Debra Monroe’s memoir tackles motherhood, race, and small-town Texas.
~In 1992, Debra Monroe PhD’90, a writer and English professor, landed in Wimberley, Texas, just as her second marriage was disintegrating. As a single, educated woman in a one-horse town (Wimberley then had a population of around 2,400), she was already a bit of an anomaly. Then she adopted infant Marie in 1997.
Monroe is white, and Marie is black. And in Wimberley, Texas, in 1997, that turned out to be a big deal.
Monroe’s memoir, On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain, chronicles her journey raising the only black child in Wimberley and her struggles with her own fears of motherhood and of truly loving someone. As Monroe’s health declines because of an undiagnosed illness that stumps physicians, she also juggles a demanding academic career at a nearby university and the ongoing remodel of her small Hill Country home, all while fielding questions from the locals such as “That’s your daughter?” But Monroe and Marie, now 14, build a life together, and throughout On the Outskirts of Normal, Monroe remains resolute: The fear of failure, the fear of sickness, the fear of coded social mores will hold no power here.
Monroe—born in North Dakota and raised in Wisconsin—now lives in Austin, and teaches at Texas State University. She is also the author of two collections of stories, The Source of Trouble and A Wild, Cold State, as well as two novels, Newfangled and Shambles. Here, she answers a few questions for Continuum.
Is there anything you would have handled differently about Marie’s adoption?
I guess I wouldn’t trade any of it, because the proof is in the outcome, and she’s such a great kid. Some of it was difficult, but embracing difficulty is part of life. The real test of our abilities is how we step up and extemporize. I mean that you can be well-prepared, but then a problem arises you couldn’t possibly have foreseen. I knew adopting a baby of another race would present challenges, and I remember feeling a little afraid. But everything worthwhile I’ve ever done—going off to college (which did in fact terrify me), earning a Ph.D., writing my first book, building a house—made me afraid. Being afraid meant I was taking the responsibility seriously.
It might have been helpful to live in a more diverse place, but my job wasn’t in a city, and academic jobs are so specialized that I couldn’t apply somewhere down the road. The town where I taught wasn’t especially diverse, either, and its school district was bad. I owned a home in the nearby village, and its school district was first-rate, if not diverse.
Obviously, having a second parent would have helped, too, but there wasn’t one. I did realize, after my daughter was a few years old, that one factor I’d underestimated was my lack of extended family. One day when my daughter was about 5, I was watching American Idol with her, and a contestant said that she was doing American Idol because she was a single mother and wanted to make a better life for her daughter. I kept thinking: How is she in Hollywood for 12 weeks then? I didn’t feel secure leaving my daughter even overnight. I was her sole safety net. Then one night the contestant thanked her mother and grandmother, with whom she lived. Being a single mother isn’t rare. But Marie’s grade-school principal once said to me: ‘You are the most single mother I’ve ever met.’ I would have given anything for an aunt or grandma.
Still, we figured it out. I got more resourceful. She grew up resourceful. She always felt loved, and yet she’s never been sheltered from responsibilities and decisions. So raising a child in a time-warp small town wasn’t ideal, no. But it meant that we confronted questions early—about race, about adoption, about what makes a family. I answered her questions as honestly as I could in age-appropriate language. It was a crash course I wouldn’t have enrolled her in if I’d had a choice. But she has more clarity and poise than many people twice her age. Her sense of who she is, and our sense of who we are together, were under a lot of scrutiny, and that made us more certain about our values and priorities.
You’ve said that this book is about motherhood, and not race. What do you mean by that?
Someone at a book signing once told me that she was sick of people talking about transracial adoption in the vein of ‘all you need is love.’ There’s truth in that. If you want to adopt transracially, you will also need tact, patience, and an almost ambassador-like ability to talk across a cultural divide.
But love matters, too. So it’s mostly a story about me wanting to be a mother and learning to trust the fear that arrives with love. My own mother was out of contact for 17 years, so I was strangely intimidated by the responsibility, worried I wouldn’t be a good enough mother. I’d also never cared about anyone this much before. That made me afraid. Learning that fear is the price of love—that’s the story.
Race didn’t matter to me, but I had a responsibility to teach Marie that it sometimes matters to other people, and to clue her in about the history of race in America, so it wouldn’t be a shock when she learned about it somewhere else. I had to do this in increments that were right for her age when she started asking questions. One of the first tough questions she asked was: What’s slavery? Followed really quickly by: Why did Martin Luther King die? She needed to learn about the scary parts at home, so I could see how she was handling the information, so I could make her feel safe. I didn’t sit her down and do this all at once. But if she asked a question, I gave her information I felt she could handle.
But if race mattered very little to me, it mattered to almost everyone else. We were constantly stopped by strangers who wanted to know how we came to be, if she was my biological child (this is a nosy question, considering its subtext), if she was a crack baby, if she was from Haiti, if she was academically slow, if she was good at sports. People either stopped to congratulate us on helping move the history of race relations forward, or they were wary and distrustful and awkward, or occasionally rude. No one was neutral. I had to respond to these comments in front of Marie, and my first concern was for her well-being. So everyone else’s interest in race is a constant subplot in the book. But it’s not the plot.
How has life changed for you and your family now that you live in a larger town?
Being urban doesn’t insulate you from racism. It just means most racism is coded, implicit. That’s challenging, because you have to address it in code.
I mean that in the country, a drunk old guy in a restaurant might say something straight out of the old South about her hair and then ask: ‘Does she eat watermelon?’ (I’m actually not making this up.) I moved her to another table and told him, ‘I’m teaching her not to talk to strangers.’ That was the right response for her age then. And the guy wasn’t worth my time.
But in the city, a clerk in a department store accused my daughter of loitering to shoplift when I was three feet away—because we don’t look like we belong together. Would the clerk have accused a white teenager of loitering to shoplift? I don’t think so. But it’s not tactically smart to say so. Still, I’m not letting the clerk off the hook. I said: ‘I’m her mother, and she’s waiting for me. But, to clarify, is there a policy against teenagers shopping alone?’
When writing this book, was there anything you were tempted to leave out?
All sorts of things didn’t make it into the book. Some got added at the last minute. My first four books are fiction, and the trick to writing a memoir—as opposed to fiction—is that you find the plot instead of invent it. You sift through life to find the story shape. Events in life are often foreshadowed, but the foreshadowing gets obscured by random facts. Life has recurring motifs, but they get buried under random facts, too. Sometimes life serves up a central conflict, a crisis, and afterward, the chance to draw conclusions. Finding the plot is mostly a matter of leaving irrelevant things out. Sometimes it means emphasizing something that wishful thinking or self-protective evasion will make you hurry past. So a memoir is never the whole truth. But if it’s good, it’s honest. It’s the distilled truth.
—Jason Matthew Smith is editor of Continuum.
View a video trailer of On the Outskirts of Normal here.
How do you think raising Marie in a small town affected your parenting style? Would you have done anything different had you lived in Dallas or Houston?
In a city, people just don’t pay much attention to strangers. People have sensory overload in cities. In cities, you meet so many people in a day, you can’t zero in on one or two. We would have had more privacy. In Dallas or Houston, there’d be more black people, too. In Austin, where we live now, the black population is only 11 percent. But people in cities are less provincial. They’ve traveled more. They’re less likely to stare and blurt questions.
What have been some reactions to the book from other transracial families, or those wishing to adopt children of a different race?
Once in a while, someone will complain that it’s not a how-to book. I can’t answer that except to agree. It’s a memoir. It’s one mother’s experience—how being a mother in a specific time and place changed me.
At talks or readings, there are sometimes audience members who have come because they’ve adopted transracially—usually more recently than I did, because adoption laws changed so recently. A question I get a lot is: How do you handle your anger about people’s curiosity and questions? The good news is that you get about a year to deal with your anger and find a strategy. But, within a year or so, your child is old enough to process the conversation, or at least the emotion. You can’t live angry. Your child shouldn’t grow up thinking race makes you angry.
This is not to say that there aren’t real jerks in the world and that I won’t go to battle to make my daughter’s life better. But I pick my battles, and I realized early, especially given where I lived, that the awkward small talk was inescapable. Most (not all) is well-intentioned. People want to be friendly. People were surprised by us. They didn’t have prefabricated chitchat on tap.
Given the time and place, transracial adoption wasn’t a very private experience of motherhood. It was fairly public. It still can be, 14 years later in a city. Marie has her own answers now. But when she was little, I was modeling answers for her. She’s not everybody else’s chance to learn a civics lesson, though. So I answered people cordially, briefly. I tried to raise the level of conversation, then exit the conversation quickly.
The section of the book related to black hair care is fascinating, as most white parents (and whites in general) have no clue about this aspect of rearing children of color. As Marie has gotten older, have you run into any other cultural or racially specific areas that might have come as a surprise?
I always joke that the biggest argument against transracial adoption is hair care. The agency was very happy with the placement, so my case worker frequently suggested I adopt another child. I’d answer, half-kidding: ‘Okay, but a boy, because there aren’t enough days in the week to do two girls’ hair.’ As I say in the book, the history of black hair is a history of race in America. It’s not just cosmetology—it’s sociology and history, too.
As for cultural or racial specifics that have since come as a surprise—I guess I’d have to say racism, period. When I encounter it, it’s still startling. It’s never on my mind until someone puts it on my mind. A seventh-grader’s really foul version of it. Another parent’s assumption about what socioeconomic class Marie is from, and this parent’s relaxed sigh when I show up. Or a black person’s anger at me because I’m white. I once said to a friend, who is black: I’ve heard it all. He said: Oh no, you haven’t. You will never have.
This moment in time is not Jim Crow, but it’s not post-racial either. Overt racism is fairly rare. Unconscious assumptions about race aren’t, though. I guess I expected that Austin—where we’ve moved to since—would be past that. As a city with a liberal image, it might be. But individuals aren’t always.
What are you working on now?
I have been so busy with events related to this book—readings, visiting writer stints at other universities, speaking engagements. And I do have a teaching job. So I’ve been writing just book reviews and short pieces. I’m not sure about another book yet. It will be nonfiction, though. I like the way nonfiction insists that you try to find meaning. The best fiction does, too. But I’m more inclined to go after meaning without the disguise on now.