Peggy Barnes has written a remarkable, wise, and generous memoir about her search for her birth mother, Pauline, a young woman from the back hills of Alabama. It takes a gutsy and determined person to embark upon such a quest, armed with nothing but a name. It takes a truly gifted writer to tell the story with such warmth and wit. Her story is their story: a deeply moving portrait of two women, separated by circumstances but united through the power of words. In I Knew You By Name, Peggy has written a gorgeous love letter to the courageous woman she never had a chance to know. I only wish Pauline could have read it, too.
Stephanie Harrison, Author of Adaptation: From Short Story to Big Screen.
For sixty-five years all Peggy Barnes knew of her beginnings was what she could recall: herself at age two, a child with big feet and a vocabulary that included little baby talk. The only mother she ever knew claimed she never, ever cried.
Then, Alabama unsealed the records of adoptive children's births. Peggy learned she is the daughter of Pauline Miller, unwed daughter of a sharecropping family and the man for whom her mother ironed shirts.
The letters Pauline wrote back to the home from which she'd fled in shameful exile reveal her heartbreaking life. In lush Southern language laced with surprising wit, Peggy extrapolates from these letters-saved by an unknown cousin in the proverbial dust-covered trunk-to venerate the woman who gave her birth, uncovering striking similarities to the life she herself has lived.
Nancy Pinard, Author of Shadow Dancing and Butterfly Soup.
Peggy Barnes worked as a freelance food and travel writer and restaurant critic. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. Her award-winning short stories have been widely published in literary magazines. Excepts from I Knew You by Name have been published in Halfway Down the Stairs and Gravel. Peggy lives in Dayton, Ohio with her husband and two dogs.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reviewed by Jack Magnus for Readers' Favorite I Knew You by Name: The Search for My Lost Mother is a nonfiction memoir written by Peggy Barnes. The author was surrendered for adoption by her unmarried mother when she was two years old. The state of Alabama released her birth records when she was sixty-five. Both of her adoptive parents had died by then, and she realized it was finally time to discover who her birth mother was. It wasn’t an easy task, even with the birth records. Barnes finally prevailed upon her genealogist cousin, Kay, to help her track down her birth family. Pauline Miller, she discovered, had lived not far from where she herself had grown up, and had worked for the man who was to father her child. Barnes was moved when she realized that Pauline had raised her, for her first two years of life, in the little house where Pauline’s father and her evil step-mother lived. Pauline’s own mother, Elsie, had left the family when she was very young. Barnes was moved to discover that Pauline’s father loved and doted upon his little grandchild and was heartbroken when she and her mother did not return on that fateful day when Peggy was surrendered. Peggy Barnes’ memoir, I Knew You by Name: The Search for My Lost Mother, is a poignant and very moving celebration of the life of her birth mother, Pauline Miller. While Barnes bears some metaphysical scarring from being raised by her proper Southern adoptive mother, this memoir is an uplifting and utterly fascinating recreation of the life of the young woman who was her birth mother and the ramifications of having a child out of wedlock in the 1940s, especially in the ultra pious deep South. Barnes at one point describes her memoir as a love story, and, indeed, that’s exactly what it is. She marvels over the pictures of the lovely Pauline, whose movie star good looks and personality surely would have taken her far if not for the pregnancy, while she mourns the ordeals Pauline encountered with her abusive first husband. And she shares all of her enthusiasm, hopes and imaginings fully and openly with the reader. I was quite taken with the empathy of the author, empathy which shines from every page of this most impressive memoir. I Knew You by Name: The Search for My Lost Mother is highly recommended.
Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford for Readers' Favorite What is in a name? Is it just a means of identification? Does it define the person? Peggy was not always Peggy. Her birth certificate identifies her as MariLouise Janelle Miller, daughter of an unwed woman, Pauline Miller. Peggy was adopted at the age of two. She doesn't remember a time before her adoption. She doesn't even know her birth name until, at the age of 65, she sees her real birth certificate for the first time. There had always been pieces to the puzzle of Peggy's life that just didn't fit. For one thing, she always called her adopted mother, Margaret, not Mom or Mommy or Mother, just Margaret. She cared for Margaret in her ailing years, but there was always a feeling of detachment. The birth certificate unleashed many emotions for Peggy, now a mother and a grandmother herself. Who was this woman, Pauline Miller of Shoal Creek, Alabama, this unwed woman who gave birth to Peggy/MariLouise? Who was this Miller family? And who is still alive to fill in the gaps of Peggy's birth story? The questions abound as Peggy Barnes begins a journey in I Knew You by Name: The Search for My Lost Mother that not only unravels more questions about her birth mother and her birth family, but also reveals a new found knowledge of who she is, who Peggy is, and how similar Peggy's life is to that of her birth mother's. Peggy does find some cousins, and these cousins have kept a journal and some letters written by Pauline. The letters introduce Peggy to the mother she hasn't seen since the age of two, a woman she never really knew. This is a powerful memoir, perhaps even two memoirs, two parallel stories that unravel simultaneously. The story of these women, Peggy Barnes and her birth mother, Pauline Miller, opens one's eyes to the plight of women in mid-twentieth-century North America. Peggy Barnes went looking for her birth mother. What she found was herself and a whole new definition of what it means to be alive.
Reviewed by Deborah Lloyd for Readers' Favorite This gripping memoir reads like a fine novel; you will be engaged from beginning to end. Peggy Barnes’ I Knew You By Name: The Search for My Lost Mother describes a gut-wrenching, many twists-in-the-road journey. Barnes always knew she was adopted and did not begin the search for her mother until her late 60s. Soon, through the help of a genealogist, she found her birth certificate – the first time she ever saw her mother’s name. This led to meeting a cousin who had inherited several letters written by her mother. These letters were a treasure, as well as the source of sadness. Barnes learned some aspects of the difficult life her mother had led. Each new fact led to many more questions, leading the author to some unexpected findings. When questions were not clearly answered, Peggy Barnes filled in the blanks with fictional renderings. These renderings are not unlike what many adopted children devise; they imagine why they were given away and the circumstances of their birth parents’ lives. Having part of the story through these letters becomes the source of reconstructing her mother’s difficult life. Ms. Barnes was born on Easter Day 1940, in the South; the attitude towards unwed mothers is truly atrocious. She lived with her mother for her first two years of life, and the trauma of never seeing her mother again cannot be diminished. Certain aspects of their lives mirror each other. I Knew You By Name: The Search for My Lost Mother by Peggy Barnes will enrich your understanding of the many complexities of the adoptee’s life story.