The Story Behind 'The Business of Naming Things'

"What’s in a name? That is what we ask ourselves in childhood when we write the name that we are told is ours."
—Stephen Dedalus, Ulysses

"Not to know your origins is to remain forever a child."—Cicero

This book has its roots in memoir, but it is not a memoir. It is a collection of stories about the interfaces of language, character, and voice. Each story is about identity as registered in writing or speech.

Memoir is not hard to explain. It is clear what it is about; memoir's subject is, by definition, self-evident. Fiction is harder to explain, and perhaps best left alone. 

Still, I must have learned something in writing these stories, and I will try to say what that is.

As an adoptee in a closed adoption system, my sense of my own identity always felt contingent. The late Yale historian James Boswell titled his book about adoption in the Middle Ages The Kindness of Strangers, and, for me as an adoptee, deep down I felt that my welfare was indeed contingent upon just that kind of kindness—from strangers—because, in a literal sense, there was no “family.” At least, not at first. Family is a thing that must be constructed. And in the ghost kingdom through which all parties to a closed adoption roam, fantasy (or fiction) is the first tool. You can build anything with it. You can build and claim a past. Who's to contradict you when all are pledged to silence?

Growing up in upstate New York, I didn’t know who I was or who I wanted to be. And I did sense that I was from somewhere else and bound for somewhere else. My adoptive parents, though loving and supporting, expected something else for me as well. They knew I was from "other stock,” as my father put it. He was a corrections officer and an after-hours farmer; my mother was a registered nurse. As we were a small family (I had no siblings), my parents could afford to send me to a private college. 

For my junior year at Notre Dame, I opted to study in Dublin. There, I was introduced to the work and lives of Joyce, Yeats, and Beckett, and in a culture that revered these difficult authors. I went on to study Anglo-Irish literature in the graduate program at Leeds University; I also married right after college, in 1976, and had a son, born in Leeds. We moved to New York City, where I found a job as a copy editor for a science publisher. I have more or less stayed in New York, and in publishing, ever since.

I continued to search for some kind of mooring, not too successfully. There was another marriage; and another. Each of my sons struggled in his own way. Thankfully, I have found at last a permanent mooring—home and  life with my wife, Rebecca Smith. And my sons are coping well.

It was Becca who urged me to get to the bottom of my birth story. She found the investigator who found a living member of my mother’s family. My birth mother was Virginia Bradley from Philadelphia; alas, she was deceased. I met my sister, though; I talked to two brothers. Oddly, my birth mother’s three children were all adopted—one thing I had never dreamed I’d share with siblings. I found a dear friend of my mother's; she was the only person who knew the identity of my birth father (see the story “Finishing Ulysses”). We had dinner. My father, Robert Gallagher, was deceased as well, but I came to know several of his friends; I met his widow as well as his four children—all half-siblings of mine.

It was an interesting story: my mother came to New York to be a singer and dancer on Broadway in the 1950s; she was even the star of a musical. My father came to New York to write and meet writers; he followed Dylan Thomas and James T. Farrell around; he loved jazz and Lorenz Hart; he wrote poetry. He lived in the YMCA on 23rd Street, across from the Chelsea Hotel, and drove a cab. Bob and Ginny were friends, nothing more. Some fleeting passion led to me, born at St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village on Armistice Day, 1954, surrendered by Virginia to the New York Foundling shortly thereafter, and picked up by John and Eleanor Coffey at about three weeks old.

What is most striking to me about growing up adopted is that, in the absence of customary markers for identity—I had no blood relations; my parents preferred a hands-off approach and gave me license to become whom I would—I still found things I identified with: Irishness and literature and New York City and art and jazz. I followed whatever map I had or imagined toward these things on my own, with not a little damage inflicted on my personal life along the way. Then, at the age of 50, to find that my birth parents were two Irish Catholics, not far removed from Ireland (Donegal; Mayo); lovers of James Joyce (particularly my father Bob Gallagher who, I am told, was pressing upon friends Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses in the early 1950s); lovers of music—my mother was an excellent singer and my father saw the great jazz artists as they came through Philly—Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, Chet Baker. And that they, too, came to New York City to find themselves, like I did, confirmed certain things. These parents were far from the parents who raised me. But I became, in many respects, more like the people who did not raise me. In my birth mother's family, I was told, was a copy of the book on Irish immigration that I had co-written. I was also told, of my mother's Bradley clan, "they would tell a story to get to a fact."

Which I think I have tried to do in the eight stories in my book.

Art, and particularly a language art, can be an epistemology, a way of knowing. These stories are derived from that effort to know, an effort waged on several fronts, but measured here in words. In carrying on the business of naming things, I have named myself (see “The Newman Boys”).

Still, it is not lost on me that most of these stories are set in upstate New York, far from Philadelphia (and the west of Ireland). These are stories my adoptive parents would recognize. Although where I was raised was arbitrary, as was my name, those things are both part of my identity now; they are what I know.