We love the city and movies and Italian food! We believe in education and books and laughter!") and placed our ad in USA Today, ("loving, happy writing couple will love and care for your baby in open adoption, call...") and then we waited.
When the calls came, they were almost always from young girls, and they were always for me instead of Jeff. It made sense to me that they would shy from a male voice, since many of these girls had been abandoned by the birth fathers, or were suffering the disapproval of their own fathers. The birth mothers and I talked more about movies and makeup and sixteen-year-old matters more than we ever talked about their babies, and I didn't push. I just let them talk and we got to know each other. And the more I talked to these girls, the more I began to feel that some of them yearned for something more than just a good home for their babies. They yearned for me. They wanted to be a part of my family because here was the one place where they were getting approval, where they could be sixteen and wrest back a bit of that sixteen-year-old life without even a hint of disapproval.
In the end, to my surprise and sadness, we weren't chosen, but my husband and I counted the blessings of our little boy and our lives together, and we moved on.
Except, I was sort of stuck in time. I couldn't forget those girls. And I began to write about one of them, a girl I created who was young and smart and well brought up and confused about what to do. I imagined a whole fictional world where there was also a middle-aged couple desperate for a child and naïve about how open an open adoption should be for them. I created a conflicted birth father and a set of well-meaning parents who didn't have a clue what might really be the best or the worst thing to do. And for three years I lived with all of these characters, in their world, until the book was published, and their world was suddenly out in the open, up for grabs, and I was scared for them. And for me.
One of the first people the publisher sent the novel to was Suzanne Beecher, the CEO of DearReader.com (a respected and popular online bookclub for libraries and subscribers) and a book columnist for Working Mother magazine. I didn't know her, but a few weeks after my novel was sent to her, I came home from the dentist to find a phone message from her. Her voice was strained and upset. "Look, you have to call me," she said, and then hung up. I collapsed on the bed. She must have hated the book! She was probably angry that she had wasted time reading it, furious that the publisher had even sent it to her, but what I couldn't figure out was why she was calling me instead of my publisher.
Terrified, I picked up the phone and called her.
It took her five minutes to compose herself. "I don?t know how to tell you this," she said. "It's something I don't really talk about. But I was pregnant at sixteen, too."
We must have talked for an hour that night. Well, actually, Suzanne talked, and mesmerized, I just listened, so afraid if I said a single word, she might stop. She told me how she had become pregnant at sixteen, how she had struggled to keep her child, even in the face of everyone around her telling her to give it up for adoption. She told me how small her world became, how her peers distanced themselves from her as well as her parents, and how the only approval she was able to get came from her own hard work to better herself, to make a life which included college, a happy marriage, raising her child, and becoming the CEO of her own company. "How did you know?" she kept asking me. "You could have been writing about how I felt. This happened to me thirty-three years ago. I had no idea all of these feelings were locked away inside of me."
By the time I got off the phone, I was shaking. Isn't this what every writer dreams of? Reaching a reader like that especially a reader who isn't my mother or a friend or someone I know who feels they have to say they love the book even if they don't? I don't know who else might be touched by Girls in Trouble, but all I can do is hope fiercely that there will be that sort of holy covenant between writer and reader again, the same way it was with Suzanne.
My novel just came out. And I've met Suzanne in person. We had lunch! We talked for hours. We still email. Which of course means that when I write another novel and give it to Suzanne, if she says she likes it, I won't quite know for sure if she really likes it or she's just saying she does. Because now of course, she's not just one of my readers. She's also my friend.