Thursday, August 4, 2011

“Swing: The Search for my Father, Louis Prima” by Alan Gerstel

Just a Gigilo / I Ain’t Got Nobody

Review of “Swing: The Search for my Father, Louis Prima” by Alan Gerstel

Just a Gigolo, Everywhere I Go and I Aint Got Nobody are perhaps two of Louis Prima’s best known songs. They also would have made an excellent title for the memoir of his illegitimate adopted out son as the former describes his five-time married father, Louis Prima, who was known to have his way with the women and the later, sadly, describes his wanna-be mother who gave up everything to chase a dream to be a singer.  The former is idolized by Alan, who he credits him with his musical talent and stage-presence. The later not.

Swing, is a long and engagingly well-written book that will be of interest to Prima fans and adoptees who have searched or are in the process. The 313 pages read quickly, and despite a bit of redundancy and some details that could have been edited out, and the absence of a Table of Contents, is for the most part interesting, entertaining and appealing, and is interspersed with a tale of his mother’s life pieced together by informants with “gaps filled in.”

Born in 1943, Alan’s complicated search took place pre-Internet. But the final break through in tracking his mother from maiden to married name came by simply tracing her phone listing and seeing the same number issues to someone with the same first and middle name at the same address.  A clever tactic that took close to a decade, bribes and a couple of PIs to think of it!

What struck me the most, however, were the great lengths Alan went to to protect his adoptive mother from being hurt by his interest in his origins. He idolized her despite describing her as having “smothered” him with love, and despite his adoptive parents having bought him in what he calls a “gray market” adoption, while casting his natural mother as the villain for being the recipient.

His disdain for the woman who bore began, however, long before he learned of the financial transactions that transpired. Having been told he was adopted when he was five along with how much they loved him and chose him “from all the babies” at the hospital, it was never spoken of again. 

As a teen, Alan dreamt repeatedly of knocking on the door of “an attractive but matronly woman” and announcing: “I’m your son. I want you to see what you threw away. I want you to eat your heart out because I am successful, and popular, and happy. And you…you gave me away when you should have kept me and loved me.”  He always woke from the dream, he says, “feeling furious, frustrated, and filled with self-loathing.”

It is not surprising having had these strong feelings that upon learning of her death before he ever had a chance to meet her, he needed to utilize his “method acting” skills to “look stunned, saddened, and nearly in tears.” When he learned she had committed suicide he said: “I felt also that suicide didn’t seem out of character for someone who would get pregnant and skipped out…” Perhaps not just out of character but appropriate.

He saw his mother as an opportunist after learning that two couples had approached her three weeks before she gave birth with offers to pay her expenses and something for the time she was unable to work.  The adoring parents who raised him had bought him, ran off with him looking over their shoulder in fear she'd try to change her mind,  but were seen as doing no evil.

He describes his natural mother, however, as having seen them as “pigeons” even though they approached her. Three weeks before she delivered, she had made not one attempt at seeking anyone to adopt, or give her any money for, her baby. She likely would have simply left him with the nuns at the hospital.

His father: just a gigolo with a string of what would be today be called “groupies”. His mother, aint got nobody, even to attend her funeral, buried in potters field. Could it be anymore ironic?

In addition to her taking money, the other thing that stuck in his crow was being told that when she turned and left him and someone drew attention to the tear in her eye, she toughened up and said he wasn’t crying for “the kid” but rather for the time the whole pregnancy things had set her back in her career. Maybe it was truly how she felt or maybe it was a 21-year-old raised by a street thug alcoholic father trying to be tough and not show any weakness. Maybe it was her trying so hard to be strong that led to her following in the footsteps of her father’s drinking, and eventually her death. In any event he did shed a tear at her graveside before continuing on to his real goal: his Father!

Besides the fame, it may have been easier for Alan to focus on his male adulterous progenitor with less hostility and blame as Prima had not actually handed him over or accepted any payment. Or, was it because his adoptive mom doted on him – the only child – while his adoptive father made him feel like a piece of merchandise he had bought, spent little time with him, and once in anger said he regretted they hadn’t adopted a girl, expressed disappointment with him, and calling him names eluding to his lower-class roots: “Bum… Beatnick… Truck Driver!”

I was struck by two things. One was Alan's inability to feel any compassion or even pity for his natural mother and the extent to which he felt compelled to protect his adoptive mother from any hurt she might feel knowing of his natural, normal quest for his genealogical roots.  Not a thought that this young woman dealing all alone with a crisis, drank and took her life because she missed him, and regretted loosing him (which I, as a mother who lost a child to adoption, felt for her)...that she drank herself to death to keep the secret she took with her to her death.  Alan, however, preferred to fulfill his youthful dream that she suffered what was due and just dessert for having dumped him...while at the same time professing to be glad she did.

Throughout his minutely detailed search - during which I was one of the many people contacted for help -  he maintained secrecy from his adoptive mother, even after learning that his extended family were critically important to unraveling the complexities of his convoluted beginnings, having known his original mother, at least during the summer of her pregnancy.

I scored it up to classic "male adoptee" whore/madonna mentality and I began to wonder just how common it is for adoptees to feel paralyzed by this fear of hurting their adoptive mother by searching. I knew it was not uncommon, but how common? How many adoptees search in secret or wit till their adoptive parents pass away to begin. Do they regret waiting so long, often missing any possibility of meeting their original parents? Or do most not really care (or not let themselves care) – like Alan, seeking knowledge and facts more than relationship?

So, I conducted some totally unscientific research on Facebook, asking adoptees if they searched in secret? Were afraid to hurt their adoptive parents? Regretting waiting till they died to search?

At first it seemed to fit neatly into BJ Lifton’s classic description of the “good adoptee” who, like Alan, waited in fear….and the “bad adoptee” who threw all caution to the wind or even flaunted a search and reunion.

Betty Sue said she searched without her adoptive parents’ knowledge. “My amom would be VERY upset. She is 88 and is just not worth it to go there. I have HUGE regrets about not searching earlier. I was afraid to upset that apple cart.” At the opposite end of the spectrum is Heidi who: “searched very 'in your face' to my adopters from the get-go. Told them everything I was doing but *shared* nothing. Our relationship was toxic and volatile... I did it that way precisely to hurt their feelings. …. I told them I found her and then withheld all details (which their insecurity drove them to seek over and over) and then, the day before I was flying to meet her in person, I told them I was going. Again, when I got home, didn't share any details... just the fact that it was perfect, she was perfect, and for the first time in my ENTIRE life, I felt right, real, beautiful and worthy... all the things they had worked so hard to prevent me feeling for my whole lifetime.”

But then came Michael, whose answer reveals why so many adoptees keep their searches private. Michael “didn't keep it a secret that I was searching but didn't advertise it either.” Michael, 37, “started asking questions” when he as 18.

“My adoptive mother seemed perturbed, so I put it on the back burner to be taken up at a later date. When I was in college away from home, I took up a full fledged search and hired an investigator. After I found my bio mother, my adoptive mother was leery about me pursuing it further and let me know. I have introduced my found bio sister to my adoptive mother but that is the extent of what I share with her. It's not a popular topic between us and I don't talk about my bio relatives with her.… When I rediscovered them again after a long absence under the radar, I virtually kept it a secret from my adoptive mother until my bio mother suddenly died. When I expressed anguish over the death and recounted the time I had spent with her, my adoptive mother cut me off in midsentence. As of the present, the whole issue is one of the past. I still speak to my bio sister but don't talk about it.”

Alexa who “left home as soon as possible” because her adoptive parents were so abusive and her adoptive mother she described as “always so angry and probably crazy. I wanted to find my [original mother] so badly. I didn't really know how to search so I did not find her until I was 30. Since I was not in touch with my A-parents and had not been in years and never planned on being in touch with them again, it had no effect.”

So sad that adoption is so filled with fear, secrets, hiding, lying, insecurities, fear of rejection (something Alan mentions more than once) and anger. Sad that too few adoptive parents have been able to let go of their insecurities enough to allow their adopted offspring to integrate who they began as into who they have become. Hopefully, this is slowly changing, but then so too are more adoptions spanning continents making reconnecting more difficult, often by specific intent.

In the end, Alan meets and is embraced by half siblings on his father's side and has one conversation with a scary ex-con uncle on his mother's side. He never again mentions his adoptive parents who one can only assume died long before he finally had the courage to write and publish the details of his nefarious search and the relatives who conspired to help him.

He pulled it all off and was recognized and welcomed as Louis Prima's son, was embraced by siblings, no longer an only child.

Alan Gerstel's deep psychological honesty adds to adoption literature yet another view inside the life of a man who claims to have been glad he was not raised by the mother who bore him, felt exceedingly loved by the mother who raised him, had a loving wife, and yet never knew happiness till he found kin who looked like him.

I think Alan might agree or understand well the final words sent to me by Michael, the adoptee quoted above, when he says from the time he was old enough to understand that he was born to another: "Being adopted was forefront in my mind as the basis for my identity or lack thereof until the found stage of my search and reunion. Before that, I was a blank slate every time I looked in the mirror."

Yet the public chooses to disallow the depth of the losses adoption separation leaves deeply engrained into the psyche, the lives, and the souls of those it "rescues" and claims instead that it is a win-win when it is clearly a win-loose.

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