Adeline Yen Mah couldn't have written her autobiography while her stepmother was alive.
To do so would have forever cut her ties with the woman whose love and approval Mah spent a lifetime seeking. The woman who also made her childhood in China a living hell.
But now her stepmother is dead. And Mah, 60, is resigned to the betrayal that led to her being excluded from inheriting any of the family's fortune--estimated at $30 million.
In telling her story, the retired Huntington Beach anesthesiologist has defied the Chinese ethos that "family ugliness should never be aired in public," she has been ostracized by her siblings and, most surprising to Mah, has created an international bestseller.
"Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter" (John Wiley & Sons; $24.95) tells the story of Mah's unhappy childhood. When her mother died shortly after Mah's birth, the stage was set for a string of hurtful family ties. She was shunned by her wealthy businessman father and mistreated by her brothers and sisters. Her beautiful young Eurasian stepmother made the evil stepmother in "Cinderella" seem like Mary Poppins.
But Mah's story is also about a resilient child who finds solace from her bleak home life by excelling at school and finally pleases her indifferent father when she wins first place in an international playwriting competition. Sent to a prestigious boarding school in England at 14, she goes on to study medicine and ultimately finds success and happiness in America.
"Falling Leaves" is set against a backdrop that stretches from Shanghai to Orange County. It became a bestseller in England, where it was first published early last year, and has since hit bestseller lists in Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. It was to Hong Kong that her father and stepmother fled in 1948 as China was being lost to the Red Army--a move they made after abandoning their 10-year-old daughter in a Catholic boarding school in northern China.
"Falling Leaves" hit U.S. bookstores this month, with advance praise from author Amy Tan, who calls it "poignant proof of the human will to endure," and Publishers Weekly, which says Mah's "unadorned prose is powerful, her insights keen and her portrait of her family devastating."
Seated in the living room of her waterfront home in Huntington Harbour, Mah says she never dreamed she was working on a bestseller during the four years it took to write her book.
"Oh, no, no, no," she says with a laugh. "I just wanted to tell my story. I was compelled to tell my story. But the amazing thing is somehow it has struck a chord."
Mah says she has received "wonderful letters, mostly from younger women who applaud me for speaking the truth and revealing to the world the inferior status of the Chinese daughter."
Mah's brothers and sisters, who were given pseudonyms in the book, aren't applauding her.
"My half-sister Susan called me to castigate me," says Mah. "Actually, she comes out very well in the book, I think. She was very brave for having the courage to break free from her own mother [Mah's stepmother], which none of us had the courage to do. But she's not happy because she's very prominent in Hong Kong society and she sees the book as a slur."
But seeking revenge wasn't the point of her writing the book, Mah says.
"I wanted this to be a universal story showing abused children and giving them a beam of hope so that they can transcend their sorrows and transform into a source of creativity, courage and compassion. That is very important to me."
Mah's grand aunt was one of China's early feminists--as a child in the 1880s she refused to have her feet bound, and she later founded the Shanghai Women's Bank. As a strong, independent woman in her own right, Mah built a successful career in medicine as chief of anesthesiology at an Anaheim community hospital.
After a first marriage that ended in divorce, she married her husband of 26 years, Bob Mah, now professor emeritus of microbiology at UCLA. Although she told him about her early days in China, she spoke little about her childhood to her children: Roger, 30, a Los Angeles doctor, and Ann, 22, who works for Beacon Press in Boston.
"I didn't think they would understand," Mah says. "In fact, Bob had a hard time understanding it himself."
She has overcome her reticence.
"Really, this is wonderful to be able to talk about it in such an open way after having repressed it for so many years," she says, spreading out old black-and-white photographs of her relatives on the coffee table.
There are no pictures of Mah's mother, who died two weeks after giving birth to her fifth child in the China port city of Tianjin in 1937.
All pictures of her mother were destroyed. Mah's stepmother saw to that.
"She was," Mah says, "a very jealous woman."
And, as vividly depicted in her book, a cruel, vindictive and ruthless woman.
A picture of her stepmother taken in the '40s shows a strikingly beautiful woman who, Mah says, was always perfectly dressed, wore flashy diamond jewelry and caused heads to turn when she walked into a room.
To strangers, she was the epitome of graciousness. But at home, she routinely bullied and occasionally beat her five stepchildren while her own two children, Mah writes, were "the pampered ones, the empress' son and daughter: favored and privileged."
Mah believes there was an element of racism in her half-French, half-Chinese stepmother's contemptuous treatment of her stepchildren, who called her Niang (another term for mother).
Niang, who gave all of her children European names, grew up in the French concession in Tianjin, where she learned to speak perfect French and English. Throughout her life she identified herself as French.
"She literally felt superior," says Mah. "She divided our family into two classes, and she honestly felt she was upper class and much better than we are."
Mah bore the brunt of her stepmother's hostility and resentment.
"Whenever I was in front of her, I was made to feel like nothing, beneath contempt, worthless," she says.
Because her mother died after her birth, Mah was considered bad luck for bringing death to the family. But she was also a girl in a country where daughters are considered inferior. In addition, she was the youngest of five stepchildren.
As she says, "I was the lowest of the low."
But that doesn't explain her stepmother's malicious streak toward her.
An angry Niang once glared at Mah and said, "The problem is that you have bad blood from your mother. Nothing will come of you! I don't think you deserve to be housed and fed here. I think you belong in an orphanage!"
Recalls Mah: "It was very frightening when she got angry. I had the feeling she was capable of doing anything."
When a group of friends from school dropped by the house to give 10-year-old Mah a surprise celebration party for being chosen class president, her stepmother demanded to know who the noisy "hooligans" downstairs were. She forbade her stepchildren to visit friends or have friends visit them at home.
When Mah explained why the children were there, Niang slapped her face so hard her nose bled. She then commanded Mah to tell her friends to leave. Her father later ordered her to unwrap the small gifts her friends had given to her and throw them away.
Indeed, her father was as unfeeling as her stepmother toward Mah.
He once tested his German shepherd's progress in obedience school by setting Mah's new pet duckling several feet in front of the ferocious dog and commanding him to stay. The mangled duckling died the next day.
Mah's siblings, following their parents' example, generally treated her no better.
Her three older brothers once rewarded her for her excellent report card by offering her a glass of orange juice, which she drank and immediately spit out: They had mixed their own urine with the juice.
The only real warmth Mah felt as a child was provided by her beloved grandfather Ye Ye and her Aunt Baba, who shared a room with her.
"She always believed in me," says Mah. "She kept telling me that one day I will amount to something if I could only try hard enough."
But her closeness to her aunt created its own problems for Mah.
"My aunt had been my own mother's best friend," she says. "She was the matchmaker between my father and mother, and I think my stepmother was extremely resentful of her presence and her influence and just loathed her because I was so close to her."
To separate Mah from her aunt and grandfather, who were accused of providing "a cocoon of permissiveness," for Mah, her father and stepmother sent her to a convent boarding school in northern China.
Forbidden to leave the school or have visitors, she spent holidays alone. To further isolate her stepdaughter, Niang even arranged with the nuns to have all of Mah's incoming and outgoing mail sent to her.
Although she was reunited with her family in Hong Kong in 1949 after her stepmother's sister rescued her from the boarding school in the wake of the Communist victory in China, Mah continued to feel a sense of hopelessness.
"I wanted to escape," she says, "but I could see no way out."
The way out came in 1952 when she was sent to boarding school in Oxford, England.
As she made her own life, Mah continued her childhood quest to be accepted by her father and stepmother.
Although she feels she achieved that before her father's death in 1988, that feeling was shattered after her stepmother died two years later. In her will, her stepmother delivered Mah her final rejection: "In no event is my daughter Adeline Yen Mah to receive any portion of my estate."
Mah was crushed. But it wasn't her share of the family's fortune she wanted from her stepmother in the end.
"I wanted her approval," she says. "That's what I wanted all my life. Very much I wanted her to love me. I didn't feel any warmth from her, and I'd be terrified of her, but I yearned for her and I never got over that."
After her stepmother's funeral, Mah found a cache of poison pen letters from her sister Lydia to their stepmother that were, Mah writes, "filled with lies and venom, inciting Niang to hate me."
The letters indicated that Mah was rallying her siblings against their stepmother. And playing on Niang's fears and paranoia, Lydia wrote that Mah was urging their brother James to emigrate "so that Niang would be abandoned and forced to live out her last years alone. She then swore Niang to secrecy."
Her brother James, Mah says, "knew of everything that was going on but did not defend me."
Devastated by her stepmother's final rejection and her siblings' betrayal, Mah fell into a deep depression.
When it lifted after two years, she began writing her book, ultimately quitting her hospital job to devote full time to writing.
It took her four years to finish "Falling Leaves," whose title comes from a Chinese proverb that says falling leaves return to their roots.
"In a way, even though this is the last third of my life, this is the happiest too," Mah says. "I never realized I could not be myself until my stepmother died. I didn't know that because as long as she was alive I was not myself. I was trying to prove myself to her and get her approval. It's ridiculous, I know. She was not a nice woman. In fact, she was a horrible person."
Both Mah's daughter and son have read only parts of their mother's book; it's been too difficult to read all the way through, they say.
"She was abused as a child and it's hard to disassociate the person who is my mother and who raised me and who I admire very much and was one of my heroes growing up," says Ann Mah. "She's a very strong female role model, and to read about her life as a young girl who is mentally abused if not physically abused a lot is very painful for me."
But she's happy her mother wrote the book.
"I think it's been a great experience for her and it's really helped her overcome a lot of her mental anxieties, and I'm even more proud of her now."
Mah is now writing a children's version of her story. It will end when she is sent to boarding school in England at 14. There, the nuns refused to comply with her stepmother's demand to have all of Mah's incoming and outgoing mail sent to her in Hong Kong.
The first letter Mah received was from her Aunt Baba, who tells her a children's story Mah had never heard before. It's the Chinese version of Cinderella.
"She was so happy," Mah recalls. "She said, 'By escaping to England you have become my Chinese Cinderella.' "