When Emma Stevens learns her birth mother wrote and signed a letter about her to the adoption agency, she knew she had to have that letter. Her birth mother had used a fictitious name at the maternity home and an assumed name on Emma’s original birth certificate. Emma takes bold measures to get ahold of that letter and start solving the puzzle that is her life.
Emma was adopted into a family that expected her to conform to their expectations of who she should be — but she did not arrive as a blank slate. Unable to see that her relinquishment and adoption were not her fault, her soul split into pieces. In order to put the pieces back together, Emma embarks on multiple journeys and adventures towards both solving the mystery of who she is, and healing from the pain of separation from her origins.
Below is an excerpt from The Gathering Place: An Adoptee’s Story, Emma Steven’s newly released memoir.
In the winter of 1987, I began dating Andrew, who happened to live in the city where my adoption took place. He’d often fly me to visit him. It was casual and not very serious, but he took an interest in my search. He’d offer to help sometimes by looking something up at the library, or getting me an address, or phone number. During one of my visits to see him we started talking in earnest about the letter that my first mom had written to the adoption agency and had signed with her real name.
“What if we were to pay a visit to the adoption agency, you know, after hours? It probably wouldn’t be that hard to get in,” I said to Andrew. I didn’t truly think I would ever be able to follow through with a clandestine plan like that.
“You know, you’re probably right. That day you showed me the agency, I could tell the front door was really thin and it didn’t look to have any kind of difficult locks. I’m sure a flathead screwdriver would do the trick,” Andrew said without hesitation or even blinking. Andrew was a college graduate and business professional at a large beverage corporation. I wouldn’t have ever thought him the type to readily entertain getting involved in such risky business.
Rather than saying all the reasons this could be a very bad idea, I found myself saying, “Let’s do it.”
The Break In
It truly was as simple as using a flathead screwdriver to pop the locked front door of the adoption agency open. We went in the cover of night with flashlights and even wore the proverbial black clothes, hat, and gloves, too.
This was the 1980s, a time before security systems, cameras, and parking lot security guards. It was all very surreal and terrifying. The gravity of the risk I was taking was in the forefront of my mind and had my heart beating thunderously against my chest. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the very real possibility of police showing up and arresting me for stealing my own adoption file. My own unamended birth certificate.
The irony hit me as I thought about how adoptees are among the original victims of identity theft due to having their true identity erased, falsified, and expunged. And this practice is legal and accepted by those who had and have a self-interest to do so. As of this writing, only nine states allow adoptees over 18 or 21 unrestricted access to their sealed birth records. In 1987, the time period of my break-in, there were none. While stealing and breaking into anywhere is normally far outside my principles, in this case, I felt very justified.
Once inside the front door, I said, “OK, now where? Where should we start looking?” I hadn’t thought this far ahead. While I had been inside this agency when I came to talk to one of the workers, I hadn’t had the forethought to check out the layout of the office or determine where 25- year-old adoption records might be kept. And then my sight went straight to a closed door right in front of us. I walked to it and opened the unlocked door to a small closet that turned out to contain two file cabinets and file boxes with lids on the floor.
“You don’t think this could be the old files, do you?!” I really couldn’t allow myself to think it was going to be this easy. I opened the unlocked top drawer to one of the five- foot-tall file cabinets and was electrified to be looking at adoption records filed by last names listed as A through H, and then by the year of the adoption. In the next moment, however, I clearly saw by the dates listed that these adoption files in the cabinet were much more present day.
While Andrew held the flashlight steady, I turned my attention to the boxes laying on the floor and to the side of the tall file cabinet. They appeared to have writing on them and looked to be labeled in a similar way as the ones in the cabinet.
“No way!” I exclaimed. I plunged my gloved hand into a box labeled 1960-1965 and plucked out random boxes that appeared to contain films that were each labeled with adoption years and marked with either A-H, I-P, or Q-Z. I had a moment of doubt thinking- “what if I’m at the wrong agency?” But I knew logically that wasn’t right because I had talked to the woman from this very agency who had even counseled my birth mother. In the next moment my hope was restored. I found the microfiche film relating to the year of my brother’s adoption. 1962. And then I found the film box labeled as adoptions from my adoption year. 1964. Presumably, both my brother’s and my personal adoption records should be contained within these files.
“Let me see. Oh my gosh, you found it!” Andrew was almost as excited as I was. But no one could have felt more victorious than me. I felt as though, against all odds, I may have just discovered the holy grail!
All information was stored on microfiche, rather than on a computer system — that technology came much later. Andrew and I made an immediate plan to take the box of films to the closest library. Not wanting to spend one unnecessary second trying to decide which film to take from the box, we made a split decision to take the entire box, hoping it contained both my brother’s and my adoption records. And so, with the heavy adoption records in arms, we quickly closed the closet door, and rushed through the agency to exit through the same front door we’d damaged to enter.
Once in the car, Andrew wiped his sweaty brow asking, “What time does the library close?”
We had broken into the agency after they closed at 5:00 p.m. Since it was winter, it had been dark. It was just then after 6:00. “They close at 8:00. So, we really need to hurry,” I said feeling frantic and sick with nerves. We had a lot to do in a very short amount of time. I also still felt that the sound of sirens was eminent. I just knew the police were waiting to round us up and take us to jail.
We scanned and scanned through the files after we had settled in at the library’s microfiche table. The records were condensed onto multiple rolls of film, which required moving through many, many adoptee names that were not my own. And then it happened. I had finally arrived at my brother’s name. Frozen in place, I just stared at his name, his birthdate, and then the name of his adoptive parents. I felt an enormous wave of recognition looking at the adoptive parent’s names, since they were none other than my own.
“Andrew,” I barely breathed. “This is my brother Tim’s adoption file information.” My whole body felt on fire at the discovery. The weird thing was even though I knew all of this was unfolding in real time, I couldn’t fathom that it actually was.
I started making copies of everything related to his adoption hoping to preserve the vital information in case Tim may want it after I returned home from the weekend. Luckily, Andrew had brought the necessary coins to be inserted into the machine to make each of the copies. I wasn’t about to not get my brother’s file for him when I almost literally had it in my hands. Ironically, when that future time came that I did ask Tim if he wanted his birth information, he replied, “They didn’t want me, so why would I want them?”
To find my own name, I had to scroll two and a half years ahead. The same amount as our age difference. It’s funny how doubt has a way of creeping in, especially when you feel so close to the finish line. Thoughts of, “What if my adoption didn’t get documented?” “What if I didn’t grab the right box of adoption records?” “What if I didn’t grab the right box of adoption records?” “What if…?”
And then in the middle of these uncertainties, I found what I’d been looking for.
It’s such a mind-bender of how there are times in your life where you know everything is just about to change. Nothing is ever going to be quite the same again. I almost felt that in that second, the earth actually stood motionless and became so, so, quiet. I had just found my own name with my own birthdate. My knees buckled, barely supporting me to continue standing. I was so incredibly happy, I cried.
The librarian gave us the 15-minute warning of the library closing and we had to shut our research project down. Luckily, I was just finishing up the last of the copies made from the microfiche reader.
“Emma,” Andrew warned. “Don’t take the time to read anything now! Just get as much copied as possible. We can read it all later!”
Of course, I knew he was right. I kept plowing forward making copy after copy. The things I was viewing as the screen scrolled by were all the clinical observation notes pertaining to me as an infant, my original birth certificate, and information about my adoptive parents.
I paused right when Andrew was reprimanding me to hurry and stay on task because I had scrolled to the letter my birth mother had sent to the adoption agency a short time after relinquishing me. It looked just like the typewritten one the adoption worker had provided me with recently – except for one thing. The letter was in her handwriting and at the bottom of the letter, instead of being a name that had been blacked out, it contained the full handwritten signature of my birth mom.
Excerpted from The Gathering Place: An Adoptee’s Story
About Emma Stevens
Emma Stevens is a U.S. domestic adoptee from birth and has survived layers of trauma that have put her on multiple journeys. She developed the inner strength and courage to surmount the many struggles she faced. Her traumas were born from being an adoptee who struggled with being forced to wear an impossible mask of playing the part of the “good adopted child.”
The Gathering Place: An Adoptee’s Story is Emma Stevens’ first book. She has an undergraduate degree in journalism and has completed master’s level course work in psychology, specializing in Marriage, Family, and Child counseling. She has two adult children and two cat children who she adores.
More Emma Stevens
- Linktree: https://linktr.ee/Authoremmastevens
- Facebook & Instagram: @emmastevensthegatheringplace
- Twitter & TikTok: @emmastevensTGP
- Book: The Gathering Place: An Adoptee’s Story
- More from adoptees and birth parents: AdoptLit
Lori Holden, mom of a teen son and a young adult daughter, writes from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life. Catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.
Lori was honored as an Angel in Adoption® in 2018 by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.