Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe
By Lori Jakiela
Atticus Books, 2015
293 pages, $14.95
Reviewed by Maggie Pahos
Lori Jakiela’s Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe could, at its simplest level, be called an “adoption memoir.” It opens with Jakiela sitting in the office of the Catholic Charities organization through which she was adopted as a baby. Her real mother, the mother who raised her, has just died and as Jakiela puts it, she is now searching for a “new one”—her biological one, a word that makes her think of “warfare, congressional panels, fear.” She searches under the pretext of trying to find her family’s medical records. Jakiela’s daughter has been born with the same birth defect she herself was born with. As it turns out, trying to locate her birth mother or garner information about her past is anything but a simple, straightforward pursuit.
“The Catholic Charities counselor has questions,” Jakiela says. “They’re my questions, too, though until now I thought I knew the answers. Here, under interrogation, everything is suspect. Every answer becomes another question. Who are you? Why are you here?”
And so begins a 293-page exploration about what it means to be a child, a parent, a spouse. About what it means to understand oneself with an identity that continually shape shifts, hides, and grows. Yes, BIIOKOTM is an adoption memoir—but it is so much more. It is a meditation on belonging—who do we belong to and who belongs to us? What is the price of trying to belong to someone who may not want you to? In what ways do the past and present collide to shape us? What beliefs are ours to keep?
One of the best aspects of this book is its masterful movement through time. The entire memoir is told in fairly short lyric passages that bring us from Jakiela’s present day life and search to her childhood to imagined scenes of her birth parents’ early lives and her father’s childhood. The reader is expected to hold these overlaying stories all at once. The total effect is like a just-right chord, a harmony that sustains itself to the end.
“It’s hard to know what you’re born with and what you take in as you go,” Jakiela says. Throughout the book, she constantly questions the complications of storytelling. What stories do we tell ourselves in order to understand our own lives? What is the “truth”? Does it even exist?
During the process of locating her birth mother, Jakiela’s biological sister finds Jakiela’s email address. The sister’s email address is “Blond4Eva.” She is a failure at grammar and spelling, uses strange fonts and bolds, which makes Jakiela consider her deep love for language that she thought was genetic. Jakiela says:
“I wonder if my story, the one my parents told me and the one I helped invent, has been wrong from the start. ‘You are probably as weary as I, to determine the truth so no one gets hurt,’ Blond4Eva writes. There are so many versions of the truth. All of them would hurt someone, I think.”
Jakiela’s writing is continually suprisingly because of how uniquely she pieces the world together, the precision and honesty with which she connects scenes and ideas. In this latest offering of hers, nothing’s changed. Her characters are spot on and her ear for dialogue impeccable. Among the cast of characters Jakiela paints is her real mother. “Young, dark-haired, a Kool menthol between her fingers, glamorous as any movie star. She could blow smoke through her nose. She could blow smoke rings, tiny life preservers lifting off from her pink-glossed lips. ‘My magic trick,’ she called it.”
As Jakiela’s vulnerable and sometimes painful attempt to find her biological family unfolds throughout the memoir, she simultaneously reveals the tenderness and challenges involved with raising the family she has made on her own—her kind-hearted writer husband and their two children. The nuanced tension between Jakiela’s search for the biological family she came from and considerations of the one she created provides the reader with a fuller understanding of what family can mean while raising questions of inheritance and responsibility often present in parent-child relationships, biological or not.
“I love my children,” Jakiela narrates. She’s just described a scene in a mall. She’s with her poet friend Sam, also adopted, and Jakiela’s son, Locklin, dressed as Spider Man.
My children have so many needs, all of them bigger than my own. ‘I could never do it,’ Sam said, about children, almost a boast, the way lots of people do. When they say, ‘I could never,’ they mean ‘how could you.’ When they say, ‘I could never,’ they look at a dried puke-smear and thank, ‘thank god.’ When Sam talks about her adoption, she calls it the severing, the primal wound. She calls blood red sugar.
‘Twip,’ Locklin says. He holds both hands palm out to shoot his webs, like he’s offering me everything he has.
All those threads between us that can’t be cut.
Jakiela’s previous memoirs—Miss New York Has Everything about her experiences as a flight attendant, and The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious about caring for her dying mother in Jakiela’s childhood home—ring with gutsy observations and brilliant narrative leaps like those found in her latest work. Jakiela ups the ante even higher in BIIOKOTM. It is a master class in memoir writing. This is a story Jakiela is meant to tell, and she tells it in the way only she can—with limitless vulnerability, wit, and heart. BIIOKOTM is a necessary read for anyone who has ever considered where she or he comes from or what it means to belong.