You take it for granted. Knowing where you came from, how you came to be in the world, where you got that laugh or why your legs are so hairy. Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but for me and lots of other adoptees, not knowing who and where you came from is a phantom limb that aches. You want a backstory to help you move forward.
See, stories matter. Each of us, we’re all stories. The stories we take to heart often become the basis of who we are and who we can become. When girls get better stories, their hopes, possibilities, and expectations expand. And if a girl changes the story she tells herself about herself, the whole world might change. She can change. I know I did.
Most stories I learned as a little kid taught me that a girl’s one chance for triumph comes from being loveable. Only the lovely and loveable fit that shoe, marry that prince. Bluebirds will land on your finger, mice will help you get dressed. Your virtue and visage are your sole pathways to happiness. Girls’ only currency is their ability to inspire handsome heroes, grumpy millionaires, kindly strangers, and other mammals to love them.
My parents told me my first story about myself. I asked where babies come from. “They come out of mommies’ bodies.” That sounded pretty awesome. “So I came out of mommy’s body!” Mom and dad exchanged meaningful looks, then turned off the TV.
I got a fairly straightforward tale that went something like this: “Unlike your little brother, who came out of Mommy, you came out of someone else. She didn’t want you, so we took you.” Then we all went back to watching The Fugitive.
After that, whenever I went to the mall with my parents, I’d keep a desperate eye out for other little girls. If I spied a particularly pretty von Trapp-type tyke, I’d distract my mom and dad by steering them toward some store window. I was literally terrified they’d be reminded that they got a raw deal. I wasn’t certain what families looked for in a daughter; I just knew that whatever it was, I didn’t have it. Though I was pathetically well behaved, made straight A’s, won spelling bees, and sat with my ankles crossed and hands folded, I always got the message I was…off. Somehow, I managed to be both too much and not enough. My curiosity was annoying, my vocabulary was annoying, my habits of complimenting strangers and engaging waitresses and janitors in conversation—all annoying. My me-ness was just wrong, and there wasn’t anything I could do to fix it. I grew up full of self-loathing. Friends, prizes, praise, none of it mattered. I was resolute in never relinquishing my epic unworthiness.
There’s already something inherently self-centered about self-loathing, and when you add to that the knowledge of being given up at birth, you’ve got a perfect recipe for feeling alone. Like a lot of children, I conjured up an imaginary friend. My make-believe chum was Anne Frank—in retrospect an unfortunate choice. As you might imagine, I wasn’t comfortable complaining or looking to Anne for sympathy. She never told me to stop sniveling, but I knew enough not to make her the sounding board for my piddling preschool woes. We eventually drifted apart.
Curiosity about my biological parents focused almost entirely upon my mother.
My next invisible companion was another female who couldn’t be bothered—the woman who’d given me up. Curiosity about my biological parents focused almost entirely upon my mother. Hungry for connection and company, as a girl I was eager for guidance as I navigated the thorny path to womanhood. It’s not that I didn’t adore my adoptive mother. She was a beautiful woman with a Liz Taylor tan, dark hair and blue eyes, and she always smelled wonderful. I wanted to look like her (and smell like her). I desperately wanted her to love me, and especially, to like me. But I also fantasized that somewhere out there was a blowzy broad with brown eyes (like mine) and unkempt curly hair (like mine) who might watch old movies with me and laugh at my jokes. Maybe there was a woman who would hug me more, and whom I’d irritate less. Besides, only she could tell me my grandparents’ names, how she’d met the man who knocked her up, and why she gave me away.
But in our house, being curious about my story was strictly taboo. Bringing up that I was adopted always got me in trouble. (When I was 14, a doctor was taking my medical history, asking if this or that ran in the family. My mother was answering the questions when I mentioned that since I was adopted, this wouldn’t be relevant. Out in the parking lot, my mom slapped my face, shouting, “Why do you always remember you’re adopted?!” I apologized.) In calmer moments, I tried explaining that I wasn’t being ungrateful, I just wanted insight into who my parents were because I wanted to know who I was.
The information I did have was scant. Both my mothers shared the same ob-gyn and he told my parents that my biological father was some high-level government mucky-muck, and possibly Jewish. (There were only a handful of Semitic senators back in the day, and when I moved to New York, I’d always get a little excited every time I passed the Jacob Javits Center.) I tried getting information from Florida birth records, but they’d only share non-identifying information, which amounted to just my mother’s age. The fact that she’d been 37 ended any “Lorelai Gilmore gives up Rory” fantasies. I eventually signed on with various adoptee registries in hopes that someday someone might come looking for me. Decades went by. No one did.
As I got older, simple math suggested that my birth parents would be long gone. Then one morning, I got a call at work from a company I’d contacted called Kinsolving Investigations. “Did you find out my birth mother’s name?!” I asked.
“Yes,” the man said. “We have your birth mother’s name and her phone number.”
Her phone number? Her phone number! HER. The next morning, the day before Thanksgiving, I got an email with a phone number at the assisted living home where the woman who gave me life now lived hers. I sat numb for about 10 minutes, wrote down what to say, and made the call. A high, thin voice answered. I stammered, “Hello, is this Doris? My name is…and I was born on….” Dead silence. “Do you know who I am?”
There was a very long pause, then, “Yes.” Now I had absolutely no idea what to say.
“I just wanted to call…and say hi,” I stammered. “And to thank you for giving me life and all, and uh, to see if there’s anything I can do for you.”
“No,” Doris said, “I’m OK.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that a blood relative of mine would be so laconic. “May I ask you a question?” I said. “Will you tell me my father’s name?” She told me no. “Well, what if I guess? Was it Jacob Javits?” Her laugh told me I could forget any thumbs-up selfies outside the Javits Center. I guess my disappointment was palpable, because she relented and told me his name. She said he was a bigwig, and his brother was an even bigger wig, who worked for JFK. I asked my mother if I might meet her. She wasn’t enthusiastic and insisted that if I did visit, I should identify myself to everyone as her “friend from New York.” It seems I had always been Doris’ dirty little secret. She had told Mr. Wig; he gave her $300 and considered the matter closed. But other than my biological father, poor Doris had never told a single living soul.
Bringing up that I was adopted always got me in trouble
The next week, I got on a plane and met my mother. (At the last minute, I became paralyzed with…something…and my husband had to physically pull me into her room at the home.) I was a little disappointed that we didn’t look alike, or vote alike, but she was sweet and gave me her bronzed baby shoes and some photos. She was an old woman with an immobile coiffure and a tendency to ramble, but eventually I got my story.
Improbable and seriously flawed things are spawned in our nation’s capital, and I was one of them. Doris had left her home on a farm at 16 to come to Washington with the influx of female workers needed when World War II erupted. She’d worked at the CIA and eventually became secretary to a bigwig. She had no romantic feelings for Mr. Wig — if anything, she was irritated by his know-it-all Phi Beta Kappa smarty-pantsery. (Shut up, everyone who’s ever met me.) She wondered if this upstart wasn’t a little too big for his britches. Sadly, she’d soon find out, literally, just what those britches had in store.
Doris often worked late, and one night Mr. Wig drove her home. The details get sketchy at this part of the story, where tab A gets inserted into slot B. But it’s clear it wasn’t consensual. “He raped you?” I asked. “No, I knew him,” she said. “He wasn’t a stranger.” I explained the concept of acquaintance rape to Doris, and she said, “Well then, I guess that’s it.” That night, 36-year-old Doris experienced intercourse for the second and last time in her life. Nine months later, Doris and the world had me foisted upon them.
The doctor who’d given Doris the bad news told her she could “get the problem fixed.” But she’d heard of girls dying in back-alley abortions and the prospect of bleeding to death on some filthy mattress was daunting. Doris ended up using Mr. Wig’s $300 and bought a bus ticket for Miami Beach. She’d always wanted to see Miami Beach. She holed up in a cheap motel and waited.
My biological mother didn’t remember the date I was born. She remembers lifting her head to see my shock of black hair as they rushed me from the delivery room. She remembers men hovering over her hospital bed until she signed some papers. She recalls a woman she’d met in the hospital lobby brought her a baby present; she doesn’t recall what she did with it. The next day, Doris sent her boss/my father a letter of resignation, in every sense of the word.
I asked Doris all kinds of questions, but she has only ever asked me two. Are my eyes blue? Was I a blonde? I had to let her down on both counts. I wanted to tell her I’d been a National Merit Scholar, graduated from an Ivy League university, that I had an encyclopedic knowledge of old movies, and I could bench press 100 pounds. But I didn’t. I already knew parents don’t care about any of that. I was overjoyed to finally meet my birth mother, but Doris had no discernable similarities to me in looks or personality. Where was her frizzy hair, or her innocent, inappropriate tendency to reveal too much information? As my husband and I escorted her to the home’s cafeteria for her lunch, I tearfully whispered to him that we were nothing alike. He pointed down to her feet. I shrugged. He pointed again; I saw her left foot was turned in. I shrugged again, and he pointed to my feet. I’d never noticed this about myself before, but my left foot was turned in as well. Maybe you’d have to be adopted to understand, but our parallel pigeon toes made me euphoric.
When I heard Doris’ story, I felt terrible that I owed my existence to her life-changing assault. Having had my own life fractured by childhood sexual molestation, I was doubly burdened by shame and confusion. But guilty as I felt over my birth mother’s tragedy, I wasn’t ready to see myself as fruit from a poisoned tree. Excited by the news that my uncle on my father’s side had been JFK’s counselor and speechwriter, I became less concerned with how I came into this world, and more eager to explore who I was—or could be—in it.
After all these years, discovering this tribe has done more for me than a hundred books, pills, or therapists.
I started Googling based on what Doris had told me about my biological father. And though I quickly discovered that the man who had forced himself on Doris was now deceased, I also learned a lot more. My uncle, whom President Kennedy had called his “intellectual blood bank,” had written a memoir about his family. My family. It gave me access to a cast of smart, feisty, and socially conscious writers, politicians, scholars, jurists, activists, and rabble-rousers; generations who excelled at annoying—just like me! My uncle’s book, Counselor: A Life At the Edge of History, introduced me to pushy, unorthodox thinkers obsessed with ideas and equality. I found out my birth father’s uninvited sperm wasn’t his sole legacy. In addition to brown eyes, and our unfortunate propensity toward smarty-pantsery, I discovered I’d also inherited his intellect, love of philosophical combat, his outrage toward injustice—and a treasure trove of incredible ancestors and relatives.
There was the uncle, Ted Sorensen, who wrote most of President Kennedy’s speeches and a lot of Profiles in Courage. And my Russian-born Jewish grandmother who, 100 years ago when women seldom even went to college, earned master’s degrees in Latin and Greek. She’d made her way to Nebraska where she’d been instrumental in getting women the vote and met my grandfather when she needed a lawyer to get her out of jail after a protest. Meanwhile, my grandfather had been kicked out of Baptist College for delivering a speech against the death penalty.
My research turned up five half-siblings—four brothers and a sister. My birth father’s surname is a common one, but when I saw one of my brothers’ names listed at TIME magazine, I took a chance with an awkward email: “Excuse me,” I wrote. “Are you son of X, nephew of Y? If not, I’m sorry to have bothered you. If you are, Hi! I’m your illegitimate sister, and I’m really sorry to have bothered you.” Turns out, he was my brother. He worked just four blocks from my apartment and we met for coffee. He asked me what I wanted. I gingerly reached out my index finger to touch his forearm. I explained that what was a surreal surprise to him was the end of a lifelong journey and a miracle to me.
After he confirmed my story through DNA testing via a website called 23andMe, my brother shared the news with his/our relatives. It must be unsettling to have a sister/cousin/niece/aunt pop up out of nowhere, but everyone was wonderful.
I’ve met two incredible brothers and their wonderful wives. (One brother even majored in philosophy, like I did. He’s an Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakam fan, like I am. And if you think people who majored in philosophy and listen to country music grow on trees, you’re wrong.) And now, I have a big sister who traveled to spend Christmas with me in Manhattan. She advises, teases, and cares about me. She gets me, and I adore her.
An absolutely wonderful uncle, and former Lt. Governor of Nebraska, came to New York City and took me to dinner several times. I saw more of him in the short time I knew him than I’ve seen of an aunt who lives 30 minutes away. I’ve seen more of these new relatives than I’ve seen of those from the family who raised me. My adoptive mother has passed away, I’m estranged from the brother I grew up with, and my stepmother broke off a relationship with me after my father died. The family members with whom I grew up have no interest in getting to know me or making an authentic connection.
After all these years, discovering this tribe has done more for me than a hundred books, pills, or therapists. It held up a mirror, allowing me to see myself in a fresh context. Finding my birth family gave me a new story. Smart-alecky became smart, brash became brave, outrageous became outraged, odd became original. My father’s family helped me see my story, and therefore myself, through an entirely new lens. I now feel more confident and comfortable in my skin. I don’t worry anymore whether my virtue or visage can muster the love I need. I no longer care if my resting bitch face or strong opinions repel the faint of heart. They can go fuck themselves. I’m now ready to flex my own hardy heart.
I finally feel free to be me—and it feels good.
It’s not always easy being adopted, at least it wasn’t for me. Finding out about my ancestors, and finding some wonderful relatives (sister, brothers, uncle, aunt, cousins) has helped me feel a lot better about myself. In the context of my birth family, I’m not some screwy, protest-y opinionated pain in the ass. They’re OK, and I’m OK.
I was even able to buy a book about my family (on my father’s side). Cool!