Sarah Saffian always thought she might one day like to find her birth parents, but that search was sometime in the far-off future. At twenty-three, she was busy settling into adulthooda new relationship, blossoming career as a writer, and a Manhattan apartment a cab ride away from her adoptive family. This was the serene landscape of her life one winter morning in 1993 when, as she was finishing breakfast, the phone rang. An unfamiliar voice said, "Sarah, my name is Hannah Morgan. I think I'm your birth mother." Ithaka: A Daughter's Memoir of Being Found (Basic Books) is the poetically plainspoken and deeply felt account of how Saffian absorbed this revelatory bomb. (Hannah and Adam, her birth parents, had ended up marrying each other and had three other childrenher biological siblings.) She had always been supported by a loving family (her adoptive father, "Dad," his wife, Kathy, whom he married after her adoptive mother died, and their two children), but they, too, were rattled by this unexpected reaching out. She felt protective of them. "I wouldn't have wanted to grow up in any other family," she says firmly.
After the initial contact, Saffian stepped back, asking to communicate by letter only. She was "unnerved by having my sense of identity and reality suddenly thrown into question," and was haunted by a past abortion and the peculiar similarities between her life and that of her birth father'sthey had both been adopted, and he, too, had lost a mother at an early age. (Saffian has, in a way, experienced three mothersher first adoptive mother, her father's second wife, and her birth mother.) During the emotional fallout, Saffian meandered for a while, trying to define who she was: She took a Mensa test (she fell two points short for membership); therapist-shopped; tried out an adoption support group where people pointed to cartoon drawings labeled CONFUSED or ANGRY; and looked for paper records of her birthall the while exchanging wrenching and often exhausting epistles with Hannah and Adam. The letters, included with all their raw emotion, form the backbone of the book. In the middle of this turmoil, her boyfriend decided to go to film school in California. Saffian's journey, from confusion and anger to acceptance and the beginnings of love for her birth parents, is echoed in her choice of title, taken from Greek poet C. P Cavafy's poem of the same name: "As you set out for Ithaka/ hope the voyage is a long one,/ full of adventure and discovery.... Arriving there is what you are destined for.... " With her sensitive writing (she is now a working journalist) and even pitch, Saffian brings us close to her experience, up to the point of her eventual reunion with Hannah and Adam some three years after that first phone call. "By the time we met, they weren't strangers anymore," she says.