Blood Strangers

by Ken Harvey

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday May 11, 2010

Blood Strangers

A recent cartoon in Bliss goes like this: an editor (bearded, experienced) sits behind his desk, holding the manuscript of the youthful writer across from him. "What your memoir really needs is an addiction," reads the caption. This young writer's memoir is the riskiest of all manuscripts these days: it is deemed too quiet. "How would we sell this?" the marketing department will ask. "What's the hook?"

Thankfully, there are small presses more concerned with quality work than with sales figures. One such press, Heyday Books, is a non-profit publisher specializing in books that "foster an understanding of the history, literature, art, environment, social issues, and culture of California and the West." Without presses like these, it is easy to see how Katherine Briccetti's honest and moving Blood Strangers: A Memoir might not have "found a home," in the euphemistic parlance of the publishing industry. This would have been a shame, because this book, "quiet" by industry standards, is more gripping than most big press memoirs that are efficiently marketable with the one-line blurb.

Blood Strangers is not a book that lends itself to the exclamation point. Briccetti's gift as a memoirist is her understanding of how gradual, often subtle shifts in life define who we are as much as (or even more than) dramatic moments we can capture with the click of a camera. In Briccetti's world, the slow process of falling in love with a woman takes precedence over any wedding day, or in this case, any commitment ceremony. Her need to find her unknown relatives through a genealogical search feels more significant than the aha! moments that come when she finally discovers some of these lost family members. And grappling with the sometimes contradictory feelings of deciding if she should have a child, not to mention the roller coaster of emotions she experiences in the artificial insemination process, seems to shape her more than the act of childbirth itself.

Blood Strangers is an exploration into what defines identity. At the center of the book is how Briccetti wrestles with the history of fatherlessness in her family. She doesn't flinch from the difficult questions when she and her partner, Pam, perpetuate this legacy by deciding to have children using sperm from an anonymous donor. She asks, "How could I, with my own history, deny my own child a father, setting him or her up for lifelong confusion, insecurity, and haunting shame?" Smaller worries, like her concern about raising "an effeminate boy or a super-feminist girl," are just as disarmingly honest.

It is this candidness that sets Blood Strangers apart from many other contemporary memoirs. Briccetti writes openly about her uneasiness in describing herself as a lesbian. She deeply loves Pam, but isn't necessarily attracted to women in general. "Or maybe I'm a straight woman who has simply lived twenty years with the person she loves most," explains Briccetti. "I still sometimes feel as if I've never been a legitimate member of the LGBT Club but that I'm pretending to be someone I'm not, my internal voice chanting imposter, imposter. " As the birth mother of two boys, Briccetti is eager for her spouse to adopt the children, making their family recognized by law. Yet she acknowledges her reservations about this arrangement as well. Of Pam's adoption of son Ben she writes, "I could imagine a time when I might want him to myself, and this frightened me, my potential for behaving badly." Briccetti resists the temptation to simplify her emotional trajectory, opting instead for more complex, ambiguous, and ultimately more believable truths.

Despite the uniqueness of Briccetti's family, Blood Strangers is a quintessentially American story. Her need to build a home with the people she loves, her need to know her roots, the perception of herself as an outsider, even her impulse to go West as a young woman (without a job or lodging in place) is evocative of so many other American lives. At the end of this impressive memoir, we have learned, once again, that it isn't the details of our lives that form the connective tissue among us. It's our emotional DNA -- our need to be part of something greater than our individual selves -- that really matters.

Ken Harvey is the author of the award winning collection of stories, If You Were With Me Everything Would Be All Right. His memoir, A Passionate Engagement, was recently released. His website is