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.