I just want some­one to see me...

“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 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.

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