A few years ago, if you would have asked me how I met Susan Van Sleet, author of the newly-released memoir, Mary & Me Beyond the Canvas: An Extraordinary Story of Adoption, Loss, and Reunion, I would have told you it was by accident. I was researching my novel, Empty Arms, and I was trying to understand how forced adoptions affected the millions of women whose lives they touched. My search led me to countless heartbreaking stories of women who turned to drugs and alcohol to ease their pain, but there was one woman who found a different path to healing. Susan Van Sleet turned to art in the years following the adoption of her daughter, who she lovingly thought of as “Mary”. As I got to know her, I learned that Susan didn’t just long for Mary; she had visions of the child. Visions she brought to life on canvas. After her reunion with Mary, whose given name is Jeanne, Susan was given photographs from her daughter’s childhood. The resemblance between the little girl on the canvas and the little girl in the photographs was remarkable. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve thought that Susan’s paintings were created from those glossy images. But they weren’t; they came from her heart. It struck me then, how a mother’s bond with her child transcends time and place.
As my friendship with Susan developed, I discovered our shared love of writing. She asked me for my advice on an unfinished collection of poems that she had written about her experience. Her words were so honest and moving that I encouraged her to finish what she had started and pursue publication. In the months that followed, I offered her advice about publishing, and she connected me with other birthmothers and adoptees whose insights helped shape my novel. Susan also agreed to an interview, in which she spoke candidly of the guilt, shame, and grief that she endured as a result of her experience. Susan, along with the women she connected me with, helped me write an authentic account of a birthmother’s experience, and in return, I’d like to think that I helped her share her beautiful work with the world.
A few years ago, if you had asked me how I met Susan Van Sleet, I would have told you it was by accident. But now I know it was fate.