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Putting It Out There: The Pleasures and Perils of Memoir

06/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

One of the greatest privileges a writer has is receiving feedback from readers. Even in this age of instant online dialogue, I'm gratified when someone takes the time to respond to what I've written, even when the comments are unfavorable, but fair.

I recently published a story about the hardships of bonding with a child my husband and I adopted from Russia seven years ago. The essay originally appeared in Mamazina, a literary magazine, thenervousbreakdown.com, a literary site, and in Adoptive Families Magazine. Then news broke about Torry Ann-Hanson, the adoptive Tennessee mother who sent her seven-year-old on a plane back to Russia, alone.

I published my story online in the Huffington Post, where I usually write about suburbia, and days later, in The New York Post. I also blasted the story to a list of readers who regularly receive my work. I felt the experience of adopting a child who was difficult to bond with suddenly had national relevance.

Writing this story began as an exercise in catharsis. The work of a writer trying to understand what had happened. A snippet of memoir that began in a writing workshop and evolved into a saleable essay. Still, though, I placed it with low-profile or audience-targeted media at first.

When I decided to really go public I knew I was opening myself and my family to the court of public opinion. For years I've written personal columns (which have generated fan mail and nasty-grams) but this kind of a story would tap a deeper vein. I wasn't sure what to expect.

Several of the warm email responses reduced me to tears. One friend called up gasping for air, she was so touched. Many strangers shared similar experiences -- both as birth and adoptive parents. For the first time in seven years, I heard from a woman who I met in Siberia during the adoption trip. She had brought home a baby boy from the same orphanage. How comforting to know she had struggled with some of the same issues.

As I said before, the joy of feedback is that people (especially decent people) share similar challenges. They remind you that you are human. They thank you for being brave enough to publish what they never would.

What the writer hopes for most of all is that someone out there will be helped by what she's read -- or at least feel less alone when she's slogging through the darkness.

For years, my husband and I have gnashed through our challenges -- and did our best to keep it under our own roof. My parents, for example, had no idea what we were dealing with because we maintained our privacy. But when my story appeared, my mother called and said, "This clears up so much mystery for me and your father." She also lauded me for writing this story, saying it was a courageous thing to do. I think the article thawed some of the freeze between us. Instead of viewing me as secretive and elusive, she saw me as human. Frail. Honest.

Unsurprisingly, there were a handful of people who felt it necessary to vent their hostility because the story touched a nerve. All were strangers hiding behind the anonymity of online forums. Except one. A relative of mine, a woman not much older than me, and someone I used to trust, took the opportunity to tear me to bits in a three-page letter she sent by mail. Her screed was an indictment on my parenting; and on my very existence. Even if our relationship had lately been strained, this letter came at me with stealth force.

After I tossed the letter in the garbage, I thought about whether it was worth it to leave myself so open for criticism. And then I thought about Torry-Ann Hansen, who has been turned into a national symbol of monstrosity. I don't know exactly what Ms. Hansen was thinking or what desperation drove her. But I do know what it's like to have trouble bonding with an adopted child and that no one knows what it's like to be in that situation until you're in that situation.

In the end, I'm as committed as ever to sharing my inner world through the written word. And if I have to duck a few punches, I will.

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