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.