What happens after a single woman has adopted two girls from Ethiopia and things don't go as planned?
Joyce Maynard, a prolific writer, often of raw truths about her life, is perhaps best known for her affair with J.D. Salinger. When they met, he was 53 and she was a freshman at Yale.
Salinger contacted her after Maynard, at age 18, appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine wearing jeans and red sneakers. Long straight hair and bangs, large eyes and lanky arms added to her waif-like appearance.
Maynard called her cover story "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life." Some 25 years later, she published her memoir, At Home in the World, which explores the Salinger relationship in riveting detail.
She now has another dramatic story to tell.
Two nights ago, I headed downtown to the National Geographic Society in D.C. to hear Joyce Maynard speak about adventure travel. The evening began small with discussions of Guatemala, Mexico and China. Toward the end, in response to a question, she referred to Salinger as a bitter man who had written hundreds of letters to teenage girls.
In between, the audience became spellbound as Maynard spoke about her ultimate adventure journey three years ago at the age of 56: to Africa where she adopted two Ethiopian girls, ages 6 and 11, whose mother had died from an AIDS-related illness. In addition to brothers, the girls had a father, who was unable to care for them.
Before traveling with them to her home in California, Maynard wanted her new daughters to experience their homeland; moreover, she herself wanted to learn more about the country that had produced her girls. She planned to write about their travels.
So Maynard set out on a road trip with the two girls, a driver, a photographer and a translator to explore the depths of Ethiopia. After hours of riding in a car that the photographer declared the scariest he had ever been in, he said he wanted out. Since the girls spoke almost no English, Maynard says she just held them very tight. She never did publish that article.
In time, Maynard was distraught to learn that on the Ethiopia trip, her new daughters had heard the translator say in their native tongue that Maynard was going to sell the girls after they arrived in the States.
Maynard wrote an article about the adoption for More Magazine, saying how "happy, happy, happy" she felt and reported to her fans things like the joy of "bringing them to the ocean for the first time and watching them chase waves."
Then, eight months after the adoption, Maynard went uncharacteristically silent. Last month she wrote a letter to her followers explaining her long absence. In that email, she acknowledged that "there was no shortage of love or care—and despite some very happy and good times—the adoption failed."
Maynard further said that she explained to the girls, "I made a promise, when I went to Ethiopia to bring them home, that I would make sure they had a good life in America. I still took my promise as a firm commitment. But part of honoring it meant finding them two parents—a family with other children, and a big, wide net of a support system that I could not give them, myself."
When Maynard's failed adoption was reported in the New York Times, readers weighed in, some criticizing international adoption, many judging Maynard harshly for having given up her adopted daughters.
Without knowing to what extent she had thought out the adoption ahead of time, is it fair to judge her? Did she anticipate this possible conclusion and decide the upside was worth the risk? (Brangelina make it look so easy.)
As with many things in life (marriage/divorce for example) it is hard to know when to cut your losses. I don't mean to be glib about this, but it was apparently clear that she had made a horrible mistake, in which case I salute Maynard for recognizing that.
In 1986, before China was set up for adoptions, I adopted a six-day old infant there. I was not a selfless adopter; I wanted a healthy baby. There is an element of luck that she has turned out to be a profoundly fabulous adult.
On the National Geographic stage two nights ago, Maynard acknowledged her lack of foresight with adjectives like "naive" and "arrogant." With honesty and courage, she filled in some, but not all, of the blanks with harsh details about the Ethiopian road trip and the decision to find another home for her daughters.
Maynard did not talk about what went wrong during the 14 months the girls lived with her. Maybe many years from now she will write that story.
Meanwhile, yes, we may judge her for making a terrible decision to adopt those girls, but once the adoption had occurred, should she have asked those girls to spend more time in a situation she knew was wrong?
I believe Maynard did a brave and responsible thing, cutting everyone's losses and finding what hopefully is a good and happy home for those kids. If the girls' lives turn out well, then Maynard will have had a hand in that positive outcome.
Once Maynard realized she was unable to provide the best life for the girls, what do you think she should have done?
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