What Is Normal Anyway ?

Growing up in my immediate family, adoption was the most normal thing.  After all, both of my parents were adopted and they were “normal” or were they ?  Until recently, I didn’t know that being adopted could leave traumatic wounds at such a deep and pre-verbal level the person isn’t even conscious those feelings are there.

Now, my mom was a Georgia Tann baby and when she was a schoolgirl in the early 1950s, the scandal in Memphis broke into national news.  Her adoptive mother admitted she had been adopted there but that she was not one of the stolen babies.  Life went on and she got pregnant and married in time for me to be legitimate.

Fast-forward to the early 1990s and the Georgia Tann scandal hit national attention again with stories on 60 Minutes and Oprah among others.  My mom learned that she had not been born in Memphis but had actually been born in Virginia.  She could not reconcile the disparity of this in her own mind and learning about some of the most extreme atrocities perpetrated by Miss Tann, my mom knew at a very deep level that she never should have been adopted and that her adoption was somehow inappropriate – that last word was one she used when she tried to get her adoption file from the state of Tennessee but was rejected.

What is normal, anyway ? Normal is what you know.  We knew adoption was real and we knew that our parents were being raised by people who did not give them birth.  We knew that ALL of the relatives we knew as such, were not related to us.  It is a bit odd to re-think that now but at the time it was what we knew as a reality.

“What makes us normal is knowing that we’re not normal.”
~ Haruki Murakami

Now, I do know that my parents being adopted was not a normal situation.  And I even know that I have been a victim of adoption fog.  Even as I was discovering who the people were that actually gave birth to my two parents.

 

What Was And Never Should Be

~ 1997 ~

Growing up, I had something my parents didn’t, my real genetically related mom and dad.  I don’t know at what age I first learned that both of my parents were adopted.  It was just a fact of life and one that I never judged to be good or bad for my entire childhood.  Their adoptive parents were my grandparents and aunts, uncles and cousins I acquired in that manner were just that.

Adoption was so accepted in my family that both of my sisters ended up giving up a child to adoption.  Parenting was seen as something any adult human being with good intentions could do.  So my nephew ended being raised by his paternal grandparents and my daughter ended up being raised by her dad when he remarried a woman with a daughter and they had a daughter together, thus creating a family for her that I could not give.

Though I felt a piece was missing in my life – my cultural heritage that had been passed down by those unknown people who gave my parents life – it wasn’t until my mom started investigating her own adoption – after learning in the early 1990s, the story of the scandal that surrounded Georgia Tann’s work – that I became aware that all was not as it should be in adoptionland.

By the grace of a loving energy, I have been able to discover who all 4 of my original grandparents were since my parents died.  It saddens me that they didn’t have the opportunity to know about these people themselves.  I now know of cousin and aunts that I am genetically related to.  I still cherish the family adoption brought to me as well.

What I never expected was the education I would receive along with learning my genetic roots about the damage done in the name of a profit-motivated industry taking babies from their mothers and giving them to the people who had money and could not have their own children for whatever reason.

What once was accepted and “natural” in my understanding – adoption – is now seen for the travesty it has been but thankfully, even that is changing in this world that continuously does.

Adoptions I Have Known

I chose this image because I like trees and Adoption is NOT the main focus.  From a perspective of balance and fairness, as it was recently pointed out to me that I might be too negative (though I don’t necessarily believe that), I thought I might comment on the adoptions that have occurred in my own family and their outcomes – briefly.

First, my mom.  Her mom did not intend to lose her.  I cannot view the exploitation, trap and pressure she faced as being in any way voluntary on my grandmother’s part.  My mom was pure and simple – taken away – from her.  Not because of any wrongdoing on my grandmother’s part.  She was a good mother doing the best that she could under difficult circumstances.  My mom was adopted by a banker and his socialite wife.  She had many opportunities that she may not have had in her original circumstances.  She was troubled at the thought she had been stolen, as she tried to understand the circumstances of her becoming adopted and was denied her own adoption file by the state of Tennessee, until they decided to open the files later on because of the scandal my mom’s adoption had been part of.

Next, my dad.  His mom was unwed but she left the Salvation Army Door of Hope in Ocean Beach California with my dad.  She went to some cousins who it appears were unwilling to help her.  So she applied for employment with the Salvation Army and was transferred to El Paso Texas with my dad in tow.  However it happened, she was convinced to give up my dad and he was adopted by the amazing woman I knew as my Granny.  She survived an abusive, alcoholic husband, divorced him, found a better man and my dad therefore ended up adopted twice and got a new name when he was already 8 years old.  He fully accepted his adoption and never showed any inclination to know more of the details.  Sadly, he had a half-sister living 90 miles from him when he died who could have shared so much with him about what his original mother was like.

Then, a niece.  My sister did not want to surrender her child to adoption but my adoptee mom convinced her that it was for the best.  It was a very secretive thing within our family.  I was told that my niece had died at birth and that never felt accurate in my own heart.  Eventually, the truth came out, she was able to reunite with us and has been a wonderful addition to our family that we love very much.  She seems to have had a good enough childhood and has become an amazing mom to her own two children.

Then, a nephew.  This is not the same sister but my youngest sister.  Understandably, adoption was the most normal thing in our family and I was close to my sister during her pregnancy.  She vetted hopeful couples.  Chose the best she was able to do with the information she received.  Her life became complicated and unfortunate.  He has been loved and his adoptive mother has always supported his desire to know his origins.  He is an EMT and a firefighter and an amazing and sweet young man.

Adoption has worked out well enough in my own family.  The results have produced good parents (at least for 3 out of the 4, the last one hasn’t married yet).  It is what it is.  We have a large extended family – extra grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – as a result.  I love them all.

Porter-Leath

I went looking for a photo of Georgia Robinson who was the superintendent at Porter-Leath orphanage at the time of my mother’s adoption.  My maternal grandmother walked right into a trap when she sought and was granted TEMPORARY care for my mom while she tried to get on a more solid financial footing – after my mom’s father failed to answer a letter from the Juvenile Court of Memphis about his obligations to them.

It is interesting that there is no photo readily available for this woman but the adoption file clearly indicates that she alerted Georgia Tann almost immediately to my mom’s presence there.  Miss Tann had a repeat customer who had been waiting almost a year for a baby sister to complement the little boy she had adopted a few years earlier.

In the investigation into Georgia Tann’s baby stealing and selling legacy, Miss Robinson appears not to have been directly implicated but it is no small wonder to me that just before the criminality was made public, she suddenly decided to “retire”.  She moved out to California and lived with her sister in good health for over a decade.

In the book, The Baby Thief, the author notes –

“Prominent among them was the superintendent of a Memphis
orphanage that housed over one hundred children. She informed
Georgia of the arrival of particularly attractive children with a
speed that convinced the Children’s Bureau social worker
that the superintendent was being bribed by Georgia. Another
social worker told me that the superintendent was dismissed
from her job in 1950 because of her relationship with Georgia.”

What I found in contemporary newspaper articles was, at the time, Georgia Robinson was lauded for her long years of work there at Porter-Leath and was generally respected.  Though the author doesn’t name the orphanage, I’m relatively certain the vague mention was actually the orphanage that Miss Tann sourced my mom from.

Azaleas

Bernice Dittmer 1989

It was my maternal adoptive grandmother who first made a big fuss over our Azaelas when she visited me in Missouri in 1989.  She wanted her picture taken with some.  She grew up in this state a bit further to the west.  When my oldest son was born, I began a tradition of Mother’s Day photos with my sons among the Wild Azaelas.  Yesterday, I saw my first blooming bush so there should be some still in bloom come Mother’s Day later this month.

As you can see, even in old age, my grandmother was a stylish woman.  She adopted my mom and her brother from Georgia Tann, who became embroiled in a state investigation shortly before her death.  Initially, it was simply that she was overcharging adoptive families and pocketing the extra money but as time went on, it became clear there were much worse accusations of exploitation of the adoptees original parents.

I received my mom’s adoption file from the state of Tennessee in October of 2017.  My mom had tried and was denied in the early 1990s before the laws changed but no one told her when that happened and so she died knowing nothing about her origins.  She had said to me that as a mother herself, she would have wanted to know what happened to her child but when she was trying to get her file, she was told that her mother had already died.  The end of her hopes for a reunion were the reality.

Georgia Tann lied to my adoptive grandmother about my mother’s origins.  That is plain in the record (which thankfully is mostly accurate except for some fudging about my mom’s original parents that was decidedly not true).  It also seems that my adoptive grandmother got her children according to her exact specifications and I think it is likely that she paid for them in some manner.

Like many adoptive parents, she was very happy to have children and become a family.  When she visited me in 1989, the story she told me was still not accurate.  My mom was already 52 years old by that time.