Teichman notes in her study of illegitimacy that “the point of the legitimate/illegitimate distinction is not to cause suffering; rather, it has to do with certain widespread human aims connected with the regulation of sexual activities and of population” (4). She also writes that, until relatively recently, “the shame of being an unmarried mother was the worst possible shame a woman could suffer” (119). Hence the secrecy, silences, and lies that used to be so common around the issue of an illegitimate birth and adoption.
I was adopted at birth in the mid-1960s in New Zealand because my mother was a long way from family in England and had no support. She and my father had fallen in love, and planned to marry, but it all fell apart, and my mother was left with decisions to make. It was indeed a difficult time for unwed mothers, and that issue of shame and respectability was in force.
The couple who adopted me were in their late forties and had been married for twenty-five years. My adoptive father had served in World War Two in the Royal Air Force before being invalided out for health problems associated with physical and psychological injuries. He was working in the same organisation as my mother and approached her when he learned of her situation. My adoptive mother loved England as her Home all of her life, despite living in Australia permanently from 1974 until her death in 2001.
I did not know of my adoption until 1988, when I was twenty-three years old. The reasons for this were at least partly to do with my adoptive parents’ fear that I would leave them to search for my birth parents. My feelings about this long-held secret are complex and mixed. My adoptive mother never once mentioned my adoption, not on the day I was told by my adoptive father, nor at any point afterwards. My adoptive father only mentioned it again in the last two years of his life, after a long estrangement from me, and it made him weep. Even in the nursing home he did not want me to tell anyone that I had been adopted. It was impossible for me to obey this request, for my sense of self and my own identity, and for the recognition of the years of pain that I had endured as his daughter. He wanted to keep so much a secret; I could not, and would not, hold anything back anymore.
And so I found myself telling anyone who would listen that I was adopted, and had only found out as an adult. This did not transmogrify into actively seeking out my birth parents, at least not immediately. It took some years before I obtained my original birth certificate, and then a long while again before I searched for, and found, my birth mother. It was not until my adoptive mother died that I launched into the search, probably because I did not want to cause her pain, though I did not consciously think of it that way. I did not tell my adoptive father of the search or the discovery. This was not an easy decision, as my birth mother would have liked to see him again and thank him, but I knew that his feelings were quite different and I did not want to risk further hurt to either my birth mother or my adoptive father. My own pain endures.
I also found myself writing about my family. Other late discovery adoptees, as we are known, have written of their experiences, but not many. Maureen Watson records her shock at being told by her estranged husband when she was 40 years old; Judith Lucy, the comedian, was told in her mid-twenties by her sister-in-law after a tumultuous Christmas day; the Canadian author Wayson Choy was in his late fifties when he received a mysterious phone call from a woman about seeing his “other” mother on the street.
I started with fiction, making up fairy tales or science fiction scenarios, or one act plays, or poetry, or short stories. I filled notebooks with these words of confusion and anger and wonder. Eventually, I realised I needed to write about my adoptive life in fuller form, and in life story mode. The secrecy and silences that had dominated my family life needed to be written out on the page and given voice and legitimacy by me. For years I had thought my father’s mental disturbance and destructive behaviour was my fault, as he often told me it was, and I was an only child isolated from other family and other people generally. My adoptive mother seemed to take the role of the shadow in the background, only occasionally stepping forward to curb my father’s disturbing and paranoid reactions to life.
The distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy may not have been created and enforced to cause suffering, but that, of course, is what it did for many caught in its circle of grief and exclusion. For me, I did not feel the direct effect of being illegitimate at birth, because I did not “know”. (What gathered in my unconscious over the years was another thing altogether.) This was different for my birth mother, who suffered greatly during the time she was pregnant, hoping something would happen that would enable her to keep me, but finally having to give me up. She does not speak of shame, only heartache. My adoptive father, however, felt the shame of having to adopt a child; I know this because he told me in his own words at the end of his life. Although I did not know of my adoption until I was an adult, I picked up his fear of my inadequacy for many years beforehand. I realise now that he feared that I was “soiled” or “tainted”, that the behaviour of my mother would be revisited in me, and that I needed to be monitored. He read my letters, opened my diaries, controlled my phone calls, and told me he had spies watching me when I was out of his range.
I read in Teichman’s work that the word “bastard”, the colloquial term for an illegitimate child or person, comes from the Old French ba(s)t meaning baggage or luggage or pack-saddle, something that could be slept on by the traveller (1). Being illegitimate could feel like carrying heavy baggage, but someone else’s, not yours. And being adopted was supposed to render you legitimate by giving you the name of a father. For me, it added even more heavy baggage. Writing is one way of casting it off, refusing it, chipping it away, reducing its power. The secrecy of my adoption can be broken open. I can shout out the silence of all those years.
The first chapter of the memoir, “A Shark in the Garden”, has the title “Revelation”, and concerns the day I learned of my adoptive status.
I sat on my bed, formed fists in my lap, got up again. In the mirror there was my reflection, but all I saw was fear. I sat down, thought of what I was going to say, stood again.
If I didn’t force myself out through my bedroom door, all would be lost. I had rung the student quarters at the hospital, there was a room ready. I had spoken to Dr P. It was time for me to go. The words were formed in my mouth, I had only to speak them.
Three days before, I had come home to find my father in a state of heightened anxiety, asking me where the hell I had been. He’d rung my friend C because I had told him, falsely, that I would be going over to her place for a fitting of the bridesmaid dresses. I lied to him because the other bridesmaid was someone he disliked intensely, and did not approve of me seeing her.
I had to tell him the true identity of the other bridesmaid, which of course meant that I’d lied twice, that I’d lied for a prolonged period of time. My father accused me of abusing my mother’s good nature because she was helping me make my bridesmaid’s dress. I was not a good seamstress, whereas my mother made most of her clothes, and ours, so in reality she was the one making the dress.
When you’ve lied to your parents it is difficult to maintain the high ground, or any ground at all. But I did try to tell him that if he didn’t dislike so many of my friends, I wouldn’t have to lie to him in order to shield them and have a life outside home. If I knew that he wasn’t going to blaspheme the other bridesmaid every time I said her name, then I could have been upfront.
What resulted was a dark silence.
I was completing a supplementary exam in obstetrics and gynaecology. Once passed, I would graduate with a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery degree, and be able to work as an intern in a hospital.
I hated obstetrics and gynaecology. It was about bodies like my own and their special functions, and seemed like an invasion of privacy. Women were set apart as specimens, as flawed creatures, as beings whose wombs were always going wrong, a difficult separate species. Men were the predominant teachers of wisdom about these bodies, and I found this repugnant. One obstetrician in a regional hospital asked my friend and me once if we had regular Pap smears, and if our menstrual blood contained clots. We answered him, but it was none of his business, and I wished I hadn’t. I can see him now, the small eyes, the bitchiness about other doctors, the smarminess.
But somehow I had to get through it. I had to get up each morning and go into the hospital and do the ward rounds and see patients. I had to study the books. I had to pass that exam. It had become something other than just an exam to me. It was an enemy against which I must fight.
My friend C was getting married on the 19th of December, and somehow I had to negotiate my father as well. He sometimes threatened to confiscate the keys to the car, so that I couldn’t use it. But he couldn’t do that now, because I had to get to the hospital, and it was too far away by public transport.
Every morning I woke up and wondered what mood my father would be in, and whether it would have something to do with me. Was I the good daughter today, or the bad one? This happened every day. It was worse because of the fight over the wedding. It was a relief to close my bedroom door at night and be alone, away from him. But my mother too. I felt as if I was betraying her, by not being cooperative with my father. It would have been easier to have done everything he said, and keep the household peaceful. But the cost of doing that would have been much higher: I would have given my life over to him, and disappeared as a person.
I could wake up and forget for a few seconds where I was and what had happened the day before. But then I remembered and the fear exploded in my stomach. I lived in dread of what my father would say, and in dread of his silence.
That morning I woke up and instantly thought of what I had to do. After the last fight, I realised I did not want to live with such pain and fear anymore. I did not want to cause it, or to live with it, or to kill myself, or to subsume my spirit in the pathology of my father’s thinking. I wanted to live.
Now I knew I had to walk into the living room and speak those words to my parents.
My mother was sitting in her spot, at one end of the speckled and striped grey and brown sofa, doing a crossword. My father was in his armchair, head on his hand. I walked around the end of the sofa and stood by ‘my’ armchair next to my mother.
“Mum and Dad, I need to talk with you about something.”
I sat down as I said this, and looked at each of them in turn. Their faces were mildly expectant, my father’s with a dark edge.
“I know we haven’t been getting on very well lately, and I think it might be best if I leave home and go to live in the students’ quarters at the hospital. I’m twenty-three now. I think it might be good for us to spend some time apart.”
This sounded too brusque, but I’d said it. It was out in the atmosphere, and I could only wait. And whatever they said, I was going. I was leaving.
My father kept looking at me for a moment, then straightened in his chair, and cleared his throat.
“You sound as if you’ve worked this all out. Well, I have something to say. I suppose you know you were adopted.”
There was an enormous movement in my head. Adopted. I suppose you know you were adopted. Age of my parents at my birth: 47 and 48. How long have you and Dad been married, Mum? Oooh, that’s a tricky one. School principal’s wife, eyes flicking from me to Mum and back again, You don’t look much like each other, do you? People referring to me as my Mum’s friend, not her daughter. I must have got that trait from you Oh no I know where you got that from. My father not wanting me to marry or have children. Not wanting me to go back to England. Moving from place to place. No contact with relatives.
This all came to me in a flash of memory, a psychological click and shift that I was certain was audible outside my mind. I did not move, and I did not speak.
My father continued. He was talking about my biological mother. The woman who, until a few seconds before, I had not known existed.
“We were walking on the beach one day with you, and she came towards us. She didn’t look one way or another, just kept her eyes straight ahead. Didn’t acknowledge us, or you. She said not to tell you about your adoption unless you fell in with a bad lot.”
I cannot remember what else my father said.
At one point my mother said to me, “You aren’t going to leave before Christmas are you?”
All of her hopes and desires were in that question. I was not a good daughter, and yet I knew that I was breaking her heart by leaving. And before Christmas too. Even a bad daughter is better than no daughter at all. And there nearly was no daughter at all. I suppose you know you were adopted.
But did my mother understand nothing of the turmoil that lived within me? Did it really not matter to her that I was leaving, as long as I didn’t do it before Christmas? Did she understand why I was leaving, did she even want to know? Did she understand more than I knew? I did not ask any of these questions.
Instead, at some point I got out of the chair and walked into my bedroom and pulled out the suitcase I had already packed the night before. I threw other things into other bags. I called for a taxi, in a voice supernaturally calm. When the taxi came, I humped the suitcase down the stairs and out of the garage and into the boot, then went back upstairs and got the other bags and humped them down as well.
And while I did this, I was shouting at my father and he was shouting at me. I seem to remember seeing him out of the corner of my eye, following me down the stairs, then back up again. Following me to my bedroom door, then down the stairs to the taxi. But I don’t think he went out that far.
I don’t remember what my mother was doing.
The only words I remember my father saying at the end are, “You’ll end up in the gutter.”
The only words I remember saying are, “At least I’ll get out of this poisonous household.”
And then the taxi was at the hospital, and I was in a room, high up in a nondescript, grey and brown building. I unpacked some of my stuff, put my clothes in the narrow wardrobe, my shoes in a line on the floor, my books on the desk. I imagine I took out my toothbrush and lotions and hairbrush and put them on the bedside table.
I have no idea what the weather was like, except that it wasn’t raining. The faces of the taxi driver, of the woman in reception at the students’ quarters, of anyone else I saw that day, are a blur. The room is not difficult to remember as it was a rectangular shape with a window at one end. I stood at that window and looked out onto other hospital buildings, and the figures of people walking below.
That night I lay in the bed and let the waves of relief ripple over me. My parents were not there, sitting in the next room, speaking in low voices about how bad I was. I was not going to wake up and brace myself for my father’s opprobrium, or feel guilty for letting my mother down. Not right then, and not the next morning. The guilt and the self-loathing were, at that moment, banished, frozen, held-in-time.
The knowledge of my adoption was also held-in-time: I couldn’t deal with it in any real way, and would not for a long time. I pushed it to the back of my mind, put it away in a compartment. I was suddenly free, and floating in the novelty of it.
Choy, Wayson. Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood. Ringwood: Penguin, 2000.
Lucy, Judith. The Lucy Family Alphabet. Camberwell: Penguin, 2008.
Teichman, Jenny. Illegitimacy: An Examination of Bastardy. New York: Cornell University Press, 1982.
Watson, Maureen. Surviving Secrets. Short-Stop Press, 2010.