' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Should I tell my sister she's adopted?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Should I tell my sister she's adopted?

Hell,  yes!

"Should I tell my sister she's adopted?" was the headline of The Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday. Yikes, I thought this kind of lying by omission was long over, to judge from all we hear about open adoption and such. But apparently not. Not at all.

The man consulting the ethical experts writes:
"My parents never told her that she was adopted, and they asked me not to say anything. They planned on telling her when she was old enough to understand, but they kept putting it off. They know that I believe they have done her a serious disservice."
The writer is the biological son of the parents, and he feels increasingly guilty by keeping this secret, even though the parents in question have asked him not to tell her! He goes on to say that he and his sister have always been close, that she was recently diagnosed as bipolar, and she as often asked why she's so much shorter than the rest of the family. He has deflected her questions in the past, but now the lie (our word) is bothering him a great a deal. He fears that if she has more medical tests, and with DNA tests available, she will discover the truth, and not forgive him. "I am at a loss for what to do," his plea for advice closes.

Fortunately, the expert in question, Kwame Anthony Appiah, who teaches philosophy at New York University, does not hesitate to tell him he should tell his sister the truth. Appiah  adds that the promise the writer made not to tell her was presumably extracted when he was a child, and it also matters that their parents didn't live up to their side of it. Appiah writes:
"Your sister really is entitled to know this basic fact about her life and they aren't entitled to command your silence indefinitely (though you should tell them if you're breaking it)."
He goes on to note that with her current medical diagnosis the situation is somewhat precarious, speculating that the revelation might affect her, so the wise brother should find a good time to tell her, adding: "But don't let too many days go by."

I read this Sunday morning as I was dashing out of the house, and well, it kinda blew me away because I thought this kind of emotional bondage was long past. Realizing this is still a question that an adult asks brought home how far we still have to go in America--perhaps all of Western civilization--in regards to how adoption in handled. But then, we hear about Late Discovery Adoptees  (LDA) like her all the time on Facebook, so I guess my astonishment was not warranted.

I was reminded of an LDA who came to see me after she'd read one of my pieces in Town & Country. We were mere acquaintances, we had only been passing ships in the hallway of the PR agency I worked for briefly. She was obviously from a wealthy family, and into my six-floor walkup on First Avenue in Manhattan she came, spilling out the story of how she learned the truth: In the heat of an argument with her husband, she’d said something about “my mother,” and he shouted back: She’s not even your real mother! You’re adopted! The marriage was over, she says, but what about her parents, people who had lied to her for most—all—of her life? They told him, but didn’t tell me? What do I do now? she asked, I haven’t spoken to them since.

Indeed, what next? I cannot imagine how it is to continue a relationship with people you have grown to love because of the situation, but who have been lying to you for years. This is not in the same category emotionally, but I had a somewhat similar situation recently. My friend Yvonne had always carried on negatively about reuniting adoptees and first/birth mothers. She once told me that I was "no more than a reproductive agent,"and then denied she'd said that. Yet somehow we stayed friends. She met my daughter when she visited for the last time. Yvonne lived three doors up the street, and for the last year or two, she needed companionship, so I often took lunch up there for both of us. When she ran out of conversation, we watched Homeland. She sat in the front row of my reading of Hole In My Heart last summer--she even bought two books--but never would read it because, she said, "we did not agree." One of her caretakers--an adoptive mother--took one of the books; I'm not sure what happened to the other. 

Weeks before Yvonne died, slowly slipping away, she admitted to her "oldest" son that he was not her "first." An odd letter was also found from someone who wrote familiarly, but no one knows who it came from. None of her five children were surprised--in fact, they had surmised the same earlier because there seemed to be no reason for her carrying on about my issue when I wasn't there. Since she had a life in France, and here, the time line works out for her to have a 61-year-old child in France. Knowing Yvonne kept this secret from me totally colored the way I felt about her when we put her to rest. Despite our difference, we had been friends for years, but learning that behind her fury was a child she did not own up to made me feel little more than: good riddance. 

To any adoptive parents who read this, understand that there is never a better time than now. Okay, maybe if someone has a temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit, or, well, I can't think of too many good reasons to delay telling someone--but there are some when you need to hold off. But not for long. Every day that you keep an individual's reality from them is another day you are lying to them. Lying by omission to be sure, but in this case, it is an actual lie.  They will most likely learn the truth one day, so every year you hold off is another strike against you in the deficient column, no matter how you protest your love. 

When is the best time, if you haven't made it part of the conversation all along? The age of reason. As soon as one can understand they should know the basic facts of their existence. My daughter heard the words. "You're adopted," before she completely understood them, and wondered why her parents told her she was "a doctor." When she figured it out on her own, there was no big revelation or reckoning. 

How would I tell someone a truth I knew was going to be difficult? If possible, in person. At home, in a restaurant, at Starbucks--it all depends on your relationship. If in person is not possible, in a letter, hand-written or typed on a computer, it's up to you. I told my mother about my secret daughter eight years after I had her, at lunch in a restaurant. Was I scared? Of course. Was it a relief to get it off my chest? Of course. Now we had a relationship built on my full truth. And she came through with honors. She was my great support and confidant in all matters relating to my daughter, and I loved her all the more for it.--lorraine
Should a Sibling Be Told She’s Adopted?
Hole In My Heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption
"A wonderful book! Through this memoir Lorraine Dusky does an amazing job weaving not only her life story but an impressive history of adoption reform and the political climate impacting it. Highly recommended."--Betsie Norris, director of Adoption Network Cleveland

Lorraine will be reading/talking at Spence-Chapin in Manhattan from H♥le and hopes anybody nearby will come. I wasn't sure how an agency would react to the book since it is not a poster for adoption, but the response was positive and they asked me...so I said yes. Please come if you are in Manhattan. Date: 3/31, 6:30 p.m. Pre-registration is asked but not necessary to give the agency an idea how many are coming. Link Here:

Lorraine Dusky: A Reading from Hole in my Heart


  1. This is powerful and true. Thank you for writing.

  2. AP's who don't tell the child they are adopted think they are God. They will get it someday for that of course. AP's who would have the gall to not tell the human being they adopted that they are adopted and tell her husband instead are pedophiles (that is the disgusting kind of intense power they want and hold over someone) and are going to rot in hell. Ditto for the husband. I hope she kicked him hard in his junk before she served him papers.

  3. That is terrible. I can't understand that kind of reasoning besides assuming that it is fear driving the APs, believing that if they tell the child he or she is adopted, it will change how the child views them. Then, that child grows up, and the APs don't know anymore how to even approach the topic since it has been kept secret.

    Like you said, it should be talked about before the age of reasoning so that there is never a revelation. Questions, discussions, wonderings, yes, of course. But never a big "you are adopted" moment. We have used the words since our daughter came home. It is not taboo, not off limits, and although sometimes we go days or weeks without the topic coming up, other times, it comes up multiple times a day for days on end.

    APs should remember this is not their story to walk with through life. Being adopted is a part of the adoptee. It colors many aspects of her life in ways that are totally unique to each individual. My daughter will walk with it every day, and just like now, somedays, it won't even be something that comes up, and other days, it will come up over and over. It is not mine to own, not mine to handle, and not mine to keep from her. It IS mine to share with her, and support her, and allow her to have her feelings.

    Seriously, I just can't imagine. What a terrible thing to do not just to the adopted daughter, but also the son. I hope that their relationship can survive because he was also a victim of their parents' manipulation.

  4. Tiffany, I hope you are also going to tell your adopted daughter who her parents are and not stand in the way of a reunion. THAT is what well rounded adoptive parenting really is. That is what love really is too.

    1. Lee, my daughter knows her parents now. :) We are in an open adoption, and they are free to see her anytime, and she is free to ask to see them (and has in the past). We talk about them often, and she has pictures of them. You are absolutely right that I should never stand in the way of her relationship with them. I appreciate what I have learned here so much regarding the importance of that connection. I am constantly aware of the impact of this all on her, including the open adoption aspect which can present its own set of challenges and issues (feeling abandoned all over again, feeling repeat loss after visits, etc). It's hard to be an adoptee of a first parent... I wish there was a magical way to make it easy, but such a big loss is, I think, just something you learnt to walk with, not get over or past. I can only try to make it easier since I can't take it away. If that makes any sense....

    2. Tiffany, I am delighted that your daughter now has visits with her first parents. As I recall from your previous writings, contact had ceased a while ago (her first parents' choice), but it sounds like the adoption is now fully open again and there are visits back and forth.

    3. Jay, not as much as I wish, but more than not at all. It is difficult for her parents for various reasons, and I respect and understand that. My daughter would like to see them more often, and I have a very hard time finding the right words to help her understand that it isn't about her, and it isn't because they don't love her... that part is getting challenging.

  5. Yes, this fellow should tell his sister she is adopted, put an end to the secrecy. It is certainly dishonest and cowardly of adoptive parents not to tell their kids they are adopted, and that kind of secrecy is advised against even by conservative adoption "experts" today. However lousy it is for adoptive parents to keep this kind of secret, be real, they are not pedophiles or in the same league. What they have done is bad enough, no need to exaggerate or confuse the issue with accusations that do not fit the crime.


  6. As a mother who lost her son to adoption in 1966. I think arents
    need to ask why they need to keep
    the secret.

    I can answer that question. It's all about protecting themselves. Most want to pretend the child they
    adopted is "as if born to" truth is
    the child will know when nothing adds up. Looks, likes, preferences, hair color, eye color, all the things they tried to match in the olden days. My son and his adopted sib were so opposite if Little League hadn't clued him in he surely saw there were no similarities at all.

  7. I'm appalled by this suggestion from the "ethicist":

    "You might seek guidance from her doctor as to when and how it’s safe to tell her. To do so, it would probably make sense to ask your sister, first, if she would let you talk to her doctor about ways in which you can help her."

    It would *probably make sense*?

    Has he not heard of HIPAA?!?!?

    You don't get to just go talk to a doctor about SOMEONE ELSE'S medical issues. Not to mention how wrong it is that yet another person (the doctor) would know the truth about the adoptee before the adoptee does.


  8. I liked what the ethicist had to say about "sorites," (a new-to-me word) in which "sins can creep up on well-intentioned people."

    So fascinating about Yvonne. Imagine the amount of shut-down one must do to pretty much obliterate the memory of a major happening in one's life. I guess that's one side effect of shame.

    I'm remembering now that this situation came up on my blog several years ago, someone wondering if she should tell a grown man he's a LDA. I'm not sure how it turned out. The comments section is worth a read. http://lavenderluz.com/2009/05/should-she-shhhhh-or-should-she-spill-2.html

  9. A few years ago I ordered a used copy of book called, Who Am I? ...and other QUESTIONS of ADOPTED Kids from Amazon. Small paperback, didn't look read. Inside the cover is written: Cheryl--On your 21st birthday, thought you should know--Jeff.

    Blew me away, and forgot about it until I read Lori's comment.

    As for Yvonne, the family even is pretty sure they have a likely candidate for the father of her firstborn. Oddly enough, I happened to walk into her house--just to say, hi, how are you today--just after she got the phone call from France that he had died. She was weeping. I hugged her. If ever there was a moment that she could have told me, that would have been it. There was a small snapshot of him on her dresser--with a lot of other stuff, but no other photographs--when she died. Her children had not noticed it before, nor had I. One of her sons found it when clearing out her room. If he was indeed the father, her emotional connection with him lingered. Same with me.

  10. I have heard some horror stories of a-parents not telling their kid(s) they were adopted. One person that had been in the adoption industry told me that one prospective adoptive father (who was very rich) said there was no way he would tell his child that they were adopted. When the social worker said she would not approve him for the home study because of this, he raged "I am very wealthy, I can get what I want." THe agency backed her up and he was forced to leave. Some time later this social worker met another worker from a different agency, who mentioned that this very man had adopted from her agency. When the first woman asked if he said he was going to tell the child they were adopted, the second woman said, "Oh, I never thought to ask." !!!!! How could you not ask that question when interviewing prospective adoptive parents? Crazy.

    1. Adoptive parents should tell children as much as they know (as appropriate by age) and fund the search for the natural family when the adoptee is 18.

  11. I feel only compassion for Yvonne. It seems to me she internalized deeply the shame that likely was imposed on her. I once heard an adopted person in her late 70s speak about her experience. "You must remember," she said, "that in those days we didn't say the word 'asthma' out loud. Do you think we discussed adoption?"

    The detail of the phone call announcing the death of the man in France, and the later discovery of his photo on Yvonne's dresser, is heart-rending. May she rest in peace.

    1. Yvonne raged on against my finding my daughter, all reunions, etc., and at times we did not speak over this issue. She talked about it to her children, to her friends--that what I was doing was wrong. She yelled at me once--YOU ARE NO MORE THAN A REPRODUCTIVE AGENT!!!

      Then to realize she was a mother in hiding left me with a bitter aftertaste.

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    1. This is very bothersome, as I feel many young women have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in recent decades. True bipolar disorder is extreme and hard to miss, accompanied by violence and a desire to harm, unpredictability from hour to hour or day to day, and a lack of normal functioning in any sense. There are lesser forms of bipolarism, it seems, but I think young women have been done a disservice in the last few decades by being wrongly diagnosed and wrongly medicated.

      As for not telling someone they are adopted, it is brainwashing, there's no way to soft-sell it. I also thought that was done only in the distant past, and am surprised to see that it still goes on today. There are wikis online about "If you think you are adopted," so I guess it is still not a unique instance, as related to The Ethicist. It's much better to tell your adopted child the truth, it may be rather a hurtful and confused childhood, but if he or she finds out as an adult, they will feel that they are living a lie - thanks to their aparents, and they may reject their aparents permanently. It would certainly be understandable.

      When I was a child (about 5), I had 2 cousins who were adopted by my aunt and uncle. They were much older than me and I didn't really know them. But they were born in the 40's, kids in the 50's, and one of them was a Marine in Vietnam (if that helps to place the time period). They were not from the same mother, but they knew they were adopted, and our family knew. I wonder if it was unusual back then for my aunt & uncle to have such transparency, but I thought it was normal. I met my cousins in the early 90's as I had to go back to my hometown and ask some questions about my family. One of them had Hodgkin's Disease, and he contacted his birth mother to find out if it was hereditary (as far as she knew, it was not.) He may have contracted it from Agent Orange in Viet Nam; there was no way to tell.

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  14. Lorraine, it is puzzling why you continued to be friends with Yvonne. She insulted you and you say she spoke against you to others. What was the attraction that caused you to even go out of your way to visit her when she was housebound?

    I presume she was older than we are, and an old-school closet birthmother who dealt with her loss very differently. If the man who died in France whose picture she kept was indeed her lost child's father, and she did confess to her son at the end that this child existed, she obviously had deep feelings about both the child and the ex-lover. Maybe she could not deal with you so close to her doing what she could not, and what she forbid herself to do for so many years. Maybe she was really yelling at herself about being just a "reproductive agent". The whole story is incredibly sad, especially as her children surmised she had given up a child anyhow. Once again, the poisoned silence. As in "Eleanor Rigby", "no one was saved." Are the children interested in finding the French sibling?

    1. It's puzzling to me to sometimes. But somehow there was always something that pulled us back together--not the least of which were the bonds we had with her children, who became personal friends as well, and they range in age from 60 to 50.
      Yes, she was 15 years older than me. She lived three doors down the street. She was smart and bright and generous in every other way.

      Let's just say it is complicated and let it go at that.

    2. And what you say is how I came to see it. Yes, I think she had convinced her self she was no more than a "reproductive agent."

      We will continue to be friends with her children, who we visit when we are in the cities they live in. And we are helping them now as they break down her house for sale.

    3. Forgot to answer your question--will the siblings search for their lost sibling? I see no indication that they are, or will. BTW, one of her daughters did contribute to the kickstarter for H♥le and read it. By then, even though Y was still not admitting anything, the sibs had begun to surmise the truth. As I said, our two families had become intertwined--when either of our houses were full of relatives, the overflow stayed at the other's house.

    4. Yvonne's comments and behavior toward you were so wrong, but I still feel very sorry for this poor woman. She was indeed a very damaged person. She must have had so much guilt, shame and more than that - true self-hatred, that she couldn't face any of her feelings, all the while she saw what you were doing. Perhaps there was some resentment that a younger woman (you) was willing and able to be so open about your situation, whereas she may have felt she was forced to keep silent, or unhappy at her lack of courage. Some real, meaningful help was right in front of her in the form of a friend, but she could not begin to respond to it.

      15 years doesn't seem like that much of an age difference, it's not an entire generation. But her story certainly says a lot about how women were treated - and still are - as opposed to men. Shame on the woman who dares to have a baby with no husband, or if she ends her marriage! How about the shame of a man, who would make a woman pregnant? Where's that? Sadly, women are left - literally - holding the bag, as it is our ability in nature to reproduce, meaning to deliver offspring. Men do not share this responsibility, in the end. I believe as a birth mother than NO woman who has a baby, lives without continual suffering and pain, if she is separated from her baby, no matter what the circumstances - her baby was taken from her!

      Society's attitude changed through the 70's somewhat, and it's a tragedy Yvonne could not have at some point come to terms with what happened to her, what was done to her. A woman can come off as very cold, when actually she is covering up - great fear. Men - not so much - not needed. Society still does not assign them the great blame and the "scarlet letter", as it does women, to this day.

    5. It's not an entirely unreasonable surmise, but I don't think it's right, fair or respectful to discuss this dead woman's personal life without any real evidence of the facts.

    6. I do think her saying several times before she died to her oldest son that "you were not my first" child is factual. You have no idea how much she carried on about my work to her family and close friends. I only heard about it because she wouldn't shut up about me. And if we were not to write about people after they died, that would certainly end any biographies, about say, Jefferson and Sally Hemings, for starters. Or Herbert Hoover.

  15. It sounds like you were very close, such a shame she could not share her story with you. Do the children read or know about your blog?

  16. I grew up with another adoptee. I don't remember how we both shared that we were adopted, but we did. We never spoke about it, but we both knew.

    She's married and has a son, but never told her husband she was adopted, because it's so "under the radar".

  17. What a horrible act of betrayal those adoptive parents have perpetrated on the adopted daughter. I may have missed it, but what is her age? I'm assuming she's an adult now ?

    It's not the brother's responsibility--it is the a-parent's--however, if the a-parents don't have the decency or courage to do so, then, yes, the brother needs to do so ASAP.

    The secrecy and lies in adoption are alive and well. Not only will the young woman have to deal with the trauma of learning she is adopted, but she will also have to deal with the sense of betrayal that her a-parents had the information but chose to withhold it from her. That will most likely hurt the adoptee greatly and leave a deep psychological scar.

    The longer she does not know the truth, the longer she is being betrayed and deceived. It is so wrong that those around her know her truth except for her. It's cruel, unfair, unwise, and unhealthy. Her brother needs to find the courage (that his parents didn't have) and tell her the truth.

    Her adoption was and is dominated by the needs of her adopters instead of her needs. (No surprise there in the secret, deceptive world of adoption). Withholding this vital information can only be toxic to her future relationship with the adopters. Secrecy only damages relationships.

  18. The issue of 'withholding' information that is as important as telling their child that they are adopted is such a betrayal. The one thing I have learned in life is that the truth always has a way of coming out, and usually not when you want it too.

    I watched 'Long, Lost Family' last night, and one of the Adoptee's was a women who was a LDA. She found out in her mid twenties while she was at a wedding and an aunt asked her if she had found her 'birthmother'. When she asked the aunt, "what do you mean", she told her she was adopted. She then confronted her adoptive father who told her she was adopted and that he had no intention of telling her. She added that when they (adoptive parents) passed, they took all of their secrets and information with them. This of course caused her to feel betrayed and angry. She said that "knowing who you are is what makes you as a person, and everyone has a right to know that". By the time she was able to find out what happened, her First Mother had passed in 2010, but she was able to have contact with a sister and find out about herself. It is a shame that these people put themselves before their child. I'm going to assume they didn't know any better given the era they were raised in, but today there should be no excuse for this.

    I cry through this entire show every time I watch it. But it is so great to see so many people getting connected.



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