The long way home

Lori Jakiela presents an inner voyage with bite and humor
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Lori Jakiela has the essential quality for a memoirist with a tale of trauma to tell: empathy for the reader. She makes her anguish entertaining. But based on the engaging voice, underlying humor and clarity of her adoption memoir “Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe,” I bet she would do the same for you. She comes across as someone who could sit down and listen to your troubles and, three coffees or beers later, leave you chuckling at the absurdity of it all.

Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe

by Lori Jakiela

Atticus Books ($14.95)

Jakiela is neither a wallower in misery nor a perky self-​affirmer. She works hard to get to the heart of things. The author of two previous memoirs and a writing teacher at University of Pittsburgh-​Greensburg and Chatham University, she follows the dictum that she passes on to her students: “Write one true sentence and then write another.”

Born Amelia Phelan in 1964, Jakiela was adopted from a Catholic Charities orphanage at the age of 1 by a loving couple and raised in Trafford, Westmoreland County. Her father, Walter, was a steelworker from Braddock. Her mother, Alberta, a nurse, “could not have children of her own,” a phrase that comes to rankle Jakiela as she grows up. “There is so much of my parents in me that I barely believe in blood,” she says. Bertie, as she is known, is her “real mother.”

It’s not always a rose garden. “I don’t know where you came from,” her mother will say when exasperated. Aunts often make cutting comments: “She’s been that way from the moment you picked her up,” they will say, when Jakiela is acting like a crabby teenager. “You never can tell what you’ll get,” says the grandmother, as if “adoption is a grab-​bag sale,” Jakiela writes.

On the Richter scale of family cruelty, these comments are no more than a minor tremor. But they are a warm-​up for the Big One. After Bertie dies, Jakiela, nearly 40 and the happily married mother of two, goes on a search for her biological mother. She knows the name (it’s on Jakiela’s birth certificate) but she returns to Catholic Charities to seek out facts, figures and telephone numbers. The counselor makes inquiries. The result: total rejection.

The birth mother refuses everything —a meeting, a medical history, correspondence of any kind. The birth mother wants no contact. The birth mother believed the records were permanently sealed. The birth mother wants the records permanently sealed.” The birth mother, reports the counselor, “is immoveable on these points.”

That’s pretty bad. Later, it gets worse. “I wanted a medical history. I didn’t get one,” Jakiela wrote on her personal blog, in a preview of this book. “Instead, my birth mother wished me dead. It’s complicated, I guess. Maybe not.”

* * *

Please don’t think I have spoiled the value of the memoir with that little detail, which emerges after the birth mother gets in touch with Jakiela through, of all mediums, the dowdy social media site MySpace. (“I will pray for you” is how the mother begins each of her messages.) More surprises are in store as the story of her father builds, and we see what made him “a good man who knows the truth about the world but chooses to believe in people anyway.”

We get the idea that her birth family has some issues, as they say, by page 29. Jakiela comes home from her first reconnaissance mission at Catholic Charities, checks her email and finds a message from “Blonde4Eva” — one of her biological sisters. The messages continue over weeks and months, by turns crazy and vindictive but also encouraging. The sister thinks that she can arrange a meeting with the mother, who is ill with cancer, but still smokes through the hole in her throat. Jakiela pieces together that she was her birth mother’s first child, born out of wedlock, a great shame to the Irish immigrant family, and given up for adoption — a family secret Blonde4Eva didn’t learn until just recently.

And there’s more: A brother gets in touch by email after reading her first memoir (“Miss New York Has Everything,” 2006), which is primarily the story of her leaving western Pennsylvania for the so-​called glamour of being a New York-​based flight attendant, but which also notes her adoption and names her birth mother. This brother, it turns out, is a prince of a fellow. He fills her in completely — there’s another sister and brother, too; their father was a shiftless musician; she’s lucky to have been adopted. Jakiela’s gift for storytelling is in full bloom as she recounts their rollicking, beer-​fueled family gathering at Fat Head’s and Jack’s bars on the South Side. “At least we see where you get your love of booze,” remarks her mensch of a husband, the novelist and poet Dave Newman, whose steady presence helps Jakiela maintain balance as she ricochets through this unsettling journey.

Jakiela’s achievement in “Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe” is weaving the filaments of her life as a mother, wife, writer and reader around the narrative of her quest to discover her biological roots. She still has to go to Target to shop for batteries, socks and toothpaste with toddlers in tow. It helps that her kids — son Locklin (named for a poet, Gerald Locklin) and daughter Phelan (yes, named for her birth mother) — are eminently adorable. Jakiela sprinkles the prose with zesty turns of phrase: when a relative, Stella, is startled, “she jumps like an M-​80 went off in her shoe”; describing all the trappings of her Catholic upbringing, she adds, “And there is always alcohol, the blood of Christ as interpreted by Riunite.” I especially like the thread of upward cultural (if not economic) mobility in her story: She and her husband, Pittsburgh’s most dynamic writing duo, are products of the working class who live in thrall to the written word and literary imagination.

I don’t have the world inside me,” Jakiela writes in a passage that must ring true for many adopted children. “I’m not Irish. I’m not German or Jewish, though my parents said my birth father was. I’m not Polish like my father, or Italian or Slovak like my mother. Until I married and had children, I was single, solitary, someone who most days wanted to take up no space at all.”

John Allison

John Allison reviews books for Pittsburgh Quarterly.

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