A Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Seeks to Disentangle His Life Story
By Richard Gull
Editor’s Note: Richard Gull, Ph.D., retired as Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at U-M in 2007. During his years at the University, he also taught courses in Philosophy in Film; deconstructing films is his second love. He has been on an avid search for his family history over the last few years, and his quest has surfaced long-hidden information about his adoptive family and the families of his birth parents. What follows is a fascinating and original exploration of memoir-writing, and of the life-long search to know and understand one’s roots.
Gull lives on Ann Arbor’s Westside. At 78, he is as intellectually agile and vigorous as any 35 year old. He can be found five days a week working out on the treadmills at Liberty Athletic Club or walking at Bird Hills or practicing yoga. He is a handsome man, tall and fit, and with a mane of white hair. Less a lion in winter than a lion in autumn, he is almost an archetypal male elder – sage, potent, authentic, and with more feeling and emotion now than he may have allowed himself when he was younger.
Interestingly, Gull has been in an ongoing monthly men’s group for a quarter century, and also led his own men’s group for many years. Gull’s wife, Sara Schreiber, a psychotherapist, and the founder of Empatheatre, died in 2010. His son, Jason, 48, works as an attorney in the Intellectual Property division at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
It’s one of the pathological complications of adoption —
adoptees don’t have rights; their lives are about supporting the secrets, the needs and desires of others.
–A.M. Homes, The Mistress’s Daughter
I was adopted when I was six months old. My adoptive mother told me this when I was nine. Whenever I asked whom my birth mother was she said that she didn’t know. After she died at age sixty-one, when I was thirty-five, I found letters from my birth mother amongst her papers. I found her, we met her once, but she would never tell me who my biological father was.
I retired from being a philosophy professor in 2008. I’ve written a memoir about my adoption story. I use my story to ruminate on some philosophical questions: the nature of the self, truth vs. fiction, nature vs. nurture, secrecy and self-deception, grief, myth, and what a memoir is. I discuss how the lied-to adoptee is an archetypal mythic figure in fairy tales and literature, questing for an answer to the universal question “Who am I?” My journey has taken me to the Ozarks twice in recent years. I recently hired a professional genealogist who found my biological father’s great grandson in Branson, Missouri, who was raised by him until he was 18. I learned that I haunted my birth parents’ lives as a phantom child. They sought surrogates for me. This led me to see that everyone in my adoption triangle — birth parents, adoptive parents, and the adoptee — suffers a version of what I call abandonment blues. I discovered more than the story of my origins; I found my mythos, an interpretation of my story. My “illegitimate” birth has been legitimated through memoir. My youthful myth of self-creation has been replaced by a more compassionate myth of abandonment blues that binds my adoptee’s shadow family in a drama of loss.
I saw two films when I was seventeen, East of Eden (1955) and The Bad Seed (1956), that shaped how I saw myself but I’ve not written about them until now. East of Eden, a version of the Cain and Abel story, is about the corrosive effect on children of a secret about their family origins. The Bad Seed is an adoption-gone-bad story as horror film. It’s serious subtext questions the “blank slate” bio-politics of the time that justified the secrecy of closed adoptions. The myth of self- creation is an existentialist variation on the blank slate theme; if we are blank slates to ourselves then the quest for our origins is not important to our flourishing.
How Can an Adoption Memoir Heal a Divided Self?
Writing a memoir is a search for one’s story and its meaning, and for one’s self. Mary Karr says in The Art of Memoir that the spine of a memoir is an internal conflict. Everything written in a memoir should go back to, be slanted toward, the internal conflict of desires and beliefs that is the electric third rail driving the story forward. To use Emily Dickenson’s phrase, you “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” Karr writes of a memoir’s animating internal schism and its resolution:
The split or inner conflict must manifest on the first pages and form the book’s thrust or through line---some journey toward the self’s overhaul by book’s end. . . . A blazing psychic struggle holds [a memoir] together. Usually [its purpose] is to go back and recover some lost aspect of the past so it can be integrated into current identity. (p. 92)
The tension between my adopted self and my inherited self is the psychological spine of my memoir.
As an adoptee my origin story was hidden from me. I was conceived in an affair between two people who were married but not to each other and who were already parents. I was an “illegitimate” child, a more polite word for “bastard.” My adoption memoir is an attempt to legitimate my existence. From the Latin legere, legitimate has both the legal meaning “to be legal” and one that connotes claiming or conferring meaning. Adoptee and memoirist Betty Jean Lifton has the latter in mind when she writes: “A recorded existence is a real one. A legitimate one.”
An adoption memoir legitimates the adoptee’s existence by supplying a missing backstory that counters the stigma of the bastard label and dignifies the adoptee’s place in the human drama. Telling myself a version of my story has rooted me more firmly in reality by integrating my origins into what I am. Before learning about my origins, my story was like a novel whose opening pages were missing or a play seen having arrived after curtain up.
She was my mother. She wasn’t my mother.
When my adoptive mother died, I discovered letters from my birth mother amongst her papers. She had known my origins and hidden them from me. This discovery led to meeting my birth mother. We met only once. She would not reveal the identity of my biological father. Because of this our relationship dwindled over the years to occasional phone calls.
Thus I had two mothers who were secretive about my beginnings. I write of this in my memoir:
After my adoptive mother died I conjured up a fantasy that she left a message of her own along with letters from my birth mother explaining why she had hidden them from me. I imagined her leaving me a note saying something like: “I hid these papers from you because my lawyer advised me to. I thought that secrecy would protect both your birth parents and your adoptive parents. Since your birth parents were married, but not to each other, they wanted to avoid a scandal. And I was afraid of losing you.”
But there was no such note, no explanation of her secrecy. My adoptive mother’s death followed by my discovery of my birth mother happened abruptly. She was my mother one moment, then suddenly she was gone, and another mother appeared. Both mothers were my mother yet neither was; both were real yet neither was real.
Upon discovering my birth mother’s name, Cora Mae Burris, I jogged down the street chanting out loud to myself, “I know who I am, I know who I am.” But this fervent existential epiphany turned out, on reflection, to be an overstatement. If I now knew who I was, then who was I before this moment? My adoptive mother’s secret not only felt like a betrayal, it made my life with her feel like a fiction now that its hidden substrate had been revealed. This feeling of unreality was not new; growing up I invented fictions about my hidden life: I imagined that I was a misplaced prince or a bad seed.
Karr notes that memoirists are often orphans who have been lied to about their beginnings. She writes:
I don’t know if memoirists as children are lied to more often as kids or only grow up to resent it more, but it does seem that we often come from the ranks of orphans or half-orphans-through-divorce, trying to heal the schism inside ourselves. (p. 164)
Betty Jean Lifton uses Carl Jung’s idea of the Ghost Kingdom to describe the adoptee’s divided self in Journey of the Adopted Self:
Adoptees live their everyday experience in their “pretend” family and another in the “time tunnel” of the Ghost Kingdom they share with the idealized and denigrated birth parents. If we can grasp the unreality of the realm wherein adoptees perceive their most real selves to reside, we will understand the adopted person’s own sense of unreality…(p. 57)
As a lied-to-adoptee I’ve had a fluid sense of reality from the beginning; my “real” self was hidden in my Ghost Kingdom while my adoptive self was suspect. What was my real self or my real family? Films can seem more real than actual life. Ideas can be more real than events. An extra-marital affair is a glimpse into a different self, into a different reality. If you marry a lied-to adoptee, be careful.
Roots and Wings
There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children —
one is roots, the other is wings.
An Old Saying
A memoir is nonfiction; a novel is fiction. A memoir should strive for fidelity to the truth. But truth in a memoir is subjective — it is your truth. Others may tell the same story differently. Or they may give it a different interpretation. Or they may impose a different myth on it. A memoir is not just reportage, like journalism. Yet one should have an implicit contract with oneself and the reader to tell the truth the best one can and not just make stuff up. Disregard for the truth cheats not only the reader, but also deprives the memoir writer of an examined life. The quest for one’s self gets replaced by a quest for self-aggrandizement. Karr writes:
A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions---or to pump himself up for the audience---never learns who he is. He’s missing the personal liberation that comes from the examined life. (p. 12)
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living; he might have added that a memoir that fails to truthfully examine the author’s life is not worth reading. Similarly, a lied-to adoptee, deprived of knowledge of his origins, is cut off from the examined life that flourishing requires. To paraphrase an old saying, one needs roots in order to have wings. But what I am calling the myth of self-creation denies this.
Lies and the Myth of Self-Creation
For the lied-to adoptee a memoir is an attempt to pierce the veil of secrecy in a quest to uncover the secret of one’s being. The original secret gives rise to other secrets that proliferate in the adoptee’s family and nervous system. Perhaps lied-to adoptees sometimes resist telling the truth about themselves because as children they were expected to accept a fictional existence. Betty Jean Lifton writes:
The child is being asked to collude in the fiction that these are his only parents and to accept that his birth heritage is disposable.
Since family secrets have left these adoptees to fantasize about who they really are, as adults they may be tempted to make things up. Novelists use fiction as cover for an utterly free space where anything can be thought. Secretive adoptive parents use the “as if” of fiction, like the expectation to act as if their child’s birth heritage is disposable, to try to foreclose the possibility that their adopted children will have unwelcome thoughts about who they really are. Which ironically can give the lied-to child the desire to write fiction, not memoir, as an adult. Novelist Jeanette Winterson wrote fiction before turning to writing her memoir. As a fiction writer she was self-invented; anything could be thought, unconstrained by memoir’s imperative to tell a true story. As a fiction writer she seems to admit to colluding in the fiction of disavowing her heritage, adopting a myth of self-creation:
I was a loner. I was self-invented. I didn’t believe in biology or biography. I believed in myself. Parents? What for? Except to hurt you.
My birth mother’s name was Cora. Her pen name was Coday Melissa. She told me in a letter that she wanted to write the story of her lost and found son with “the names changed to protect the guilty. Ha!” But she never did write that memoir. If she had, her pseudonym would have given her a fictional self as cover to write her forbidden story; she would have turned herself into a secret in order to uncover the secrets she had kept. Now I’m fulfilling my birth mother’s wish to tell our story. But as a memoirist I cannot use a pseudonym.
I saw the film East of Eden (1955) twice when I was sixteen. It has stayed inside of me as a parable about my life, although I’ve never written about it until now. A retelling of the Cain and Abel story from Genesis, it impressed upon me the biblical treachery that family secrets can bring. Cal (James Dean) uncovers the family secret that his mother is not dead, as their father Adam told him and his brother, Aron, when they were children; she is a madam in a nearby brothel. Aron idealizes his dead mother, believing that she is God’s “youngest angel” in heaven. Cal’s jealousy that his father loves Aron and not him leads him to use the secret as a weapon to shatter his brother’s ego by taking him to the brothel to meet his mother. This leads to his brother’s insanity and death in World War I.
The revelation of the secret about my birth mother did not shatter my self as it did Aron’s in the film. But it scrambled my sense of self: Who was my real mother? What is my real self? What is real? And the film raised for me the question of why my adoptive mother kept my origins from me. Was she punishing me in the name of protecting me? Adam in the film justifies his secrecy by saying that it spares his sons pain, but then ends up inflicting pain on them. My adoptive mother may have prolonged her secrecy about my origins out of unconscious anger at me for rebelling against her as an adolescent and keeping my distance. Her secrecy helped her hold onto her status as my real mother at a time she must have felt that she was losing it. Perhaps my anger at her helped justify her secrecy to herself.
My adoptive mother kept my adoption secret from my adoptive sister until I was nineteen and she was sixteen. She accidentally learned that I was adopted when she overheard me arguing with our mother. My adoptive sister told me she was “shocked” to find this out. But she knew about my adoption papers long before my adoptive mother died, yet never told me about them. She didn’t want to, she said, because “you and mom weren’t getting along.” Family secrets can both tie families together as well as drive them apart.
A Proposed Incognito Meeting: A Bastard Moment
I took my first six-month sabbatical leave in the winter semester 1975 at Oxford University. With my then wife, Susanne, and our five-year-old son, Jason, we rented a row house on a green in Witney, at the edge of the Cotwolds (in Middle English meaning “sheep enclosure in rolling hillside”) ten kilometers outside Oxford. I took the bus into Oxford to study at the Bodleian Library, attend lectures, and have lunch at the King’s Arms pub. I had a Rackham grant to study the question: “What is an Emotion?” — a question I’d been researching for several years.
At Oxford I continued corresponding with my birth mother Cora, who was living in Cabool, Missouri. She kept my biological father’s identity secret from me, annoyingly referring to him in letters as “Susie.” Not long before our return home she proposed an incognito meeting with my biological father at which he would not disclose his identity to me. She wrote:
I hope that you will come to see me when you get back from England. I have a real surprise for you if everything goes well. Your father has expressed a desire to meet you, Richard, but here are the conditions. As you already know he and I cannot be seen together as it would only harm both of us. He said he would like to take us to dinner somewhere but would not want to talk about our situation. You are an intelligent person and can understand that. I would introduce him as my boyfriend and we could have a nice evening. As he has to be at home on the weekend it would be nice if we could make it on a Friday night. You understand ‘Susie’s’ position I’m sure. Our lives are very complicated now. I hope that can be arranged. We never know what the future holds for us.
When I first found Cora’s letters after my adoptive mother’s death the previous year, I had an existential epiphany; I ran down the street repeating to myself, “I know who I am, I know who I am.” At Oxford, reading about my father’s proposal to meet him incognito with its no-questions-asked conditions, I had another existential awakening that Betty Jean Lifton has called a “Bastard Moment”:
One knows one has experienced the Bastard Moment when “illegitimacy” becomes a painful feeling and not an abstract concept. When the euphemisms of adoption are torn away and one is confronted with the shameful social reality of one’s birth.
My biological parents’ incognito proviso confronted me with the pain of entering their world as a secret. True, I had a chance to meet my father in person; but I discovered that I had my own conditions. I was being treated like an object, to be admired, perhaps, but with no respect for my need to know whom my father was. I was being hidden inside the secret in which they were trapped. Novelist A. M. Homes, who was also kept a secret, wrote:
I would have liked to have come out from the shadows, to be seen not as the product of an affair, but as a person, an adult who is more or less of them than they are of one another.
My adoptive mother, whose secrecy about my biological mother had kept our relationship from being “real,” had died the year before; now a second mother, Cora, had appeared whose secrecy made her professions of love and her wanting to be a “real” mother to me ring hollow. I’ve forgotten precisely what I wrote back to her, but I said that I didn’t want to see her again because I didn’t want to be kept a secret. And I never did see her again. Our contacts were fewer — occasional phone calls and several letters over the years.
But my decision to refuse an incognito meeting with my biological father still haunts me. Betty Jean Lifton similarly had second thoughts about a proposed incognito meeting of some blood relatives that her birth mother proposed to her.
Looking back on it now, I regret that I turned down such an opportunity, that I didn’t understand that meeting everyone incognito could have been a step toward meeting them openly in the future---the only step that my mother was able to offer at that period of her life. But at the time, I was immobilized by the shameful power of the Bastard Moment, which threatened to extinguish the legitimate identity I had as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. (p. 177)
My birth mother’s and biological father’s insistence on his anonymity brought on a complex amalgam of emotions: status anger as being treated as a lesser by them; not being trusted; expressions of love bound by conditions that made them feel not genuine; regret at missing a chance to meet my father; grief that I didn’t meet him. My bastard self had rudely confronted the self that I had created, the one that studied the emotions in the Bodleian Library. How did my biological father feel about having a son at Oxford? I resented that he was getting so much but was willing to give so little. I resented that they were asking me to compromise myself in order to meet them. I was left feeling that I had colluded in my own estrangement from my origins.
My birth mother was an intriguing person — a poet, a singer/songwriter, a painter. Her husband, a wounded World War I veteran, was 17 years her senior. As I would learn later, my biological father owned a successful car dealership and a cattle farm. Their affair spanned 40 years. I may have been a bastard, but I was also a “love child.” My adoptive parents’ marriage ended after 35 years.
One year before the proposed incognito meeting with my biological father I had suddenly discovered my birth mother. Before then, as a lied-to adoptee, I was enchanted by the myth of self-creation. As Jean-Paul Sartre’s short summing up of the philosophy of Existentialism puts it: “Man creates himself.” My ex-wife Susanne once questioned my lack of interest in finding my roots by saying to me: “Who do you think you are — Sartre?” Finding my birth mother brought the temporary exhilaration of discovering my origins. But it did not end my fantasy of self-creation; I did not see myself in this woman who looked nothing like me and who said things like:
Peace with God is most important. I am about as happy as anyone can be now. I wish for you to find this kind of peace. With it comes understanding, tolerance and many blessings.
One year after finding my birth mother, sitting in the Bodleian wondering about the nature of emotion, my myth of self-creation felt confirmed — until the Bastard Moment when I received Cora’s letter proposing an incognito meeting with my father. Another famous phrase from Sartre comes to mind: “Hell is other people.” I wanted to remain self-invented. Parents? What are they for except to hurt you. Maybe blood ties are overrated.
A Memoir Should Have Universal Relevance:
The Adoptee as Mythic Hero
Where lies the universal significance of an adoption memoir? Many people are or are touched by players in the adoption triangle: adoptive parents, birth parents, and the adopted child. But beyond that the orphan (of which the half-orphan and adoptee are subsets) is a universal archetype in fairy tales and literature.
A striking feature of the myths and folk tales of the world is how often their central figure is an orphan. (The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, p. 277)
There is Aladdin, Perseus, Theseus, the Oedipus myth, Moses, Cinderella, Robin Hood, and Superman. Examples from literature include Perdita from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, and Harry Potter. Often these are archetypal coming-of-age stories; they imagine how one’s identity is established without one’s parents.
According to Freud, the adoptee’s story is a “family romance” fantasy of those who are not adopted to help them separate themselves from their parents. Betty Jean Lifton writes:
My non-adopted friends keep reminding me that fantasies are part of the human condition, even necessary to the imagination. They never fail to point out that they used to suspect they were adopted. They say things like “I felt like a stranger in my family while I was growing up.” …They, too, [like adoptees] dreamed of descent from royalty, from kings and queens who would one day return to rescue them…
But even though the family romance reveals the universal fantasy of having other parents, it is not a fictional romance for the adoptee for whom there really are two unknown other parents out there. For natural borns, the family romance is a useful fiction in separating from their parents as they grow up; for adoptees, the problem of unknown parents persists into adulthood and leads either to a quest to find them or to accepting the myth of self-creation.
The genetic bewilderment of adoptees may spark an archetypal quest for knowledge of their beginnings. Although adoptees may be “a breed apart,” as psychologist of identity Erick Erickson (himself a half orphan) deemed them, their quest is the universal question: “Who am I?” Adoptees are a breed apart in confronting the question: “Who are my kin?” “What story connects me to my family tree?” To be sure they may decline the quest, accept the myth of self-creation, and choose an identity they can live with. I’ve both quested for my origins and refused to in the name of self-invention. I am now, like Betty Jean Lifton, an advocate of the quest; my rhetorical question to self-creationists is: “If you are not interested in who you really are then what are you interested in?”
We Are Not Born as Little Blank Slates
In addition to my memoir’s spine of a psychological schism that drives my story, there is also an argument being made that children are not little blank slates waiting to be filled in or lumps of clay waiting to be shaped. As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes:
As any parent of more than one child knows, children are not indistinguishable lumps of raw material waiting to be shaped. They are little people born with personalities. (The Blank Slate, p. 384)
I write in my memoir that the blank slate assumption helped justify closed adoption practices, as well as leading to misunderstanding the origins of homosexuality, autism, and mental illness:
In the flight from the evils of eugenics to a postwar blank slate bio-politics, homosexuals were not born that way, but were too close to their mothers; autism resulted from mothers being too cold to their children; and criminals were always produced by tough circumstances. As the Jets explain to the police sergeant in West Side Story: “We’re depraved on accounta we’re deprived.” And under this pervasive nurturance assumption, adoptive parents’ secrecy about their child’s biological origins was justified since nurture, not nature, is the determinant of a child’s personality and character.
The existentialist myth of self-creation is a variation of the blank slate notion of a person; if we are blank slates to ourselves then knowing our origins is not necessary to our flourishing. Secrecy about a child’s origins is justified to the myth of the blank slate; an important justification for seeking one’s origins is undermined by the same myth.
A chapter in my memoir, “The Bad Seed: Nature Overpowers Nurture,” is about going with my adoptive mother to see the film The Bad Seed when I was seventeen. Christine is the mother of her natural born eight-year-old daughter Rhoda. She always knew that Rhoda was strangely different from other children: she only wore starched, short Swiss skirts that she used to spread with her hands to curtsey politely like a child from another era. In William March’s novel on which the film is based, her mother says of Rhoda:
I don’t understand her mind or her character. I don’t believe that environment has much to do with it…. It must be something deeper than that…. It is something dark and unexplainable.
Christine becomes increasingly suspicious that her daughter, Rhoda, may have secretly drowned a boy in her class on a school picnic near a lake because he won a penmanship medal she thought she deserved. Rhoda turns out to be a prepubescent femme fatale who murders three people.
Christine had always felt that she was adopted even though her father, a retired journalist who covered infamous murder cases, denied that she was. But she eventually finds out that her father adopted her after her birth mother, a serial killer, abandoned her while escaping from the police. So Rhoda, granddaughter of a serial killer, is a bad seed whose murderous nature was inherited.
Like me, Rhoda’s mother Christine was adopted, she didn’t discover her origins until her mid-thirties, and her adoptive parents deliberately hid her story from her. I wonder if my adoptive mother, sitting in that movie theater with me, noticed the similarity to her own narrative of secrecy about her adopted son’s origins. Did she feel uneasy watching a drama in which a parent keeps secret her child’s origins? After we saw the film together I asked her if she knew anything about my birth mother. She said that she did not.
The film’s “don’t worry, it’s just fiction” ending did not reassure me. Its story rudely confronted me with the problem of my existence: Who was I, really? I felt it as a sinister insinuation that as an adopted child I was suspect. Did my inherited self contain a malicious essence underneath the surface of my life, a hidden story I didn’t know? If the Oedipus myth was an adoption-gone-bad story as Greek tragedy, The Bad Seed was an adoption-gone-bad story as horror film. One critic wrote, hyperbolically, that no one will now want to adopt children.
Secrecy, Forgiving, and Grieving
Secrecy about my beginning kept my adoptive parents and birth mother from understanding me and me from understanding myself. Their secrecy made me feel unloved. Their professed love for me did not seem authentic; I felt that they were loving my pretend self and not the real me, the one who needed to know his origins. Maybe my anger about this has kept part of me from fully growing up even though I have now grown old. Anger can be a kind of dark magical thinking creating the illusion of agency in a world of helplessness over the irretrievable losses that we suffer. It can turn a memoir into an indictment.
Yet forgiveness may not be the best way to get past my anger about my parents’ secrecy. Forgiveness, like the anger it is thought to displace, can itself be a subtle form of payback; in my case it would be to down-rank my adoptive parents moral status to that of a wrongdoers and elevate mine to that of a victim.
But does keeping me in the dark about my origins call for my forgiving them? Even though I feel betrayed by them for keeping my origins hidden from me doesn’t mean that they did in fact betray me. Maybe they had good intentions, wanting to protect themselves and me. Perhaps their secrecy was the product of the closed adoption practices of the era.
If I’m not certain that my anger at my parents is well grounded, what sense does it make for me to forgive them their supposed wrongdoing? Secrecy was intended to help my birth mother go on with her life, however sadly. Secrecy threw me clear of wreckage caused by my birth. Isn’t non-blaming grief a more generous letting-go of anger than the moral scrutiny of forgiveness? I grieve for my birth mother’s pain at giving me away; and for my adoptive mother’s pain brought on by her secret; and for my own ghost self that might have been had I known my roots or had not been given away. A memoir can be a form of grieving. It seems that grief resides in the same place in the soul that needs to make sense of things, to see one’s life whole again, in the wake of a momentous loss. As I shall explain, grief is a species of what I will call abandonment blues.
Abandonment Blues: Did My Birth Parents Each Take on Surrogates for Me, Their More Golden Phantom Child?
Hearing birth mothers talk of their lost children, it occurred to me that they have given them the same mythic quality that adoptees project onto their lost parents. The phantom child is always more golden than the actual one; its very absence makes it more desirable, and more there. It must be a hard sibling for the legitimate child to rival, being a creature of myth as it is.
–Betty Jean Lifton (Lost & Found: The Adoption Experience)
Adopted children experience a moment of abandonment when they are surrendered by their birth mother and handed over to a stranger. My birth mother took me when I was six months old by bus from Mountain Grove, Missouri, to East St. Louis, Illinois, where I was given up at a bus station. Of course I don’t consciously remember this. My birth mother wrote a poem titled “Little Boy Blue” about my adoption in which she alludes to the moment of handing me over by saying in one line that she would rather die than again hear me cry:
Little Boy Blue
Little boy blue
I love you true
Though I had to give you away
Now you love another
And you call her your Mother
And that’s the way it will stay.
Little Boy Blue
I loved your Daddy
Though he never knew about you.
And he loves another
But I’m still the Mother
of his little Boy Blue.
Now I’d rather die
Than again hear the cry
of my Little Boy Blue.
But you are grown now
A home of your own now
And I’m the one who is blue.
I’ve always loved you
I want you to know
and someday I’ll find you
And I’ll tell you so
You’ll understand then my Little Boy Blue
That what I did Dear was best for you.
Coday Melissa [My birth mother Cora’s pseudonym.]
I was given away when I was tiny. Do I still carry hidden in my cells the blues that I felt then and that my birth mother felt from giving me away? Jeanette Winterson writes:
Adoption begins on your own — you are solitary. The baby knows it has been abandoned — I am sure of that. (p. 180)
Two years after I was given up for adoption, my birth mother Cora had another son, Jerry, this time by her husband. I suspect that Jerry became a surrogate, an avatar, for me, Cora’s surrendered son. When I met Cora in 1974 she told me that Jerry would be “jealous” of me. She said that he drank and couldn’t keep a job.
On my first visit to Mountain Grove, in 2014, I met my half sister, Carol, Jerry’s younger sister and a self-described hillbilly. She told me about her brother:
Jerry had a lot of depression. I think it’s a disease. He’d cry, say he’s gonna kill himself. It scared Mom. Don’t know if he was taking something for it.
On my recent visit to Branson this year I met Jerry’s son, Mike Burris, and his wife, Connie, in the lobby of my hotel. Mike told me that he loved his grandmother Cora. She taught him to draw and paint when he was a kid. He and Connie have one of my birth mother’s paintings on a wall. He knew that his father Jerry’s life worried Cora. He said:
I could tell she was upset by Jerry’s drinking even though she didn’t say so. She helped Jerry financially, but he just drank it up. He was a drunk. He beat my mom. Whenever things started goin’ downhill for him he’d start hittin’ the booze. Cora spoiled him. Gave him money. He was a hung-up-on-himself type of person — a blow hard. He was hard to be around.
Mike went to see his dad days before he died in Branson in 2011. He said that, as a Christian man, he wanted “to be soothed in my mind,” so he forgave his father. He said that he hoped I didn’t think he was a bad person for talking about his dad like he did. I said that I thought that he was a good Christian who went to see his father before he died and forgave him. That showed that he loved his father in spite of his faults. Before Mike and Connie left, Connie had us all join hands in prayer. She said about me, “We pray that Uncle Richard finds what he’s looking for in his search for his family. Amen.”
Did her grief over her surrendered son cause Cora to treat my successor sibling Jerry as a surrogate for me, contributing to his downfall?
Earlier that same day in Branson, I heard a strikingly similar story of surrogacy gone bad on my biological father Arnold Stewart’s side. A professional genealogist I recently hired in Ann Arbor found my biological father’s 45-year-old great-grandson, Mike McCarty, Jr. With his father and grandfather gone, my father Arnold played the role of Mike, Jr.’s, father until the boy was 18. When I first met Mike, Jr., in the lobby of the Hilton in Branson, he said immediately that I looked just like “Dad” (as the family referred to him), especially when he looked me in the eyes. I felt affirmed, elated to be seen as having roots.
Mike, Jr., is a captain in the Branson Fire Department who looks like he stays in shape by lifting weights while on duty at the firehouse. He has a tuft of hair goatee under his lower lip. His favorite television show is “Rescue Me” that he says realistically depicts life in a firehouse. With his Southern Missouri lilt he relished telling stories about Arnold.
Dad had a cattle farm near Mountain Grove on which Mike, Jr., learned to hunt and dehorn cattle as a kid. But he made most of his wealth in his auto and real estate businesses. Arnold loaned car buyers money and was his own repo man, carrying a .38 if he thought there would be trouble when he confronted a deadbeat demanding either the money owed or the car back. My biological father was what the Jews call a macher, a big shot.
I compared my birth father to my adoptive father. My adoptive father expressed love for me indirectly, always asking me about my car, “Do you ever check your oil?” But maybe my father’s oblique Do-you-check-your-oil love had an unconscious shadow underside. Maybe it was his attempt to symbolically assert his role as my real father by perpetually treating me as a child. Since he was not the impregnator, having an adopted son emasculated his power as a patriarch. And his wife had left him for another man because he was, according to her, a “dead head” as a lover (this is not a reference to The Grateful Dead). Their marriage had ended after 35 years. My biological father was like my father fantasy, conjured up from the Ghost Kingdom deep within my inherited self. He was virile and sexual; he produced a man-child. And he was a free spirit who refused to be tied down and hen-pecked; he had a 40-year affair with my birth mother. My adoptive father would never have done that.
Mike, Jr.’s, grandmother, Joyce Jean, was Arnold’s only legitimate child. Born in Mountain Grove in 1930, Joyce Jean was my older half sister. I was born in 1939, the product of Arnold’s long-term secret affair with my birth mother Cora Mae Burris. Joyce Jean married Jack McCarty in the early 1950s and had a son, Mike McCarty, Sr. Jack and Joyce Jean divorced when Mike, Sr., was five. And soon after that Jack was killed in an auto accident. Young Mike, Sr., had lost his father. His grandfather Arnold, my biological father, became Mike, Sr.’s, surrogate father.
Arnold confided to young Mike, Jr., that this surrogate fatherhood unfolded in response to a strange incident that took place just after Jack McCarty’s death. He told of being visited in the night by the ghost of his dead son-in-law, Jack, about two weeks after his death. He heard a noise downstairs of his two-story farmhouse in young Mike, Sr.’s, room, went down, and found Jack standing at the foot of his son’s bed.
Mike, Jr., explained:
Dad looked at Jack and Jack looked at him. He turned to Arnold and said, ‘Take care of my boy.’ He didn’t say anything more. Then Jack turned and walked past Dad. Dad said it was just like a real person. He followed him and kept trying to talk to him: Jack, Jack. You’re dead, Jack. What’s happening? He followed as Jack went out the front door of the house and across the front porch and through the yard toward the fence, climbed over the fence, walked out into a field and disappeared into the night. And that was it. It’s hard to believe. I don’t know what to believe of it. It sounds far-fetched, but it seemed like a face-to-face with a real person, with Jack, and that’s what Dad said.
Whatever one makes of this ghost story, with his father now gone, young Mike, Sr., needed someone to take care of him. But his mother Joyce Jean (my half sister) was a wild woman. She always drove a Cadillac although she never worked, smoked cigarettes with a long holder, drank heavily, and often went out and disappeared for the evening, sometimes with other men. Her Cadillac was often parked outside a bar somewhere and at times she’d call for someone to come get her because she was too drunk to drive home.
Dad didn’t allow Joyce Jean to take young Mike, Sr., to Kansas City with her when she moved there from Mountain Grove shortly after her husband’s death. Mike, Jr., said of his grandmother Joyce:
There was a reason why Dad raised my father, Mike, Sr. It was not only that Jack’s ghost said, ‘Hey, take care of my boy,’ but also he didn’t want my dad to grow up with a runaround or whatever. She went to Kansas City right after Jack was killed; my dad was maybe five or six at the time.
Mike, Sr., married his wife, Ginny, in the late ‘60s. When their son, Mike, Jr., was born in 1972, Dad said that Mike, Sr., and Ginny now needed to get rid of their Corvette that was too small to haul an infant around. He gave them his new Buick Riviera. They found romantic letters from my birth mother Cora to Arnold in the glove compartment. From then on they referred to Cora as “Dad’s girlfriend.” Mike, Jr., said:
My mom’s the one that found the letters in the glove box. It was some cards and some love letters. So that’s when they found out that there was somebody else. They got rid of the letters. They didn’t tell Arnold that they knew. But they certainly didn’t know that there was a baby involved, that there was a ‘you’ involved in that.
It’s not surprising that your mom and dad didn’t know about me. They found Cora’s letters in 1972, the year you were born. I was born in 1939 long before then. My half sister Joyce Jean was only nine.
But Dad’s surrogate fathering of Mike, Sr., did not keep him from going astray. Arnold took Mike, Sr., into his car business with him, even making him a partner in 1975. He provided Mike, Sr., and Ginny with houses and cars. But Mike, Sr., drank heavily, was irresponsible, and was divorced from Mike, Jr.’s, mother Ginny, in 1981. After the divorce his father became estranged from his family, moved to Kansas City, seldom saw his son, took odd jobs, was destitute. Mike, Jr.’s, voice broke and tears came as he spoke of his absent father.
My father always had alcohol problems. I think that’s part of the reason Dad kept him in the car business with him — to look after him. Dad always took care of my dad. Whatever he needed, Dad didn’t let him stay in bad shape; he was always there for him.
I was struck by the similarities between Mike Burris’ (Cora’s grandson) and Mike McCarty, Jr.’s, (Arnold’s great grandson) stories about their respective fathers. Were they surrogates for me, the relinquished son? Perhaps in my birth mother’s grief after giving me away, she spoiled my successor Jerry as compensation, treating him as a surrogate for me. Was Arnold’s story of Jack’s ghost an expression of his unconscious guilt over his exiled biological son, a surfacing of my ghost, the child that he fathered but never took care of?
It is true that Cora says in her “Little Boy Blue” poem that Arnold “never knew about you.” But I think this was cover for him; he had to have known about me. They both lived in small town Mountain Grove. Arnold was a friend of Cora’s family. Cora’s husband knew that I was not his and insisted that I be given up for adoption. But even if Arnold had not known about me at first, he had learned by the time he told Mike, Jr., the ghost story years after the incognito meeting proposal in 1975.
As fathers, both Jerry Burris and Mike McCarty, Sr., became irresponsible drunks estranged from their respective sons, Mike Burris and Mike McCarty, Jr., the two men I recently met in Branson. Was surrogacy the cause? Joyce Jean was not a surrogate and she turned out badly. Maybe it was nature, and not substitute nurture, that made them the way they were. Or were they just bad seeds? Or was it just their fate to fail as fathers?
Mike, Jr., became a second surrogate to Arnold, but he turned out well. One crucial difference, he told me, was that he had a strong mother in his life, unlike his own father who was abandoned by Joyce Jean. And his father’s father was killed in an auto accident when Mike, Sr., was five. Arnold’s surrogate fathering may have done no harm. But the ghost that haunted him said, “Take care of my son,” undoubtedly resurfacing his issues with paternal responsibility.
I believe that my presence as a golden phantom child in both of my birth parents’ psyches led them to find substitutes for me. My absence was a consequential presence for them. My ghost haunted their lives. This is my mythos. The myth is not just my story, but also a set of emotions that I’m calling abandonment blues that binds everyone in the adoption triangle — birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptee — into a shadow family.
I have compassion for my birth parents; my roots are entwined in their stories of surrogacy. And I have compassion for my adoptive parents’ secrecy that resulted from their fear of abandonment, another variation of the blues endured by everyone in the adoption triangle. I play the golden boy in this extended shadow family in that I am a surrogate for my adoptive parents never-to-materialize biological son, and the dissolute son of each of my birth parents is a surrogate for me. My myth of self-creation that previously challenged my bastard moments has been replaced by a more compassionate myth of my shadow family’s drama of loss. There is an indefinite number of these dramas in the world of adoptees.
Whatever the cause of their failures, I have empathy for these two surrogate sons who became failed fathers. As an adopted child, I felt that I was a substitute for my adoptive parents’ phantom biological son. I felt not quite loved for myself in spite of the assurances that many adoptees are given that their adoptive parents love them as if they were their own.
When Arnold was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1990 at age 83, Joyce Jean put him in a home in Kansas City. Having power of attorney, she immediately sold his farm, auctioned off his assets, and took all the money in his accounts, including the fund put aside for Mike, Jr.’s, education. She told Mike, Jr., that he didn’t need the money because he was so smart he would succeed without it. Arnold died in 1995, with all he had worked his whole life to accumulate through hard work and frugality controlled by Joyce Jean, his prodigal daughter. She died two years later. Mike, Jr., didn’t know what happened to Arnold’s wealth. His material wealth had been lost. And his identity disappeared with his dementia; he didn’t recognize Mike, Jr., when he went to visit him in the home in Kansas City.
It says in my half brother Jerry’s obituary that he was known for performing with a large dummy named Amos at the IMAX theatre in Branson. Amos wore a farmer’s straw-hat, had waxy cheeks, wire-rimmed glasses, a white beard, with a corncob pipe in his mouth; he wore overalls and a white shirt. A fiddle rested in his left arm. He was rigged with a hidden microphone and speakers to amplify his ventriloquist’s voice. With his hound dog eyes, large nose, and receding hairline, Jerry looked like a cowboy version of actor Jack Klugman. Visitors in the lobby would tell their troubles to Amos and he would sympathize. Jerry’s Amos act was part comedy, part pathos.
My mother and half-brother both had names for their alternative personas: Using her pseudonym Cora became “Coday Melissa” in her writings and Jerry became Amos’s voice in his performance as a ventriloquist. They both created themselves as characters in order to project their higher selves through their art. Perhaps by analogy I’m using my memoir to create a literary character that encompasses both my biological self and my adopted self. Creating alternate more compassionate surrogate egos through art seems to run in our family.