Mother, you had me but I never had you
Secrets, Spies & Spotted Dogs
By Jane Eales
Middle Harbour Press, 292pp, $29.95
Jane Eales, who was born in London in April 1947, was 19 when she was told she was adopted. She was living in South Africa at the time and needed to produce her birth certificate in case of wishing to take up permanent residence. When she requested this document from her Jewish parents, who were then living in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), they insisted on paying her airfare to fly her home for the weekend. That’s when she was informed she was adopted.
As was so unfortunately common in that day and age, Jane was sworn to silence. In particular her adoptive mother told her: “You must promise us never to look for your mother and father. Reluctantly, Jane agreed. The only detail she was given about her biological mother was that she was English.
After this bombshell, Jane’s sense of reality became increasingly tenuous and for years she fought to keep a sense of rejection at bay. What she hated most was not being able to be open with other people, especially her friends.
At the same time, she couldn’t imagine any circumstance or reason not to keep her promise to her adoptive parents. But she often wondered: why? Why the insistence on secrecy? It took almost 40 years before Jane Eales, nee Kleyn, began painstakingly to search for her biological mother.
She pressingly felt the need to understand why the person she refers to in this heart-wrenching book as “Mother” gave her up for adoption.
As with most memoirs of any worth, Eales’s book not only reveals harrowing details about her own life but of necessity involves the lives of other men and women that crucially connected with her own. Hence some names, including those of family members, have been changed to preserve their privacy. But from the point of view of readers, including this reviewer, it would have been helpful to know who was who .
‘Secrets, Spies & Spotted Dogs’ also explores why Eales’s biological mother, Phyllis, volunteered to spy for the Allies and how, for decades, she was obsessed with breeding dalmatians (hence the book’s arresting title).
Some of the illustrations in this well-produced book are extremely touching: a photograph of the author as a little girl whose birthday had never been celebrated by her adoptive parents; another of her large extended biological family. Eales eventually discovered that Phyllis had died on January 3, 1963 — a few years before she learned of her adoption. On learning this she felt cheated.
One of the most fascinating sections of this finely-crafted memoir concerns Phyllis’s career during World War II. In particular, Eales explores the possibility that Mother worked with both the British and the Dutch intelligence services, in London and in Arnhem, and that she was involved with code-breaking at Bletchley Park. I will not reveal Eales’s conclusions.
As Eales confides, her search for her biological mother provided unexpected bonuses, if not blessings. These included “an expanded perspective and awareness of the adoption process, and the changing face of contemporary adoption practices. She confronts the multifaceted issues faced by a great many adoptees. This is crucial because, in the not-so-distant past, a shockingly high percentage of men and women who were adopted committed suicide. For many, the scars of secrecy and subterfuge are too hard to bear.
It is fortunate that while researching and writing this deeply personal and constantly candid memoir, the author came to understand that “the solution is not to struggle individually, but to join forces with those who also share these experiences.
Hence, after thinking for decades that there was something seriously wrong with her, Eales realised her problems and difficulties as an adoptee were not something that she had to resolve on her own. In particular, she found it extremely helpful to use the services of the Post Adoption Resource Centre in Sydney, where she now lives.
Eales’s often riveting narrative ends with a heartfelt plea: “Thank you, Mother, for being the person you were! I feel I know you now, but please tell me who is my father? Will I ever really know?
Also featured in this deeply courageous memoir is an ambiguously equivocal acknowledgment of her adoptive family who, “despite everything, generously gave me a home and a family, and always had the very best of Ã‚Âintentions.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Weekend Australian, July 18- 19, 2015, review, Books p 22.