Bob MacNish was 22 when his father died. On his deathbed, his father told him he was adopted. MacNish spent the next 50 years searching for the truth but getting nowhere. His original birth certificate was legally sealed.
[photo: Mitsu Yasukaway/northjersey.com]
Then in 2018, MacNish was one of the first adult adoptees to be given his original birth certificate in the state of New Jersey. State laws continue to change in the USA regarding the information available to adult adoptees. According to the American Adoption Congress, nine states now allowed unrestricted access and a further 11 allow access with restrictions [including New Jersey]. Records remain sealed in 22 states.
Bob MacNish finally met his birth mother for the first time, when he was 73. “For me, there was always that hunger for that answer. I need to know the truth about where I come from,” he told NJTV News. He knew he was born in Weehawken and given up for adoption when he was three days old. All he knew was that his birth mother was probably Italian. His adoption was private, arranged by an attorney. MacNish grew up feeling ‘a little different’ from his adopted family of Scottish farmers in central New Jersey.
Bob MacNish with birth mother Jean and half-sister Sheila [photo: Mitsu Yasukaway/northjersey.com]
In 2017, 20-year old Jenna Cook went to China to find her birth parents. Her expectations were low. But she was overwhelmed by what happened next. She met more than fifty families, all desperately seeking their lost babies, hoping that Jenna was the one.
Her story starts on March 22, 1992. A baby was left at the busy bus station in Wuhan, China, which sees 12,000 travellers each day. She was picked up and taken to the Wuhan Children Welfare House nearby where she was cared for, named Xia Huasi [which means ‘China’s’] and assigned a random birth date chosen by the director of the home. There was no formal adoption process in China, where couples faced heavy fines for breaking the country’s one-child policy. It was also illegal to abandon children. Later that year, China passed a law enabling foreigners to adopt Chinese orphans. American Margaret Cook collected Xia Huasi, renamed her Jenna, and took her home to Massachusetts. Jenna was one of the first wave of adopted babies taken abroad; 80,000 to the USA and 40,000 to the Netherlands, Spain and the UK.
Jenna had a happy childhood, along with her sister [also adopted from China] they learned Mandarin and Margaret encouraged them to socialise with Chinese people. ‘Even just looking at your own belly button, you think to yourself: ‘Oh, I used to be attached to another human being. That’s the body I came from, but who is that? Does that person even really exist?’ It all seems so abstract. It sometimes just feels like you appeared on the planet.Most people are just born into the families they’re born into and they never think twice about it. Whereas for adopted people there is always this possibility of another life.’
After taking part in a television documentary, ‘Somewhere Between’, Jenna worked for the summer at the Chinese orphanage where she had been taken as a baby. Later, as a 20-year old student, she returned to China again with Margaret. This time to search. She handed out leaflets around Wuhan; people were interested in her story, and shared their own experiences.
Jenna’s leaflet [photo: Jenna Cook]
‘I was pretty amazed that people were even paying attention to me, because I felt like I’m just one story in a huge migration of children from China. I felt like I was just one raindrop in the puddle.’ When the local newspaper published a story about Jenna’s search in May 2012, her search went viral. From amongst hundreds of messages, Jenna drew up a shortlist of 50 birth families each of which had left a baby on the same street in Wuhan in March 1992.
Jenna decided to approach the interviews as an academic exercise rather than thinking ‘maybe this is the one’, which would be emotionally exhausting. The stories told by the birth families were touching. ‘They all remembered their babies forever – it was this experience that they really regret and that they would never forget.’Each family approached Jenna as if she were their daughter – are you happy, are you being cared for? DNA tests were done with 37 of the families. All were negative.
Since her search, Jenna has returned to China but is no longer actively searching.
Ramiro Osorio Cristales is now 41 years old. When he was five, he was asleep at home with his parents and six siblings when the Kaibiles, Guatemala’s US-trained special operations unit, arrived in the village of Dos Erres. That name is now famous for the massacre that followed. Osorio’s father was killed and he was separated from his mother and siblings. When they left the village, the soldiers took with them Osorio and a three-year boy called Oscar. The attack began on December 6, 1982, and lasted for three days. In 2018, Osorio gave evidence in court against former soldier Santos López who was not just accused of the murder of Osorio’s family and neighbours, he was also Osorio’s adoptive father.
Ramiro Osorio Cristales [photo: bbc.co.uk]
Back at the soldiers’ base, López began to take an interest in Osorio and Oscar, feeding them from his own rations. When López told Osorio he was taking him to live with his own family in Retalhuleu in south-west Guatemala, Osorio thought he had found a new family. But the boys were taken to the Kaibil Training Center and dressed in tiny army uniforms. Growing up, Osorio was forced to call López ‘Dad’ but was mistreated; put to work, malnourished and beaten. In 1998 when he was 22, Osorio escaped by joining the army.
His true identity was confirmed by DNA when he learned some of his family were still alive; uncles, aunts, cousins and his maternal grandmother. He learned his true identity thanks to work by the Families of the Detained-Disappeared of Guatemala [FAMDEGUA], which was investigating the Dos Erres massacre. Osorio later emigrated to Canada.
On 22 November 22, 2018, López was sentenced to 5,000 years in jail: 30 years for each of the 171 deaths that he was held responsible for, and another 30 years for the murder of a girl taken away and later killed.
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The sub-title of Relative Strangers by Hunter Davies is ‘A history of adoption and a tale of triplets’ and it is a fascinating read if you are at all interested in family history and adoption. Yes, there is some history, but Davies keeps you turning the pages by telling in parallel the story of three babies, triplets, separated at their birth in 1932.
May 18, 1932. Kate Hodder gives birth to triplets – rare in those pre-IVF days – and dies the next day. Her husband, jobbing gardener Wills, is left with the three babies plus six older children. He cannot cope. Two go to live with grandparents, and four go to Barnardo’s. The triplets are adopted separately, with seemingly no effort made to keep them together. They live their lives, until finally reunited in 2001. The process of their lives, the changes to adoption law, and the roles of real people such as Thomas Barnardo and Pam Hodgkins, founder of adoption counselling service NORCAP, is told seamlessly by Davies.
Florence was the first to be adopted. Aged eight months, she went to live in Devon. Adopted by Emily Davy, a single mother who ran a guest house, Florence’s name was changed to Gill. She had a happy, secure childhood. She found out she was adopted aged 13, told in the playground at school.
May was adopted aged two, and her name changed to Helena Mary. Adopted by a clergyman and his wife, along with another adopted girl Pam. From the beginning, Helena knew she was adopted, knew she was one of triplets. But information was minimal.
John William was adopted last of the three, at the age of three and a half, by a grocer in Beverley, Yorkshire. His name was changed to David, he was not told by his parents that he was adopted.
This is an easy read about a fascinating subject, Hunter Davies handles the complicated storyline with ease. BUY
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Emmeline Pankhurst was a key figure in the UK women’s suffrage movement in the early twentieth century. Founder of the WSPU [the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union], dedicated to ‘deeds not words’, it used action to gain the attention of political decision-makers. Windows were smashed, police officers assaulted. Pankhurst was a controversial figure, imprisoned repeatedly where they staged hunger strikes and were force fed.
What is not so widely known is Pankhurst’s support for women during the Great War, and the plight of war babies born to single women and fathers who were away fighting. Pankhurst established an adoption home at Campden Hill in West London. She was criticised at the time for supporting the parents of children born out of wedlock, but Pankhurst declared the welfare of the children was her only concern. Pankhurst saw the poverty of single mothers in her work as a Poor Law Guardian, part of the work of the board of guardians, the authorities which administered the Poor Law in the UK from 1835 to 1930.
Pankhurst herself went on to adopt four children, who she renamed Kathleen King, Flora Mary Gordon, Joan Pembridge and Elizabeth Tudor. They lived in Holland Park, London. She famously commented when asked how, at the age of 57 and with no steady income, she could take on the burden of bringing up four more children, Pankhurst said: ‘My dear, I wonder I didn’t take forty.’
The agony of birth parents and children separated for decades is explored by the UK television programme Long Lost Family which aims to reunite adult adopted children with their birth families. Anchored by popular presenters Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell [below] it is particularly poignant for Campbell who was himself adopted as a young child.
The series is incredibly popular in the UK. It concentrates on the emotional stories of children and parents, rather than the nuts and bolts of the search. Some of the interviews are heartrending. The programme is sensitive to the emotional difficulties on all sides of the adoption triangle, no judgements are made about the past, the emphasis is on reunion where possible and emotional healing.
Here is Helen Harrison’s story. Helen Harrison tried to find her child for years. In 1977, at the age of 16, she fell pregnant. She hid the condition for five months. When her father found out, he turned her out of the house. ‘I can remember him just looking at me and saying, ‘Just get out, just get out…’ He didn’t want anything more to do with me, he just wanted me to go.’ In the UK in the 1970s, local councils were obliged to provide housing for women in Helen’s situation, but Helen describes the flat she was given was ‘undesirable’ for raising a family.
She didn’t know what to do. Her father offered her a solution, asking her: ‘What sort of life are you going to offer to a child on your own? There are people out there who desperately want to love a baby.’ So she agreed that when the child was born, it would be given up for adoption. ‘I’m having this baby for someone else,’ she thought. ‘It’s going to be so much better for him.’ When the baby boy was born, she called him Anthony. ‘It was the most heart-breaking thing to have to do.’ She wrote a letter to him then, at his birth, explaining that she gave him away in order for him to have a better life, and that she would always love him.
She never received a reply from Anthony and had no idea if he had read her words. ‘I don’t think he’s read the letter,’ she told the television programme. Why did Anthony not answer the letter – did he not receive it, did he not know he was adopted, or was the time not right? She writes a second letter for the Long Lost Family team to give to Anthony, should they find him.
In fact Anthony, re-named David, had not received the letter. He had been told of his adoption, when he was nine, by his adopted parents. At the news he remembers being terrified a stranger would arrive on the doorstep and take him away. He had a happy childhood. When traced by Long Lost Family, he agrees to meet her. The first thing Helen asks when she hears the team have found Anthony is ‘Is he happy?’ She reads David’s letter aloud, it starts: ‘The first and most important thing I want you to know is that whatever the circumstances surrounding the adoption were, I will never be angry, bitter or resentful.’ Helen, who for decades when asked the question ‘how many sons do you have?’ had thought ‘three’ in her head but spoken ‘two’, finally gets to meet her lost son. ‘I couldn’t imagine the day that I would meet my baby.’
For helpful ‘adoption search’ resources, suggested by the team behind the Long Lost Family programme, click here. Here is information about appearingon Long Lost Family and help with late discovery adoption.
To read a fictional story involving adoption, read Ignoring Gravity first in the ‘Identity Detective’ series. Rose Haldane is confident about her identity. She pulls the same face as her grandfather when she has to do something she doesn’t want to do, she knows her DNA is the same as his. Except it isn’t: because Rose is adopted and doesn’t know it. BUY
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In its scope, The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley reminds me of Eighties family mega-stories, paperbacks as thick as doorstops. This is the first in a series; the first five are already published. I recommend suspending your ‘instinct for the literal’ and throwing yourself into the world of the book. Some of the story set-up seems unrealistic – unbelievable wealth, mysterious father, beautiful adopted sisters – this is not a normal world. But I quickly became caught up in the historical story.
Pa Salt has died suddenly; he is the fabulously wealthy, secretive, reclusive adoptive father to six sisters whose origins are a mystery. Only when he has gone do they realise they should have asked him for information. Each of the sisters is given a clue and a letter. Also in the envelope is a triangular-shaped tile. The Seven Sisters is the story of the eldest D’Aplièse sister. Maia’s clue is a map reference that takes her to a crumbling mansion in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil where she meets an enigmatic elderly woman.
The book came alive for me with the story, eighty years earlier, of Izabela Rosa Bonifacio. Izabela, daughter of a nouveau riche coffee merchant in Rio, is facing an arranged marriage. Desperate to see more of the world before she settles down to a stifling life of marriage to a husband she doesn’t love, she persuades her father and fiancé to allow her to travel to Paris with her friend, Maria Elisa, daughter of architect Heitor da Silva Costa. This section of the novel enthralled me; the design and sculpting of the Cristo sculpture for the top of the Corvocado mountain, all based on historical fact.
I connected with Izabela in a way I didn’t with Maia. Maia uncovers the story of Izabela with the help of Brazilian author Floriano Quintelas, whose latest novel Maia has translated into French. In the course of her research, Maia must face the shadows of her own past, her regrets and shame, in order to move on. I enjoyed Izabela’s story but at the back of my mind I queried its relevance to Maia; Izabela was too old be her mother. I missed a direct connection to Maia and this frequently took me out of the world of the story.
That connection does come but as the story finished I was left with almost as many questions as at the beginning. The last chapter is devoted to the second sister, Ally, with new mysteries for the second book in the series.