Nancy Murray was 16 when she became pregnant and made the gut-wrenching decision that she wanted to give up her baby for adoption. She eventually reunited with her son Dylan and his adoptive parents, and she chronicled her experiences with adoption, abuse, and teenage motherhood in her memoir One Child for Another. Murray joined us to discuss how she decided to write the book, the pain of memory, and the role of writing in her life.
How did you come to the idea that you wanted to write about this part of your life? It is so personal, and I’m sure that made it so difficult to write about.
Dylan and his other mother and I have done the circuit of talking to adoption agencies, so we’ve told the story. And of course, among friends and family we’d told it again and again and again. But the story we told was always the Hallmark version, with the big happy ending. We didn’t really talk about what it was like to be the birth mother, we talked about the celebration of coming together. It was always sort of in my mind that I wanted to say, ‘You know, it wasn’t easy.’ It was scary and it was hard, and I wanted people to get that. There’s a lot of birth mothers out there that don’t have the big happy ending with their child that we had.
What was the process like of beginning to write the book?
I wrote it as part of my graduate thesis. Dylan and I have always talked writing about it or making a movie out of it because it’s so grand, there’s so many elements to it. But it was always very lighthearted. I went to [Dylan and his adoptive parents] after, when I actually had a body of work to say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this and what do you think about this being out in the world?’ We talked from there.
What was your family’s response to you writing about this time in your life?
I talked to them about it beforehand, but they didn’t read it until it was published. I was really worried about that, to be perfectly honest, because all my siblings are good people, but they all have chosen to frame their lives how they’ve chosen to frame their lives. It’s different for each one of us. For me to be going public with some of the things I had in there, I was concerned. [One of my brothers] had a very strong bond and connection with my mother. I was very worried that he would be hurt by the fact that I was exposing some of her weaknesses. But he wasn’t. He read it and the word he used was, 'perfect' because it captured the darkness that she was surrounded by and also showed her with some strengths and as a loving mother. I was happy about that. My sister who did not have a close relationship with my mother, she reacted differently, but she was still supportive. She said, ‘That is your story and you tell it.’
How long did it take you to write?
When I actually put pen to paper, I wrote it in about three months.
I had to cram it in, I was on a timeline. But I had been chewing on it and mulling it over for my whole life, to understand what it meant to me and to understand the idea that something terrible happened in my life and it turned into something so positive . . . I grew from that experience. I’d been thinking about it for a long time, so it wasn’t like I had to untangle it and understand its meaning before I started to write. I had already been doing that.
One thing that impressed me in the book was its level of detail. Was that still very present for you?
No. I actually had to go back to [St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home]. Once I walked around the grounds and the building, some memories flooded back . . . I did keep a diary, but unfortunately, the diary vanished. I’d been carrying this thing around for my entire adult life that I’d written while I was there and I’d read it once or twice, so I had some memories of what I said. But, when I actually sat down to put the pen to paper, I couldn’t find the diary anywhere. It was maddening. So I did have to pull from my remembering reading the diary. I asked some of my siblings what they remembered about that experience. It was a lot of piecing things together.
Was there anything particularly surprising to you about writing the book?
I hadn’t realized that I had blocked the day that I gave birth. I wrote that at the very, very last minute. I had to push through a wall of fire to get there because I didn’t want to face it, I didn’t want to go back and remember that. So I locked myself in my room and forced myself to do it, because I knew it had to be a part of the story. I learned as I was actually writing it and crying—it really brought up a lot of feelings—that that day was when my bravado of being a tough kid and a really savvy person all broke down. Because I was frightened, I was weak, I was out of control, I was a kid. And that was the moment that I had to accept it . . . I did remember going into shock, I did remember punching the nurse—those are things you don’t forget. [laughs] But I didn’t really remember what I felt. One of the fears about memoir is that it’s therapy for the writer and not interesting for the reader. For most of the book I knew I was writing something was interesting for the reader because I had already worked out all my therapy stuff, but this was the one moment where I was thinking, ‘Oh wow, this is some stuff I need to work on.’ I was really surprised at the level of emotions that came out of that. It was very hard for me.
Are you considering writing more memoirs or do you think you’ll venture into other types of writing?
I have so many projects floating around in this brain of mine right now. I’m working on another memoir about my relationship with money, which also has a lot of highs and lows and dramatic, relevant experiences. I also have a goal to do a historical fiction work based on the ancestry of my family. There’s an incredible thread of a story there, which I won’t tell you now, that I can’t wait to write.
Was writing always a part of your life?
Yes. There was a bit of a dual existence for me, as I had a lot of secrets, and the way that I sort of kept track of myself was through writing. I always had diaries, I always wrote poetry, I wasn’t always good. There’s a poem in the book that I wrote about Dylan a couple of days after I gave him away. But it’s not been something I’ve shared, because of the secrets in my family. I was sort of trained not to share what was inside of me—write it down, keep it for myself. There was a lot of work for me to get to the point where I could actually get the stories out.
When did that point occur?
I’ve been trying all my life to do it. I’d been starting and stopping, starting and stopping. That’s why I went to the writing and publishing program at the University of Baltimore—I wanted to force my hand, to force myself to get it out there. That was my motivation for going to school.
And it worked.
It worked in a lot of ways. It changed my thinking, it built my confidence and now I’ve got all these other projects that I feel much more comfortable putting out there. It’s been a great experience . . . [The book] was about more than having a baby. At least I attempted to make it be about the powerless in a difficult situation, letting the difficulties actually be what spurs them on to finding their power. I find my voice in the book and I find my motivation to change my situation. And it was this kind of terrible event that happened that gave me that. There’s gifts in all things.