Shame

I’m only going the summarize this article but provide you with the link because it is well worth your time to read it – I Kept My Family’s Secret For Over 60 Years. Now, I’m Finally Telling The Truth by Yvonne Liu – published in The Huffington Post.

I believe shame had a lot to do with adoption records being sealed to begin with. Closed to access by the very person – the adoptee – is the information matters most to. Early in my “adoption issues” education I encountered the issue of dumpster babies. There are also babies left in a basket. For most of my life, I thought my own father had been left in a basket on the doorstep of The Salvation Army in El Paso TX because his Mexican national mother lacked her family’s acceptance of a mixed race baby who’s father was an American national. Nothing was further from the truth but I was well in my 60s before I knew that. My father never expressed any interest in learning the truth and details of his own adoption and I believe it was because he was afraid of what he might learn. By the time I knew the truth, my dad was already deceased and knew next to nothing.

Today’s story relates to a baby left in a basket in a Hong Kong stairwell near Sai Yeung Choi Street. She was taken to St. Christopher’s Home, the largest non-government-run orphanage on the island. Officials at the orphanage named her Yeung Choi Sze, after the street where she was found.

Infertility was the shame her adoptive mother hid. That is not uncommon among adoptive mothers, especially those of Chinese descent because Confucius believed a woman’s greatest duty was to bring a son into the world. This adoptee’s mother couldn’t produce a son, much less a daughter.

In June of 1960, this baby girl from China landed at O’Hare International Airport. Her adoptive mother was disappointed in the baby she received from the beginning. She was a sick and scrawny baby, clearly malnourished. Her mother’s first reaction upon seeing her was, “Why couldn’t I have a healthy baby like everyone else?” Throughout her life, the family’s story about her was a lie – that she was born in Chicago. Every school form, all of her college and job applications, and even her medical records listed her birthplace as Illinois. 

The adoptee’s parents were never warm emotionally. From a young age, she was afraid to upset her mother, who was often emotionally volatile. Her mother showed her attention when she needed her daughter. If she dared push back on the relentless demands to refill her teapot, type her Chinese cookbook or vacuum the house, her mother would retreat to her bed, sob, and say, “You don’t love me because I’m not your real mother.” Hugging her, the adoptee would desperately proclaim her love for her adoptive mother, telling her, “You’re my only mother.” Then she would quickly and quietly fulfill her mother’s commands.

Her adoptive father was not any warmer emotionally. From her time in the third grade, she threw myself into becoming a star student in hopes of earning her father’s love and attention. After immigrating to America with $50 in his pocket, her adoptive father earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry while working as a dishwasher on the weekends. He was chronically depressed and withheld any affection from her, even though she wanted that desperately.

The adoptee won a full scholarship to attend a top MBA program and enjoyed a solid business career. She even married the nice Chinese man her mother chose for her. But for as long as her parents were alive – and even after they died – I continued to keep the family’s secret that she had been adopted. Eventually, she told her husband and children but asked them to continue keep the family’s secret. That’s how deep and dark she considered her secret shame to be. I truly believed I would carry it with me until I died. The ancient Chinese beliefs that she must have come from an immoral mother, would mean she was tainted by her origins.

In 2020, locked down by the pandemic and having just turned 61 years old, she finally began questioning why she had internalized her adoptive parents’ shame about infertility and adoption. Feelings of low self-esteem, insecurity and anxiety as well as lingering questions about identity, rejection, belonging motivated her to learn more about adoption. She did a lot of the things I did as well – read books about adoption and joined Facebook groups for adoptees. Like her, I was already in my 60s as well.

She came to realize that there was no reason to hide her truth any longer. It was time to live an authentic life. She had nothing to hide. She choose to tell her truth publicly in The New York Times. A 98-word Tiny Love Stories piece about her adoption. Then my brother (also adopted) gave her a dusty manila file he discovered during pandemic cleaning. It was labeled “Yvonne’s Adoption.” At 62 years of age, she finally read the documents her adoptive parents had deliberately kept hidden from her when they were alive. The yellowed tissue-thin papers held the truth of her beginnings.

She writes, “My heart ached for the baby who languished in that orphanage for 15 long months. Surely a caretaker would have picked up my malnourished and anemic body when I wailed. Surely someone helped me when I still couldn’t sit on my own at 9 months. Surely a hired helper gazed into my eyes as she fed me diluted Carnation formula, water and congee. I sobbed, imagining how that tiny baby must have experienced those first few months of a life that would turn out to be mine.”

For much of her childhood, she was a quiet child, afraid to be a burden. On the rare occasions when she complained or questioned her parents, they would answer, “Where would you be if we didn’t adopt you?” They never said the same thing to her adoptive brother because he fulfilled their traditional Chinese filial duty to have a son to carry on the family name.

Then, she wanted to understand, why the lies ? So she learned Chinese history, read cultural and sociology books, pored over Chinese memoirs and novels, interviewed Chinese cultural experts and people who lived in China at the time her parents had. Now she is able to recognize that her adoptive parents were a product of tradition, circumstances and time.

She was able to realize some gratitude for the circumstances of her life. Because her birth mother loved her, she left me at a busy stairwell to be found. Because she made that choice, the woman has lived a full life. She is also able to be grateful her adoptive parents chose her. She is no longer ashamed of being an adoptee.

You can read more of her writing at YvonneLiuWriter.com. She is currently writing a memoir about adoption, childhood trauma and mental health. 

The Sad Truth About Pioneer Children

Mormon Pioneer Children in 1800

I sometimes find a blog topic in surprising places. Today it was while reading my latest daily book – Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo. And it is tangentially related to adoption – really.

It all begins with the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857. It was one of the most explosive episodes in the history of the American West—not only were 120 men, women and children killed, but the United States and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints almost went to war. 

The early antagonism towards Mormons had intensified until they were evicted from Missouri and Illinois, where Joseph Smith (the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) was lynched in 1844. To break a cycle of mutual suspicion, recrimination and violence, Brigham Young, who succeeded Smith, made plans to lead the remaining LDS members on an exodus to Utah, which was then part of Mexico and so beyond the reach of US law. Only six months after the Mormons arrived in the Great Salt Lake valley, Mexico ceded that land and more of the West, to the United States.

The Baker-Fancher party emigrating from northwest Arkansas by wagon train to California passed through Utah. Paiutes in the region were warned the encroaching Americans might poison water and cattle along their path. The Baker-Fincher party was most likely unaware of the new requirement for a permit to cross Utah. So, they grazed their cattle on Mormons’ land as they passed through, thus stoking anger.

John D Lee claimed that he had orders from Isaac C. Haight, a leader of several Mormon congregations that formed the Iron County Militia, “to send other Indians on the war-path to help them kill the emigrants.” Haight and Lee gave weapons to the Paiutes.

The Baker-Fancher party was camped at Mountain Meadows on September 7 when Paiutes (and some Mormons dressed as Paiutes to conceal their Mormon affiliation) attacked. The emigrants circled the wagons, dug trenches and fought back—but as the siege continued for five days, they began to run out of ammunition, water and provisions. The Mormon attackers concluded that the emigrants had figured out their ruse—and feared that word of their participation would hasten an assault by the Army. It was then that militia commander William H Dame ordered his men to leave no witnesses. The emigrants were to be “decoyed out and destroyed with the exception of the small children,” who were “too young to tell tales,” according to another militia commander, Major John H Higbee, who relayed the orders to Lee. After the massacre, Local Mormons auctioned off or distributed their possessions and adopted the surviving 17 young children.

When the Army arrived in Utah in 1858, they investigated the killing and found the bones of “very small children.” The soldiers gathered skulls and bones and erected a cairn with the words, “Here 120 men, women, and children were massacred in cold blood early in September, 1857. They were from Arkansas.” They marked the site with a cross inscribed, “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord.”

On the morning of his execution, John D Lee would write that Brigham Young was “leading the people astray” and that he was being sacrificed “in a cowardly, dastardly manner.”

You can read more here – The Aftermath of Mountain Meadows – from which the above was taken.

So what does this all have to do with adoption ? Well first there were the surviving children raised by Mormon families.

Nephi Johnson was also at the Mountain Meadows Massacre and testified against John D Lee. He was a 2nd Lieutenant at the time.

White men fighting white men over land that was not theirs to begin with has continued in the West all the way to 2016 when the Bundy brothers took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

Cliven Bundy traces his lineage back to Nephi Johnson, the Mormon leader who was involved in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Johnson adopted Bundy’s grandfather, John Jensen. This is Cliven Bundy’s proof of his claim to the land around his ranch in Bunkerville Utah.

So again, a theme of adoption comes out of history. There are theological foundations to the Bundy’s perspectives and this comes down from the early history of Mormonism, particularly the Mormon land ethic and Mormon interpretations of the divinity of the Constitution. Painting a picture of a uniquely American religion that has shaped the American West in important ways, but at times has operated as if blind to the ecological and geological realities of the very land on which it was founded, the book by Betsy Gaines Quammen asks what the future of public lands looks like in the context of violence that its perpetrators believe has a divine justification.

Quammen’s book is divided into two parts; the taproot story of Mormon founder Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s struggle to establish a safe homeland for their people, and the sprawling, tangled tree of sects and prophecy and public land fights that grew up out of that foundation. Quammen is quick to point out that the current LDS church has disavowed the Bundys’ armed rebellions.

More about Betsy Gaines Quammen’s book – American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God & Public Lands in the West here – The West In A Time Of Conflict: The Bundys, Public Lands And Covid-19.

I love history and so that’s why, when I saw an intersection between adoption and this historical massacre, I wanted to write about it in this blog.