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Making the Decision to Search

A discussion on making the decision to search wouldn’t be complete without some background information about who searches in general, and why. Studies are being conducted every year, and certainly yesterday’s data does not apply to today in the ever-changing world of adoption search, but a careful look at the available data does reveal some patterns and can lead to some general basic conclusions.

How Many Search?

The answer to this question is bound to be different depending on who you ask, and what is meant by ‘search’. Because of the sealed nature of records, the expense involved in searching, the emotional ramifications of a search, and the underlying systemic attitude that searching adoptees are ungrateful children with emotional problems, the number of adoptees who search to completion is probably very low. As far as those who start a search, researchers Brodzinsky, Schechter, and Henig, in their work “Being Adopted, The Lifelong Search for Self”, assert that 100% of adoptees search in some fashion, sometimes simply an “intrapsychic” search, which they describe as fantasies and inner contemplation. Those who take the search through to the next step appear to number between 15 and 40%. For those of you interested in taking a closer look at the studies that report these disparate figures, I recommend the Scottish studies detailed in J. Triseliotis’ “In Search of Origins: The Experience of Adopted People”, available through London, Routledge and Kegan Paul. You may also contact ALMA (Adoptee’s Liberation Movement Association),Adoptees in Search, Adoption Circle, Orphan Voyage, AAC (American Adoption Congress), and the National Council for Adoption (NCFA) for sometimes biased, but interesting reading, as all of these organizations make it a practice to keep figures on the number of adoptees who search.

Who Searches and Why?

Demographic studies on searching adoptees such as those detailed in Brodzinsky and Bertocci’s article “The Meaning of the Search”, published in “The Psychology of Adoption” (New York, Oxford University Press, 1990, Brodzinsky and Schechter, eds.)indicate that the average age of a searching adoptee is 29, and that up to 80% of searchers are female. The ‘typical’ searcher is married, middle-class, with stable employment. In “Being Adopted”, Brodzinksy et al, comment that “The typical searcher is looking for information, not hoping to replace the family that raised and loved him.” (p.140), and “The compulsion to search usually says little about the adoptee’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the adoptive family” (p. 141).

William Reynolds completed a study of adoptees in the mid-70’s and presented his findings in a paper “Personality Factors Differentiating Searching and Nonsearching Adoptees”, at the 84th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C. His conclusions matched those of the Brodzinsky team to the extent that Reynolds did not see any correlation between searching and being unhappy or happy in one’s adoptive home. Reynolds did comment, however, that it appeared that those who were happy in their adoptive homes might search because of a strong sense of self-confidence, while those who were not so happy might refrain from searching because of a sense of guilt and/or anger.

Beyond that, it appears that the decision to search is often triggered by a major event, such as marriage, the death of an adoptive parent, graduation from college, leaving home, or the birth of a child. This particular phenomenon has lead to some studies surrounding the deeper meaning of ‘the search’. The Brodzinsky team studied 94 adult adoptees in search and concluded that the search process “helps them come to grips with at least six universal themes in human development: loss and mourning, envy,sexual identity, consolidation of identity, cognitive dissonance, and body image.” (p. 142) Therefore, the loss of an adoptive parent may trigger a need to search for the ‘other’ parents who might have existed as shadowy figures or ghosts in the subconscious or conscious fantasies of an adoptee. An impending birth of a child might spark a search as the adoptee becomes focused on body image and the thought of seeing a genetic relative for the first time in his newborn child.

Margaret Lawrence, an adoptee, presented a paper entitled “Inside, Looking Out of Adoption”, at the same psychological association convention as Reynolds in 1976. She also concluded that ‘the search’ has nothing to do with the adoptive relationship, but rather is the need to seize the power of choice, to take control in a situation that was out of the adoptee’s control, and thus, to become free. This was certainly true in my own decision to search, which I approached as a matter of my birthright being mine, and I was, to put it blunty, pissed off that anyone had ever decided otherwise, let alone without bothering to consult me.

Medical history is also an oft-cited and compelling reason for the search, not only because of the genuine and ever-increasing importance of knowing about familial medical problems in order to combat your own (and avoid future ones), but because it’s a less emotional, and readily understandable reason to hand out to friends, family, and strangers. Searching ‘for medical history only’ allows an adoptee to justify completing a search, since updated medical histories are seldom available through the agency, while at the same time gets around a lot of those sticky questions of ‘loyalty’, plus an adoptee can avoid facing the possibility of rejection if he sees his birthfamily as merely a file cabinet from which he can take what he needs. This is not to say that every adoptee who says he is only searching for medical history is deluding himself, but everyone who holds this up as their primary reasoning would do well to look deeply not only at his own motivations, but of the possible consequences. What is on the other side of a search is NOT a file cabinet or completed medical questionnaire, but real live people who will have their own ideas about what they want out of contact and ‘reunion’.

By far, however, the most common reason given for searching is the desire to see what one’s birthparents look like, what their talents are, and what their personalities are like. In other words, the curiousity of many searchers is rooted in genetics. While many critics of searching adoptees express an apparent lack of understanding for why it would matter, ‘blood ties’, in every community, in every society, are emphasized in a variety of ways. From folkloric sentiments such as ‘blood is thicker than water’ to the phenomenon of Alex Haley’s “Roots”, which spawned a renewed interest among Americans in genealogy, to the seemingly benign comments of blood relations about inheriting ‘Grandpa’s Joe’s ears’, or ‘Aunt Eve’s temper’, society and its members have always found genetics and genealogy compelling. It should not, therefore, surprise anyone that a group of individuals cut off from their genetic history and consanguineous relatives, would want to know about them.

In an email to me, Leigh, (longo@earthlink.net), writes:

“It was not knowing, for one. I spent countless hours in front of the mirror wondering…wondering what…you name it…where did my nose come from….

I hated when my afamily sat around and looked at their hands and compared them to one anothers..and said things like..oh my those are grandma Mary’s hands. Or my amom and her sis would talk about the types of cancer that run in their family and tell my sister (who is my aparents natural daughter) that she will have to go through the same horrid pre-screening tests that they do, when she got older. “

Of course, there are other, far less flattering or even neutral, theories about searching adoptees, many of which those who search will be confronted with at one time or another. Few of these theories have been detailed in peer reviewed studies, papers, or journals, not lending them much credibility, but they are typified by an article published in the March 1977 edition of Woman’s Day, entitled “Should Adoptees Search for their ‘Real’ Parents?”. Written by family therapist Eda LeShan, an adoptive mother, the article compared an adoptee searching to a crook giving in to the impulse to steal. “Maturity comes when we learn to control such impulses” concludes LeShan.

The Nonsearcher

The attitude of those who don’t search is sometimes explained as a lack of curiousity.These nonsearchers often maintain that they simply don’t think about searching, and don’t need to. They are seldom critical of others who do search, and in general have a ‘live and let live’ philosophy surrounding the decision. These are sometimes adoptees who do in fact search later in life, but often remain noncommital or outright ambivalent about the prospect throughout their lifetimes. Other nonsearchers are what BJ Lifton, in her work “Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience” (Harper and Row, first copyrighted in 1979,quoting from updated and revised 1988 copy) , refer to as ‘militant nonsearchers’. These nonsearchers are, unlike the first group, generally very critical of those who do search, and are belligerent about their own status. BJ Lifton quotes an anonymous letter writer in “Lost and Found”;

“Spare me, then, the histrionics! I feel sorry for those who are beset by imaginary monsters;please, however don’t try to set them on those of us who are busy with the reality of living in the present.” (p.75)

Those sentiments are probably very familiar to many of alt.adoption’s citizens, as we’ve heard them many times. Other phrases that might ring bells are ‘why disrupt all those lives?’, ‘why open up a can of worms?’ ‘why rock the boat?’, or another quote from “Lost and Found”, “I don’t think there could be a more selfish quest than this.” (p.75)

A correspondent writes:

“I am frankly disgruntled with the dogmatic idea that all adoptees must search. I have delved deep in my heart, at both high and low times of my life, and tried to listen to whatever it is that feels something, good or bad, about adoption. The best understanding that I have of my own feelings is that I am at peace with who and what I am, and have no emotional needs to serve by searching for my birthparents….It simply is not something I need to do at this time in my life.”

Just as there are theories about the reasons for searching, there are those about NOT searching. Lifton writes: “Nonsearchers, for all their sense of righteousness and loyalty, have always seemed to me self-denigrating. There is the implication that they don’t have the right to rock their own boat, to open their own can of worms. They seem to accept that they don’t have a right to their own heritage. We see such internalized guilt in them that even if their adoptive parents should sanction a search, it would be hard for them to follow through. It is as if they have a will not to know.” (p. 75).

The Brodzinsky team is even more blunt. “A good many adoptees consider the stress of adoption to be something they cannot change and would be better off ignoring so they can get on with their lives. These people reveal little inner turmoil about being adopted; they have either suppressed or denied or minimized the significance of adoption in their own lives.” And further, “Denial or avoidance….can be a highly adaptive strategy when an individual is faced with a stressor she cannot change, such as being adopted. In this view, an adoptee who can suppress, avoid, minimize, or deny the significance of being adopted….is able to compartmentalize this aspect of her identity and get on with her life.” And finally, “This is simply a coping style, and for may people it works…at least until a phone call from a birth mother or the uncovering of a genetic illness makes denial no longer possible.” (p.151)

Just as an explicit condemnation exists in LeShan’s ‘analysis’ of searchers, Lifton and the Brodzinsky team seem to start with the assumption that there is a psychological reason or excuse for the gap between those who search and those who don’t. (of course, that is their field) Implicit in the Brodzinsky conclusions is that nonsearchers are in denial, but at least they are ‘getting on with their lives’, unlike those who search. I submit that somewhere inbetween lies something that is closer to the truth, that the decision to search or not to search can be the result of several different factors, including several unknowns, and the influence of one’s personality. Some searchers might be immature and grasping and some nonsearchers might be belligerent,in denial,and lacking in self-confidence, but the majority of us are none of these things. Of course, it is incumbent upon anyone looking at the issue of searching to recognize the impact that sealed records, secrecy, and the ‘gratitude’ factor have had in creating the swirling controversy, insults, doubts, and fears that are associated with ‘the Search’.

The Adoptive Parents Factor

One of the main factors in making the decision to search is often the perception one has about how one’s adoptive parents might react. Kimberly Stone writes further about her decision not to search:

“I also feel it would hurt my adoptive parents, whom I adore and am very close to, and who adore me.”

Leigh writes in her email:

“My aparents have always been willing to talk about it and answer my questions as best they could….although it was a closed adoption and they didn’t have very much info. But they were willing to talk about adoption in general and feelings I might have because of it. I was not afraid to say that I was adopted to anyone, including reminding members of my afamily when they talked about genes and family trees. I was not angry then nor am I angry today

So, with that you might think that it was an easy thing to tell my parents that I was going to search…It was not. When I was 16 I made the announcement once in from of my agrandma that I planned to search when I turned 18. She asked “Why, we are your family, you don’t need to go anywhere else.”

So, I freaked. I was afraid to bring it up again. I did not want to replace my family. I spent a lot of time feeling guilty. I was worried about hurting them. At the time I did not have words to express the feelings I had and nor did I truly understand my own need to search. “

BJ Lifton quotes an unnamed woman in “Lost and Found”;

“For years I couldn’t decide whether to search or not because I wanted to wait until my adoptive parents died.”

Quoting ‘Trudy’ in “Lost and Found”; “I am willing to sacrifice finding my biological mother rather than risk hurting my parents.”(p.180) Underlying these sentiments is a fear of appearing ungrateful, and this is where the status of adoptee as a ‘chosen’ or ‘saved’ child can come back to haunt the entire family. Society at large has picked up on this gratitude theme and often uses it to beat unsuspecting adoptees over the head. I am sure that many of us have seen, or perhaps even written or said, some variation on this theme: “Who held you when you were sick, changed your diapers, kissed your boo-boos, fed you, clothed you….???” Of course, most of us bear some measure of gratitude towards our parents, but for the adoptee, the expectation hangs heaviest over the decision to search, as if that decision is in itself, a choosing, a taking of sides, a question of loyalty.

In “Being Adopted”, Brodzinsky et al write:

“We know of searchers whose relationships with their adoptive parents have been poisoned because of the parents’ resentment, anger and sense of betrayal. Bitter reactions from aparents usually don’t stop adoptees from searching, they simply send the search underground, to be carried on without the knowledge of the individuals to whom the adoptee feels closest, his mother and father.” (p.141)

But these instances of bitter feuding seem to be increasingly in the minority. Many searchers who were afraid to confront their adoptive parents with their search, find that often their parents react in very positive ways. Trudy, who Lifton earlier quoted as willing to sacrifice her search for the sake of her adoptive parents, continues:

“I had always discussed problems with my mother, so why not this problem? And my mother was delighted with the idea of my search. She called the agency to get background information for me, and even petitioned the court.” (p. 181)

Leigh’s experience also concludes on an up note:

“So with tear filled eyes I asked my aparents to sit down and talk with me. So serious. I can only image what was going through my poor amom’s head. I said that I loved them and that I had something to tell them. I said that this is no way means that I do not love them or think that they are great parents…I still hadn’t said what it was…I spit it out…I want to find my bfamily.

My amom looked at me and smiled and said..”We always knew you would. How can we help? We love you baby. We could never deny you this..it is part of you.” We all cried. I get really choked up when I think about it today. My aparents are truly capable of unconditional love. My amom has never been threatened by my search. And she and my adad have been part of my reunion. They have welcomed my bmom and sisters like members of the family. And likewise my bmom has embraced them.

I am not the only one who has gained from this experience. Everyone has new family in their lives.”

As a search and support group leader, it has been my experience that most adoptive parents react much differently than the adoptee expects. Many are open to the idea of searching, and have been waiting for the adoptee to mention it. Others are hostile to the idea, but it is usually out of an initial fear or insecurity and a lack of information about what it means for an adoptee to search. Many adoptive parents still believe that adoptees will not need to search if they are brought up in a loving home. This is particularly true of adoptive parents who are themselves adoptees who did not search. Faced with a searching child may therefore bring up feelings of inadequacy on their part, as if they weren’t ‘enough’. They may feel rejected. To this end, it can be very positive for an adoptee, regardless of how his parents react, to present his aparents with reading material that explains the search (please see previous posts for detailed information on the FAQ’s, recommended books and other sources), or to even write a letter detailing his own feelings. These should not be presented as a substitute for a heart-to-heart, but rather a supplement, or even a lead-in, depending on which makes the adoptee more comfortable. It is a good idea to remember that, as with any sensitive issue, you should be considerate of the other person, and try to understand their point of view.

At the same time, there is only so much that you can do to make your adoptive parents comfortable with your decision. You cannot be held responsible, or ‘to blame’ for their ultimate acceptance or rejection of your decision to search, but there are things that you can do to make it easier for them to understand, and thus make the process easier on you.

The Right to Know

At many stages of a search, including the decision-making stage, you will likely encounter people who will tell you that you have no right to search. Sometimes, these people are ill-informed clerks on power trips who will go so far as to say that searching is illegal, or that searching without an intermediary is illegal. In no state, county, province, or country, to my knowledge, has searching for one’s birthparents been made illegal. It pays to be familiar with your particular locale’s adoption laws in order to counteract the attempts of the uninformed, or downright malicious, to derail your efforts, or your decisionmaking process.

You might also encounter people who will question your right to ‘disrupt’ your birthparents lives, or your right to ‘betray’ your adoptive parents by searching. Usually these people have little understanding of adoption or searchers, but these questions might be something that you yourself have struggled with, and it pays to have answers, if for no other reason than to feel comfortable with whatever decision you make. The facts are that the ‘right’ of adoptees to know and to search is a hotly contested issue. I personally believe that sealed records violate the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the American Constitution. There are a number of interesting places to learn more about all sides of the ‘right’ to know. Two fascinating case law studies can be found in the lawsuits of Yesterday’s Children, an adoptee activist group who filed a class action law suit in U.S District Court in 1975, and appealed their loss all the way to the U.S Supreme Court, who declined to hear the case in June of 1978. ALMA filed in the U.S District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1977, and lost. A concise and lucid analysis of sealed records and the law can be found in an article by Stephen A Gorman entitled, “Recognizing the Needs of Adopted Persons, A Proposal to Amend the Illinois Adoption Act”, published in the Loyola University Law Journal 6 in 1975.

Other Fears

Either before the decision to search is made, or at some point during the search, it is likely that the fear of what comes ‘after’ will rear its ugly head. The fear of rejection from one’s birthfamily is very common, and not entirely unfounded. While the number of birthmothers who reject contact is something that is difficult to pin down, most agree that it is less than 1/4, and the number of birthmothers who favor open records is consistently in the majority (See Arthur Sorosky, Annette Baran, and Reuben Pannor in “The Adoption Triangle:The Effects of the Sealed Record on Adoptees Birth Parents, and Adoptive Parents” New York; Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978, as well as “The Changing Face of Adoption”, a report research project from Children’s Home Society of California, and contact Children’s Home Society of Washington State for their newest survey). In addition, in New Zealand, which just over 10 years ago instituted a ‘reverse registry’ which opened records except in the case of a birthparent or adoptee filing a veto, only a small percetage of birthparents and an even smaller percentage of adoptees did so, and even fewer were expected to renew the veto. Nonetheless birthfathers are far less likely to be welcoming, and the actual reaction from a birthmother who may support contact in theory, is seldom predictable. It would behoove any adoptee who is in search to educate themselves about the experience of birthmothers in order to better understand how they might be received, and what the best way to approach contact might be.

The fear of losing whatever identity one has crafted for oneself is also a common theme among the undecided. Just as there are those who have a need to find out ‘who they are’ through a search, and who see race and culture as being missing elements, others, in the absence of information, created their own identities and don’t want to be hampered or confused by the actuality. Other adoptees may see the possible addition of a birthfamily in their life as being an unwelcome complication. One family is often quite enough. Add to that, inlaws and friends, and suddenly another group of people with their own history, feuds, and dysfunctions, don’t seem particularly appealing. The possibility of finding poverty or addiction in one’s birthfamily can also be a pressing fear.

Education about adoption issues can go a long way towards putting these fears in perspective, but it is always a good idea to temper one’s enthusiasm for the search with a hard sense of reality as well as a will to adapt to whatever situation you might find yourself in. Keep an open mind. It is also important to carefully look at the motivations that you have and/or that you name for searching, and consider what they mean in the event of a possible reunion. In the event that you decide to search, you might experience an emotional rollercoaster (which will be discussed in depth in future posts), you might alienate your family, friends, or significant other. You might encounter something totally unexpected and wonderful, or unexpected and devastating. Search is never something to be entered into lightly, as Lifton says in “Lost and Found”, “Although one is never *totally* prepared, one should not tamper with the Search until one cannot do otherwise.” (p.77). Heed this warning well.

Recommended Reading:

“Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self”, Brodzinsky, Schechter, and Henig. 213p. 1992

“Lost & Found: The Adoption Experience”, B J Lifton. 320p. 1988. Har-Row

“Adoption Triangle, The: Sealed or Opened Records: How They Affect Adoptees, Birthparents & Adoptive Parents”, Sorosky, Pannor & Baran 2nd ed. 237p. 1989. Corona Pub.

J. Triseliotis’ “In Search of Origins: The Experience of Adopted People”, available through London, Routledge and Kegan Paul

Brodzinsky and Bertocci’s article “The Meaning of the Search”, published in “The Psychology of Adoption” (New York, Oxford University Press, 1990,

This post was authored by Shea Grimm, sheag@oz.net, except where otherwise indicated. It may be copied and distributed freely, in whole or in part, as long as it is not sold, and as long as this notice is kept intact.

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