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. 

Break The Cycle

Early on in my education regarding all things adoption (which includes foster care), I became aware of a lot of valid evidence that trauma is passed down through families. I could see how this happened in my own family.

Take my parents (both adopted) original mothers. My dad’s mother lost her own mother only 3 months after her birth and went on to endure a truly wicked step-mother. My mom’s mother lost her own mother at the age of 11. Being the oldest, she inherited younger siblings to care for, the youngest not yet one year old. Her father never remarried, which might be just as well, but I have heard now what I suspected – he was a hard man, who without his wife, didn’t know how to love. There is trauma, particularly for a daughter who loses her mother.

There are my parents who were both torn from their mothers and surrendered to adoption. My mom’s mother was exploited in her financial duress by Georgia Tann in the 1930s when social safety nets didn’t exist. After months of resisting their pressure, my dad’s mother gave in to The Salvation Army and surrendered her son to them, which eventually led to his own adoption. I’m entirely convinced that had my grandmothers had sufficient support and encouragement, they would have raised their children. It is entirely possible that had their mothers been alive, they would not have relinquished.

My parents found each other in high school. Though they both shared the backhole void of origin information as adoptees, they were not of the same perspective regarding their adoptions. My mom confided this to me because she couldn’t talk about her yearning to locate her original mother to my dad who warned her against opening a can of worms. They were good enough parents. We knew we were loved but they were strangely detached as parents. I only know this as an adult observing how other parents generally feel a long-term involvement in their children’s lives.

With me, I knew they expected me to leave as soon as I graduated from high school and so, I married and a year later had a daughter (for which I am eternally grateful). The marriage was flawed by the time I was pregnant with her and by the time she was 3 years old, I was no longer married but also unable to support us as my ex-husband refused to pay any child support (since it was my decision to leave him). Eventually, he ended up raising her. She ended up with a stay at home stepmother and for the most part, it seems to have worked out for the best – for her – but never for me. I still struggle with coming to terms with having been an absentee mother over 60 years later.

Both of my sisters gave up a child to adoption. One, considering it quite normal (and now the truth be known there was an extremely complicating factor – the father was a good friend of our dad’s), always intended to relinquish. Shocking to me was that our own mom, who struggled with having been adopted herself, pressured and guided my other sister to give up her baby for adoption – and she tried to get the support of the social safety net that existed in the late 70s, early 80s but was refused because she was sheltering with our parents while pregnant and their financial strength was used against my sister’s request for assistance. That sister also lost her first born in an ugly custody case brought by her in-laws when she divorced that child’s father.

Mostly, these children of ours are breaking the cycle and are wonderful parents. One has struggled with failed marriages but has remained solid with his own son. I hope these recent successes continue on down our family line.

A Reunion That Came Almost Too Late

David Rosenberg and Margaret Katz

50 years after the unwed teenage mother gave birth in a maternity home and lost her son to adoption through the Louise Wise agency, mother and son finally were reunited not long before David died of thyroid cancer. She was a victim of the baby scoop era. Their story really isn’t all that remarkable to anyone who has been deeply researching all things adoption for any length of time.

However, thanks to a new book – American Baby: A Mother, A Child, And The Shadow History Of Adoption by journalist Gabrielle Glaser recently published, their story joins legions of others who have endured similar trajectories. And like many others, the revelations they were hoping for came by way of inexpensive, publicly available DNA testing. In this case, 23 and Me.

The journalist was working on an article about kidney transplants in 2007 when she met David Rosenberg. He admitted to her that that one reason he’d agreed to media coverage was his dream that “somewhere on the vast internet,” a young Jewish woman who’d given up a baby for adoption in 1961 would see his picture, “his black eyes, his thick, strong hands, cleft chin, and broad smile” — and recognize her son. Even so, it would be another 7 years before his dream came true.

There was a woman, Margaret Katz, who had a matching dream of finding the son she lost in 1961, when she was a 16 year old and rather than let her marry her high school sweetheart, her parents sent her away to a maternity home on Staten Island. These stories hit “close” to home for me personally. My mom was that 16 year old unwed mother. Her high school sweetheart was my dad. They have both passed away. I sincerely believe that if my dad’s humble adoptive parents had not intervened to encourage him to forgo his dreams of a college diploma (which he had only just embarked upon) and marry her, I would have been adopted similarly. In learning about the stories of both of my parents, both of whom were adopted, the surprising realization for me has been the miracle I was not given up, that my mom wasn’t sent away by her banker dad and socialite mother to have and give me up.

Many people have heard about the Georgia Tann scandal involving the Tennessee Children’s Home in Memphis Tennessee. She was involved in my mom’s adoption. Some people may have been aware that The Salvation Army was known for its own homes for unwed mothers. My dad was born at their Door of Hope in Ocean Beach, a suburb of San Diego, California. Some people are aware of the role that Catholic Charities has played in the adoption – for profit – industry. Some may have watched the old movie, Blossoms in the Dust, about Edna Gladney who also became renown for facilitating adoptions.

In the case of David and Margaret and the new book, it is the Louise Wise agency – which I have had less awareness of except – oh yes, there were the relatively recent revelations known as “Three Identical Strangers,” about triplets separated at birth as part of a nature vs nurture study. Louise Wise is notorious for the medical and psychological analyses, hare-brained experiments on newborns, that she is pilloried for today. In the meantime, having separated the baby from the mother (who wasn’t even allowed to hold him after his birth), these infants were kept in foster care for months, while the agency extracted money from hopeful adoptive parents, who had to pay to remain on waiting lists. 

Many adoption agencies lied, as I now know Georgia Tann did in the case of my mother. They would often obscure the race of a baby. (Since most white couples wanted white babies, biracial children often languished in foster care till adulthood.) They lied about how they came by a baby (if they had snatched the baby from a Native American reservation, for instance). They also embellished the biographies of the baby’s birth parents. And this is what happened in my own mother’s case – where her poverty stricken parents were presented as unfortunate college students who got caught by pregnancy for having sex before marriage (all of that untrue and they were married but separated).

In the case of this new book’s story, Louise Wise wrote that Margaret was a gifted scholar who wanted to continue her studies at a prestigious science school (untrue), and that George was a fair-skinned, freckled college student (he was swarthy and still in high school). Couples who couldn’t conceive were so desperate for a child that they didn’t ask questions.  Also true of my own mother’s financially comfortable parents when they adopted her, only to later discover what they were told and some of the information in the surrender papers was contradictory. By then she had been in their home for a couple of years and they were not going to give her up, though they lacked complete peace of mind about her pre-adoption circumstances.

I don’t know if I will actually read this new book. I’m certain it is a good one and it is easy to find rather detailed reviews simply by doing a Google search. I’ve just read so many and I have more or less moved on from that intensive research period I went through myself, as I learned my own parents pre-adoption stories.

Losing My Grandparents

My Granny, My Dad and My Granddaddy

Both of my parents were adopted.  So the grandparents I grew up with in my childhood were never actually related to me.  They were influential though.  The two people shown above often cared for me and my sisters over weekends.  I think mostly to get us into their church, the Church of Christ, as contrasted with the church our mom was raising us in, the Episcopal church.  My dad didn’t go to church at the time.  He worked shift work in a refinery, often double shifts, and so was mostly asleep when he wasn’t at work, except for meals.  Maybe he would watch a little TV or read a news magazine or the local paper.

My mom conceived me while she was still in high school and my dad had just started at the university out of town.  I think these two people shown above made certain my dad quit his dreams of a higher education and married my mom and went to work to support his young family.  Not that he didn’t want to marry my mom.  They were married over 50 years until death did them part and they died only 4 months apart.  My dad’s adoptive parents insisted I have a biblical name to save my damaged soul because of my illegitimate conception.

All of my grandparents had already died – and in fact my parents had already died as well – when I went in search of my original grandparents.  Though I doubted I would ever know who my dad’s father was because his mother was unwed and he was given her maiden name at birth.  I do now know who ALL 4 of my original grandparents were, their names and their ancestry.  I didn’t expect, that in learning who my original grandparents were, I would in effect “lose” my grandparents (those people who adopted my own parents as infants).

But I did.

Though I know I have a “history” with these people who adopted and raised my parents, they no longer feel like my grandparents.  And my true biological and genetic grandparents have taken their place in my heart and imagination, even though I have scant knowledge (but some) of these people whose genes are in me and helped create who I am at the level of physicality.  I have connected with some cousins who share the same original grandparents and what I know of my original grandparents is thanks to anything they have shared with me about these people.

I don’t love the people who raised my parents any the less but they are so far back in my own past now.  Though I had occasional interactions with them up until their deaths, as living people they are receding for me.  They are fading . . .

My original grandparents didn’t lose my parents due to anything worse than poverty and a lack of family support.  That doesn’t say much for my parents own original grandparents, who did not seem to care about my parents very much.  I’ve only heard that my mom mattered to her dad, which was a happy surprise for me and quickly warmed my heart towards that man.  My dad’s father probably never even knew he existed.  His mom was self-reliant and he was a married man, so she just handled it alone.

It is strange.  I was robbed of my original grandparents by the Great Depression, Georgia Tann and the Salvation Army.  Both of my grandmothers eventually re-married.  If they could have been sustained somehow, I know they would have raised their children because every indication is that they loved their babies and mourned their loss until they died.

Nothing makes up for these losses really but at least, I do know where I came from – which is more than my parents knew.  They died completely ignorant of who their own original parents were.  And that is very sad.

Sibling Separation

One of the impacts of adoption can be a separation of siblings.  The struggles of a mother to keep and raise her child are temporary in nature – though it may not seem that way at the time.

I believe my dad’s mom did her best to keep him but in the end, The Salvation Army’s approach did not support her intention.  She gave birth to my dad in one of their homes for unwed mothers having discovered herself pregnant due to an affair with a married man much older than her.  Therefore, she did not even seek his assistance but in her very self-sufficient way dealt with her circumstances alone.

After a period of time bonding with her son, she was released with him with the expectation that she would be able to live with a cousin geographically nearby.  I think she found little patience there.  She applied for a job with The Salvation Army and was accepted and transferred, still with my dad in tow, from San Diego California to El Paso Texas.

By the time he was 8 months old, my dad was legally the ward of The Salvation Army.  My granny went there for a child to raise (after my dad was adopted, she went there for another child to be his brother).  I don’t know what it cost her but maybe less than some of the other options.

My dad never seemed much interested in his original family.  He was actually adopted twice when my granny had to throw the abusive alcoholic she had been married to out for the well being of her sons and then met and married a different man.  My dad was devoted to them and supported them genuinely as they aged.

Unknown to my dad at the time he died, a half-sister was living 90 miles away that could have told him a lot about his mother, his other older sister and a brother.  I find it sad but that was the reality.

The Influence Of Money

I am enough of a realist to know that the influence of money is not going away anytime soon.  Even so, in adoption, I believe it can be a corrupting factor.

Had it not been for cooking the books and overcharging the prospective adoptive parents, Georgia Tann’s crimes may never have been discovered.  When someone is making a lot of money off of an altruistic effort, it attracts attention.  It also buys protection as in the case of Tann and the Boss Crump political machinery in Memphis Tennessee.

I do believe that my dad’s parents probably paid less for him at The Salvation Army than my mom’s parents paid for her through Georgia Tann.  The Tennessee Children’s Home Society was careful not to document the money that was changing hands or was at least doing so in a very hidden way.  There is no doubt in my mind their eagerness to go looking for yet another baby after my grandparents had already adopted two must be an indication of a monetary motive.

In a novel I finished reading yesterday, there grew an awareness that the Catholic Church was making money selling babies.  I’ve no doubt that it is likely the truth.  Adoption is a kind of human trafficking that has the approval of society in general.  Who can object to people wanting to give unfortunate children a good home ?

But society has no interest to providing enough support for mothers to keep and raise their babies.  Something is terribly rotten in such a system of priorities.  The reason adoption records have remained sealed in most states in the US for so long is for the protection of the people who have the money – the adoptive parents.  Agencies, lawyers and social workers as well as the courts are all making money by taking the product of unfortunate young women and delivering babies to those who can afford to pay.

It was not lost on me in the recent NY Times article that the two men in a stable marriage who adopted out of Foster Care not only had no out of pocket expenses directly related to that but received subsidies for doing so.  This is where money actually helped the situation.