Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Building a Relationship

How, you might ask, did things go after you found your birth mother? Did you talk and then never speak again? Have you met? Do you care about finding out more about your biological father? How, What, Who, When?

The questions are numerous and the answer is simple. Yes, my birth mother and I have continued to build our relationship since the day that I found her. We have a great deal in common politically, socially, personality-wise and hobbies, but we're also very different as we grew up in different times with different experiences and different world views. We started by finding the commonalities in our experiences and sharing them with each other. I never press too hard on any one topic and leave a lot of space for her to decide what's she comfortable talking about. We try to speak a couple of times each month and our calls are balanced--I don't impose on her and she doesn't overwhelm me.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Speaking with my birth mother for the first time had a tremendous effect on me, but what sort of ripple effect did it cause for my family?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

When What You're Searching For Finally Arrives


Hi, this is Lisa Blinn, I believe you just called me?

There was a moment of silence, just the length of a heartbeat, then a deep breath, and then

Oh, hello! It's finally you! I'm XXXX XXXXXXXXX and I'm definitely your mother. Even if I hadn't been certain from the letter, the pictures leave no room for doubt...... The voice wavered and then there were sobs. As I murmured how wonderful it was to hear her voice and how ecstatic I was that she had called, she continued with what was to be a very important question for her and the first of many she would ask me.

Early Morning Caller

After three weeks of waiting, wondering, and worrying, the call finally came.

It was 8:00AM on a Saturday morning, the second weekend in September 2007. I was sound asleep, the dogs miraculously having refrained from awakening me at six as they do every other morning of my life. The rings were incorporated into my dream and I only fully realized it was the phone as the noise stopped. I checked the number. It was a 518 number, the area code I expected my birth mother would call from, and it was not a number I was familiar with.

There was no message.

Monday, August 3, 2009


As the days turned into weeks, I waited for a response from my birth mother or an update from my "emissary." My greatest fear was that she would never call, followed closely by an intense belief that she might call and say "thanks, but no thanks." It was entirely possible that I would only have one chance to ask the questions I longed to hear answered. I had promised that I would honor whatever decision she made. To do that, it was imperative that I be ready if that call came in order to maximize the opportunity in the event that it was the only chance I ever had.

What to Do Next When You're Not in Control

I had found out that one of the people I had been searching for most of my adult life was not actually biologically related to me. I had also found out that he knew who my birth mother was and where she currently resided. I suspected that she would not be happy to be contacted by him, simply based on his characterizations of their relationship which did not sound as if it had been a happy one. He would not reveal her name to me so that I could contact her directly.

This was a control freak's nightmare.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Science Does What It Does Best

Once in Cancun, the test results were never far from my mind. Truth be told, they overshadowed the entire vacation. The first couple of days, I was able to push the impending phone call to the back of my mind because I knew it was too early to expect a call. I focused on catching up with Amy & John and Ellen & Bobby, having a wonderful time in the sun with Eric, and relaxing.

Science Enters In

I had spoken with the mystery man and he was no longer a shadowy figure--he was an animated, gregarious, concerned, relevant figure in my story and he just might be my actual biological father. I was convinced he was the man identified as my "alleged" biological father but only science could determine if my genes truly were related to his bloodline.

Friday, July 31, 2009

No Matter What, I'm Part of the Story

Lisa Blinn? Hello! This is XXXX XXXXXXX, I received your letter and would like to first ask you a couple of questions so that we can be sure we are both talking about the same event, ok?

Waiting for Contact

From the moment I handed off my letter to the Fedex man, the clock was ticking. I tracked the envelope obsessively, waiting for the moment that it was signed for at the mystery man's door. As soon as the signature appeared on my screen, I expected a call. Every hour that went by, I became more and more convinced that he would not call. Nevermind that it was delivered at 11AM on a Tuesday and it was possible he was at work, or shopping, or visiting friends, or doing any of the myriad of things that a person does in the course of a normal day when they are not expecting a life-changing package to arrive at their home.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Letter to the Great Unknown

After the shock of a credible response from my shot-in-the-dark classified ad, I spent the weekend crafting a letter to the man that could be my alleged birth father. What were the odds that this Cuban golf pro Lothario had been right near Bard all along? If he wasn't "the guy", would he cooperate and name names?

Below is the letter that I Fedex'd off on Monday morning with huge, flapping, crazed butterflies in my stomach:

Monday, July 27, 2009

Turns Out Someone Actually Reads Those Things

In the end, it turns out that all the research in the world can't take the place of pure dumb luck. In the end, what eventually enabled me to find my birth family was a fluke, a joke, a serendipitous chain of events that yielded me results I might have otherwise never reached.

In the end, it didn't matter how I found them but that I did find them, those mysterious shadow people, those biological parents, MY birth parents.

How Times Change

Probably the single greatest source of information for me when searching over the years came from the wonderful people on the NY Adoptees Yahoo group. They share their stories, answer questions, support each other and generally provide insight based on best practices and their own personal experiences. It was because of that group that I decided to write Catholic Charities again in summer of 2007 and ask for an updated non-identifying information report.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

What a Tangled Web We Weave

The second new clue that my parents were able to furnish was a copy of my baptismal certificate as it was provided to them by the illustrious Kathryn Doll once my adoption had been finalized on March 29,1971. This date is important because it marks the moment that I officially became Lisa Joy Sanger in the eyes of both the Catholic Church and the government. Prior to that day, I was in a nebulous grey area--adopted and moved into my parents home but still legally and ecclesiastically my original or birth name.

She Does Have a Bit of a Temper

Including my parents in my search yielded some unexpectedly enlightening results. The first was a letter that they had received from their Catholic Charities social worker, an apparently delightful older woman named Kathryn Doll. Written in a beautiful longhand script that revealed a solid Catholic school education, the letter was from the woman who had taken care of me in the eight weeks between my birth and my parents receiving me.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Thinking about Others

One of the biggest hurdles for adoptees that are thinking about searching is the major question of impact on their families. No one wants to hurt the feelings of their parents...the people who raised them, loved them, kissed their booboos, tucked them in at night...you know, their parents! Most adoptees, me included, fear the reaction of their parents if they tell them that they are searching for their birth family. Does that mean the parents weren't good enough? Does it mean the adoptee doesn't love them? Is the adoptive family insufficient? Will the adoptee abandon their family should they find their birth family? The answer to all of these questions is overwhelmingly no in the majority of cases, it certainly was in mine. But that doesn't stop the fear of losing their child from rising in the mind of the parent.

The New York State Adoption Registry

Along the way, I registered with the New York State Adoption Registry, a passive reunion registry. Similar to other Mutual Consent Voluntary Registries (MCVRs) in other states, the registry collects information from adoptees, birth parents and birth siblings and houses them in a large database. These registries don't have a stellar success rate, between 1.5 and 10% in states that have them, as they only work if all parties register, and if the agency that monitors them has an adequate matching algorithm.

Where I Become Obsessed with Googling

Searching became a part of my life; it had ebb & flows, when my life was busy, hectic or focused on other things, I was passive, but when life was slow, relaxed or otherwise quiet, I turned back to my "mystery" as I had come to describe it. I discovered that my undergraduate history training was good for something besides eye rolling on the part of my more practically-minded friends--it had conditioned me to think critically about the details and see connections where others might not.

I had great luck reuniting inanimate objects with people who needed them, loved them and didn't even know they missed them. The first was a "ready made ancestor" that I had purchased at an antique store in Skagit Valley, Washington back in the mid-90s. The portrait had travelled with me back to Houston and I was became quite fond of the old gentleman, wondering who he was, what his story was and why he was wearing what looked to be a massive gold nugget ring. I discovered accidentally that there was some faded handwriting on the back of the large portrait when I was remounting it in it's original frame. It looked like it might say Clarke, but Clarke who? The photographer's studio address was listed as San Francisco, perhaps a gold rush forty-niner, I thought, although this gentleman's dress was late 1800s, not mid-century. After days of Googling, I identified the man as William Andrews Clark, Sr. the Copper King of Montana who became a US Senator in one of the defining scandals of the turn-of-the-century.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Searching can be Addictive

Once I had my known search parameters, I seached the internet incessantly. As search engines grew more powerful, so did my ability to see connections, leads, possible avenues to explore. Left with a spare half hour, I could be found on Ancestry.com, reading through lists of ship's rolls for possible Cuban names, or sending shot-in-the-dark emails to Cuban ex-pat golf leagues in Miami. I became very good at summarizing my story & along the way, I met many wonderful people who wanted to help, just because they couldn't imagine not knowing their own families.

I remember one particular email that I received back.

Stalker? Who, Me?

My second letter from Catholic Charities coincided nicely with my infant use of the internet. Armed with new ideas (a golf pro, a Cuban emigre, a divorce around 1970), I searched mercilessly. I posted my information on every adoption reunion board I could find, large & well-resourced through small & rarely maintained, keeping track of everything in a big manila file folder. I spent months on paths that never panned out (calling every golf course in downstate NY and NJ, learning about Catholic Church doctrine on adoption & its role in the church, becoming intimately familiar with the foster care system employed by Catholic Charities in the 70s), I joined groups, two of which I became quite active in: NY Adoptees (a yahoo group) and a Catholic Charities Triad group, and more than anything, I kept perspective.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

More Information to Obsess About

The file about me, hidden safely in the Catholic Charities filing cabinet, surely could yield more. Certainly I should be allowed to know what "spanish descent" meant--vague 70s terminology meant nothing to me. It seemed reasonable to ask about discrepancies in the report, such as the remark that there was no cancer in the "alleged" birth father's family, while his brother was listed as having died of leukemia.

The Thing About Information

Those first pieces of non-identifying information provoked a watershed moment for me: there were actually REAL people who had loved me and given me up, presumably for reasons that they believed to be in my best interest. Prior to seeing them described on the page, they had been no more real than characters in a well-known children's story or familiar heroes from Greek myths. They were shadowy, illusive, undefined, much imagined and even more--safe. Safe from being identified, safe from being a disappointment, safe from breaking my heart as the people who gave me up...who didn't want me...who opted for a life without me in it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

In Which I Learn About Spanish Descent

In February 1993, I finally received my first real link to my birth story. My non-identifying information came in a plain envelope from Catholic Charities with a red stamp marking it CONFIDENTIAL. It was two pages in length and written on a typewriter. It was the most I had ever known about my biological family. It was subjectively written while giving the appearance of an objective observer. It was vague and noncommital but contained facts that answered questions and raised more at the same time. It was, in two words, life changing.

The birth mother it described was "23, vivacious, long blonde hair, talkative". She had worked in a bank, and as a phone operator, wasn't good at math but loved figure skating. It stated that her reason for surrender was that I would "have a much better life if given up." Her mother was Italian, her father was Irish and Dutch and English, he was a machinist and a war veteran. She had two sisters, both of who were married, while she was not. They were all Catholic.

The alleged birth father (because the birth father is always only "alleged" so that he doesn't have to sign away paternity rights) was "35, Spanish, dark hair, dark eyes, charming". He had a brother that had died of leukemia at age 18 and he was a "golf pro". His parents were "Spanish" and his father was a machinist also. He was married, although not to my birth mother, and they were all Catholic.

My first thoughts on reading this were "Irish makes sense, but the rest I don't see" and "hmm, I've never been good at math either." I felt calm, I felt relieved, I felt satisfied.

This feeling lasted about a week.

So I Wanted to Know Something

After I graduated from college in 1992, I decided it would be a good idea to visit the Catholic Charities office that I had been adopted through. After all, it was still in exactly the same place, people seemed friendly on the phone and the case worker was willing to meet with me. I called, explained that I would like some information about my birth family and first encountered the term "non-identifying information".

Non-identifying information is how the narrative surrounding an adoptee's birth and birth situation is characterized. It is designed to be informational about the birth parents and what was known by the agency at the time of birth. Some are very very short and some can be quite lengthy. What goes into the non-identifying information varies greatly from agency to agency and social worker to social worker. At Catholic Charities, all non-ID goes through a review process before it is released to the adoptee inquiring.

Naive me, in 1992, I thought it would be as easy as walking in and talking to someone. So I did. And the CC social worker at the time sat across the desk from me, WITH MY ORIGINAL FILE, and told me the above story about non-identifying information and why I would need to wait for the information to come in the mail. SHE HAD MY FILE IN FRONT OF HER...WITH MY NAME and everything else I wanted to know. I remember leaving CC and sitting in my car and crying, I was so frustrated. It seemed so unfair that someone could know everything about my background and being unable or unwilling to share it. I've since learned that many adoptees, meeting more sympathetic social workers, find themselves left in offices with their file on the desk while the social worker "goes to look for something". That was not my experience.

So I waited. And waited. And waited some more. I first asked for my non-ID in September of 1992. I moved to Houston and continued to wait. It would be Spring of 1993 before I would get the first version of my birth story.

Monday, June 8, 2009

So Why Search?

In my experience, adoptees who search fall into two categories, although I'm sure there are lots of other reasons I haven't considered. Either you are consumed with a need to know, a burning desire to find out "why" and have questions about your biological family answered or you approach it as a Sherlock Holmes mystery to be solved. I came to searching as the latter of the two.

I was perfectly satisfied with my life; my family was far from perfect but I recognized early on that this is true of most people's families. I hadn't been confronted with any serious health problems that drove me to find biological relatives, and no tragic or awful events had occurred in my young life that made me need to know. I was simply curious. It started out in college when a stranger on the 4 train told me that I looked just like their cousin from County Sligo. Interesting, I thought. The curiosity intensified when I took a job post-college traveling the US and spent a lot of time by myself, just thinking about life and family and the importance of connections. I realized that there were people out there who knew who it was that I actually resembled, who had insight into what my biological predestination might have been.

As I got even older, every time I went to the doctor, I was hit with the family history question, which if you're not adopted, you've probably never realized is no-win question for adoptees of my age. You get to say every single time "no, I have no family history", "no, I don't know if there's a genetic history of breast cancer," "no, I have no idea if anyone else has heart disease", "no, I don't know anything about my family history of x, y, z". It gets old. It gets frustrating. It makes your life more dangerous than it needs to be in this age of genetic markers and familial predisposition. It made me mad.

It was, at this point, that I actually became a searcher of the first type...I was motivated by the belief that it is wrong to penalize adult adoptees for decisions that they had no choice in making. While I always believed (and still do) that birth parents have a right to privacy, I believe that that right does not extend to secrecy around medical records. They have a right not to be contacted by their offspring without their consent, but there should be a mechanism to reunite adult adoptees with information which is useful, informative and potentially life-saving, and it should not require a court order to do so. My experience with the "non-identifying" information that agencies in NYS provide, while it did provide one of the kernels that ultimately unlocked my mystery, was useless to me medically as it only captured the family medical situation as it was in 1970.

Being an Adoptee: Some Background on My Experience

I've always known I was adopted. It wasn't revealed to me as a great family secret in later years or whispered about behind my back as a child until I guessed. I've always known. That fact has shaped the very positive adoption experience that has shaped me. My parents are not progressives, in fact, anyone who knows me has heard stories about just how conservative they are. They aren't trend setters or trail blazers, they just happened to be practical, common sense people who recognized, in their gut and their heart of hearts, that everyone has a right to a proper sense of self which doesn't start with keeping secrets. I don't remember them ever telling me I was adopted; it was just incorporated as a reality into my life.