Opinion | For Adoptees, a Deep Yearning ‘to Know Where You Come From’

To the Editor:

Re “I Was Denied My Birth Story,” by Steve Inskeep (Op-Ed, March 28):

I was so moved by Steve Inskeep’s story because it was in many ways similar to my own. I, too, was born in 1968 and adopted as a 3-month-old baby but never knew who my biological parents were. Alabama’s records were closed until 2000. I was unaware that they had been opened until I went to order extra copies of my birth certificate and was given the option of obtaining my original birth records.

Needless to say, I was not prepared for the experience of opening those birth records. After a first hungry perusal I sobbed uncontrollably for a good five minutes. Here she was, named on a piece of paper, and only 16 at the time. How awful it must have been for her to be sent from her home in one city to another city where there was a Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers.

There was no mention of a father. Unfortunately, though, that left my imagination to run wild with speculation about who he was and what his relationship to my birth mother could be. Why was she sent away, in shame I presume? The tragedy and pain of it all came crashing down on me in those first few moments.

I think of her often and what her experience might have been like. Mr. Inskeep is correct that records should be open for adoptees. It is a deep and very human yearning to know where you come from and to be a part of a family. Yes, adoptees have new families, but they also should have the opportunity to know this information.

Laurie Fisher
Chattanooga, Tenn.

To the Editor:

Steve Inskeep argues passionately for an end to laws keeping adoptees from their birth records. The problem is, he does not acknowledge any possible havoc this change might wreak on birth parents. He notes, “Agencies offered adoptive parents a chance to raise children without fear of intrusion by biological parents, and biological parents a chance to start over.”

Well, yes. Can Mr. Inskeep not imagine that the sudden appearance of biological children might shatter some birth parents’ lives? That such a revelation might cause their birth parents’ current partners to reject them?

He concedes that contact between adoptees and birth parents should not happen without mutual consent, but does not say how consent might occur without some initial contact, wanted or not. Worse, he implies that adoptees would always do the right thing with their birth information, a dubious assumption at best.

I hope that legislators consider the welfare of birth parents, not just adoptees, before changing current law.

Gordon Cash
Annapolis, Md.

To the Editor:

My father was born and adopted in rural Nova Scotia in 1937. Before his open-heart surgery in 1993, he told me that he wanted to know who his birth father was. I promised to find the man, and I did. It took over 25 years.

Nova Scotia doesn’t provide adoptee files until the birth parents are deceased. My father was 82 when a big envelope finally arrived. By then I had learned his birth story through sheer doggedness, but the documentation of his childhood enabled my father to open up about a history he had been too ashamed to tell.

What we got from the telling of old “secrets” was a closer and more loving relationship. I have a clearer sense of where I come from, including the adoptive grandfather I never met. The story of my father’s adoption gave me my dad. And that has been priceless.

Melanie S. Smith
Boston

To the Editor:

As a psychologist and an adoptee, I deeply appreciated Steve Inskeep’s Op-Ed. I, too, had been denied access to my birth certificate and my adoption agency file. However, at age 40, I tracked down my birth mother and her family. Then this February, 30 years later, through DNA analysis I found my biological father and his family.

Why bother? To be sure, genes are not the whole story. Many medical and behavior patterns are the result of complex interactions of genes and environments. However, knowing who “my people” are (as my people in Texas might say) matters.

Each lawmaker considering changing state bans on adoptees’ access to their original birth certificates might answer a simple question: If you were adopted, would you want access?

Michael A. Smyer
Lewisburg, Pa.
The writer is emeritus professor of psychology at Bucknell University.

To the Editor:

Steve Inskeep’s Op-Ed about his experience of adoption is clearly heartfelt, but the conclusions he draws about adoption law may be too generalized. My husband’s experience as an adopted child was not unlike his, or even better in that his birth mother’s family eventually generously invited him in. Yet his sister, also adopted, has had a different experience. I am not sure that policy should be based on the happy stories.

It’s truly painful to have an itch you can’t scratch, but it’s not good to scratch an open sore. Additionally, the facts surrounding our births, even for those of us not adopted, constitute only one kind of truth about us, and perhaps not, in all cases, the most important for helping us live our best lives.

Deborah Tatar
Blacksburg, Va.

To the Editor:

I am surprised that Steve Inskeep did not mention genetic testing as another route for adoptees to find out about their biological parents. Like him, I was adopted at birth, but was never told about the details of the process by my adoptive parents. Some halfhearted searching on my part in the 1980s and 1990s found no useful records pertaining to my birth.

Last September, one of my grown daughters encouraged me to submit a sample to one of the companies offering DNA testing and analysis. Within two weeks of receiving my results, I was in contact with two siblings also born to my mother, my biological father and three of his children. All have been enormously welcoming, with my father being particularly pleased that he now has two more grandchildren.

Unfortunately my mother passed away about 15 years ago, but I did find out that she had an avid interest and long history of volunteer work in archaeology, which was the focus of my professional career.

At the age of 64, for me this experience has been overwhelming, wonderful and a source of great peace. As with Mr. Inskeep, I have nothing but gratitude for the love and support from my now departed adoptive parents, but to find out about my birth parents has filled a huge hole in my life.

Larry McKee
Nashville

To the Editor:

Steve Inskeep writes that adoptees and biological families should not contact each other “without mutual consent.” That sounds good but is unnecessary and cumbersome, and places the state in the business of go-between. Once an adoptee has the information on his original birth records, he should be able to search and contact the people directly. Researchers have found that the laws sealing an adoptee’s original birth certificate were not written to provide anonymity to the natural mother or her family, but to encourage bonding with the new adoptive family by cutting off possibility of contact with the biological family.

What the adoptee does with his accurate birth information should be his business, and no one else’s. In some instances, family members will be hard to find or mothers will have died. Giving the adoptee the right to control her own destiny once she has the information does not guarantee she is always going to receive a welcome, but she should be allowed, as an adult, to search and make contact herself on something so intensely personal.

Mr. Inskeep writes that he was never “asked” if he wanted this information. Likewise mothers like me who relinquished their children were never asked if they wanted to be “anonymous” from those children either. We were not given a choice. Forced anonymity was imposed on all of us, despite pleas from many of us that it not be so.

Lorraine Dusky
Sag Harbor, N.Y.
The writer is the author of “Birthmark,” a memoir about being an unwed mother who had her baby daughter placed with an adoptive family.

To the Editor:

I read with interest Steve Inskeep’s Op-Ed on his adoption. The reason I was so interested is that six years ago I found my entire biological family. He mentions that contact should be made only with “mutual consent.” I totally disagree. Why? Because I, too, was stripped of my identity for 50 years.

I was adopted in Colorado. In the late 1990s, when the state opened up adoption records, I received my original birth certificate and found the names of my biological parents. I contacted both of them.

My father was very open, and my mother was very secretive. She told me about these wonderful two brothers of mine, but forbid me to ever contact them. As always, don’t tell me never to do something. I will do the exact opposite. And I did.

My father told me that I had two sisters, whom I subsequently contacted. The discovery of my birth parents and siblings was truly like being born again. I agree that every situation is different. Mine just happened to work out perfectly. Today, I have a wonderful close relationship with both of my brothers and both of my sisters.

Kevin Porreco
Denver

To the Editor:

I’m so glad that Steve Inskeep was able to get the information every human being is entitled to. To any adoptees still struggling to learn their stories, I suggest hiring a private investigator. It’s worth the money.

I hired a private investigator who found the information I wanted. I had a successful reunion with my mother, but my father died before we could meet.

You have a right to know your history.

Gerelyn Weil
St. Louis

To the Editor:

“You won’t remember me.” The woman’s voice sounded tentative over the phone. “But you were in Hawaii in 1970 and … well … the bottom line is, you have a 46-year-old daughter who would like to talk to you.”

Talk about a life-changing call. As the story unfolded, I learned that the girl I was dating in Hawaii discovered she was pregnant after I left for active duty in the Army. Her father reacted negatively and took control of the situation, which meant that she was forbidden to contact me. She was shipped off to San Diego, where she had the baby, who was adopted immediately.

My daughter grew up in a good home. From an early age she knew she was adopted. She had a good life, but she was always aware that there was something more to her story. I’ll never forget her telling me about how she used to look at herself in bathroom mirrors, studying herself from all angles, so if she ever passed one of her parents on the street, she might recognize them. As she grew up, she began her search for her birth parents. But the records were sealed. The search went nowhere for years.

Then she got a tip that some of the records were being “leaked” from the home where she was born. She was able to locate her birth mother. Because the father was listed as unknown, I was a much harder find. Her birth mother was not especially helpful, so my daughter tried other means. Three years ago, she tracked me down with 23andMe and asked her birth mother to call me and see my reaction.

I called my daughter immediately and I can’t convey the emotions that ran through me as I listened to her voice. I needed no other proof that this was my child. But since I am married and have four children, the decision about what happened next was not mine alone to make. I told my wife about the call and she reacted immediately. “You have to meet her.”

Two days after the first call I watched my daughter walk across a hotel lobby. One look was all I needed. Here was my flesh and blood who had been hidden from me for decades. My wife watched us embrace and later commented that it was like two souls becoming one. From that day forward we have had the most wonderful relationship. She loves hearing about her family roots. She has gotten to meet her blood relatives, her family. She has found a sense of really belonging. She knows her birth story.

For me, it has been a different journey. I didn’t know she existed, so I wasn’t aware of what was missing in my life. Upon discovering my past, now my present, my emotions have been mixed. One of the strongest that I have to fight against is being angry that the decision had been made, even before she was born, that I would not know my daughter, that I would miss watching her grow up.

Both my daughter and I agree that things happen when they are supposed to, but I still can’t help but wonder what might have been if a little girl was given the choice to meet her birth father, to see his face not as a likeness in a mirror, but as a real live face that she could reach out and touch.

Stewart Flaherty
Westerville, Ohio

To the Editor:

I write to echo the sentiments of Steve Inskeep’s moving article about the rights of adoptees to their birth and genetic information, and to make the same argument for donor-conceived people. What Mr. Inskeep writes of adoptees is equally true of donor-conceived people, who equally deserve access to information about their identity and genetics.

As a donor-conceived person, I particularly relate to Mr. Inskeep’s point that he was never able to tell a doctor his family medical history when asked. Donor-conceived persons in the United States have no way to obtain comprehensive information about their genetic background, and when they are given information it is only as accurate as the donors themselves were when providing the information.

Donor anonymity and a lack of comprehensive and accurate record-keeping have deprived donor-conceived people of access to their identifying information for too long. We need to do better for adoptees and the donor-conceived communities. Thank you, Mr. Inskeep, for shedding light on this important issue.

Molly McCafferty
Orinda, Calif.
The writer serves on the board of directors of the Donor Sibling Registry, a nonprofit organization that connects and supports donor families.

To the Editor:

I was lucky. My adoptive mother had found out my birth mother’s name when I was born after World War II and told me her name when I was a college student. I had been asking about this mysterious person since I was a toddler, so it felt like a long wait. What followed was a 47-year private long-distance correspondence between me and my birth mother that was healing and meaningful to both of us.

All adoptees should be able to know the names of our birth parents, if we want to, without waiting 50 years like Steve Inskeep. These days many adoptees find this information using DNA tests or on social media, which are less private than being able to access one’s own birth record.

Janine Baer
El Cerrito, Calif.
The writer is the author of “Growing in the Dark: Adoption Secrecy and Its Consequences.”

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