Woman of Interest: A Memoir

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Release Date: 
June 25, 2024
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“a genre-expanding noir memoir-detective story, full of drama, intrigue, bizarre characters, even more bizarre behavior, and unexpected twists.”

“A few years back, despite a lifelong renunciation of the urge, I surrendered to obsession with a woman. So I was beside myself. I was myself. It was no time to basket-case through life. I did. I wanted her, wanted everything, and all of her was missing.”

With that, we are off and running with Tracy O’Neill as she pursues that universal drive of every adopted, abandoned, lost child: the search for roots, for identity, for meaning, for mother, father, family, for the unknown. The search that often leaves the searcher with unanswered questions, with disappointment, with sadness. Will it be that or love, acceptance, reconciliation?

“But suppose I had an interest in getting my story straight. I could level with myself. On paper I was thirty-three, adopted, Korean-born, New England-bred, profession: writer. And because no one made a living writing anymore, profession: professor. My net worth was, roughly, dog . . . Until 2020 my story was that I had been too busy wanting to write a novel, write another, write a dissertation or article about marginal sports to resolve my ambivalence about secondary subjects as marriage, children and Cho Kee Yeon, who had something to do with my birth but not my life.”

Thus, in 2021, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, with the occasional aid of an elusive private investigator, this accomplished writer embarks on the relentless search that unfolds in Woman of Interest: A Memoir, a genre-expanding noir memoir-detective story, full of drama, intrigue, bizarre characters, even more bizarre behavior, and unexpected twists. With spare, incisive language, and straight-faced humor, Dr. O’Neill takes the reader on a journey from Poughkeepsie, NY to Daejeon, South Korea to discover family secrets.

Once there, she realizes her inadequate preparation for the trip, like not being in command of the language, leaves her with a distinct disadvantage. Technology to the rescue: a translation app and a live interpreter on the telephone. Even so, communication is difficult and without depth and full comprehension, laden with misunderstanding and mindless repetition. Family members emerge: a sister, brother, many aunts—but no mother. Lots of excitement, food, and contradictory stories.

Finally, the news that Cho Kee Yeon “was coming from Seoul to Wonyi’s in Daejeon with Young Mok on the bus.”

Laden with food, they do arrive, and upon first sight, “I had all of her in my arms. I was not accustomed to holding someone smaller than myself. She was so much smaller than the archetypal mountain of her in my mind, smaller—but she had a bone grip on me, hard through the mush of coat . . . She shook, so bound in her clamp we shook, as a sharp scent of urine grabbed me by the face . . . I held this woman like a metal music stand wrapped in a packing blanket . . . I held her. I did, though there was no way out of the truth: I was nothing but a stone-cold cardboard cutout of stranger come to town in the iron clench of a shuddering old woman with a red dye job.”

There is much that happens in the following days, vividly portrayed by Tracy O’Neill in the closing chapters. You must read it yourself to capture the fullness of the family intrigue and interactions. Readers whose lives resonate with the author’s search will recall their own reunions with a lost family member and the realization that a glimpse into that life is insufficient to capture the history, complexity, and multidimensionality of the person. Perhaps we will never know who they are. Perhaps in the search, though, we will better know who we are.

In the end, Tracy tells her mother, “I’d not resent her if she showed me something true and human, I told her my interest in her was that she was not a saint . . . I regretted those words . . . What I ought to have said is that when I love I want to keep it going longer, even though I think love, just as it is, should register enoughness.”