My submission to a fellow advocate's project for National Adoption Awareness Month 2016.
My Adoptee Life, NAAM 2016
Had I to describe my life as an adoptee in one word, it would be “progressive.” My perspective, opinions, and relationships have changed as I have moved through time gaining knowledge from experience, education, and the fellowship of other Adoptees. My emotional responses have run tandem to my experiences, setting me on paths of denial, anger, desperation, and overwhelming joy while experiencing society’s general ignorance and ambivalence to the denial of Adoptee Rights, a sense of belonging with friends and family or lack thereof, growing through research and self-education, and empowerment through the Adoptee community.
As I have progressed through my life I have written factual essays and opinion pieces on various topics related to Adoptees and adoption. Occasionally my opinion will evolve, but I do not go back to edit or rewrite anything I’ve completed in the past. Often I let the work stand freely in full view of the public as a representation of my mindset at the time and as a testament to my life journey as an Adoptee.
An example of this evolution would be whether or not I support adoption. For many years I was staunchly against adoption. To say I support adoption now would be misleading because the issue cannot be boiled down to a simple yes or no, but a greater understanding of the intricacies involved and of the multitude of Adoptee perspectives has lead me to believe a reformation of the modern adoption industry and common adoption-related practices, reforms ensuring the use of adoption as a last resort and only when in the best interest of the adoptee, could inspire my support of contemporary adoption.
To be clear, I do not support the act of adoption as it stands now. A service provided through capitalist industry does not have the best interest of children in mind. Businesses are focused on the exchange of money. No money, no business. No product, no money. The adoption industry’s product, to put it crudely yet accurately, is children. We have allowed the legalization of human trafficking right under our collective noses. Whatever joy or sorrow happens in a human life after the point of sale is irrelevant. The sale still occurred and neither life experience, education, nor emphatic emotion can erase that.
A progression cannot occur without a starting point and, though I have one, it is hidden from me. I have often heard my fellow Adoptees express this loss through various analogies including:
It’s as if my life is a book and the first chapter has been ripped out. You have to make what you can out of the rest of the story without knowing what happened in the beginning.
The denial of my beginnings had been one of the most prominent and influential losses of my life. On the surface it could mean nothing more than the loss of a birth story, but determining a starting point may not be as easy as a tale of conception or how many hours it took to be born.
On the most basic of levels everything a person is or could be, naturally speaking, is grown upon the foundation of their genetic makeup. You cannot think without a brain, you cannot run without limbs, and you don’t compose like Mozart without some musical talent. This foundation comes, naturally speaking, from two genetic sources. Two sources begets one, four sources begets two, eight sources begets four, and so on down the dozens upon dozens of generations of our lineage that came before us. You are the culmination of every human in your lineage that came before you. It is more than unnatural to sever the tie to a person’s lineage. It is a ghastly violation of basic, inalienable human rights. To supplant one person’s lineage with that of another’s should be considered a criminal act yet as a society not only do we condone this act, but offer legal protection to those who choose to commit it and often require them to support the industry by forcing them to provide financial compensation.
The fees incurred from adopting can be so expensive people use social media fundraisers to cover the costs of purchasing a child, yet one of the reasons natural mothers do not keep their children is due to financial strain. What does it say of us as a society that we would rather make money separating families than to invest in family preservation?
I was purchased through the Edna Gladney agency in Fort Worth, Texas for two thousand dollars. This isn’t the pre-civil war era, a third world country, or a nation ruled by a malevolent dictator. I’m a thirty-something white female born and raised in the United States. One might argue these costs are no different than the medical and legal fees paid by natural parents during the course of producing offspring, but traditional fees do not support family separation or the loss of a person’s medical history, personal identity, or cultural heritage. They do not support a lifetime of unanswered questions.
Between the last paragraph and this one I took a pause of several days. I was concerned a specific narrative in my life, one of advocacy for Adoptee rights, would overwhelm the piece and stomp out the more general expression of my life, which was the intended focus. I adamantly feel the need to recognize and respect the human rights of Adoptees has been sidelined and, at times, intentionally dismissed. In my own life the ramifications caused by the denial of my basic human rights, such as finding my natural mother only after she had died, have left pronounced lifelong scars. Even a mention of the word adoption, or Adoptee, strokes powerful emotions and begs me to speak up about the fight for our rights. The act is so practiced it’s easy for me to become sidetracked when attempting other tasks. However, I believe the measure and longevity of its hold upon me speaks volumes of the nature and impact of adoption. I would consider it a failure to speak about my life without even a mention of the battle for Adoptee rights.
But it was not until I began my thirties I really discovered the adoptee community and the effort to regain our rights. While I grew up with two fellow adoptees in close proximity, my adopted brother and an adopted cousin, thinking, fantasizing, and asking questions about my biological family and life as an Adoptee were something I did alone. Adoption was, at best, something rarely discussed and, at worst, celebrated in our faces without our consent or used as fodder.
I recall in my youth being asked to write a letter to then President George Bush, Sr, imploring him to fight against abortion. I say asked, but I certainly did not feel like I could say no. Because I was too inexperienced to have an educated opinion of my own I regurgitated what I heard from the adults around me. I asked Bush to fight against abortion and passionately listed activities I never would have participated in had I been aborted. It felt like I was begging for the life of my younger self. I had yet to learn about anxiety, but that did not stop me from feeling fear as I wrote the letter. Conflation was something I would learn about later. It would also be years before I understood how wrong it is to use children as emotional triggers, to have them display support for or opposition to causes or ideas they do not yet fully understand. As an adult Adoptee I fully support a woman’s right to choose. I also now recognize adoption and abortion are two completely separate issues.
I do not recall ever discussing adoption with my cousin and my brother was borderline hostile anytime I tried to broach the topic with him. I asked him once if he ever wanted to find his birth mother and he replied he didn’t have the need because he already knew who his mother was. I wonder if he would have felt the same had he lived into his thirties.
In my teen years my mind was split on the subject of finding biological family. Part of me felt dirty, guilty for wanting to discover or even meet my biological parents. The thought alone felt like a sin. It felt as if I was being disloyal or disrespectful to my adoptive parents. As if I were cheating on them somehow. The other part of me dreamed of what it would be like to see someone else who looked like me, to know if my pimples would ever go away, and to have someone who could provide knowledge of things more intimate to my own teenage body – like what to expect from puberty. I wanted to see the reflection of myself in someone else.
I daydreamed of sitting alone in a small waiting room surrounded by empty chairs. There was always a single tall plant in one corner. A stereotypical office waiting room. I’d wait for a time, practicing myself through imaginary conversation starters. Then, the door would open and in would walk a woman who looked like me, but older. I’d imagine staring at her face, her hands, and taking the opportunity to mentally measure how tall she was compared to me. In my daydream I never made it much further than this point. I’d physically tear up. It was too overwhelming.
By the late nineties the internet had started to take off and with it came the beautiful anonymity that has allowed so many of my Adoptee brothers and sisters to reach out and find each other without fear of retribution. However, the idea did not occur to me in my adolescence and it was not until my late twenties I began to discover an online realm of Adoptees I could never imagine.
Searching was another matter. I started searching for biological family members as soon as the resources were available. My first method, as a child, was simply to people watch. I knew my brother and I were different than the rest of my adoptive parents’ families, but it wasn’t until holidays the degree of difference really caught my eye. Our skin doesn’t match. Nor does the shape of our faces, our hands, or the way we move. Hair, talents, personalities, medical conditions – all different. I’m the only member of my adoptive family whose pinky sticks up when I drink from a cup or bottle. I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I wonder where that came from. And so early on I began an elementary search for anyone who seemed similar to myself.
Later, in my teens, I began to search for and post queries to free online reunion registries. There were few and Google was not the glorious option it is today. Occasionally I’d run across some tidbit of information on a page built from crude html and overgrown with advertisements because it was hosted on a site like Angelfire. I was afraid if I used a more direct approach, like contacting the agency that handled my adoption, my adoptive mother would find out somehow. It was slow going. And then the internet exploded.
Suddenly there were chat rooms, MySpace, and then Facebook. Adoptees began to find each other and groups began to form online. Words cannot express the elation I felt when I discovered and was accepted into such a group. I poured myself onto the internet. They listened. They didn’t reject me. Their stories were like mine! There has never been a time in my life where I have felt more accepted and supported than when I joined these pro-Adoptee groups. The irony is I’ve never met any of these people in real life. I hope one day that will change.
Google took off. Ancestry.com popped up and suddenly searching for lost family members wasn’t a thing controlled by the whim of an adoption agency. You couldn’t stop us. The internet became home to a multitude of Adoptees holding poster boards on which they had scrawled details of their adoptions and for whom they were searching. 23andMe, FamlyTreeDNA, GEDMatch, and a slew of other sites now offer their services to help you search for lost relatives. In doing so they have helped make sealed adoption records irrelevant. What is the use in sealing records when you can find one another using your DNA?
I submitted my saliva to 23andMe. I chose their service over the others because they provided some medical information based upon your genetics. To say I was excited is an understatement. It was hard to sleep knowing any day I might wake up to the fairy tale of finding my natural mother and/or father’s name at the top of my relative list. The thought of my daydream turning into reality left me reeling. Weeks passed. Finally the results came back. I had hundreds of distant relatives, something common to most newcomers of the genetic databases. Then a few numbers trickled into the “4th Cousins” category. Eventually, a handful moved into “2nd & 3rd Cousins”. I waited. I waited, checking the list every day for months to see the fat zero under “Close Family” turn to a one. The days turned to months, the months into years. That zero remained unchanged. It seemed I was no closer to finding my family.
I discovered I could transfer my data for free or at a reduced rate to other sites and pit my genetic data against their databases. I joined FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch, the latter of which is a free service. I also decided to renew my effort through less technological means and launched a campaign through every free online registry and search engine I could find. This led me to Search Angels. Search Angels are not-for-profit volunteers who help searching adoptees find their families. Thankfully, I had been warned off of other “volunteers” who charge for their services. There is no end to the line of people waiting to try and make money off of Adoptees.
Unfortunately, many Search Angels are not willing to work with Adoptees whose adoptions have been handled by the Edna Gladney agency. Gladney is notoriously stingy with even non-identifying information, forces Adoptees to pay fees and unnecessarily visit psychiatrists, and generally goes out of its way to be as unhelpful as possible to Adoptees searching. From personal experience I can tell you their employees are also quite rude over the phone. This makes assisting an Edna Gladney Adoptee very difficult and, understandably, many Search Angels would rather spend their valuable time helping Adoptees with more workable circumstances. Nevertheless, I discovered two Search Angels willing to help me. The first had access to the Texas birth index.
There are two birth indexes for the State of Texas. The first lists every child born, their natural mother, and their natural father. The second list includes the same information, unless you’re adopted. In that case, the names of your natural parents are deleted and the names of your adoptive parents are written in their place. The second list is the one made public.
Whether by accident or not, the first list was publicly accessible over the internet for a while, if you knew where to look. Finding out the name of your birthparent(s) was supposedly as easy as matching the number on your birth certificate to an entry on the list. I was elated to discover this. The next moment the Search Angel informed me the index covered births up to about three years before I was born. Had my brother been alive at this point he could have discovered his biological mother’s name. I was born too late. My information would not be listed. Another dead end.
In September of 2012 I was contacted by a Search Angel out of Texas. I’ll call her Sam. She’d come across one of my registry postings and reached out to me in hopes I’d be the child match to the natural mother she was assisting. It turned out I wasn’t, but Sam took up my case and we spent the next several years working together.
Sam was a member of Ancestry and thus had access to their database of public documents. I provided her the names of some of my top DNA matches, but initially nothing panned out. Just a few generations ago families in the United States were typically a lot larger than they are now. It’s a gratuitous understatement to say this adds significant difficulty to a search, especially when you’re beginning with a relative five or six generations removed from yourself. I began creating webs of possibilities, mapping out whole families it later turned out I had little real relation to. At least these dead ends were diagrammed.
Then one day a new match popped up at the top of one list. The connection was rated as a possible second to fourth cousin and we shared more genetic data than any of my other connections. In fact, we shared more data than the next several connections combined. The link had the potential to be a real lead.
As Sam and I fawned over the possibilities I began communication with the connection, I’ll call him Dean, through email. On January 17, 2015 Dean emailed me.
Thanks for reaching out. After looking over your email, some things did look familiar to me and I got in touch with my second cousin, (-name withheld-) in Texas.
(-Name withheld-) and her family have information to share with you. She asked me to send you her email address which is (-address withheld-) so that you can contact her directly.
Sending kindest regards
I was ecstatic. My cheeks hurt from smiling. This felt like the break-through I had been waiting for. I quickly composed an email and sent it off at 8:35PM into the great beyond, to strangers I’d never met who I hoped would provide me a significant piece of my life puzzle.
I'm an adoptee searching for my family. I do not have access to names or dates because my records were sealed. In the past few days I've made contact with (-name withheld-) through a site called Family Tree DNA (FTDNA). As part of this email I've forwarded our conversation for your information. (-Name withheld-) said you might have some information for me and I'm very excited! I've been searching for a long time and every little bit of information helps. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me.
At 10:25PM I received a response.
I believe that we can help you with at least a little of the information you are seeking. Please let me know how to help ...not sure of what would be best for you. We live in a (-city withheld-), TX suburb. So, if you are in the area, we could meet face-to-face. Or, if you prefer email or phone contact, please let me know. I've also added my sister, (-name withheld-), as a "Cc" for our messages as she would like to help with this process too.
Though the reply seemed carefully worded, Sam and I gushed. This was definitely a break-through. The kind of break-through in which I might have found my family. We discussed whether or not a phone call was advisable and I told Sam “Oh, I can't call. I don't know what I'd say. I have no idea if I'd have a panic attack or just start crying.” “I know,” she replied, “I remember when I made my call 26 years ago!! I was shaking uncontrollably.”
With Sam’s help I quickly replied letting them know I did not live in Texas and email was preferable to a phone call. No reply came. Overnight my brain ran through a vast quantity of probabilities and scenarios, and a nagging feeling crept into the pit of my stomach. If they, if anyone, had good news, why hadn’t they just told me? If I’d found my mother’s family, my family, why hadn’t they just put me in direct contact with my mother?
The next day was Sunday, January 18, 2015. Company flocked to our household to watch the National Football League’s NFC/AFC Conference Championship games, but between all the snacks, beverages, and friends all I could think about was when I’d receive a reply and what information the message might hold. It was impossible to concentrate for long on anything else. I was fidgety. It was hard to eat. I don’t remember who won the games.
At 7:11PM my phone’s notification sound rang out. I picked up my phone, checked it, and found I’d received an email. Intuition told me not to check the email until after our company had left. Good news or bad, I knew it would have a powerful impact on me and I probably would not be able to control my emotions in front of company. I put my phone down on the living room table and ached for the last game to end.
Finally, our company left. Before their vehicles had exited our driveway I’d snatched my phone from the table and bolted upstairs to my bedroom. As I shut the door my heart pounded in my chest. My hands shook. I grounded myself as best I could, trying to prepare for whatever was to come. Where they going to tell me where I came from? Was I about to talk to my mother? I pulled up the email.
We believe that you are the baby that our sister gave up for adoption in 1979. (-Name withheld-) and I are your biological mother's sisters. I truly wish that I didn't have to share sad news with you. Especially considering what you have been through to get this far in your search. Unfortunately, our sister and your birth mother, passed away in 2012.
Nothing could have prepared me. I crumpled to the floor of my bedroom and began to sob. It was my worst nightmare, the thing I dreaded more than death itself. I’d missed her. I’d missed her by just a few, precious years. The emotional pain I felt was so intense it struck me keenly as a physical force. It hurt. Sometime later, vison bleary with acrid tears, I read the rest of the email.
We are ready to answer as many questions as we have answers for; that said, we do not know who your biological father is at this time. Our father may have known, but he has been gone since 1999.
I cannot imagine how this news is affecting you. Please take all the time you need, gather your thoughts, and tell us what gaps we can fill in for your peace of mind or medical history. Feel free to make a detailed list if you like, as it is hard to even begin to know the questions you may want and need answered.
Do you have a picture of her?
About an hour and forty minutes later the reply came.
I have attached three photos for now. November 1979 - our sister, (-name withheld-), may have been about 6 weeks pregnant. Easter - elementary age. Third one is baby photo.
We struggled with telling you our news through an email and hope that you have someone with you to help you with what must be disappointing news. Short of face-to-face meeting, there was no way to tell you in a way to make this easier for you.
In the future, when you are ready, if you would prefer to talk on the phone - please let us know.
I immediately pulled up the three photos and, for the first time in my life, stared into the face of someone who looked like me. I stared for a long, long time. I looked over every curve of her face. She wore blue jeans and a multicolored plaid shirt. The pictures are fuzzy, but I think I have her neck, her chin, and her cheeks. The picture from November of 1979 is the only picture I have of us together. You can’t even tell I’m there.
I’ve never written back. It’s not that I don’t want to, I do. My aunts seem compassionate and I have so many questions I yearn to have answered, but the pain of this loss is unreal. It wasn’t just the loss of her. I’ve lost the one chance I’ll ever have at reclaiming a part of myself that was stolen. It’s the part of me that’s Cryptic Omega.
Adolescence is a time when a person may begin the process of developing their identity. I was no different and around the age of sixteen I gave myself the name Cryptic Omega as part of my online persona. My sixteen-year-old self defined the phrase to mean, “unknown end,” using the following logic.
If you don’t know where you’ve come from, how can you know where you are? If you don’t know where you are, how can you know where you’re going? If you don’t know where you’re going, you don’t know where you’ll end up.
As the years passed the name became a symbol for a part of myself I thought I’d eventually grow out of as the puzzle pieces fell into place, but in the moment I learned of my mother’s death it felt as if the door to that possibility was slammed shut. I’d never know where I came from. I’d never have answers to my questions or have a baseline for myself. I’d never be able to escape Cryptic Omega. Part of me would always be stuck in the unknown, grasping for puzzle pieces and desperately trying to shove bits of random logic into a single, coherent mass. I would never be able to leave that part of me, that stain, behind. I’d lost my chance at normalcy, I’d lost my hopes and dreams, I’d lost my mother. I’d had enough. No more did I want to keep my experience hidden from the world like a “nice” and “grateful” Adoptee. I decided if the world was going to break my heart I’d do everything I could to force the world to watch the consequences, to see the pain.
I didn’t get much sleep that night, and I was still crying the following morning when I slipped outside and propped my old, cheap laptop up on the picnic table in the backyard. The house was out toward the country and it was quiet under the large live oak tree. I brought up a video program, hit the record button, and started talking. I had to stop talking a few times during the video because my emotions threatened to get the better of me, but in the end I think I did okay all things considered. There was no editing, no script revisions, no cue cards. I labeled the video exactly what it was, An Adoptee’s Nightmare, and posted it to YouTube. It’s still up. As long as there’s a chance of another Adoptee finding a grave instead of a living being, I plan on leaving it up. I want that Adoptee to be able to find it, to know they aren’t alone, and I want nonadoptees to understand how painful the experience can be.
After I posted the video I sought out the open arms of my fellow Adoptees. In our community there’s a place for all Adoptees; places for transracial Adoptees, international Adoptees, domestic Adoptees, those adopted from foster care, and others. We’re all over the internet now.
There’s one club nobody really wants to join. It’s the group for people whose searches have ended in graves. When I was accepted they told me “We’re sorry you’re here,” and it was comforting. It was a solemn affair. I only had time to take a breath before Facebook determined my name, Cryptic Omega, was not “authentic” and deactivated my account.
The irony is not lost on me. The name I have chosen for myself, a name that describes a large part of my life and who I am, the name my closest friends call me and under which I publish essays and short films, is the one a faceless corporation has deemed illegitimate. How dismissive. How symbolically appropriate.
Being torn away from the only place I’d ever found comfort as an Adoptee was like pouring vodka on an open wound. I seethed, I huffed, and I vowed to fight back. Just a little bit of time to catch my breath, I told myself, and I’d start the fight to reactivate my account. However, the longer I waited the less I missed Facebook. It became apparent to me I’d allowed the service to become more of a hindrance than a benefit. I’ll always miss the people in those groups. They will always have a special place in my heart and I can say without any degree of uncertainty I have no idea where I’d be without them. However, I do not see myself rejoining Facebook.
Whatever the circumstances, however the union unfolded, I am undeniably a member of my adoptive family. Interrelationships within our family unit have varied according to the involved members and general environment at the time. The most tumultuous of the bunch was the relationship between my brother and me. As a teenager I’d disavowed him as my brother. It wasn’t something I took lightly, but felt pushed into conceding for my own well-being. By the time he passed in the early 2000’s our relationship was constrained to the binding legal tendrils of adoption law and our mutual connection to our adoptive parents.
At the risk of sounding abrupt, I’ll draw my conclusion here. It’s taken me longer than I anticipated to write this piece. I had been under the admittedly naïve impression the task would take a day or two, but the more I wrote the more information I realized I should include to present an accurate representation of my experience. I’ve yet to expand upon my relationship with my adoptive brother or how finally, after thirty years, my adoptive parents and I have started to develop our relationship. I haven’t talked about the influence of adoption on my intimate relationships or friendships, why I’ve yet to contact my biological family again, experiencing medical issues sans a family medical history, or how it feels to grow up in isolation because your family is very obviously different from everyone else’s. There’s just so much more. Maybe it’s time to start a longer literary project. Until next time, I share this message in the hopes of promoting unity within the Adoptee community, empowering community members, and educating nonadoptees.