Mary Anna King, author of the painful and heartfelt memoir “Bastards,” is the second of her parents’ seven children, the last four of whom were given away at birth. The movements of the various members of this family — who went where with whom for how long — defy summary; suffice it to say that King spent her first six or so years living with her mother and brother and for a while one sister, and sporadically her father, in wretched places in southern New Jersey. After that, she was shipped off to Oklahoma to live with her grandfather and his wife, who, as a couple, eventually adopted her.
Home in New Jersey was, for a time, a housing complex tenanted by single mothers whose chief occupations were smoking and carping. Their children made up a tribe of their own, among its members a boy who sexually molested the young Mary Anna. After that came a place where fathers were present (though not always her own), men who occupied themselves with drinking and, “in the absence of a good fight or a wayward child,” with punching holes in the walls.
Oklahoma should have come as a relief, but her older adoptive parents were sticklers for rules and decorum and the spotless house was full of mirrors and polished glass cabinets, putting her under constant surveillance.
The memoir pivots on the appearance, one by one, of the author’s four younger sisters, three of whom came seeking their blood relatives — and one whose adoptive mother abruptly pointed to King’s mother working in a store, saying, “Well, Meghan, there she is. This is your biological mother.”
King’s reunion with her siblings brings joy and further confusion to an already confused life. Although she was a good student, moderate in her habits, and gave up a chance to study in Japan to care for her adoptive mother, she feels “a shadowy and coarse other self,” that there is a “deep wrongness” in her that “would draw disaster … like a tornado to a trailer park.”
She sees her younger sisters fall into drugs, drink and abusive relationships, and she suffers from crippling nervous and physical complaints.
The book’s title, arresting though it is, is not literally applicable to anyone in it. (The children’s parents were married.) But King extrapolates from her mother’s definition of “bastard” as “illegitimate, like not real,” to how she felt, which is that she didn’t have a real family, that she wasn’t real and that she could be “dismissed, erased, forgotten.”
The book is an assertion of who she is and, one senses, a way of securing her place in the world.
Katherine A. Powers, Minnesotan by birth, reviews widely and is the editor of “Suitable Accommodations: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963.”