Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours is a fictionalized account of the true crimes of Georgia Tann, who operated a child trafficking ring in Memphis, Tennessee (called the Tennessee Children’s Home Society), from 1924 until her death in 1950. Tann and her squad of corrupt policemen, judges, and politicians habitually kidnapped children and newborns of impoverished families and single mothers, changed their names to prevent birth families from tracking them down, and then essentially sold them (along with fraudulent adoption papers) to powerful politicians, Hollywood celebrities, and wealthy socialites. For very young children, this loss of identity went largely unnoticed; however, in the novel, Rill Foss is 12 years old when she and her younger siblings are kidnapped and either adopted out to families all over the country or made to disappear entirely. When Rill is taken, she is renamed May Weathers and soon finds herself struggling to exist with two distinct identities: Rill Foss the strong-willed “river gypsy” with loving parents, and May Weathers the submissive and abused orphan. Seventy years later, Avery Stafford—youngest daughter of Senator Wells Stafford and presumed heir to the Stafford political dynasty—finds herself similarly conflicted when she learns that her grandmother, Judy Stafford, is one of Tann’s victims: taken away from her lower-class family as a newborn, Judy was sold to a wealthy politician. This discovery shakes Avery’s commitment to living up to her family’s expectations of her as she grapples with the truth about their past. In Before We Were Yours, Wingate explores the trauma of shedding one’s former identity and forging a new one.
Rill struggles to retain her personal identity under the pressure and abuse she experiences in Tann’s orphanage, as Tann renames her, gives her a new family history, and forces her to conform to that new identity. Rill and her siblings are prohibited from using their real names, but Rill thinks to herself, “These people can control everything about me, but they can’t control where I go in my mind.” In this context, Rill means that they can’t stop her from maintaining her true identity in her mind even if she externally answers to May. Rill gradually begins to wonder who she really is—May the orphan or Rill the beloved daughter. She wonders if “Rill is only a story [she] read,” beginning to doubt if she truly knows herself anymore. Furthermore, by at least partially adopting an identity as May, Rill protects herself form abuse. She notes, “Rill Foss can’t breathe in this place. […] Only May Weathers does,” meaning that she can distance her true self from the trauma of her experiences by hiding that self behind a fictional identity.
Unlike Rill, Avery Stafford has no childhood trauma—the name of Stafford is universally respected, and it has helped pave the way to Avery’s success. When Avery discovers that Judy was sold into a wealthy and respected family instead of born into it, many of Avery’s hidden insecurities about her identity bubble to the surface. On some level, Avery has always wanted to be recognized for her personal qualifications rather than her family name, as shown by her statement that she’s “been fighting it all [her] life—the idea that [her] only qualifications are a cute blond head and the Stafford name.” Avery says of the Stafford family that the “collective identity is so overwhelming, there’s no room for an individual one.” This highlights the fact that simply being born a Stafford means that Avery has always been expected to be a certain type of person, and it has left her “no room” to explore an alternative or perhaps more natural identity.
Ultimately, Rill and Avery both take their individual lives into their own hands, opening themselves up to “a life that can be” rather than allowing external circumstances and other people to determine their futures and identities. When Rill and Fern briefly run away from their adoptive parents to find their biological ones, they discover that their mother died suddenly, and that their father has become an alcoholic. The short time the sisters spend back on the family shanty boat ends when their father drunkenly releases it into the river, and it is destroyed. Watching the boat sink, Rill thinks to herself, “Rill Foss has to die with it. I’m May Weathers now,” meaning that she accepts the loss of her past life and is ready to accept a new identity before returning to her adoptive parents. Likewise, as Avery learns more about her family’s true history, she begins questioning her own role in it. She announces, “I want to be who I am at the core,” meaning she wants to follow her heart instead of molding her identity to fit her family’s expectations. Both women, then, come to the same realization: “A woman’s past need not predict her future. She can dance to new music if she chooses. Her own music.” This means that Rill and Avery get a fresh start in life by making new identities that reflect their inner growth and desires for the future.
Personal Identity ThemeTracker
Personal Identity Quotes in Before We Were Yours
I’m wearing one of her favorite pieces of jewelry this morning. I’m dimly aware of it on my wrist as I slide out the limo door. I pretend I’ve selected the dragonfly bracelet in her honor, but really it’s there as a silent reminder that Stafford women do what must be done, even when they don’t want to.
The nursing home director walks by and frowns, probably wondering why I’m still here. If I weren’t a Stafford, she’d undoubtedly stop and ask questions. As it is, she pointedly looks away and moves on. Even after two months back in South Carolina, it’s still strange, getting the rock-star treatment just because of my family name. In Maryland, I often knew people for months before they even realized my father was a senator. It was nice having the chance to prove myself as myself.
Why haven’t Elliot and I ever come here?
The answer tastes bitter, so I don’t chew on it very long. Our schedules are always filled with other things. That’s why.
Who chooses the schedules we keep? We do, I guess.
Although, so often it seems as if there isn’t any choice. If we aren’t constantly slapping new paint on all the ramparts, the wind and the weather will sneak in and erode the accomplishments of a dozen previous generations of the family. The good life demands a lot of maintenance.
“I’m sure you’re used to getting what you want.”
His insinuation burns. I’ve been fighting it all my life—the idea that my only qualifications are a cute blond head and the Stafford name. Now, with the speculation heating up about my political future, I’m incredibly sick of hearing it. The family name didn’t get me through Columbia Law School with honors.
I lose track of her voice as the car goes over a hill and comes within sight of the river. May fades like a speck of sun on the water, and Rill comes out. She stretches toward the crack at the top of the window, and pulls in air and catches all the familiar scents.
For just a minute, she’s home.
“They’re perfect in every way,” she says to the guests over and over. “Wonderful physical specimens and mentally advanced for their ages as well. Many come from parents with talents in music and art. Blank slates just waiting to be filled. They can become anything you want them to be.”
Inside my skin, I’m empty and cold, like the Indian caves where Briny took us camping one time when we hiked up over the bluffs. There were bones in the caves. Dead bones of people who are gone. There are dead bones in me.
Rill Foss can’t breathe in this place. She doesn’t live here. Only May Weathers does. Rill Foss lives down on the river. She’s the princess of Kingdom Arcadia.
Even the name sounds strange in my mind now. People keep calling me May. Maybe Rill’s still on the river someplace with Camellia, and Lark, and Fern, and Gabion. Maybe they’re drifting down in the lazy low-water summer currents, watching boats pass and barges go by and Cooper’s hawks circle wide and slow, hunting for fish to dive after.
Maybe Rill is only a story I read, like Huck Finn and Jim. Maybe I’m not even Rill and never was.
I turn and run down the steps and across the yard, my dress sweeping up around my legs. I stretch out my arms and throw back my head and make my own breeze, and for a minute, I find Rill again. I’m her.
“Perhaps you should have thought of that before you invented some ridiculous story about your fictitious sister and poor Mr. Riggs.”
Blood pounds in my head. I try to make sense of what she’s saying, but I can’t.
“There never was any… Camellia. You and I both know that, don’t we, May? There were four of you when you came here. Two little sisters and one little brother. Only four. And we’ve done a marvelous job in finding homes, thus far. Good homes. And for that, you are most grateful, aren’t you?” She motions to Mrs. Pulnik. […] “There will be no more of this nonsense out of you. Do you understand?”
I come from a world where we would never openly admit to such things, certainly not to someone who’s practically a stranger. In the world I know, a polished exterior and an unblemished reputation are paramount. Trent makes me wonder if I’ve become too accustomed to the constraints that go with upholding public appearances.
“The truth always comes out sooner or later. I’m of the belief that you’re better off knowing about it first.” But even as I say it, I wonder. My entire life, I’ve been so certain that we were above reproach. That our family was an open book. Maybe that was naïve of me. What if, after all these years, I’ve been wrong?
[…] Do we carry the guilt from the sins of past generations? If so, can we bear the weight of that burden?
I try to imagine having a history like hers, having lived two lives, having been, effectively, two different people. I can’t. I’ve never known anything but the stalwart stronghold of the Stafford name and a family who supported me, nurtured me, loved me.
In the end, I’m a Stafford through and through. I tend to assume that I’ll get what I want.
Which, I realize with a shiver, makes me eerily like the adoptive parents who inadvertently funded Georgia Tann’s business. No doubt some were well-meaning people and some of the children really did need homes, but others, especially those who knew that exorbitant fees were being forked over for made-to-order sons and daughters, must have had some idea of what was happening. They just assumed that money, power, and social position gave them the right.
Maybe I never realized how much being a Stafford is an all-consuming thing, especially here in our native territory. The collective identity is so overwhelming, there’s no room for an individual one.
Once upon a time, I liked that… didn’t I? I enjoyed the perks that came with it. Every path I stepped on was instantly smoothed down before me.
But now I’ve had a taste of climbing my own mountains my own way.
Have I grown beyond this life?
The idea splits me down the middle, leaving half of my identity on each side of the divide. Am I my father’s daughter, or am I just me? Do I have to sacrifice one to be the other?
So this was my grandmother’s destination. It’s easy to imagine that she enjoyed coming here. This would’ve been a place where she could leave behind her obligations, her cares, her duties, the family reputation, the public eye—everything that filled those carefully managed appointment books.
The trees lean close after we turn, and I take one look back. I let the river wash away something inside of me.
It washes away the last of Rill Foss.
Rill Foss is princess of Kingdom Arcadia. The king is gone, and so is the kingdom.
Rill Foss has to die with it.
I’m May Weathers now.
May turns to me with purpose, stretches intimately close as if she plans to impart a secret. “A woman’s past need not predict her future. She can dance to new music if she chooses. Her own music. To hear the tune, she must only stop talking. To herself, I mean. We’re always trying to persuade ourselves of things.”
My father moves tentatively to a chair, looks at his mother as if he’s never seen her before. In a way, he hasn’t. The woman he remembers was an actress playing a role, at least partially. For all the years since her sisters found her, there have been two people inside the body of Judy Stafford. One of them is a senator’s wife. The other carries the blood of river gypsies.