Photos by Lee Pellegrini
Entering her late 20s, Caitríona Palmer seemed to be doing just fine. A Fulbright Scholar who’d recently earned a master’s degree from Boston College (1997), Palmer – her interest in human rights inspired by her time at BC – had aided efforts to identify the dead of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, a grueling task that required both considerable professional skills and empathy. She later worked with an international tribunal seeking to prosecute a Bosnian Serb general for his role in Srebrenica.
But for all the challenge, opportunity, and success adulthood brought, Palmer carried inside her a pervasive anxiety that dated back to her sixth birthday, when Palmer learned from her mother that she had been adopted. This revelation sparked nettlesome questions for Palmer – about her birth mother and herself – that continued to haunt her. She finally resolved to seek out her birth mother, a quest that proved successful but brought along another set of complications.
Last year, Palmer published the book An Affair with My Mother which recounts the intense, difficult, and clandestine relationship she forges with “Sarah,” the name she gives her birth mother, who has kept secret the daughter she bore out of wedlock and gave up for adoption. Palmer agrees to maintain the secret, which further complicates their reconciliation. A storybook mother-and-child reunion proves elusive, and Palmer wrestles with decisions she makes, or avoids, about dealing with Sarah.
But An Affair with My Mother also provides a lens onto an Ireland that pushed women like Sarah to the margins, or worse. As ambivalent as Palmer is about some aspects of their relationship, she praises Sarah for her courage and strength in persevering through pain and loss to make a life for herself – and in revisiting the past.
While visiting campus during the spring semester to give a talk about her book, Palmer spoke with Sean Smith of University Communications.
It seems like such a leap of faith for an adoptive child to reach out to his or her birth parents, since there’s no predicting what the outcome will be.
At the time, keeping our “affair” secret was a temporary arrangement, or so it appeared, and one that seemed very reasonable. She had been married a long time, and had three children. I didn’t want to lose her again so quickly, and so I believed her. Her joy at us reuniting was so great, I couldn’t imagine she wouldn’t want to tell, so I thought it would just be a few months. I never expected a 15-year affair.
She finally told her oldest two children, who are adults, and it made things very complicated for them. So now, they have – unwittingly – become part of the story.
This was a much bigger journey than I had ever imagined at the beginning. So before I decided to write the book, I asked Sarah’s permission, which was crucial. She was very brave to take this on, and I couldn’t have done it without her. And just as importantly, I involved my adoptive parents, Liam and Mary, who raised me with such love and care. This was, in many ways, a joint labor of love.
What impact did your time at BC have on you, and the path you chose?
Boston College literally altered the course of my life. I can honestly say that.
I took a class on Balkan literature taught by [Professor of Slavic and Eastern Languages] Cynthia Simmons at around the time the war in Bosnia was ending. As a young student embarking on a degree in political science, I really wanted to get a grasp of the conflict, and Cynthia gave me a very nuanced understanding. I developed confidence and curiosity, along with other tools that would help me down the road.
BC’s social justice agenda made a big impression on me, and my decision to work in the area of human rights. BC defined for me the moral compass I’d carried from my Catholic upbringing.
The support I got from the BC community was incredible. Adele Dalsimer [co-founder of BC Irish Studies Program] was another important figure during my time here.
Fr. Neenan [Vice President and Special Assistant to the President William B. Neenan, S.J.] took an interest in me and my work, and when I indicated that I wanted to explore what was going on in Bosnia, he basically crowd-sourced my move there.
It was the beginning of an odyssey, a life-changing journey. The bones of this book began in Bosnia, and I’m grateful to BC, because everyone helped me get there.
You talk about how your work in Bosnia served to crystallize a lot of the feelings you had built up over the years. How so?
I joined the non-profit Physicians for Human Rights, which was involved in the effort to identify the victims of Srebrenica. Most of the work was centered in Tuzla, since that’s where a lot of families had fled.
I was a jack-of-all-trades, basically. I was helping with PHR’s communications, getting the word out, serving as a liaison with journalists. But mostly I was interacting with the families who were trying to find out what happened to their loved ones. Since there was no scientific DNA analysis to use, we’d have family members describe the missing person in as much detail as possible – clothing, facial features, teeth, old injuries, anything that might be a clue – and then match these with the post-mortems.
So my days and nights were filled with the world of the missing, and it was a terrifying place to be. And things I’d thought about before slowly worked their way up. Part of knowing that I was adopted was a sense of inner dislocation, of feeling incomplete – an emotional itch I couldn’t scratch – and this had influenced a lot of my behavior and self-image. In Bosnia, I was surrounded by those who had been left behind, and although obviously my situation was in no way comparable to theirs, I experienced a fresh awareness of being left behind myself.
'I just feel fortunate that life’s journey allowed me to tell this story – and I really feel that so much of it began here at BC.' – Catriona Palmer
It was a series of revelations over a period of time that inspired you to search for Sarah?
Yes, although I can point to one moment in particular. There was an abandoned hospital in Bosnian Serb territory where we thought there would be medical records we could use. One day, we broke in and started looking around the building. And as I was holding onto these medical files, I just found myself thinking “What am I doing helping to look for information about dead strangers when it’s obvious I need to look for my own?”
I didn’t talk to many people about this, except my immediate family. It was very important for me to tell Liam and Mary – it would’ve been easy to go about it furtively behind their backs. My siblings expressed caution. So I had a lot of conflicting emotions about starting the process. I felt it wasn’t my right as an adoptee; it felt like a betrayal of my parents.
I thought about the worst-case scenarios, that my birth mother was dead or that she was unwilling to meet. I didn’t expect that she had kept me a secret.
At a certain point, you expanded the scope of the book to take a wider look at how unwed mothers like Sarah were treated in Ireland.
It’s important to set the context. When Sarah came into my life, it was the “Celtic Tiger” era, a very exciting time in which Ireland no longer seemed to be under the yoke of the past. And then the stories started to surface about the way Irish society, and the Catholic Church in particular, had dealt with women who didn’t meet the exacting moral standards: the Magdalene laundries, the sub-standard “homes” for unwed mothers, the neglect of mothers and children alike. [Associate Professor of English] James Smith here at BC has been out in front of those raising the issue.
This was the kind of reality Sarah faced in being pregnant out of wedlock, and I began to understand there were other women like her. I began to look at my story as a journalist would, so I did more research – and the more I learned, the more appalled I was that this chapter of Irish history had been unexplored. I didn’t want to go there, but I felt there was value in telling this story – maybe I could help others in my or Sarah’s shoes.
Obviously, there are still loose ends: Sarah’s secret essentially remains intact, and there could yet be more changes in your relationship with her. Did this make it difficult to finish the book?
As the first adoptee of my generation to write a memoir like this, I’ve uncovered a part of Irish history that needed to be put in the light of day. The most unexpected part of it all is the hundreds of e-mails I’ve received from people like me, and like Sarah.
So that, for me, is the ending of my story. But Sarah’s courage has impacted the lives of others. “Your book saved my life,” said one woman who’d been suffering for years. I know An Affair with My Mother made people uncomfortable, but truth-telling does that. I just feel fortunate that life’s journey allowed me to tell this story – and I really feel that so much of it began here at BC.