This is a copy of a letter I wrote almost 23 years ago to my birthfather. Literally half a lifetime ago, before marriage and children. I wrote it after the adoption agency which handled my placement and had received a court order to contact him did so, by registered mail. His response was to call the social worker charged with fulfilling her legal responsibilities and yell at her for sending mail to his home. No denials, but he did ask for all of my identifying information, which she gave him. Afterwards, I noticed a rash of hang-ups on both my work and home answering machines (this was before VM, though after the Internet).
Not surprisingly, my birthmother was waiting for me to contact her, and had left her information in my file at the agency in case I wrote to them with questions. It was she who gave me his name, and his address. His college class. I gave all of that information to the adoption agency, as they had no intention of contacting the father. I had to tell them that it took two to make me, and I wanted to have information from both. (I think they couldn’t believe how lucky they were with my birthmother that they thought I should have been satisfied.)
In reading this, I realized that in spite of my youth and what others would consider an abrasive, obnoxious personality, I really like the woman who wrote this letter, and I love how clear her heart is. I love how she invited him to do the right thing, not because she had an exclusive on it, but because it was well within his abilities to do, and perhaps it was a matter of his just not knowing. Of course, much of what I wrote here was incorrect – over time, more things reveal themselves, or perhaps I just learned how to recognize them. But also in transcribing it, I realize how I was trying to convince myself as much as him, that I was worth getting to know – or at least meeting. I want to hold this young woman in my old lady arms and tell her she’s wonderful, that not belonging is real, but so is loving yourself without pre-conditions, and that the latter is something she can control.
I also remembered that, as I read it aloud, I felt so vulnerable. It was so clear what I was pleading for – accountability, acceptance, apology, acknowledgement – and the closer to my heart I got in the prose, the more I realized it would take me nowhere good. Instead, I kept it in a manila folder.
For laughs, it’s worth noting that when my dad read it, his eyes welled up and he said, “Jan, you need to become a lawyer.” And my response? “Dad, being argumentative doesn’t mean you have what it takes to get through law school.” I think we were both right.
1 August 1990
Mr. John W. Caputo, Jr.
address known, but withheld
“My Name is Janet X and I am Information Officer for Project Athena. I schedule visits to Project Athena and am responsible for presentations as well as the dissemination of written materials.”
This is the way I begin any one of a hundred letters every month. I tell people who I “am”. It was only four months ago that I began to really understand who I am and how many people it took to make me.
Each person had a different role. Two people created me, literally. Two new people worked with the raw matter and molded me, shaped me, and then removed their hands. There was part of each creator that was visible in me – my adoptive mother’s speech patterns, my adoptive father’s irrepressible personality, as well as their shared sense of ethics and morality were “givens” for as long as I can remember. No one knew where my height came from, my bawdy sense of humor, my voice, my artistic abilities, much less how I learned to read at age 2 1/2. No one even knew so much as my ethnic background. Two of the four creators were lost behind a curtain of vague allusions, and it was assumed to remain that way.
You cannot understand what that is like. We as human beings base much of our self-perception and identity on belonging – looking to where we “came from”. To not be able to point to a person and say something as simple as “This is who I came from” impacts your sense of identity. The impact becomes stronger even as you age and begin to think of creating children yourself.
I have always known about the shadowy “other” creators. Because my parents told my brother and me from the start that being adopted meant that we were chosen, we grew up without social stigma concerning our origins. Yet, the faces, the tangibles of our starting points remained unknown… always shrouded, veiled from light. And as I grew older and learned where babies came from, the tangibles became veiled in shame and I felt the drape of guilt become leaded, impenetrable, as if I had destroyed the life of another person.
After years of not knowing, I have found you and (my birth mother). And regardless of your feelings and decisions at the time, you must realize that I am now a living, breathing adult, who is fully entitles to know her origins. You can refuse to see me; that is by law your right. However, by denying me access to to essential information about my medical history, you are clearly denying me my basic rights. You may be afraid to see me, to acknowledge that you are, in part, responsible for my existence, because I represent a point at which you were irresponsible in a time of need. John, we are all adults now and all adults make mistakes: those of us who face our mistakes are more adult than others. Those adults who forgive are more human.
You see, I already have one birthmark that required cancer screening when I was fourteen months old. Next month I must have a number of lesions biopsied. If they prove malignant, I will require major surgery – skin grafts, possible chemotherapy, etc. In the last five years, already there has been a genetic pattern determined for skin cancer. This is only one example I choose to cite in this short letter. The questions I face each time I make a visit to the MD seem endless, because I am unable to answer them.
John, I am not unaware that you ahve gone on and created your own life and family. I assume that you did not tell your partner about the people you left behind. I can even understand that you may not want to see me, and by ignoring that court order, you can deny my existence. The information you can choose to keep from me, what is referred to as “identifying information”, is no linger an issue. I did all the investigative work myself, and in fact, was the one who provided the adoption agency with your name and address. I accessed information available through public records, and am aware that you have a family.
The straight information I need regarding medical history is invaluable to me, an adult about to engage in the full breadth of activities of adulthood. But equally important to me is removing the veil, the shadow from your face, seeing who had a hand in making me. Aren’t you interested in seeing your mortal legacy as well? An observation that in any other circumstance would be forgettably minor: when I met my birthmother face to face, she remarked that I have your smile and teeth. I cannot articulate how I felt at that moment, hearing that your hands, your contributions to me are palpable, tangible.
I am not asking to be part of your family; I am asking that you give me a chance to meet you. I am giving you a chance to realize that your greatest “mistake” did not spoil what may be one of your greatest achievements. And, more importantly, to thank you for the gifts you have unknowingly bestowed on me.
You can either write me at the above address (ed note: this was on my work letterhead) or call me at work after 5pm. I know you may feel as if you have a great deal at risk. I do sympathize. Please realize that I am also risking more than I’ve ever had to in my life. I believe my efforts will be worth it. I want to assure you that making a courageous effort at this crucial time will be worth the risk as well.