Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 80 (February 1998): 16-18.
I still enjoy telling the story of my adoption. I was a "gray market" baby in 1947, a private arrangement made between birth mother, doctor, lawyer, and adoptive parents. The attending physician had arranged to telephone the good news to the waiting couple, my parents--something like, "Congratulations. Sixteen years from now you'll have a teenager who wants his driver's license."
Unfortunately the Kansas City, Kansas, telephone operators were on strike. That was back in the days when, upon picking up the receiver, one heard "Number please?" and with the operators out the doctor sent a telegram. "Come quick," it read. "Baby boy born this 9:00 a.m."
The family story of how my adoptive mother left her home and raced two blocks up the hill on north Steward Avenue off Parallel then down a steeper hill to her aunt's house, excitedly waving the doctor's telegram, has become more elaborate year to year, at least in her sister's telling. The gist of it, though, appears that she arrived breathless, grandly flourished the telegram before her sisters and aunt, complained that having a baby was tough work and she needed a rest, whereupon she flopped down on a bed, arms and legs akimbo.
It was happy news for my adoptive parents, but that telegram proved terribly confusing to me. My folks kept it on page one in my baby book. As a young child I thumbed through that book frequently. When other kids started pondering the true origin of babies, I announced my firm conviction--citing documentary evidence--that babies originated with Western Union. Lou Ann, my sixth grade girlfriend, kindly took me aside on the playground to hint at other means, but I didn't believe her.
I've since gleaned more accurate information about where babies come from, but one fact from that telegram remains with me: I am adopted. There was never a time when I did not know I was adopted. It was a given, a fact calmly declared in public and in private, something in which to exult. In my very young years I remember feeling what now seems like a foolish kind of specialness, even a superiority over "ordinary" kids in being adopted. "But how did you find me?" I would plead. And my mother would tell how she and my father picked me, only me, from a huge room simply brimming with babies. They carefully looked at each one--"No, that's not our baby," they would say to each other--until, when they had almost given up, they at last found that one, just that one baby they knew God intended for them. Me.
I did worry about those other babies. What if no one found them quite as delightfully perfect as my parents had found me? What would happen to them? I was reassured to learn that for every baby in that room brimming with babies, special parents and a new home were waiting. Or so my mother told me.
For all the specialness that I and my adoptive parents found, I have yet at the same time always wondered about my birth parents. Just as I cannot remember a time when I did not know I was adopted, I cannot remember a time when I did not speculate about those other people. To say this takes nothing from my parents, my real parents, the ones who adopted, reared, and love me still, and who are well into their seventies, both living active lives. But it is to say that from my earliest years I have mulled over those others who, in different circumstances, would have been my real parents. I have wondered, in short, why I was given up for adoption, and for reasons I cannot explain, my questioning has always concerned my birth mother, seldom my birth father.
I never looked too hard, really, but while in my late twenties I did learn that she lived in Kansas City. The information I gained on my birth father puts my birth mother's decision for adoption in perspective. He was young, a soldier from Ft. Leavenworth. I was conceived in the late summer of 1946, less than a year after the close of World War II. I have their names--Robert and Faye--and their addresses, now fifty years out of date.
This information, little as it was, satisfied me at age twenty-seven. From it I fashioned in my mind a failed romance between a young Kansas City girl, sixteen at my birth, and a lonely, nineteen-year-old left-over World War II enlistee stationed at Ft. Leavenworth. Dashing, they were, Robert and Faye, and evidently star-crossed, as my imagination has pictured them all these years; kids, that's all, just teenagers. She vulnerable and pretty and foolish, obviously vulnerable enough and foolish enough to let her head get turned by--well, he was, wasn't he?--a handsome guy in a uniform. He, again in my imagination, perhaps was far from home, seeking company. Ft. Leavenworth is not a great place for a weekend pass. Kansas City is the place to be, the Kansas side if your pass doesn't let you cross the state line into Missouri. And there they met (at a soda fountain?), a fateful meeting that led to the assignation that led to me. Or perhaps they attended Wyandotte County High School together--Robert was only eighteen in 1946--and being romantically incautious while he was on leave, that was how I came to be. It could have happened like that.
But they were young, too young to take on the responsibilities of a marriage and a child all at once, no matter how desperately they might have wanted it otherwise. So on the best advice of family and friends I was given up, tearfully I imagined, to what they both prayed would be a better life than they, she, could provide. All that was my imagination, never too detailed and just vague enough to avoid more critical questioning.
Some adoptees never get over questioning why they were surrendered for adoption, why their parents could not have kept them and raised them and loved them for their own. No matter the childhood tales of being especially chosen, no matter the practical realities one becomes aware of later that make adoption desirable, the question lingers because it is so intensely personal. What was so bad about me that she did not want me, would not love me? What were the hardships she faced that could not be overcome . . . for me?
For me the fact of adoption still echoes with such questions. There is--I have no other description but one that sounds clichéd--a sometimes deep empty place, a hole into which I fall in times of personal stress. I deal cautiously with people; I am friendly but reserved. A fear of abandonment, I was once told, a fear of rejection, of death. It flairs up unbidden, the slightest of things innocently said nonetheless strikes deep in my being, momentarily overpowering my intellectualizations. It can be very hard on the people I love best and God knows what it contributed to the breakup of my first marriage. All of it comes from knowing that in my earliest moments, they who should have loved me best gave me up to others.
Some years ago, I wrote about being adopted, the first time I had ever made public comments on the subject. In that essay, too, I told of the imaginary scenario I had constructed in my mind: pretty girl, lonely soldier, failed romance, doomed love. Writing about it stimulated all the old, nagging questions I thought settled. They have unexpectedly resurfaced.
I know more now of my birth.
My birth father indeed was a young soldier at Ft. Leavenworth. His family forced his enlistment after he impregnated (raped?) his sixteen-year-old step-sister, my birth mother. I am the result of sexual predation, of step-sibling incest. I never knew why my mother could not keep me, would not keep me. Now I know, and the knowledge has been comforting, in a way. I learned it and, strangely perplexed that this need never arose before, I forgave her.
But the knowledge has also left me uncomfortably disconcerted. No longer was my birth the result of an ill-fated romantic liaison. It was something else, alien and other, distasteful. Now I know beyond question, I was not abandoned to adoption. I was rescued by it.
When I acquired my birth-parents' names and addresses twenty-four years ago I did it thinking to seek out my mother. I decided otherwise, to respect her privacy, to avoid hurting my parents, for a number of reasons. But it was also just after Roe v. Wade, when the enormity of abortion was gaining a sharper clarity. Her privacy was one thing, but there was another reason too. I feared a second rejection, feared hearing in some form or other that had she had the choice in 1947, she would have chosen abortion. With my romantic fiction, I at least had the notion that given a choice she might have chosen me, the child that she and Robert made in love. But I was not made in love, and possibly I was conceived in violence. Would she today have hesitated over abortion?
As the abortion business has become ever bigger in the years since, I have grimly pondered the fate of Faye's pregnancy were it to occur now under circumstances like those of a half century ago. The law then protected me. Not today. Today, hers would be a "problem pregnancy," a "crisis pregnancy," an "unwanted pregnancy."
It was all that of course and more in 1947. Carrying her pregnancy, thinking of me in her womb, might have been awful in different moments. But there were more social supports for young women with "problems" like that. Society may have regarded unmarried pregnant girls with less compassion or tolerance than today, but their babies lived. Whatever the difficulty, the shame, the discomfort, the fear; whatever dread she experienced, whatever she endured was worth it for her, for me, for my own children. I was born. The laws, the courts, the physicians, the churches, all worked to insure that once Faye was pregnant, I would be born.
Not today. Today, not even my own church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is able to say flatly that unborn babies like me should live. No woman has an absolute right to abortion, so my church declares in its social statement on abortion. But it goes on, conversely, to say that no fetus has an absolute right to birth. The woman decides--after of course appropriate moral reflection with sympathetic listeners, but she decides. Pregnancies created in circumstances such as those of Faye and Robert in 1947 are in 1998 fair targets for "morally responsible" abortions, according to my church. Even stranger, were either Robert or Faye or their parents beneficiaries under the ELCA health plan (which means pastors and salaried church workers and their dependents), Faye's 1998 abortion would be a reimbursable medical expense. The ELCA health plan will not pay for an elective breast implant but, under the right conditions, will pay to abort someone like me. When it comes to my birth the church that values my baptism is ambivalent at best about my right to life in the womb.
Abortion is personal to me, as personal as my adoption. It is personal not only to the woman who aborts, but to me; to me, to the unborn children like me, it is personal. It is our person that is in jeopardy.
Fear of abandonment, the psychiatrist told me, fear of rejection, of death. Gosh, whatever gave her that idea?
Russell E. Saltzman is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, Stover, Missouri, and editor of Forum Letter.