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Memoir details writer’s angst over meeting her birth parents

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A.M. Homes

A.M. Homes

You might not want to read all of the novels written by A.M. Homes — especially "Music for Torching," about a couple who intentionally burn down their house, or "The End of Alice," about a convicted pedophile murderer. Her writing is often sensationalistic and unsettling.

But her most recent book is a stunning, sometimes funny, memoir — "The Mistress's Daughter" — about her own confrontation with her birth parents when she was 31 years old.

Homes' real mother was a 22-year-old single woman when she had an affair with an older married man with a family of his own. So before she was born, A.M. was adopted by a stable couple who made an under-the-table deal. They parked their car around the corner from a hospital on a street in downtown Washington, D.C., waiting in a snowstorm for someone to deliver their child — wrapped in pink ribbons.

It all appeared seamy to Homes. "I was picked up like a cake from a bakery." She found herself wanting to meet both her mother and her father, but terrified at the same time.

When she finally went through with it, she discovered that she didn't like either one very much. Yet she was curious. She wanted to know as much about them as possible.

Homes writes, "In my dreams, my birth mother is a goddess, the queen of queens, the CEO, the CFO, and the COO. Movie-star beautiful, incredibly competent, she can take care of anyone and anything. She has made a fabulous life for herself, as ruler of the world, except for one missing link — me."

Homes discovered that her birth mother, Ellen Ballman, who never married, suffered frequently from bronchitis, high blood pressure and was nearsighted and had soft teeth. This is the kind of thing anyone meeting a birth mother for the first time would want to know.

When she called her on the phone, Ballman's voice sounded "low, nasal, gravelly, vaguely animal." Her voice came in bursts and "a sharp suck of air — smoking." When she saw a picture of her, she appeared "strong, thick, fierce, like a prison matron. ... In the cheeks, the eyes, eyebrows, forehead I see traces of myself."

By the time they did meet, Ellen Ballman became a stalker, showing up at bookstores where Homes was doing readings. Homes felt harassed.

When she met her father, Norman Hecht, an ex-All American football player, he was disappointing, too — distant, very uncomfortable, treated her a little like a prostitute, suggesting they meet to talk in tiny old hotels. His wife knew about the baby he fathered out of wedlock, and she wanted nothing to do with Homes.

Hecht suggested they have a DNA test. She agreed, then she let him tell her the results — that he is indeed her father. Later, when she wanted to see documentation, he wouldn't show it to her. She never did get it but she just knew — she could see herself more in her father than in her mother. She noticed that "his butt looks familiar"; it looked just like hers.

The second half of the book turns suddenly into a research booklet on family history as Homes obsessively looks everywhere she can think of for information, and the writing turns deadly dull.

I arranged to talk to A.M. Homes for 30 minutes from her New York home, but she wouldn't give me her phone number. She insisted on calling me. I think maybe she was worried I would be her stalker, too.

Homes called me 10 minutes late, then 10 minutes later she said, "I have to go in a couple of minutes — I have another interview."

I got nervous and asked faster questions, but she seemed like a trapped mouse talking about secret things. In low tones, she told me she worked on the book for seven years, that it "emotionally overwhelmed" her. And she was surprised how difficult it is for an adopted child to find records. The laws are different in every state, and she wishes for "consistency to the adoption process."

"I may as well be an alien," Homes said. "I had a fear that finding out would change me, that I was so fragile I would come undone. I don't feel that way anymore. I was shaken while it was happening. I have my mother's laugh, which terrifies me."

Homes said that her father's desire to take the DNA test was bizarre. It could have been a veiled attempt to "exclude" her from his family, and he needed the test to do it legally — but she had never thought of it that way until afterward.

She also wondered if either parent would have agreed to meet her had she not been a well-known writer.

Homes said she wanted the second half of the book to be "very different, as if I whacked the first part and broke it open with a sledgehammer — like my life — then put it together again."

She would still love to know more about her past, but she said she no longer feels as if she might "be kicked off the planet" at any time.

Somehow I wasn't convinced. When she ended the interview, I had the feeling that she is still looking for answers.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com