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This urgent question has sent adoptees in search of their natural parents from time immemorial. Now, in an important new study, many who have succeeded in their long and difficult quest describe the dramatic reunions, and thereby mount a powerful case against "the sealed record"


"Less than 48 hours after discovering my birth mother's name, as well as her present location (about 700 miles from where I live), I phoned her. With my husband's help, I had determined the time she was most likely to be home, and to be alone; we had also worked out a brief preamble to my speech, making sure she had my name and address in case she sensed who I was and panicked, and/or giving her the option to tell me if she could not speak freely so I could phone back....I felt a great need to make the revelation as gradually and gently as I could. At this point, I was almost certain that she was the woman I was looking for--yet if I were mistaken and had reached a sister or a cousin, I did not want to blow my birth mother's cover 36 years after the event....I did not wish, under any circumstances to intrude upon the life of anyone, yet I could no longer quell my need for a bit of family history as well as some genetic/medical background about myself and my three children. All those years of filling out doctor's health history forms with 'no information available' had worn me down....And, not incidentally, I wanted (rather, hoped) to discover that I had not ruined my parents' lives by my inconvenient appearance in this world. "My fears as I dialed the numbers ranged from a fear of her rejection or denial or disinterest to the fear I found both strangest and most potent: that she would declare her life had been empty since she relinquished me and that now she would live only for (and through) me. At 36 I no longer need a full-time mother!

"What happened when we spoke was all that I wished, nothing that I feared....Even through my state of intense emotional agitation, I realized after these first few minutes of conversation that I had found the woman I sought. When she spoke, I heard my own voice. Allowing that 12 years of marriage to an Englishman have modified my flat Midwestern vowels, it was like listening to a tape recording of myself...I was unprepared for the depth of feeling this would arouse in me, and if I had not had some notes before me, I think I would have lost my tongue altogether. I told her I believed we might have met many years ago, when I was too young to remember. I told her the town of my birth, the date of my birth, the first names I had been given. I found I could not speak my last name, which had been her maiden name. So I stopped. Until that moment I thought that 'trembling silence' was a phrase from second-rate novels, used chiefly when the heroine was about to be seduced, yet there is no other way to express what passed over the telephone wires - in both directions - for the next 90 seconds.

"She said she was the person I was looking for, and she had always hoped that "someday you would phone to tell me how you were doing." We talked for 45 minutes. Since then we have exchanged pictures (of us, of our families, of now and long ago) and letters. We look forward to meeting within the near future, but have made no specific arrangements yet. I am gradually forming a picture of her life: happily married to a man about ten years older, who knows nothing of my existence, with six surviving children__she spoke eloquently of the sorrow of losing a second child, after me, a boy born with birth defects who did not survive his first birthday; she had tied the two experiences together quite definitely in her mind..." This moving letter from a woman we shall call Mrs. Green was one of hundred of responses to a brief report in McCall's, four years ago, describing the work of three Los Angeles researchers: Reuben Pannor of the Vista Del Mar Child Care Service; Annette Baran, a University of California social worker; and UCLA child psychiatrist Dr. Arthur D. Sorosky were questioning the conventional wisdom that held that it was unhealthy and undesirable for a person who had been adopted to seek out his birth parents and effect a reunion with them. The research team was going about its study by trying to contact adoptees who had actually managed to circumvent or penetrate the secrecy surrounding their origins and had found their natural mothers. McCall's account ended with: "The Los Angeles researchers are continuing their study and want to hear from more adoptive parents, adoptees and birth parents who have effected reunions." Within days of the appearance of the item in McCall's, the research team was flooded with letters from every part of the country, describing in great detail an experience unique in it dramatic quality; the long-awaited encounter with a mother known only in endless fantasies, a mother who had given up (abandoned? deserted?) the infant and who knew nothing of the childhood or maturing of this grown man or woman who now miraculously stood on her doorstep.

These emotion-laden accounts of reunion form the core of a new book by Sorosky, Baran and Pannor, titled The Adoption Triangle: The Effects of the Sealed Record on Adoptees, Birth Parents, and Adoptive Parents (Anchor Press/Doubleday). They not only afford a fascinating glimpse into encounters of elemental intensity but, together with other material and insights that the authors present, constitute a powerful argument for allowing and facilitating the unsealing of the record of adults who wish to seek their parents.

The sealed record policy that impedes and prevents adoptees from obtaining their biological information began in the 1930's, primarily to remove the stigma of illegitimacy from adopted children. The infant adopted through an agency was given a new birth certificate exactly as if he had been born to his adoptive parents, and the original certificate with its often unpleasant information was sealed away. This procedure was also apparently designed to protect the privacy of the natural mother. She was, typically, in her early teens, with a boyfriend in no position or with no desire to marry her. She bore her baby in shame and secrecy, and the sealed record made it possible for her to build a new life free from a possible confrontation with her mistake. The policy also relieved the adoptive parents of fear of intrusion from the natural parents or relatives while rearing the child. The authors of The Adoption Triangle point out, however, that adoptive parents have come to view the sealed record primarily as insurance that they will keep forever the love and loyalty of their children without fear that it will somehow, someday, be subverted by natural parents.

There is a certain logic to the safeguards that the sealed record assures. But what the policy does not encompass is the need of the adult man or woman to know his origins, a need that has send countless adopted person on lengthy and difficult searches for their parents, and now is asserting itself in the form of a movement that proclaims the right of adult adoptees to have the records unsealed. These days, with the impact of Alex Haley's Roots so strong, it seems almost unnecessary to belabour the point that we all need to know where we came from, and that this knowledge plays an important part in shaping our self-identity. But the grown adoptees in The Adoption Triangle feel they must explain their quest.

For many, a transition in life__graduating from high school, going to college or becoming a parent__quickened the urgency of their need to know.

"After I went away to college, I began to consider the reality of searching for my natural parents. After my first child was born, I remember holding my tiny daughter and feeling overwhelmed by the fact that this was the only person in the whole world that I could touch and see and hold who was biologically related to me. I also began more closely to identify with the anguish and pain that must be present in giving up a child for adoption."

Another woman wrote: "my reunion took years to come true, and I gave up many times, only to start all over again after each period of discouragement. I had thought about it at various times, starting in adolescence, but when my first child was born I knew I had to find my original people."

Once begun, the hunt took on the form of an obsession. It is fascinating to note, however, that with the magic name and phone number at last in hand many of these grown men and women hesitated, for one reason or another, before they took the final plunge. Like Mrs. Green, who showed such sensitivity to the possibility that her emergence on the scene might be less than welcome, they empathized with their mother's possible situation, or paused out of fear of possible rejection.

A man of 40 wrote: "On the way to Alabama, I thought about how best to approach the delicate task of making contact with this woman whose son I was, but who had not seem me these many years. I was aware of the very real possibility that my mother simply would not want to see me, that I might be opening a door in her life long closed and better left that way; in short, that I would be invading her privacy. I weighed all these possibilities and decided to call her when I got to Montgomery. I called and said, 'Miss C...., my name is Robert Brewis. I've thought a good deal about how to put this and I haven't come up with any way except to say, "I'm your son. I've come a long way to find you and would very much like to meet you." ' There was a pause before she answered."

When later that evening Robert Brewis stood at his mother's door, "there was another of those long moments of uncertainty that precede any step into the unknown." His mother, a young schoolteacher, and unmarried, invited him in, and they talked "far into the night."

There were other less tactful approaches, and some of these received initial rebuffs. One man relates: "I used the San Francisco telephone book to check the families with my mother's single name to see if any of them had an aunt or sister who might be the right age. It took about ten calls, and I found her in less than an hour. When I first asked her if I might be her son whom she had given up for adoption 37 years ago, she was so shocked that she denied knowing anything about me. I was suspicious of her denials so I decided to write her a letter." His mother had feigned not knowing him, or so she said, because her daughter was standing nearby and she was afraid that her closely guarded secret, about which she still felt guilty and ashamed, would out.

Not all abrupt announcements met with denial. "I completed my search when I was 28 years old and married," one woman wrote. "I called her up. She said, 'Oh, I thought this might happen. Would you like to come to visit me?' She is a jovial, independent, opinionated lady, now 72, who entertained me in her home for two days."

All of the letters in the book struggle to define and describe the joy, the sense of completeness and identity that the reunion evoked. And what is particularly striking is that the fulfillment remained whether the reunion was warm and easy or strained and uncomfortable, whether it was a single encounter or the beginning of some kind of ongoing relationship, whether the mother approximated or wildly upset the fantasies that the child had held of her.

Mrs. Green, who had spoken with her mother and exchanged photographs, but not yet seen her, wrote: "I am very happy. You must have heard this from other adoptees who have completed their search one way or another. I felt whole, as if I have been reunited with myself. I knew when I put down the telephone after first talking with my birthmother that if she wrote and said she had changed her mind, could not bear deceiving her husband, didn't want to hear from me again__it would still be okay."

One woman had a "three hour long emotional, confusing and disturbing" phone call as her first contact with her mother. "After that call, I received one letter from her, long and full of information that I had requested, and also flowery and sentimental." That was all, and finally the daughter stopped writing. Still, she said of the experience, "I have to say that although I was still confused, I was also relieved that my search was over. I could at last lay my fantasies to rest. I knew who I looked like, where my talents came from and who my ancestors were. I realized, too, that for the first time in my life I had come in contact with a blood relative. I found this immensely satisfying, as if this somehow bound me more to the physical world..."

A man said after his first meeting with his birth mother, "We didn't make any plans or promises to meet again to continue the relationship. If I never see her again, it will be okay with me. If she decides she wants to see me and know me, I will be happy, but I don't need that any more."

Many of the adoptees were stunned to find amazing similarities between themselves and their birth mother - some imagined, perhaps, but other awesome tributes to the power of heredity and thus providing the sense of lineage the answer to "Who am I?" that has sent them on their journey.

One young man who had tracked his mother to a southern university where she was a reputed professor of botany, said of his encounter, "On the humorous side, but somehow important to me, is knowing that someone is like me. We look alike, have the same interests and talents, and our favorite color is blue. We both get cold sores on our lower lips, and we both have congenital back problems."

A young woman whose birthmother exceeded her wildest fantasies ("She was young and beautiful -- perfect, not at all the worst as I had been prepared for....If I could have handpicked by mother, she would have been it") marveled that "everything we do is exactly alike. We keep house alike, cook alike, like and dislike the same things, colors, foods, etc. We even have the same ideas. It's unreal because, personality-wise, I'm almost a carbon copy of her."

By far the most striking case of perceived similarities between birthmother and daughter is described by a woman who grew up with a couple who were British-born missionaries. She had spent most of her childhood abroad, much of it in the Far East where she had native nurses. When she was 11, she had been sent to a boarding school in England. By the time she was in her teens, her parents -- who had been in their 40s when they adopted her--were ready to return to the United States and retire. Her father, to whom she was closest, was by then ill and he died when she was in her early 20s. She married shortly thereafter. As with many adopted women, it was the birth of her first child that impelled her to find her "original people."

"Once I decided to search for my original parents, there was nothing I didn't try," she wrote..."I had learned how to be polite and respectful, both at home and in boarding school, and my approach, therefore to judges, court clerks, agency personnel, etc. was ingratiating and made them want to help me. Each person gave me one or two clues, and I became very good at pretending that I already knew a great deal, so they would slip and give me more information."

A clerk at the adoption agency gave her the final clue--her father's first and last name and her mother's last name. They were both Latin surnames, and for the first time she knew her ethnic background. In a rare succession of events, she found her father's brother first, then her father, and through him her mother. Of the meeting with her father, she said, "He was a very private kind of person and, I felt, not too comfortable with me."

Meeting her mother was "a totally different story." Her mother was "stunned at first, but she said that she had always prayed that I would find her. Her husband knew about me, and she didn't mind telling her children because I was 'family'...And what a family. She and her husband have six children, and lots of aunts and uncles around as well. For me, an only child, from a reserved, polite atmosphere, it was like rich chocolate cake.

"The most amazing thing of all was that I was more like my natural mother than any of her other daughters. We looked identical except that she was 16 years older and a little grey. Here we had been reared in totally different worlds. She: Latin, in a farm community, from working-class people, never having left the state. I: British, raised all over the world, nannies, boarding schools, etc. Yet we were so alike. We laughed the same, we walked the same, and we had the same mannerisms. We even crossed our legs the same way when we sat down."

The shock of recognition of oneself in one's natural parent was a profoundly moving thing for many. In most cases, the central, moving experience was the reunion with the mother. When there was a meeting with the father, it was usually lower key in emotional content. But for a great many adoptees, usually only children, on of the most gratifying experiences was the discovery of brothers and sisters.

Finally there was the all-important question of the effect of the reunion on the feelings of adoptees toward the parents who had reared them. The most insistent and emotional opponents of the "right to know" have been and still are the adoptive parents, whose understandable fears of displacement have formed an almost implacable barrier against any rapprochement between adopted adult and his or her natural family.

On this question, the authors of The Adoption Triangle say; "For the adoptive parents, the adoptee's reunion had many meanings. One feeling, however, was shared in some measure by all adoptive parents; they feared losing the love of their adopted child to the birth parent. Not only was this fear unfounded but, if one statement can be made unequivocally, it is that a primary benefit of the reunion experience is the strengthening of the adoptive family relationship."

Mrs. Green, standing on the brink of reunion with her mother, wrote; "Perhaps the most surprising change of all has been my growing awareness that I am, for better or worse, the child of my adoptive parents...I see them in me, in a way I never could when I spent so much time wondering."

The same point was made even more strongly by a young man; "Before I met my birthmother, being adopted meant to me belonging nowhere. I didn't know where I came from and I didn't feel like I really belonged in my family. It was like floating in space and never touching ground. Now, after meeting my birth mother and having all my question answered, I feel different. Not only do I know who I am, but I also realize that I belong in my adoptive family. For the first time I no longer feel adopted. I feel like a person--like everybody else."

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