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Susan Van Sleet

Merrill, Wisconsin, United States


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Susan Van Sleet—artist, reunited birthmother, and writer—shares a gripping and sometimes raw account of being sent away as a pregnant teen in an era when the shame of giving up a child was punished by the deafening silence that followed. Her inspirational memoir sheds new light on the shadowy era of closed adoption and validates how her vow of secrecy manifested itself through emotionally saturated canvases and poignant poetry. Mary & Me, Beyond the Canvas was written following the author’s reunion with her twenty-seven-year-old daughter.
As an artist, Susan transferred feelings of guilt to her canvases. A series of self-portraiture began to emerge during her three-month period of confinement, in 1966. Having promised to surrender her firstborn child through closed adoption, she silently channeled her remorse through art therapy as she painted somber reflections of herself. Two months after giving up her baby, while taking a three-dimensional art course at college, Susan sculpted an unusual clay piece. The hollow-bellied, veiled woman represented loss and guilt. Following her year of studies, her artwork changed dramatically as guilt gave way to deep longing for the little girl she was forbidden to see.
Susan had been told to forget about her child. That never happened.
Continuing to use art as therapy, Susan processed her silenced emotions for more than two decades as the girl she privately named “Mary” grew up on canvas. When they met, Mary—whose given name is Jeanne—shared photos from her childhood. The resemblance between Jeanne’s actual pictures and the paintings Susie created for two decades (never having set eyes on her daughter) were not a coincidence. There was a connection of epic proportion between mother and child, and a reunion that could not be denied. Their face-to-face experience brought eventual closure.
As a writer, Van Sleet began putting pen to paper only after being reunited with her daughter. A floodgate of buried pervasive thoughts relating to her period of confinement, birth, and surrender of Mary brought relentless flashbacks. The need to purge that silenced episode in her life could not be denied. Susan wrote day and night for weeks. A vivid account of a secreted past transitioned to a liberating burst of introspective poetry. Long-buried feelings of shame, anger, confusion, and longing were validated. Susan submitted poems to adoption websites and was invited to write post-placement articles for an adoption newsletter. She became proactive about breaking the silence around birth in support of silenced birthmothers. Her voice was heard.
As a presenter, Susan delivers a powerful message about the effects of her own closed adoption experience and emphasizes the hushed pain behind a silenced surrender plan specific to the sixties through the early eighties. She continues to guide and inspire birthmothers.
Mary & Me, Beyond the Canvas is Susan’s first book. The cover painting, “Garden Gate,” was her last painting of Mary.
Susan’s adoption experience has come full circle. She and her supportive husband Bruce have three sons and five grandsons. Jeanne, an artist, has three daughters. Both family trees thrive.

Published writer: Yes

Freelance: No


Published works:


  • Mary & Me Beyond the Canvas An Extraordinary Story of Adoption, Loss and Reunion