Noe Valley Voice March 2001

A Memoir About Adopting a Baby From Russia

By Kathy Dalle-Molle

Noe Valley writer Janis Cooke Newman never planned to have children. In fact, in the opening chapter of her new memoir, The Russian Word for Snow, she seems downright repulsed by kids and families.

"I'd watch the families climbing out of their minivans and walk wide around them so I wouldn't be contaminated by the damp stickiness of their parenthood," she writes. "Watching them move across the parking lot, the mother unaware of the small chocolate-colored handprint on the seat of her pants, the father dragging a flowered diaper bag behind him, I'd shudder and walk cleanly away, a neat leather purse over my shoulder."

Then, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Newman's feelings about parenthood began to change.

"As my mother lost the ability to walk--from the cancer or the chemotherapy, nobody seemed to know which--I began to wonder what it would feel like to be pregnant.... Pregnancy seemed the antithesis of cancer; another condition that caused cells to multiply and divide, but with an entirely opposite result."

With only one fallopian tube and pushing 40, Newman underwent a variety of unorthodox treatments to help her become pregnant: acupuncture, Chinese herbs "that tasted like dirt," and a uterine alignment from a New Age masseuse.

She even persuaded husband Ken to pretend to be 17 and make love to her in their Toyota Celica, "parked in our own driveway, 20 feet from our bed."

Just as she was about to begin in-vitro fertilization--using the $100,000 she'd received from the sale of her mother's house, knowing "I'd keep going until I used every bit of it"--she and Ken attended an adoption meeting and saw their son-to-be on a videotape shown during the meeting.

Immediately, the couple fell in love with the 10-month-old baby on the tape, who had been abandoned in a Moscow hospital. "He had enormous eyes and wispy brown hair that stood up on the top of his head. He was naked, lying on a white metal changing table and kicking his legs out behind him in little swimming motions.

"The baby looked like me," recalls Newman. "I had such a strong feeling about him." Within a week of seeing the naked toddler, Newman, now 45, had canceled her IVF appointment and launched her quest to bring the boy-- eventually named Alex in honor of Ken's father--to the United States.

The Russian Word for Snow, which will be published by St. Martin's Press on March 7, chronicles the trying months during the summer of 1996 before the Newmans were able to legally adopt Alex. First, the couple spent three months completing complicated preadoption paperwork. Once in Moscow, they spent several heart-wrenching weeks trying to claim Alex, waiting for the signature to release him from the orphanage. Moscow was falling apart--deep in the throes of its first democratic election. President Boris Yeltsin's aides were predicting civil war; the subway the Newmans rode to the orphanage was bombed; and Gennady Zyuganov, the anti-American Communist candidate, looked as if he might become Russia's next president and put a stop to international adoptions.

"We felt completely helpless," recalls Newman. "The culture was so different there. It was amazingly corrupt. We could never get any information. Everything in Russia was so hard. We had no allies. We felt completely cut off."

At one point, the Newmans became so discouraged that they considered kidnapping the baby and transporting him home through Finland.

Luckily, that didn't happen, and their story has a happy ending.

Alex, who just turned 6 in February, is now a happy, healthy kindergartner attending Synergy School on Valencia Street. He often appears in his mom's column for the Voice ("Are We There Yet?"), offering up precocious comments in print.

Though not yet in bookstores as this article is being written, The Russian Word for Snow has received favorable advance buzz from Publisher's Weekly, as well as from several authors, including National Book Award finalist Beth Kephard and Karin Evans, who wrote the highly acclaimed Lost Daughters of China.

The Newman family lives in a large, pristine Victorian home on Liberty Street with a picture-perfect view of the city and a sunny living room filled with a wicker couch and chairs. Two cats and a cockapoo named Wagner enter the room occasionally to inspect their new visitor.

Newman, who has written for Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Phila-delphia Inquirer, and who also teaches writing workshops through the Writing Salon in Bernal Heights and Book Passage in Marin, never planned for the story of Alex's adoption to become a book.

But in 1997, when Alex had been home for about six months, she realized, "I had no history for him. I didn't know much about his background. The only thing I had to share with him was the history of how he became our son."

So she began writing this story for Alex. "There were no scenes, no dialogue. It was really terrible," she says. "I didn't know how to write the story. It took me about a year to figure out how to tell the story."

Her breakthrough came when she attended a Squaw Valley Writers Community workshop in the summer of 1998.

"That's where I really learned how to write and realized that what I was doing maybe could be a book," she says. "I got to work with a group of really wonderful writers there. They hated what I turned in, but they taught me how to use the devices of fiction to tell the story. I'd never written like that before."

As she continued to write Alex's story, she began to publish short excerpts from her work-in-progress as personal essays in the Chronicle and Salon.

"Getting those pieces published really kept me going," she recalls. "It also helped me to eventually get an agent and sell the book to a publisher."

Later that year, after she had completed about a hundred pages of her manuscript, Newman met local literary agent Amy Rennert at a travel writers conference at Book Passage in Marin.

Rennert agreed to look at the manuscript while on vacation. Two weeks later, she agreed to represent Newman, and Newman began writing a proposal for Rennert to shop around to New York publishers. Eventually, St. Martin's made an offer, and Newman spent most of last year writing the book, occasionally borrowing friends' houses or renting a room at the Zen Center for peace and quiet.

"It was a hectic year," says Newman. "It was the same year I was trying to get Alex into kindergarten. Sometimes I would just have to tell him, 'Go away right now so Mommy can write about how much she loves you.'"

This year also promises to be hectic. At the end of March, Newman will embark on an eight-week book tour, starting in the Bay Area and moving through Seattle, Portland, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. She also will be speaking at adoption conferences in Chicago and Boston.

Born in Bergen County, N.J., Newman is the oldest child and only daughter in her family. Her parents divorced when Newman was in her mid-20s, and her father now lives in North Carolina (her mother is deceased). She has twin brothers, who still live in New Jersey and own a swimming pool store.

Newman attended a small liberal arts college in New Jersey, majoring in psychology. She then went on for her doctorate at the New School in Manhattan. She never practiced psychology, however, but worked instead as a computer salesperson. She moved to San Francisco in 1980, because "Manhattan was aging me too fast."

She met husband Ken, 46, in 1983, and they have been married since 1990. Ken has a multifaceted career as a comedy writer for corporate trade shows, and as a character actor who has appeared on TV in Midnight Caller and Nash Bridges, as well as in plays at the Magic Theater. He also is an accomplished photographer, who shoots the photos that accompany his wife's newspaper and magazine articles.

Ken had always wanted children and had hoped Newman would eventually come around. "Ken has always had a natural rapport with kids, but until Alex, I just felt uncomfortable around children. They made me shy," she says.

"If I hadn't gotten Alex, I don't know if I would have adopted," she confesses.

Although she's heard stories of children who were neglected or abused in Russian orphanages, Newman insists that those situations are rare, "less than five percent. Everyone I know who has adopted from Russia has had a very good experience.

"It's kind of amazing," she adds. "At 16 months, when Alex came to live with us, he didn't talk. So when we brought him home, we would put him in a backpack and go on hikes and talk to him constantly. By the time he was 21/2, he was chattering all the time. He just completely opened up.

"A lot about adoption involves a leap of faith," she continues. "If you think too hard about it, you'll just be paralyzed. You can do so much research that you never move beyond that phase. In our case, we saw Alex and stumbled into the process blindly. I think that often turns out the best.

"Just do it. Don't intellectualize. Go with your gut. Do some research, but don't be too practical. We had no address or phone number for our contact in Russia. We put money in a Citibank account of his. That was a huge leap of faith--and good preparation for being a parent."

Newman knows firsthand that adoption is often an expensive proposition-- it cost $25,000 to adopt Alex. To help other couples who are not able to afford an international adoption on their own, Newman is donating 10 percent of the proceeds from The Russian Word for Snow to organizations such as the Domoi Foundation, a Mountain View­based nonprofit group that provides financial assistance to people wanting to adopt children from orphanages in Russia and Eastern European countries.

Although Newman expects to travel to Russia again someday with Alex, she says he is not yet interested in learning about his homeland.

"Right now, he is always telling me he was born in France, not Moscow," she laughs.

A book release party for The Russian Word for Snow will be held at Cover to Cover Booksellers at 3812 24th Street at 7 p.m. on March 24. The party will be a benefit for Synergy School ($5 from each book sold will be donated to the school). Janis Cooke Newman will also be reading from her book on April 17 at 7:30 p.m. at A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, 601 Van Ness Avenue.

From The Russian Word for Snow
By Janis Cooke Newman

My son Alex, who is 2 years old, loves to play with the matryoshka dolls my husband and I bought from a vendor in Izmailovsky Park. Each doll is a different family member, and Alex likes to twist open the father, who is playing an accordion, to find the mother nested inside. One by one, he opens them all, the grandfather balancing a yellow balalaika on his knee, the grandmother holding a golden samovar, until he comes to a tiny baby with a red pacifier painted into its mouth.

When he's got them apart, purple and green and black half-bodies scattered across the carpet, I'm struck by how complete the family is: children, mother, father, grandparents. No one is missing, pulled out of place by death or desertion....

Alex's biological mother abandoned him in a Moscow hospital three days after he was born. She left without telling anyone, disappearing back to the Ukraine, leaving the orphanage to find a name for him. Because it was still winter, they chose for his last name the Russian word for snow.

Alex was the result of his mother's third pregnancy. Ken and I do not know whether he has a brother like the boy matryoshka who plays a flute painted around the curve of his head, or a sister like the matryoshka who carries a single spotted teacup. We don't know if his mother ever had the babies from these pregnancies, or why she chose to have him.

Alex loves the mother matryoshka. Sometimes he opens up the set just to her. Her painted dress is embroidered with puffy white sleeves, and she has round blue eyes and blonde hair. She looks much more like him than I do.

One day, I imagine that he will look at her small painted-on mouth and ask her the questions about his Russian mother that I cannot answer.

Excerpt from The Russian Word for Snow: A True Story of Adoption by Janis Cooke Newman (St. Martin's Press), reprinted by permission of the author.