The story of Philomena Lee and her son, told in the new movie starring Judi Dench, scorches me. Like her son, I was adopted. Like and unlike the story of Philomena and Michael (born Anthony), the story of my birth mother, Dorothy, and me, Anthony (born David), is filled with sorrow, mistakes, suffering—and profound, shocking joy.
I was born in Cincinnati in 1956, adopted as an infant, named Anthony for my adoptive father, and raised in a loving home. Parents who adopted then were counseled—correctly—to tell their children as early as possible that they were adopted. My parents told me in a proud fashion that they had “chosen” me (false), that I was the same ethnicity (false), and that because they chose me I was more special to them. Our closest friends included two people whom I grew up calling “Uncle” Jim and “Aunt” Mildred (names changed). No relation, but my parents felt particularly close to them since Mildred had shepherded my adoption through the Catholic adoption agency.
I accepted the doctrine of the era: I was adopted, I had only one family—my adopted family—and had no need to know anything more about anything, or anyone, else. My birth mother was an unmarried teenager from the Cincinnati area who “got in trouble” and gave me up for adoption. I never thought about the man. But then at 13, I started to wonder. An unknown man and woman had had sexual intercourse. I was the result. Who were they? What was their story? I felt I couldn’t ask my father, so, timidly, one afternoon, I approached my mother in the kitchen. Her startled, anguished look told me I had veered into a completely forbidden area. I slunk away, feeling that I had done something very wrong. I never asked her about it again.
Years passed. I left home, went to college, joined the Peace Corps, got married—but never wavered in my acceptance of my parents’ credo that they were all the family I ever needed. I would volunteer readily and rapidly to anyone that I was adopted. Occasionally, someone would ask if I was interested in knowing anything about my birth parents. I would answer that my adoptive family was my real and only family. End of discussion.
Early in our marriage, though, my wife gently asked me to consider searching to learn more about my roots. If we had children, shouldn’t we know at least about my genetic heritage, she would say. Each time, I lashed out furiously at her. How dare she bring up this forbidden topic? I guess I had been so seared by my earlier conversation with my mother that I adopted her view as an absolute: that it was unacceptable, insulting, and inappropriate for anyone to probe this area and if someone didn’t accept my short explanation, they were attacking me—and my adoptive family. But, after I’d repressed the thought for 20 years, my wife had started me thinking again. I quietly squirreled away a Washington Post article in 1993 on tools for searching for birth parents. In early 1994, I followed the article’s advice.
Following the required procedure, I wrote to Ohio state officials. Rapidly, they mailed me a copy of my “original” birth certificate. My name on it was David Simpson. My birth mother was Dorothy L. Simpson. Then, I learned that I could contact the Catholic adoption agency in Cincinnati to request additional information from its file on my adoption. One day in the spring of 1994, I received a call from someone at the agency who had gone through my record.
She told me the highlights: My mother wasn’t a teenager. She was almost 26 when she had me. She wasn’t from Cincinnati, not from Ohio at all. She was from a place called Pampa, Texas. Where was that?? (The Texas Panhandle, it turns out.) My father was Jewish, she had told adoption officials at the time. I had no idea of his name.
The record included lots of information from 1956. But it also contained something else: a letter from her to the agency in the late 1980s and the agency’s response. Both were read to me. Dorothy wrote that she had just been diagnosed with brain cancer, and she was looking to find out something about the son she had given up for adoption. Could they tell her anything? The response came from “Aunt” Mildred. No, they couldn’t, she had written to Dorothy. My memory of the short letter is that Mildred employed cold, stiff bureaucratic language.
Now the stories I’d told myself about my life were no longer true. Because I thought she’d been a teenager, I had long had a secret fantasy that I might look for her later in life, after my parents’ death. I never considered that she might be dead. And my father. If he was Jewish, I certainly wasn’t from the same ethnic background as my German mother and Sicilian father. And what about Mildred? I always had liked her and her gentle husband, Jim. But her letter was not just cold, it was cold-hearted.
As I did more research, I learned that, although Mildred had given the “correct” bureaucratic response, many more empathetic people had bent the rules and provided birth mothers with a little bit of information. Mildred could at least have written Dorothy to tell her that she knew that I was healthy and happy, living in a good family. I never felt the same toward Mildred again.
I also realized that my adoptive parents had followed a “script” provided to many parents like them in the 1950s. They were advised to tell me from the beginning that I was adopted, quickly adding that that meant that I was particularly wanted. If they added false details giving the impression that they walked through an orphanage “choosing” me, that was OK, too. In my case, though, I ultimately discovered that the reality turned out to be that they had requested a newborn child ethnically similar to them. I was what the agency came up with. That’s a form of “choosing” but not the vision I’d carried in my head.
I rapidly shifted from a strict believer in adoption orthodoxy and secrecy to someone who wanted to know everything about his background. More than that, someone who believed it was my right—and every other adoptee’s right—to know. Who were the state, the adoption agency, my adoptive parents, anybody, to tell me that I couldn’t know about something as basic as the identity of the man and woman who came together to create me?