Dionne Quintuplets

I stumbled on a reminder of these girls searching for something else. Blame it on being a Gemini and always fascinated by multiple births. The birth of these girls was quite remarkable in the days before fertility drugs. DNA testing proved that they were the product of a single embryo splitting into 3 separate egg sacs in their mother’s womb with 2 babies in each sack. One of the fetuses was miscarried early. There is so much more to this story than I will have time or inclination to go into. My source, where you can read more, is the LINK> Wikipedia article about them.

The identical quintuplet girls were, in order of birth:

  1. Yvonne Édouilda Marie Dionne (died 2001)
  2. Annette Lillianne Marie Allard (living)
  3. Cécile Marie Émilda Langlois (living)
  4. Émilie Marie Jeanne Dionne (died 1954)
  5. Marie Reine Alma Houle (died 1970)

Each girl had a color and a symbol to mark whatever belonged to her. Annette’s color was red and her design a maple leaf, Cécile’s green and a turkey, Émilie had white and a tulip, Marie blue and a teddy bear, and Yvonne pink and a bluebird.

The girls were legally removed from their parents and placed in the custody of the Red Cross, ostensibly to prevent their exploitation. In reality, they were exploited their entire childhoods. A compound was built just for them across the road from their birthplaces. The compound had an outdoor playground designed to be a public observation area. The sisters were brought to the playground, two or three times a day, for viewing by the crowd that would gather. It was surrounded by a covered arcade, which allowed tourists to observe the sisters behind one-way screens said to prevent noise and distraction from disturbing the children. The girls knew they were watched, as they could hear screams and laughter. The one-way screens did not fully block out the visitors, acting more like frosted glass.

The Canadian government realized there was enormous public interest in the sisters and developed tourist industry around them. They made the girls wards of the provincial Crown, originally planned to be in effect until they reached the age of 18. An example of that exploitation was the doctor who delivered them. Up until 1942, when Dr Allan Roy Dafoe retired, he was known as the world’s best doctor. He wrote a book, numerous pamphlets, and had a radio broadcast. Eventually Dr Dafoe was viewed as taking advantage of his newfound fame. He was removed as one of the three primary caretakers of the quintuplets partly in response to legal action instigated by the girls’ father, Oliva Dionne, seeking to regain custody over his children. The general public did not know Dr Dafoe profited in 1943 dollars at $182,466, which is equivalent to millions of dollars today.

Even their father got in on the act. Oliva Dionne ran a souvenir shop and a woolen store opposite the nursery and the area acquired the name “Quintland”. The souvenirs, picturing the five sisters, included autographs and framed photographs, spoons, cups, plates, plaques, candy bars, books, postcards, and dolls. Available to the public for free in bins were stones from the area that claimed to have the magical power of fertility – the bins would need to be refilled almost every day. Women without children touched Oliva Dionne because they believed he could increase their chances of fertility. The quintuplets brought in more than $50 million in total tourist revenue to Ontario.

The sisters, their likenesses and images, along with Dr Dafoe’s, were used to publicize many commercial products including condensed milk, toothpaste, disinfectant and candy bars as well as specific brands like Karo Corn Syrup, Quaker Oats, Lysol, Palmolive Soap, Colgate Dental Cream, Carnation Milk and Baby Ruth Candy Bars.

Although the quintuplet’s trust fund was secured by the Canadian government, they were not rich nor living comfortably. They were making $746 monthly. The money in their trust fund decreased through spending on marriage, houses, child support, and divorce. It was discovered that their trust fund contained less money than what was made from advertisements and photographs of the quintuplets. The sisters requested $10 million from the Canadian government and received no response. They then turned down offers of 2 and 3 million dollars. They accepted 4 million dollars and an analysis of their trust accounts. Premier Mike Harris visited the sisters and apologized on behalf of the government. The quintuplets finally had their story in the public eye by challenging the Ontario government.

By 1939, the family was reunited because their parents made efforts to regain custody over their children. One factor was that the Dionnes had never agreed to the removal of the quintuplets from their custody. In 1942, the Dionne family moved into the nursery where the quintuplets had grown up, while they waited for their new home to be completed. In November 1943, the entire Dionne family moved into their new home. That building is now a retirement home.

When they were reunited, many struggles followed. They were not one big happy family and the quintuplets felt distanced from their siblings. They struggled to communicate as they spoke French and their siblings preferred English. Once Oliva received custody, he wanted the attention. He made police accompany his vehicle as he took the quintuplets out, constantly drawing attention to them and himself. The quintuplets were unaware for many years that the lavish house, the expensive food and the series of cars the family enjoyed were paid for with money they themselves had earned. They were aware of the fact that their upbringing meant they would never feel truly a part of the large Dionne family, and called their time in the big, new house, “the saddest home we ever knew”. The quintuplets left the family home upon turning 18 years old in 1952 and had little contact with their parents afterwards.

Reunion Questions

If at 17 years old, adopted from foster care with no contact with your birth mother your entire life but now with an opportunity to ask some questions . . .

What would you as this adoptee ask your birth parents ? If you have been through such a reunion, what were the questions that you thought, in hindsight, weren’t helpful to potentially building a relationship ?

Some responses –

Ask for the family medical history. This one is one of the more important ones. This is what drove my mom to try and find her original mother and/or obtain her adoption file.

Ask how many biological siblings you have. This one lets you know if you are the only child of your birth parents or did they go on to have other children, maybe through a remarriage to someone who was not your original father as well.

Ask for the reason they chose whatever decisions they had in their power to make that led to you ending up in foster care. This one could be a tricky one, it may lead to defensiveness or in the best possible situation, at least regret, and even better, ultimately to a radical change in lifestyle.

If they relinquished for adoption, did they decide to do that early on at the beginning of the pregnancy or at the last moment just before birth or just after ? In both of the cases of my adoptee parents relinquishments, it appears that their original mothers actually tried very hard to keep their first born child, and in the case of my mom, the only child born to her mother.

Ask who your biological father was. Does she know how to contact him ?

On a sweeter, more intimate note (I know this was the kind of information I yearned for related to my mom’s mother that finally at the end of most of my discovery journey, I finally received from my mom’s cousins, the daughter’s of her youngest uncle, who were about my age) – ask her what her favorite foods are, what is her favorite color. Ask about her childhood memories and ask her to tell you something about her extended family members.

One says – “I really wanted to look at my birthmother, hear her voice, and look at her handwriting. Basically I wanted to see if I could find that mirror of who I am.” This is the personal connection many adoptees crave. I do believe my mom yearned for these kinds of experiences. I now have the adoption file that was denied her and one of the treasures are two examples of her personal writing, a post card and a brief letter (though I also have her signature on the surrender papers).

Another interesting perspective that I saw even with my mom who wanted something, though my dad claimed not to want it at all – it is a strange juncture for any adoptee to arrive at, when been raised by people with whom the adoptee has not genetic or biological connection but who were the actual parents and sibling’s in the childhood family –

I told them that I was not ready for a full relationship with them. I wanted them to know I was alive and wanted them to know I had an amazing childhood. My mom told me that as a mother, she would want to know that everything turned out okay for her child. In one case, the biological father started calling the adoptee, “daughter.” He was buying her things and saying “I Love You.” This made her feel very uncomfortable and so, she asked that he not do those things anymore. For this adoptee, she was not his daughter. Happily, he accepted her boundaries. She shares the rest of the story going forward – they are now Facebook friends. Today he is a little more involved in my her daily life. We talk by phone from time to time. She admits that she still does not have the feelings towards him that a raised biological child would (though some of my friends do not have good relationships in adulthood with their genetic, biological family today).

And sadly, this is always a possibility – “I’ve reached out to my birth mom and have been shut out – no answers to my questions. No desire for a relationship.” Yet, there is something you can do in this situation to bring you closure and comfort. Write a letter. Tell her everything you want her to know about you, your childhood, who you are now as a person. In this way, you end feeling you said everything you needed to say.

Maybe It IS Better Sometimes

Generally speaking, I am NOT in favor of adoption. I know too much about the trauma that most adoptees suffer, if only unconsciously because of rejection and abandonment issues, not to believe that family preservation, support, therapy and encouragement to remain together is best. A lot of children were adopted out from about 1930 through and into the 1970s (when the number of available infants linked to single, unwed mother diminished due to the availability of abortion).

Still, reading this story today, I understand why this adoptee feels blessed to have been adopted.

My biological parents were married to each other, but both were meth addicts. A maternal great aunt helped care for me and wanted to adopt me, but my parents took me to a private attorney and handed over a 13-month old me in exchange for $45,000 cash in 1978. Talk about unethical!

I met that great aunt again at age 21, and she was very happy to be reunited with me. She cried and apologized for not getting me herself – but she was very poor, living in a tiny rural town in the middle of nowhere, supported by her long-haul truck driver husband. They had a mobile home, and three of my younger siblings were in their care.

All 5 of them are chain smokers, even my siblings were in middle and high school age ranges! My brothers and sister shared a single room. It was shocking to me.

I’d grown up an only child of middle class adoptive parents, both of whom have advanced degrees. They aren’t perfect, but they gave me opportunities I never would have had, if I’d been kept with my great aunt.

Ideally, I wish my mother had been given support to get clean, to escape her abusive family and community. The multi-generational trauma ran deep in my maternal family. But finally, at the age of 43, I’m able to say that I got the very best deal of all of my siblings – including my two youngest half-brothers who were raised by their father’s parents, and my older sister, who was put up for adoption at birth.

I always wondered who I’d be, and what I’d be doing if I’d not been adopted, and I’m grateful for who I am, even though I know it came with intense trauma.

Though my mom yearned to know her original mother, she was able to say to me near the end of her life (knowing that her original mother had already died), that she was glad she had been adopted. She really couldn’t know what her life would have been like. Her mother lacked familial support and though married was estranged from my mom’s father, who didn’t answer a request from the juvenile court about his obligation to support my grandmother and mom.

When I met a cousin related to my original maternal grandfather, she said they were very poor. He was a widow struggling to support 4 other children. They were so poor her own mother often went to bed hungry, living in a shelter so minimal, the chickens roosting under the house could be seen through the floor boards.

My mom was raised in a financially secure family with a mother who had an advanced education and was highly accomplished in her own life’s expressions. Her adoptive father was a banker and got a lucky ground-floor break on a friend’s stock offering (which became Circle K Stores). There was wealth and I grew up seeing that. My dad’s adoptive parents were poor entrepreneurs with a home-based drapery business that my dad helped out in, even though he had full employment and a family of his own to raise.

Life is and sometimes circumstances aren’t so great. If one is lucky, they are able to be thankful for the circumstances they grew up within. Though my family was struggling middle class, we were loved and cared about. It was good enough.