A review of Secret Storms by Julie Mannix von Zerneck and Kathy Hatfield

Reviewed by Sue Bond

Secret Storms
by Julie Mannix von Zerneck and Kathy Hatfield
Blue Blazer, 2013, ISBN: 0985735805

This joint memoir is testament to the pain and heartache experienced by women who relinquish their babies at birth, regardless of how their lives unfold afterwards. Julie Mannix von Zerneck was born to a highly original couple, her father being a fire-eater and sword swallower, and her mother a radio actress. Their home was often filled with carnival people in the early days, and exotic animals. Her parents travelled widely and wrote books about their experiences, which was both fascinating and alienating for their children left behind.

But she begins the book with a disturbing chapter set in the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, where she has been placed because her parents view her as suicidal after she took three sleeping pills. She is also pregnant, and her mother wants her to have an abortion, but this is not Julie’s choice. The chapters describing her time in the ward, which is the entirety of her pregnancy, include graphic descriptions of her fellow patients, “Mafia Whore”, “The DuPont Executive’s Wife”, the “Zombies”, and Theresa. Although at first they seem terrifying and mysterious to her, she soon comes to regard them with affection; “Mafia Whore”, a loud and intimidating woman with a startlingly foul vocabulary, becomes protective of the mother-to-be.

Julie Mannix von Zerneck writes well, interspersing traumatic memories with joyful ones, like the following of childhood friendship:

Later, we would go for late night swims in the muddy pond, tripping down the hill from our tent, naked as jaybirds, and cannonballing in. We would emerge shivering and shaking with the hairs on our legs and arms standing straight up like sharp pins and then we rolled ourselves dry in the pasture grass and huddled together into a single figure, our breathing yielding and kind, our hearts beating like soft drums in the still of the night. (59)

She alternates descriptions of her childhood days, which included boarding school and a menagerie at their home called Sunny Hill Farm and a desire to become an actress when she grew up, with the progression of her pregnancy while in the asylum. As the years go by after the birth of her child, the times intersect, and the reader meets the man who is the father of her child.

Part Two of the book introduces Kathy Hatfield, who is von Zerneck’s first child, the daughter relinquished for adoption. The book is structured so that mother and daughter alternate their stories until the final section, Part Thirteen, when the two meet. I am not providing a spoiler to the story by revealing this, as it is obvious from the cover of the book that this is what happens. It works well to have each of them giving their life story, and is an effective way to present a complex narrative.

Hatfield’s story is also moving and written with style and energy. Her adoptive parents are caring and loving, but her mother dies when Hatfield is only six. Unfortunately, her father remarries a woman with mental health problems, and their life together as a family is unpredictable and sometimes violent.

She reveals that her adoptive father believed his wife had told her that she and her brothers had been adopted, so when it inadvertently slips out during a fight with her stepsister, Hatfield is deeply shocked. The author is numb:

My brothers, they’re not really my brothers; my cousins are not my cousins; my aunts are not my aunts; my grandparents are not my grandparents. Then it hit me: my mother, the mother I had loved, mourned, and longed for—she was not my real mother, she was never my mother. (196, italics in original)

Hatfield and her brothers deal with this new knowledge in their own ways. She decides eventually that she will send the idea of this other mother “out to a faraway island called ‘Not Now’” until she works out what she wants to do (222).

The birth of her first child makes her realise that “She was the first blood relative I had ever known and the only glimpse I’d ever have of my birth family” (257). But it isn’t until a reminder about the medical implications of not knowing your genetic origins that Hatfield decides it’s time to start looking for some information. Interestingly, as happens with some adoptees when they start searching for birth relatives, she feels guilty, as if she is betraying her adoptive father, and has to tell herself that she doesn’t “want to find her … I just want information” (259, italics in original).

Hatfield’s writing is generally more functional and less poetic than von Zerneck’s, and sometimes contains a surprising amount of clichés for an English teacher (“fire in her belly”, “cut from the same cloth”, “icing on a cake” (321)), but the two styles still work together to produce a memoir of sensitivity, humour, and interest. The lives of von Zerneck and her family are successful and privileged, immersed as they are in the world of film-making; but despite this, von Zerneck makes it clear that there is a sad and painful hole in her being where he first daughter should be, and that it has been present since the first and last time she saw her.

Every story of adoption and reunion is different, and these two women have provided a book for both the general reader and those who are involved with the adoption triad (adoptive parents, birth parents, adoptees). It gives some insight into the issues that are involved with relinquishing and being relinquished, and most importantly, what a birth mother will go through when she does not want to give up her child. The ambivalence of Hatfield about her birth mother, the guilt at searching, the feelings of hurt and rejection, are all examples of what adoptees might experience.

William L Gage’s Reader’s Guide to Adoption-Related Literature, an extensive, wide-ranging, and valuable bibliography, lists hundreds of memoirs and other works by all members of the adoption triad (though birth father accounts are still uncommon). There is a growing number of autobiographies and memoirs written by adopted people—such as Robert Dessaix’s A Mother’s Disgrace, Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, and Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay—and a lesser number by birth mothers, like the works of Evelyn Robinson, Pauline Collins’ Letter to Louise, and Looking for Lisa by Libby Harkness, a compilation of several birth mothers’ stories. I could not find any combined birth mother–adopted daughter/son memoirs scrolling through the birth parent category, so von Zerneck and Hatfield may have written, if not the first, then one of very few in this category.

Of course, not every search and reunion is going to work out like this one. Some people will never find their birth parents or their adopted children, or find them too late, or discover hostility and further rejection. Human relationships are complex and varied, and this memoir gives a voice to the particular stories of both the birth mother and the adopted daughter.

Sue Bond is a Brisbane-based writer currently undertaking a PhD in the field of adoption memoir.

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