There are certain events in films, books and even songs that I have a problem dealing with.
When I saw Artificial Intelligence and the mother drives away, leaving the robot boy, David, abandoned in the woods, I cried buckets of tears. I didn’t know I had so many tears left in me. Sitting here, in a conference room waiting for the next speaker to start, I remember that scene and I feel myself welling up. I haven’t managed to finish The Goldfinch. I can’t get past the first hundred pages. It’s too painful. It’s too real. I can’t experience it with any aesthetic distance.
These moments of pain, of meltdown, of hollowed-out loss that can never be put right, ambush me from the most unexpected places. Episodes in Supernatural. Children’s books. Newspaper stories. I ow I’ll never be able to watch any Game of Thrones featuring certain character, not so much because of their grisly fate but because her parents abandoned her and nothing can ever make it better.
Yes, I’m adopted. Yes, I have abandonment issues. I’m a man in my early fifties and I’m still little more than a bundle of learned coping mechanisms wrapping around a gaping hole labeled ‘Mummy left me’. (I’ve said it before and I’ll probably find myself saying it again.)
Which brings me to the latest Torres album, Sprinter, and the song New Skin. Mackenzie Scott, who records as Torres, has spoken relatively frankly about her own adoption and the role its played in her life. It’s the central theme of Sprinter, whether she’s singing in the voice of the mother who gave her up or her adoptive mother, an adoptee herself, attempting to trace back her birth mother in the literally devastating The Exchange. Literally, because the protagonist is devastated. There is possibly nothing left. It’s a song which, like the best songs and short stories, is a chain of synecdoche for entire lives.
But back to New Skin. It documents (there is no other word) the experience of being adopted as a baby. The loss of your old identity, the new one you’re wrapped up in.
Ready to wrap me up
Ready to love me in this new skin I’m filling in
No child ever gets to speak for itself. The child’s parents do, in particular the mother. But a small baby is still part of its mother, early years psychologists tell us, and perhaps there’s a mysterious way in which mother and baby can speak for each other. If you’re adopted, that becomes impossible. You can only be spoken for by a stranger. The chorus of New Skin says
Who’s that trying to speak for me?
What kind of love do they claim to be?
A child of God much like yourself
You’ll still find me right where I fell
I find the last line adds an ambiguity – the chorus could almost be sung by the birth mother.
I know now that this fracture affects both sides for a lifetime. I also know that it can never be repaired, not for me. I’ve met my birth mother and maybe it’s patched up a little but the hole is still there.
Anyway, Scott, by her own account, had a successful adoption. She’s a writer of fictions, however much of herself she pours into them, and I wouldn’t presume for a moment that this piece of art called New Skin is the empirical truth of her life and feelings. But there are portions of my own truth in it, enough to trigger the Artificial Intelligence effect.
Thankfully, because it’s music and a lovely song, I can bring myself to listen to it more than once.