In her new album, the folk singer Mary Gauthier explores her search for her biological mother.
Country artist Mary Gauthier talks and sings about her search for her birth mother
What's in a name, and what's at the root of humanity's near-universal obsession with family trees, genealogies and genetic sequences - with our origins, in other words? Why, as the American country singer Mary Gauthier tells me, is it "a fundamental human right to know where you come from"? And what does it mean when you are denied that right?
Across its 13 spectral songs, Gauthier's album The Foundling tells her story of adoption and attempted reunion with the birth mother who gave her up to St Vincent's Women's and Children's Asylum in New Orleans in 1962.
It is a tightly crafted, searingly honest and intensely moving account of a troubled human coming to terms with the trauma of birth, abandonment, the search for identity and a reunion with her biological origins. I, too, am an adoptee of the same generation, born in a Catholic children's home near Birmingham England. There's tons of therapeutic literature on adoption, but very little good art.
The Foundling's genesis came in 2007 when, while making her performing debut in New Orleans, Gauthier took a day out of her schedule to visit St Vincent's for the first time since her adoption. By this time, its status as an institution had declined. Instead of newborns, St Vincent's housed migrant workers of uncertain legal status. "A cheap bed and breakfast in a bit of a slum," she says of it. "But it survived the hurricane - it's a big, solid Catholic piece of rock. It isn't going anywhere."
Gauthier, however, was about to embark on one of the biggest journeys of her life. After decades of keeping her unknown origins at more than arm's length, when she passed through the heavy doors of St Vincent's it changed the way she looked at her adoption. "It made it real to me," she says. "Before, it could've been Cinderella or Peter Pan. But walking through that door was like, 'Whoa, this is my story'. My mother walked through this door, pregnant. And walked out of this door without me. Which made it seem like I had a mother. Like it wasn't real to me until then that there was another mother out there. And she suffered. I didn't connect with her suffering before."
Sense of identity for most people is like a force of gravity: inescapable, irreducible and packed with the dark matter of inheritance. But adoptees like Gauthier and I and hundreds of thousands of others lack that secure biological root. There's another pull of gravity from some dark star in eccentric orbit around our lives, and an adoptee who pursues reunion can find the identity they've lived with is blown wide open and stripped bare.
"The belief when your mother gives you away is that there's something deeply wrong," says Gauthier. "Mothers don't give babies away. There's something wrong with me, something unlovable, something seriously flawed in me. It's a fundamental thing, it's precognitive. You feel it rather than think it. How could you not?"
Like Gauthier, as an adoptee I knew that precognitive sense of abandonment - something I could feel but not name. What is it about you, you ask, that has "goodbye" etched into your birth plan?
Even today, Gauthier tells me, in most American states adoptees have no legal right to search for their origins. Gauthier had to break the law to get the information she needed to contact her birth mother. "They call 'em 'search angels' - other adoptees like you and I who go underground to help other people find their identity. It's a whole underground thing. It's like the runaway slaves, the Underground Railroad, it really is. People go to jail over this."
In Britain, the laws changed at the end of the 1970s to allow birth children to trace their parents. Like Gauthier, I had always known I was adopted - I am one of a family of four, all from the same children's home - but I made no attempt to search until my daughter was born. Why? Fatherhood and the intensity of a blood bond, the first I ever experienced, compelled me to cross that line.
Though my name is Tim Cumming I was born Brendan Quinn, to a 16-year-old girl of Irish descent. Via a north London counselling centre, I was sent my files from the children's home, Father Hudson's, in Coleshill near Birmingham. Like Gauthier, I'd visited once. It felt strange, like an abandoned film set. The huge school buildings were empty and derelict, with ancient-looking, sun-bleached children's art in the windows.
I would go on to meet my birth parents and to reconnect with my blood family. It has been an extraordinary, life-changing experience that allows me to feel connected, at last, to a biological root.
Many others are not so lucky. For Gauthier, the journey towards reunion, recorded unflinchingly in The Foundling, began promisingly; after a three-day search an undercover detective had unearthed her birth mother's name, address and phone number. At first she was too frightened to make that call. Then she dialled. The song March 11, 1962 chronicles in spare and devastating lines what happened next.
"I said, 'this is Mary'," recalls Gauthier and you hear the song in her speaking voice. "She said, 'Mary who?' I said, 'I can't believe it'. The private detective did tell her my name. I said, 'March 11, 1962'. It was like, bang. If you don't know my name you certainly know the date. But she really didn't know the date. She didn't even know she was in New Orleans to have the baby. I mean, to have me. She didn't know where she was. She was a completely traumatised person. She didn't remember really important things. I think she just wanted it to go away. And it's never going to go away. So the conversation was pretty much the way I wrote it. I didn't add a lot of drama to it. The music does."
That song, and the likes of Blood Is Blood, Mama Here, Mama Gone and the opening The Foundling, are centrepieces of a record wracked with pathos and the weight of permanent loss. But out of that catharsis she has forged a steel beam of strength and self-knowledge.
"We talk about the struggles of adoption," she says, "but the blessings are numerous and one of those blessings is that I am able to reveal a lot... The job of the artist is to go to the places where most other people are embarrassed to go to. And show it. The artist reveals parts that other people would pay a lot of money to never show anybody. Ultimately, the odd thing that happened to me at birth has made me a much better artist. It may have made me an artist."
Since its release, Gauthier has toured The Foundling widely, performing it from beginning to end with the Canadian violinist Tania Elizabeth. Audience response is often polarised. In Europe, she says, she gets standing ovations, but in America, "audiences can hardly stand it. They vibrate, you can feel them - it's just too much."
The Foundling's not a cosy place to be - it doesn't come with pop's consolations - but it's a penetrating testament to the adoptee experience. That strength of knowledge suffuses the songs. "I personally had to come through to the other side, to the light, in order to bring people there," she says. "I couldn't leave them in the dark. That would be cruel. So that is the challenge - 'I'm going to take you to a dark place but we're gonna come out together, it's all going to be OK, just trust me, we're all on a little ride right now'. But I have to have actually got there myself. I can't fake it. It can't be faked. People know