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The Mistress's Daughter, by A. M. Homes

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April 1, 2007


'The Mistress's Daughter' by A.M. Homes

An adopted writer learns the circumstances of her birth and explores her roots.

By Sven Birkerts


The Mistress's Daughter: A Memoir
A.M. Homes
Viking: 238 pp., $24.95

Reading A.M. Homes' memoir, "The Mistress's Daughter," I found myself haunted by various kindred tonalities — voicings of loss and wanting so familiar that they now feel like a central part of the American idiom. Two books that came to mind repeatedly were Paul Auster's "The Invention of Solitude," a young man's sifting of the meager evidence of an absent father, and Kathryn Harrison's "The Kiss," her almost procedural transcription of an incestuous involvement with the father who had left her when she was a child. (Joan Didion hovered somewhere nearby too.) All three of these memoirs could be said to share a numbed matter-of-factness of tone, which has as much to do with what gets said, and how, as with what doesn't. Omitted are all traces of sensuous delight, all intimate inwardness, nearly all humor.

The clipped-back style is, of course, a literary staple, harking back at least to Hemingway. But these memoirs feel different. Hemingway's aesthetic was based on the assumption that the felt but unstated emotion would nevertheless register with the reader; the stoicism was like a photographic negative. With Auster, Harrison and now Homes, however, the sense is that whatever is being written about has so injured and cauterized the writer that reportage is all that remains. The affect cannot override the reticence, because it is in some way paralyzed.

We see this right away in "The Mistress's Daughter." After the short preliminary setup, Homes launches the first scene, offering an exchange of dialogue as barren as some existential teleplay:

" 'Come into the living room. Sit down,' my mother says."

It is Christmas 1992. Homes, an adult and home only to visit, reports a deep tremor of fear. "Who died?" she wants to know.

" 'No one died. Everyone's fine.'

" 'Then what is it?'

"They are silent.

" 'Is it about me?'

" 'Yes, it's you. We've had a phone call. Someone is looking for you.' "

Though the situation is not yet clear, the tone is set, as are what might be called the terms of access.

The "someone" turns out to be Homes' birth mother, a woman named Ellen Ballman. The title of the memoir will suggest the basic situational premise. Seduced, abandoned, Ballman years ago gave her newborn baby up for adoption. Distressed ever since by what she did, she has finally engaged a lawyer to find her daughter, now grown.

Homes is upset, uncentered and fascinated, and when the first shock wears off, she is determined to pursue the connection. Soon after, two letters arrive in which Ballman gives an account of what happened: that as a young working girl she fell in love with her boss, a married man named Norman Hecht; that it became clear when she got pregnant that he would not make it right; that she had to do what she did. She ends the second of the letters by saying, "I have a great fear of being disappointed with what I am now doing."

Homes is compelled to call her. But what an unnerving contact to have with your birth mother. "Hers is the most frightening voice I've ever heard — low, nasal, gravelly, vaguely animal. I tell her who I am and she screams, 'Oh my God. This is the most wonderful day of my life.' ... In the background there is a flick, a sharp suck of air — smoking."

The first half of Homes' memoir narrates the deepening story, not just of that "relationship" — from their calls, to Ballman's arrival at one of her daughter's readings looking for all the world like a stalker, to her revelation that she is ill, and then to her quite sudden death — but also of Homes' tracking down of Hecht. The father is an elusive figure: He is hearty and easy at first — almost reassuring, in comparison with Ballman — but then he becomes unexpectedly suspicious and distant. He goes to great pains to set up a DNA test for himself and his daughter, but when his paternity is confirmed, he pulls away.

So much ambiguity, so many unstated feelings and suppositions, so many surprise points of resemblance and strangely echoing gestures. Homes' cool style lends itself to this presentation, allows her to hover between the emotional facts of the matter and the more existential, disconcerting truths she's after, as when she writes: "The lack of purity became clear to me — I am not my adopted mother's child, I am not Ellen's child. I am an amalgam. I will always be something glued together, something slightly broken. It is not something I might recover from but something I must accept, to live with — with compassion."

She urges compassion on herself, but in fact she is anxious and removed, her detachment serving as a measure of the emotional damage incurred. But though the wary tone serves the presentation of the book's first half, it undermines the second. For in those pages Homes is no longer much preoccupied with the individuals who were her biological parents. After Ballman's death and Hecht's withdrawal, the author pursues a solitary, extended genealogical quest. She immerses herself, and us, in the world of near-biblical "begats." Not surprisingly, the memoir starts to sag.

Intricacies of family background are always a tough sell. Rick Moody, for example, premised much of his memoir "The Black Veil" on his own upstream researches, trying to compensate for slow material with tour-de-force sentence-writing. Even so, he did not escape his critics unscathed. Writes Homes: "I find a scrap of information that seems to indicate there was a Barney Ackerman who died in Canada in the 1990s but I can't piece it together. When were Barney Ackerman and Clare Kahn Ballman married and divorced?" When, indeed? The only chance such material — and there is a good deal of it — has of being interesting is when we as readers have a deep investment in the implications, when we care about the people whose hereditary trail this is. We don't, alas — the distancing strategies of the first half of the memoir have ensured that.

Homes has included a number of family photographs, from all sides, with the text. Almost more than the genealogical reportage, these make explicit the divide between the spheres of interest — personal and public/literary. True, the memoir is a bridging genre, a movement from the former to the latter, and there are writers — I think of Nabokov in "Speak, Memory" — who have rendered intimate family lore into literature. But here the reader's imagination doesn't have enough context to work with. Except for the story of Homes and her four parents, the world is absent.

Sven Birkerts edits the literary journal AGNI at Boston University. He is the author of "Reading Life: Books for the Ages."

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 07/06/2007


A novelist confronts her own past

Christopher Tayler reviews The Mistress's Daughter by A. M. Homes


The American short-story writer and novelist A. M. Homes was once best known in this country for The End of Alice, a novel narrated by a paedophile and murderer which became the object of an ill-judged campaign by the NSPCC in 1997. Transgressive behaviour in suburbia is usually her beat, though a recent stint in Los Angeles, which resulted in This Book Will Change Your Life, provided useful material for her signature mode of writing - a combination of studiedly matter-of-fact prose, an unusually uncensored imagination, and an intense, nervy underlying voice.

Her new memoir tells the story of her unsettling relationship with her biological parents, who came crashing into her life in 1992. Homes, who was born in 1961, had always known that she was adopted, and not surprisingly had romantic fantasies about her birth parents while growing up as the adopted daughter of an artist and a guidance counsellor in Washington, DC. As a young child, she was told that she had come via the Jewish Social Services Agency, but later it turned out that the adoption had been a private affair, arranged through a local lawyer.

When in 1992 the same lawyer got in touch to say that her birth mother 'would be willing to hear from you', Homes, who was starting to make a name as a writer, reacted cautiously.

The lawyer's information was that 'the mother' had been a young, unmarried woman; the father had been older, married, with a family of his own. Homes exchanged letters and phone calls with Ellen, the mother, who lived near Washington. Soon she found herself wondering if she could cope with this needy, chain-smoking stranger, who saw nothing odd in suggesting: 'You should adopt me - and take care of me.'

At this point in the story, Norman, the father, gets in touch as well. He seems easier to deal with and Homes agrees to meet him. Norman is a rich and successful man but insists on meeting her in cheap hotels - for fear, he explains, of upsetting his wife and children.

Homes feels treated like a mistress rather than a daughter, and is also disturbed by Norman's way of denying his Jewish background: 'I'm not circumcised' is almost the first thing he says to her. Norman suggests a DNA test.

When the results show that she almost certainly is his daughter, he says: 'So what are my responsibilities?' They stop talking.

Then Ellen dies, and the memoir - which until now has been a starkly honest catalogue of Ellen's and Norman's erratic behaviour, and Homes's responses to it - becomes a retrospective quest for roots, unpacking and reimagining Ellen's seduction and abandonment in a telegraphic style seemingly modelled on James Ellroy's.

Homes develops a passion for genealogy and spends several chapters rooting through archives and emailing possible relatives found on the internet. She decides to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, a snooty lineage-based organisation, but when she contacts Norman for the DNA test results, he refers her to his lawyer.

Having taken a stylish vengeance on Norman, Homes rounds the book off with a tribute to her adoptive family. But the most effective parts of the memoir are deeply unsentimental. Her various meetings with Ellen and Norman are described in terms that make them sound like uncomfortable dreams: 'He tells me he's sorry but his wife will be late - there was a problem with the daughter, something vaguely medical and disturbing.'

She begins to suspect that Ellen was abused as a child, and in her imagined version of the past, Ellen becomes a rejected would-be daughter too.

Sometimes Homes's writing goes slack in its efforts to convey such complicated emotions. On the whole, though, she does an impressive job of confessing to feelings few people would acknowledge while giving almost nothing about herself away. By repeating them and turning them into motifs, she manages to give a few phrases and details - the cashmere sweaters that Ellen seems obsessed by, Norman's offer to his mistress 'to take her shopping and buy things for the baby' - the spooky force of something remembered from childhood.



In adoptee's memoir, an abundance of difficult twists

By DeWitt Henry  |  June 20, 2007

The Mistress’s Daughter, By A.M. Homes, Viking, 238 pp


A complex anger and a hunger for truth drive this memoir by critically acclaimed novelist A.M. Homes ("The End of Alice" and others). The anger is directed mainly at her status as an adoptee ("I will always be something glued together, something slightly broken") and at the irresponsibility of her biological father.

Adopted at birth, Homes at 31 hears from her adoptive mother that her birth mother wants to contact her. Warily, she allows the birth mother, Ellen, to write to her through a lawyer. She learns from Ellen that her biological father was named Norman; that Ellen worked for him in a clothes shop at age 15; that he promised to marry her when she was 17 and to get a divorce; that he had four children, a Jewish father, and an Irish mother; and that he was now prominent in Washington, D.C. Homes then phones Ellen and, from further conversations, infers that Ellen was abused as a girl: "I get the sense that something was happening at home involving the stepfather, and that the mother knew and blamed her for it -- which would also explain . . . why Ellen as a teen, was propelled into the arms of a much older, married man." When Ellen got pregnant, she and Norman got an apartment, but he returned to his wife.

Homes writes to Norman and, failing to hear back, stalks him. "I am a detective, a spy, a bastard. The house is large; there is a pool, a tennis court, and a lot of cars in the driveway." She publishes a novel that year, a local review appears, and suddenly he calls, causing her to wonder, "if I'd been flipping burgers . . . instead of writing books, would I have ever heard from him?" They meet in his lawyer's office. They take Polaroid pictures. She signs his copy of her novel. There is a creepy, sexual attraction. He also tells Homes that she is eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution. He proposes a blood test as proof of paternity. At the lab, she feels, "I am letting my flesh be punctured to prove that I am of him. It is beyond sexual."

Before he gets the DNA results, they meet in hotels. His wife is jealous. Homes protests: "Ellen thinks I'm her mother, Norman thinks I am Ellen, and I feel like Norman's wife thinks I am the mistress incarnate." The test proves positive, and she is further incensed by Norman's refusal to tell his children about her.

Homes finally agrees to meet with Ellen, only to feel defensive before a woman who resembles Dusty Springfield. She will never see her again.

Norman tells Homes that he and his family are moving to Florida. In response, she writes him saying that she resents being kept a secret. Her letter is opened by the wrong person and prompts a family crisis. From that point on, "We all drift -- estranged."

Three years pass, and Ellen dies. Homes attends the tacky funeral in Atlantic City, finds Ellen's house, and goes through her ragtag possessions, filling boxes to take home and struggling "to narrate the confusion, the profound loss of a piece of myself that I never knew, a piece that I pushed away because it was so frightening."

Afterward, she calls Norman, and he says that he had known Ellen was sick, that she wanted him to ask Homes to donate a kidney, but he had said no, and offered his own instead. Homes doesn't believe him. "I believe . . . he said no at first and then agreed to ask me and told Ellen that I'd turned her down. That would explain . . . why I didn't hear from her before she died."

She is further enraged at Norman, but from this point on, the memoir flounders. She sympathizes more with Ellen as she searches through the boxes, learning of debts, and a suspended sentence for falsifying documents for mortgages "worth tens of millions of dollars." Homes wonders: "Did she have a pathological need to make a deal?" Thinking of the Norman affair, Homes tries "to inhabit her [Ellen's] experience: She wants something else, something more -- more than she wants him -- but what she gets is sex, and then he's gone." Unfortunately, this doesn't deliver a deepened vision of Ellen.

Homes then recounts her genealogical search, through the Internet and through hired researchers, for Norman's and Ellen's parents and great - grandparents, believing that "every life lived is of interest," and "that if I consume information, I will be able to inhabit it , I will feel more complete -- not realizing that perhaps the exact opposite is just as possible ." The information she finds is inert.

As an extension of her genealogical adventure, she tries joining the Daughters of the American Revolution, only to learn that she needs proof of paternity, which Norman now refuses to share. She goes public, telling his story in an article for The New Yorker (the first section of this book), not meaning to expose him, she says, so much as to fight for "adoptees' rights to access and join their own heritage."

At the memoir's conclusion, Homes celebrates matriarchy in the person of Jewel Rosenberg, her adoptive mother's mother. "It was the death of my grandmother that compelled me to try to have a child of my own . . . I started at 39, and in the end it took two years, and thousands of dollars, the best of medical science, and two miscarriages before my daughter was born." Homes ends her agonizing search by becoming the mother of a biological daughter: "I thank all of my mothers and fathers, for she is my greatest gift."

Given this abrupt, redemptive clincher, I wish that we had more of Jewel and the adoptive family on the page; that Homes affirmed that spiritual bonds were stronger than blood; and that, overall, Homes's vision was more generous when it comes to "inhabiting" the experience of others.

DeWitt Henry is author of "The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts" and co-editor (with James Alan McPherson) of "Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men." He teaches at Emerson College.


'As though I were raised by wolves'


Last Updated: 12:01am BST 21/06/2007


Frances Wilson reviews The Mistress's Daughter by A M Homes


The writer A M Homes was adopted at birth and raised in a liberal Jewish household by artistic parents. When she was 31, her biological mother made contact with her and Homes began the journey she describes in The Mistress's Daughter.

"As I write," she says, "I think of narratives - family stories"; but the family narrative she grew up with was not her family narrative. All Homes knew of her own story was that she was illegitimate, that her mother was 20 when she was born, and that her father was a much older married man. She had pictured her mother as looking like Audrey Hepburn, but Ellen Ballman, as she is called, turns out to be more like Tennessee Williams's Blanche DuBois.

When they first speak on the phone, "hers is the most frightening voice I've ever heard - low, nasal, gravelly, vaguely animal. I tell her who I am and she screams, 'Oh my God. This is the most wonderful day of my life.' "

Before long Ellen is whining - "You take better care of your dog than you take of me" - and asking to be adopted by her newly discovered daughter. Ellen becomes a painful duty, flaky, demanding, self-pitying. Homes stops answering the phone. Disregarding her need for distance, Ellen begins to stalk Homes, tracing her phone number and address, and turning up at a public reading she is giving at a bookshop. This is the first time Homes has ever seen her biological mother, and the first words she speaks to her face are: "You're not behaving."

Before long the father, Norman, appears on the scene. "Well, what do you know?" he bellows on first meeting his daughter. He is a "swaggering big shot" who treats Homes like a mistress, meeting her in hotels rather than coffee bars, telling her to call him on his car phone and complaining that she wears no jewellery. "'Tell me about your people,'" he asks, "as though I were raised by wolves."

He says he will introduce Homes to his wife and her half-siblings, but first they must have DNA tests. Homes knows already that he is her father because "seeing your ass, my ass - I'm sure". After the tests Norman says that he would have taken her out for lunch had she "worn something better". She is not his fantasy of a daughter, he is not her fantasy of a father. But the test results confirm they are related, and despite asking what his responsibilities should now be, the invitation to meet her half-siblings is never repeated and Norman slips out of her life.

A few years later, Homes receives a phone call from her adoptive mother. "Hold on to your hat. Ellen is dead." Her mother tells her that her mother is dead; this conundrum dominates the book.

The first third of The Mistress's Daughter is gripping, salty, unnervingly good. The prose is tense and the emotions raw. In the second third, the current is less strong so it is at least possible to put it down for a moment. Here Homes describes her reluctant uncovering of Ellen's narrative, a story she pieces together from the numerous papers her mother leaves behind. Her life turns out to be a bleak tale of ducking and diving, small-scale crime and desperate measures; Ellen was a Bonnie looking for her Clyde.

The final third of the book is written out of rage and dominated by Stormin' Norman, who for reasons of his own denies Homes a copy of the DNA confirmation she needs in order to gain membership of a lineage organisation called the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Homes is now obsessed with her genealogical explorations, describing in rather too much detail her trips to various record offices and the false trails she follows, but being unable to join the DAR is not really why she is angry. While Norman's motives for refusing to issue the evidence of his paternity remain unknown, the impact on Homes of his petty cruelty is profound, and it is her desire to reveal him as an irresponsible, shallow coward which seems to have inspired her book.

The Mistress's Daughter ends with a tribute to her adored grandmother - the adoptive mother's mother - and the three-year-old daughter it took Homes many years to conceive. There is something, just something, of a Disney quality to these final pages which, while they tie in with the themes of genetic and emotional bonds, jar with the unflinching prose for which Homes has been rightly celebrated. But sentiment aside, this is a searing story packed with questions of identity, right down to the author's name whose punning uncertainty is unsettling from the start: am I home?



Meet the folks

Her mother was young and single, her father older and married, with a family of his own. That was all the information AM Homes had about her parents - until her birth mother made contact for the first time ...

Saturday May 19, 2007
The Guardian

Christmas 1992, I go home to Washington DC to visit my family. The night I arrive, just after dinner, my mother says, "Come into the living room. Sit down. We have something to tell you." Her tone makes me nervous. My parents are not formal people - no one sits in the living room.

"There's something we need to talk to you about."


"Come," she says, patting the cushion beside her.

"Who died?" I say.

"No one died. Everyone's fine."

"Is it about me?"

"Yes, it's you. We've had a phone call. Someone is looking for you."

After a lifetime spent in a virtual witness-protection programme, I've been exposed. I get up knowing one thing about myself: I am the mistress's daughter. My birth mother was young and unmarried, my father older and married, with a family of his own. When I was born, in December 1961, a lawyer called my adoptive parents and said, "Your package has arrived and it's wrapped in pink ribbons."

My mother starts to cry. "You don't have to do anything about it, you can just let it go," she says, trying to relieve me of the burden.

"Tell me again - what happened?"

"About two weeks ago we got a phone call. It was Stanley Frosh, the lawyer who took care of the adoption, calling to say that he'd gotten a call from a woman who told him that if you wanted to contact her, she'd be willing to hear from you ... Would you like to know her name?"

"No," I say.

"We debated about whether or not even to tell you," my father says.

"You debated? How could you not tell me? Why did Frosh call you? Why didn't he call me directly?" I was 31 years old, an adult, and still they were treating me like an infant who needed protection.

"Damn her," my mother says. "It's a lot of nerve."

For 31 years I have known that I came from somewhere else, started as someone else. There have been times when I have been relieved by the fact that I am not of my parents, that I am freed from their biology; and that is followed by a sensation of otherness, the pain of how alone I feel.

"Where does she live?"

"New Jersey."

In my dreams, my birth mother is a goddess, the queen of queens. Movie-star beautiful, incredibly competent, she can take care of anyone and anything. She has made a fabulous life for herself, except for one missing link - me.

When I was young and used to ask where I came from, my mother would tell me that I was from the Jewish Social Service Agency. I asked again. "Where did I come from?"

"We told everyone that we were looking for a baby and then one day we heard of a baby that was going to be born, and that was you."

In the morning my mother comes into my room with a scrap of paper; she sits at the edge of my bed and asks me again, "Do you want the name?"

I don't answer. Even if I want it, I can't say so - it feels like a betrayal. "You can just leave it on the desk," I say. Her name is Ellen. Ellen Ballman. It sounds like a fake name. Ball-man.

What is she like? What does she do? Is she smart? I call a private investigator, the friend of a friend. I give her what little information I have. "Give me a couple of hours," she says.

The PI calls me back. "The woman you're looking for doesn't have a phone listed in her name in New Jersey. And she doesn't have a local driver's licence, but she does own a home in the Washington area."

The PI gives me the address. It's nearby, very nearby. Did she really live that close? Has she lived there all along? Might I have seen her somewhere without knowing it - in a shopping mall, or a restaurant? I drive to the house and circle round it. It looks empty. I park and knock on a neighbour's door.

"Do you know what happened to the folks next door? Moved? Any idea where to?" Dead end.

I call Frosh, the lawyer. "A letter. I'd like a letter," I say. "I want information - where she grew up, how educated she is, what she does for a living, what the family medical history is, and what the circumstances of my adoption were."

Ten days later, her letter arrives with no fanfare. Her language is oddly formal, less than artful, grammatically flawed.

"... at the time I was carrying this little girl it was not proper for a girl to have a child out of wedlock. This was probably the most difficult decision of my entire life to make. I was 22 years old and very naive. I was raised very sheltered and very strict by my mother ... Yes, I have always loved this little girl and been tortured every December of my life from the day she was born that I did not have her with me."

She writes that watching television shows such as Oprah and Maury gave her the courage and the confidence to come forward. She closes her letter by saying, "I have never married, I have always felt guilty about giving this little girl away." I am that little girl.

A day later, in a panic, I call the lawyer back. "Oh," I say. "Oh, I forgot. Could you ask her who the father is?" Not my father, but the father.

"OK," he says. "OK. I'll put it on the list."

Within days, a second letter arrives.

"I suppose now, I should tell you about Norman Hecht. This is difficult for me because to me it is turning back the hands of time. I went to work for Norman at the Princess Shop in downtown Washington DC. I was 15 years old. Norman was much older than I. He was very nice to me. This relationship started very innocently. He would offer to drive me home and we would talk about many things on the way. Then one day while we were working he asked me if I would like to go to dinner with him. This was the beginning. At age 17, he called my mother and asked if he could marry me. My mother said, she is too young. Hung up the telephone, turned to me and said, I do not want you to see this man ever again.

"Norman is married at that time and promises to get a divorce and marry me. This was not my idea but his. Time goes on, I become pregnant ... Norman and I start to have disagreements. During the last three months of the pregnancy I stayed with my mother in Virginia where her home was ... I did not call him when the baby was born.

"Norman to the best of my knowledge lives in Potomac. He has four children. All of his children were born prior to the birth of our child."

Later, she will tell me that she called my father to let him know what she was doing and that he was shocked to hear from her, horrified at what she was doing, and told her that watching Oprah and Maury was beneath her.

I get a post office box. I call Frosh and ask him to pass my new mailing information to Ellen. I purposely do not give her my last name, or phone number. In the end I call her. Hers is the most frightening voice I've ever heard - low, nasal, gravelly, vaguely animal. I tell her who I am and she screams, "Oh my God. This is the most wonderful day of my life." Her voice, her emotion, comes in bursts, like punctuation - I can't tell if she is laughing or crying. The phone call is thrilling, flirty as a first date.

"Tell me about you - who are you?" she asks.

I tell her that I live in New York, I am a writer, I have a dog. No more or less.

She tells me about her mother dying of a stroke a couple of years earlier. She tells me about her own life falling apart, how she moved from Washington to Atlantic City. She tells me that it took all her strength and courage to come looking for me.

And then she says, "Have you heard from your father? It would be nice if the three of us could get together. We could all come to New York and have dinner." She wants everything all at once and it is too much for me. I am talking to the woman who has loomed in my mind for the entirety of my life, and I am terrified. I am not who I thought I was, and neither is she the queen of queens that I imagined.

From then on our conversations are frequent - I call her a couple of times a week. She reminds me of Tennessee Williams's Blanche DuBois, moving from person to person, desperate to get something, to find relief from unrelievable pain. Her lack of sophistication leaves me unsure whether she's of limited intelligence or simply shockingly naive.

She tells me more of her story. She and Norman got an apartment together. For four days, he lived with Ellen. Then he went back, claiming that "his children missed him". Ellen had him arrested under an old Maryland ordinance for desertion. At the time his wife was also pregnant, with a boy who was born three months before I was.

I call Ellen. There is the flick of a lighter, the suck of a cigarette. "I'm angry with you, can you tell?"


"Why won't you see me?" she whines. "You're torturing me. You take better care of your dog than you take of me."

Am I supposed to be taking care of her? Is that what she's come back for?

"You should adopt me - and take care of me," she says. Who is the parent and who is the child? I can't say I don't want a 50-year-old child.

The more Ellen and I talk, the happier I am that she gave me up. I can't imagine having grown up with her. I would not have survived.

"Have you heard from your father? I'm surprised he hasn't been in touch."

I write him a letter of my own, letting him know how surprised I was by Ellen's appearance, and suggesting that, while this is something neither he nor I asked for, we try to deal with things with some small measure of grace. I tell him a little bit about myself. I give him a way of contacting me.

A couple of months pass. I am in Washington DC and I have spent an hour circling my father's house, wondering why he hasn't answered my letter. I am a detective, a spy, a bastard. The house is large; there is a pool, a tennis court, and a lot of cars in the drive. There is a For Sale sign in the front yard. I imagine calling the agent and taking a tour, moving from room to room like a ghost, unseen, unknown, gathering information, looking in closets, cupboards.

There is a message on my answering machine at home in New York - the voice raspy, accented, coarse. "Your cover is blown. I know who you are and I know where you live." I dial her immediately. "Ellen, what are you doing?" "I found out who you are, AM Homes. I'm reading your books."

"How did you get my number?"

"I'm very clever. I called all the bookstores in Washington and asked them, 'Who is a writer from Washington whose first name is Amy?' One of the stores helped me and gave me your number."

She stalks me. I stop answering the phone. Every time it rings, or I call in for messages, I brace myself.

"Why won't you see me? Do I have to come up there and find you? Do I have to come up to Columbia University and hunt you down? Do I have to wait in line to get your autograph? I need to see you."

Do I wish she hadn't come back? Sometimes. Yes. But once it happened, I wouldn't have wanted to stop the flow of information. It is about fate, the life cycle of information.

May 1993. The day my novel is published. There is a message from my publisher letting me know that my book has been reviewed that morning in the Washington Post, a message from my mother saying that she's arranged for brownies and crudités to be served at my reading tomorrow in Washington, and a message from "the father". "It's Norman," he says, his voice wobbly, tentative, choking on itself. "I got your letter. Why don't you give me a call when you have a moment."

If the review hadn't appeared in the Post, would he have called? If I'd been flipping burgers in a McDonald's, would I have ever heard from him?

"Well, what do you know?" he says, when I return the call. He's a swaggering big shot, but there's something to him, some half-a-heart that I instantly appreciate. "Have you spoken to the Dragon Lady?" he asks, and I assume he is talking about Ellen.

"She's a little crazy."

He laughs. "That's the way she always was. That's why I had to do what I did."

Norman, a former football hero, a combat veteran, for some reason feels compelled to give me a pep talk. Fifty years after the fact, he quotes what Coach once told him about staying in the game, about not being a quitter. No one has ever spoken to me this way before; there's something I like about it - it's comforting, inspiring.

The next day I read in Washington; the bookstore is crowded with neighbours, relatives, my fourth-grade teacher, old friends from junior high. When the reading is finished, a long line forms, people wanting books signed, aspiring writers with questions. In the soft distance I see a stranger, a woman, standing nervously, twisting an umbrella around and around in her hands. Instinctively, I know it is Ellen. I continue signing books. The line begins to thin. Just as the last person is leaving, she steps up.

"You're built just like your father," she says. Another shadow emerges. My mother and a friend of hers are coming toward me. I imagine the two mothers meeting, colliding. This is something that can't happen. It is entirely against the rules. No one person can have two mothers in the same room at the same time.

"There are people here whose privacy I have to protect," I say to Ellen. She turns and runs out of the store.

In the morning, I take a taxi downtown. I am going to meet the father.

It is as though I am in a remake, a dramatic re-enactment of a role originated by Ellen - the Visit to the Lawyer's Office - the scene in which the pregnant woman goes to the lawyer's office to find out what the big guy "might be able to do for her" .

I present myself to the receptionist. A man comes through the interior door. Is this the lawyer, my father, or just someone who works there?

"Are you Norman?"

"Yes," he says, surprised I don't already know. He shakes my hand nervously and leads me into a large conference room. We sit on opposite sides of a wide table. The father is a big, pink-faced man, in a fancy suit. His hair is white, thin, slicked back. We stare at each other across the table. "Fine thing," he keeps saying. He is smiling. He has dimples. He hands me a copy of my book to sign. I autograph it for him. I feel like a foreign diplomat exchanging official gifts.

"Tell me a little bit about you," I say.

"I'm not circumcised."

It is strange information to have about your father. We've just met and he's telling me about his dick. What he's really telling me, I guess, is that he has distanced himself from his Jewish half and he's obsessed with his penis. He goes on to tell tales of his great-grandmother, a 19th-century East Prussian princess, and other relatives, who were plantation owners in Maryland - slaveholders. He tells me I'm eligible for the Daughters of the American Revolution. "And the Dragon Lady isn't Jewish either. She likes to think she is, but she went to Catholic school." He tells me how beautiful Ellen was when she came to work in his store. When I mention the age difference - she was in her mid-teens, he was 32 - he gets defensive, saying, "She was a slut who knew more than her years - things a young girl shouldn't know."

Did he ever really think he might leave his wife?

He is sweating, stuffed into his good suit. "And what did you do for fun?" I ask, and he just looks at me. The answer is evident. Sex. The relationship was about sex, at least for him. I am the product of a sex life, not a relationship.

It is clear that Norman is still taken with Ellen. He asks me about her in great detail. He tells me he and his wife wanted to adopt me and Ellen wouldn't allow it. "Tell me about your people." He asks about "my people" as though I was raised by wolves. "My people," I tell him, "are lovely. You couldn't ask for better." I owe him nothing. My people are Jews, Marxists, socialists, homosexuals. There is nothing about me, about my life, that he would understand.

"I'd like to take you into my family, to introduce you to your brothers and sister. But before I can do that, my wife wants everything to be clear. She wants a test to prove that you are my child. Would you consider a blood test? You wouldn't have to pay for it." It's the "You wouldn't have to pay for it" that throws me. Is this what I get as my big reward, the reparation for the wrongs of the past - a DNA test?

In the middle of July 1993, I agree to it all the same. "How will you feel if the test comes back and I'm not your father?" he asks when we meet at the lab.

Over the next few months, we meet several more times. We meet at Holiday Inns, Marriotts, Comfort Inns. We meet in the lobby, awkwardly kiss hello, then move to the glass atrium, or inner courtyard, or cafe, looking up numbered doors, housekeeping carts making their rounds. There is something sleazy about it, meeting in the middle of the afternoon in these middle-of-the-road hotels. Does he think these are safe places where no one will see us?

He makes no mention of the blood test - the results can take eight to 12 weeks. He asks me if I've spoken with Ellen.

"Yes," I say. "Have you?"

He nods, yes.

"She wants to visit me," I tell him. "She sends letters with fantasies about going to the Central Park Zoo, for walks by the ocean, out to dinner. She has no idea of how strange this is for me. And she's unrelenting - she could take over my life."

He smiles. "She's a stubborn lady."

"She wants to know when the three of us can have dinner together."

He says nothing.

"Maybe you two should have dinner sometime?"

Norman blushes. "I don't think so." He shakes his head as if to say, You know what would happen. If he so much as saw her again, they would be back at it.

In September 1993, I get a message from Norman and we meet at the hotel, in the fern bar. "I have the results of the test." The waitress takes our order. He waits until his ginger ale arrives before he says anything. "The test says it's 99.9% likely I'm your father." There is a pause. "So what are my responsibilities?"

Norman doesn't mention his children, or how he is going to take me into his family. He sips his drink and stares at me. "Now that I'm your father, I think I have the right to ask - are you dating anyone?"

"No." I am unsure whether I am answering the question or refusing to answer.

In October I am in Washington again to give a reading and I talk to Norman on the phone. "Imagine that," he says. "You and my daughter in the same newspaper on the same day." I have no idea what he's talking about. "In the Gazette there are pictures of you and my daughter. Isn't that something?" He sounds oddly proud. "You and my daughter ..."

I am the ghost, the one who does not exist.

He changes the subject. He asks if I've spoken with Ellen.

"She's threatening to move to New York."

"Yep. She said something to me about it - she's been up there a lot lately."

Hair rises on the back of my neck - I am suddenly cold. Ellen has not mentioned that she's actually been in the city. The fact that she's been coming into town and not telling me is more frightening than if I knew. Has she been hanging around outside my building watching me? If Ellen moves to New York, I will leave. I cannot be in the same place as her.

Later, in the shopping centre, I pick up a local paper. I find the picture of myself - it is the publicity photo from the book. I scan the page. "Dress Like a Doll." The article is about a Barbie children's fashion show at McDonald's. There is a photograph of Norman's granddaughter dressed like a Barbie. I am staring at it trying to see what my sister, who doesn't even know she has a sister, looks like. There is an incredible sense of disappointment. She is in a McDonald's with her kid dressed up like a Barbie doll, and all I can think of is the short story I wrote, A Real Doll, about a boy dating a Barbie doll. I was being ironic; she is being serious. And to top it off - Norman thinks this picture of his daughter taking her kids to a fashion show at McDonald's is equal to an article on me giving a reading from my third book. His daughter went to finishing school, had a debutante coming-out ball, and now does "interiors". She has fat thighs, a belly, and paws for hands, but I'm sure she dresses right for lunch. It's depressing as hell.

In January 1994, just after the new year, Ellen calls and asks, "When will you see me?"

I say, "Saturday."

She is shocked. So am I. I'm not sure why I say Saturday; but in some way it feels inevitable.

"Let's meet at the Plaza," she says. "At the Oyster Bar." The Plaza is a part of the fantasy - four o'clock tea, a tourist attraction. She is wearing a fluffy white fur jacket, a printed silk blouse and slacks, her hair piled high on her head in a post-beehive bun. She looks like someone from another decade - a woman who believes in glamour, who listens to Burt Bacharach and Dinah Shore to cheer herself up.

"Is that you?" she asks, breathless. "I can't believe it." Her voice escalates beyond giddy and into a husky sort of mania. She takes my hand and kisses it. I feel suddenly defensive; under her gaze, I sense I am not measuring up. She is sitting there in her old rabbit jacket and I am across from her in my best clothes. She never graduated high school and I have multiple master's degrees.

She talks about Atlantic City. She says that she has left her job - I don't know if that means quit or was fired - and is going to open a beauty parlour with a couple of "wonderful operators". She talks, about anything, everything, without the awareness that the person sitting across from her is both her only child and a complete stranger.

"Will you ever forgive me?"

"For what?"

"Giving you away."

"I forgive you. You absolutely did the right thing," I say, never having meant it more. "Really."

I get up to leave. "Will I see you again?" she calls after me. I pretend I don't hear. I don't turn around. I walk out of the restaurant and cross to the other side of the hotel. A friend is waiting for me in the Oak Bar. Several minutes pass before I am able to say anything.

"Well, what was she like?"

"I have no idea." In retrospect, I think I was in shock. All I can say is, "Dusty Springfield."

After the millionth phone call, I ask Ellen to stop calling. I am happy to exchange letters with her, but no more calls. "What if I go to the doctor and he tells me I have 24 hours to live - should I call?" she asks. "Wait 25, then call," I say, half joking.

It is summer 1998. I am on Long Island in a small rented house. It is early evening. I am talking to my mother when her call-waiting beeps. She is gone a long time. "Hold on to your hat," she says, coming back on to the line. "Ellen is dead."

The woman who delivered the news was a friend of Ellen's. I call her for more information. She tells me that it was kidney disease. Ellen was in the hospital for dialysis, but apparently she checked herself out against medical advice, went home, and was found "moribund" on her sofa. How could Ellen be dead? It makes no sense. The first thing I want to do is call her, ask what's going on, and have her say, "I had to do something to get your attention." I call my lawyer and ask him to let Norman know.

After the funeral, I buy a map and drive around Atlantic City, going to each of the addresses on her letters in chronological order. The house tour is a downward spiral ending in a prefabricated semi-detached town house at the tag end of the street by a landfill. Through the kitchen window I see there are still lights on inside. I see groceries on the counter, big bottles of pills, Tootsie Rolls and Gasex tablets.

What is so sad is that this is a woman from whom I had to protect myself while she was alive - and now she is dead and I am doing chin-ups outside her kitchen window, scrambling for clues.

A week later, Ellen's lawyer and executor and supposed friend, who was curiously absent from her funeral, agrees to let me into the house. I rent a car, bring boxes, plastic bags, and two friends for support. The house has been ransacked - there are candles but no candlesticks, plates but no silverware, and the copper pots and pans I saw are gone.

I shoot photographs of everything, knowing this is it, the one time, the only time, the last time, and I have to try to capture what I can. In the front closet, I find a fur: a stole, with her initials sewn into the underside in pink script. I imagine it was among her prized possessions, that Norman gave it to her. It must have seemed glamorous then. Now it looks old, mangy. I leave it hanging. When I leave, I put four boxes of assorted paper into the rented car. I have no idea what I've taken, what it might add up to.

That night in New York, I clean my apartment. Frantically, hysterically, I go through everything, throwing things out - I have shower caps from every hotel I ever stayed in, soaps, shampoo. I have everything that she had. I throw it all away. I cannot be like Ellen - it can't all happen again the same way.

A couple of months later, I call Norman. It's the first time we've spoken since Ellen's death. He tells me that he knew she was sick. The doctor had told her she needed a kidney, and according to Norman, Ellen wanted him to ask me for one. He becomes adamant; she asked him and he said no. He told her that they couldn't ask me for any favours, on account of how neither of them had ever done anything for me. He tells me he offered his own kidney - that he called his doctor and asked about it.

I believe that when Ellen asked Norman, he said no at first and then agreed to ask me and told Ellen that I'd turned her down. That would explain a lot - why I didn't hear from her before she died.

I tell Norman that I've had enough, that I can't do this again, that I don't want one day to get a phone call summoning me to another church, where I'll stand in the back, unwelcome, and witness friends and family mourning the passing of a man I never really knew but was somehow a part of. "I understand," he says. "Call me. Call me in the car. My wife isn't in the car very often - we can talk."

"I'm not your mistress. I'm your daughter. And I'm not calling you in your car," I say.

"Fine thing," he replies.

It is seven years before I can open the boxes I took from Ellen's house. I am still wondering exactly what happened. "Moribund on the sofa" - what did that mean? Half-dead, already dead, well on the way to being dead? Was she in a coma? Did she kill herself? Sort of. She chose to check herself out of the hospital against medical advice and went home to die alone on her sofa. Was I expected to give her a kidney?

It is human nature to run from danger - but why did I have to be so human? I was so busy protecting myself from her that I didn't do a good enough job of recognising the trouble she was in.

Yom Kippur, autumn 1998. I am in Saratoga Springs, New York, at Yaddo, an artists' colony. It is just a few weeks after the funeral. I go to services hosted by the local temple. I am alone among strangers, and for me this is the memorial. There is a part of the Yom Kippur service called the Yizkor - during which they read the names of all those related to the congregation who have died that year. I add her name to that list. The names are read aloud. Her name is called out, it is heard - equal to the others, it is not alone. I see other people crying and feel that I have done something, I have given her one thing she wanted, to be recognised, noticed.

I think of Ellen and Norman before she became pregnant, I picture them in the spring driving along the Potomac river in a powder-blue Cadillac convertible, the radio playing, wind blowing through their hair, and thinking, This is it, this is the life.


The Mistress's Daughter, by AM Homes, is published by Granta at £12.99. T