Tag Archives: secrets and lies in adoption

Keeping Adoption Secret

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A story about a secret

This story about keeping adoption secret was first published a decade ago. The advice columnist Amy Dickinson chose to re-publish it a few days ago while she takes a brief break from her column. Keeping adoption secret is a vampire of a subject in the world of adoption. Will it ever die? Apparently not.

A decade is a long time. The adopted girl the letter writer asks about could be sitting in a bar now, downing her third mojito. Maybe she’s telling the bartender about her recent discoveries on 23andMe. Maybe she’s estranged from her family. Or maybe just her mother. Maybe her siblings are her best and most stalwart friends. Maybe she just found out she’s been dating her biological brother.

In other words, is keeping adoption a secret ever a good idea? No.

Amy’s answer

The letter, written by the 16-year-old sister of the adopted girl, was simple. Straightforward. She knew that keeping her sister’s adoption secret was a terrible idea. However, Amy Dickinson’s response requires a closer reading. “Your mother’s refusal to tell your sister her adoption story has now devolved from lying by omission to outright lying,” she writes. I don’t think there’s much devolving here. Lying by omission to a 10-year-old about the fact that she’s adopted is already subterranean.

That said, I like much of Amy Dickinson’s response. “Your sister… was always old enough to know this story, because the story tells the truth about her life.” Beautiful.

A Reader comments

Dear Amy: I disagree with your advice to “Distressed Sister.” Adoption is between the parents and the child.

Everybody else should stay out of it. This sister should be told, “If you ever adopt a child, you can handle it the way you like.”

–Also Distressed

Amy’s answer to “Also Distressed”

Amy’s answer to “Also Distressed” opens on a strong note. “Adoption is not only between the parents and the child. Keeping this a secret affects the entire family system.” But the answers drifts a bit after that.

Adoption can be a painful and emotional subject for parents, in part because they cannot imagine that the child they chose to join their family wasn’t always in their family. They also worry about any future complications regarding the child’s curiosity about — or contact with — biological relatives.

Complications? Complications sounds like something one might die of after surgery or an illness. Certainly, having a birth family and an adopted family is more complex than having simply a birth family. Having a birth family was probably pretty simple until adoption stepped into the picture. That’s when things got complicated. Birthmothers and other birth family members are not complications. Unless of course you’re adoptive parent who lies or otherwise deceives your adopted child into thinking they’re your biological child.

The rights of the adopted person

Despite the fact that the adopted daughter was only 10 at the time the column first appeared, I wish Amy Dickinson had included something about the rights of adoptees. While the following applies to adult adoptees, probably every adopted parent should be acquainted with it from the beginning. Because a 10-year-old is not going to remain 10 forever. It’s the mission statement from Bastard Nation.

Bastard Nation is dedicated to the recognition of the full human and civil rights of adult adoptees. Toward that end, we advocate the opening to adoptees, upon request at age of majority, of those government documents which pertain to the adoptee’s historical, genetic, and legal identity, including the unaltered original birth certificate and adoption decree. Bastard Nation asserts that it is the right of people everywhere to have their official original birth records unaltered and free from falsification, and that the adoptive status of any person should not prohibit him or her from choosing to exercise that right. We have reclaimed the badge of bastardy placed on us by those who would attempt to shame us; we see nothing shameful in having been born out of wedlock or in being adopted. Bastard Nation does not support mandated mutual consent registries or intermediary systems in place of unconditional open records, nor any other system that is less than access on demand to the adult adoptee, without condition, and without qualification.

I write about adoption

Here’s why

I write about adoption, but it can be awkward, this birthmother/ first mother thing. The other night I attended a birthday party, and chatted with a couple I hadn’t yet met here in my rather large condo building.  They passed their 4-month-old back and forth between them as we were introduced. I knew from our building’s private Facebook group that the baby had come into their lives unexpectedly. This little boy, with the face of a wise old man, had surprised his bio parents too. His mother denied her pregnancy until she was rushed to the ER. The father was even more surprised. 

“Denise is a writer,” someone said as they introduced me.

“What do you write about?” the baby’s mother asked.

“I write about adoption,” I said, trying not to pull any punches, as I gestured toward the baby.

They might have flinched a little. I might have mumbled a half-hearted qualifier. But then I told them my story, and they told me theirs. “There won’t be any secrets,” the dad said. “He’s going to know the whole story.”

“He’s going to know everything,” the mother said.

“It was so different back in the day,” we said simultaneously, meaning the Baby Scoop Era. “Secrets,” we muttered. “Lies.”

What I dread most

And then neither of them said what I dread most. You were so generous to give up your baby.  No one gives up a baby out of generosity. Here, have mine, says absolutely no one. Really, take him. I insist. C’mon, you know you want him. The most wonderful, kind, intelligent people utter this generosity line. They say it because they don’t know what to say. They say it because they want to be kind. They say it because they know that saying, “How could you do that?” is the wrong thing to say, and they are desperately searching for the right thing to say.

I write fiction and essays

I write about adoption because I have a lot to say about it.. So many thoughts about what we could say to others. Thoughts about how we could change things. Here’s a short story (fiction) that I published on Medium.

And here’s an essay (a true story) about giving up my son, also on Medium.

National Adoption Month

National Adoption Awareness Month is two-thirds over. I’m going to keep posting on Medium until I turn the calendar page. I’ll take a break then, but I’ll be back. Follow this blog. Or follow me on Twitter @demanuelclemen

“Bridges” a short story

Stone Arch Bridge
photo by author

“Bridges” is a short story. It’s brand new, and it’s published here.

This story is not about adoption per se. But it is about lies. And secrets. And about reunion. If you want to read more pieces, both fiction and nonfiction, about adoption, you can find them here.

And speaking of lies, secrets, and adoption, here’s a shocking new piece about adoption from South Korea. So many parents told lies about their children. So many children told lies about their parents.

“You would see 70 or 80 babies in the infant’s nursery, and then, one day, 20 or 40 would be suddenly gone,” he said.

Breaking the Silence

Breaking the silence in adoption can be distressing.
Silence,by Odillon Redon

Breaking the silence in adoption scares us. We don’t dare.

This story highlights the secrecy in adoption. And a secret weighs heavy on the heart. A secret can be found out if you’re not careful, so you mind your tongue. Look over your shoulder, scan the room for a face with a knowing look. All the while, your heart begs you to lift its burden by breaking the silence into a million pieces.

Not long ago I was having lunch with new friends when someone asked the ages of my children. The answer to this question always elicits raised eyebrows or a comment. “I had my son when I was a teenager,” I said. “He was given up for adoption, but I reconnected with him.” I always keep the answer short, but people want to know more. When I say that I searched for my son and found him, people think that I’m Nancy Drew, or that I’m super courageous, or a ballsy political activist. My answer is just, I had to.

And sometimes we feel we have to tell our stories. Here’s the link to Caitriona Palmer’s book.

Lady Edith’s Secret Child and More

Lady Edith and her secret daughter Marigold

Lady Edith and Marigold at Downton Abbey

Lady Edith has a secret child! I’m not much of a TV watcher or a movie goer these days. I missed the boat that left for Game of Thrones, and it seems like I’d just be late to the party–or regatta–if I want to avoid mixing metaphors. I’ve tried to get into Big Bang Theory, Burn Notice, the Family Guy, and Modern Family. While I’ve enjoyed these shows I don’t need to watch them.

In fact, I’d grown weary of the upper crust goings on at Downton Abbey. That is, until Edith got pregnant and had to keep it a secret after her beau disappeared without a trace. That’s all it took to reel me back in. Will Edith manage to keep her secret child a secret? Will she pine away grieving for the loss of little Marigold while the local tenant farmer and his family pass the child off as their own?

For those of you who are not in the know, Edith gave the baby up and suffered profoundly from the separation. Eventually she “adopted” her daughter as a ward, bringing the child to live as her own amidst all the upper crust splendor that is Downton. The Marigold plot continues to captivate me this season. Edith’s parents know Marigold’s true origins, but Edith’s uppity sister, Lady Mary, does not. Yet. I’m guessing the secret will be revealed to Mary in the next episode.

Horace and Pete

Last week I watched the first episode of comedian Louis C.K’s new show, Horace and Pete. It’s set in a bar (I love bars). Alan Alda is in it (I love Alan Alda). And it’s staged more like a play than a TV show. (I love the theatre.)

The show is both comic and tragic, very nicely written and performed. And I’m hooked. There’s a big reveal toward the end of the premiere episode. Three supposed siblings find out that one of them is not like the others. He’s not a sibling at all. He’s a cousin. “I don’t like kids,” the Allan Alda character says, justifying why he gave his son to his brother to raise. He goes on to reveal that his son’s mother died when the boy was two. The siblings are all well into middle age now.This revelation is a bomb dropped in their midst, shattering the foundation of what they believed to be the basic truth of their family

So the secret child has been revealed in Horace and Pete. But at Downton Abbey the secret is still under wraps. Either way it makes for compelling drama.

Adoption in real life

This is the world of adoption. And even in the usual modern version of adoption, wherein the adoptee knows he/she is adopted, unless the adoptee can meet and speak, and hopefully get to know  the biological parents, that cloak of secrecy is a weighty thing to drag through life.

Adoption and Coincidence

Have you considered that this classic is a play about adoption?

A play about adoption

“The Importance of Being Earnest” is, at it’s heart, a play about identity. I saw a production of it Saturday that was a perfect confection. The play is a classic, written by Oscar Wilde, and first staged in London in 1895. Chockfull of wit and humor, it mocks social conventions. And, though the word adoption is never uttered, it’s also a play about adoption and coincidence.

The complicated plot

The plot is immensely complicated with one farcical turn after another. But suffice it to say that the play’s main character, Ernest (a.k.a. Jack Worthing,) lives a double life and invents a fictitious younger brother as an excuse to avoid certain social obligations. As the play opens, his best friend, Algernon, good-naturedly traps him in his lies. And so things begin to unravel most comically.

Ernest is known as Jack at his house in the country where he lives with his ward Cecily and her governess Miss Prism. Jack frequently excuses himself to travel to London, ostensibly to rescue the made-up brother he calls Ernest. Keep in mind that he himself is known as Ernest to those who keep company with him in the city. Because Cecily has a mad crush on the fictitious Ernest, she longs to meet him. Finally, she gets her wish when Algernon, in his plot to unravel Jack’s lies, shows up at the country house, impersonating Ernest. Unfortunately, Jack has ,moments before, in an effort to simplify his life, announced that Ernest has suddenly died.

The big plot twist

Meanwhile, Algernon and Cecily fall in love. Jack gets a visit from Gwendolyn, the London girl to whom he’s engaged, (remember she knows him as Ernest.) And in the ongoing investigation of Jack’s suitability as a husband, Gwendolyn’s mother, Lady Bracknell, (who is also Algernon’s aunt) prods Jack into revealing that he was a foundling. With his parents unknown to him, his standing in London society is jeopardized.

A few twists later we learn that it was the governess Miss Prism who accidentally left the infant Jack in a large handbag in a train station when she worked for Lady Bracknell’s sister. Are you ready for it? Yes indeed, the friends, Jack and Algernon, are really brothers. Jack investigates further to find out what his original name was before he was re-christened after being taken in by a benefactor. You guessed it….Ernest!

Real life adoption coincidences

Most adoption/reunion stories I’ve heard are full of co-incidences. They’re just not as funny. You need somebody like Oscar Wilde, I guess, to pull that off.

My search for my son yielded its own amazing coincidences. He was adopted in a closed adoption in a state that still has sealed records. Yet a coincidence led me to a person who helped me find him. After I learned my son’s name and whereabouts, I called directory assistance, (which was where he happened to work) to double-check the phone number I’d been given for him. He answered my 411 call.

Who’s in the audience?

I love “The Importance of Being Earnest.” And I’ve seen it at least a half-dozen different times over the last few decades. I love how the audience always gasps when Jack finds out who he really is. Every time, I think about all those strangers I’m sitting with in the dark as they realize they’re watching a play about adoption. How many of them are adopted? Do they have brothers or sisters they don’t know? How many would give anything to know the name they were given at birth? And how, in real life, that’s not funny at all.

Adoption Uncovered by DNA

We don’t need a crystal ball to uncover the secrets and lies in adoption
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Secrecy in adoption

A friend sent me this 23andMe story recently. While adoption is not part of it, the element of secrecy  is similar to the secrecy in many adoption stories. This Gazillion Voices piece is a good companion to the 23andMe essay–which is also a how-to on overcoming secrecy in adoption through DNA testing.

Secrets require lies

I think a lot about the secrecy aspect of adoption and how it’s a burden many birth mothers carry. In order to keep our secrets, lying is inevitable. The web of secrets and lies grows larger and the burden gets heavier as the years go by. When I searched and found my son and we decided we would meet, I had to figure out how to dismantle my decades-long accumulation of secrets and lies. I wrote letters to my siblings, told my mother she could tell my aunts and uncles if she wanted. One by one, I told my friends. When someone asked a question, I told the truth.

The no secrets, no fear campaign

When  my son came  to visit for the first time, I had  to tell my daughters that they had a brother. They were two and five years old, and my husband thought the news would be too confusing. “Tell them he’s a relative,” he said, “but not that he’s their brother.” I broke down, sobbing that I couldn’t tell any more lies, that I’d been lying for half of my life, and I’d had enough. My husband relented.

American Adoption Congress has a campaign called, No Secrets No Fear. You can read about it here.

The Anonymity of the Big City

While the poem below is not actually about the secrets that birthmothers often harbor, there are many ideas and images in it that struck a chord with me. I took a lot of comfort in moving from my small Iowa town to Los Angeles a few years after my son was born. The farther away I got from the place of my transgression, the more likely it seemed to me that I could maintain my secret.
Move to the City  
live life as a stranger. Disappear
into frequent invention, depending
on the district, wherever you get off
the train. For a night, take the name
of the person who’d say yes to that
offer, that overture, the invitation to
kiss that mouth, sit on that lap. Assume
the name of whoever has the skill to
slip from the warm side of the sleeping
stranger, dress in the hallway of the
hotel. This is a city where people
know the price of everything, and
know that some of the best things
still come free. In one guise: shed
all that shame. In another: flaunt the
plumage you’ve never allowed
yourself to leverage. Danger will
always be outweighed by education,
even if conjured by a lie. Remember:
go home while it’s still dark. Don’t
invite anyone back. And, once inside,
take off the mask. These inventions
are the art of a kind of citizenship,
and they do not last. In the end, it
might mean nothing beyond further
fortifying the walls, crystallizing
the questioned, tested autonomy,
ratifying the fact that nothing will be
as secret, as satisfying, as the work
you do alone in your room.