“What happens when the baby they buried comes back?” The question is asked on the cover of Sara-Jayne King’s stunning memoir, Killing Karoline. The story King relates is simultaneously heart-breaking and inspiring. A child is conceived during an illicit relationship in apartheid South Africa. Named Karoline, she is “born with a large, black question mark over my head”. Her biological parents – a white woman and a black man – are forbidden by law and custom to be together. Her official parents – both white – decide to hide the mother’s “indiscretion” with her black lover and smuggle her to the UK under false medical pretences. They proceed to give her up for adoption and return to South Africa, lying to all concerned that Karoline had died.
The image on the cover of King’s book – of the young Karoline, renamed Sarah Jane by her adoptive parents – spreading her arms in joy, as if to embrace the universe with her gorgeous smile – says everything about this incredibly resilient person, who refused to be killed by the “deception and denial” of the people who brought her into this world and the inhuman system that governed their decisions and fears.
Sarah Jane is adopted by a couple who were unable to have biological children. Earlier they also adopted a boy, Adam. No other book on adoption I have read made the complicated dynamics involved in this kind of family structure as tangible to me as King’s memoir. She confesses what it means to be a “consolation prize” to her adoptive mother: “Not just enough, but that our becoming her kids was actually sufficient to eradicate, or at least usurp her own disappointment at not being able to have her own biological children.” Feelings of insecurity persist. They are complicated by her parents’ inadequate handling of a vital side of their adopted children’s reality: “And so while we knew we were loved, my parents’ ignorance and inability to acknowledge our skin colour as being crucial to our identities ultimately led to both Adam and I navigating, in isolation and confusion, a painful and self-destructive path to make sense of who we were as individuals and in the world at large.” For Adam, the journey ends in tragedy.
When the ground beneath your feet keeps shifting, it is impossibly hard to keep stable, to know who you are. King is constantly faced with the necessity of reframing her beliefs. It can be something as obvious as finding out that when you are born in August in South Africa, you are not a summer baby. Or it can be as soul-crushing as your biological mother’s refusal to give you the answers you crave. Adoption, King writes, “creates gaps of assumption, false imaginings and, ultimately, disappointments.” It confronts King with the fact that for her biological mother “saving face held greater importance…than hearing me say my first word, or watching as I gingerly took my first step.”
She clings desperately to things that give her comfort like her childhood blanket. To escape reality, she flees into books, her “first addiction”; then others follow. She struggles to maintain a healthy relationship with food, drinks excessively, tries other substances and starts self-harming. Feeling inadequate and ashamed, she becomes a “people pleaser”. She enters toxic relationships. Around her families fall apart. Her adoptive parents separate. As she finds out while trying to trace her biological parents, the woman who gave birth to her goes on to have another child. Establishing contact with her siblings and her and their extended families proves to be extremely difficult, as one can imagine. But there are moments of joy. If anything, King’s story proves the adage that friends are the family we choose.
King is honest and extremely generous about sharing her experience of adoption, loss and addiction. It is humbling to follow her life as it unfolds through the stories she chooses to tell. She is not sentimental, which could have easily been the case. Above all, she narrates a story of great courage in standing up for oneself. Exceptionally talented, she completes her university studies, begins working, and when everything goes haywire, she is brave enough to accept the help she needs to recover. This comes with challenges of its own, but seeking treatment brings her back to the country of her birth where she eventually settles and where she finally claims for herself the name she’d always wanted to be known by: Sara-Jayne.
“I just want someone to see me”, she writes. Sara-Jayne refuses to disappear. She gradually surfaces into acceptance and acknowledgement. She realises that it is her biological mother’s loss for not wanting to know her. It is our gain that she allows her readers to see her extraordinary strength and beauty.
King is now based in Cape Town and shares her life with another adoptee, her dog Siza. She is a journalist and broadcaster, hosting her own show on CapeTalk.
Killing Karoline is not just a powerful story which could have been told in almost any fashion to thrive, it is a well-crafted text which testifies to the love of literature and the remarkable skill of this emerging creative writer.
by Sara-Jayne King
Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 15 September 2017.