Unequal Treatment of 1 Half-Orphan Out of 39

The following chapter was intentionally omitted in the final edition of my memoir Forbidden Family: An Adopted Woman’s Struggle for Identity, 2016, as this is a social work assessment rather than memoir. It was written in 2009 and is reprinted here for further information.

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How Did This Generational Legacy Lead to Mistaken Belief in Adoptive Parent Entitlement?

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As I looked through partially written family histories that have been un-read for many years, phrases popped out— “his father died when he was 11 years old” and “her mother died when she was 2.” Even my own description of how I became an adoptee was the phrase, “our mother died.” When I replaced those phrases with the words “half-orphan,” a whole new meaning came to light. I counted how many individuals from my families were half-orphans. The results were shocking. There were, and are, a total of 39 half-orphans in combining my natural mother’s family, my adoptive mother’s family, and my adoptive father’s family, and occurring in several generations, including remarriage and death of step-parents. My natural father was my only parent with no half or full orphans (as far as I know).

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I was the only half-orphan treated differently. I was given up by a father who had no family history of orphan-hood other than his experiencing the death of his wife in 1956. My mother’s death left my father to figure out what to do with 5 children he could not take care of by himself. Being an infant of 4 months, I was relinquished and then adopted, not by complete strangers, but by distant relatives of my deceased mother. This was a set-up for disaster. Proper intervention, had it existed when it was needed, could have avoided, or at least softened, the tragic chain of events in my life, and that of my first nuclear family (natural blood family), my second nuclear family (legally-appointed adopted family), and my subsequent nuclear family with my now ex-husband and children.

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The Wheeler family (my adopted family) and the Herr family (my natural mother’s family) were related and happily so, long before I was born. My adoption changed the dynamics between these two families for the worst. Most members of both families (but not all) became secretive, deceptive, and cruel, playing into the stereotypes that the “bastard adopted child must never know the truth”. Fortunately, not all felt this way.

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In my adoption, open communication between certain individuals and family groups was a choice for those who deemed themselves worthy of that openness. My father, siblings, and I, however, were forbidden to know each other. This was the dynamic between my adoptive father’s family and my natural mother’s family. The Surrogate court judge who finalized my adoption was not aware that this was an in-family adoption. He told my father to stay away from me and from my adoptive parents. My father abided by the law. If the judge knew that this was an in-family adoption, he might have allowed visitation; or, he might not have approved my adoption. When my natural father relinquished me and consented to my adoption, he was unaware of the complete truth. He was not told that there would be communication between his deceased wife’s family and his relinquished daughter’s adoptive father’s family.

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Had I stayed with my father and siblings, I would have had equal rights to be cared for by my father. If I was raised as a foster child or in guardianship rather than adoption, I would have had the right to know him and my siblings through court ordered visitation. I would also have had the right to my name at birth and to own my birth certificate.

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Instead, I was segregated, set apart from my siblings, given up and adopted into a different family, an extended family who did not like, nor respect, my natural father. The scorn directed at me while I grew up, and after my reunion from 1974 to the present day, was not because of the shame of an illegitimate birth (I was born legitimately); it was because I was the half-orphan who was “not wanted by her own father”, a man who “killed your mother”. My adoptive parents wanted me, but then I “stabbed them in the back by openly carrying on a reunion with the father who gave me away.”

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Mine was a relative adoption. The relationship was distant enough to be almost a clean break, but close enough that the older generation held onto family relationships from the late 1800s to the early 1900s down through subsequent generations.

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If ever there were families to be observed and studied for the family dynamics of negativity and social assumption in adoption, my extended adoptive family, my natural mother’s family, and my own nuclear families, would be the collective families to study.

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As therapist and adoptive mother, Nancy Verrier, states in her books The Primal Wound, and, Coming Home to Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up, the concept of adoption is corrupt, not the adoptee, and not the relinquishing parent. Pathology lies in adoption itself by denying an adoptee’s birth and dual reality. Adoptees are treated as children without personal identity or family connections that pre-date adoptive family life.

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Patterns Emerge in the Family Histories of 3 of my 4 Parents

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My Natural Mother

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My natural mother was the 10th of 11 children, 7 of whom lived to adulthood. When she was 13 years old, 4 of her older siblings were married adults. My mother lived at home with her parents and her brothers, ages 19 and 10. Then their mother died. The three children under the age of 21 were not adopted out. My natural mother’s father remarried 6 years later. All the siblings were allowed contact with each other and their deceased mother’s family.

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My Adoptive Mother

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My adoptive mother’s mother died in 1918. She left behind a husband and 4 children, ages 6, 4 ½, 2 ½, and 5 months. Their father worked 6 days a week, paid for their keep in an orphanage, and visited his children every Sunday. The siblings grew up knowing each other, and were free to associate with their deceased mother’s family. Their father did not allow any of his children to be adopted out. After many years, he went back to Italy, married a second wife who moved here. They had a daughter who was the half-sister to the other siblings. They remained close all of their lives.

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My Adoptive Father

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Before my adoptive father was born, his father had a wife and 2 children, born in 1898 and 1906. When their mother died in 1908, she left behind her husband and 2 children, age 9 ½ and 1 ½ years. The 2 brothers were raised together and knew their deceased mother’s extended family. (Their mother’s sister was my natural mother’s grandmother, both born in the 1870s – yes THAT long ago.)

 

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The 2 brothers’ father remarried. He and his second wife had 8 children, the oldest born in 1914. When the eldest of these 8 children was 11 years old in 1925, their father died. The eldest child quit school, became the “man” of the house, scavenged the streets for scrap metal, picked up broken furniture and radios, and repaired them to earn money to support his mother and keep his siblings together. The 2 older half-brothers were in the military service and sent money home, too. The younger 8 siblings were raised together as adoption was not an option; they did not lose each other because their father died. They were also allowed contact with their father’s extended family. The 11 year old who became a half-orphan and scavenged the streets to support his mother and his 7 siblings became my adoptive father.

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During the 24 years that he was my adoptive father, Dad never once spoke of his father’s death or how that affected him. Perhaps he did not want to think about it because then he would have to think about the death of my mother and the internal conflict that would create in him. My adoptive father quit school and took on the role of father to keep his 7 younger siblings together with their mother; yet, his actions much later in life contradicted his desire, as a boy, to keep his family intact.

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When he grew up and married, my future adoptive father and his wife were childless for 18 years. They attended my natural mother’s funeral because they were extended family. My future adoptive father’s sister approached my father in the funeral parlor just 24-48 hours after my mother’s death, and said, “I know someone who will take your baby”. She procured the baby – me – for her brother to adopt.

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Because they so desperately wanted a child, my future adoptive parents participated in the removal of an infant from her family so that they could have a child. Losing a child to adoption was what my adoptive father’s family of origin fought very hard to avoid. They were successful because he sacrificed his own childhood to become “the man of the house” – the “breadwinner” – at age 11.

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When he became an adult, the desire to have a baby to raise with his wife “as their own” was stronger than the importance of keeping someone else’s family together. Adopting someone else’s newborn became morally acceptable because my natural father gave me up. It was assumed I was unwanted; that was the sentiment coming from my natural mother’s and brothers and only sister who were angry that my father gave me away, so of course it was easy to take the baby from a man who “didn’t want his own infant daughter.”

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Discussing My Adoption Within My Nuclear Adoptive Family

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My adoptive father did not discuss my adoption with me at any point in my life. It was my adoptive mother who awkwardly told me when I was a child that I was adopted. She did not tell me I had sisters and a brother, but she knew, as did my adoptive father, and so did all of my adoptive family. Whether Mom meant to or not, she seemed to rub my nose in the fact that her father kept her, but mine did not keep me. Mom told me, over and over again, how her father did not want his children permanently separated by adoption. It was okay, though, for her to take me from my family because my father did not want me.

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Additionally, Mom’s steadfast opinion that adoptees should never be told the truth, and her viewing me as solely her child, is how many adoptive parents feel: entitled to have a child.

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I was Deprived of the Same Rights that all the Other Half Orphans in Both My Natural Family and Adoptive Family Had

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There were other incidences of half-orphan-hood in these families as children grew up and had children, and some of their children, too, lost a parent by early death. With all of these 39 half-orphans combined in 3 out of 4 of my families, I am the only one who was relinquished and then adopted into a closed and secret adoption. If it was acceptable for all the others to be kept by the remaining parent and allowed sibling contact, and extended family contact, why was I deprived of the same rights? At first, I was the “chosen” child, showered with love and affection. When I developed my own personality, and when I was found by my siblings in 1974, I was then treated as an outcast, as someone who didn’t fit in, not wanted by either adopted nor natural families. All of the adults, except my natural father, knew the family connections and they allowed themselves to visit between my blood family and my adoptive family, conveniently leaving out my natural father, my siblings, and myself.

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I should have been kept by my father, just as all the other half-orphans in these families were kept by their remaining parent. They had the luxury of family connectedness but prevented me from having those same connections. Hypocrites. My natural father was used. He didn’t know about this ongoing contact. Had he been told, he would have made other plans for me. Toward the end of his life, he told me he would have kept me. He wanted to keep me but was pressured to give me up.

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At Age 53 in 2009, I Realized That My Adoptive Parents Willfully Kept Me Apart From My Own Siblings – They Had Their Siblings But I Couldn’t Have Mine

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I finally figured out at age 53 that my adoptive parents, 2 half-orphans who were not adopted and were not deprived of their siblings or their remaining parent, and who were not deprived of their deceased parent’s extended family, and who were not deprived of knowledge of the deceased parent as a person, and who were not deprived of knowledge of that parent’s death, dictated over the life of the half-orphan they adopted. They deprived me of my siblings and my father, cousins, aunts and uncles, and deprived me of any knowledge about my mother and her death, deprived me of a timely, honest, age-appropriate grieving process of my deceased mother, and then, my adoptive mother (not my adoptive father) became outraged when I was found by siblings I was never supposed to know.

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When asked a few years before her death, Mom said flatly, “Nobody thought about it. We just wanted a child.” She followed that up with, “I have a right to my opinion.”

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Statistical Breakdown of My Families of Origin

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The total numbers include direct lines and some collateral lines of descent. This is an approximate number of the relatives known to me. (I cut off most contacts after all 4 of my parents died)

Total Relatives: 390

Natural Mother’s Family: 126

Natural Father’s Family: 35

Adoptive Mother’s Family: 20

Adoptive Father’s Family: 209

Illegitimates: within my generation, and one up, and one down (not identifying which family)
Total: 6 or 8

Illegitimates not acknowledged or kept by their fathers, and possibly adopted out by their mothers: 2

Illegitimates kept by their mothers: 2 to 4, estimate

Illegitimates relinquished for adoption to strangers: 2

Adoptees: Total: 12

  • “Full adoptee” or “complete adoptee” is a person adopted by strangers and who has no contact with either natural parent during childhood.
  • Step-parent adoptee, or “half-adoptee”, or “adoptee-lite” is a person who is raised by one natural parent and adopted by a step-parent.

“Full adoptees” adopted into my natural family from a stranger’s family: 0

“Full adoptees” adopted into my adoptive family from a stranger’s family: 2

Step-parent or “half-adoptees” or “adoptee-lite” adopted into my natural family: 6, estimate

Step-parent or “half-adoptees” or “adoptee-lite” adopted into my adoptive family: 4, estimate

Full-Orphans: Total: 3, not adopted out to strangers or other relatives

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NOTES:

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Adoptive mother’s father and his brother immigrated to America as teens, circa 1898. They kept family ties in Italy, even after the death of their parents.
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One of my adoptive aunts who married my adoptive father’s brother was a full orphan. She advocated for my rights when I was a child, advising my adoptive parents that they should tell me the whole truth, but she was drowned out by the dominant discourse of cover-up. This aunt is the grandmother of the illegitimate adoptee returned into the Wheeler family. She has always been open in discussing adoption with me, and her children, even attending local adoption support group meetings in the late 1980s.

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Half-Orphans (under age 21): Total: 39

Natural Mother’s Family: 12

3 in 1938, 1 in 1973, 3 in 1976, 3 in 1990, 1 in 2003, 1
in 2013

Natural Father’s Family: 0

Nuclear Natural Family: 7

5 in 1956 (myself and 4 siblings)
2 in 1962 (step brothers to my siblings lost their mother)

Adoptive Mother’s Family: 4 in 1918

Adoptive Father’s Family: 16

2 in 1908, 8 in 1925, 1 in 1967, 1 in 1969, 2 in 2004, 1
in 2007, 1 in 2012

Half-Orphans Prior to 1956: 18

Natural Mother’s Family: 3

Natural Father’s Family: 0

Adoptive Mother’s Family: 4

Adoptive Father’s Family: 10

Half-Orphans After and Including 1956: 22

My Nuclear Natural Family: 7

Natural Father’s Family: 0

Natural Mother’s Family: 9

Adoptive Father’s Family: 6

Half-Orphans kept by their families: 38

Half-Orphans relinquished to adoption by strangers: 0

Half-Orphans relinquished to adoption by a distant relative of deceased mother’s family: 1 in 1956: me.

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This indicates an unusually high prevalence of half-orphans in 3 out of my 4 families of origin. Statistically, this is 10% of my total number of relatives.

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Update, October 2012
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The extended Wheeler family was dealt another blow. One of my cherished same-age cousins lost his adult son to sudden death at age 32. This young man left behind a 2 year old daughter who lives with her mother. This little girl is now a half-orphan.

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There was too much grief in the funeral parlor for the mother of that 2 year old child to ever prevent her young daughter from knowing and loving her deceased father’s family: her grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousin, grand aunts and uncles, great grandparents, and her father’s cousins. We won’t let that happen. And, no one — NO ONE — approached this child’s mother saying, “I know someone who will take your baby.”

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In 1956, that statement was uttered to my natural father at his wife’s wake by a woman looking for an available baby for her brother and his wife to adopt. Strangely coincidental, 48 years later in 2004, that woman’s youngest adult daughter lost her husband to sudden death, leaving behind 2 daughters in their mid-teens. That woman grieved the loss of her son-in-law and never once thought that her younger granddaughter should be given up for adoption because someone else wanted a child.

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What is the 10th Commandment?
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”
What about coveting your neighbor’s child?

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Update, January 2013

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Tragically, my extended natural mother’s family lost a young father in a car accident. My first cousin’s daughter lost her husband. She became a widow and her 4 year old daughter lost her father. Sadly, this little girl is the latest statistic in the whole line of half-orphans in 3 of my 4 families. She will not be given up for adoption.