Sunday, February 6, 2011

Some happy endings have a twist mothers don't expect

Jane

“YOUR SON IS A CRACK ADDICT AND A SCHIZOPHRENIC” was the first thing Patti Hawn heard about the son she had not seen in 40 years.

Other than this bone-chilling revelation, Hawn’s memoir, Good Girls Don’t, is the oft told and sad tale of a Girl Who Went Away. It’s a story, both simple and profound, which needs to be told again and again, both as catharsis for thousands of first mothers and as a reality check for those who, like NPR weekend host Scott Simon, write in Praise of AdoptionUsing teen vernacular, Hawn tells of growing up in suburban Washington, DC in the 1940’s and 50’s and being smitten by an older boy. They had sex, maybe, once. But it was enough. Sent by her mother to hide at the home of relatives; she came back shortly before her son’s birth and surrendered him.

“Mom had surrounded herself in those days with a prominent Greek chorus of social workers, doctors and family. … The chorus always seemed to swell when they got to the part about the baby being assured a wonderful life. I believed them. So did Mom.”

Writing in more mature language about her life after the surrender, Hawn tells of working as a typist for the National Institutes of Health. (She was turned down by the State Department because, as an unwed mother, she was deemed a security risk.) Hawn had two bad marriages and two more sons, supporting them by working in social service programs including a stint as a drug rehabilitation counselor. At the invitation of her sister, Goldie, Hawn moved to California.

The world changed in the 60’s and Hawn changed with it. “I had gone head first into a revolution against sexual repression, racism, and everything that challenged freedom of speech or woman’s rights.”

(I too threw myself into righting injustice after I lost my daughter, Megan, burning my way through law school, graduating first in my class. I joined the fight for women’s equality and attended the 1977 National Women’s Convention in Houston, coincidentally on Megan’s 11th birthday.)

In the end, though, my lost child became a greater force in my life and so it was for Hawn.
“I was haunted by a dream—one I’d had many times before—in which I was lost inside a dark and forbidding jungle. I heard a baby crying. He sounded so frightened and lost I was certain he was in some kind of immediate danger. I began searching frantically, following the sound of his tiny wails until I came to a hollowed-out tree. I reached inside to take him out, but all I found was an old, worn-out blue baby blanket….

“What if my son, now almost forty years old, wanted to find me? … Maybe he needed to find me and couldn’t. All this time I thought I’d never know, but I saw with embarrassing clarity that I was wrong.”
Hawn contacted the adoption agency, Jewish Social Service Agency. After going through a maze of red tape including mandatory counseling, she met her son, David, at a Baltimore group home. He had not had the life she had been promised. He began using drugs as a boy, was sent to a boarding school, and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Although he was able to go to college and travel extensively, he was never able to hold down a job. Hawn and David developed a strong relationship which happily continues today.
“I had harbored some arrogant notion that I could love away David’s illness, that I could take away his pain; make him into something else other than who he was. I realized [eventually] that I had set my own agenda apart from him. He was perfect exactly the way he was. All I could do was be with him, honor and love him.”

9 comments :

  1. I am glad that I found my way to this forum. I only wish I could have been one of you who found the strength to move forward. Not forgetting but having the ability to keep moving forward. I lost myself the day I surrendered my daughter (1969) and never seemed to be able to find the way back. I never felt worthy of much after that.
    I had sources available to get an education but I just remained lost.
    Looking back I regret missing alot of opportunities in life.
    Having had another daughter after 18 years I had to collect myself enough to be her Mother. I thought that having her would help heal some things in my life but it really only opened alot of wounds. I realized how much my youngest daughter relied on me and could only hope that my first daughter was given a Mother who loved her as much as I loved my youngest. I also in my heart knew that the only one who could love her that way was me.
    We have been reunited for 5 years now and I finally feel able to begin leaving parts of that scared, silent, shamed young girl behind.
    Thank you Lorraine and Jane for being strong and helping me realize that after 40 years I am and always was worthy to be her Mother.

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  2. I recently read this book and was riveted by her strength and honesty in telling her story. I reviewed it for my blog as well and think that it should be a staple for those who want to understand the mind of a mother in adoption loss. I especially liked how she told about her life after adoption and how it changed her as a person.

    Good review Jane, and I agree ... it is a story that need to be told over and over again.

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  3. This is a very sad story. I do not see finding a son who is a crack addict and schizophrenic as a "happy ending". Nor can I imagine seeing such a child as "perfect exactly the way he was." Loving him and realizing that the illness cannot be loved away or wished away, oh yes! Accepting that there is little as a parent one can do for a schizophrenic child other than try to see that care is always there for him to keep him safe, yes to that as well.

    The sad thing is that people with serious mental illness are not "perfect they way they are" no more than are those with a serious physical illness. They are broken and suffering, to various degrees, and those who love them cannot help but wish it were otherwise.

    I hope it works out well for Ms. Hawn , and that her family has the means to provide decent care for her son. Ironically my childhood best friend's schizophrenic son is in a Baltimore group home as well. Maybe they know each other.

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  4. I'm having difficulting relating to her joy at finding such a troubled son. Perhaps I should read it and maybe I will learn to find the silver lining in my own reunion with my own son who has similar issues.

    My son's story is so similar in that his adoption was also handled through JFCS, he was sent to boarding school because he was acting out, prescribed ritalin at 4 years old because a pharmacist family member thought he suffered from ADD - and has struggled over the years with various addictions - heroin has been the most recent and insideous.

    However, my son's adopters refuse to admit him or insist that he go even into rehab so they pay to keep him in an apartment while he loses one job after the other and can't hold onto a relationship.

    It would be one thing if his adoptors understood and accepted some responsibility for their enabling behaviors with him, but their denial of doing anything wrong is profoundly sad and maddening to me.

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  5. I think it is great that the author is able to make peace with her son's situation and support him despite what must have been an awful shock to her system.

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  6. I wish I'd had some way of knowing how mentally ill my son was when I'd first met him. He was living a somewhat normal life, holding jobs but not relationships, and is smart and charming. It wasn't until years later that I suspected something was seriously wrong and way too late by the time his behavior was undeniable and he was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (among other things).

    Would I have refused contact if I'd known? NO! But I would have gone in with realistic expectations, handled things very differently. Maybe then we'd still have a relationship.

    As for the happy ending thing... I certainly don't feel that way. As for "perfect as he is"... People have disabled or Down's Syndrome kids, that they love and raise, and consider them a blessing, "perfect in their way." They are there for them from the beginning and committed to the child, however limited their capabilities may be.

    It feels WAY different for a mother who surrendered her child, then finds him/her troubled in whatever way. We kick ourselves for not having been with them, wonder if adoption caused the problems... it's the worst kind of ending to "you're doing the best thing for your child."

    I doubt that I can read this book. It will ring too true for me.

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  7. Denise, I know other moms who found kids like your son with serious mental illness. Two were suicides after they had met their mothers, so reunion did not save them. No way it could really, but their moms bear an extra layer of guilt.

    It is not a happy ending, no matter how much you love a child you cannot do much to help, and when combined with drug abuse, the adoptee sometimes wreaks havoc in the mother's family until she finally has to say "enough".

    Yes, it is very different loving a Downs syndrome child and seeing them as "perfect as they are" because most Downs kids are happy and not suffering because of their disability, and so much can be done today to give them a full and successful life.

    Schizophrenia is different, it is usually onset in adolescence, so for those raising the child there is the memory of them as normal or just a bit odd, and then that person is erased by the delusions, voices, inner torture. Not "perfect", but who among us is, not whole any more. A tragedy of suffering for the child and all around him, often for the rest of his life.

    For a mother finding such a child, it is as you say the ultimate shock and unhappy ending to what was supposed to be a "better life". I do not think I want to read this book either. I feared finding a child like that, seeing what other mothers have gone through trying to relate to a child they could not reach, and feel only by the grace of God and perhaps strong genes my son is healthy and happy and not as damaged as some are.

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  8. Jane, thank you for this review. Must read. I hope the relationship Patti Hawn and her son are building continues long into the future.

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  9. As harsh and tragic as it would be to find your child in this condition the not knowing still has to be worse.

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