Thursday, September 22, 2011

Conversations with my daughter, Part 5

Jane and Lorraine in Sag Harbor, in the Nineties
What I've never talked about before here is that my found daughter Jane was sexually abused by her grandmother's live-in companion. This was not her adoptive grandfather, someone Jane remembered fondly, but the individual who lived with her grandmother at the time that I knew her. I never met the man, or her grandmother. At the time we taped these conversations (that have been posted sporadically in the past few weeks), her grandmother had died.  
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Ed. Her abuser. She says her parents put her in therapy right around the time the abuse started. “The reason I didn’t want to talk to Conni [the therapist] was because I didn’t feel I could tell
her what was happening. That I was abused. She would ask, What makes you feel bad, what hurts? And [Jane whispers] I can’t tell her that…He told me that if I talked about it he would go to jail and I would never see my grandmother again.
“And he was right about one thing—if I told, my grandmother would not love me. My dad would say, Oh, she does love you, she just doesn’t want to change anything and she is an old lady.” She takes a drag of her cigarette, looks away as she exhales, lost in her memory of that time. 
“One time Grandma asked my mother, when we were leaving her house, I must have been five or so, and she didn’t think I heard, before my Mom had Matt and Tim [her two younger brothers]. Don’t you wish you had one of your own? My mother got all upset, angry, and my dad had to talk to her—she was his mother.”[1]
Let’s have a beer, OK?
Sure. We get two cold ones out of the fridge. We go outside once more into the brisk night air and find another starry night without clouds. It’s  incredibly beautiful at this place, in the country on a lake. Jane has her smoke, we come back in, I turn the tape recorder back on again.
And then she was back to Ed.
“I was in that group with other teenagers, the advocate said, Well, it wasn't so bad because you’re adopted, he wasn’t your father. And when my parents didn’t believe me, there was the feeling that I had to overreact the next time something happened. If I overreacted, maybe they would believe me. So I overreacted about everything. About Shaun, for instance. I felt like I had to exaggerate so they would believe [that his death really affected] me.”
Shaun was a cousin who, at sixteen, committed suicide not long after the revelation about Ed. “Shaun’s dying took away one of the few people in my family that I could relate to. Then there was the whole thing, Well, if he killed himself because his life was cruddy, then I have a better reason to do it than he did—I’ve got a lot better reasons than he did. Why should I have to stay here and suck up all this pain? I was eighteen when this happened, he was sixteen. That’s when I went through the whole suicide thing. Shaun gave me the idea. I didn’t have a lot of friends, I was a loner, not the happiest of kids, I couldn’t perceive in my head that I would get better. I was scared shitless to go out in the workforce because I had spent my entire life in special ed with this epilepsy baggage, and you want me to go get a job? That scared the crap out of me.”
“I didn’t realize how much Shaun’s dying affected you.”
“I didn’t talk about it much to you—what would be the point, you didn’t know him, he wasn't part of your family.”
Jane’s life was far more bifurcated than I could ever understand. There was Sag Harbor, and the relatives in Michigan, who mostly remained a stranger to her; there was Madison, and her other family whom she grew up with.
At some point after Shaun’s dying, Jane took a half bottle of aspirins and wound up in the hospital having her stomach pumped. It happened at a time we were not in contact, and so to me it always seemed distant—almost unreal. Understand as I wasn’t Mom, and she wasn’t living with us when any of them occurred, they were never completely fixed in my mind.
The talk of dying turned her mind turned to her grandmother’s funeral. She had so not wanted to attend because doing so made it seem as if she either forgave Ed and her grandmother, which she had not, or worse, that her parents had never believed Ed had molested her, that this terrible thing could not have gone on under their noses. Her parents applied considerable pressure for her to attend, and she called me numerous times in the days leading up to the funeral, full of anger and angst over the impending event. I didn’t know what to tell her except to do what her heart said. In the end, she caved in and silently went, then was angry that she had gone, and she still had not gotten over the bitter taste of feeling forced to do so to keep up appearances. She had wanted to make her statement about Ed by not being there. Yet she found some comfort in what happened after the funeral: “Mom told me after the funeral that she believed me [about Ed],” she said.  
The conversation drifts to more mundane topics, and she brings up the rhetorical question of  who we might have been in past lives—people who did some pretty awful things, we agree, jokingly, because this life was not working out the way either of us would have planned. “A serial killer?” she jokes. “My life is a conglomerate of high intensity experiences—I’ve never had the opportunity to be normal.”
There is no arguing with that. And she goes off to Club 33. Again. 
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I had never been a huge fan of the Beach Boys because I always thought their music was a little too slick, not earthy and bluesy like the Stones or the Motown sound of my youth. But it was the Beach Boys who were giving a concert nearby during that visit. Jane called me from work one afternoon and convinced me we ought to go, with Kim, to a Sunday afternoon show. I said I thought it was too expensive. We’ll have a great time, she insisted, and we’ll all remember it. That sealed the deal. We three would have a good time to add to our scanty store of good-time memories.

It was pouring buckets as we drove the thirty miles there, but the venue was not enormous, and we had great seats in the orchestra. The group doing the show had only two or three original members, but the show was better than I could have asked for and I liked them much more than I expected to. Eventually Jane and I ended up in front of the stage dancing. Kim stayed in her seat, old enough to be mortified at the behavior of these old people—her mother and grandmother--making a fool of themselves. How embarrassing.

The sun was out when we left the building, the air full of good vibrations. What a great day that was.

Thank you, honey, for the memory. 

Another night, near the end of the trip. In a day or two I’ll be going home. Maybe she was just fed up with talking seriously, maybe she was testing me—would I believe her or not, could she get away with this?—but one night she talked endlessly about being “hypnotized” for life by a former friend, a friend she feels deserted her or done her wrong, I’m not sure which. The talk is crazy talk, an hour goes by but I can’t dissuade her from saying she had been “hypnotized” for life by her friend, a student in a psychology class who had been instructed by a certain professor to hypnotize someone “for life.” I turn off the tape recorder, and say I’m going to bed.

Just before we say goodnight, standing by the kitchen counter, she says: “If I told the truth in real life, both of you [Ann and me] would be hurt.”


[1] Over the years, I’ve heard other stories like that, stories that enforce the adopted person’s sense of otherness, of not belonging. Of family jewelry that is not to be inherited by the adoptee; of arguments over land  that is not mentioned in the will, of silences when family trees are compiled. When I was in Albany once lobbying for open records for adopted people, an assistant got chatty as a small group of us waited and told us how her family had gone to court to prevent an adopted cousin from inheriting property. Why she thought we were the right audience for that bit of information I will never know. At the same time, I also know adopted people who compile family genealogies, full of ancestors from whom they are not descended. 
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For more of this conversation, see:

16 comments :

  1. I am a 41 year old adoptee, and wow, your footnote was so on point for me right now! My 11 year old's 6th grade History class is called "World Cultures", and the project he just completed was a grab bag of things that represented 9 categories of "his culture". What a yucky thing for an adopted parent to deal with! In the end we decided to focus solely on his father's family heritage and on the traditions that we make together as a family of 4. I emailed his teacher to tell him this, adding that "adopted people have no cultural history." It's really true - beyond the connections I forged with the members of my adoptive family who are alive (or were when I was small), I have no connection whatsoever to their family history. It means nothing to be at all.

    Fortunately my mother in law has tons of stuff from her family, so my son was not at all disappointed with the results of his project. He also liked the "current culture" stuff we picked out, like the tee shirt from our favorite BBQ joint for the "food and dress" category (hey, being a Texan is culture, right?) :) My goal was to make sure my son wasn't hurt, but I wasn't going to lie to do that.

    Hard stuff.

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  2. Lorraine wrote:" At the same time, I also know adopted people who compile family genealogies, full of ancestors from whom they are not descended."

    Adoptees have every right to enjoy the hobby of genealogy using their adoptive family as we are in fact members of the family. Many adoptees from the closed era haven't a clue in the world who their bio-relatives are anyway and others try for a reunion and are rejected or can only get the maternal side of their genealogy. Some first mothers refuse to name the birth father and in some cases the father is unknown. I am one of the small subgroup of lucky adoptees who knows my ancestry back several generations on both sides. Adoptees should not be denied the enjoyment of doing genealogy or made to feel bad in any way because they are doing genealogy on a family that is not theirs biologically. No adoptee has ever asked to be adopted and to be put in this situation.

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  3. Poignant. I wonder, since my child had a connection to her biological family, does she feel the same way, or is it more diffuse because of that connection.....

    Sad.

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  4. Robin, the person I was thinking about (who did the genealogy) was a cousin-by-adoption of my husband's. It was a private adoption, and there was someone in the family who knew her biological family--but refused to tell her who her natural mother was before he died. I thought, how cruel.

    She ran a B&B in Avon, NY, and invited her whole extended family up for the weekend. We went, and had a great time. No offense was meant.

    To me, it probably seems a tad odd because--because I only have one family and I know what characteristics I share with my parents, and grandparents. It gave me great joy to learn, long after I had become a newspaper reporter and frequent opinion columnist, that my paternal grandmother used to write letters to the editor of her local newspaper in Jenners, Pennsylvania.

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  5. Great comment Robin.

    It gave me great joy when my grandmother, my dad's mother, named all females as honorary pallbearers for her funeral. No, I am not biologically related to this progressive woman but I sat in her tiny farm kitchen and ate the porridge she made for us regularly as a child. I was witness to and impacted by her strength, character and love for family. As Robin said, I am a member of my family and I too know I share characteristics with my parents and grandparents. Their history is my history. I am part of the tree in spite of my adoptedness.

    When you wrote about families preventing adoptees from inheriting property etc., are you just referring to our adoptive family? Should our biological family also be including us equally in their wills so we don't feel a sense of "otherness"?

    I'm glad Jane's mom eventually told her she believed her.

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  6. Campbell:

    Not sure what you are asking. The woman in Albany was telling a story about how her family was trying to prevent an adoptee from inheriting and it blew my mind.

    As far as I understand, biological children who are legally adopted into other families do no have inheritance rights in the biological family. There was a case that dealt with just this some years ago but I don't know the case law.

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  7. Lorraine,
    Thank you for all your posts about some of your conversations with Jane. She certainly struggled with life.
    Your writings also give insight into why you are so motivated and feel so strongly about the many wrongs of adoption.
    I hope Jane is at peace.


    Campbell,
    While my daughter legaly has no right to inhertitance from me she most certainly has been included in my will. We share blood and a bond that no adoption papers can sever. She is also in her adopted mothers will, as she should be.

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  8. Lorraine...

    As a reunited mother for 12 years now and as a female that suffered years of sexual abuse (as a child) by my step-father (who I was led to believe was my 'real' father til the age of 15)...I just want to say how terribly sorry I feel right now for your daughter Jane. She truly suffered, in so many ways. I am also sorry that some people here rather than commenting on the most tragic suffering of Jane...but rather chose to focus on 'genealogy' and 'inheritance'. Really??
    Sexual abuse committed upon a child is a CRIME...period! Criminal acts were perpetrated upon a child. Years ago while I was in therapy...my therapist would tell me, that sexual abuse of a child, is one of the worst crimes committed upon/against a child...physically and emotionally. The abuser robs the child of her/his childhood and of his/her innocence..and nothing in this world will bring back the childhood that was stolen, nor the innocence lost. Sexual abuse damages a child, in so many ways.
    Many people who have been sexually abused as a child...learn to live with those memories...but you never
    forget. I'm now almost 65 and occasionally still have nightmares about my 'Dad'. I wake up myself up yelling..."HELP ME!!!".
    I'm so sorry Lorraine. I'm so sorry that Jane ever had to endure this abuse, it was then and still is today, a Crime!
    And to this day...rarely, rarely...do I ever speak about that abuse and if I do..like I'm doing right now..I go back to my survival technique as a child...thinking of it as if, it's happening to someone else..and I'm just 'watching'.

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  9. Off topic but important anyway.

    There is a buff-colored feline adoptee named Jack who was lost by American Airlines when scheduled to fly to San Francisco with his human adoptive mother. If anyone is in the New York area they are looking for people to help search for him. He may be on 4 legs but he is a part of adoption, too.

    On facebook,
    Jack The Cat is Lost in AA Baggage at JFK

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  10. Most of the posts at this blog cover several different facets of adoption within the same article. Otherness was a theme of this one. The comment section usually veers into different adoption related issues which are usually interesting and enlightening as well as sometimes snarky. None of this minimizes or negates the devastation Jane suffered being a sexual abuse survivor. The more Lorraine paints a picture of Jane the more I see her as having one of the hardest lives of anyone I have ever heard of. I feel great sadness for her as a human being and as a fellow adoptee of my generation. I can only hope and pray that she is now at peace.

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  11. Robin, I agree. Jane's life was so hard. At her wake, her other mother and I stood in front of her casket and said: She is at peace. At last. Sometimes you don't need to say of a suicide, why did she do it, but why not?

    Goodnight, my baby.

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  12. Thank you, Chris, for leaving your comment. I read quite a bit about the lifelong damage that sexual abuse does, and all that you say is right. Jane didn't tell anybody until she was 18.

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  13. I am a 55 YO adoptee abused by my Abro through out my childhood. I did not tell anyone until after my Amother was gone when I was about 40. Still felt it was my job to protect her and hide my shame I guess.

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  14. Chris,
    100% in agreement! I too would like to say how sorry I am for the sexual abuse. Way to much of this is overlooked by
    everyone including clergy! Horrendous criminal sexual abuses. I honestly don't believe there is a family that has
    not been affected by this sickness.
    As far as genealogy goes I feel for adoptees wanting so badly to be a part of their adopted family they go to the extremes to do a search of people that aren't their ancestors and adoption doesn't make it true. The lies of adoption like molestation are covered to protect the adults not the children.
    Best interest of who NOT children.

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  15. @Lorraine...I didn't tell anyone til the age of 40...when I was in therapy, with the best therapist I could have ever hoped for.

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  16. Thank you for having the courage to share both your story as well as your lovely daughter's story, too.

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