Brother? Sister? Strangers with Shared Genetic Material

A long time ago, before some of you were even born, I wrote this, but don’t believe I ever formally published it, although I did use it as part of an introduction to a book proposal on adoption. My agent never sold the project, so I never wrote the book, so you can read this essay now.

I will warn the reader this contains my philosophy of life, which may be on the final exam, so do read it closely.

It’s not often that the mail changes my life. I mean, phone bills, supermarket flyers and invitations to further extend my already fragile credit are fine in their way, but they don’t serve as catalysts for introspection and meditation. A while ago, though, I received a letter that did just that, hitting me like a meatball between the eyes.

Oddly, the envelope itself inspired dread, bearing the return address of the probate court in my hometown. Given that my life to this point has been criminally unremarkable, I assumed the envelope contained either a reminder of a long-forgotten debt or the news that my high school had reviewed its records and that my diploma had been revoked.

Instead, I found a pleasant letter from the probate judge telling me that a stranger, or more accurately, the stranger’s social worker, had found that she and I had the same biological mother, that she too had been placed for adoption at birth and that she wanted to make contact with me. It struck me as very odd.

As an adopted person, I’ve never used a phrase like “as an adopted person,” so the whole premise struck me as surreal. I mean, I’ve never really cared who my biological mother was; instead, I’ve been focused on what kind of father my children will have. Still, strange or not, I did have to respond to the request, so I wrote the following letter:

Dear Judge X:

For the past 15 years I have spent my days helping adolescents with emotional difficulties recognize that their existence can offer meaning and purpose. I spend the rest of my life in nurturing and encouraging the search for meaning with my children. Life, for me, is filled with significance and purpose, with meaning pooling up like sunlight on a sheet of foil. Although I am a terrible poet, I do have poetic vision, with an ability to find connections between seemingly isolated objects and events. It is therefore very difficult for me to admit that I find meaningless the existence of a woman who spent nine months in the same womb I had visited a few years before. That womb has less meaning to me than the room my family and I stayed in at the lake last summer. After all, I had conversations with the lake-house landlord, something I never did with my biological mother. I find that I have no particular emotional response to this fact, nor any curiosity about this woman or her mother.

I am not a very philosophical man, at least in the sense of having a systematic belief system. In the choice between immanence and transcendence, I always choose the present and concrete over the ethereal and otherworldly. As H.L. Mencken remarked about philosophy in general, “We are here. It is now. The rest is all moonshine.” Because of the unusual situation presented by your letter, though, I have been led to ponder and outline a rough draft of a philosophy of life; this process has crystallized a number of previously unexpressed first principles by which I lead my life. Please excuse the length of this letter, but I hope to make my intentions explicitly clear to you, the involved party from the State of New Hampshire and, most important, the woman who initiated this series of circumstances.

If I were asked to define myself by coming up with a list of 100 descriptive attributes, the list might begin with:

1. I am a father.

2. I am a teacher.

3. I am an artist.

and so on, moving down toward the following:

37. I am a Red Sox fan.

38. I am a chess player who enjoys playing against superior competition, of which there is no shortage.

39. I am an Army veteran.

and conclude with:

98. I am a coffee drinker.

99. I worked my way through college and graduate school.

100. I am a good cook.

This hypothetical list, though, would probably not include the item “I am adopted,” for this fact forms almost none of my core identity. When I do meet people who view their adoption as central to their humanity, I am vaguely amused, for adoption has had little significance in my life. Since our conversation, I have done a little Internet research into the world of adoption, primarily through reading postings at newsgroups devoted to the subject. I was shocked to find that thousands of people appear to devote considerable energy to tracking down biological parents, children and siblings. Most of the postings have a desperate, Holy Grail tone to them, as if successful detective work would somehow make the searcher whole. Perhaps I have chosen massive denial as a strategy of coping with adoption, but the notion that one’s life is given purpose by the pursuit of another strikes me as pathetic and absurd. Pathetic because this is a sucker’s game: the elusive quarry is almost certainly not going to grant peace and serenity. Absurd because the random occurrence of a blood relationship guarantees no connection more profound than perhaps a certain physical similarity or, perhaps, a taste for salty foods. Many of us have had the experience of traveling overseas and meeting someone who comes from the same state or region; this coincidence forms a short-lived bond that melts fairly quickly if there is no other connection to be made. Thus it is with adoption and me; meeting someone who is adopted or interested in adoption is roughly akin to meeting a fellow New Englander in Vienna; I am interested enough to talk a bit, but the topic wears itself out fairly quickly. I would shy away from someone calling out in Heathrow Airport, “Hey, I’m from New Hampshire. Any other New Englanders here?”; similarly, I am put on guard by people who were adopted using that fact as a calling card.

Although I don’t much like labels, I find I hold some beliefs which might be labeled “existentialist,” although they might just as easily be called common-sense conservatism. First and foremost, I believe that what we do defines who we are; the “I” in each of us is the product of our experiences, those events which life has thrown at us, and, more important, our response to those events. Each situation in our lives offers the opportunity for choice and it is the patterns of those choices which create our identity. Without in any way wanting to sound mechanistic, a human life is that set of patterns and rhythms created by the choices we make; identity is the product of our responses to the chaotic events which life churns up over time.

This identity is being continually created, of course, so it also affects the choices we confront in our lives. As a perhaps too-facile example, a young person who is offered the opportunity to cheat on a test has at least two choices: politely refuse the offer or cheat. If the young person takes the first choice, he discovers that he is becoming the sort of person who doesn’t cheat; likewise, the people around him are discovering this, so they are less likely to offer him the chance to cheat. This self-stoking cycle applies just as strongly in regard to positive options; we are always in a state of becoming who we are. There is no static “I,” there is a dynamic, ever-changing, and, one hopes, ever-improving “I.”

This philosophy leads directly to my feelings about my biological mother. My view of life is that each of us is born with certain biological strengths and limitations; the vast majority of us have “enough” of everything we need to be successful. The secret to that success, though, comes not, except in the case of professional basketball players and midget wrestlers, from the biology with which we are born, but from the psychology and sociology of our parents, which enables us to make good choices later in our lives. In the battle between nature and nurture, my money is on the importance of nurture. For example, I was born with a brain capable of learning a lot of different information. My mother is a voracious reader who encouraged me to read broadly, deeply and until my eyes dried out. Whether I was reading comic books or Kafka, she urged me to read and think about what I was reading. Likewise, I was born with potentially adequate hand-eye coordination and a body that would be capable of running fast. My father, who was a high-school phenom, drove me to baseball soccer and track practice and attended every single one of my childhood and high school games, meets and tournaments, whether I was starting or riding the bench. In each of these examples, and in countless more, I was born with certain potential gifts and abilities but it was the nurturance of my parents and others who breathed reality into that potential.

If we can use the analogy of cards, my biological mother dealt half of my hand and left the table; it was my parents who taught me to play. In terms of influence on my life, my biological mother’s role is considerably less than that of my second-grade teacher, my old soccer coach, or even the friendly cashier at the local supermarket. In fact, if you had contacted me with information about Ben Roe, my elementary-school best friend, with whom I have not spoken since he moved away 30 years ago, my emotional response would have been immeasurably greater than it is under the present circumstances. The difference between my relationship with the people mentioned above and my relationship with my biological mother is that I interacted with them, while I merely resulted from an action of my biological mother, a result which was almost certainly unintended.

I have three young daughters, each of whom is wonderful in her own unique way. In a sense, I had nothing to do with which girl would have blue eyes, which would be left-handed and which would have dimples. I could not have chosen different attributes, for I had no choice. In fact, during the act that led to conception, babies were certainly far from my mind. I became my daughters’ father when I started to father them at birth, a dynamic and ongoing process; up until that point, I was merely a sperm supplier. By this light, my biological mother has had zero influence on who I am, for she had no control or influence over which genes she was passing on to me.

As a father, I know that the look I give when smiling into my five-year-old’s face is the same look of love which my father gave me when I was adopted. I love my children because of the time I spend with them and the dreams I have for them and because of the great people they are becoming, not because they are flesh of my flesh or bone of my bone.

In short, my need to find out more about the man who sired and the woman who bore me is nil. Nada. Zilch. With no bitterness or animosity toward either of them, and with thankfulness that neither of them appears to have passed on genes for madness, baldness or early-onset Alzheimer’s, I would say that I have no desire or need to discover these people. You have informed me that both my biological mother and father are dead. May they rest in peace.

Given that my need to establish any kind of contact is non-existent, I must consider those of my biological mother’s daughter, or my biological half-sister. While it is difficult for me to conceive of any questions that my identity could answer for this woman, the fact that she has initiated this process clearly indicates that she believes that finding me will be helpful to her. My first response is that if she wishes to discover more about herself, she should start with a mirror. Likewise, if she wishes to discover more about her biological mother, that same mirror could be used to search for her biological mother’s effects on her. Still, as long as no harm is likely to accrue to me, I have no objection to some minimal amount of contact, as long as the following requests are accepted. I request that my biological half-sister

1. Understand that I am not her “long-lost brother”; I am merely a person who shares some genes with her,

2. Understand that I have no desire to enter a long-term relationship with her or any of her relatives,

3. Understand and respect my desire for privacy, and

4. Understand that I am a writer and that I may choose to write about this experience and publish these writings, promising to protect the anonymity of her and her biological father.

Each of these conditions uses the verb “understand”; it has crossed my mind that my biological half-sister may have been judged incompetent and that the request you received may have been initiated by a case worker or guardian. If this is the case, I am still willing to meet her, with the understanding that her legal guardian accepts these conditions.

As a practical matter, I would prefer that you forward me this woman’s name, telephone number and a convenient time to call. I will make every effort to place a phone call and to try to arrange for at least one face-to-face meeting.

Thank you, Your Honor, for your interest in this case. Until I hear from you, I remain

Sincerely yours,

Did I contact this woman? Yes. Did we have a pleasant conversation? Yes. Did I rethink my position as stated above, and become friends with this woman? No, not at all. In fact, that is how the letter changed my life: it showed that I didn’t need to change my life all that much.

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