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Jessica Lost: Adoption and Identity in Modern Times

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Every now and then you meet a mother and daughter who look, act, and talk so much alike it seems one begins where the other ends. There's an expression for this in the South -- "Why, it's like she just spit her out!" And while we usually attribute this connection to some kind of deep and lifelong parent-child bonding and assimilation, a new book out blows that theory out of the water and gives credence to the nature trumping nurture aspect of who we really are.

Jessica Lost: A Story of Birth, Adoption, & the Meaning of Motherhood is the true story of a mother and daughter separated at birth when the mother -- Bunny Crumpacker -- gave up her infant daughter -- Jil Picariello -- for adoption and a full forty years passed until they were reunited only to discover they lived within blocks of each other in Manhattan, were mirror images, liked the same food, books and movie stars, and most fortunate for all of us, were both excellent writers.

Their joint chronicle of this almost life-long separation, longing and search for each other and dramatic reunion is part mystery, part love story, and part searing discourse on the myriad of hot-button issues of adoption in our life and times. Recently ranked a "Top Pick" by Parade Magazine, the book is destined to launch a thousand conversations at both book groups and adoption forums alike -- it's a real page-turner and brings up in the most thoughtful ways imaginable how it feels to be a mother who gives her baby away and a daughter who always feels different.

Told in alternating narratives (with a helpful opening guide to how many different names both women are known by), Bunny ("Faith") Crumpacker tells the story of an unhappy marriage followed by betrayal, a pregnancy of uncertain paternity and the near-numb yet single-minded decision to give up her baby. Jil ("Jessica") Picariello shares her childhood with an adoptive mother who was both complicated and cold yet fiercely devoted to both her adopted children and describes a lifelong and all-pervasive sense of being an outsider.

Both women set up their back stories beautifully -- each of their narratives tell the stories, mores and themes of their times -- and when they finally begin their search for each other we are firmly in both their corners. There is an added touch of celebrity gossip in that PIcariello's biological father is a successful and well-known screenwriter who is given a pseudonym.

For me, a few things really stood out. One, that Jil Picariello wholeheartedly feels that her mother and father are the people who raised her (there's not a parent in the world who doesn't want to hear that) and two, that both women found parenting their own children significantly challenging and three, the notion and execution of finding two (or in this case three) people who made a choice not to keep you is an extremely complicated venture with a lot of emotional landmines. Both authors were up to this challenge and we all benefit from their honestly rendered journeys.

The bittersweet coda to this story is that Bunny Crumpacker died shortly before publication of the book. I recently interviewed Jil Picariello about Jessica Lost and she graciously answered my questions:

What made you want to write this book? When I first met Faith, and we told people our story of finding each other after forty years, the universal reaction was, "You two should write a book!" Faith and I had both worked as writers, doing advertising, PR, and marketing writing, and both had hopes of being published. In fact, her mantra for years had been, "The book and the baby"--her dream was to publish a book and find the baby she had given up. And amazingly, the week I found her was the week she got the contract for her first book.

We started working on our book within a year after meeting. The original title -- which I still love -- was "Finding Faith," but everyone said we'd get slotted into the religion section. Our first agent was having personal problems and did nothing for about a year and then closed up shop and moved to Europe. Our second agent was inexperienced and didn't really know how to sell the book. Then I decided that I needed to work on my writing and went to school for two years to get an MFA in creative writing. Faith was busy during those years, she published several non-fiction books after the first one, as well as a children's book. I thought I would write it solo for a while but then Faith found our current agent. When she heard the original concept, she said she could sell it in a month. And she did...

Part of what made us want to write the book was that it is a darn good story -- it's got a juicy mystery, detective work, sadness, joy, a troubled childhood -- lots of good stuff. But also it touches on a question that most people face in different ways -- why am I what I am? I think questions of identity are universal, whether you're adopted or not. And I always find it interesting, and I hope other people do too, to watch people try to figure out how they became the person they are.

How has the journey been since its publication -- any surprises? So far nothing but good surprises. I was a little nervous about people reading something so personal -- especially after the first few readers used the same word -- "brave" -- to describe their reaction to my story. I kept hearing "brave" as "crazy." As in, "Why would anyone expose themselves this way." I felt a little bit like I was dancing naked in Macy's window. Somehow when I was writing it, even editing it, I never really imagined anyone reading it. But the people I was most nervous about -- my husband, my kids, other family members -- have all been extremely positive and supportive. And many, many people have told me it made them cry. And, to me, that's the highest praise of all -- to be able to draw people into my story and move them is a wonderful feeling.

How far into publication did Faith's illness occur -- can you elaborate on how the book process was affected by this? Faith found out she was ill as we were finishing the last few chapters of the book. Luckily her story was more intense in the earlier chapters, and mine in the later. She quickly became weaker, and was hospitalized a couple of times, and I was worried that she wasn't going to be able to finish the book -- and I was worried about her. But she finished, and even was with us through most of the editing. After she died, there were still a lot of questions about what to keep, what to lose, what to edit out, and all of those questions, for her half of the book and for my half, became my questions to answer. I tried very hard to do what I think she would have done, but there were some questions -- little things mostly -- that I didn't have answers for. Perhaps the hardest part for me was telling our editor about the dedications. Faith and I had talked about it a while back, before she got sick. I said I was going to dedicate the book to my husband and sons and asked her who she was planning to dedicate it to. She said, "You, of course." But she never put it in writing. When it came time to tell our editor who the dedications were to, I considered changing hers, to someone else -- her husband, or her other kids, or her closest friend, who had recently died. It just felt awful to claim that dedication for myself when she wasn't here to verify it. But in the end I decided that no matter how it looked, or even if people questioned me, I had to honor her wishes.

Losing her was hard. And not having her here to see Jessica Lost come out after so many years of work is very hard. I know what this book meant to her and how much joy this would have given her. A lot of people have said things like, "Faith is here in spirit," or, "You know she's watching you now." I don't believe any of that. But she is here in my heart, and that gives me some comfort.

Have you had any reaction from your birth father since the book came out? Not a word so far. I had told him years ago that Faith and I were working on a book and although he didn't say anything, I could tell that he wasn't thrilled with the idea. He's a very private man, despite being something of a celebrity, and he clearly felt uncomfortable about being exposed in this way. I told him then that I would use a pseudonym, and I did. Hopefully no one will figure out who he really is.

Can you elaborate on your relationship with your biological mother -- how many years did you actually have together -- did it ever seem normal/commonplace/easy or was it always somewhat heightened emotionally? We had 13 years together. When I first met Faith, it was insanely intense. I had trouble walking to meet her. Heck, I had trouble breathing around her! While it did become more normal over time, it never lost a certain emotional intensity. There were times that I would just look at her and think, "This is the person who gave birth to me." And that never lost its strangeness, never became ordinary.

I think part of the intensity of it may have come from the fact that we were not part of each other's day-to-day lives. We rarely saw other members of each other's families, we didn't share holidays or birthdays the way other mothers and daughters might. The fact that we had this powerful connection yet it was outside our normal lives made it more of an unusual relationship. And it also made losing her harder in some ways, since I didn't have someone to share the pain with.

I didn't go to the memorial service that her family held, mainly because I had never met her other daughter and didn't feel welcome. So a month or so after Faith died I created my own memorial service, with a few very close friends. I invited everyone to share stories, songs, poems, photos, and anything else they would like about someone close to them who had died. One of my closest friends had lost her brother recently. She was out of the country when he died and couldn't make it back in time for the funeral. So our "mourning circle" was a very meaningful experience for her as well. There were about ten of us, and lots of tears, some music, a few poems, an essay, even a PowerPoint presentation. It was very beautiful and healing.

Do you feel this is now "done" -- having written this very self-searching examination do you feel some of the issues of your adoption are resolved? Maybe it's "done for now." I do feel that the experience of writing the book was very cathartic. I also read many books about adoption psychology, which were enlightening. There were issues in my life that I had no idea even related to adoption, like the difficult time I had becoming a mother. It shed so much light on my life and the issues I've dealt with. I do feel like I've moved on, to a certain degree. I feel that so many of the issues of my life have been examined, explored, and, if not resolved, at least put to rest. I certainly don't think I have all the answers. But at least I'm more comfortable with not having all the answers.

You are a writer as was your birth mother -- is it your feeling that this is just something that people have or don't? This sense of observation, consideration, reflection, and expression? That's such an interesting question. First, because it touches on what I think is the central question of the book -- why are we what we are? And also because that writer's temperament -- always slightly outside, always observing -- was definitely something that both Faith and I shared. And observation and reflection were not part of my adoptive mother's nature. Was it something Faith passed on to me? Was it the result of the adoption itself, placing me somewhat outside "normal" experience? Was it the result of my difficult relationship with the mother who raised me? I do believe that it is something people have or don't. But I'm still not sure where it comes from, just like I'm still not sure how we get to be who we are. It's some mystical combination of nature and nurture and maybe it's best we don't know exactly what the recipe is, and just try to accept ourselves as we are.