The Archaic Shadow Of Secrecy

Parent Child Match

The closed, sealed adoption records of yesterday are much easier to pierce with today’s inexpensive DNA testing. Today’s story from Severance Magazine.

It begins this way – in 1967, I’d given birth to my first-born child in an unwed mothers maternity home in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had been a typical 17-year-old high school senior with plans for the future that evaporated overnight. In the sixties, it was considered close to criminal for a girl to become pregnant with no ring on her finger. The father of my child had joined the Army, preferring Vietnam to fatherhood. After my parents discovered my shameful secret, I was covertly hurried away and placed in an institution for five months. There, I was expected to relinquish my baby immediately after giving birth to closed adoption and I was repeatedly assured my child would have a better life without me. After his birth, I was allowed to hold my son three times. My heart was permanently damaged when I handed him over the final time. The home allowed one concession—I could give my baby a crib name. I named him Jamie.

In the Spring of 2016, this woman and her husband submitted DNA tests to Ancestry.com. By October 2016, a  ‘Parent/Child Match’ message popped up on her iPhone, causing me to stop me in my tracks, as my knees gave out from under me. After 49 long years, Jamie had found her. Who was he? Where was he? Would he hate me? How would this affect my life? My family? His family? She had always dreamed of finding Jamie but never thought past that point.

She relates – that night I heard my son’s voice for the first time. The wonder I felt when he said, “I know your voice” transformed me. In minutes, the secret of my son changed from fear of anyone knowing about him to wanting to shout out to the world, “My son has found me!” She also learned she had three new grandchildren.  Within four days, her son flew from Louisiana to California to meet her. She describes that first meeting as magical. She says, “My son was back in my life, and suddenly I was whole.”

Due to severe depression brought on by the COVID pandemic as a messy divorce, the loss of his job, and unhealthy isolation began to destroy him, she worried from a distance. In February 2021, they had what would be their last conversation. Before hanging up, her son said, “I love you, Mom. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” Two days later, the son she had mourned for 50 years, the son who had found her, left her again. He took his own life. Now she had lost him twice and this time was forever. Even so, she cherishes that phone call.

She ends her story with this – “I wish I could speak to all the birth mothers out there, who continue to carry the shame and guilt that society placed on us. For those who refuse to allow their relinquished child back into their lives. I want to say I know your fear. I know your uncertainty. I lived it and still live it. It is deep-seated in us, regardless of the circumstances that resulted in us leaving our children. Please know if you are brave enough to welcome that lost child into your life again, you may create a peace and a bond worth all the fear and guilt. There is nothing quite like reuniting a mother and her child, and you may be giving a gift of connection to that child and yourself, as it should have been all along.”

Reckoning With The Primal Wound

I’ve read the book, hope to catch this documentary soon.

More Info at Reckoning With The Primal Wound.

Adoptee Rebecca Autumn Sansom made a film titled a film titled Reckoning with The Primal Wound that captures the complexities, forsaken years, and mirror smashing pain of adoption better than any other I’ve seen. She says at her Twitter – “bunnies are my spirit animal.”

I am a fan already. Those who know me will understand why. We have a house rabbit named Walnut.

Here’s an article, My Biology Matters, in Severance magazine by Kristen Steinhilber – an excerpt from which, the paragraph mentioning Rebecca Autumn and italicized line below were taken. She says, “My story is not any other adoptee’s story. But the gist of it is not uncommon. These themes of diabolical dishonesty, betrayal, unbearable rejection, and hopelessness run through countless adoptees’ stories, and are begging not to be ignored.” Also, my favorite part is the “Adoptee Army” featured in the credits. There’s a massive number of names listed, all those of adoptees who stand in solidarity for adoption reform. After a lifetime of feeling utterly alone, I was moved to tears seeing my name included with all of the rest.

We are the adoptee army, and our biology matters. It did all along. 

It Actually Does Matter

I have known quite a few people who were not entirely happy with the family of their birth but those of us who have been touched by adoption lost the family of our birth. Some of us find our way back. Today’s blog is inspired by a story in Severance Magazine written by Kristen Steinhilber titled My Biology Matters. It Did All Along.

She writes – “It took me more than three decades of fairytale-oriented platitudes and assumptions thrown like bombs my way about adoption to piece together one very relevant thread: everyone who told me that biology doesn’t matter—including both sides of my own adoptive family—had intact bloodlines and genetic histories. And that what they were really saying, whether they meant to or not, was that my biology doesn’t matter.”

I encountered something like this as well. When I was first learning about my original families (both of my parents were adopted), I was attending a writer’s conference in St Louis when one of our members questioned me – If the adoptive family was good, why does it matter? As we talked, it slowly dawned on her that if she wanted to know, it would have been a fairly easy thing for her to learn as much as she wanted to know from her older family members. Not so for adoptees.

She goes on to write – “. . . withholding and secrecy—are encouraged in the world of adoption when it comes to the biology of adoptees. In fact, withholding and secrecy are legally enforced through sealed birth records. So when I found out, I assumed this was normal, understandable, or even maybe for my own good. My adoptive mother may have even believed that herself.” And adds, “since I’d always been told that adoption was such a gift, I didn’t feel I had the right to it. I pushed my own feelings away and suppressed what was in my gut.”

Even my adoptee mom, after being denied her adoption file and being told her mother was already dead, tried to put a good face on it all as she abandoned trying to do a family tree at Ancestry using the adoptive family details saying “it wasn’t real” and I understand that but needed to say at that point “because I was adopted, glad I was.” Though I doubt she really meant that, what else could she say at that point ?

She describes her experience of reunion – “I had a beautiful reunion with them for years and ‘fit’ naturally. Not in the same way that they fit with each other; that’s simply not possible when you miss out on all those years.” This has been my experience in having genetic biological relations reunions – I can feel these are really, truly the people who I am related to and at the same time I can’t make up for all of the years they were living their lives and I wasn’t in them. It affects my feelings towards the adoptive family I grew up with. I’m like my mom in very real ways – they aren’t real anymore, though at one time they were. The love remains for the good people they all were and are, yet they are also “strangers”, not actually related to me in reality. 

I understand it when she says, “The spiritual and psychological isolation of having two families but not belonging to either has ripped me from limb to limb . . .” That’s the painful part of it all. While I do now feel more “complete” and know my ethnic and familial roots, I don’t actually belong to either family group in any real way. It is actually very sad and only now do I allow myself to feel this, brought almost to tears by the truth of it. It is the sense of not belonging that plagues many adoptees and now I understand passes down the family line to their children as well.

She talks about the massive number of adoptees who stand in solidarity for adoption reform. At least, I am one of those now as well.

Identity

From an article in Severance magazine.

Growing up as an adoptee, I frequently fielded questions from friends and strangers alike. “Do you know who your real mother is?” “Do you think you look like your parents?” “What [ethnicity] are you?” The first two questions were easy to answer: My mother is my real mother.  No, I don’t look like either of them. But the third question hounded me my whole life. It speaks to a universal quest to identify with a group. And it speaks to the need of others to figure out who we are. For an adoptee, another question swirls around in the mix: Are we valid?

On one hand, our identity is who we believe we are, and on the other it’s who others believe us to be. In essence, the identity question is two-part: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who do you think I am?’ Adopted or not, we work to reconcile our personal vision of who we are versus who others believe we are. Yet when you’re adopted, there’s an added layer. For me, and I imagine for many adoptees, there’s a struggle to answer the question ‘Who are you?’ When others challenge our identity because of our adoption status, it’s difficult enough; but it’s further complicated by the fact that we have incomplete information about our genetic roots and, therefore, we can’t answer. And even when we get that information, we’re still left wondering how others view us.

Now my story –

I’ve been going through 30-40 years of saved clutter, old letters to and from family members, etc. Yesterday I found my OMNI Berkeley Personality Test results. One does this for their own self and asks some people close to them to do it regarding that person’s perspectives on one’s personality. I had my husband, my daughter, my two sisters, my parents and my in-laws all do this for me back in the early 1990s. Then one compares how one sees one’s self with how other see them. It does give great insights.

I knew that both of my parents were adopted. Since finally learning who all 4 of my grandparents were so late in life (after the age of 60), I’ve also been reading and learning as much as I can about the effects of adoption on adoptees as well as on their descendants. Much of that learning I’ve been sharing in this blog.

No doubt, adoptees have all sorts of reasons for discovering their birth or genetic backgrounds. My mom felt compelled to try to connect with her birth mother but by the time she made the effort, it was too late. Her mother had already been dead for several years leaving my mom devastated. The state of Tennessee wouldn’t release her adoption file to her at that time because they could not determine the status of her birth father who had actually been dead for 30 years (they really didn’t try very hard). It’s a pity because in her adoption file that I now possess was a picture of her mother holding her for the last time before she was taken to be adopted.

In the Severance article, she writes – “I projected her need to know about the baby she’d given up, basing that assumption only on my own feelings toward my children—trying to imagine how a woman could part with her child. I thought perhaps she might want to know that I’d had a good life.” This is so much like my mom’s own explanation of her need to know. My own reason to do the search was to learn the truth about my own ethnic identity. Simply being “American” as my mom once told me because due to adoption they didn’t know, didn’t cut it for me. It is surprising how important in our melting pot of a country, there is still so much emphasis on our ethnic heritage. It was my public school girl days friends making a big deal about theirs that made me feel like something important was missing in my own life. Even the Census forces you to record some ethnicity other than American.

I am so glad to know today about my Danish paternal grandfather, my Scottish maternal grandmother and all of the English and Irish parts of me. I’m less fond of the strong streak of Confederates in my maternal line but grateful my Yankee paternal grandmother and that Danish paternal grandfather balance my karma out in that respect. I’ve certainly had fun exploring the traditions and places where my DNA originated. It is amazing how often Denmark turns up in my life before I even knew I had that culture in my background.

The Grandfathers I Never Knew

My mom’s father with her half-sisters

And I never will know my grandfathers, or my grandmothers either, because they have all died. But I’ve seen photos and heard some stories which is more than I had for over 60 years of my life.

My mom wasn’t much inclined towards this man and showed no interest in these half-siblings. She only yearned for her mother who was already dead when she pushed the state of Tennessee to give her details as an adoptee (which they still denied her). I think my mom had a pre-birth and infant sense that her own mother felt abandoned by this man with good reason. The true reasons for their separation and why he didn’t come to her aid in Memphis, I’ll never know. I have this picture thanks to my cousin, the daughter of the younger girl in this photo.

An article in Severance magazine where the aftermath of separation is often detailed by those who have experienced it is shared caught my attention for it’s headline – The Grandfather I May Never Know. I still need to actually read it (and will before I finish this blog) but I would suspect from the headline, it is still possible for the author.

In her article, Bianca Butler writes – “As a young child, I didn’t know that my mother and her twin sister (now deceased) had been adopted in 1960. I found out in 2000, when, after nearly 40 years of silence, their biological mother wrote to the twins asking to reunite.”

She describes one outcome of their reunion – “By meeting her biological mother, my mother learned her biological father’s identity and that she and her twin are of mixed-race ancestry: African American and white. Their biological mother had been a young African American college student at the University of California, Berkeley when she relinquished her twin daughters for adoption. They were born in a time in the United States when interracial unions were not only taboo but also illegal (Loving V Virginia) and when young unwed women were shamed and stigmatized—a time known as the Baby Scoop Era, from 1945 to 1973, before Roe V Wade in 1973.”

Since the suspected father of the twins denied paternity, the author decided to get her DNA tested. She goes on to share that “The Ancestry DNA test confirmed that I’m 31% Norwegian and, through the DNA matches, that I’m related to his cousins. I sent him the DNA results, but he’s still in denial and, sadly, not open to a relationship.” She admits that – “Finding biological family and taking a DNA test can bring great joy and excitement, but it can also bring rejection and disappointment. . . . It can be very emotional opening up old generational wounds that still haven’t been healed. . . . some people don’t want to be found, especially when race and adoption are factors, and I’ve had to accept that reality. “

She adds a happier note – “On a positive note, through Ancestry DNA I was amazed to connect with a cousin on my mom’s paternal side who is close to my age and open to connecting. She moved to Sacramento from Minnesota last year for graduate school, and we plan to meet. From her own ancestry research, she was able to give me more information about our shared heritage and ancestral homeland in Fresvik, Norway, which, in addition to Oslo, I hope to visit.”

This happened for me as well (thanks to DNA testing). I have contact with a cousin in Denmark now. I have learned details about my paternal grandfather’s early life. I would love to travel to Denmark and visit the family there (who never knew my grandfather ever had any children, and he probably never knew either as he was a married man and my grandmother simply handled it quietly).

I do share this perspective with the article’s author – “As an adult, I’m doing the healing work to educate myself on intergenerational trauma, loss, and abandonment that happen through adoption.”

Vagabond, I think the man with the pipe in his mouth is my paternal grandfather.

Infant Saviors

My oldest son at age 4. There are probably baby pictures somewhere but didn’t find them easily on my hard drive. The point here is that I have often referred to him as “my savior”. That is because trying to conceive him alerted me to a danger I didn’t know was lurking in my body – hepatitis C. Had I not gone down that road and been subjected to numerous lab tests, I would have continued drinking alcohol – sometimes to excess. The genotype I have is unlikely to progress and so I have chosen not to embark upon the treatment which is expensive and would disable me for months in attempting the cure. He is now 20 years old and I am healthier than ever, though my almost 67 year old body is showing me signs of wear and tear – especially my knees.

Today, I learned about Megan Culhane Galbraith’s new book The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book, which will be published on May 21 and can be pre-ordered now at bookshop.org. An excerpt appears in Severance magazine. As I turn to reading the article myself, I will acknowledge that some people adopt infants to save their marriage and outcomes would indicate that is more often than not – unsuccessful. Others adopt infants thinking THEY are the saviors and that without them the child would fare badly in life and that is generally NEVER true as well.

Galbraith’s book is identified as creative nonfiction. The book is described as experimental in form and structure. It is a memoir but much more. A striking visual art project, an intellectual inquiry into the nature of memory, and a frightful window on the failures and brutalities of the American system of adoption. The book is the origin story of a girl who had three mothers before she was half a year old and the experience of the woman she grew to be, who, only during her own pregnancy, was overwhelmed by the need to know her history and learn about her first mother. The author’s meditations on the nature of identity, her compulsion toward self-erasure, and her fear of abandonment likely will resonate with adoptees.

Snippets from the excerpt that you can read more fully at the Severance link above –

“It is incredible how few concrete details I needed to feel connected across time.” . . . “I began to think about who I was at nineteen—a virgin for starters—and how incomprehensible it would have been to become a mother when my own future felt like it was just beginning.” . . . “What struck me most was that my birth mother had cared enough to update my file.” “within the last ten years” to alert her that she was a DES granddaughter.

Diethylstilbestrol (DES) was a drug given to women during their pregnancy. DES was a synthetic form of estrogen given to women between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage. The daughters of women who used DES were forty times more likely to develop cancers of the cervix and vagina. Galbraith goes on to note – “The drug’s side effects were known to skip a generation, meaning, they may have affected me—or worse my unborn child. Late-onset and irregular periods were one side effect for DES granddaughters like me. I didn’t get my period until I was sixteen: my biological mother got hers at around eleven. Other risks included infertility, cancer, congenital disabilities, and fewer live births.”

Surrogacy

I first became of gestational surrogacy while going through reproductive assistance. One of the women in my mom’s group had cancer and so her twins were birthed through a surrogate. I remember her stressing about what medical staff would think of her because she wanted to be in the delivery room and would have to wear a head covering at the hospital because her hair had all fallen out from treatment. She died when the twins were only 2 years old.

My brother-in-law and sister-in-law had tried for years to conceive and due to the serious pharmaceutical medications my sister-in-law was on for the treatment of manic-depression symptoms, it wasn’t safe for her to go off of those prescriptions. For some time, they tried using assisted reproduction with her eggs and it always failed. They were eventually successful and they did use a surrogate. As our two families became estranged after the deaths of my in-laws, I don’t know if the baby has her genes or not.

Both of these occurred before I started learning so much about adoption. My husband and I have two sons with the same genetic background but none of my own genes. They do have my husband’s DNA and they had the same egg donor. What I have learned is that the baby becomes bonded with the mother the fetus is developing within. I remember how my OB always reassured me that I was playing an important role in my developing children’s lives – the foods I ate primed their taste buds, my emotions affected them in the womb. I was every bit as ecstatic when they were born, every bit as much in love with them as my infant, as I was with my daughter who does carry my genes.

From what I have learned, I do have grave concerns about the effect on infants of gestational surrogacy. I was directed today to explore Severance magazine’s website by my adoption community. I pass that on to my readers here. Their byline is “Severance on the aftermath of separation” and they seem to speak to all related issues. The reality is that in this age of widespread availability of DNA testing, many argue that anonymity is no longer sustainable and that a child can never possibly consent to donor anonymity or waive their right to know where they came from.

We had a private agreement with our donor and have maintained an open relationship with her. Our sons have met her on several occasions. Not long ago, she informed me that she had done a 23 and Me test. Therefore, I gifted my husband with a 23 and Me first, then the oldest son and then his brother. This reality gave us an opportunity to fully discuss their conception, even though we had always been open about it, it had never dominated our family’s life. The donor is open to contact from the boys should they ever want that. She has always been very rational about the whole situation and she does have 3 children of her own that she gave birth to. Our sons know that there are at least those children who are genetically half-siblings. It is also possible another one they won’t know about in advance may turn up someday. They would not exist but for. It is their own unique, individual reality and existence.

Severance Magazine Website