A Strange Club

I finished reading Before and After yesterday. I don’t think Lisa Wingate expected to open this door when she wrote her bestselling fictional novel based upon the horrors of Georgia Tann’s methods of operating an adoption agency – separating children from their original families purely for profit.

However, as she embarked on book tours across the country, the sheer number of real lives impacted by Georgia Tann made themselves evident.  I believe the reunion in Memphis that the new book is based upon was an effort on Wingate’s part to repay the living victims, many of whom are descendants of those directly impacted, for a good story that made her even more successful than she was before (she had written quite a few books before this phenomenal story).

In the Afterward chapter of Before and After, a story about Georgia Tann adoptees and their remarkable reunion in Memphis –

“We need to be given peace and

freed of the misery that comes

from not knowing,

and allowed to live with the truth

before we pass from this world.”

~ Letter from a TCHS adoptee

to her unknown birth family

The reunion proved that people are interested in hearing what the adoptees and their descendants have to say, that strangers care about this long-ago miscarriage of justice.

Countless families have a connection to the horror of Tann and those movers and shakers of Memphis who let her operate until 1950. This is a story that doesn’t have an ending. It never will. For thousands of families, tens of thousands of lives, it will always be a part of their history.

There’s fear of the unknown. My adoptee father had that and he wasn’t a Tann baby.  The Salvation Army separated him from his unwed, poverty stricken mother.

Many, if not most, adoptees hunger for their personal information – their medical history in particular.

Being a Tann victim is like being a member of a strange club. Those who’s lives are somehow a part of the the Tennessee Children’s Home Society story.  There is a shared experience with all of those who’s lives have been impacted by this.

For many of us (myself included) there is a feeling of kinship when we find our long ago “lost” family members. Not all reunions go happy but mine have.

What I took away from reading this book is that there is a universal aspect to the experience of most adoptees. Though the Georgia Tann/TCHS story was a particularly bad scandal, the effects on the Tann adoptees is so very similar to the wounds and trauma that every adoptee experiences (even the ones who aren’t aware it is there – that is my own opinion about it but from exposure to a diversity of adoptees, I don’t believe I’m far wrong).

Before We Were Yours (the fictional account) is a fast and engaging read.  Before and After is a bit more tedious but the real story of real impacts on real people.  I recommend both books.

Each Small Death

. . . is just a season where a part of us is shed to make way for a new one. ~ Jonas Ellison

This quote captured something in my heart.  When I was already into my 60s, I lost first my mom and then 4 months later, my dad, to the normal processes of life that end in one’s death.  When they died, none of us knew who their original parents were.  They were both adopted and their adoptive parents were also dead.

Turns out my original grandparents were all dead as well.

But there is “new” life in me because I now know so much more about my authentic family history.  I know there is a lot of Danish in me because of my paternal grandfather who was an immigrant.  And there is a good deal of Scottish in me because of my maternal grandmother.

On my paternal grandmother’s side is a long history that includes an ancestor who wrote a journal that is still in print.  It is considered to be one of the best records of early colonial life in New London Connecticut spanning a 47 year period from 1711 to 1758.  Yes, before our Revolutionary War.  His home is on the national register and a museum now.

That leaves my maternal grandfather.  His own grandfather was 2nd Lieutenant in the Confederate Army from 1861 through 1864. He fought in the battles of Shiloh, Chattanooga and Spring Hill, as well as other less notable engagements.  There are actually Confederate connections on my maternal grandmother’s side as well.  Not that I take any real pride in that, it just is the honest truth.

All of this is “new” to me.  Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to know about these people but learning about them and meeting some living descendants has made me whole again.  Even though it was too late for my parents, losing them opened up the path for me to know these things about my family history.

All that to say, if you are in a similar circumstance by all means push ahead.  Inexpensive DNA testing and the matching sites that include 23 and Me as well as Ancestry are making it possible for many people who’s past was clouded by adoption to finally know who and from where their roots are grounded in reality.

 

In Defense Of

I do believe in all the reforms I have previously written about – retaining identity and family history information, not changing names or birth dates and not listing adoptive parents as the original parent.  Beyond that is a consideration for guardianship rather than permanent adoption.

All that said, from direct experience, adoptive parents have been a part of my own family’s life in positive ways.  First of all – my grandparents by adopting each of my parents.  On each side, they were a positive influence on my life and the lives of my siblings as well as on my parent’s lives.  They were good people who meant well.  What we now know about the wounds suffered by adoptees was not known at the time they took possession of my parents.

My mom’s adoptive parents modeled financial security for us and affirmed the value of advanced education.  My dad’s adoptive parents modeled faith and uncompromising personal values for us.  My dad’s adoptive parents may even have been responsible for keeping my parents together by getting married and preventing me from being given up when my teenage mother found herself pregnant.  I am grateful for that much.

Each of my sisters gave up a baby to adoption and these two children are fine adults.  In one case, my niece is showing us what a good and consistent mother she can be.  Even though she has been reunited with my family, she has remained steadfast in her appreciation for the people who raised her.

My nephew could not be a higher quality person.  His adoptive mother has gone the extra mile to answer the identity questions that evolved as he matured.  It appears that even my sister either didn’t know who his actual father was or chose to name the person who had the financial resources to help her make what has proven to be a quality choice as a substitute mother.  Given my sister’s very evident mental illness, it is for the best that she didn’t try to raise him.

All that to say, while I remain firmly of the opinion that there are better ways to provide for the welfare of children than adoption, it is not that the adoptive parents in my own family’s life were to blame.  It was naive ignorance and the intention to do good – which all of them have.

Hard Questions

Adoption makes this true.

The questions carry a completely different weight than they did just months ago before we adopted.  A place where my heart screams that he is mine forever but that same heart plummets into a deep ache knowing the gravity of loss he has already faced.  The loss of the mother in whose womb he grew.

He will always know he’s adopted. I tell his story to him every night at bedtime. I ask all the normal questions.

I wonder about the day he will ask about his birth parents. Will there be a constant ringing in his ears to know them? Will he feel the guilt of reassuring us, as the adoptive parents, that the ringing has nothing to do with us?

Will I be able to honestly, deeply, and fully lock arms with him while he searches for answers?

I can wait for the hard questions but know when you start to ask, your worth is immense, your value is priceless, and I will always and forever, be right by your side.

A true story. One worth pondering if you are planning to adopt.  Someday, that child will want to know where they come from and why they are not being raised by the people who conceived them.

Actually Not Related

This is the day my parents married in 1953 because my teenage mom was pregnant with me and my dad did right by her.  They were both adoptees.  As incredible as it may seem to the reader, it was only recently that I realized how miraculous it is that I did not end up given away and adopted.

Certainly, my mom’s adoptive parents could not have been happy about all their dashed hopes for my mom.  No debutante ball, no marrying into the upper class.  Instead her husband came from a humble and poor family.  In spite of it all, they remained married for life, over 60 years, and died 4 months apart.

How to explain what it is like ?  I chose to relocate myself to Missouri.  Eventually, I would discover lots of connections to my chosen home state.  Yet, they were not my own family connections, not really.  There was the town in Missouri – Dittmer – founded by my mom’s adoptive father’s family.  There was the town in Missouri – Eugene – founded by my mom’s adoptive mother’s family.  There was the town in Illinois – Belleville – founded by my dad’s adoptive mother’s family.  I could not claim any of these places had a real relationship to my family history.  It is a weird black hole to spend one’s life within.

Now I really know what is important.  Loss, betrayal and abandonment force us to let go of our attachments.  When my parents died, I became an orphan.  I also lost a close and loving relationship with my youngest sister, who’s mental illness that appears to be some kind of paranoid schizophrenia, caused her to distrust me as I attempted to close out our parent’s estate.  I heard my mom’s voice in my head saying “finish the work.”  That work was requesting the court to create a supportive situation for my sister since she could no longer depend upon our parents and was hostile towards me.  A lifetime of being there for her was lost and abandoned by her.  Sadly.

Trying To Do Better

Though fraught with its own challenges, Open Adoption is an attempt to do the process better by considering the needs of the adoptee and their original parents with equal compassion to the needs of the adopting couple.

Generally speaking, there will be a higher level of personal interaction among the parties.  This interaction may take the form of letters, e-mails, photos, telephone calls and visits.

Some of the pitfalls that may occur include an abuse of the trust that the original parents have placed on the assurances of the adopting couple.  Interactions may lead to a variety of disappointments.  When the adopting couple has invested in the unborn child, financially and emotionally, the original parents may feel obligated to go through with relinquishing the baby.  If the adopting couple changes their mind shortly before or after the birth, it may place the child in a state of limbo and cause a referral to foster care.

In agreeing to an open adoption, the adopting couple may find the original family has greater expectations than they anticipated in agreeing to the situation.  Within the extended birth family may be individuals who are not conventionally stable which may even be part of the reason the child was surrendered.

Some of the original justifications of closed adoptions have included fears that having duplicate mothers, fathers, grandparents and other extended family would make it more difficult for the child to assimilate into the new family unit.  If contact between the original and adopting families ceases for whatever reason, the adoptee could be left feeling even more rejected than is commonly the experience for adopted children.  There can be social complications for the child among their peers.

Identity and family history are the most important reason for open adoptions.  Denying the child access to that information violates basic human rights.  Adoption will never be the perfect circumstance for any child but trying to do it better does matter.

It’s Not Easy Being Adopted

“It’s not as easy as everyone thinks, growing up and never knowing the truth about yourself.” And it isn’t easy for the child of two adoptees because the feeling is the same – there is an emptiness, a void, a gap in the family history story and it hurts somehow in some deep place that is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t felt this.

Once the adoptee had her mother’s name, finding her turned out to be remarkably easy. Her mother’s first words to her daughter were: “I always thought you’d find me.” I believe this is what my maternal grandmother thought. However, for my mom and her mother, it never came to pass.

Some adoptive mothers will feel threatened by the relationship an adoptee begins to develop with their natural mother. The best outcome is for the child to be able to have a relationship with both mothers. Knowledge means no longer being troubled by unanswered questions. Feeling whole, having a past, a new peaceful tranquility with who one is.

Generally speaking, adoptees and birth mothers both have to suppress, in polite society, the feelings that are ripping them up inside. A natural mother who has relinquished her child is supposed to hide her grief and act like nothing is wrong – and especially TELL NO ONE.

The secrecy is suffocating. It is time for that to end.

Missed Opportunities

Evelyn Grace Johnson (later Harris) at age 2

I’ve only known about this family of cousins since October 2017.  The first time I became aware of this one is because her name appeared on the back of her parents’ gravestone in Pine Bluff Arkansas.  I was at the cemetery to visit the grave of my grandfather, Jay Church Moore.  Nearby was the grave of my mom’s half-sister Javene.  I only missed her by about 2 months because she lived to a very ripe old age.

I googled and found that Evelyn lived in Pine Bluff but could not locate a phone number and so we went on to Memphis that day.  Then in May 2018, we returned to the Arkansas area to visit Evelyn’s sister, Sherry, who gave me so much insight into the family, shared so many pictures and stories that I felt as though I had lived in this, my family, for all my life.

I didn’t see Evelyn during that journey either.  I talked to her on the phone.  She said she wasn’t well but maybe when she was better we could meet.  That day, sadly, didn’t come because she passed away last Friday without us ever accomplishing that someday meeting.

I feel I missed opportunities three times now – once with Javene and then twice with Evelyn.  However, I am blessed that I even know they existed.  For over 60 years, my two parents status as adoptees meant we didn’t know our original family roots.  Now I do.  And so today, I mourn a missed opportunity – while counting my blessings – at the same time.

 

Making Lemonade

So the worst has already happened and circumstances, situations, etc have separated a mother and her child.  Now what ?

Family reunification recognizes a shared genetic connection and shared family history.

Though I spent over 60 years in total ignorance of my family’s true origins and heritage, learning about it now has made all of the difference in my sense of wholeness.

It may be that some children will be better supported by “substitute” parents than their original parents are able to accomplish.  I will not deny that.  But for, I would not even exist.  That is a fact I can’t get around and so even though I’ve become very informed about the effects and impacts of adoption on any adoptee, I still know that it is the reality within my family and the outcomes have thankfully been good for each of those children who ended up with adoptive parents.

I now have aunts and cousins who share that genetic connection with me.  While I can’t ever know the family history first hand, these have been able to share with me details of family characteristics over time.  It is better than having nothing.