' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Maine Yes! But this fight ain't over yet

Friday, January 2, 2009

Maine Yes! But this fight ain't over yet

Do you want the good news first? That would be Maine opening its records today so that adopted persons can have access to their original birth records.

But the good news comes with the bad. The Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram can't leave a good thing alone because...well, we mothers were promised anonymity, so sayeth their uninformed editorial board.

Well, I wasn't. Neither were the vast majority of us. I was told it was anonymity or: "I can't help you--that is the law." I had no choice. In some states, I have heard, social workers did verbally promise anonymity but as far as I know, no one has been able to come up with surrender papers explicitly stating the mother was "promised" anonymity. And such a "promise" does not carry with it the force of law. So that canard is just that: a lie. But the vast majority of us were not promised anything, We were told we had no choice but to accept forced anonymity.

Yet their editorial states: "Birth parents, who were promised anonymity when they gave children up for adoption, will no longer have their privacy protected." It goes on in that Oh my vein, how can we protect these women in the closet? It makes the adoptees who worked to get the bill passed seem like bad people who did not give a hoot about the legions of women in the closet, and that no birth mothers were involved in the passing of the law. Well, the editorial is just plain wrong.

The very legislator behind the bill--Bobbie Beavers--is a birth mother. And she and the group who worked for open records presented many many voices from birth mothers. At one point in this fight, I sent emails to dozens of legislators in Maine--and I know I wasn't the only one. Yet because of the persistent feeling that the vast majority of birth mothers are hiding behind their veils of anonymity--along with birth fathers who do not want to be identified--records are still sealed in 41 states to a greater or lesser degree.

Yet in Oregon, which has been collecting statistics on those who ask for their records and those who file a "no-contact" preference, fewer than one percent of first parents have done so. As of last May, 9,366 had requested their original birth records; 9020 were given, and 84 people had filed no-contact preferences. Do the math. That's .08 percent.

Add your comment to this uninformed editorial in Maine using this link and let it be considered for publication in the newspaper, so please leave your phone number.

If that didn't rain on your parade, today's New York Times continues the negative drumbeat today with a piece from an adoptee who is happy to live her life in "mystery." Ellen Ullman, whose op-ed is titled My Secret Life, writes about the aesthetic pleasure of not knowing her heritage. "I have mysterious origins," she writes. "The trend is towards openness, a growing 'right' to know. I am not against this trend, I simply want to give no-knowing its due."

Now what would that be? So this fiction writer can continue to construct the fantasy that her father is a "king" and her mother a "queen," as she states? She even goes on to say that she probably spent twenty years in a profession for which she is not suited because computer scientists run up and down her adoptive family's line. Yet she's certain, because of her proclivity for writing, that her "natural" parents were also writers. But, Ms. Ullman, most people are not comfortable being square pegs hammered into round holes in order to fit. And does it not bother you when you go to the doctor and have no familial medical history?

Ullman's decision to deny her natural curiousity is a great moral failure of courage to live an examined life. I quite honestly can not understand these people. To know the truth about oneself is the beginning of awareness. While she is comfortable with her "mysterious origins," it would seem that the issue does not quite leave her alone: Her forthcoming novel is titled By Blood.

It is because of voice like hers that our fight to open records to all adopted people, whether they want to know their heritage or not, is mired in this current quagmire. Let your voice be heard. I'll write, but voices from adopted people are what's needed here.

Write--please write--to lettters@nytimes.com and post a copy here. --lorraine


  1. I choked on my morning coffee when I read the Op-Ed in the NY Times by the adoptee who insists "I am not adopted; I have mysterious origins." The piece went downhill from there. It reminded me of the "surrogate" mother who shows up on a talk show, about 8 1/2 months pregnant, holding her belly and insisting that the child is not really hers. Ahhh, denial...

    I just e-mailed my letter and hope others will also write.

    To the Editor:

    As a birthmother, I must respond to adoptee Ellen Ullman's Op-Ed "My Secret Life." Her denial of the importance of her origins better belongs in the mouth of a character in her 19th century novel.

    In the 21st century and our non-fiction world, most of us have already learned from the last 30 years of discussion of nature v. nurture and of the importance of both. How condescending for Ms. Ullman to assume her abilities come only from the family who raised her. How does she know? If she had information about her family of origin she would understand more about herself. The stories of her birth and ancestry should be well read honest chapters in her life, hopefully well illustrated, not just the fiction or mysteries of which she is so fond.

    Alison Ward

  2. Here is my comment on this article I just sent to the CUB list:

    I've heard this kind of reasoning from non-searching adoptees before, especially artistic and literary types. Edward Albee said something similar at a conference he spoke at; that not knowing, he could "create himself" and be anybody, and I imagine that for adoptees who feel that way reality is often a disappointment, at least at first. The unlimited possibility for fantasy is gone, and one is left to deal with an imperfect and in some cases not very interesting human being. Staying safe and in control of the fantasy can be very seductive. BJ Lifton has written some about this, as well as about birthmother fantasies in her Ghost Kingdom.

    It seems that for some birthmothers there is a corresponding disappointment in loss of fantasy, although it is not of unlimited possibility but of return of the lost perfect baby, who the flawed and human adult adoptee can never be.

    The phrase, "mother of loss" reminds me of this, the feeling that one is not the mother of a child who has become an adult autonomous being alive in the world, but literally mother of the loss, the black hole, a circular and endlessly self-referencing grief. I do not see either the adoptee or birthmother version as especially healthy, attractive and comfortable as they may be for some. Fantasies may be beautiful or terrible, but they are not alive. They are a pale reflection, not life itself.

    Only those who have the courage to come down to earth and encounter their real mother or adult child, warts and all, painful and risky and sometimes disappointing as that can be, can really move on and be fully human in relationship and in their own lives.

    I hope Ellen Ullman wakes up and finally grows up.


  3. another story about Maine - please add comments from mother's POV...the comments there now are disgusting (ie. contacting family will ruin the eveyone's lives, family of drug addicts, etc.)

    Please counter this nonsense!


  4. I am referring to your post referring to surrender papers:

    “Which Pain Is Greater? And it matters because?”

    I see a correlation between that post and this dialogue. First, who knew that the surrender papers held such a signifigance? I didn't. I did not know what I was signing. I was 15 years old for crying out loud, I was 1000 miles away from ANYTHING or ANYONE I knew. I did not have legal council - and shall I go on?

    So when I read the comments to the Maine law, particularly about the drug addict bmother - I could kill!

    I am a financially secure, well educated and successful. It is the adoptive parents who have tried to throw me under the bus. My disdain for them is incredible but thankfully I have a good relationship with my child. So f*** them.

    (Sorry for the expletives but this is tough stuff.)

  5. Although I found Ellen Ullman's article interesting, at the same time I found it rather "precious" and the main thrust ultimately unconvincing. It seemed to me almost like an exercise, a school essay about a subject one hadn't quite satisfactorily figured out and was still left pondering even after it had been handed in. A lot of it seems 'tongue in cheek'' anyway.

    And I wondered, why would she have made enquiries in the first place if she hadn't been at least the tinied bit curious ?

    Perhaps the original effort of making enquiries and the ensuing disappointment was so unsettling for her that she put further questioning on hold - who knows whether permanently or temporarily ? - to allow herself to play with around the luxury of fantasy for creative purposes.

    Maybe she too, like the book she's presently working on, is a 'work in progress'.
    Personally, I don't think it's fair to label such deliberate and self-conscious fantasizing as necessarily being a sign of immaturity.
    After all, it's only when people actually begin to believe the stuff they've conjured from their imaginations is real that they start getting themselves (and others) into real trouble. Not when they are deliberately toying with fantasy. I may be blinkered, but I don't see that kind of 'denial fantasy' going on here.

    Not do I think it's right to condemn her present incuriousness, almost affected nonchalance, as an example of great moral failure of courage to live the examined life. She appears to find her life worth living, so who has the right to judge otherwise?

    Perhaps when she's got this next book (and its protagonist) out of the way, she'll have a different article to write.
    And maybe even feel quite differently about searching for and discovering her origins.

  6. Good points, Kippa. Many adoptees are fine with not searching, and I certainly understand the lure of fantasy as a creative person.Also I have known some very immature and unstable people to search, and some very together ones not searching. Like my son!

    I stand corrected on this one:-)

  7. Another thing. I think Aly must have misread the article, because nowhere does Ellen Ullman say she thinks her abilities come from the family who raised her. In fact, she imagines quite the opposite, that it is her unknown-to-her biological family who were the literary types, as opposed to her adoptive father's family whose inclinations were towards math and engineering.

    Two phrases resonated strongly with me.
    “Even the outsides of the records are sealed”.
    Why, I don't know, but it brought to my mind images of the the Ark of the Covenant, a container so sacred it can only be approached with apprehension and awe.

    "Knowing every single ancestor, therefore, will never solve the deeper mystery, which of course is *the dreadful question of who we become*." (Asterisks mine for emphasis)
    Even though it sounds like it means the opposite, this reminds me of the words of the Polish poet Antonin Slonimski, "Frightening is the past that awaits us."
    Not that any of us can know the identity of every single one of our ancestors anyway, though of course, in my opinion, the more recent the ancestor the more important in terms their of being a useful touchstone for certain aspects of personal identity.
    What I sense of here, though perhaps entirely wrongly, is a creative conflict between the ambiguity inherent in adoption (particularly the closed version of that beast) and the natural desire for a truly personal sense of self and autonomy that transcends family of any sort.



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