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Rights

February 17, 2012

In 2008, while driving home from school one afternoon, I was listening to a report on NPR about a famous rapper lobbying New Jersey legislators to pass a law giving adoptees access to their original birth certificates. I remembered Run-DMC from the fog of music that played in the background of my late high school years, but I didn’t know the group well enough—or, more accurately, was never hip enough myself—to recognize DMC’s real name, Darryl McDaniels. In 2006, VH1 had premiered a documentary, My Adoption Journeybased on McDaniels’ search for his birth mother and, as the rapper makes clear in the film, the search to figure out who he was; McDaniels had only discovered he was adopted several years before that. It was this story that McDaniels brought before a New Jersey Senate committee in 2008, insisting that adoptees have a right to their identity. A version of the law finally made it to the governor’s desk in 2011, but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it. One of the reasons? Birth parents’ right to privacy trumped adoptees’ right to know.

I’ve ingested a lot of news on NPR over the years, but I will never forget the report about McDaniel’s testimony. His impassioned voice played in my head like a record for weeks after, the needle sticking on the word right.  I couldn’t get passed it to the next groove. Adoptees had rights? Unalienable rights, the natural, God-given-type? I mean, I appreciated the desire to know names and dates and places, and I absolutely understood the necessity of knowing medical information. But a right to know above all else? Above anyone else? And to what unpredictable, no-guarantees end? I wasn’t yet convinced.

I realize now that I had become the deferential poster child of closed adoption. I was (almost) everything that society and those who worked in adoption in 1970 could have hoped for in an adoptee. I had a terrific family, a fabulous childhood, and an unwavering sense of who I was. Well into adulthood, I never questioned the legal and social system that made my life possible or considered it could be flawed. I submitted to circumstances out of my control, to laws and secrecy, to the need to protect the privacy of my valiant birth mother at all costs, and I played my part in it well.

Be grateful.  I was.

Don’t be disloyal.  I wasn’t.

Don’t rock the boat.  I didn’t.

Say, “It was the hand of God.”  It was the hand of God.

With the origins of my birth legally closed to me, with a family that loved me, I took it all as a cue for my own emotional life.  Be good. Be quiet. Except it was impossible to shush completely a real longing for information, even as I (re)assured myself that the information didn’t matter at all. When that longing reached the surface, I tamped it down. I hid it from view. There had to be something wrong with wanting what I couldn’t have, with what I didn’t have a right to have.

I was in high school when I first discovered the manila file marked “ADOPTION” in the tall tan cabinet beside my parents’ desk in the basement. I remember the trembling in my hands as I pulled it out and the gasp caught in my chest as I realized what was inside. The basement curtains were always kept closed against the sun, so I sat in a beam of light that escaped between one set of striped panels and leafed through the papers. It didn’t occur to me to take the folder to my parents and ask them about it. I figured if they wanted me to see what was inside, they would have shown me themselves. Much of what was in there corroborated what they had already told my sister and me anyway, but there were new details, too, details written in my mother’s hand one summer day in 1970 when the caseworker called to tell her about us.There were pages about my birth mother’s labor and our birth, about our birth parents and their parents, their physical appearances, their hobbies. Piano. Short stories. Photography. Dairy farm. College graduates. Encyclopedia researcher. Credit union. Blue eyes. Green eyes. Dark hair. There was a line, too, about my birth father changing his mind about wanting to marry my birth mother. Went together for quite a while. Intended marriage. Father changed mind after knowing of pregnancy. My birth parents were never married? In my sheltered, evangelical existence, people didn’t have babies out of wedlock; that possibility had never occurred to me. I mouthed the ugliest of words. I told myself, “You are a bastard.” Then I shrugged it off. Later, like a meticulous monk scribe, my sister made copies of all of these papers in her own hand in case the file disappeared some day. She folded her copies–pencil on notebook filler–into a fat square and hid them under her mattress. For years after, we kept silent about our find, always careful to replace the file exactly as it was so that my parents wouldn’t know we had touched it.

It was information. It was powerful. It meant the world to us.

It changed nothing.

We went on. We went on following an unspoken rule that this information, whatever we had, was not really ours to own, or rather owning it, confidently, brightly, was a sign of disrespect, ingratitude.

Only recently have I reached a new understanding, a new frustration over the silence and the denial. I confront it every time I am turned away from a piece of information about my own life.

A couple of weeks ago, my birth mother sent me an e-mail in which she told me, “I am not sure I have ‘a right’ to be in your life.”

I wrote her back. I told her that at this point we were beyond “right.” Now we’ve arrived at “want.”

To some extent, it feels like the riskiest place of all to be.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Helen permalink
    February 18, 2012 8:59 pm

    Jenny, I have always thought so highly of your parents (your adoptive folks) that I made the error of feeling I had a “right” to defend them, when really I was defending my own parenting skills (or lack thereof). Please forgive me as I love ALL of you Spinners and I admire that you have a deep love and respect for BOTH sets of your parents. From what I’ve read from replies to your openess, you have been a real blessing to many who understand the “angst” you have been through. Like “walking in another’s moccasins”. You have been blessed with a marvelous talent for writing, and I look forward to your next chapters, which I hope you will compile in a book, as it could be a beautiful ministry to many who have had such similar experiences. I am also very sorry if anything I wrote hurt your adoptive mother, as I’m sure she also has had a myriad of mixed feelings for years! God’s blessings & love to each of you. Keep writing, please!

    • jes97003 permalink*
      February 19, 2012 12:36 am

      Mrs. S., You owe no one an apology, least of all me! You have been a wonderful friend to my mother, and to all of my family, for so many years. I’m so thankful for your love and support. Whatever “angst” I have felt over the years has been incredibly minor in the face of so many blessings. I’m just giving myself permission now to sort through it all with the hope that it can be of some use to so many of us touched by adoption, in whatever way it has touched us. Thank you for your kind words! I’ll keep writing. I promise. 🙂

  2. February 17, 2012 6:21 pm

    Jenny, you’ve done a wonderful job of describing the tension that “good” children feel in regards to their own rights. Would you believe it’s true for us “unadopted” folks also? My grandparents made it clear to me that the history of our family was not mine to have! I was compliant until they died, then I hit the ancestry sites! It must have been so difficult for you and Jackie to find those papers and read them in secret, though. Bless you for sharing all these experiences. I know others will be consoled because of you.

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