On the Outskirts of Normal:
Forging a Family Against the Grain

by Debra Monroe


SMU Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-870-74560-7.
Reviewed by Judy Alter
Posted on 09/24/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

Don't look for warm fuzzies in this account of a single Anglo woman's adoption of an African American baby girl. Debra Monroe's prose is clean, spare, and straightforward. She's had a hard life—an alcoholic, abusive father, a submissive mother who, when divorced, married another abusive man, who forbade her to see Debra for years. After two failed marriages, Monroe, desperate to be a mother, applies for adoption. Told that the baby would probably be Black, she says fine. She eventually brings home newborn Marie, tiny, very black, with a head of very black hair.

This is the story of how they grew and learned together, filled with moments of wry humor, but even more moments of angst. Debra was sick with a severe case of endometriosis and a botched surgery, plus simultaneous hypoglycemia that occasionally caused her to black out. Marie was sick with constant eczema, a breathing disorder (huge adenoids), and a possible endocrine problem. Then there's the doctor who suggests that she may develop neurofibromatosis—the elephant man disease (he apparently knew nothing about black skin). Monroe learns to comb that black hair, leading to many experiments, most of them painful for Marie. Then there's dating—the years of furtive romance, when single women want male company but want to protect their children. Monroe writes of this in a stream of consciousness style, so that occasionally you bump into the same information two or three times: the sudden death of her mother, for instance, or the law that sanctioned mixed-race adoption. That they overcame all these problems is both Monroe's and Marie's triumph.

Read this memoir to know the power of love, the strong bonds of adoption, the funny moments of raising a child of a different race ("Is that child YOURS?), and the problems of single parenthood. Monroe has my respect, admiration, and best wishes.

I was particularly interested in this book because I too am the adopted parent of four children, one of them multiracial. Because of my interest, I put aside my casual acquaintance with the author in favor of total honesty, but I must add that Debra Monroe's editor, Kathie Long, is a longtime and close friend of mine. I did not consult her about the review.


Debra Monroe is the author of two collections of short stories and two novels, Newfangled and Shambles. She lives in Austin, Texas, and teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University in San Marcos. Visit her website.

(See another review of this book, here)

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