My name is Susan Devan Harness and I am the author of Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption, published by University of Nebraska Press (Oct. 2018). This book is more than about my life; it is about my life, set into the context of American Indian history and social policy, and the effects that followed me over a lifetime. I felt this was an important topic because too few people understand, or even know about, this most recent and tragically most successful assimilation policy of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and was the progenitor of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, so much in the news recently.
There is a history to the memoir. Ten years ago, my cultural anthropology research explored the lives of American Indian Transracial adoptees and resulted in the book Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption: Outcomes of the Indian Adoption Project (1958-1967), published by Edwin Mellen Press (2009). This book is important because it contains the raw qualitative data. However, it removes the faces of the people behind it, the people who make this experience a real, lived experience. The question I had was “How was I going to make this information accessible for a wider audience? I didn’t want to use the stories of people I spoke with. They were braided with so much pain at times, I knew they weren’t my stories to tell. Neither did I want to fictionalize the experience. I didn’t want people to assume that an event had been dramatized in order to make the story more interesting. Which left me with exploring the genre of creative nonfiction. A genre I soon fell in love with, with its abilities to paint a picture of time and place and people; not just write about a historical event.
As a writer, I feel that memoir requires three intertwining ideas that revolve around ethics: truth, brutal honesty, and respect for all characters. Let’s first discuss truth. Although some people have written pieces that contain truth–James Frey and Lauren Slater, for instance—many people feel deceived or even short-changed. Are we learning about a life in its detailed exploration? Or are we being told a story about a life? This would be a good time to really ask yourself, as a writer, what the purpose of writing memoir is for you?
Brutal honesty is difficult. It requires us to not only be honest with our readers, but more importantly, to be honest with ourselves. If we throw someone under the bus in order to find our ‘true’ selves, is it ethical to then paint ourselves as beautiful people in exploration of something bigger?
The third point is what braids all of these together: respect for all characters. When I wrote Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption my primary concern was how would I tell a story that contains so much tragedy in a way that allows everyone to keep as much dignity as possible? I feel I’ve done that: it is true, it is honest, and it is respectful.
It was published after all people who had anything to do with influencing me as a child or young adult had passed. I gave it to a few family members to read before it went to press. I obtained permissions for all people I name; and I gave aliases for the people I could not contact. My family is proud of me, tribal members have applauded the truths I told.
What I am most proud of? The facts that I could use my life as an illustration of issues, challenges and outcomes in transracial adoption; where I could place my life in the context of history and American Indian policy; that my voice is now part of a larger cultural, social and political conversation, that extends far beyond me as an individual.
Following my personal code of ethics in the genre of creative nonfiction allowed me to create something beautiful and provocative in ways that connect all of us to one another, regardless of whether we are adopted or not, persons of colored or not, a member of a marginalized community. We are all people who have lived within challenges, lived with tragedy, lived on the edges, lived in dysfunction. And if we have survived enough to talk about it – we have something important to add to the larger issue.