I never read any books by and about adopted people when I was growing up. And yet so many of the adoptees I know today are natural storytellers. I sometimes wonder if this is because we never had a choice: We have been explaining our lives, our families, and our histories for as long as we can remember.
My adoption was never a secret. Not that it could have been, since my parents weren’t Korean and I was. I knew that I had a mom and a dad who loved me; I had a grandma across town who took me fishing and crabbing on the shores of the Oregon coast almost before I could walk; and that was all the family in the world I saw regularly, and the only family I felt close to.
I did ask about my unknown birth parents, of course. I wanted to know their reasons for giving me up. I wanted to know who they were, what they were like, in part because I did not know any other Koreans and could scarcely imagine belonging to a whole family of them. My adoptive parents’ refrain was always the same: You were small. You were sick. They didn’t have much money. They were sad to give you up. That was it, the entire story—that was all I thought I would ever know.
By the age of five or so, I had learned this patchy origin myth at my mother’s knee and could recite it to others when asked, in much the same way my own child will now recite her birth time and weight, the fact that she was born with one arm raised beside her head. Every now and then it did occur to me to wonder at the spare little story I’d been told. I felt tempted to press my parents for proof (how could we know my birth mother had wanted to keep me, when we knew nothing else about her?) or demand information I knew they couldn’t provide. But for the most part, I buried these rebellious thoughts in the same place where I kept all questions and thoughts about my birth family. When you ask about the unknown, unglimpsed people who made you and those you’re with shift uncomfortably and change the subject—when the simple act of going to the store with your parents leads to double takes and questions about how your family came to be—you learn, very quickly, what is expected of you.
At school, at the mall, at church, I was always telling the same story. For years, I thought its real power might be found in repetition: If I just told it often enough, then maybe, eventually, everyone would see me—my family, my adoption—as “normal.” I wanted the story that had once convinced me to convince everyone. I wanted to believe I could make the story serve me.
For many of us who choose to write about adoption, telling our stories often means reclaiming them first—pushing past the easy platitudes, the urge to accept everything we were told and learned to tell, to get to the mixed emotions and difficult truths we might not have known how to express growing up. But not all of us search for the same things. Some might look to unearth buried secrets; to incorporate new truths, and sometimes new people, into our lives. Others decide that leaving certain questions unasked is what will allow us to find peace.
I started writing about my own adoption at the age of twenty-five. I had joined a local writing group in which most people were writing personal stories, which we would then take turns reading aloud to each other. As the date of my reading approached, I realized none of the short fiction I had sitting on my hard drive seemed quite right. The others had all been sharing stories from childhood, and so—influenced by the group, I suppose—I found myself thinking about mine.
I kept returning to that well-worn adoption story I’d heard and shared over and over when I was a child—wondering again how my parents could have been so certain about the motivations of people we didn’t know, and why I always repeated that story so faithfully to others. Why hadn’t I ever acknowledged all the questions I had, all the complicated feelings that (for me) came along with being adopted? Why had I assumed the role of chipper, unofficial spokesperson for adoption for so many years?
The answer, I realized, was that if I hadn’t, people might have thought I was ashamed of my family. This seemed childish, cowardly; at first I didn’t want to believe it of myself. But as I stared at the words of my draft, I knew I’d hit upon the truth behind every cheery answer I’d ever given to friends and strangers alike. I had waged a lifelong public-relations campaign for adoption, buffing my own story to a shine because some part of me must have believed that I could actually control how other people felt about me and my family. More than that, I had believed this control was a worthy goal, worth betraying my own curiosity and my own feelings.
This was not a pleasant revelation. Nor did the writing or revising come easily once I had faced it. I began to realize how many sidebars and disclaimers I made when talking about adoption: I know we all did our best. I never minded. I’ll always be grateful. I tried to scrub all of these from my writing, scraping deeper and deeper until I felt my vulnerability like a reopened wound. By the time I was through turning my memories inside out and examining them, I felt no real satisfaction, just a raw, tired emptiness. I had also discovered how I really felt about my adoption: I felt the loss of my birth family, deeply, and I always had. More than that, I wanted to know who they were.
It was the first time I had ever tried to be entirely honest about my adoption, perhaps because it was the first time I knew other people would be forced to listen—and the point was not what they thought of my family or whether they agreed with me; the only thing that mattered was the truth. When I finally read my essay aloud to the handful of people in the group—people I was still getting to know, whose only real knowledge of me would come from this intensely personal piece—I couldn’t keep my voice entirely steady. I felt a new kind of knee-knocking terror, one I’d never experienced when sharing my fiction back in college. This was my mind, my heart, my entire life, naked and on display, and I felt sure no one would understand what I was trying to say. Even as I finished reading, I waited to be judged.
But to my surprise, no one thought I sounded angry. No one stepped up to offer their pity or condemn adoption as a whole, either. They said they had never thought about the pressure some adoptees might feel to appear happy and grateful, to avoid hurting their adoptive families or giving adoption a bad name. They had so many thoughtful questions and comments that our discussion ran over the time allotted. I had read my adoption story to a roomful of people who had started from scratch, who had no personal connection to adoption that I knew of, and it had been excruciating—but in the end, they had understood. I had helped them understand.
I never published that piece, or the one after it, but I kept writing about adoption. Within a year I had also begun to search for my birth family in earnest. I had a number of other reasons for searching when I did—I was pregnant with my first child, and my lifelong curiosity about my birth parents had taken on an edge of urgency I’d never felt before—but writing my adopted experience undeniably had a role in spurring me on. I don’t know that I ever would have been open to the possibility of that search if not for all the long hours spent interrogating my memories, the subsequent workshop discussions with my fellow writers, and that shocking moment when, after hours of wrestling with the very first essay, I paused to look over the lines I’d written and was almost surprised to read the words I want to find my birth parents.
Looking back now, I know those early essays forced me to confront things I’d been repressing for years. They allowed me to consider how it might feel to search for the rest of the story—to repossess my narrative in more ways than one. And once I started wondering, I couldn’t seem to stop. The story I’d been given was no longer enough for me, and I found myself obsessed with the gaps—the tantalizing, unknown prologue—and all the parts that had yet to be filled in.
When I was growing up, I couldn’t find any stories about adoption that spoke to my experience. If it did pop up in the rare novel or film, it was usually portrayed as a reward after great hardship, as in Annie , or used as sensational fodder for stories like The Face on the Milk Carton . I never saw the uneasy if unfinished drama of the everyday; I never saw adoption depicted in a way I could recognize .
My story is one I have referenced and hope to tell elsewhere; after a challenging search and reunion, it has turned out to be neither Movie of the Week nor stock happily-ever-after tale of triumph over adversity. It also bears little resemblance to the story I was given as a child. While I now see more and more adoptions like mine—commonplace, if also deeply complicated—in the occasional memoir or essay, most of these stories are written by adoptive parents, and as such focus on the challenges of finding and bringing a child home. Adoptees are still trying to find the space to write our lives, instead of being written about.
That’s why I was overjoyed to hear from so many adopted writers when we announced this essay series at Catapult. The number of compelling stories we received from adoptees convinced us that we needed to devote an entire series to their stories. In this month’s Adopted series, we will journey with adopted writers attempting to connect with biological relatives, retrace their birth mothers’ steps, find their roots in the land of their birth. We’ll hear from a woman adopted and raised by her grandmother, who wonders whether the term “Mama” is a simple fact of biology or a title that must be earned. We’ll read a tale of two fathers, one biological and one an adoptive stepfather, and learn which one a daughter can truly count on. We will discover what one gay adoptee thinks about the still-distant possibility of becoming a parent himself, possibly through adoption.
No one narrative or ten could possibly speak for all adoptees, or claim to represent the diverse array of adoption stories in the world. But I do hope this series holds up a mirror in which adoptees and their families will be able to glimpse their own lives reflected, shared, and validated. I believe these stories will also prove meaningful—and even ring familiar—to anyone who has ever experienced the love of chosen family or of long-lost connections, wondered about their origins, or sought to restore broken ties. If the search for my own story and my reunion with my birth family has taught me anything, it’s that there is no simple resolution to be found in any family. There will always be some lost tale to remember and pass on, someone new to meet, someone to find, someone to forgive. There will always be another story to tell.