To Justine, this felt like psychological bullying. 'Sometimes, I secretly wished that my mother had hit me... giving me evidence', she admits. After her mother's death, however, she came across Dorothy's memoir and unearthed her Foundling secret. On a trip to London from the U.S., Cowan visited the Foundling Museum, housed in the old hospital building in Brunswick Square, where she was given Dorothy's file. She pieced together the puzzle of her mother's tragic early life and, in doing so, began to understand, forgive and even feel proud of the woman who had once been so cruel to her.
It is tempting to wonder whether Cowan’s position might be a bit hardline. She has suffered greatly — she talks of profound depressions and an estranged elder sister — but there are not that many concrete examples of Eileen’s mad behaviour, so it can be hard to navigate Cowan’s trauma. Perhaps a lawyer’s caution has caused her to withhold details — or perhaps she still isn’t fully able to face her hideous past. As a social history of the Foundling Hospital this is a fascinating read, but as a memoir of a catastrophic mother-daughter relationship it feels slightly — and oddly — reserved.
Continuously held up as inadequate, thoughtless and ungenerous, and forced to wear a strange, shapeless, brown serge shift because she was so ‘fat’, Justine’s Californian childhood had revolved around a regime of music and elocution lessons, diets, and discipline designed to emulate her mother’s bemusingly hazy aristocratic upbringing in Britain. In a book that moves between intensive historical research and equally rigorous personal analysis, Cowan unravels the puzzle of her own unhappy childhood and the secrets of her mother’s true identity.
Unlike many memoirs in this vein, Cowan’s labours aren’t driven by the promise of catharsis. Although telling a deeply personal story, she painstakingly gathers her material as if assembling testimony for a day in court. She is also admirably honest about her fraught relationship with her mother. So far beyond repair were relations between them, that even when her mother did eventually try to tell her the truth about her background, Cowan initially wasn’t interested. In was only after the older woman’s death that she began her research proper.