Dear Dad… (cont., yet again)

Half a decade after I first started my letter of introduction to my birthfather, I’ve finally scribbled something down on a tiny scrap of paper that I picked up for some change in a store and placed it, a renewed service agreement, and a suggested donation in the mail, along with some hope that I managed to summon up for connection with the other half of my birthfamily.

Somewhere in there, buried within all of that time (five years!) searching for the ideal card, shaking my head in frustration at how little information I have about this guy, painfully searching for the right words to express in just a few lines who I am to someone in the only correspondence he and I may ever have (if he receives it), there are countless small and big reasons it’s taken me so long to finish this seemingly tiny task. Small reasons like moving to a new city, beginning and finishing grad school, and having to do laundry and buy groceries on the weekends. Big reasons like establishing relationships with my birthmother’s family – a reunion that occurred after a three-year search – and my own self knowing that both I and both of my families needed more time to fully process and comprehend all that had already happened before diving into a potentially immediate repeat performance.

Sealed and already in the mail to be picked up tomorrow, here is my letter of introduction to my birthfather:

 

10/20/13

Dad,

I’ve been working on this letter for half a decade now and even though it still doesn’t seem ready, I figured it’s finally time to send it.

I’ve always known that I was adopted – my parents were very open about this with me – and I’ve always been curious about my birthparents. As a kid, I wondered where my curiosity and sense of humor came from, and I’ve had countless people ask me about my ancestry – questions I could never answer. I’ve always intended to search for you, and so I find myself writing to you now in the hopes that you might be interested in learning something about me.

I’m 29 years old and I live in New York City, where I moved a few years ago for graduate school. I’ve spent a lot of my life writing but since moving to New York, I’ve been working at a supportive housing site with tenants who have been chronically homeless – I plan classes and activities for the 300+ tenants who live there.

I like writing, photography, cities, spicy foods, making art, traveling, used bookstores, cooking, and bad horror films, and I’ve lived in a number of different places since growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore. I’m not married, and it’s not a priority for me – for now, I’m more interested in meeting new people, seeing new places, and exploring the world around me.

I hope that you might be interested in meeting me, but I understand if you’re not. Either way, I’d hope that you’d be willing to provide some record of your family’s medical history for me, so I have an idea of what to look out for as I get older.

I hope that you’re doing well, Dad. Thanks for my life.

Melissa

No mention of Hooter’s or Newt Gingrich, and the card’s not even a shot of New York.

It feels really good to have finally finished this  – I’m a chronic procrastinator when it comes to writing pieces without deadlines, and this has been one piece that I’ve been perpetually putting off. It will likely be a good while before hearing anything back – if I ever do at all – but if connection with my birthfather is ever going to happen, this was the first step that needed to be taken.

The only projects that can’t be completed are those that are not begun.

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“A Girl Like Her”

On June 11, I had opportunity to attend an event put on by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a film screening of A Girl Like Her, Ann Fessler’s new documentary. This piece is a film version of Ann’s book The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, with the same birthmothers who Ann interviewed at length providing oral narrative against the visual backdrop of stock archival images from an era when wrenching human drama was buried under airbrushed images of family and sexuality. Here is a taste:

 

After the film screening that night, Ann facilitated a panel that was made up of two birthmothers and Adam Pertman, director of the Adoption Institute, and they all took comments and questions. The event – which was free, but required reservations – was long sold out (I was lucky to get a ticket, and I’d reserved mine as soon as I’d learned of the event several weeks in advance, knowing Ann’s work well), and the audience was made up mostly of birthmothers of the generation interviewed in Ann’s film; I may well have been the youngest in the room by at least two decades.

The highlight of the evening was the announcement of the Lynn Franklin Fund, a new fund set up specifically for research and advocacy work in areas that matter most to birthmothers. As stated on the Adoption Institute’s website, “The goal of the Franklin Fund is to make certain that the insights, experiences, needs and aspirations of this too-often-marginalized group are heard in every relevant discussion of adoption-related laws, policies and practices.” Lynn Franklin, a first/birthmother and reform activist who gave up her son for adoption under societal pressures, and her son’s adoptive father – who had sponsored the night’s event, from its posh location in Midtown to its open bar – were both there, having been in reunion for over twenty years and established a healthy relationship among all involved in the adoption process: first/birthmother, second/adoptive parents, adoptee. Hearing their own story and seeing their fierce love and mutual appreciation for one another was especially touching – the sort of made-for-Lifetime tale that everyone needs to be part of at least once in their life – and I felt tears of joy for them edging down my cheeks even as I bore witness to that ever-present emptiness inside myself.

After the night’s event had formally come to a close, I had opportunity to talk to a number of individuals, swapping stories and experiences, comparing and contrasting individual journeys. Contact info was exchanged alongside ideas: adoption-themed writing workshops and readings, adoption therapy as social work, engaging young people in research and advocacy initiatives at the Adoption Institute – all this and more, all the while biding my time as I constantly remind myself that patience is a virtue, however it be defined.

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On self

A fascinating and insightful piece in the New York Times today on the transformation of the self from “person” to “patient” among the mentally ill community:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/magazine/the-problem-with-how-we-treat-bipolar-disorder.html?_r=0

 

As Logan writes, “For many people with mental disorders, the transformation of the self is one of the most disturbing things about being ill. And their despair is heightened when doctors don’t engage with the issue, don’t ask about what parts of the self have vanished and don’t help figure out strategies to deal with that loss.”

True words indeed, and ones that I can relate to all too well. Last year, I began neurological testing to determine if I would be a good candidate for brain surgery to end epileptic seizures that have grown increasingly worse over the course of my life; however, after learning about Geschwind syndrome and reading all of the medical and academic papers that I could find on the subject, I found myself questioning my own identity and what changes might occur to my self if surgery should happen. When I asked my neurologist about this, however, she abruptly dismissed the notion and quickly informed me that she does not believe in the existence of such personality profiles. That’s all well and good for her, but I’m the one being tested and potentially operated on, and all of the research that I’ve read – none of which mentions post-operative patients and whether such traits remain – matches me perfectly.

I just had an appointment this past week, in which we discussed the findings of the week-long inpatient stay I did last year and what other tests are now needed. We also talked about the very real fact that depending on what these tests reveal, I could be returning to New York-Presbyterian for brain surgery in July. Knowing it would be useless to ask her, I’ve been asking myself ever since: I know who I would be going in, but who would I be coming out?

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Nature vs. Nurture

This weekend has been a lost one for academic or social purposes – I’ve spent the bulk of it holed up in my room reading the entirety of Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited, a memoir co-written by Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein, twins who were adopted by separate families in the 1960s through Louise Wise Services, a prestigious New York Jewish adoption agency that was secretly conducting sociological studies without knowledge or consent of the adoptees and their families. The focus of Louise Wise’s studies was on the classic “nature vs. nurture” argument and they, like many other individuals and institutions who were sickened by the nature-based eugenics approach of the Holocaust mere decades earlier, chose to believe that nurturing is more effective, arguing that in the correct environment, any individual can thrive, regardless of genetic or biological factors.

This hypothesis was tested in various ways through the placement of children in adoptive families. In at least one series of tests – the one through which the authors of Identical Strangers were placed – identical sets of children were intentionally separated and placed with different families who were never told that their child was, in fact, one of twins or triplets. More sinisterly, however, in countless adoptions through Louise Wise Services – including those of sets – medical information about the birthmother or birthfather was intentionally withheld, downplayed, and even changed when it was specifically asked for, although all mentioned adoptees’ birthmothers had a pronounced history of mental illness.

In the case of Bernstein and Schein – twin daughters of a schizophrenic (or possibly bipolar – at the time, all such diagnoses fell under the same category) birthmother who were separated and adopted independently through Louise Wise – both went through severe bouts of depression during high school and college, including suicidal ideations. Nothing in their given birthfamilies’ histories provided any reason for it though – there was no record of mental illness whatsoever – and neither Paula nor Elyse felt that they had reason nor right to be depressed when they had been given so much opportunity by being adopted.

To this, I can relate only too well. At various points in my life – including in college – I have been terribly depressed without reason and unable to explain it even to myself. When unable to identify the reason for such intense despair in one’s own life, it is impossible to explain it to others demanding a solid, tangible reason. All I could do at the time was watch time go by as assignment deadlines passed, scribbling my thoughts down for myself in the hopes that I might make sense of them later and striking bargains with professors in whose classes I had not turned in a single assignment all semester. At the time, I wanted very much to take a break from school – I knew that I was not learning anything and that it was not a productive time for me to be there – but my parents insisted that I stay, believing that if I dropped out, I would never return. I wasn’t really depressed, I recall my mother saying, I was just complaining because I suddenly had to actually work for my grades. Upon connecting with my birthmother’s family, though, I learned that my birthmother is widely believed to be either schizophrenic or bipolar.

I’m fairly confident that I’ve passed the age that schizophrenia makes its debut, but I’m unsure of this illness’s extended family. There was no history of mental illness given in my nonidentifying heritage information, so even learning that my birthmother has something going on upon first communication with my birthfamily was both relief and burden rolled into one. On the one hand, it felt like confirmation that what I felt and experienced in college – and continue to experience every few years – is likely a very real form of depression and not simply a coincidentally long set of days or weeks upon which I have to work extra-hard to motivate myself to accomplish even the smallest things. On the flip side, knowing that I’m a carrier for mental illnesses such as the ones that I work with every day – and that I grew up with, in the form of a bipolar older brother – makes it all the more difficult to envision my future.

I have epilepsy, which has grown increasingly worse as I’ve gotten older – at this point, I have a fairly high chance of dying in my sleep, since no medication has effectively stopped my seizures – and the tests that I began last year to see if I might be a good candidate for surgery are looking like the answer is a ‘no’. Such knowledge also gives me yet another reason – this one unmentionable – to simply laugh and reply “You tell me!” when my adoptive family inevitably asks me at holiday get-togethers when I’m going to settle down already and produce some offspring for them.

Given the history of such agencies as Louise Wise Services, I wonder what else Family and Children’s Society of Baltimore knew about my birthmother at the time of my adoption. Maybe it’s simply early-onset paranoia, but I find myself wondering what other knowns and unknowns exist that are not being provided to me.

* * *

In one case made famous among the adoptee-rights community, Martin and Phyllis Juman applied to Louise Wise Services for a baby in 1964 and after a lengthy and rigorous interview and evaluation process, adopted a five-month-old infant they named Michael. Described in newspaper articles documenting the case as a “bright child with a passion for baseball”, Michael first began to act strangely during his senior year in high school when he stopped attending class, seemingly without reason. When his parents confronted Michael about his absences, he responded not with a typical adolescent excuse, but with a confession of overwhelming despair that had led him to take walks along the beach and consider walking into the ocean and never returning. Even with the assistance of several psychologists and psychiatrists, his depression only worsened and his behavior became increasingly erratic – fits of paranoia and violence tempered by days of depression-induced sleep. He was hospitalized for long stretches of time while doctors tried different medications without success, and his diagnoses ranged from schizophrenia to bipolar to borderline personality disorder.

At some point, Michael decided that he needed to know the truth about his birthmother. He had learned the trick that inquisitive adoptees from New York know – that the number on their amended birth certificate is the same as the number on their original birth certificate – and he spent hours at New York Public Library poring over birth records until he found a matching number and the corresponding names, his original name and that of his birthmother. He then called all families with that surname listed in the phonebook and asked those who answered if they knew someone by the name of his birthmother who had a son with his original name, until he reached someone who said yes.

Michael took his parents, Martin and Phyllis, with him to meet the only birthfamily he would ever know, the first cousin who had answered the phone. At that meeting, both Michael and Martin asked questions that Michael’s cousin openly answered. When Michael began describing the mental illness he had experienced, his cousin responded that his aunt – Michael’s mother – “had mental problems too” and described visiting his aunt in a psychiatric institution as a young child. He also mentioned that he thought she had had a lobotomy some years before Michael had been born – something that was confirmed when Michael obtained his birthmother’s psychiatric and medical charts from Brooklyn State Hospital.

Six months later in 1994, Michael was found dead in his apartment. Although he had attempted suicide numerous times before and although 10% of schizophrenic patients do successfully commit suicide, it’s believed that Michael’s death was accidental – quite possibly from one of the increasingly intense seizures that he was experiencing along with the other chemical and physical changes happening to his body.

Because of a 1983 New York State law that requires all agencies to provide adopted children and adoptive parents with nonidentifying medical information including “all available information setting forth conditions or diseases believed to be hereditary, any drugs or medication taken during pregnancy by the child’s natural mother and any other information, including any psychological information…which may be a factor influencing the child’s present or future health”, the Jumans finally received all of the records of Michael’s birthmother from Louise Wise in 1996 – eleven years after they were requested by one of Michael’s psychiatrists and two years after Michael died.

The information in those records presented a very different picture of Michael’s birthfamily than the one first presented to the Jumans when they were going through the initial interview and evaluation process. One page that contained the social worker’s summary at the time of Michael’s adoption was just as they remembered:

“I told the J.’s that Michael’s parents were both Jewish. The mother was along in her 30’s, of medium coloring. Her father had died when she was quite young, leaving her with an older mother after her three brothers had left home. She did not have a very good relationship with her mother. She won a scholarship to a well-known college and finished two years of it. The mother had been going out with someone seriously, but he died suddenly of a heart attack and so she could not marry him. She became pregnant quite soon after. She said that if her boyfriend had not died, she would not have become pregnant. This shock led to some emotional difficulty and she later sought professional help for it. The baby’s father was white Jewish, but in character was not one of lasting quality. At this point the J.’s looked very compassionate, and Mr. J. said he could see that the replacement was for her loss. They were both very understanding of this whole history and did not have any questions outside of Mr. J’s comment.”

However, after that, the picture changed completely. Michael’s birthmother did in fact attend college for two years, but her records – that Louise Wise Services had at the time of Michael’s adoption and did not share with the Jumans – indicate that she dropped out after experiencing a gradual mental deterioration and eventual collapse in 1945 “characterized by screaming, swearing, shouting and hallucinations.” She then spent four years at Brooklyn State Hospital where she underwent a prefrontal lobotomy; after leaving for seven years, she returned to spend nine more years there, during which she gave birth to a daughter whose adoption was also handled by Louise Wise. She was released again from Brooklyn State around 1962 and enrolled in an outpatient program called Fountain House. When she reappeared at Louise Wise in 1964, she was five months pregnant with Michael.

In the Louise Wise social worker’s notes from that time, it’s noted that Michael’s mother was “disheveled in appearance, wearing a coat of three-quarter length that was raggedy around the buttonholes and did not fit her properly…Her disheveled hair was held away from her face by a red band, and on one occasion she chewed the end of her hair, which is badly in need of cutting.” In these notes, information is also given about Michael’s birthfather, stating that “She initially met this man at Brooklyn State Hospital, but they were casual acquaintances. [He] attended Fountain House on one or two occasions, and then all of a sudden, according to mother, he telephoned one day and asked her to go with him to his apartment. [She] had difficulty expressing her feelings about this incident, which she does not completely understand.”

And then, the icing on the cake, were the pages of initial interviews with Martin and Phyllis Juman neatly typed, with key phrases underlined: “The background isn’t terribly important, as long as the child is white…They are pretty sure that environment is far more important than heredity.” Without being told, they were agreeing to adopt a child with any amount of mental and emotional issues possible and for which no information would be provided. Theirs would be an ideal home to test nature vs. nurture indeed.

 

“Defendant asserts that it did not have an obligation to disclose the birth mother’s psychiatric history because it was not material. The Agency claims that at the time of the adoption members of the scientific community held differing opinions concerning whether schizophrenia was a disease that could be inherited. They present evidence that it was not until 1968 that ‘the literature suggested that there was sufficient evidence to postulate that there was a genetic component to the etiology of schizophrenia.’”

From the notes of the 1997 New York State Supreme Court case of Juman v. Louise Wise Services

* * *

Given the history of such agencies as Louise Wise Services, I wonder what else Family and Children’s Society of Baltimore knew about my birthmother at the time of my adoption. No mention is made of her mental state, and all information that is given is according to her own reports. Maybe it’s simply early-onset paranoia, but I find myself wondering what other knowns and unknowns exist that are not being provided to me.

This lack of information is what I am feeling most right now. I know my birthmother’s name, I’ve seen photos of her face, and I now have a framed photo of her at the age I was when I was adopted– still, this is not enough. For my entire life, I’ve been envisioning ways that I might be able to reconnect with my birthmother and learn, once and for all, what she is like and where those parts of myself that I never could account for might have come from. Thanks to the powers that be, I do now have some answers – five years after legally beginning my search for my birthmother, I’ve had opportunity to meet many in her family. I can now identify other family members to whom I am genetically connected and with whom I share a common sense of humor, liberalism, and extroversion – none of which are prevalent in my adoptive family.

Still, some days it’s just not enough. I’ve never connected with my birthmother myself and in not doing so, I’m only left with more questions. Not until I reconnect with her myself and can speak with her one-on-one – or hear her refusal for myself – will I be satisfied that she and I have made contact, and I have seen whether nature or nurture triumphs for myself.

Until then, I’ll keep scribbling my thoughts down in the hopes that I might make sense of them later.

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Family ties

Last night, I called my parents to ask them something that I’ve been intending to ask them for a couple weeks now, but with hurricane aftermath and thesis-writing and holiday/most-depressive-season at work, well…it didn’t happen until last night. I called to invite them – if they’re interested – out to lunch with my aunt, grandmother, and whoever else happens to be around on my birthmother’s side while I’m in Maryland next week. My treat.

It was late when I called – 10:15pm or so – and my mom had just gone to bed, so I talked to my dad for a while about his day (same as ever), his health (so-so), and my brother’s move to Tennessee (hectic) before inquiring about my parents’ plans for the week I’d be in town (besides the two Christmases we have scheduled) and then casually asking how he’d feel about doing lunch with my birth-aunt and grandmother. There was a long moment of silence, and then he let out a weighty sigh and said he’d have to talk to my mom and see what she said.

 

Melissa: Ok, but what do you think about it? Would you be interested?

Dad: I don’t know, I’ll have to ask your mother.

Melissa: Ok…ok, but Dad, I’m asking you – you, Dad – is this something that you would be interested in, regardless of whether Mom is or not?

Dad: I don’t know…I never thought about it..that’s your thing.

 

Let me tell you, I was trying really, really hard.

 

Melissa: You mean in…[quickly doing math]…thirty-four years of having adopted children, you never thought about the possibililty of reunion and meeting the birthfamilies? That’s…that’s …c’mon!

Dad: I don’t need to meet them…wait, here’s your mom…

[muffled sounds of Dad waking up Mom from her nice, deep sleep]

 

It shouldn’t matter to me, it really shouldn’t – but it does. It wouldn’t sting so much if this wasn’t a guy who’s so into geneaology and tracking down dead people that he’s related to by blood (not to mention all of the cemetary trips that I’ve been dragged along on while hearing him lament about how hard it is to find some great-great-great-great-grand-cousin thrice removed, while I can’t even contact my birthparents), but the fact that he is such a guy who devotes so much time to this and yet is completely uninterested in meeting someone that his daughter is related to by blood seems to scream out to me all the more that blood relation is all that is important to the guy. With that in mind, I can’t help but wonder, what am I to him? As a kid, I thought that I was his daughter – just like any other daughter – but as I’ve gotten older and seen how much blood relation seems to mean to him, I can’t help but feel that he must have been somewhat disappointed every time he looked at my brother and me. Last night’s conversation confirmed this for me, as he expressed an utter lack of interest in meeting anyone to whom I am related by blood, seeing such relationships as being of interest only to me.

I still have to buy my dad’s Christmas gift and since he’s only into his own geneaology and watching television shows about ghosts, it’ll probably end up being another book on geneology. FML.

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Storytelling at Under Minerva

An excerpt from a storytelling event at the Under Minerva Art Gallery in Park Slope on November 18:

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Pools of purple

Woke up this morning in Baltimore to the sight of my late grandmother’s necklace folded into a pool of purple under the wedding photo of a grandmother I’m just beginning to know. A pool of purple – deep in the middle and shallow at its shorelines – that the only cousin I had growing up said I’d totally rock while we were sifting through Grandma’s treasure-and-trinket-filled oak jewelry box last year, six months after my grandfather followed his life-partner of 74 years out of this world and into the next.

Above close-strung orbs of violet, my other grandmother stands ready in white velvet and heels, watching – excitedly and expectantly – waiting for her cue to walk (small steps!) down the makeshift aisle at the Veterans’ Hall, into her beloved’s arms and their shared life forever. Her father stands behind her, a stern look on his worn face, but love in his eyes, his heart, the planning and money put down for the biggest day of his 24-year-old daughter’s life. A beautiful winter wedding, cleverly tucked in amongst the grading periods of public schools, where her husband-to-be faithfully spends his days.

“When you make $100 a month…”

“Not until I have some cash of my own…”

Strong women – both of my grandmothers – turning down would-be-suitors and sailors for education, independence, men with morals that matched their own and more than once during this visit, it strikes me just how many similar storylines there are running throughout my two families. Children of shop-keepers, lovers of games and card tournaments, quickly planned weddings due to the inevitable start of school, seeking out piglets amongst the livestock at state fairs – all of these can be found among the tell-it-again stories of both families – and as my velvet-clad grandmother stands watch over Grandma’s pool of purple while excitedly waiting for her cue, I smile to myself and think about how well they would have gotten along, if only given the chance.

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