Off Balance: A Memoir
by Dominique Monceanu, with Paul and Teri Williams
Simon & Schuster, 2012

Reviewed by Barbara Free, M.A.

     Dominique Moceanu is a former Olympic gymnast, born in the U.S. to immigrant parents from Romania. Born in 1981, she was only fourteen years old when she was part of the U.S. gymnastics team that won gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Her parents, after their arranged marriage in Romania, still under communist control at the time, escaped to the U.S. in January 1981. Dominique, their first daughter, showed talent for gymnastics early on, and both her parents had been gymnasts and athletes, unable to compete professionally due to circumstances. Recognizing their little girl’s talent, they decided to put all their resources toward her success.
     Dimitry Moceanu, the father, rules, literally, with a loud voice and iron fist. Her mother was afraid of him and had been brought up to always obey. Dimitry himself had been brought up in a violent household. Dominique states everyone in the family was afraid of her father and often hid from his unreasonable rages.
     She says she always felt like an outsider, eating strange food at school, wearing clothing and hairstyles her parents dictated that were unlike other American children. Her life consisted of practicing gymnastics and trying to stay out of her father’s way. She did not have friends or usual childhood activities. She did love gymnastics, however, and for the first several years, had a trainer she enjoyed and looked up to.
     At nine years old, she was already a champion. Then her father decided she should train under Bela and Marta Karolyi, the Romanian gymnastics coaches who had fled to the U.S. and set up a school and ranch in Texas. Dominique’s father moved them to Houston so she could train under the Karolyis, who turned out to be emotionally, verbally, and sometimes physically, abusive, more so with her than with other girls who did not have Romanian backgrounds. They would, in fact, call Dominique’s father and allow him to come and abuse her. They once called him after finding a few hidden Menots mints in a stuffed bear an adult woman friend had given her. When she competed in the Olympics that first time, at fourteen, she was 4’4” and weighed 70 pounds, due to their complete control of everything she ate, and had convinced her she was too fat! She details some of the training and the terrorized life she led, both at home and with the Karolyis, in this book.
     The other major focus of the book is the fact that she had a younger sister, Jennifer, that she never knew about until Jennifer contacted her. She always wanted several siblings, and she did have one sister, eight years younger than herself, Christina. They were extremely close and remain so. When Dominique was six, however, her mother gave birth to another girl, who was relinquished for adoption. Dominique never even knew her mother was pregnant. Although she had no prenatal care, somehow she did have an ultrasound, which showed the fetus had no legs. She did not even see the ultrasound herself, but was told by her husband that they could not raise such a child, and gave her no choice but to relinquish at birth. She did not even see the baby, much less touch her or hold her, and she told no one, not even her own parents.
     Two years later, she gave birth the Christina. The relinquished daughter was adopted by a family with three boys, and raised in a loving home. Although she had no legs, she was strong and healthy and very athletic. She had prosthetic legs, but rarely used them, preferring to climb trees and do acrobatics as she was. She loved gymnastics and always admired Dominique Moceanu, having no idea they were full sisters. She had been told she had a Romanian background, but nothing else. When she was in high school, her parents revealed what they knew, that her last name was Moceanu, and gave her her adoption papers, which had the birth parents’ names on them.
     From then on, she debated about how and whether to contact Dominique. The book does not reveal whether the adoption took place through an agency or a doctor. Finally, when she was twenty (their birthdays are one day apart), she wrote to Dominique, enclosing copies of all the documents to prove that they were sisters. By this time Dominique was married and nearly nine months’ pregnant with her own first child. She was, of course, stunned to find another sister, and overwhelmed by the information. She had married a former gymnast who became and foot and ankle surgeon, and was also going to college at last. She contacted her mother, who told her the truth. She had been legally emancipated at sixteen from her parents, who had spent all the money she had made (nearly a million dollars at the time) and never let her make any small decisions, even, about her own money. After that, she went through a period of rebelling against all restrictions, drinking, using some drugs, not taking care of her health. By the time she married, however, she was mature and stable, and had reconciled with her mother, although her father still refused to admit any wrongdoing.
     She decided to write Jennifer a letter. At this time, she did not know Jennifer had been born without legs. Her father said she had no legs, but Dominique thought that meant she had some disability, not literally no legs. After she mailed the letter, she felt somewhat relieved. She could see in Jennifer’s pictures that they looked very much alike, and Jennifer and Christina looked almost like twins. Dominique gave birth to her own daughter, Carmen, early Christmas Day, 2007. For a few weeks, she could only focus on her joy at being a mother, but then on January 14, she called Jennifer. She thanked her for contacting her. Jennifer said, “I knew I had one shot to contact you and show you who I am.” They hit it off right away, and during that first conversation, Jennifer told her she had no legs. Again, she was stunned, although the relinquishment made more sense knowing that, but the secrecy did not.
     The two sisters, and then all three sisters, met in May 2008. By that time, they had become well acquainted with each other, through telephone calls and e-mails. Jennifer flew to Cleveland, Ohio, where Dominique was living. Eventually, Jennifer also met their mother, Camelia, but Dimitry, the father, had already died, at the age of 54. By that time, in the fall of 2008, Dominique was pregnant with her son, Vincent.
     Her children, now pre-schoolers, already love gymnastics, and their parents support that, but vow they will never allow them to be pushed, mistreated, or abused in any way by any person. They continue to be close to Jennifer and support her own career in acrobatics.
     This writer found this such a fascinating story, both from the gymnastics angle and from the viewpoint of a sibling of a relinquished sister, that I read it in one day, not putting it down. Watching the 2012 Olympics at the same time made me alert to the body language and attitudes of the Karolyis, who are still around, and Dominique’s story rang true. As an adoption story, this is really unusual, particularly the reason that Jennifer was relinquished. I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in gymnastics or adoption. For me, as a birth parent, I could hardly fathom the pain Camelia Moceanu must have felt at relinquishing, and yet, I can understand the financial and emotional situation the family faced at that time. It is easy to judge in 2012 what one might think should have happened in 1987, but none of us were living the Moceanus’ lives. This book should also serve as a cautionary tale for parents now who are considering a child’s possible future as a gymnast, and the pressure, not to mention possible abuse, she might encounter.
     This book is available in most bookstores, or can be ordered through them, and it will be available through the Operation Identity lending library for O.I. members.

Excerpted from the October 2012 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2012 Operation Identity