Who Do You Think You Are?
Is anybody who was adopted watching through the lens of "Why doesn't the rest of the world understand we want to know where we came from? Why are we denied the right to have a background that is meaningful to us? That means something to me?" I watched and thought: surely those legislators, those adoptive parents, those adoption attorneys, anybody who works for the National Council for Adoption (NCFA), any agency associated with NCFA, anyone who opposes less that giving adoptees their original birth certificates can see that ancestry is important. And if that's the case, why are we still so far behind in opening closed records? Why are adoptees still denied the right to know who they are, where they came from, whence they came?
It makes me nuts.
Last night I watched Lisa Kudrow trace down her family's history that led her to a memorial for those Jews hunted, killed and burned in a small village called Ilya where many were slaughtered in the 1940s. A weeks ago I watched Sarah Jessica Parker learn that one of her direct ancestors was accused of being a witch in Salem, but escaped trial and punishment because the religious court that tried the Salem "witches" was disbanded before she was brought to trial. On their faces, in the emotions they display, you can see how meaningful it is to have a connection to someone whose DNA they share. It's palpable, it's real, it's haunting. Next week, somebody else, some other family ancestral history, more tears and deep feelings stirred by the truth of someone's family history.
The show originated in Britain, where ancestors are more important socially and politically than they are in the New World; but we are all one under the skin. And we are all a part of who came before us, and in some profound way that knowledge is meaningful to our sense of our place in the world. Yet by and large the world denies adoptees this piece of their own humanity. Every legislator who votes against giving adoptees their original birth certificates steals a valuable part of that person and says: You don't need your ancestral knowledge: I'm keeping it under lock and key.
Why? Because I have to protect the sanctity of your adoptive family, your new parents who went to a lot of trouble--and paid a lot of money, in many cases--to get you, and you should be grateful they did! Or they imply, with a straight face, having convinced themselves that this is the right thing to do: I have to protect your mother. Your birth mother. She has made a new life about her and maybe her family, her husband and other kids, don't even know about you! Can't have you upsetting that apple cart, you ungrateful wretch.
It makes me mad. Eons ago, shortly after I published Birthmark, and was fair game for every jerk who was shocked! shocked! that I had the temerity and gall to write such an expose, I was at a dinner party at the home of a well-known restaurant critic. (We had chili and corn bread, since you ask.) Alden Whitman, who then wrote those long essay obits of the celebrated for the New York Times, sat next to me. As the evening wore on and wine loosened his tongue, he went at me mercilessly about having come out of the closet as one-of-those-women-who-gave-away-baby. I doubt he actually read Birthmark, but he was plenty pissed at me, and made no bones about it: What right do you have to write that book! What--well, there was no other complaint, it was simply: You ought to stay in the closet: forever. What gave you the right!@!
Now, this was a guy who had quite a reputation for hitting on the young women at the Times. We'd even had lunch once years earlier before I realized what he was up to. I'm sitting there that night thinking: so...You have a kid somewhere...? And now you are afraid of his coming back? I'm not going to say anything, but trust me, I'd like to, you prick, and would--if your wife were not sitting here also and we now have the whole table of ten mesmerized.
It was his wife who came to my defense. Alden, she said heatedly after listening to his angry barrage, What were we doing in Wales a couple of weeks ago? Mucking around old cemeteries looking for the graves of your ancestors? What are you not understanding? What are you not getting?
Finally the host cleared his throat and put on some music, and people danced. We never spoke about this again. He's dead, the fight goes on, someday we will succeed.
But not before many who search for their roots will die without answers.