A Bereaved Daughter Delves Into Her Mother’s Secrets

A Memoir
By Justine Cowan

Justine Cowan had a problem with her mother — a snootiness problem, a constant criticism problem, an inability to offer warmth or comfort problem.

When Cowan was a child, her mother told her she was fat. She pushed her relentlessly, signing her up for 6 a.m. violin lessons with an extra-prestigious teacher. When Cowan grew up, and her mother came to visit, she went through her closet and affixed notes to her clothes with safety pins, explaining how they should be mended.

“I didn’t love my mother,” Cowan writes.

So it came as a surprise when her mother died, and Cowan found that she was knocked sideways, in a state of deep, inarticulate mourning. Cowan’s memoir, “The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames,” recounts how she responded to this moment — not by grieving her mother, but by investigating her.

In fact, her mother’s past provided a fat target. A Briton who had emigrated to America in her 20s and married a lawyer from Tennessee, she had always suggested she had grown up in wealthy, fox-hunting circles, and that this explained why she held her daughter to exacting, aristocratic standards.

But late in life, she dropped hints at a far bleaker reality. She had in fact been a “foundling,” raised in a British home for the children of unwed mothers. Once, mysteriously, she grabbed a notebook and scrawled, over and over again, a name unfamiliar to her daughter: Dorothy Soames.

Cowan is a public interest lawyer — accustomed, when taking on a new case, to plunging into a heap of documents and piecing together a narrative. So, five years after her mother’s death, she immersed herself in the archives of the Foundling Hospital, a vast institution established in the 18th century to raise the children of unmarried mothers. Perhaps there she could understand why her mother was the way she was.

The propulsive parts of the book come as Cowan uncovers the past that her mother was so intent on hiding. The shapeless brown clothing that Cowan’s mother had sewn for her, it turns out, was a duplicate of the uniforms she had been forced to wear growing up.

Her mother’s fixation on music and art lessons had been drummed into her at the Foundling Hospital, which deprived its inhabitants of affection but insisted that they achieve a glaze of high culture.

Dorothy Soames — the name her mother had scribbled on a notebook — was the name that the Foundling Hospital had assigned her as an infant, so that she would completely sever her ties with the Shropshire farm girl who had reluctantly handed her over.

Cowan comes to understand why her mother found it difficult to bond; her childhood all but guaranteed it. Established in the 18th century as a cleaner, safer alternative to the poorhouse, the hospital was initially overwhelmed by mothers desperate to hand off their infants, and many of the infants accepted in the first few years died of disease.

By the time Cowan’s mother came along, the hygiene was better, but the approach to child-rearing was driven by a Victorian passion for discipline. At the time, social scientists actively preached against physical contact with newborns; new mothers were taught not to kiss their babies, or pick them up when they cried. Psychologists dreamed of raising children according to scientific principles, and the Foundling Hospital provided them with a laboratory.

Like an experienced litigator, Cowan shows us one exhibit after another, building a case that her mother was a victim of this harsh system. Sections of the book feel padded with term-papery digressions. I found myself longing to hear less from the card catalog, and more from Cowan’s mother.

Her mother comes off as troubled, brittle, unreasonably tough on her daughter. She acknowledged as much to Cowan, once, telling her that she was “grateful and proud that despite my bad parenting you managed to become a remarkable person.”

But Cowan sometimes paints her as a villainess without providing the evidence to support it. The simplest explanation is that mother and daughter never found a way to connect. And then their time ran out.

In fact — and this is a heartbreak — Cowan could have avoided the archives if she had sat down to interview her mother. Before she died, her mother had written a memoir, and even invited Cowan to London to investigate her past together. But at the time, their relationship was so broken that Cowan declined the offer. “I had no interest in learning about my mother’s past,” she says.

“The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames” is a frustrating endeavor, in the end. It does evoke sympathy for Eileen — Eileen was her mother’s real name — just as Cowan clearly hoped it would.

But it does not heal the injury that sent Cowan on this mission, the crack in the bowl.

A child’s desire for closeness to her mother is a fearsome force. As she contemplates the cold severity of her mother’s upbringing, Cowan recalls the disturbing experiments of Harry Harlow, whose work explored the importance of maternal bonding in childhood development. Harlow gave baby monkeys a choice between a wire mesh holding a bottle of milk and a terry cloth doll that they believed to be their “mother.” The babies clung to the “mother,” even if the dolls pierced them with spikes or blasted them with cold water. Their need for a mother overwhelmed the need for food, even the need for safety.

Cowan’s affecting memoir stands as a reminder of what was taken from the “foundlings” — they had mothers, for God’s sake! — and the gaping absence that was passed on, as a legacy, to their own children, including, eventually, to Justine Cowan.

But it is too late. Nothing can get her the mother she needed.

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