*Full disclosure: I know and work with Justine Cowan at the Atlanta based nonprofit, Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta
I do not read a lot of straight history for fun because I tend to prefer my history with a little flourish, or through the lens of a personal experience, fictional or lived, and so far I’ve found it difficult to find history books that do that well (but if you know them please send them my way because I do actually like learning history I am unaware of). For that reason the sound of Justine Cowan’s The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames appealed to me, which is good because I know Justine and I would have felt weird about not reading her book. Of course, once I began to read the book, I realized how strange it is to read the personal history of a colleague, someone you know well but not intimately, and so here I am feeling a bit weird about writing this review.
The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames is part memoir, as Cowan takes us into her life and her relationship with her mother. By all outward appearances, Cowan’s childhood was charmed, full of wealth, the best education, grand parties, and all the trappings of a rich and fortunate life. As is sadly too often the case, this veneer of fortune was stretched over tenuous and ragged relationships. Cowan’s mother was full of anxieties and inconsistencies. It’s hard to describe the exact ways in which Cowan’s relationship with her mother was unhealthy but it’s both clear and hazy, the way emotional and verbal abuse so often is. Throughout her story, Cowan alternates between general language to describe this dynamic and illustrating specific memories. For me, the most shattering memory, the one I remember most vividly from reading, is when her mother buys her new clothes at the age of 25, many sizes too big, and forces her to try them on in front of her, berating her for her size and her lack of appreciation throughout. This strange kind of backhanded “gift” which works as a tool to invoke shame and guilt in her daughter, is the mother’s way through most of the memories.
However, these traumatic memories are actually a kind of backbone for the true body of the book. They are layered into an excavation of the identity of Cowan’s mother, as Dorothy Soames, a foundling, someone Cowan knew nothing about till after her death, a true family secret. And so, although this is a memoir, this book also functions as a detailed history and accounting of the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children. While slowly uncovering her mother’s life story, which is aided by an actual memoir her mother wrote, Cowan researches how this institution came to exist and all the social and political forces that acted upon its inception and maintenance since the eighteenth century. In this institution, bastard children were raised to serve the English elite and simultaneously raised to be reminded of their status as “lesser than” simply based on the circumstances of their birth. A constant refrain in almost every chapter is the idea/sense that a handful of pompous, well off, white, gentleman who thought they knew best ended up deciding the fates of thousands and thousands of innocent children, condemning most of them to abuse and many of them to death by virtue of those decisions.
For a topic that I knew nothing about, and for which I had relatively minimal interest in before, I can’t tell you how fascinating this history is. This is a very compelling history. Cowan is able to link certain developments within the foundling hospital to the proliferation of solitary confinement and other tools within the larger prison industrial complex, to the development of the study of childhood psychology, and so many other fields and ways of being that impact our societies today. With the added emotional heft of her own story and the way this history challenges her to reconsider what she knows about her mother and who she believes her mother was, this book becomes a powerful and painful reminder about the insidiousness of state sanctioned intergenerational trauma and violence.
Because this is a true story, there is a kind of disappointing gap at the end. It’s through no fault of Cowan’s writing, but merely that independent research without firsthand accounts can only get you so far. I hunger to know more about Dorothy Soames life than we can receive (and if I feel that way who can imagine how Cowan feels). I also feel, in some ways, that throughout the stories Cowan holds back a bit on her own life, that of her father, and her sister (who she tells us she is not close to very early on). I imagine that writing a memoir like this must be difficult, or impossible, and that finding a balance between sharing and over sharing must match that difficulty. Still, at the end, the memoir seems to provide a sense of closure for Cowan and a new dynamic for her to hold on to in relationship to her mother. It’s no fairytale ending, but in its honesty, it feels better, and more solid, and, I don’t know, healthier.