Born Blacked Out

I was born blacked out. My birth is described in court documents as “illegitimate,” and most of what I know about it comes from a file I got from a half-sister who was given up for adoption as an infant. Her adoption was closed and remained so even after my mother’s death.

My younger brother and I were also removed from my mother’s custody when I was nine and he was six. I survived the long slog through “the system.” He did not. I’ve had some degree of professional and personal success, even after surviving three aborted adoptions.

But my life has been haunted by the ghosts of missing parents, and  I’ve never been able to shake the feeling of being the pet taken back to the shelter for bad behavior. As I enter my sixties with a terminal illness (stage IV lung cancer), I’m at a loss. And somehow, all the other losses—all the failures, all the faults, all the fuck-ups I see in my past—can be traced to these shaken foundations. These three abortions.

Excerpt from my half-sister’s adoption file.

The Adoption File: TMI Squared

I was the only one of my siblings who knew my mother had given birth to another daughter a year after I was born. I’d wondered about this sister all my life, and so, when I returned from Africa one year to find a message on my phone saying, “I think I might be your sister,” I was ecstatic.

Like many adoptees, my half-sister was driven by a burning desire to know about her biological origins and went to great lengths to locate her blood relations. Acting on information gleaned from the file, she tracked me down and contacted me at my home in Chicago sometime around 2000.

I was shocked to see the file—the names of the people and places of my early childhood blacked out, redacted with black magic marker like in an FBI file. It was disconcerting to see on the page, from an adult perspective, the “case history” of my own family, with names of my siblings, places I remember living, circumstances of early childhood BLACKED OUT. It makes me feel dirty. Criminal. It reinforces the deep-seated pathology of believing your own birth was a crime. And once you have seen your own name blacked out in this way in a heavily redacted file, you cannot UNsee it. You cannot undo the damage. No amount of brain bleach, no amount of alternate imprinting, no common sense, no logic, no therapy…nothing can remove the stain of being born in a black box. TMI squared.

The hand-written marginalia is mine. At the time, I was trying to sort out the details of my life–as in, simple chronology of events. The lighter, largely illegible notes were taken by my half-sister.

Here is what the file says about my mother’s early life:

Not much is known of her early life but information was given that her parents were divorced in 1945. She led an unhappy and confused life and lived with relatives and in foster homes prior to commitment to the BLACKED OUT Home for Girls at BLACKED OUT. It is not known how much education she had but it is known that she did not receive a high school diploma.

I know she was raised Episcopalian but didn’t often attend church. And that the only kind of employment my mother had was as a waitress in various restaurants and bars. (But I also I know from experience what is not on the page: that she later worked as an exotic dancer, as a cleaning lady, and finally, third shift at the local foundry.) The file also tells me my mother was divorced three times. (My recollections have my mom calling it five.)

The file also makes clear that my mother was not quite white:

BLACKED OUT is young appearing and dark complexioned with black hair and dark eyes. She is an attractive woman and is thin and bird-like in her manners.

Dark-complexioned. This euphemism, a coded red-flag to potential adoptive parents.

Only a few lines in the file are devoted to me:

BLACKED OUT was born BLACKED OUT in BLACKED OUT. This birth was illegitimate but the child’s birth record is given as legitimate as Mrs. BLACKED OUT used her married name and gave an address for her husband. The mother intended to give up this child for adoption but could not do so after the child was born.

I was approaching the second year of my life when my half-sister was born. The file says this about the circumstances:

...The mother is separated from her husband and finds it difficult to care for and manage her other children. She, therefore, voluntarily consented to termination of her parental rights.

One thing the file doesn’t say is that I was the baby my mother regretted having kept. I know that from my own experience. And her rejection might not have cast such dark shadows over my life if any one of the adults who acted as parents or guardians after her had gotten me the care I needed.

At the time of my half-sister’s adoption, my mother was again illegitimately pregnant, expecting the birth of my younger brother in the fall.

It required much consideration and planning on the part of Mrs. BLACKED OUT to agree to place her children in foster homes. Had she not been able to make this decision, Mr. BLACKED OUT, her caseworker in Public Assistance, would have petitioned the court alleging the children to be neglected.

This is confusing to me. What I remember is that we went to live with the pastor of our church while my mother went to live with her sister until after she had given birth. We were subsequently returned to my birth mother’s care. The court’s recommendation was that my siblings and I be placed in the custody of the BLACKED OUT County Public Welfare Department. But that didn’t happen. Not until my brother was six and I was nine. This was a major fuck-up, and it wasn’t mine. But I am the one who has paid the price.

Abortion, Abortion, Abortion

Like I said, I was aborted three times as a child. Subsequently ghosted three times as an adult. I had parents—three full sets—but each set decided, one after the next, that they did not want me, so they aborted me. First, my brother Fred and I were removed from my birth mother’s home and placed with Judy (Stayduhar) and Wayne Wall as adoptive parents. After Judy kicked me out and had me sent to reform school, I went to Richard and Cathy Thayer Ruh. Later I moved in with to Richard and Pamela Wegner.

To my child’s mind, these were my parents. Even today, as an adult looking back, it doesn’t feel different. These are the people who fed me, clothed me, attended parent-teacher conferences. They were the ones called when I got in trouble. The ones who took me to the doctor. And finally, the people who razed me. Who threw me on the trash heap after their adventures in parenthood failed. Unlike my birth mother, who lacked the resources, wherewithal, and basic social skills to raise me, these parents simply decided I was not worth the effort. And since they promptly replaced me with other kids, I know they didn’t change their minds about having children. They changed their minds about having me.

All three sets of these people were exceedingly wealthy. They would have had the means to do what Donald Trump’s parents did when he turned out to be too much for them to handle: they could have sent me to private boarding school, for example. They could have taken measures to prevent further trauma. Or to ensure that I got the education I needed. After all, one of the things that made me so attractive as an adoptee was that I was smart. Instead, they released me into years of sexual predation at the hands of male educators, psychiatrists, my older brother (!), my other older brother’s friends. They left me to fend for myself, while they got on with their lives. And I spent my entire life feeling just like that: an ill-mannered cat who was sent back to the shelter for bad behavior. A lifetime sniffing in vain for my scent in some litter box somewhere. Anywhere. They left me feeling like—and often acting like—a feral cat.

Following the first aborted adoption, I was placed in the Winnebago Children’s Home in Neillsville, also known as the Neillsville Indian School or the Winnebago Home for Indians. At the time, the institution was transitioning from an “Indian school” to a residential treatment center for “children with special needs.” In my case, it served as a convenient dumping ground for a hyper-intelligent kid that no one knew what to do with. I was in sixth grade the first time I was placed there, and two aborted adoptions, multiple foster homes and a few stints in “juvie” later, I returned at the beginning of my sophomore year in high school.

An image from Sunburst Youth Homes, found on Twitter, in a discussion about the architecture of the place. The author describes the scene as one of “boys of WInnebago Children’s Home kickin’ it on the stoop.” I corrected him.

The time I spent in foster care or in “juvie” was nowhere near as traumatic as these aborted adoptions, mainly because none of those situations came with the expectation of permanency or normalcy. Their “state of exception”-nature was clear: they weren’t supposed to feel like home, and I wasn’t supposed to “belong.” The repeated rejection of serial re-homing is what shattered my spirit and wreaked havoc on the rest of my life. It caused permanent emotional “crippling” that I was never able to overcome, not even with professional counseling or many other alternative treatment options. I was permanently disfigured by these dashed hopes of being wanted, being welcomed, of having some sense of normalcy. I am not an adoptee: I am an abortee. A feral cat without a colony.

Designed by architect Walter Netsch, the cottages at “the Home” were exquisite. I’d LOVE to have a home like that today!

Not a lot of us live to tell this tale. It is plausible that all my parents were at least trying to do a good thing by adopting a child from foster care—but the fact is that these couples wanted to adopt, and the cheapest way to do it was through the foster care system. I was a disposable commodity, a product to be returned to the shelf when found to be defective.

The analogy between “disrupted adoption” and divorce is often drawn, but this analogy is flawed because divorce happens between consenting adults. No one ever asked me whether I was OK with being aborted. I was more like a “re-homed” rescue pet, returned to the shelter when I “didn’t work out.” And if we wish to distinguish human children from feral cats, the only term that aptly captures the childhood experience of “re-homing” is “aborted adoption.” I am an abortee.

All three sets of my ”parents”, once we re-gained contact in later years, dumped me again. After my little brother Fred died in a car accident in Texas, I attended his funeral and re-established a brief period of contact with his adoptive mother, Judy Wall (Stayduhar). Richard Ruh had advocated for adopting me as an adult, only to have his wife intervene. Most traumatizing was the case of Pam and Dick Wegner, with whom I had extensive contact as an adult before I was summarily ghosted without a word of explanation. I still don’t know why. I have no idea what I did or what it was about me that was horrible enough to merit ending a relationship that had existed for decades.

Aftermath

As an adult, I have accomplished much. There is my PhD. My years spent as a college professor. I am a bi-lingual published writer and award-winning translator. Distinguished alumna: my maiden name is engraved in bronze on a wall in the administrative building of my alma mater. I’ve traveled the world—spent over 25 years as a professional performing artist—in Europe, Africa and the Americas. Later in life, I founded and directed a non-profit organization dedicated to educating economically disadvantaged youth. Truth be told, I’ve done more with my life than some of the parents who ditched me.

And yet. All my life I have suffered from debilitating panic attacks, days-long bouts of depression, sobbing so severe as to paralyze, haunting memories of traumatic events that refuse to fade. Hardly a day goes by when I am not reduced to tears, either by some distant memory or by the material reality of the present. Were it not for my husband’s impeccable work ethic and employment history, I’d be standing on the street corner shaking a tin cup.

Because for all the things I’ve succeeded in, making money is not among them. I’ve never been professionally stable, probably because of lessons I never had time to learn as a kid. I never spent more than three years in any given place, after all, or with any given FAMILY or set of parents. How was I supposed to learn about stability, much less about trust and the workings of social relationships? I know why the feral cat yowls! And that’s about all I know. No one is going to take the time to coax, coddle and gently woo me into domesticity. Of course, the difference between the feral kid and the feral cat is that the cat is not blamed for its plight or expected to heal itself. The cat is given comfort and treated as an innocent victim of circumstance. The kid? Not so much, especially when she hits the age of consent.

And so, when I turned eighteen, I was expected to put on my big girl panties and begin “adulting.” To know things I didn’t know, have skills I didn’t have. To exhibit a sense of being and belonging in the world that was entirely alien to me. And because these disabilities were invisible, I was given no latitude. No accommodations were made to compensate for the internal disfigurement and deformities that acted as stumbling blocks in every area of life. They affected my sexual well-being, my social well-being, my professional development, my economic stability. Everything. 

Pam and Dick Wegner—my last set of “parents”—visited me in Chicago sometime after they had adopted Sudha, the daughter who replaced me. During one conversation, I remember Pam saying something like “some people start out with less than others.” Thinking she was referring to my situation, I thanked her for acknowledging that, though in retrospect, I’m pretty sure she was talking about Sudha. Pam’s point of reference was likely my intellect: ever since I scored in the 99th percentile on the Iowa Basics in the third grade, this has been at once a blessing and a curse. It’s part of what made me so attractive to white, wealthy adopters looking for a bargain in the domestic infant supply chain.

But what my intelligence also has meant is that adults expected me to figure things out on my own, everything from how to perform in a job interview, what to major in in college, how to manage finances. What kind of graduate degree to pursue. What to consider when buying a house. How to hold your fork! Pam was presumably more empathetic to her replacement daughter, Sudha, because Sudha’s deficits/disabilities were more clear-cut and visible. Unlike me, the third grader with the tenth grade vocabulary, whom people expected to have an adult’s emotional maturity when in fact, I was still stuck emotionally on the front lawn of my birth mother’s house, on the day I fell off the Head Start bus and collapsed in the yard with a fever of 104. My mother didn’t even notice. She was drunk in the basement, yucking it up with her friend, Darlene. Had my grandmother not happened by that day, I’d have been dead.

To be fair, I don’t know enough about Sudha’s history to say anything about her except that she is their daughter. They ghosted me before I had time to learn much about my “wouldabeen” little sister. As I once assured Pam, I harbored no resentment toward Sudha. The way I saw it: whatever her history—as a kid orphaned in India, she probably had no chances of surviving without Pam and Dick. I, on the other hand, had already survived so much by the time I came into their lives that I was likely survive whatever came my way. And survive I did, for sure. I have survived. Even a stage IV lung cancer diagnosis, metastasized to this precious brain that has served me so well, has not managed to wipe me out. Not yet. But I have by no means lived up to my full potential, and, while there have been many successes, most of my dreams and aspirations have turned to sand—as a direct result of deficiencies and disabilities incurred in the first eighteen years of my life.

Aftercare

In the aftermath of Roe v Wade’s reversal, people are finally speaking about adoption trauma, about adoption as trauma, about trauma-informed care, about the need to listen to those of us who have experienced this trauma first-hand. #adopteevoices, #adoptionistrauma, and #domesticinfantsupply and similar hot-topic tags are trending on Twitter and elsewhere. And that’s a good thing.

Up until now, some of us have felt like Whos from Whoville in search of a Horton to hear. Those of us who’ve lived our lives as links in the domestic infant supply chain are finally being handed the megaphone. “Reactive Attachment Disorder”  entered the DSM-5 over a decade ago, and we now know that the kind of ACE’s I experienced as a child can, according to the CDC, “have tremendous impact on lifelong health and opportunity.” My lived experience is not a figment of imagination. My disfigurement is real. Parents like the three couples who called me their daughter are much better prepared to provide trauma-informed care  that focuses not on “What is wrong with this child?,” but rather “What has happened to this child?”

Those sorts of developments came too late for me, though. Standing now at death’s door, I have a framework for understanding the lifelong social and emotional crippling that has stood in the way of my own professional and personal development. But any chance for a do-over, or for meaningful alteration of the material realities that have ensued from this catastrophic life exists only in the form of a lottery ticket or a fairy godmother ambushing me for some kind of HGTV special titled “Trauma Crashers.” Even though most of my “parents” are still alive, it’s up to me to sift through the details of “what happened” and to come to terms with it. “It” happened to me—they happened to me. But it’s my problem. All the things that should have, could have, would have been. Others that should never have been

The story of my life hovers on the margins of multiple arenas of contemporary public discourse: the Indian boarding school experience, adoption versus abortion, adoption as trauma, intergenerational trauma, intersectionality. The cost of living. Mental health care, and the stigma attached to it. In what follows, I dedicate stand-alone narratives to each my three aborted adoptions: “The Hauntings” tells how my brother Fred and I were removed from my birth mother’s home and placed with Judy (Stayduhar) and Wayne Wall as adoptive parents. “The Human Remains: Ballad of a Lost Bird” outlines the second in the series of three aborted adoptions (with Richard and Cathy Thayer Ruh), and “I Remember Roger” addresses the third (Richard and Pamela Wegner).

I have spent a lifetime being traumatized and re-traumatized by these people who called themselves my parents, who saw themselves as my parents, but who bailed on me when the going got tough. They were able to walk away and never look back. I was not.

There’s no place like home.