Book Report: Jennifer O’Dwyer’s Mamlita: An Adoption Memoir

In her memoir concerning her experiences with adoption, Mamlita: An Adoption Memoir, author Jennifer O’Dwyer provides, through an informal and almost conversational style, an intimate look into a first-person perspective on the adoption process in general. Whereas from a sociological and almost ethnographic horizon, the text is immediately valuable in providing a viewpoint into the experiences of a prospective parent of an adopted child, the narrative is most gripping in its frankness, such that the text can be said to transcend the particularities of its content: in other words, what comes across most explicitly in the text is the story of attempts to realize a familial love against the backdrop of a bureaucratic and political apparatus that appears to be the very antithesis of a basic humanity.

In this regard, the style of the text is of the most immediate importance. O’Dwyer deliberately chooses a very direct form of communication, a decision that is arguably governed by the conscious decision on the part of the author to imbue her narrative with as much humanity as possible. O’Dwyer wants to communicate an experience that all can understand, irrespective of local social normativities and mores. Accordingly, such a decision on style can be said to speak to the audience O’Dwyer wishes to reach: a broad audience that understands the universality of the concept of the family. Through her intimate recounting of her own experiences, O’Dwyer establishes a bond with the reader, transporting the latter into the tribulations of the author’s life-world.

At once, the memoir cannot be considered to be merely an autobiographical account. This is because O’Dwyer simultaneously infuses her work with details of the adoption process, in particular the bureaucratic entanglements involved in striving to adopt a child from a so-called “third-world country”, in this case Guatemala. In so far as the author combines the reality of the adoption process with her own personal sentiments, it can be said that the fundamental tension of the book is between the desire to realize familial love through adoption with a bureaucratic and political apparatus that appears to be the antithesis to this goal. The narrative therefore can be said to possess two centers, corresponding to the individuals she chooses to discuss in the book: on the one hand, the familial unit, epitomized by herself and her husband and the prospective adoptive child, and, on the other hand, the political apparatus that stands as a certain antipode to the familial unit. Whereas it can be suggested that O’Dwyer does not paint the latter in explicitly negative tones – for example, the chapter on the U.S. embassy, in a sympathetic reading, could be construed as attempting to alleviate this tension between the two poles of family and bureaucracy/politics that define the book – there is nevertheless a feeling generated in the book that these two worlds of the family and politics are entirely out of sync.

Certainly, it can be argued, from reference to other texts on the adoption process, both academic and autobiographical, that perhaps this tension is either minimized or exaggerated in O’Dwyer’s book. However, such a judgment would have to take into consideration the differences in adoption processes existing between countries, and therefore, in order to provide the most accurate view, such contextual differences would have to be taken into account.

O’Dwyer, however, avoids these contextual differences by clinging to her first-person almost phenomenological style. She wishes to communicate to the reader a basic feeling of familial love that overwhelms the trivialities and banalities of the adoption process. Whereas this process clearly gives the narrative its sense of tension, O’Dwyer desires to communicate a higher ethical principle that is most simply phrased in terms of a concept of transcendent love: the narrative becomes an account of the love for her daughter, in this regard, as merely an account of the adoption process. Hence, while the purpose of the book is to detail her particular experiences in regards to adoption, these particularities ultimately are overwhelmed by a universality of familial love, understandable across cultural boundaries. In this sense, it would be unfair to criticize the author for any type of bias in her narrative, or to also criticize specific details that could be reduced to her own subjective bias, precisely because of this same commitment to a theory of universal familial love. This is at the same time the book’s greatest accomplishment: to communicate how this love transcends specific social, economic, and political conditions.