In her recently-released book, Mary & Me, Beyond the Canvas, Merrill author Susan Van Sleet shares a gripping and sometimes raw account of being sent away as a pregnant teen in an era when the shame of giving up a child was punished by the deafening silence that followed. Her inspirational memoir sheds new light on the shadowy era of closed adoption and validates how her vow of secrecy manifested itself through emotionally saturated canvases and poignant poetry. Mary & Me, Beyond the Canvas was written following the author’s reunion with her then 27-year-old daughter.
Susan’s first book, Mary & Me, Beyond the Canvas sits near the top of the bestseller lists for both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Susan began writing the book in 1993, after first meeting the daughter she had given up in 1966. Susan wrote the manuscript primarily as a means of therapy for herself.
“I wrote the memoir in less than six months and then set it aside,” Susan said.
Susan revisited her memoir two years ago at the urging of Erika Liodice, an author, who had read some of Susan’s poetry while researching the closed adoption era for her novel, Empty Arms.
“In her research, she contacted me after reading my poetry, online,” Susan said. “I started publishing post-adoption poetry in 1996. The poetry was an emotional release for me.”
Susan’s book was finally published 20 years after she had first met her daughter, Jeanne.
Back in 1966, shortly after the adoption, Susan began painting portraits of what she thought her daughter would look like. She continued to paint portraits of the daughter she’d never held or seen throughout the next 27 years.
“I processed through canvas,” Susan said. “And, eventually transferred emotions of guilt and shame to longing for my daughter and began painting her. I was very fortunate to have the gift of art.”
When compared to actual photos of Jeanne growing up, the resemblance to the girl in Susan’s portraits is uncanny. Also remarkable is that Jeanne became an artist like her birth mother.
Jeanne, who has also reconnected with her birth father, has three daughters of her own. Susan has three sons with Bruce, and the families have gotten together on several occasions over the past 20 years.
“The closure it brought for so many family members was incredible,” Susan said.
Susan was a senior at Holy Cross High School in Merrill when she found out she was pregnant. She missed the end of her senior year as her parents sent her to stay with an aunt out of state.
“No one saw pregnant girls in the 1960s,” Susan said. “They secretly went away and placed their babies for adoption.”
She had no contact with anyone back in Merrill during her period of confinement in 1966. Once the baby was born, she returned home, never to speak of her child again.
“Before returning home, I was told by my case worker that I would go on with my life,” she said. “If I didn’t talk about it, I would forget this baby.”
But she never forgot.
The first person she confided in was her boyfriend, Bruce, whom she met in 1968 in Wausau. She could see Bruce’s marriage proposal coming – and knew she’d say yes – but wanted to make sure he knew her darkest secret first.
“Telling him was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” Susan said.
Bruce responded with understanding and support, which he continues to offer after more than 40 years of marriage.
In 1983, Susan passed her updated contact information to the adoption agency and asked that it be slipped into her closed file. That turned out to be a fortuitous move in helping Jeanne find her 10 years later. When she got the call from the agency asking if she would be willing to meet Jeanne, her immediate answer was yes.
“I dissolved,” Susan said. “I had been waiting for that day. I was anxious, nervous and excited.”
Susan has been a presenter at adoption conferences and a contributor to adoption newsletters, blogs and websites, and she continues to guide and inspire birthmothers. She hopes to further that effort by sharing her personal story in Mary & Me, Beyond the Canvas.
“I would like my book to be used as a tool in educating and enlightening people about what birth mothers experienced,” she said.
After going through the challenges of self-publishing her book, Susan said she is overwhelmed at how well the book has been received.
The book has gone into worldwide distribution through Outskirt Press, Inc. It has been translated into numerous languages and is available from several high profile booksellers. Some sellers list the book as a psychology textbook, due to Susan’s use of art therapy in dealing with her pain and longing.
Susan, who moved back to Merrill 10 years ago, will hold a book signing Saturday, Aug. 24, from 1:30-3:30 p.m. in the lobby of Bell Tower Residence. The reception and signing will be the official launch of the book, fittingly in the same place where Susan’s journey began; Holy Cross High School was located on the same campus that is now Bell Tower.
Another book signing event will be held Sept. 28, from 10 a.m.-noon at Book World in Merrill. A third Merrill book signing is scheduled at Johnson’s Gifts & Home Decor, on Nov. 8, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., in conjunction with the store’s Holiday Open House.
Susan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org