' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Review: "You Don't Look Adopted" rips away the fairy-tale image of adoption to reveal the painful truths of being adopted

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review: "You Don't Look Adopted" rips away the fairy-tale image of adoption to reveal the painful truths of being adopted

Heffron's book at home
on my desk
Anne Heffron's searing memoir "You Don't Look Adopted" is not a book that I, a woman who relinquished a child, could read at one or two big gulps. Too painful. Way too painful. It's short--only 159 pages--but in those pages, Heffron plunges the depths of the long-term impact of being given up for adoption, and growing up in a new family, with such relentless pain in the prose that I had to do it in a long couple of weeks, a few pages a night.

For what Anne Heffron has wrought is nothing less than a full-blown indictment of taking a child away from their* natural mother--the one whose body has nurtured this being, the one whose DNA the baby shares--and sent it out into the world, tetherless, tied to no one. Despite the fact that Heffron was adopted by good people who she loved, nothing has ever overcome or diminished the deep sense of abandonment that courses through her veins and onto the printed page.

I thought I understood quite a lot about the pain of being given up and adopted, having spent the decades since I gave up my daughter in 1966 studying and learning and writing about adoption, but nothing prepared me for passages like this:

Anne Heffron
"As an adopted person I am a silver ball that just happened to land on Red 9, Anne Heffron. I could so easily could have landed on Black 4, Jessica Silverstein, say, or Heidi Stork. and so maybe I just keep reliving the crap shoot of my life.... There is a wild familiar feeling of anything is possible when I can jump from my life into someone else's.... The tricky part comes in the unconscious need to feel in control....It's like this fantasy of going back in time and rejecting the birth mother before she can reject you."  (p. 35) 
We who are not adopted never have this running dialogue, that who we are is a crap shoot. Even if we wonder if we are adopted when we are young, ultimately we have clarity about our connection to our family--whether we like them or not, whether they are good to us or not--that Heffron never can feel for she has always been: adopted. In writing about being the "good adoptee" in her family at a time two boys were giving her parents a terrible time, she writes that when her father said she was the "good" child, she felt both proud and awful:
"The only problem was I both loved and hated everyone in the room. They were my family, but they were the wrong family, and there was nothing I could do about that, I was completely powerless."(p. 23)
My daughter has said something similar when I talked to her for Hole In My Heart so I could have her voice, and I was taken back to that hour in her parents' living room in LaValle, Wisconsin, late at night. They were good to her, she knew, but they were the wrong family.

Heffron talks about it being necessary for her to always be the one who leaves, something that started when she was very young and after three days could stay no longer at summer camp. Later it would be parties, relationships, college, jobs, places, all in defense of leaving before she can feel unwanted, unwanted as being given up for adoption. I battled tears over and over again as I read because I knew that my daughter had so many of these same feelings. I remember asking her if she wanted to contact Patrick's children--her siblings--but she knew that they had not even come to their father's funeral, so angry were they with him. "I don't need any more rejection," is what she said. "I don't need any more rejection."

"You Don't Look Adopted" is a not a linear memoir in the traditional sense.  Divided into short sections, one after another, with headings such as "Hello, Daddy" and "Please Come Back," and "What Will I Look Like Later," it barely follows a time sequence until near the end. Her two marriages are dispatched early on, we learn she has a grown child, but late in the book she reminiscences about feelings and that occurred when she was young.
Click on it to order

Near the end there is some resolution when DNA reveals her birth father's family, and she eventually meets her birth father. (To differentiate between the two sets of parents, she always refers to her biological parents as her birth parents, and her adoptive family without the use of the qualifier, adoptive.) She does find her birth mother, but the woman lied to her, and her children, Heffron's siblings, and thus spoiled the possibility of a warm relationship with most of them (save one brother) by denying Anne was her first child. Both of her mothers are deceased.

I have so many sticky notes on the book from passages that seem crucial to relate that I am ignoring them and simply diving into those that come to mind as I write. This passage, near the end, is about secrecy:
"So many adoptees don't even realize the secrecy that is part of their lives. They think it's normal, to have a life that they aren't free to talk about at home. My mother's friend was telling me how much my [adoptive] mother hated to think about my birth mother. she couldn't bear to think about her, is what my mother's friend said. and I knew this as a child, as an adult, and so I talked about my birth mother as little as possible, but my birth mother was part of me, and so denying her was denying myself, and that meant that when my mother said she loved me, I knew she didn't mean she loved all of me. she loved that part she considered hers." (135)
Having had a reunion not only with my daughter, but with her adoptive parents as well, that graph made me sad all over again for my daughter, for I knew that her mother could never forgive me for giving her a daughter who was less than perfect, not with her epilepsy, her penchant for lying, her not being a copy in some respect of her, the adoptive mother, the one who raised her.

While that is sad enough, elsewhere Heffron wishes her mother could have understood the depth of her loneliness of separation, and held her as a child and cried with her over the loss of her own, her original family. "I wanted us to grieve my adoption together so that then we could love each other with our whole hearts." (143-144) WOW is what I wrote in the margin there. How few adoptive mothers, I wonder, can truly grieve with the child for having lost their first family? Certainly not when they think of a child as a "gift" from god.

Click on to order
She delves into the sticky issue of inheritance for adoptees; the people who always ask--But you were adopted by good people, right?--as if that makes the initial abandonment disappear; the feeling that you were brought into a family to fix it; the difficulty in becoming your own person.

Heffron's writing is straight-forward, clear, bracing as ice water on a sweltering day. She manages to tell of her well of sadness writes without self-pity or bathos, and that in itself is a feat. She disperses small gems of insight that feel like electric shocks to the heart: "Having sex is so complicated. Sometimes people get left behind." (156)

Yet through all the stories she tells about herself and other adoptees she has interacted with, you end the book feeling that you do not really know the person she is, and that may be the nub of her story: she is always hiding and making herself up, and this goes directly to the initial abandonment she feels:
"The fear that becoming your own person equals losing your parents equals losing safety equals dying. I think this is the glitch in the brain many adopted children have that the world at large doesn't understand. It happens quickly and it doesn't get talked about, but it is there." (79) 
So much for putting down The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child.

Anne and I were both at the Indiana Adoptees Network conference in April, but both us apparently can be shy and don't foist ourselves on others--perhaps that fear of rejection--and so we managed not to meet, something we are now both upset we didn't do. We recognize our books are kind of a package--both of our books are about the deep and lifelong negative impact adoption had on our lives, and the lives of millions of others, from our connected but opposite points of view, mother and child. If people knew, really knew, would adoption still be so popular? Would there still be "proud birth mothers"? We think not.--lorraine
*We shall be switching away from "her" and "his" to use the gender neutral pronoun "their" more and more. "Their" is becoming accepted in such cases, since no singular gender-neutral possessive pronoun exists.
Thanks for ordering from Amazon via FMF! It's our tip jar. 
 From FMF

'Primal Wound'--Why is the concept so upsetting to some?

Paula Fox: Author and first mother


  1. Anne Heffron's book is an important part of adoption literatire. Raw. Honest. Heartbreaking.

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful, detailed glimpse into this book. I have been aware of it for awhile now, but haven't read it. This is my son, exactly, only he is 10 years old and wouldn't quite know how to express his feelings as soulfully as Heffron. He definitely needs to read this book when he is a little older.

    Heffron strikes a chord when she expresses her feelings of being in the wrong family. I realize that's how my son feels. Two months ago, he went on a school trip to Washington D.C. When I said I would miss him, he said "Why would you? It's not like we are related." That hurt me, not because he denied my relationship to him but because he dismissed my feelings toward him. All I can do is tell him I love him, and that the love will not go away - no matter what. I can only hope that the constancy gives him some strength, but he will always have the demons of adoption to bear. The other thing that perhaps will be of some benefit is that I don't think our family is as shrouded in secrecy as Heffron's appeared to have been.
    Lenny seems to express his thoughts freely, and has not seemed afraid or hesitant to bring up his natural family. There are times when he tells me he loves me so very much and there are other times when he says he cannot feel for me, that he wants his natural mother. We allow him to feel and express what is in his heart, and I hope he always knows that. But still, there will be the pain that will never go away, no matter how much we support and love him.

  3. Oh the irony. They tell mothers that "your love is not sufficient for your child". Then, due to surrender and adoption, love is -not enough- and will not be 'enough' to counter the pain and confusion and loss of what should have been. Sad.

  4. Nestled among the sadness of Anne's story, in your article, and the book (I haven't read the book yet, but am reading Anne's blog) is the fact that her birth mother lied to her subsequent children and denied maternity (I think she died before Anne found her?), even telling her other daughter in the meantime that if "someone named Anne" calls saying she's a daughter of this woman, "she's lying." (!) Is that really likely?! "Lying"?!

    Birth mothers can be scared, but I really don't know how Anne's' mother's behavior can be excused, as it was over-the-top - and then some. Her fear was far inappropriate to the possibility of Anne finding and contacting her. Giving birth is something that happens to women, no matter the circumstances - there is nothing bad about it. The idea that a birth mother must consider it a "sin" and shameful and must be hidden, is just so wrong, causing additional punishment for the birth mother, as well as her child - and it is a difficult test of character, which some women don't have the sense of self-worth to pass - due to society's views on children who are given up for adoption, and the load of shame put on the shoulders of the birth mother - a "scarlet letter" for life. Men get somewhat of a free pass, but there is no compassion for women, who, it is assumed, shouldn't have so foolish as to allow themselves to get pregnant.

    If any birth mothers are reading this article, it's a cautionary tale - Don't feel you must hide this event from your eventual husband, and family. You did your best, whether it was at the advice of family, church, or other influences - Don't lie, it's not necessary. Don't be ashamed, it's not necessary. This situation may not be something you want to talk about with everyone you meet, but in marriage and family, if they don't know about your previous child, they will never know you - and you will never fully know yourself, or be accepting of yourself. Feeling guilty, wanting to be the best person you can be in the present, is understandable and positive. Feeling ashamed and wanting to "bury" this episode, as a secret from your spouse and children, doesn't help you, your adopted-out child who deserves the same dignity and compassion - or more - than you do - or the new life you hope to make for yourself.

  5. I am more than interested now in reading this book WoW! I too grew up in a wonderful home with amazing adoptive parents. I felt loved, safe, secure but unlike Anne, I did feel like I belonged. This is the strange part though...I was adopted in 1966 and my parents adopted 2 more children one in 1967 the last in 1970, my brothers. We are not biologically related. 3 children within 4 years of each other and growing up I can't ever really remember having a conversation about being adopted as a family. Sure, I always knew I was adopted, but we never discussed the possibility of being related to someone else. As an adult now I find that odd.

    I can also remember being a little girl...probably as young as 7 or so and crying alone in my bed, in the dark....trying to stifle my sobs so no one would hear and ask me why I was crying...and surely I'd lie. Admitting to my parents that I missed my birth mother I felt would hurt them deeply. I think about this now as a 52 year old woman, a mother myself and I can't believe that I buried that sadness within my 7 year old mind. I know I've carried that sadness in my life and it came out especially after I contacted my birth mother and she told me she couldn't meet me, that she worked very hard to put what happened to her behind her. That her children do not know of me. It's painful to still be the secret....there is nothing for her to be ashamed of.

    I guess who's to say I wouldn't have the same insecurities had I not been adopted. I mean I divorced my husband after 20 years, my Dad (adoptive) no longer speaks to me, when people move away from me I automatically find fault with myself. I try to make myself believe that I may have been the same way had I not been adopted but who know's and how odd that Anne speaks of her adoption and where she ended up as sort of a "craps shoot"....because I was just thinking the same thing the other day. Any which way you think of it....I was coming. I was going to be born, it was just a matter of who the adoption agency decided to place me with.

    Myself, as an adoptee, had a great upbringing but there are those tinges of sadness, of hurt that kids growing up with their birth mothers and fathers don't understand. No one quite does....unless you've lived it. I am glad Anne put those feelings on paper and wrote this book.



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