Friday, January 29, 2016

CHAPTER 29- ON BEING ADOPTED

First things first.  Latest results are in. Neither of the "brothers from across the street" is my father.
I'm still toying with the idea of calling one of them again, coming clean about my original motive, hope he doesn't hang up on me, then ask if he remembers anything about my mother from that era. We'll see if I can pull the trigger on that one.

Onward.

My biological mother got mad at me on Facebook.  I'm often posting thinly veiled updates about "truth" and "virgin birth".  There's usually no comment from her- and if I'm honest, I am trying to shake something from her. Well, a few weeks ago I went too far with a response to a comment on my page that actually referred to her and she was none too happy.  Though I'm not proud to have hurt her feelings, the fact that she showed some sort of emotion about the whole thing was somewhat gratifying.  To be honest, pushing someone to have some sort of emotional response is kind of my thing.  Having been raised by people that showed little to no emotional expression is probably the genesis of this malady. It was made clear to me that emotional outbursts were not encouraged or welcomed, and certainly a sign of a flawed personality.

The events of the past couple of years has brought to the forefront continuing insights about my experience as a person who is adopted. By virtue of the fact that I have reached out and joined various "groups" who offer support, information and validation to (and from) others with similar experiences, it is only natural that I find myself comparing and contrasting my own experience to theirs.  It is no secret that when I was adopted (in the mid 1960's) the very topic of adoption was looked upon as "taboo" and, by it's very nature, was designed to be kept private and rarely spoken about.  Though my parents were always up front about that fact that me and my brother were adopted- it was made clear that this was not information to be freely shared with the general public.  While my mom would relay the story of the baby-shopping expedition of which I was the prize, the final caveat was always "Don't tell anybody".  While this admonition was meant as a way avoid bullying, my perception was that it was something to be ashamed of.  I experienced a lot of taunting from other kids as a child.  Being adopted was the least of the reasons that people had to single me out.  The first difference was that I had a right lazy eye- a fact that had eluded my parents until my kindergarten teacher sent home a note asking if they were planning on doing anything to remedy it.  Up until then, I thought it was perfectly normal to sometimes see people morph into identical twins.  How was I supposed to know that this wasn't something that everyone experienced?  After visiting an Opthalmologist (Dr Foster- I remember him well) I was prescribed corrective glasses.  My mother, who had definitely experienced her "peak" years in the 1950's chose a pair of blue horn-rimmed, cat-eye shaped frames with enameled filigree corners.  Now, these days, that is the exact style that I like to rock- however, 1970 was not a fun time to wear unusual glasses- or any glasses for that matter.  My goggles, however, were the least of my worries.  I was also quite pigeon-toed, knock-kneed, sway-backed and ,for some reason, my hips are connected so that walking induces a prominent wiggle of my hind quarters.  One would think that I was trying to emulate Marilyn Monroe.  It was not cute.  Well, it probably was, but as a result,  I was the constant subject of taunting by kids that thought I was definitely trying to get attention.  Of course, that couldn't have been further from the truth.  There's the added feature that the very timbre of my voice cuts through any other sound that is happening at any given moment- so I was also considered somewhat loud.  What can I say? I knew how to project before I knew I needed to project.  It is clear to me now that I was just doing my best to figure out who I was.  It seemed as though everything that defined me was what got me the most negative attention.  It was not a happy childhood for the most part.  I don't wish to indict my parents for any sort of wrong doing in this situation, but the fact of the matter is, they were as bewildered by me as those kids.  When I would come home crying because kids had been teasing me, the standard response was "well, what were you doing to make them treat you that way?"  Again, my parents were turtles.  Keep your head down, don't attract too much attention, and for God's sake, don't be different.

For most of my life, knowing that I was adopted was not the most unique thing about me.  It was just my circumstance.  While I spent time at the homes of friends with close knit families, attentive mothers and doting fathers.  Mothers who would compliment and encourage their daughters, and fathers who would look at their daughters with such adoration that sometimes I felt as though I was witnessing something that was intensely private.  I took note that my home life was not the same as theirs.  However, though the most obvious reason would be that I am not made of the same genetic materials as my parents, it was never a valid concept in my family.  There was a constant underlying assumption within my household that there is no "nature versus nurture" debate.  The narrative was always that I was chosen and should feel nothing but thankful that these people had saved me.  They wanted children so badly that they made the sacrifice of taking in a child who had been rejected by her own parents.  To be anything other than enormously thankful would be improper.  My older brother, also adopted, was the example of how I should feel.  He all but denied that he was adopted.  He never asked questions about his "real" parents. As there appeared to be more of a bond between the three of them, it was telegraphed that that was the preferred state of affairs at our house.  I can't say as I blame them.  As a natural empath, I think I understood that deep down they would feel hurt that I thought we weren't really able to connect.

I am not a psychologist, nor do I claim to be an expert on the psychological ramifications of adoption.  All I have is my own experience and, with the help of therapists, have been able to sort through the "why" of my particular "presentation".  While there is a movement among many adoptees to abolish the practice of adoption altogether- I don't take quite so extreme a stance.  There is study after study referring to the trauma a newborn child experiences as they are born and immediately removed from their mother- never to experience her smell, voice, soothing and- well- presence.  In my particular case, I was in an orphanage for two months- probably with different care givers on a daily basis.  One can only assume that I may grow up feeling intensely insecure.  Well.  I did.  Not to mention my lifelong inability to connect on an emotional level for fear that it wouldn't last and I would experience more feelings of abandonment.
Me at eleven.  I remember hating this picture.  Now it's my favorite.



Nowadays, from what I have discovered, there is far more known- and shared- about what to expect with an adopted child.  There is mandatory counseling, numerous books on the subject, and a general knowledge that children do not come out of the womb a shapeless piece of clay ready to be molded into whatever their nurturers deem fit.  I think it's safe to say that family history, health and cultural, are more likely to come into play when matching a child with an adoptive family.
My parents could not be more different than myself.  I wish someone had educated them about the importance of validating the adopted child.  I wish that they had the instincts to over-nurture (which is the recommended method).  Don't get me wrong.  I believe that nowadays parents dote on their children to an extreme that stunts said children's ability to assimilate into normal society when necessary.  Call it the "millennial factor".  My experience was the opposite of that.  I've spoken often about the emotional divide I've always felt.  My father is the first to admit that he was raised in an emotionally disconnected household.  He obviously felt that this was fine for him- especially considering he was genetically related to both of his parents.  My mother, the youngest of eleven children, lost her father at two months of age.  There are many anecdotal stories of her childhood in Montana.  But they were just that.  Anecdotes.  I don't know anything about what it was like for her to not have a father.  I do know what happens when you sit on a pregnant cat (don't ask). I didn't find out that my mother had a previous marriage until someone let it slip at a legal proceeding. I came to find out later that it was an abusive marriage- and though he knew about the marriage, my mother never shared details with my dad.  My point here is that neither of my parents put any weight into the emotional impact that circumstances present.  My guess would be that they had endured life's hardships while keeping a stiff upper-lip- and so should I.  After all, my brother seemed to fit in just fine.  Why didn't I like to play sports?  What was wrong with me?  Why did I want to dance?  Why did I want to sing?  What benefit would those kinds of activities provide me as an adult?  People that looked like me couldn't make a living like those people we see on TV.  Why didn't I just learn how to cook and type so that I can be someone's secretary one day and maybe he might marry me? All of these things were said to me at one time or another.
When I was fifteen, I landed the lead in my school musical.  I had waited years because you were only allowed to participate starting in tenth grade.  My friend, Maida and I decided that we should audition together- so we sang "I Don't Know How To Love Him" (from Jesus Christ Superstar) as a duet.  Maida was beautiful and very popular with the boys.  Imagine my surprise when a few bars in, they asked her to stop singing and for me to continue alone.  Long story short, I was cast as "Adelaide" in "Guys and Dolls" and I was ecstatic.  Maida slowly pulled back and within a few months had stopped talking to me completely- but that's a story for another time.  Anyway, I ran home with the thrilling news that "I had landed a lead!!"  I honestly don't remember how the conversation went- but I know (because they told me afterwards), that they were terrified for me and worried that I was going to embarrass myself (and them).  One way that I know that this is true is that none of my relatives were invited to the performances.  My parents only close friends (the McGraths) did come- but they were the most eccentric people that we knew-and likely invited themselves after I had probably blurted out my good fortune at some gathering.
This production marks the turning point in my self perception.  I had never sang a solo out loud in public- but I always knew that I could sing.  I finally had my opportunity and it was a smashing success.  Overnight, life changed for me.  There was only one production a year at my school, so it was a pretty big deal.  Most of the people from our community turned out and I received personal accolades from some who had never bothered to speak to me.  Boys asked me out.  My self esteem went through the roof.  I felt happy and had proof that I was a force to be reckoned with- and that there was finally SOMETHING that I was good at.
My parents were complimentary.  By complimentary I mean that they said "we had no idea that you could sing."  I had been "singing" at home for my entire life.  I was usually told to be quiet, so the best time for me to sing out loud was when my mother was vacuuming.  I could sing at the top of my lungs without complaint.  To this day I feel a physical let-down when a I hear the slow decline of sound when a vacuum is turned off.
So, one would think that once I had proven myself as a legitimate talent, my parents would have less resistance to my desires to pursue further performing opportunities, right?  Yeah, wrong.  If anything this was even worse news for them.  I mean, as far as they could tell nobody that was in their scope of existence actually did this for a living.  If they were to start being supportive and complimentary now- they would be contributing to my eventual disappointment.  (Ok, I'm projecting here- but that's the only reason I can think of that they wouldn't be thrilled that I had found a purpose in life...)  They were exceedingly practical people.  By practical I mean that they rarely allowed themselves the pleasure of an indulgence just because it made them feel good. This was probably a symptom of growing up during the depression. If it wasn't an "investment" in the future, then it wasn't necessary.  Of course, my mother found her greatest pleasure in the consumption of food.  She actually would wake up in the morning and say "what will I feast on today?" I can honestly say that the thing my mother and I actually bonded over was going into town and eating roasted chicken and potatoes from Coles. It's no surprise that I have a less than desirable relationship with food.  My Dad built his own "Hi-Fi" system.  He would spend hours in his "music room" blasting Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" so loudly that the house would vibrate.  I remember spending excruciatingly long sessions with him in a stereo store in Melbourne- I think it was called "TEAC".  So, it's interesting that they couldn't bring themselves to back down just a little on the negativity.  Oh well.  At least I had my knew found popularity right?  Also wrong.  Two months later, my parents packed us up and moved us to the U.S. I am not exaggerating at all.  They had decided that it would be perfectly reasonable to uproot your hormonal and insecure fifteen and sixteen year olds and move them to another country in the middle of high school.
If you think that dad had received an extraordinary job opportunity, think again. Dad is, if nothing else, a man of his word.  A stand up guy. When my parents met in Los Angeles (at the Palladium no less) in the late fifties, he apparently swept her off her feet.  They had a short courtship and got married (a week after her divorce was finalized) in Las Vegas in early 1960.  The deal was that he would take her back to Australia- but would bring her home to America whenever she got too homesick.  Romantic right?  Sure.  Except Mom stuck it out for twenty years- only to pull the trigger at , what I consider to be,  not the best time.  I don't know, maybe let us finish our formative schooling first?  Nah.  It'll be fine.
So, no sooner had I embarked on a new social life and general outlook did the rug get pulled out from under me.  My parents sold the house that they had built from the ground up, Dad left his successful electrical contracting business to his partner/brother and I had to pack my entire life into two suitcases and move to Washington State.  To say it wasn't easy is an understatement.

As distressing as the transition was- I wouldn't change anything about it.  Sure, there were tough times and plenty of regrets.  However, I can't imagine life any differently than it is now.  I couldn't be any luckier to have such a patient and supportive husband and two kids that are the very image of my husband and I.  In a the best possible way.

So, what do I think about Nature V Nurture?
From my mother I certainly see similarities.  Most people that compare pictures don't really see a resemblance, but I see many.  First of all, she has "the walk"- the Marilyn Monroe walk.  I was heartily amused the first time I noticed it.  We have hooded eyes, soft features and a tendency towards a loose waddle.  I like to call it "the Priest chineck".  We both tuck our feet under us when we sit on a low chair or couch.  We tend to spread out wherever we are parked, particularly when we are working on craft projects. My tendency towards losing control of household clutter is definitely a family trait.  That's a real clear one for me as my parents were always very buttoned up and sparse.  I have a bit of a problem with it. Personality wise I don't really see a similarity. Though we both want for people to like us, I think I'm at a point where I'd rather get answers than play nice.  I have an unabashed vanity and desire for knowledge.  My personality is, for lack of a better word, pretty out there.  I guess when I thought that Malcolm was my father, though he was not ideal, I was totally accepting that this must be where I get the other stuff.  I was really at peace with what I thought was the end of the story.  It made sense.

The parents who raised me instilled characteristics in me that were obviously learned through how they "modeled".  It was always important to show up for appointments and events on time- even early. I do this to a fault- and I loathe it when others don't respect my time.  They never sent cards or thank you notes.  Even though I've learned since that it is appreciated- even expected, I've never been able to bring myself to make it part of my lifestyle. They didn't make a big deal about birthdays.  I figured that it wasn't significant to them because they weren't there when it happened.  I remember once my mother told me that she considered June 3rd more my birthday. These are small examples that come to mind as I write.  I think, however, the biggest impact that my childhood had was fear of "putting myself out there".  My father, by nature, is somewhat of a pessimist.  He's naturally contrary- and I think that he finds amusement in taking the opposite position just for the debate of it.  As a child I thought that my father had the answers to everything.  If he said it, it must be true.  He was an adult- and he was the smartest man I knew.  One time I had almost convinced him to let me take dance classes with my best friend Linda. My parents thought that I only wanted to do whatever Linda was doing as a social thing (would have been natural- even if it were true).  He sat me down and said "If we enroll you in this dance class, you must stick with it for an entire year- even if you hate it."  In hindsight, it should have been a no-brainer- but at the time I thought that if my dad were laying it out like that he MUST know something that I don't know. He was my dad- he was never wrong.  So, I ended up making the safer choice and didn't take the class. It's the first of many regrets.  So, it's been instilled in me to really think about consequences before taking actions.  I strongly live by this motto- to a fault.  For fear of making the wrong choice I have sabotaged myself for much of my professional life.
You see, once I decided that I was going to pursue a career as a performer, my motivation was to prove all the naysayers wrong.  My motivation was "F*$% YOU".  The problem was, once I got to a level where my competition was tougher, the chance of failure was higher.  I actually intellectualized that if I just didn't show up, then nobody would see me there, and know that I wasn't good enough to book the job.  Of course, this makes no sense, but for me, avoidance was safer than putting myself out there and failing- thus proving that I was in the wrong business.  I have had a decent career as a theatre actor- but I always regret not taking more risks and letting myself fail if that was the outcome. I wish that the term "what if" was not in my vocabulary.

My full circle moment came a couple of years ago.  In 2012 I enrolled in Cosmetology School.  My theatre career had taken some hits due to this "aging" thing.  I knew that I was going to need something creative to fill my time and contribute to the household.  I was at peace with this decision and excited about this new adventure.  On the very first day of class I received a frantic text from my agent.  Work had been so scarce for me that I hadn't even bothered to "book out" for the next few months.  Apparently I had booked an Adam Sandler movie and was needed on set for a fitting ASAP. Are you kidding me?  I had gone to the audition all but knowing I wasn't going to book it- which is probably why I had booked it.  Anyway, I got permission to take a couple of days off to shoot my scene.  The movie was called "Just Go With It" and I had a scene with Adam and Jennifer Aniston.  The premise was that he was a plastic surgeon and I was a patient who had had an unfortunate breast implant deflation incident. I had to wear a painfully constructed bra that flattened one breast and the other was made to look enormous. It was visually ridiculous, but pretty funny.  I got to spend two days being prodded and poked and improvising with Adam and Jennifer.  It was silly and fun.  I felt validated that I was considered funny, camera-worthy, and castable for a major motion picture.  When I told my dad about it he offered little response- as if I had just told him that I was making a ham sandwich. This was not surprising. I had given up talking about the business many years prior because trying to explain the significance of anything proved more frustrating than it was worth. He had never heard of Adam Sandler or Jennifer Aniston- so as far as he knew I was probably doing a favor for some guy with a camera.  I knew that when it was released he couldn't deny that this was kind of a big deal.  Fast forward a year and a half or so and the movie is released.  I let my dad know that it was playing in his local movie theatre.  I knew that it wasn't going to be his "cup of tea" but I thought that maybe he would take a couple of hours to finally see his daughter on an actual movie screen.  That didn't happen.  I was ok with it.  I mean, I wasn't really surprised and I had long since accepted that it was better to leave it alone.  The following Christmas, Dad came to our house to see the kids.  As he was leaving, my husband picked up a copy of the movie, handed it to my dad and said "Your daughter is in this- you should watch it."  He didn't tell me this until after dad had left and I was angry at him for not letting me decide whether or not I wanted that to happen. I didn't hear anything about it in the following weeks so I just forgot about it.  Later that year- maybe 8 months later, I was having dinner with my kids and my dad at a local restaurant.  We were having a relatively pleasant conversation.  I have made a point over the years to not try to talk about anything too deep- so we've had extensive discussions about the weather and beer.  I was uncharacteristically relaxed.  Suddenly dad said "So I watched your movie."  I was caught off guard, but I chuckled a little and asked him what he thought.  He paused, took a large intake of breath and said "Why would you accept a role like that?"  My stomach dropped and I was incredulous.  I began hyperventilating and said "What do you mean?  I beat out a lot of actors for that role.  It's a major motion picture."  His face did something resembling an eye roll and he mocked back "major motion picture...."  I was stunned and hurt.  I knew I shouldn't be surprised, but it's hard to intellectualize something when it's that raw.  As my kids were present, I decided to change the subject and not let him know how painful that was to hear.  I am acutely aware that my dad just doesn't get it.  It should never surprise me by how out of touch he is about certain things, when he is so well versed in others. We finished up our meal and I was nothing but relieved when he finally went home.  Over the next couple of days it really sunk it and I battled a long bout of depression.  Moments like that are what my therapist refers to as "triggers".

I never wish to diminish the perception of my parents.  As I've always said, they were essentially good humans doing the best that they knew.  As much as I've worked towards forgiveness it's difficult when behaviors are repeated.  Visiting with my dad is trying as I'm bracing for a trigger moment. I have, on many occasions, tried to explain what my "problem" is.  He's listening- but he doesn't hear.  He feels attacked and denies the existence of every example that I supply.  He is a stubborn and proud man.  I love him so much. I can't be around him.  It's painful.

So, what was my point?  Nature versus Nurture is definitely a thing- but what's even more important is education and acceptance.  It's as simple as that.  Yes, I need to know who my father is or was.  I'm not looking for a father.  I have one- warts and all.  The real need that I have is to be told the truth. That's all.  I have that right.  No matter how long it takes, I will never give up trying.