An Analysis of Kirsten Lloyd’s "A Family Portrait"

Imagine being adopted. Imagine living a life amongst a group of people, all the while knowing that they were not blood relatives. Imagine not knowing any medical history, or where certain traits came from. Imagine being adopted. In Kirsten Lloyd’s "A Family Portrait", this is the situation that Lizzy's mother faces. Having been adopted at an early age, she had never known her real family. Lizzy herself is not adopted, but as the daughter of an adoptee, she faces some of the same problems. Lizzy’s own identity is a product of both her parents' identities, but since her mother was adopted, half of Lizzy's background is missing. Lizzy then feels much like an adoptee would, out of place in her own family. There is, however, one very striking aspect that dominates this situation. Although Lizzy has never fully felt secure in knowing the origins of her identity, it is only at the age of seventeen that she learns why: Lizzy's mother had been adopted. As the two women share such a close, personal bond, Lizzy has inherited her mother’s sense of not belonging.

It is known that in many families, children will choose one parent to especially identify with; for example, little boys want to "be like daddy." In Lloyd's story, Lizzy's thoughts make it clear that she views herself in relation to her mother. Lloyd establishes the connection between Lizzy and her mother at the commencement of the story, using both form and content to emphasize how important this bond is. In terms of form, it is important to note that the only characters in the entire story are Lizzy and her mother, and all the dialogue in the story consists of a duologue between the two. There is much more to be interpreted from the content of the story. Lizzy's actions indicate that she is unconsciously comparing her brother to her father, and her mother to herself. In analyzing the family portraits, she notices that her dad "looks like an older clone of her brother" (1). In thinking about the various heights of her family, Lizzy notices that her father is tall and her brother is getting taller. That Lizzy is tall as well shouldn’t seem like such a concern. However, as her mother is the "All-American average height of 5’5""(1) Lizzy feels out of place in comparison. In addition to all of this, Lloyd establishes that although Lizzy’s father’s opinion plays a big part in her life, it is her mother’s opinion that matters more. In describing how Lizzy plans to study music and theatre in college, Lloyd mentions that this is something that Lizzy’s father doesn’t seem to understand. This implies that, unless Lizzy’s mother has no input on the subject, she approves of her daughter. All these examples illustrate how Lizzy is very closely tied to her mother. This relationship is very significant, first because it is the origin of Lizzy's self-identity, and second, because it serves as a transition for what later happens between Lizzy and her mother.

Lizzy obviously values her mother's opinion, which eventually results in Lizzy taking her questions a little bit farther than she intends. After a round of intensive questions about family traits, Lizzy finally insists, "'You keep talking about Dad’s family. Don’t you have family?'"(2) She wants to learn more about the person she has modeled herself after, a natural desire, but in this case Lizzy gets more of an answer than she bargains for. After a tense silence, Lizzy's mother says, "'I was adopted when I was a baby.'"(2) It is in this tension-filled moment that the connection between Lizzy and her mother is displayed most prominently. Her mother does not know her own background, and therefore, neither does Lizzy. It is also at this point that the personalities of the two women show a great difference. Lizzy’s mother is afraid to search out her birth mother, for fear of what it will do to her adopted mother: "' I never wanted to find my birth mother...it tore my mom apart after my brother found his.'"(3) Lizzy has no such fear; in looking for her real grandmother, Lizzy and her mother might grow closer together.

This crucial experience has resulted in bringing the women together already, as is shown by their actions in the last sentences:

The two women smiled at each other, and with a spin of their heels, they went back to their lives, trying to make sense, in their own way, of what had just happened. (4)

Each woman's smile signifies her understanding of what the other is experiencing. For Lizzy's mother, it is a life without a past. For Lizzy, it is an unclear future. They both share a sense of unknown identity, but unlike her mother, Lizzy's sense of not belonging to her family is the result of genetics, not situations. As signified by their traveling in opposite directions at the close of the story, it follows that the women will cope in very different ways. In spite of it all, Lizzy, living with her natural parents, has a good idea of what it means to be adopted.

 

Works Cited

"A Family Portrait." Kirsten Lloyd. English 101D, March 26, 2000.