Most of us know Melissa Fay Greene from Praying for Sheetrock, her best-selling chronicle of race relations and corruption in McIntosh County, Ga.
But Greene has also devoted much of her adult life to raising a family, a family now comprising four biological children and five, count ‘em, five adopted children, four from Ethiopia and one from Bulgaria.
The Atlanta-based author recounts her touching and often hilarious experiences as an adoptive parent in her new book No Biking In the House Without a Helmet. She appears twice in Savannah this month, once at the Savannah Book Festival and in a lecture at Armstrong Atlantic State University. We spoke to Greene last week.
Your fans might be surprised at the amount of humor in this book.
Melissa Fay Greene: There have been touches of humor in all my books. But over the year's I've somehow chosen really serious subjects to write about. I haven't had much of a chance to write really funny stuff - but I like to! So it was incredibly liberating to have this subject about which I could include humor.
It almost seems like you deliberately picked challenging situations.
Melissa Fay Greene: The other way of asking that is, why not adopt domestically? It had to do with moment I first looked into it in some of my first ventures in cyberspace, I discovered these photo listings. It was possible with one click to find yourself inside an orphanage in Russia or Bulgaria or Romania. The photos are so powerful, these little faces of children without families that I found so compelling I couldn't turn away.
It was a few years later before the U.S. followed that path into posting photographs. When we began looking it was taboo in this country. Now a lot of foreign countries have made it taboo to post photos of children, fearing misuse of the photos in some way.
Now the balance has completely shifted. These days a small minority of adopted children come from abroad. 85 percent or higher of U.S. adoptions are of American children. Foreign countries are making it more and more difficult to adopt.
Four of your adoptive children are from Ethiopia. What about Ethiopian orphanages seemed a good match?
Melissa Fay Greene: The Ethiopian part of the story came a couple of years later when I began to research the AIDS orphan crisis and realized there were millions of absolutely gorgeous healthy who'd found themselves homeless because of a health catastrophe. But as I say in the book, it's incredibly important that people not turn to adoption for humanitarian reasons. That's not fair to the child.
There's only one reason to adopt, and that's because you want a child or another child in your family. Someone who wants to do good work could contribute in many ways, but a little human being shouldn't be anyone's idea of good work.
You must have gone through that stage yourself at some point.
Melissa Fay Greene: No, for me it was always really clear, although I felt it was just this side of insane! I always thought what it would be like to overhear somebody say, "Oh, you're such saints for agreeing to raise Melissa. No one wanted that child, you're heroes." It's an unfair burden to put on any child, to be someone's project.
Humor aside, you deal with a lot of deeply personal issues in the book.
Melissa Fay Green: The trickiest part was writing about post-adoption depression. I first wrote about it years ago when I realized there was nothing out there in the adoption world about it. And I've heard back from parents at least a couple of times a month ever since. It's like they're whispering in the emails - "thank you so much, thank you so much."
What is the impact on your children of divulging these intimate family stories?
Melissa Fay Greene: On one hand writing about the depression was worth doing, but on the other hand, how does that make the child feel? I found out last year when I picked up Jesse after ninth grade, he got in the car and the first thing he said was, "So, like, when you first adopted me you didn't love me?"
My heart dropped. I could hardly drive. I asked, "Why, what did you read?" He said, "In computer class I Googled myself and found this."
So I pulled over and said, here's the deal. You know how in love stories they start out with people not in love because if they start out in love it's not very interesting? That's what this is, it's a love story. It starts out with two people not love, but by the end of the story you're my son and I love you.
He said OK. I said, "we're good?" He said, "we're fine." cs
Melissa Fay Greene
When & Where: 9:30 a.m. Feb. 18, Trinity UMC
Cost: Free and open to the public
When & Where: Noon Feb. 17, Armstrong Atlantic State University Student Union
Cost: Free and open to the public