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The Unabandoned Self in Megan Culhane Galbraith's Memory Book

By Alina Stefanescu

Ohio State University Press, May 21, 2021.


It is incomprehensible that my parents defected and left me behind in Ceausescu's Romania: a 1-year-old baby, weaned for their flight, crawling through a suitcase. What does it mean to entrust one's childhood to adults who left without assurance of seeing you again? When I finally arrived in the US, I didn't recognize my parents or the year-old sister born in the interim. I did not know who I was in their new language. Nor did I think about this until giving birth to children and grappling with their need for a mother, which is to say, that impossible figure whose job it is to hold the world entire for infants. Only in becoming a mother could I permit myself to mourn what the parents had done to the daughter who hid inside me.

Megan Galbraith's memoir, The Guild of the Infant Savior, whispered to the infant whose abandonment I avoid. "Part memoir, part social history, and part bedtime story" (ix), as Galbraith describes it, the book blends intersecting forms into a story that interrogates memory, or our ability to tell true stories about the past. The author's adoption lies at the heart of this imagistic "memory book."

The search for selfhood begins with a journey to recover her origins. For some, origins include ancient ancestors, but for the adoptee, origins are closer: the grandparents you've never met, the cousins, the invisible family portraits; these are part of the adoptee's unspoken life. In Galbraith's case, these origins include being born to a teenage resident of the Guild of the Infant Saviour, a Catholic charity hospital for unwed mothers. Memory's disordered motion is replicated at the formal level in the non-chronological, nonlinear ordering of events and memories, as they become shifts between images, collages, prose poems, memories, and conversations.

"I went in search of myself" (51), Galbraith explains of the quest for the woman who birthed her. But we need more from a mother than her name: we need her presence and her resonance in ourselves. Thus, a book about being adopted is also about mothering, or what society expects from mother-bodies. In the long, hybrid essay titled "Hold Me Like a Baby," Galbraith outlines the public articulation of mother-duties through a detailed (and fascinating) history of the American mothering industry. Alternating between descriptions of archives, images of doll play, conversations with her mother, and the curricula from scientific parenting books, Galbraith upends the midsection with a single line, set apart: "The antonym for nurture is neglect" (90).

She also details the science of "Mothercraft," a word used to designate "the scientific art of childrearing" (84) in the era when domestic economics became an academic subject, worthy of study and expertise. Taught and developed by women for women, mothercraft courses blended science and home arts into a sort of techne administered by Ivy League experts. The emphasis on minimal touch and cuddling (wryly dubbed "coddling") was scientific, which is to say, backed by hypotheses, experiments, and evidence. According to science, the baby would learn to cry it out until they discovered a means of self-soothing. Enter Ferberizing (also known as "graduated extinction"), which Galbraith defines as an "infant sleep-training program that aims to deny access to the parents in order to get them to soothe themselves by ‘crying it out’” (84).

"As a new mother, I never even thought to question the savagery of this technique," Galbraith confesses (85). And why should we? Extinction is efficient: it trains us to compartmentalize, to prepare for the war against loss of time that mothers experience. Until reading Galbraith, I didn't realize how Ferberizing trains the parent to ignore the child's tears as much as it trains the child to stop expecting closeness or comfort. I didn't see how our infant training socializes us for anxiety.

When her therapist asks how she self-soothes, Galbraith answers: "I suppose I compartmentalize my feelings” (85). It is this close attention to her own shadow that creates tension in the narrative. Being held close and tight is the author's deepest desire as well as her biggest fear. Drawing on Ainsworth's attachment style psychology, Galbraith identifies as "anxiously attached," or one who craves closeness and intimacy but remains deeply insecure about abandonment. Since her divorce, she is surprised to find herself drawn to "married and/or emotionally unavailable men" (94); even sexual attraction tangles with the infant's fear of abandonment.

Galbraith's self-reflective honesty disarms as it illuminates. By rejecting easy binaries of guilt or innocence, the book lowers our defenses to meet us at the threshold of difficult questions. One of these questions is how we define comfort in a culture of alienated, nuclear families. The therapist, for example, explains Galbraith's fear of needing physical solace by saying that we are uncomfortable with needing the things we didn't receive. I wondered to what extent this fear of comfort-seeking is cultural, or boot-strapped to American monetization of care and nurture. We make markets to resolve our communal failings. Those who can afford it outsource tactile needs to therapists, nannies, masseuses, underpaid childcare workers. Or we find other physical means of gratification, like fitness tribes or religious youth groups, where touching is acceptable and normalized.

Outsourcing care to professionals complicates our relationship to nurture by inserting an intermediary, an interpreter with a price tag. (It also creates social inequalities for those who lack financial access to monetized care.) Galbraith alludes to the work of Rene Arped Spitz who studied orphanages in the 1940s, and who coined the term "anaclitic depression" to describe "partial emotional deprivation as a result of the loss of a loved object (in this case the mother)" (96). Spitz's research later joined with that of psychologist John Bowlby to shed light on the lives of children who experienced traumatic separation from their parents, leading to the DSM diagnosis of attachment disorder. Victor Groza did similar studies on Romanian adoptees and noted that being comforted helps kids learn how to to comfort others.[i]

Comfort is a multi-million-dollar industry in the U.S., and part of this may be due to a socialization that focuses on problem-solving rather than consolation. The dictionary defines comfort as "the easing or alleviation of a person's feelings of grief or distress," and our alleviations seem to outsource the care part. We internalize these market values whenever we "comfort" someone by putting the onus of action on them with suggestions, tips, and proactive products rather than offering a hug or acknowledging the overwhelming inhumanity of late-capitalist systems. Empowerment is most effective for the upper-middle classes.

How disappointing to learn that parenting science emerged from the act of "women observing women” (102). How generous that Galbraith (born Gabrielle Herman) refuses this clinical gaze for the empathic one, as when she distinguishes between abandoning a child and surrendering it:

Abandonment seems a harsh word. Having met my birth mother, I have no doubt she viewed giving me up as surrender. Surrendering a baby is, in itself, a form of surrender. I have no doubt she thought she was doing the right thing. (113)

How does it feel to "give up" one's child for adoption? And "how else to express the term mother who isn't one's biological mother without saying 'caregiver' or 'nurse'?" Galbraith wonders, without answering her own question.

In "The Blank Slate," Galbraith looks at socialization through the lens of her mother's impending death from pancreatic cancer. Physical illness exposes the division of labor in a family where mom had the unpleasant, exhausting role of "enforcer" while Dad's job was to "mow the lawn and soak up his girls' positive attention" (140). In the context of guilt and shame carried by mothers, Galbraith returns to the Guild of the Infant Saviour, where Catholic Charities and other social workers tried to reduce the pain of giving up a child for adoption by promising them salvation and moral purity:

But what translated in hindsight (what they were learning and living) was "the mother does not matter."

Unwed mothers could be washed by the act of relinquishing their babies: We were born so that they could be born again. (154)

Mothers are objectified to the point of erasure, but Galbraith sheds a compelling light on the double-sided objectification of orphans by including historical photos of dolls and advertisements which invoke childhood's presumed innocence while treating this innocence as pre-production blank slate waiting to be created or raised for the benefit of science. Galbraith's use of archival documents is often contrapuntal, as in the flash-collage "Other Names for Home" composed as a list of New York orphanages and foundling homes recovered from archives, where the content subverts the titular "home."

Galbraith lays out her fears fearlessly: the fear of never being truly seen and loved as herself is inseparable from the anxiety of distance from family origins. In some way, this is true of all humans. We are shifting, changing, leaving one's self for another, growing from the abandoned toward the next shape. The idea of finished perfection is internalized in her mother's desire to keep things idyllic, to create a seamless web of safety which implies stasis, but this idyllicism backfires, becoming a choir of expectations, something Galbraith demands of herself.

If motherhood is a form of labor (i.e., we pay others to care-give), and housework is a form of labor (i.e., we pay others for the deep clean), then these labors are significant and valorized by capitalism.[ii] In celebrating our freedom from traditional nurture-scripts, we give ourselves a seat at the man's table. I appreciate how Galbraith ends in the paradoxical nature of memory, how trauma affects recollection, how memory, itself, is destabilized by neurology. The effort to alter memories into an acceptable story, which she compares to scar tissue "over a wound" (286), is difficult, and the formal fragments speak to this.

As I read this book, I thought of Kate Zambreno's To Write As if Already Dead, which asks which stories writers have the right to tell. Are we allowed to narrate a story of origins that doesn't want to be visible? What do we owe our families and friends? What do we owe to our most unspeakable, invisible selves? To the extent that our own experiences intersect with those of family, the primary locus of early socialization, it's difficult to draw boundaries that "protect" privacy. Galbraith's reckoning with her origins and family is not an indictment of other humans. If anything, it serves as a creative and critical survey of how adoption and social systems fail both parents and children. The hard part is what remains open, namely, how we cope with the trauma of family life in a relentless, late-capitalist world. One must wonder what it means to pay therapists to spare us from crying it out alone as adults.


[i] Ceausescu's criminalization of abortion and birth control filled Romanian orphanages with children, but this conversation might intrude on American myths of themselves as saviors that I prefer not to tarnish or touch.

[ii] Pandemic has turned mothering into a scorched-earth nightmare for many families, and it's hard to keep reviews from speaking to this, from noting the price on unsalaried, gig-working mother-bodies right now. Since sexism is systemic, we can't change the system by tweaking the stage, or by changing traditional females into tougher, more appealing to men, less threatening to traditionalists. Meaningful change requires us to deconstruct the valorization of power and competition that lies at its base.


Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020). Her poetry collection, dor, won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize and is forthcoming in July 2021. Alina's writing can be found in diverse journals, including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, FLOCK, Southern Humanities Review, Crab Creek Review, Virga, and others. She serves as Poetry Editor for Pidgeonholes, Poetry Editor for Random Sample Review, Poetry Reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Co-Director of PEN America's Birmingham Chapter. She was nominated for 5 Pushcart Prizes by various journals in 2019. A finalist for the 2019 Kurt Brown AWP Prize, Alina won the 2019 River Heron Poetry Prize. She still can't believe (or deserve) any of this. More online at


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