Earlier this year, an acquaintance from high school (so many high school stories this month!) told me that her biological mom had died. She told me that the whole thing had been a nightmare and that I should write about it. I wanted to know more about what she meant by that and so Cheryl allowed me to interview her about her life and her adoption, which has elements of openness even though it occurred during an era of closedness.
What I like about what she’s shared with me is that it shows the conflicting emotions held by some adoptees: dealing with what IS while longing for what could have been; the push and the pull that exists between an adoptee and her birth parent; seemingly opposite views expressed within moments of each other.
This is Cheryl’s story.
My memories start at age 5. My mom, Connie, had four more children after me: Viki, twins Mark and Mike, and Richard.
Connie was a partier and was gone most nights. My siblings and I were hungry, we were dirty and we were neglected. I once almost killed my little sister Viki by giving her a bottle of baby aspirin because Connie was out lookin’ for love.
Eventually social services stepped in. Connie kept Viki but gave up the twins and Richard to Colorado Christian Home. As for me? A couple who eventually became my parents had seen me at their church, where Connie would send me to beg for money, food, whatever. This couple informally adopted me with Connie’s blessing. Connie kept trying to get money from them for years. Eventually my adoptive parents got a lawyer and fought for me.
Virgil was my biological father, but I call him a sperm donor. When he got out of prison he fought my new parents for me. My parents had a good lawyer but he wasn’t aggressive as he should have been. They put me on the stand and I said I wanted to go with the people I felt were my parents but the judge said I had to return to Virgil.
Shortly after I moved to his home Virgil killed my pet bunny my parents had just gotten me. I was with him for about 6 months or so, but then he ended up giving me to an aunt and uncle because I didn’t like Virgil’s new wife. When they took me to California I stabbed the aunt in the arm because she cut my hair all off. We came back to Colorado and my aunt and uncle broke up and gave me to Virgil’s parents.
My grandma wanted to keep me but Clem, my granddad, didn’t. Clem was also my younger sister Viki’s dad (yes, this means my paternal grandfather fathered a baby with my mother) and was a violent, mean SOB. Clem knew I knew he had been with Connie (he had tried to be with my aunt, too — just a nasty, nasty man) so I was given back to social services and went into the system.
Eventually my parents got me back for good. By this time I was 9 years old.
How open was your adoption. Did you know names? Have your original birth records? Medical history? Contact?
As an older child I knew everyone in the game from parents to siblings to paternal grandparents. Medical records were never an issue for us.
If you later reunited with any birth family, tell about that.
I was always in contact with Connie and my siblings. Connie’s mom thought it should have been more “open” but those times never went well because my folks had money.
I believe if we had had counseling during these meetings it would have been better. I didn’t grow up the way my birth family members did so it was awkward and lets face it I was DAMN angry Connie gave me away, without any RESPONSIBILITY, just saying “it’s for your own good.” What the hell does that mean?
I mean she had already starved me, Lori. I remember being so HUNGRY! She beat me; there were days I couldn’t go to school because I had no clothes or pencils. She had subjected me to Clem — what more could she do??? Shove me off the swing set again from the top bar??
Moving from that kind of environment and treatment to a more calm and loving one with my adoptive parents, well let’s just say the transition didn’t go as smoothly as you’d expect.
Really. Counseling would helped me move from one reality to another.
How did adoption affect you?
It affected me in some negative ways, but yet some very positive ways, too. I am the most insecure person in the world…have no self-esteem and don’t trust most people. Am angry and depressed even with counseling. Had I gotten counseling earlier I would have benefited.
On the other hand, I am more sensitive to the needs of others, and I have broken the circle by not having violence and hunger near my children. I have stood by my kids and they are successful. Sami is the first “grandchild” of Connie’s to graduate high school (with honors!) and go to college. Chelsea shows horses. I am pleased to say I have found a way to help my kids become successful.
It’s a doubled-edged sword. Connie didn’t live to see Sami get her honors diploma. Likely she would not have known how much it meant, but I did. If I had to suffer through my childhood for MY kids to have a life I would do it again.
What are your thoughts on open vs closed adoption?
I believe open adoptions are best for the kids. Why? Because they would have fewer feelings of abandonment and isolation. They would be able to comprehend why they were given a new beginning.
So I know I was hungry with Connie — I would share rotten potatoes with Viki. I was beaten with a big green paddle. I get that. But this was life as I knew it. This was what I lived. This was “normal” to me.
So you’re an adopted kid and you go see how your biological family lives and you try to wrap your brain around it, the two opposite scenarios. You come from these people. Their blood flows in your veins. You have a connection to them but sometimes it horrifies you.
On the other hand there are the people I was grafted to. Yeah, it’s a way better place, because the way I was living was not normal, not safe. Openness allows me to see both sides. It stretches me to fit in both camps, even though neither is a perfect fit.
Plus with openness medical records are accessible. I can’t see any down side to openness.
But if it’s an older child, she needs counseling and her adopted parents need support. The grafting process isn’t as automatic as the social workers thought it would be.
You were placed in the 1970s. What parts of your adoption worked well for you? How could the adults around you have made the situation better for you?
I don’t feel like any thing the adults did “worked” for me. The Judge put me on the stand (which still affects me because I don’t like people looking at me) and then ignored my wishes to stay with my folks (adoptive parents) and gave me to Virgil, who was a known offender. There was no counseling, although clearly I was living a turbulent life. Instead of fighting and acting crazy the adults around me should have communicated and concentrated more on me and my wishes than on their own.
Tell me a little about your siblings, both bio- and adopted.
Viki is less then a year younger then I am. She has 4 kids, and she left them all just the way Connie did. One of her sons is in prison for life (rape, robbery) and her oldest daughter lives on welfare. The oldest daughter has 2 kids by two dads; one of the dads is in prison the other has been deported. Her other daughter is OK — she was raised by her dad. I Just met her at Connie’s funeral. Viki’s other son is a loser who didn’t graduate from high school and smokes weed all day.
The twins, Mark and Mike, and live in Georgia. Mark owns a construction company and is bitter. Mike came to Denver for the funeral and got into a fist fight with Viki and claims she stole from him; it just turned into a mess.
My brother Richard is dead. Open adoption could have made a difference here, some connection to his original family. He didn’t know us really. I met him once after we were grown up; he was very handsome but you could tell he had serious demons. Though I didn’t know why because he was a baby when it all went down. We don’t know who his dad was. We don’t know for the twins either. My dad was in prison when they were conceived.
Then there is Shawna, born after Connie gave me away. Shawna was pregnant at 13. Her dad was Don, who was a kind and loving man. He married Connie, but it turned out soooo bad. Don told Connie NOT to give me up. But of course she never cared about us kids so she did give me up. What she did tore at Don all his life. I saw him on his death bed and we made our peace. Connie wasn’t allowed at his funeral. She made a huge mess of their lives. He provided well for her and she could have been happy, but no. She took Viki and Shawna and ran off with a big drunk named Chief. Just a year before she died she wanted to see if we could find him even though she was married by then to yet another man, Clark. So there was no stability for either Viki or Shawna.
Holly is my adopted sister. She is OK, but she’s my adoptive parents’ favorite. And in turn she favors her son over her daughter. We go around about that. She’s mostly in my corner.
Connie, your biological mom, passed away this year. What were the family dynamics at this time? For example, were you welcomed at her funeral?
Well her funeral was something else. I was included in the arrangements and ended up being the peacekeeper.
It was decided for the obituary I was to be listed first, but it wasn’t printed that way. Shawna’s fiancee was listed before me, but I didn’t rock the boat. Since my children and I weren’t in any family photos I made my own picture board. The thing that got me was that people kept saying how loving and nurturing and kind Connie was. BULL SH!T. Of all the kids she gave away I was the only kid there. Clark said he would throw the twins out if they came. They were hurt over her giving them up too.
I made two flower arrangements with a red rose for each of us. I put four roses in her casket for the “lost” ones. It made Viki so mad she went to pull them out and nearly pulled Connie out of the casket.
I was the last one to leave because I wanted a private audience with Connie. I told my dead biological mother it was a joke about her being kind and loving. I told her she killed Richard and I told her I made way better choices and gave my kids a life in spite of her. I told her the only reason I cared was because she gave me life, but that she wasn’t my mom. And I told her I pitied her because she never got to know Sami and Chel. I told her she didn’t break me.
Truthfully I wanted to spit on her, but my parents raised me better. My father said he hoped I could find peace now that she was gone. I said she haunted me and did nothing but hurt me to my core.
But I didn’t let her hurt my kids. When my son died Connie said I deserved it. I said yeah well he didn’t commit suicide the way my brother did.
It’s clear to me open adoptions are helpful for kids who are abused, neglected and worse. Even with the benefits of open adoption, counseling should be offered time and time again for all concerned. I believe had we had an open adoption with brother Richard he would still be alive and I wouldn’t have to keep living the horror of him on the beach dead.
Please make a difference for my brother, Lori.
Cheryl, thank you for sharing your story of tragedy, struggle, resilience and eventually triumph. I’m not sure anything I can do here will make a difference for your brother, but your voice is being heard and I’m sure your story will stick with readers long after they close their browsers. With your powerful testimony, may the lessons you lived bring an awareness of the child’s perspective in any adoption arrangement.
Peace to you and your family during this holiday season.