G Force

Mother and child reunion

(Marion Ettlinger)
By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / June 16, 2011

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Q. When did you realize your story was a book?

A. Probably in 2006. Before that it had been a collection of journals. I began to write the story from the beginning to discover what had happened.

Q. What did you want to discover?

A. What had happened with my own younger self, as well as the life and death of my son. A lot of what I knew about his life was overheard but very little was told to me directly. I felt that in our lives there had been a lot of hopelessness, with his illness and death and my alcoholism. I was interested in going to those terrible places and re-seeing them as if I were writing a poem. I felt the possibility of something there that was not just darkness, but might have some sort of transformative possibilities. I also felt that if I went back into this story I could try to discover what had really happened instead of what I thought had happened.

Q. And did you?

A. I found out basic facts — where he died, what illness he had, what his life had been. I wanted to know him in whatever way was possible. Everything I learned was brand new, like what his favorite foods were. Even the name they called him was different from what I thought. I felt I was getting closer and closer to him.

Q. Did you find that he resembled you?

A. Yes.

Q. Why didn’t you know anything about him before?

A. When I began writing the book, I wasn’t writing about this rudder of passivity and dependency that clearly runs throughout my life. A large part of the book was the struggle to take action in my own life. Do I have the right to be his mother was a big question. The inability to speak out and act became very important when I was asking questions about who was to blame. I felt it was a large part of why I lost him.

Q. There was a lot of secrecy in your family about your son. Why?

A. In my family, the feeling is you don’t hurt other people. To talk about his illness would be to hurt each other, my aunt and uncle and you can’t do that.

Q. Did you blame yourself for his death?

A. I felt of course I was to blame: The idea of forgiveness and forgiving myself hadn’t occurred to me. But I think ultimately I had to come to a different conclusion that did not have to do with assigning guilt and blame. Through the writing of the book and in the time after the writing, I came to understand what that meant.

Q. When you do book readings, how do people respond to your story?

A. There are specifics in the book about alcoholism and my recovery and adoption and the loss of my son. But they evoke an emotional response from readers in ways that aren’t necessarily tied to those specifics. Someone asked me what I’d learned about grief in the course of writing the book. Also, that struggle to take action in your own life is another piece that feels universal.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I was just awarded a BMI-Kluge Fellowship [in partnership with the Library of Congress.] It’s in support of the writing and research of my next book.

Q. What’s it about?

A. It’s in its infancy but I’ll be researching the Wampagnoags of South Yarmouth, the Finnish community of the mid-Cape, and the Irish in Brockton. They’re all tied to me and to my family, and there is one person in each of these groups who is of great interest to me. So I have three people and three communities and the subject of shelter, which has been an interest for quite a while in my poetry. I can’t wait to start researching.

Interview was condensed and edited. Linda Matchan can be reached at

Kelle Groom
Groom, who lives in Florida, has published three acclaimed books of poetry, appearing in Best American Poetry 2010. Now comes “I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl,’’ a lyrical and searingly honest memoir of her troubled early life as an addict, and the tragically short life of the baby she gave up for adoption to her aunt and uncle. The child died of cancer when he was 14 months old. Groom, 50, lived in Massachusetts as a girl; her baby’s brief life was spent in Brockton, to which she is drawn in her journey of self-discovery.