Sara-Jayne King, radio presenter and journalist and, most recently, author, speaks often about the “primal wound” that adopted children feel, the terrible severance of the bond between mother and baby before that child is even conscious of what’s happening.
But it’s in the reading of her book, 'Killing Karoline', that you get a sense of the visceral, relentless pain of that wound. Sara-Jayne was no ordinary adopted child.
She was born in 1980, the progeny of a “forbidden” affair between her British-born mother, Kris, and her black South African father, Jackson.
In a mad scurry to avoid the fallout of their actions under the then Immorality Act under apartheid, Kris took her baby to England and gave her up for adoption.
Enabled by the fact that her newborn, whom she named Karoline, looked “white” initially, Kris concocted a story whereby her baby needed medical attention in the UK, but died. Thus the title of the book.
Kris returns home to South Africa with her tall tale for friends and family, and apparently continues her life as though nothing has happened.
Back in the UK meanwhile, plagued by questions surrounding her own identity and unable to “fit in”, Sara-Jayne (originally named Sarah Jane by her adoptive parents) became increasingly self-destructive as she entered adulthood, cutting herself, drinking too much, binging on food then purging, and taking refuge in dysfunctional relationships.
This despite impressive achievements driven by a desperate need to validate herself in the world: Sara-Jayne has an LLB from the University of Greenwich, a master’s degree in journalism, and, today, hosts her own show on CapeTalk radio.
She returned to South Africa when she was 26, to face her demons in rehab after getting fired from a job in Dubai.
When she was out of rehab, Sara-Jayne reached out to her natural family – her half-brother Alex, born to Kris and her then husband Ken.
It’s another harrowing journey of love and acceptance, peppered with compromise and more rejection. Her birth mother Kris’s first rejection came when Sara-Jayne attempted, understandably, to make contact with her mother and get some answers about the circumstances of her birth.
She was rejected outright in a letter that is astonishingly cold and steeped in denial, published verbatim in the book. As the reader, your heart goes out to this brave author, who has had enormous courage in telling her truth, in stark contrast to Kris, who has clearly buried any attempt at facing her past truthfully.
Sara-Jayne’s adoptive parents are ill-prepared for the inevitable questions about how and why they adopted her, and it is soon clear that the only real heroine aside from Sara-Jayne to emerge from this is her adoptive mom Angela, a liberal conservative doing social work in the community at the time.
Angela, who couldn’t have children of her own, has a British-style inability to address emotive issues of identity with her daughter, but there is never a question that she is steadfast and supportive throughout. The complexities of adoption are excavated with depth and honesty in this memoir, but what makes it exceptional is the rarely explored, extra burden of cross-cultural adoption on an adopted child.
In Surrey especially, where Sara-Jayne grew up, black children were a rare sight, let alone those with “white” parents. “I once asked my mum if she would ever have married a black man. She replied with an answer that troubled me.
She said that she didn’t think she would because they would have nothing in common. I realised then that mum did not, perhaps could not, see who I was outside of being her daughter. Where the colour of my skin had been the very reason I had been given away by Kris, to mum it was no more than an aesthetic difference between us.”
Sara-Jayne has since navigated her own path in South Africa – she settled in Cape Town and is shaping an enviable career for herself – thankfully having resolved the need to re-establish contact with Kris, who is now living in the US.
As the reader, though, you are left wondering, like the author has on so many painful occasions, what kind of woman could simply turn her back on her child, not only at birth, but repeatedly after that. This book left me angry, on Sara-Jayne’s behalf.