Megan Culhane Galbraith is a 2016 Saltonstall Fellow and Director of the GIV/Young Writers Institute at Bennington College. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Catapult, Longreads, PANK, Hotel Amerika, The Manifest-Station, The Review Review, Literary Orphans, The Lost Daughters, and ASSAY: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, among others. She was a finalist for AWP’s WC&C Scholarship and a Scholar at Bindercon
Emma Bolden: Part of what makes this essay so powerful is the way you weave together threads of your personal history with the cultural/institutional history of Cornell University’s Domestic Economics, or “Domecon,” program. Can you tell us a little about the program and how you came across it? What drove you to research it?
Megan Culhane Galbraith: Thank you so much, Emma. I’m thrilled that I can give voice to these babies through my work and Tupelo Quarterly is now a home for them. I feel they needed a good home.
Cornell’s program itself has been written about extensively, but I wanted to focus specifically on the babies because they seem to be ignored in many ways, particularly with regard to the negative impact of their being essentially traded from home to home to home.
Honestly, I came across the Domecon babies by accident. I was simply trying to get out of my head at my first artist residency at The Saltonstall Foundation. I’d wanted to escape to the library as a field trip and began Googling (I love how we use this as a verb these days) and stumbled upon the archive. I couldn’t get to the library fast enough and I got a parking ticket because I was in such a hurry and didn’t follow the parking rules.
I want to shine a brighter light on a piece of often-neglected history, which is that of the erasure of adoption––in some cases outright human trafficking. Many see adoption as a great gift, and it can be, but I don’t want to ignore the darker aspects, which means exploring some murky places through a different lens and confronting unintended consequences and the role of women in that shadowy history. I have no doubt those women thought they were doing right at the time, but the long arc of history and science proves what they did to be tragic in many ways. I mean, imagine the outcry today if such a program existed and we used real babies as “practice babies?” In researching the history of experiments done on children (and animals), I wanted readers to see the dark parallels and make up their own minds.
I mean, here are these tiny humans whose early lives have been reduced to clinical, laboratory photographs that are archived in boxes in a university library basement. When I began pawing through the materials it felt like I’d unearthed graves. I felt like all of these babies (now adults or deceased) deserved a baby book. They each deserved to see their original birth certificate and photos of themselves as infants. They deserved to be able to have the information they needed to search for their roots. Sadly, many grew up never knowing they were even in the Domecon program and I imagine as a result they had longings and loneliness and couldn’t identify where those feelings may have been coming from. In almost all these cases ,the father is completely absent from the picture, having abandoned the young woman he impregnated.
It made me sad to think that perhaps none of these kids discovered their past or reclaimed their origin story. I’d heard that their names were essentially changed at least three times – at the orphan/foundling home, then when they were taken in as Domecon babies, and again when they were adopted. This underscores for me how easy it was for these babies to become objects: human dolls. They were considered blank slates, Tabula Rasa, ready to be “imprinted” by whoever held them, but attachment theory proves the opposite.
One of my favorite childhood books was The Lonely Doll, which has been called “the creepiest children’s book of all time” by The New Yorker. I devoured that book as a child. I read it so many times that the cover fell off. I stared at the photographs and imagined myself into that doll’s solitary life with her friends, Mr. Bear and Baby Bear. I identified with that doll because, as an adoptee, I was lonely too. So here I am, playing with dolls.
My personal history as an adoptee, having been in a foster home for the first five months of my life, gave me a window into these babies. They helped me identify parts of myself that had also been lost to time. I grew up in a happy home with loving parents, but that doesn’t negate the core of loneliness––the primal wound as it’s called––or solve the mystery of one’s heritage. These are things perhaps that most biological children never have to question, nor need to.
EB: How did you decide on the structure for the textual parts of this piece? How do you see the personal and historical narratives speaking to each other?
MG: Interestingly what came first was an art show with the photos of the babies. It was in a local gallery here in Troy, NY, where I live, and curated by Alexandra Foradas, who is a curator at MassMoCA (she’d curated Jenny Holzer and Laurie Anderson!! Both idols of mine.) I’d brought my dollhouse to with me to Saltonstall because I’d been informally playing in it and the act of playing really seemed to help loosen up my writing. I’d never intended to be a visual artist, but my curiosity sort of just led me there.
I’d hesitated to call myself a visual artist until I was at Saltonstall with three talented artists––Samira Abbassy, Jeremy Dennis and Gabe Brown. The poet Michael Morse and I were the writers in residence. Samira and Jeremy and I talked a lot about identity and trauma in our work. I’d been privately stitching together the doll images (literally stitching the paper together with a sewing kit I’d found in the bedside table) and hanging them on the board in my studio. Samira came in one day for a studio visit and began asking me about the work, which I downplayed because I was sheepish about it. I mean, they were the “real artists.” She was so kind to me. She was like, “Megan you’re a real artist.” I’d needed to hear that. It felt like she’d placed a firm hand on my back. That month we spent working but also exploring thrift stores and antique places. I found a bunch of the babies that I used in these photos in Ithaca that summer. Fast-forward to the art show. Writing an artist statement is a sure-fire effective way to distill what you’re thinking. As I was writing it, I realized these babies needed a voice as well as their photos on a page. I figured I could tell their story through my lens as an adoptee in a hybrid essay, so I did.
As for structure, it’s my Achilles Heel. I honestly don’t know how to describe what happened, but the structure offered itself up to me in the same way the art show did. I basically stitched together this narrative and alternated between the personal, the critical, and the historically researched bits in the same way I stitched together those photos of the babies. My mind works in this visual, lyrical way. I can visualize how things go together in a collage and when I write I begin by writing all the pieces and parts first––the skeleton I guess––with the idea to fill them in later. What I found with the Domecon story was that tiny bits could sometimes be the most powerful when they stand-alone. I feel in an essay like this the power becomes additive and each part amplifies the next.
I hope that the personal and the historical speak to each other in a similar way they do in Samira and Jeremy’s work. Art, especially in times of great cultural disruption, is a bellwether. You can find Samira’s work here and Jeremy’s work is here. Both have been making their art for much, much longer than I have. It’s powerful and beautiful and needs to be witnessed.
EB: In this piece, you not only weave together the aforenoted textual elements, but you also include visual art as well. To me, these images move beyond the illustrative to offer new layers of meaning in juxtaposition and correspondence with the text. Who are your influences?
MG: I’m delighted to hear that you think the images are complementary and add meaning. I don’t ever want to be prescriptive in my work on the page or as an artist. My curiosity runs wild so when I find a rabbit hole I go in hard and deep like some sort of beagle who caught a scent. I want a reader or a viewer to follow me down that hole and not re-surface until we’ve found something new together.
When viewers looked at these Domecon images in the gallery, a few stood back and questioned if what they were looking at was real. I think the interplay with restaging the scenes in The Dollhouse made the source images seem that much more dystopian. I’d originally planned to make this a visual essay with just the images, but as I began stringing them together on the page, I felt like it needed more meat on the bones. I had collected so much research from my time in the archives at Cornell, so I began shaping it and suddenly it was alive. I’d liked that viewers of my show questioned that the program was real and I wanted to revive it through a new lens.
I think we should always question reality.
It won’t shock anyone to know I’m a huge fan of surrealists such as Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, and Méret Oppenheim, and writer/artists like Leonora Carrington and Suzanne Césaire. I remember running through MoMA to see the Betye Saar exhibition and then to see Oppenheim’s furry teacup. I was almost pushing people out of the way I was so excited. Surrealists are feminist as fuck.
Other influences are Betye’s daughter Alison Saar, Jan Svankmajer, and The Quay Brothers who use found objects, collage, dolls, and multimedia. I’m also a HUGE fan of Hilma af Klint and Hieronymous Bosch who (I’m going to admit this publicly) I thought was a woman for many, many years.
Whew! That was quite a great tangent. Everyone should look up these fabulous artists and writers. These are all rabbit holes you’ll want to go down with me. Follow me on Twitter or at The Dollhouse Instagram and we can talk more about them. Show me your weirds, people!
One of my favorite moments during one of my art shows was when I asked viewers to look inside the window of one of my dollhouses. I’d set the scene with a doll-sized sign––“XXX-Girly Show”––in pink glittery letters and arrow pointing to the dollhouse window. When viewers bent to look in they saw about six tiny girl dolls dancing on the bed at a slumber party playing with toy guns I’d disassembled from some GI Joe’s.
In that same exhibit I’d retrofitted a View-Master with custom slides I’d made of my Dollhouse images––in one image a doll is wearing a giant tiara and the caption reads, “Does this tiara make the patriarchy look fat?” The View-Master was held to the pedestal by two pair of handcuffs. One little girl (maybe 10) kept running over to look in the Dollhouse and pick up the View-Master and giggle and laugh. Her Mom kept telling her to put it down, but I was like, “No girl, pick that up! Look inside!” That girl totally got what I was after, which was to reinforce female power. A giggle always helps.
This is what I hope for in terms of correspondence with the audience or reader. I hope they see something and run up close to get a better view.
I like to subvert the dominant paradigm.
EB: I love the way you use collage to alter – almost rewriting — the images you found in the Domecon files. What was your process in creating these images? What drove you to create them?
MG: It honestly all caught me like a fever. I was trying to keep my hands busy, which frees up my mind on the page. I’d printed out the archive photos and set them around my studio at Saltonstall. Any time I got stumped or angry at the words, I’d pick up a photo and try to recreate the image in The Dollhouse. It was more about fun than anything else. I amazed myself that I could get so close to the archived images with the stuff I had on hand. I use all found objects which means, for example, the milk in the glass of one of the dollhouse photos is a piece of Kleenex I ripped and stuffed in the glass and other things I print on paper and cut out to use, which replicates the act of playing with paper dolls.
I am very interested in the idea of play and how it helps us get back to using our child brains. Lynda Barry talks a lot about this and it’s so important because I feel like censoring that child brain is what gets us in trouble on the page and in our art. We get corrupted as adults and we begin performing and being precious. Ugh. I hate preciousness. I want passion and honesty and vulnerability.
None of my work is meant to be precious or high falutin’ photography. I’m typically working from time periods from the 60s and earlier. My work replicates more the feel of your Mom or grandmother taking a photo that’s always a bit askew and out of scale. I like that the stuff in the dollhouse is not to scale, it contributes to the creepy/weird vibe. My work is called creepy and weird a lot and I consider those to be high compliments. Also, I still don’t understand why people find dolls so creepy. I mean, I do. I get it, but I’m more fascinated by them. They inanimate, yet also seem fully animated.
EB: Your book was recently accepted for publication — congratulations! Can you speak a bit about it?
MG: Thank you, Emma! The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book is my first book. It will be published in Spring 2021 and it took one week from slush pile to acceptance at Mad Creek Books, Machete Series. I received the acceptance email on Mother’s Day, which was timely and apt for the nature of the book. Kristen Elias Rowley, the editor in chief, told me she couldn’t put it down and had interrupted the series editor Joy Castro on the weekend to read it. What a dream of a thing to hear. It was surreal to me. She and Joy absolutely understand my book and have been treating it with all kindness and care I could have hoped for.
The Machete Series is explicitly interested in not only ethnic and racial diversity, but also gender and sexual diversity, neurodiversity, physical diversity, religious diversity, cultural diversity, and diversity in all of its manifestations. I’m absolutely crazy happy that Joy is my editor and that I’ll be joining a lineup at Mad Creek that has published essayists I admire like Sophronia Scott, Catherine Taylor, Nicholas Delbanco, and my former teacher and mentor Phillip Lopate, among others.
The Guild of the Infant Saviour was the name of the home for unwed mothers where my birth mother was sent to have me in the ’60s. Part social history, part picture book, this hybrid memoir-in-essays tells the story of my birth mother in the years before Roe v. Wade, and my search for her in the present day.
I love the idea of telling a story in word and image, similar to the way a children’s book does. Perhaps because The Lonely Doll was in heavy-rotation when I was a little girl. The images in the hand-drawn collage at the front of the manuscript are taken directly from my Adopted Child’s Memory Book.
“No one gets a dollhouse to play at reality,” said the child psychologist Erik Erickson, “but reality seeps in everywhere when we play.”
I was born in 1966 in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion. For unwed mothers, it was not the ’60s popularized by the Sexual Revolution and the Summer of Love; it was shrouded in secrecy, shame and grief. For adoptees like myself, whisked away from our birth mothers with no time to bond or be properly held, it represented erasure: a primal wound. What did it mean to be the embodiment of that shame? How could a mother surrender a child? Was I a mistake or an accident?
I began asking myself those questions for this book and wrote something I wished I’d have been able to read as a young teen just realizing what it meant to be adopted. Adoption is its own diaspora. Adoptees, like myself, wrestle with conflicted and dual identity as well as displacement; unable to find the “home” we so desperately want. These themes seem to transcend race, class, culture, and gender.
I’d like to recommend Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, Matt Salesses’ most recent novel, Disappear Doppelganger Disappear, and Lori Jakiela’s Belief is Its Own kind of Truth, Maybe, as further reading by adoptees and writer friends.
Thank you for giving me the space here to talk about my work and about these other fabulous artists and writers. I truly believe we all lift each other up and I hope to keep doing so.
A Folio of Hybrid Work by Megan Culhane Galbraith
Excerpt from The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book, forthcoming Spring 2021 from Mad Creek Books, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press.Hold Me Like a Baby-Edited June 23-for Tupelo Quarterly