Split at the Root by Catana Tully is a memoir that spans many years and several different countries. Catana was born in Guatemala in the 1940s and was adopted by a German family. Her German mother, or “Mutti” as she called her, raised Catana to speak German, Spanish, and English and introduced her to a world of privilege, including boarding school in Jamiaca and studies at Cambridge University in England.
After Catana earned a certificate from Cambridge, her plan was to work as an interpreter in Germany. But her plan suddenly changed when she was discovered at an international craft fair. When Catana realized how much money she could make posing behind the camera for a few hours, she quickly enrolled in modeling school. Once Catana finished modeling school, she was immediately booked for fashion shows and landed her first acting role. Catana’s detour into modeling and acting turned out to be a successful career move.
While she was living in Munich, Catana was set up on a blind date by a friend. She met Fred Tully, an American actor, and they eventually married. When Fred and Catana welcomed a son, and the couple decided to move to California. In America, Catana had to face new issues of identity. She felt accepted by neither blacks nor whites, and her life of privilege suddenly didn’t mean anything in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Living in California, Catana began to question everything she thought she knew about herself, including her marriage and her upbringing.
Catana started to sort out her feelings through counseling and began examining the relationships she had with both of her mothers. Her counselor encouraged Catana to find and connect with her birthfather, which answered many of Catana’s questions, but also revealed painful family secrets. In the end, Catana became aware of the tremendous pain caused by her adoption and started to understand her identity as a mother, daughter, and black woman. Read on for our interview!
You begin Split at the Root with a picture of you as a baby with Mutti, your German “mother” and end the book with a picture of you with Rosa, your birthmother. How did these two women shape your own identity as a mother?
Very interesting question! I don’t know about shaping my identity as a mother, but I, too, was very protective and controlling. Mutti, had been super protective of me and, until she left me in Munich, controlled all my decisions. I sometimes jokingly tell my son that he probably needs a shrink, being that he had been so closely watched as a child. But he says that it was great because he always felt very secure and protected.
So I figure this over-protectiveness came as a result of having always been under supervision myself. I must have internalized Mutti’s and Rosa’s fears. Mutti feared Rosa might steal me, and I must have somehow absorbed Rosa’s anguish at having “lost” me. So, yes, both women shaped the fear aspect that translated into the way I raised my son.
I appreciated that you included your counseling sessions. You shared valuable conversations about your healing from being raised apart from your birth mother and from the damage caused by secrets that were hidden from you growing up. Your search for identity was inspiring and showed that it can a lifelong process. What was the hardest truth you had to confront in your therapy sessions?
Another good one. I still struggle with my identity but I know it, and so am able to identify the insecurity. The good thing is that my self-image is no longer bruised. One of the hardest things was having to recover lost memories of Rosa. Another was hearing from my sisters how much my mother suffered at having lost me. Also, of course, my having rejected her in such a heartless manner. I find it is an interesting thing with adoptees: I believe we are quite insensitive. Perhaps because of the injury at having been separated from our mother.
You described playing the role of Eliza, a slave, for the German production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. You wrote that you struggled with that role because you had no idea how to “portray an enslaved woman, had a vague idea of modern slavery, and had no Black heroes, role models, male or female.” Who are your black heroes and role models today?
Today, there are too many to count, but here are a few that come to mind immediately: Ivan van Sertima, was a history professor at Rutgers, whose books They Came Before Columbus, and Africa and Europe in the Middle Ages impress me tremendously. Then Cheikh Anta Diop’s work is fascinating to me. Among the young writers whose works I admire: Edwige Danticat, (Haitian American) and Chimamanda Adichie (Nigerian). Add… all the African American classic writers, painters, sculptors, and musicians… There are a lot!
I was fascinated with your scenes of moving to LA, and experiencing what it meant to be Black in America. You wrote that you “knew nothing about the African American culture, where being Black was infinitely more complex than simple being dark.” Why do you think being Black in America is so complex?
The complex aspect of race in America lies in the fact that the dominant American society wants it to be that way. Racism in the US is an institutionalized phenomenon. On the surface it might appear that things have improved since slavery. However, a huge percentage of the Black population continues to be excluded from what purports to be a democratic society. I mean the fact that huge numbers of young Black men are incarcerated for petty crimes that do not affect other ethnic groups. Once they are released, they continue to be ostracized for having been incarcerated and are not allowed to vote. This is clearly institutionalized racism. And, it’s a huge problem that’s just not addressed. The important ones in our society (the ones that could change the laws) seem to have a blind eye to this tragedy.
You discussed how Mutti colonized your mind. She taught you how to dress, speak, and act, and you internalized her European ideals. Do you think her colonization was intentional? Can colonization ever be unintentional?
Mutti was a product of her times; and those were Victorian. Dark people were seen as inferior and powerless. (Has not changed that much, really.) She expected me to assimilate into European society thus, absorbing European culture, she figured (correctly,) would facilitate my inclusion into the dominant White society. (That is also what White parents of dark adoptees feel today.) What Mutti did not realize, is that had I been given access to my mother and her people, I would have gained respect for my race, understand what my family’s struggles were, respect their values, and be pleased that they were poor, yet noble people. That would have been fair, and would have helped me gain a balanced sense of self. Most important: I would not have had the damaging issues related to a bruised and negative self image.
Do you anticipate writing any other books?
I plan to write essays addressing issues adoptees grapple with that no one seems to appreciate… including adoptees. I [also] have a children’s book in mind. It’s about history. I’ll feel blessed if I can start researching for it by the end of this year!
Dr. Catana Tully is an author, a retired professor, and adoption counseling expert. She offers to help both parents and their children tackle the complexities of adoption. To find out more about Catana’s services or read more about Split at the Root, visit www.cantanatully.com