|Lorraine testifying a a public hearing on |
unsealing records in New York City, 2014
I’m in an airless, overheated courtroom in the Bronx, where I will soon testify—as a natural mother—that we do want to know our children. An accountant named Ann Scharp is trying to get the records that were sealed thirty-seven years earlier when she was adopted. Her identity is likely to be sealed in papers at Spence-Chapin Adoption Services. She’s there to show that she has “good cause” to get her adoption agency records. If any adoptee has taken the trouble to go to court to learn their identity, doesn’t that prima facie demonstratethat she ought to be able to find out who she is? But never mind—we know that whether her “cause” will be deemed good enough depends solely on this one person, this man in a black robe sitting up high in the judge’s seat.
Several witnesses will be called. There’s Florence Fisher, the red-haired firebrand of our movement, who talks about the twenty years looking for her mother and father, and the reaction from adoptees when she first put her ad in the paper. Now ALMA, the organization she started, has chapters in several cities. Of course Florence would be here.
The impact of Florence Fisher on adoption reform cannot be overstated. For many ears, she was the face of adoption reform and adoptee searches for natural parents, as well as the legal quest for open records. She retired from adoption work some years ago. She is the author of The Search for Anna Fisher.
So is psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton. A heavyweight in the wider intellectual world, he is married to Betty Jean Lifton, an adoptee and a therapist, who will herself become well known as an author and speaker on adoption issues. Others are a psychologist who will testify for Ann Scharp, and our attorney, a strong, indomitable woman who survived Auschwitz as a child, Gertrude Mainzer. The agency where Ann Scharp was adopted, Spence-Chapin, has two lawyers, one from the city of New York, and their own counsel.
I’m in some kind of a middle ground, one part expert, as the author now of several magazine pieces on sealed records, one part natural mother myself. I’m wearing the only dress I own, a floral-print number that covers half my knees. Whether or not I’ll use my real name is up in the air—Gertrude has told me that I don’t have to—but if I don't, what impact will my words have? To bolster my courage, I tell myself anonymity is gutless. Okay, I can do this. Somebody has to stand up.
Telling your story about the daughter that was but isn’t, is always—
always—an internal firecracker. It gets easier with time but it’s never easy. The sympathetic nervous system takes over, the adrenaline pumps, the heart beat increases. Every time I talk about it I am reminded that no matter how, no matter why, I was a conscious partner to my daughter’s relinquishment. I had confessed one afternoon at lunch to someone I’d met at work who seemed like we could be friends. Over a Bloody Mary
I told my story, feeling myself flush with anxiety as the words tumbled out.
Me too, she said. We’ve been friends since.
But this is different. This is public, this is court. I scan the courtroom to see
if any members of the press are there. They don’t seem to be. Still, they could be,
and if they were, I could be identified.
The trial begins.
The psychological experts testify. The psychologist who examined Ann
Scharp testifies that her Rorschach test reveals a lack of trust, isolation,
constriction of affection.
Oh my god, will my daughter be like that too? Did I do that to her?
And when she draws a tree, he says, she forgets to put in roots.
She broke off an engagement to a man when she found out he too was
adopted. He could be her brother. Crazy odds, right? It’s happened. I recently read
a story online about twins in England who married before they found out they were
I keep eyeing Ann Scharp, who sits there impassively, stiffly, throughout the
proceedings. I’d want to hug my daughter when we met, and she would probably
stand there like a stone. What’s my daughter like? --
Soon enough I’m on the stand. After Gertrude dispenses with my credentials,
she gets to what makes my testimony more than casual: When she asks
if I have any other special qualifications for this subject, I say loudly and clearly
it’s because I am One of Them—a natural mother. I’m obviously nervous, or
maybe the judge was surprised, but he stops and offers me a glass of water, and
asks if I need a moment to compose myself. I’m fine, I say. This is not going to get
easier if I take a moment. I am here to counteract the perception that we natural
mothers make new lives without looking back. I’m here to announce that instead
we are desperate to know what happened to our children, desperate to meet them
one day. This is it. My coming out publicly.
If before I was a ho-hum witness, now attention is focused—so this is what “they” look like. Hmmm. I have suddenly morphed from an anonymous woman in a dress into a two-headed hydra, an unpredictable object of wonder.
The stout, red-faced attorney for Spence-Chapin is openly hostile. How
scientific is my research? What are my credentials? (I have interviewed many, met that at ALMA meetings.) Am I married? (And this is germane how?) Do I have other children? (And this is germane how? But I am not allowed to ask questions.) He is trying to turn me into a lone voice without a chorus. But his belligerence only serves to peel back my anger and by the time he asks, “Don't you believe that there are other natural mothers—the ones who do not come forward—who would rather forget what happened, forget that part of their lives?” I find my voice and now boom out my response:
“You don’t have someone in your body for nine months and forget.”
He sits down. No more questions.
Several months later, the judge rules that while Ann Scharp could examine her birth certificate (which apparently did not have the name of her mother on it),she is denied access to her file at Spence-Chapin. He adds, however, that her file contains no information that would identify her natural parents. So then why not let her have it?
--lorraine from hole in my heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption . Previous excerpts available in scroll; go to Home Page, and scroll down.
THANKS FOR ORDERING YOUR ADOPTION BOOKS --OR ANYTHING THROUGH THE PORTALS TO AMAZON HERE. Remember us when ordering!
Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience
By Betty Jean Lifton