“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 Adoption. Using 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.”