Lacking Permanency

After I learned who my original grandparents were (both of my parents were adopted and died knowing effectively nothing about their own familial roots), I began to learn about the impacts of adoption.  I read a really good book on this subject – The Primal Wound by Nancy Newton Verrier (definitely highly recommended for anyone else who is interested in understanding).  I also joined a group about adoption that is all about facing the realities.  Member of the whole triad of original parents, adoptees and adoptive parents belong to this group and I have learned a lot about the issues from the diversity.

From letters written by my adoptive grandmother in the late 1930s to the Tennessee Children’s Home staff – Fanny Elrod and Georgia Tann – there are indications that my mom had been upset the whole time she was being taken by my adoptive grandmother by train from Memphis to Nogales Arizona as a 7 mos old infant and that she may have been drugged by a doctor upon arrival there to calm her down.

Though letters from my adoptive grandmother in the early years of my mom’s life indicate that she was over the moon happy with my mom as her adopted child, I know that my mom never felt she lived up to my grandmother’s high standards.  I understand this personally as she was a phenomenal woman and I had my own run-ins with her opinions about me that were deeply hurtful.

My grandmother grew up not far from me in Missouri.  Her mom was lazy by my grandmother’s accounts – only interested in her bible and not in her household – and both her mother and sister were fat (confirmed in photographs of the whole family together).  My grandmother maintained a very trim figure all her life to match the trim figures of her sisters-in-law and worked hard at that by denying herself fattening foods to maintain her figure.  She criticized me once in a public place quite loudly for taking a dinner roll and putting butter on it.  I didn’t even speak to her for a whole 24 hours I was so upset.

Adoptees do not feel special because someone chose to adopt them.  They always feel at risk of being rejected and abandoned all over again if they don’t live up to their adoptive parents’ expectations.  For that reason they become people pleasers as my own mom definitely was.  She was described very positively after she died by the people who knew her but I wonder now – at what price internally did she accomplish that high regard ?

The Loss Of What Could Have Been

In the early 1990s, the Georgia Tann baby stealing and scandal re-emerged into the national consciousness.  She had been dead 40 years and narrowly escaped criminal charges when the complications of cancer took their toll.

60 Minutes did a feature on the scandal.  They introduced a woman named Denny Glad who lived in the Memphis Tennessee area and was doing her best to assist Tann’s victims in relocating the families they had been taken from.  At this time, adoption records were closed and firmly sealed behind the power of the state and kept from even adult adoptees.  My mom did reach out to Mrs Glad and was only able to receive some minimal information which was still more than she had before.

My mom took the next step and contacted the state.  They promised to do everything in their power to locate the parents my mom had been born to.  It was a lie.  There was definitely bureaucratic laziness in their less than motivated efforts.  My mom’s father was 20 years older than my mom’s mother when they married.  He had been dead 30 years at the time my mom made her effort to get her adoption file.

All the state did was inquire of the Arkansas Driver’s License about his status.  In the adoption file, it is indicated that he signed a separate set of surrender papers after a sheriff showed up at his mother’s home in Beech Grove Arkansas with those papers along with a subpoena to Juvenile Court in Memphis for the very next day – not much time to prepare – and anyway, I’m certain he was told the mother had already signed these and if he did too, he would not have to appear in court.

Had the state of Tennessee confirmed he was no longer living when my mom inquired, she would have been given her file.  She had at least 2 uncles and 2 aunts still living on her mother’s side and half-siblings on her father’s side.

My mom was devastated when the state of Tennessee told her that the woman who gave birth to her had died several years earlier.  It ended her hopes and dreams.  My mom was never told when the state of Tennessee decided to release the adoption files to victims or their immediate descendants in the late 1990s.  Thanks to that change in the law, I finally received her adoption file in October of 2017.

If Not For DNA Testing

If not for DNA testing, I would not have revealed so much so quickly about my original family cultural roots.  Certainly, my mom being adopted in what later turned out to be a baby stealing and selling scandal gave me a quick start.  Because of that scandal, Tennessee was eventually pushed to open their sealed adoption files.  And my mom’s was rich with details even if Georgia Tann was a known liar and I did uncover some lies in that file.  Thankfully, there was enough true information that it opened up a world to me that I never expected to know nada about.  Yay !!

Both of my parents were adopted.  On my dad’s side it was trickier.  His mother had been unwed and his adoption came through The Salvation Army.  Ancestry was a big help in revealing enough details to what I already knew that The Salvation Army was then willing to reveal a tiny bit more.  23 and Me was the big breakthrough there, when a cousin received her results and contacted me to tell me we had the same grandmother.  That led me eventually to another cousin thanks to Facebook.  She had the final breadcrumb keys that my grandmother had left for me as to my dad’s father’s identity in a photo album.

Interestingly, almost a year before I received the breadcrumbs, Ancestry had identified a cousin.  He didn’t reply to my inquiry right away.  When he did, he apologized for not having a clue how we were related.  By then, I had some details about my paternal grandfather.  The man was able then to tell me that our grandparents were brother and sister.

Yes, I do believe in DNA testing and for adoptees given that half of these United States continue to refuse to unseal their adoption files, DNA matching may be the only way to learn your true cultural identity.  Today, I read another story about how this helped.  I will summarize.

The daughter of a Jewish patriarch gave birth, out of wedlock, to this person’s mother.  That fact remained a secret within the family.  This person’s mother died knowing none of this, much like both of my own parents. She was raised by another couple, just like my parents were. In the case I was reading about there wasn’t even a formal adoption or paper trail.

So it took DNA testing for this person to discover his ancestry. Thanks to that testing he discovered relatives, leading him to even more new discoveries.  That is how it was for me too.  I know of living relatives for 3 of my 4 grandparents.  With my paternal grandfather, he had no more children but he did remarry.  Thanks to Ancestry and Find-A-Grave, I came into contact with what I will call a step-cousin, who could give me some details about his life.

It is said that a recent survey showed about a quarter of the people who take these tests find some kind of surprising result.  That sometimes leads to a book about the story of those discoveries.  At the end of December, I completed the story of my own.  I am now in the process of seeking a literary agent.  May 2020 prove successful in my quest.

For more about the Jewish story I mention in my blog today, you can go to this link – https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-a-dna-test-revealed-the-family-i-never-knew-2020-01-10/

Questions Without Answers

Try as I might, my heart longs for answers to questions that I will never be able to truly answer.  I may have theories but they may be wrong.  For too many years, when we knew nothing about my adoptee parents’ origins, we made up plausible stories –

My mom had been stolen from her illiterate parents from the hospital in Virginia where she was born by a nurse in cahoots with Georgia Tann who transported her to Memphis.  There was no other way she could reconcile being adopted as an infant in Memphis when she had actually been born in Virginia and who could blame her for that confusion ?

Because my dad was dark complected and seemed so comfortable with the natives in Mexico, I thought that he must have been mixed race with a Mexican mother and an Anglo father and that she had crossed the border with her infant and left him upon the doorstep of the Salvation Army with a note that said – “Take care of my baby, Maria.”

So my maternal grandmother was exploited by three women in Memphis – Georgia Tann certainly but also Georgia Robinson the superintendent at Porter Leath orphanage who had agreed to give my mom “temporary care” and then betrayed her to the baby seller, Miss Tann, as well as the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley who was Miss Tann’s close friend and could be counted upon to remove any child from their parents for nothing more abusive than poverty and a lack of immediate family support.

And my dad wasn’t Mexican at all.  His dark complexion came from his Danish immigrant father who was a married man, so his unwed young mother went to a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers at Ocean  Beach California just west of San Diego.  His father probably never even knew of his existence.  More’s the pity, as fishermen who loved the ocean they would have been great friends.

I’ll never know why my maternal grandfather never came to my maternal grandmother’s rescue or why they separated after only 4 months of marriage with her pregnant already.  I’ll never know why she went to Virginia to give birth, though I suspect she was sent away to avoid embarrassment to her immediate family in a very conservative religious rural community.

I can only live with the questions that will never have answers while basking in the glow of knowing so much that over 6 decades of living never prepared me to uncover.

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.

Adoption Reunions

Maybe it’s a woman thing.  Today, I am happily experiencing a long distance (via telephone) “reunion” with my adoptee mom’s cousin.  I had previously spoken with her brother and it was all about family origins and lineage but I already had researched and discovered most of it myself.

So, today, it is some insight into the more emotional questions that have haunted me since receiving my mom’s adoption file from the state of Tennessee.  She was a Georgia Tann – Tennessee Children’s Home Society baby.

Much this cousin has shared with me was as my heart suspected already.  But it was nice to receive a confirmation and not just my wild imagination making up stories.  There have been too many stories in my immediate family already in attempts to fill in gaps that couldn’t be filled during my parent’s lifetimes.

With this cousin, I feel more complete now.  This part of my family line was less developed.

My parents were both adoptees.  They died without any reunion.  It has been left to me to find my own closure with the circumstances.  Obviously, I would not even exist had their adoptions never happened.  Therefore, I am grateful for my own blessing, including that I wasn’t given up for adoption as well.  I also acknowledge the sadness and tragedies that came before I was born.

It’s About Identity

My first awareness of the impacts of adoption on my parents was the Georgia Tann, Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal.  There are a huge number of adoptees that have been impacted by what happened in Memphis.

So, the only “anger” I was aware of was related to criminal behavior in adoption practices.  I thought that was what the anger was about.

As I have revealed my origins, my original four grandparents (both of my parents were adopted), I have also become involved in more generalized adoptee groups.  I have begun to learn what the issues are and also about how those issues affect not only the adopted child, but the original parents as well as the people who adopt and raise these children.

It has finally coalesced for my own self to be about identity.  It was a lack of identity beyond my two parents that troubled me in my middle school years.  It is interesting that the issue of not knowing where one originated troubles adoptees almost universally, while many people who have no adoption impact in their own families seem to not even care about who their ancestors were.

I think it is because the adoptee KNOWS that they don’t know.  While any other person not affected by adoption “knows” that if they ever became interested, someone in their family line could clue them in.

There are some descendants who I am grateful have embraced me and my need to know.  Others seem dismissive or reluctant to welcome in “the stranger”.  I simply have to accept that I have been given some gifts of identity that some adoptees are still struggling to obtain.

Sealed adoption records which began as early as the late 1920s have done a lot of harm to an adoptee’s ability to know where they come from.  Unbelievably about half of these United States still refuse to open the records to adult adoptees.  This is simply wrong.  No other citizen of this country is denied knowledge of their origins.

Secrecy

Secrecy in adoption was always meant to protect the adoptive parents from the original parents after a child was taken in adoption.

These concepts were not true –

Actions once thought natural, such as attempts by adoptees to learn information about their birth families, came to be socially disfavored and considered abnormal.

They were the psychologically unhealthful product of unsuccessful adoptions that had failed to create perfect substitutes for natural families created by childbirth, and they indicated adoptees’ rejection of and ingratitude toward adoptive parents.

Secrecy was viewed as an essential feature of adoptions in which birth and adoptive parents did not know one another.

Here is how hiding an adoptee became the law of the land –

Edna Gladney who was an illegitimate child but later went into the adoption profession and Georgia Tann whose name became associated with a scandal of stealing and selling babies were the prime movers for concealing an adoptees identity by falsifying their birth certificates and allowing adoptive parents to change the name the child was born with.  Then, the original records were sealed.

In the 1990s, a renewed media attention on the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal resulted in activists finally breaking open the secrecy contained in Tann’s adoption files for those persons affected (including descendants).

There are still many states who continue to maintain sealed records.  In my own efforts to discover who my own original grandparents were, I bumped up against the solid walls in Arizona, California and Virginia.

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.

No More

No more lies, no more shame, no more hiding.
I’m done with that already.

When my parents died, our family history was full of stories that weren’t true.

My mom was stolen from her parents at the hospital where she was born in Virginia by a nurse in cahoots with the baby stealing and selling Georgia Tann.

Not true.  It was the only way my mom could explain how she could have been born in Virginia but adopted as an infant at Memphis.  The only fact she really had to go on was the scandal that was Georgia Tann at the head of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society branch at Memphis.

My dad was left on the doorstep of the Salvation Army in a basket in El Paso Texas by a Mexican woman because his father was Anglo and he was conceived out of wedlock.

Partially true.  He was conceived out of wedlock and he was adopted from the Salvation Army in El Paso Texas.  He wasn’t Mexican, he was half Danish and his father was dark complected.  His mother was English/Irish not Mexican.

I was an Albino African.

Okay, so I really didn’t believe that one but I did say it on numerous occasions because I didn’t know what I was, so no one, not even myself could deny it.

Now I know the truth.  To find out that you are not who you think you are is mind blowing.  Your world tilts on its axis and nothing is ever the same again.  Even the simple act of looking in the mirror changes.  It brings a whole other element into the equation of my identity.  I am grateful to finally be “whole” after 6 decades of uncertainty.

Adoption is a strange thing that does strange things to the people affected by it.  It doesn’t matter what angle you are coming from – there’s shame and secrecy involved.  That much proved to be true.