Abandonment and loss define this intriguing memoir by television journalist and Columbia University professor June Cross, starting with the title and the book's arresting opening line—"I search my mother's face in the mirror and see a stranger"—right through to the final page.
Yet Secret Daughter is not about self-pity; nor is it an act of revenge against a deeply flawed parent. Based on the author's 1997 Emmy Award-winning documentary of the same name, the book is about her determined search for identity and a sense of wholeness, despite early experiences of loss and abandonment.
"Skin fractured our kinship," Cross writes of her bond with her mother. Born in 1954 to a charismatic, beautiful white mother and an African American father who separated just after she was born, Cross faced a segregated, pre-Brown v. Board of Education, pre-MLK America, where lines of race, class, and ethnicity were forcefully delineated. And as a mixed-race child, Cross presented certain problems for her mother, who decided that her increasingly dark-skinned daughter could no longer "pass" and gave her up to a black adoptive couple, whom June was trained to call Aunt Peggy and Uncle Paul.
The time in which they lived was partly to blame for June's being given up at age four, but so was her mother's fixation on what other people might think, and her own career ambitions. (She was an aspiring actress.) Although she stayed in regular contact with her daughter and often invited her to visit, when they were in public she usually insisted that June call her Aunt Norma rather than Mommie—which was both confusing and painful for Cross. When Norma eventually marries a longtime boyfriend, Cross can't help noticing that two circles of friends developed: "…those who knew about me and those who didn't. Gradually my visit began to coincide with those occasions when it was convenient for me to be seen."
Norma died in 2003, months after being diagnosed with colon cancer; she and June became especially close toward the end. Even so, Cross writes, "My mother and I never talked about her decision, how it affected her, the way she sees me and those who look like me, or how it affected the way I view her and those who look like her. We tried, several times, but it was too painful."
Secret Daughter is startling in its candor. If there are passages that could have been further developed, perhaps it's because the author still seems to be sorting out the messy fragments of her childhood—and grappling with its aftermath: "Nearly fifty years later, as I excavate these memories, I find the outlines of a scar," she writes. "I trace its shape, considering the ways in which it restricts my life. Trust eludes me. I never knew how to maintain friendships. I waited until middle-age to marry. I never had children. I bless that scar and call the pain from its hiding place."
Cross vividly places her coming-of-age story in the larger context of America's coming to terms with racism—its "obsession with skin color." This is still a defining problem of our national identity, of course, but was especially so in the late '50s and early '60s. Cross follows the steady progress of the Civil Rights Movement and NAACP court cases, the Freedom Rides, the Watts riots.
Despite raising her strictly, with high expectations, Aunt Peggy and Uncle Paul instilled in her a sense of confidence and pride. Aunt Peggy, a strong, hard-working woman, proved an especially crucial influence. The author eventually realized that "coming to love my heritage would give me a pride of self that could be shaken yet never eliminated."
And that's really what this book is all about: one woman's resilience and courage in the face of a fractured family life and a country struggling with its own diverse identity. There isn't a trace of bitterness in this enlightening memoir—only curiosity, empathy, and forgiveness. Secret Daughter also imparts some inspiring lessons: the value not just of self-acceptance but of pride in who you are, and the virtue of keeping going, no matter what.
Carmela Ciuraru is a writer and editor in New York City. She has written for the Los Angeles Times, ArtNews, The Washington Post, and other publications, and edited six anthologies of poetry.