Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Marilyn Churley

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Marilyn Churley

Former MPP and Toronto City Councillor Marilyn Churley is an inspiration for all she's achieved in the political realm. Yet it's a very personal battle of hers that is most powerfully moving for many. Her work as the Ontario NDP government’s minister responsible for all birth, death, and adoption records connected her not only to the many birth parents and adopted children searching for one another in Ontario, but to her own past. Shameless: The Fight for Adoption Disclosure and the Search for My Son (Between the Lines Books) tells Marilyn's incredibly story and her legislative fight to ensure increased transparency in the adoptive process, pushing back against the shame and stigma historically associated with adoption in Canada.

Today Marilyn speaks to Open Book about her experience giving her infant son up for adoption, the pressures and stigma facing birth mothers of adopted children and the surprisingly healing process of writing Shameless.

You can also hear from Marilyn herself in a book trailer for Shameless, courtesy of Between the Lines Books.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Shameless.

Marilyn Churley:

Shameless gives an historical account of the stigma around being an “unwed mother”, sexism, family and social structures of the late 1960’s and my own personal trauma. It is social commentary that blends the personal with the political.

In 1966 at the age of 17 I left my sheltered home in Happy Valley, Labrador and landed in the heart of Ottawa’s counter culture scene. I didn’t know what a green pepper looked like or how to get a bus transfer, but I was pretty and smart and was looking to be part of it all. Then disaster struck. I got pregnant and like thousands of other girls from that era, I had my baby in secret and in great sorrow placed him for adoption. But my story has an extraordinary twist. Over twenty years later I was elected to government and put in charge of every birth and adoption record in the province including those of my lost son’s. But the laws prevented access to those records for me and thousands of women like me. I decided something had to be done. Shameless tells the story of my journey from Labrador, to the birth and loss of my son, my search and our joyful reunion many years later and about my crusade to reform adoption disclosure laws in Ontario.


Many people would view giving a child up for adoption to parents who are unable to have biological children as an extraordinarily selfless act. Why then, in your opinion, is there still system judgment towards birth mothers?


Let me be clear: we didn’t freely give up our children. Most of us would have preferred to keep our babies but were forced to relinquish them by parents, social workers, nuns, ministers, or society has a whole. Terrible things happened. In some cases babies were stolen and their mothers were told that they had died. In my case, the stigma and lack of supports gave me no option. However, even though we were not as selfless as people like to suggest, I would say that no matter what the circumstances, society has always judged women harshly when it comes to sexuality and punished and shamed them if they didn’t conform to social convention. Although things have changed for the better (in the western world at least), I believe this story continues to be relevant to contemporary struggles around choice, family structures and “slut-shaming”.


If there were one thing you could change about our current adoption system, what would it be?


I would get rid of the disclosure veto. We included a contact veto in our legislation which we felt was more than adequate to deal with privacy concerns. But a few people won a court challenge based on charter privacy rights and a revised government bill was passed in 2008 that includes a disclosure veto. The direct result is the continued discrimination against a small minority of adoptees and biological parents who are blocked from getting their information.


You're working with intensely personal subject matter in this book. How did you manage the emotional impact of this project? Was there catharsis in the writing process at all?


I thought writing a memoir would be transparently simple but it turned out to be a very complex exercise. I started to tell the story of the adoption movement and our ten year fight to reform disclosure laws. But then I started writing for myself and I began to get in touch with the naïve, broken hearted, traumatized girl who was still lurking inside me. I let her come out a bit and the adult me wept and wept for her. And at times I was swept away by fierce anger as I wrote about the terrible treatment I received on so many fronts. But I didn’t wallow in it and mostly I kept on writing as I wept and raged. Loss and grief are a part of life and I can’t undo what’s been done. But my story had been told in snippets by people in the media over the years and it was cathartic to tell it in my own words.


Tell us a little bit about your writing environment. Where do you write and what do you need, in terms of music, food or other ritual, in order to do so?


I cannot bear interruptions when I am deeply immersed in my writing. I can actually feel the vibrations from other people in close proximity! I started and finished this book all alone up at my cottage in Restoule. When I write in my little office in my house in Toronto, my husband knows from unpleasant experience to not come near my door when I am writing. I go for walks when I get stuck and will admit that sometimes I drink a glass of red wine to help get me started.


Are there other memoirs about family relationships, or specifically adoption experiences, that you've found particularly worthwhile as a reader? (Fiction or non-fiction)


There are far too many memoirs that I love and was deeply inspired by to mention here but here are some of my favorites in no particular order: The Story of Jane Doe by Jane Doe; The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler; Gone to an Aunt’s by Anne Petrie; Singing Lessons by Judy Collins; The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls; I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Truth and Beauty by Anne Patchett; Seducing the Demon by Erica Jong ; The Liars’ Club by Mary Carr; Swimming Up The Sun by Nicole Burton and Obasan by Joy Kogawa.


What are you working on now?


I have ideas for three very different stories and I am not sure which one is going to take hold. Or will some components of all three stories end up in the same book? I don’t know. One involves a hypnotist and a psychologist; another one tells a wacky but true story in emails and the other is a more conventional story about political shenanigans I’ve witnessed or being involved in.

Marilyn Churley is a former Toronto City Councillor and former Member of Provincial Parliament. She has served as the Deputy Leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party and was the Ontario Legislature’s first female Deputy Speaker. She has been referred to as the mother of adoption disclosure reform in Ontario.

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