The Lost Coin:
A Memoir of Adoption and Destiny
by Stephen Rowley
Reviewer: Anthony Pomes
When I was a kid, my brother and I used to read these hardcover books from a series called Tell Me Why. The first had the title Tell Me Why, followed by More Tell Me Why and then Still More Tell Me Why. These volumes were designed to explain the basic rules of the world — never mind that many of these books’ facts would change, or be outright contradicted, over time through newer information and more highly nuanced measures of data. What mattered most is that an attempt was being offered to explain things for youngsters such as us.
Those books swam up again in my mind as I began to read Stephen Rowley’s book, The Lost Coin: A Memoir of Adoption and Destiny ($24.95 USD, Chiron Publications). In its own distinctive way, this new book is a variation on the “tell me why” stance of those long-ago books mentioned above. The entirety of Rowley’s memoir plays out like a quietly vast yet even-tempered meditation on life. Its rhythms in the writing are largely unforced, and the tone throughout is straightforward and simple. This may elicit a cause for pause among some readers. With time at an all-time premium these days, those who read several books on a frequent basis often expect a great amount from the written word. It is common to grow restless, and slightly wary, if a story seems to be told too plainly. What is central, though, to The Lost Coin is that it stands as the simple story of a far-from-simple situation.
I was not adopted. While I have suffered bouts of alienation like so many others, I have always known who my parents are — and, just as important, that I was unquestionably their son. In his heartfelt and searching memoir, Rowley digs deeply into the complex psychology of the adoptee as one who requires of himself a well of unsparing personal introspection. His status as an adoptee wasn’t initially a very troubled one, though: Rowley knew early on from his adopted parents that they had chosen him, and he came to know an Iowa adolescence of relative affluence and privilege. What was the problem, then? This, of course, is a question that the uninitiated would ask. This is also not the greatest time in history for stories about an upper middle-class Boomer-aged white man who wants to find out who his birth parents are. Fairly or not, this is no longer considered an especially noteworthy — or by now untold — tale. Still, lives are lived regardless of any particular cultural focus. As a testament to his own truth, The Lost Coin succeeds — as a reflection of the narrative now at play in this country, however, it may seem to some about as flimsy and overplayed as a grainy Andy Griffith Show TV episode re-run.
This does not invalidate the worth of Rowley’s tale. Taken at face value, this is the story of a contemporary American man who came to achieve a much fuller assessment of who he is than most middle-of-the-road lives rarely ever encounter. Still, there are cracks in the façade. One can tell from Rowley’s writing style that he has been trained as a psychotherapist. The book’s back cover describes this memoir as an “adventurous and reflective journey.” And the book’s Introduction finds Rowley describe his memoir “as a personal myth, an individual’s story for making sense and meaning of the world.” This can hit the cynic’s button pretty quickly, or at least those readers who seek a more factual exploration of a person’s story. Why should someone want to categorize their real-life testimony as a myth?
This reminded me of filmmaker Oliver Stone’s 1997 debut novel, A Child’s Night Dream, which was only deemed publishable years after it was written — once its writer had become a bankable force in Hollywood as an Academy Award-winning writer/director. Rather than explore his life directly — as he did years later in the more traditionally formatted 2021 memoir Chasing the Light — Stone provides himself in that first book with a “Get Out of Jail Free” card when it comes to veracity . . . he declares his effort to be a work of fiction. Rowley is not a world-renowned celebrity movie icon — he isn’t afforded that kind of luxury. As a result, he sometimes has to swerve from the dictates of straight memoir through a liberal use of quotes from other writers — and often projects a kind of imagined self-vision, presented in a way that paints a portrait of the man equal parts “true to life” alongside an aspirational psychological construct. The effect is an ambiguous one — as the reader, you can choose to hold the book at a distance (as befits most “myths” nowadays) or you can meet the book halfway. The latter is the more enjoyable route — one that I deliberately opted to take while reading this book.
The book’s title comes from the Zen Buddhist proverb “The coin lost in the river is found in the river.” This is similar in design to the circularity at the heart of that old Western philosophical paradox “I’m lying — true or false?” To reveal the details of Rowley’s hard-earned journey toward the identify of his birth parents — one that encompasses a great number of years populated with all manner of personal tests and maturation — is to cheat the reader of those gems of perspective that appear throughout The Lost Coin. The wise will take this book for what it is — a nicely paced retelling of the adoption scenario, crystallized by one man’s evolution into fuller selfhood through deeper awareness. The cynic may regard The Lost Coin as an apt description of their experience in buying it. For those who want to know the story of adoption from the inside out, The Lost Coin will prove a happily found treasure.
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