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Looking for that long-lost someone (as in parent):

Will the Search End in Happiness or Heartbreak?

For the past three years, Eileen Tomlin of Palm Beach FL, and her husband, Bill, have been obsessed with just one question: Where is John Lyman Burgund? Their search for Eileen's natural father, whom she last saw when she was three, started when their daughter, Jessica, then seven, brought home a school project, a family tree. "As we were writing the names, I had to explain that the man she'd known as Poppa was actually my stepfather. She got very excited and said, 'You mean I have another grandfather somewhere? Let's go find him!'

"My first reaction was, yes, I'd do it for her, and then my second was that I'd also do it for myself - because I was twenty-nine years old and the only thing I knew about my dad was his name. I didn't even have a photo or one memory of him," Eileen says. She and her husband soon found themselves caught up in an intensely emotional odyssey - sometimes wildly exhilarating when a public record or a conversation with relatives revealed a promising new clue, often devastating when yet another hot lead came to a dead end. "Besides work and our children, the search was all we talked or thought about."

Most thrilling of all was Bill's discovery in 1992 that a J. Burgund had an unlisted telephone number in Staten Island, New York, the area where Eileen had lived with her father as a baby. "Bill begged and begged the phone company until they agreed to get a message to that person. The next day, we were stunned to hear from a Joan Burgund - who turned out to be my dad's second wife and the mother of a half brother and half sister I never knew existed. Ecstatic, I flew to New York to meet them - and just about died when I saw that my sister and brother, who are only a few years younger than me, are absolute clones of myself. It was the happiest day of my life."

The reunion took on a sad undertone, however, with the news that her father had also abandoned his second family. "My sister remembers that on Christmas Day 1977, when she was ten, our father bought her a bunch of dolls and said, 'I'm leaving now, and you'll never see me again.' Since then, it's as if he dropped off the earth. They've been looking for him too and haven't turned up a thing. But even if I never find my dad, I'm still overjoyed to have found a brother and sister whom I love so much."

Unsolved Mysteries

Right now, more than three hundred thousand Americans are involved in similar quests, estimates Kate Burke, president of the American Adoption Congress in Washington DC. Most are women searching for other women - birthmothers longing to be reunited with a daughter they had given up years earlier and, more typically, female adoptees in their late twenties or early thirties who have often imagined meeting their real mother and now feel an overwhelming desire to have their fantasy become reality. "Their secret hope is that she'll turn out to be Hillary Clinton," says Burke. "Their secret fear is that she'll actually be Darlene the streetwalker. It's a very scary and emotional time, because there's the awful anxiety that they'll find their mother - only to be rejected again by a woman who already gave them away once."

Fifteen years ago, when Burke, who was herself adopted as a child, began to look for her biological family, the work was lonely and frustrating, since adoption records were sealed in all states and information on how to locate missing relatives was almost nonexistent. Today, some 450 support groups offer practical and emotional help to searchers, while two states now have open adoption records and another twenty-two have set up voluntary registries that match birth parents and adoptees. What's behind this fascination with ferreting out secrets from the past? "When I gave birth to my daughter Beth, I was looking at the very first person I'd ever met who belonged to me genetically," says adoptee Carol McDowell of Sacramento CA. "As a child, I felt like an alien dropped onto this planet from nowhere, because I'd never met any other adopted person and wondered what was wrong with me that I was the only one. I didn't even know my true name or whom I got my quirky sense of humor from. I'd look at every stranger on the street and wonder. Are you my mother? Are you my father? I always had the sense of being a little girl lost."

Looking for a missing mother or father is usually a search for identity, not for a new family, says Annette Baran, a Los Angeles psychotherapist and author of The Adoption Triangle. "What the rest of us don't realize is how many mysteries and unknowns the adopted child grows up with. Imagine how it would be to have your doctor ask if there's a family history of breast cancer, and all you can say is 'I don't know, I'm adopted.' It's like being an amnesiac - you're missing vital pieces of your background that everyone else takes for granted, such as knowing your ethnic origins or whom you take after or your genetic predispositions."

Such questions, Baran's studies found, frequently take on consuming urgency on the heels of a key life even: getting married, have a child, mourning the death of an adoptive parent, or reaching the age - often twenty-five or thirty - when a person considers herself to be psychologically adult. At such times, Baran explains, women often begin to see themselves as a biological link between the future and the past, which can spark an intense fascination with family heritage. Suddenly, the adoptee is poignantly reminded that she only goes back to herself and her genes carry unknown - and perhaps frightening - traits. This can spark concern about inherited illness, which is sometimes crucial motivation for a search.

Yet despite the risks, the call of blood and ancestry is often too potent to resist, says Florence Fisher, founder of the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association in New York City, who spent twenty years seeking her biological family. "I didn't need a mother or a father or even a relationship. Nor was it merely idle curiosity or being ungrateful to my adoptive family. What I needed more than anything else were answers and the truth of looking in my mother's and father's eyes - even for ten minutes."

Family Secrets

What if that truth proves painful? "If you find somebody you don't want in your life - or who doesn't want you in hers - you can always back off," says another adoptee, Charlene Kalbfell of Granite Springs NY, who did just that after tracking down a birthmother who didn't want to be found. "The real irony is, the very traits that drove me crazy about her - her cold, wary, and controlled personality - are the same ones other people say drive them crazy about me. Neither of us is easy to get to know, but I was willing to make the effort and she wasn't.

"Still, I'm happy I searched," Kalbfell insists. "I learned things about myself - I really am Italian, just like my adoptive mother - and feel more grounded knowing the facts of my birth, which my adoptive parents hid from me. As a child, I always knew they couldn't be my real parents, because my mother was too old, but whenever I asked any questions, a wall immediately went up. It wasn't until they died - and I was thirty-two - that I found the adoption records. Knowing the truth means a lot to me."

It's quite common for adoptees to fear that a terrible secret lurks within the reason they were given away, Baran notes. But fortunately, bad news is rare. "Of hundreds of searches I'm familiar with," she says, "only two had truly disastrous endings - one man found out he was the product of incest, while a woman learned her father had killed both her mother and himself. When it comes to very disappointing reunions, however, I do know of a few. One woman was utterly mortified when her natural mother turned out to be a garish eccentric who hired a brass band to greet the long-lost daughter at the airport, and another learned that her biological mother was a pipe-smoking lesbian."

As for Carol McDowell, she never expected the search for her birth parents to reignite a thirty-year-old family feud that was originally sparked by her birth. Certainly, she was overjoyed when she found her mother after months of patiently combing city directories and genealogical records and, to be sure, was eagerly embraced as a daughter. "Walking into her home, I felt a sudden shock of recognition - we're both compulsively clean, have the same impulsive personality, and the same black sense of humor. I could tell at once she really is my mother."

Her father, however, absolutely denies his paternity - the very thing that had alienated him from both her mother's family and his own when Carol was born. "All his relatives know the truth, but when I wasn't around, they pretended I'd never happened. It's very sad, because, as I've told him, I don't want anything from him - just the chance to get to know him and see if we can be friends. I'm still hoping that someday maybe it will happen."

An all-powerful urge to answer the one question adoptees most often fear to ask - why they were given up - underlies many of the searches by birthmothers

Suspicion that she was an unwanted infant kept S. E. Fagin of Westchester NY, from pursuing her birth parents until she was forty and in the throes of a midlife crisis. Once begun, however, her search took an odd twist when she learned she was placed for adoption through the notorious Tennessee Children's Home Society - an agency whose extraordinarily corrupt practices were dramatized in a recent TV move, Stolen Babies. Far from being rejected by her family, Fagin learned from an uncle that she was actually stolen from the hospital by this agency after her mother died in childbirth.

"He was thrilled to hear from me," Fagin says, "and kept repeating, "You're the little girl we wanted to adopt.' While my mother lay dying, he and my aunt had gone to the hospital and tried desperately to adopt me but were told, falsely, that it was too late. When we met, they showed me a letter my birthfather - who, sadly, also died young - had written to my mother right before my birth. It was clear that he loved her very much. Knowing all this seemed to fill a hole inside me, because I'd learned that I really was wanted - and that only circumstances beyond their control kept me from growing up with these lovely people."

Answers and Ironies

Ironically, an all-powerful urge to answer the very question adoptees often most fear to ask - why they were given up - underlies most searches by birthmothers, experts say. For Tricia Hunter of Palm Desert, CA, the search became a compulsion that could have cost her a promising political career. "Even though I was in the midst of a heated race for the state assembly against a pro-life candidate who might turn my unwed motherhood at seventeen into fodder for a smear campaign, I still had to find my daughter and tell her she was made in love but that my parents wouldn't let me marry her father or keep her.

"It was terrifying to think of my private secret being exposed to public scrutiny, and even more terrifying to think my child might not even want me, but I always knew I'd look for her when she reached eighteen - no matter what," Hunter adds. Happily, neither fear was realized. "Not only was her daughter looking for her, but on Mother's Day 1992, the two were joyfully reunited, and the next day, Hunter presented her daughter to the California State Assembly. "A couple of male lobbyists started crying because they were so touched by our story, and the press was amazingly sympathetic."

What's it like for a birth mother suddenly to hear from someone she's spent months, or even years, looking for? "When my husband answered the phone and nodded to me, I knew my long search was finally over," recalls Lana Davis of Citrus Heights CA. "The room went black, and I couldn't see anything but the telephone, knowing my child - the baby I was forced to give up for adoption - was waiting to talk with me for the very first time. When we met a few weeks later, it was like having a brand-new baby. Even though he was a grown man, I wanted to look at his hands, his ears, his face, and touch his hair. I felt immediately overwhelmed with love."

This desire to recapture the lost moments of childhood that both birth parent and adoptee have missed out on often colors the initial reunion. Florence Fisher was married and herself a parent when she first met her real father, but she soon found herself feeling like his little girl as they toured Disneyland together, playing in bumper cars, and stuffing themselves with ice cream and cotton candy. "I had the sensation of the past, the present, and the future slammed together inside me, " she recalls.

Taylor of Paradise CA, was worried by how she reacted after being reunited with the son she'd given up for adoption. "Immediately, there was a very sensual feeling on both sides that had nothing to do with our mother-son bond. It was a very odd - and very uncomfortable - sexual reaction. I was abused as a child and would rather leave the state and never see him again than subject him to what I went through with my stepfather.

Fortunately, I spoke with other birthmothers who told me I was not perverted - and that they felt the same way when they had met their opposite-sex child, and then they realized the attraction was a manifestation of all the bottled-up love and physical tenderness they never themselves acknowledge in the years of separation. Since then, I've established a relationship with my son - who's fourteen years younger than I am - but from time to time we have to back off from each other as our feelings get a little too intense."

Others say they are especially struck by similarities between themselves and blood relatives that seem to go beyond merely genetic. Carol McDowell says it's "spooky" that she and a newly discovered cousin not only have the same name and profession - hairdresser - but owned a dog with the rather offbeat name of Jeep. Which does not surprise Kate who says she and her birth mother are "identical" in appearance and both had the names Andy, Bill, and Joey for three pets. For another adoptee, it's not the name but a peculiar habit that she shares with a long-lost sister. "We both cook eggs the same way - so hard you can bounce a fork off them."

Barona of Southampton NY, seeing the son she gave up for adoption as a very young woman "was almost like seeing a ghost, because he was in his twenties when I met him - not all that much older than his father was when he died. He has his father's wavy hair and eyebrows. And incredibly, he'd just started work as an aeronautic engineer at the same company that made the plane his father had died flying when he was an engineer. I felt I'd found my son, my first husband, and a piece of myself - all at once."

Although she's not an adoptee or a birth mother, Elaine Morris of Chicago also felt as if in the presence of ghosts when she met her blood relatives, because her mother had raised her apart from the rest of her family - claiming everyone else was dead. "I had the same feeling that adoptees do. When I looked into a mirror, I had no sense that anybody was there - until I found my people. Now I know exactly who is looking back at me."

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