To know who you are, to imagine how it might’ve been

Book cover of "The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be" by Shannon Gibney.
Book cover of “The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be” by Shannon Gibney.

“The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be” by Shannon Gibney

c.2023, Dutton                                      


245 pages


It’s okay. You’ll just make it up.

Not the right toys when you were a kid? No problem, you had your imagination. No impressive friends to brag on? You can always pretend to know the rich, famous, or infamous. Boring job, cheap house, hoopty car? It’s fine, you can conjure whatever you want and who cares? As in the new book, “The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be” by Shannon Gibney, it’s all a fantasy anyhow.

There are facts. Provable, honest facts.

Shannon Gibney was born January 30, 1975 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. So was Erin Powers. Both were daughters of a Black petty criminal, and a white lesbian mother who struggled to give them up.

Another fact: Shannon was Erin, before she was adopted.

Shannon grew up in a middle-class white family with two brothers, a good education, toys, vacations, and stability. She had a “short relationship” with her birth father when she was an adult, and a longer (but shaky) one with her birth mother, which made her wonder what life might have been like, had she been raised as Erin…

When Erin was 19, she learned that her mother was dying of breast cancer, and wasting what life she had left. At 10, Erin had to learn to get along with her mother’s latest girlfriend; and she had to listen to racism from the white side of her family. Also at 10, she saw a spiraled portal and another girl who looked like her, but she didn’t entirely understand it.

Every year on her birthday, her mother mourned an adoption she never wanted to happen.

When Shannon was 10 years old, she was cruel to a boy who liked her, and she wasn’t sure why. When she was 19, her parents loaned her their car so she could visit her birth mother and her birth mother’s partner. And at 35, she was reminded of the legacy her mother left her, one she must be “diligent” about for the rest of her life.

A dozen pages or so into “The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be,” author Shannon Gibney wrestles with the nature of lies, explaining that her book does, and does not, use “manufactured literary devices.” In other words, get ready for one really weird read.

And it remains as such, until you understand what’s going on: the story here is fiction mixed with fact, an imaginary life framed by a real one. “Erin” is the fiction, as Gibney imagines her life as a series of struggles, personal and otherwise, living with her birth mother. “Shannon” is Gibney’s story of finding out who she is and where she came from. The tales merge and diverge, neither with a lot of sense until you’re well past the halfway mark of this book.

Can you stick with it that long? Readers ages 15 and up might at least try; you’ll lose a little time adjusting to “The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be,” but don’t worry. You’ll make it up.