Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Better Late Than Never: A Guest Post from Noelle Sickels

I am a “late discovery” adoptee, a term I learned only recently. I’m also a historical novelist. These  self-definitions came together in a surprising way while I was researching my latest novel, Out of Love.

As a historical novelist, doing research is not only a job requirement, it’s also my favorite part of the work. My three previous novels were set, respectively, in 1852, 1886, and 1943. I read old diaries and old newspaper articles, and I immersed myself in the clothing styles, slang, and homemaking chores of those bygone years, all as a way to create characters whose emotions and actions would be true not only to their personalities but also to their situations and their place in time. Adoption wasn’t featured in any of those novels, but adoption is at the core of Out of Love. More specifically, the aftermath of adoption --- its emotional effects over the years on everyone involved, not only the “adoption triad,” but also siblings, the birth grandparents, and the spouses and children birthparents may have acquired after relinquishment.

The story in Out of Love is kick-started when a young man sends his birthmother a letter and then disappears. She plunges into a search for him, reluctantly enlisting the aid of the high school boyfriend who has never forgotten her. Being a dutiful historical novelist (and someone who loves libraries and investigating), I read scores of oral histories by birthmothers and birthfathers, I combed scholarly works on adoption issues, and I interviewed women who’d relinquished babies. Then, as I approached the part of the book where the missing young man would make his appearance, I started reading the stories of real-life adoptees. And came face-to-face, amazingly, with myself.

I’m not an adoptee in a formal, legal sense. I was raised by my mother and her husband, whom I always considered my father, a man who never showed by any word or deed that I was any different from my five siblings. My grandparents and aunts and uncles and a few of my mother’s close friends all knew the secret, but they, too, never let a single hint escape. And yet, I always felt different. Not inferior or discriminated against or deprived in any way, just different. As a child, I couldn’t have told you exactly what the difference was, or why I felt it. It was subtle, subterranean, out of the reach of words. But some air of the unknown must have hung about me --- in college, a boyfriend dubbed me a “black-haired enigma,” and, later, my best friend called me a “sphinx.”

I found out, definitively, after my mother’s death that my father wasn’t my father. I wasn’t told. Based on old letters found in my mother’s closet, I guessed. Then, slowly, I questioned, I dug. When I first knew for sure, when the first person said, “Yes, you’re right,” it wasn’t a shock. It was, instead a settling in, a sigh of relief almost, an affirmation and explanation of that strange difference I’d known all my life, the answer to a question I hadn’t even realized existed.

I have been digging now for years, ferreting out facts about my birthfather, trying to understand the long-ago emotions and motives of my mother and my two fathers. Lately, I’ve been talking about it. But in the beginning, I kept my discoveries and even the fact that I was searching at all a secret, even from people close to me. It was my story, the story of me and the people who made me by contributing genes, by making decisions about my fate, by raising me, but I felt like an interloper. To search felt like a transgression.
Without ever having been told the colossal secret, somehow my parents had trained me to keep it. I wanted to protect them from criticisms by others. I wanted to protect my new awareness and knowledge, to possess it fully myself before letting anyone else in on it, as if it were something that could be snatched away from me. Each time I prepared to contact someone I thought would have useful information, I had to build up my courage. Not one person disappointed me, yet every time, I went through the same nervousness before asking my questions, the same feeling that I should apologize for asking, that I was trespassing. I let long lapses of time pass between these interviews. Months. Years. I voluntarily put myself in limbo.

I had always thought these feelings were unique. And I thought they were mysterious, even weird. Until I began reading the stories of adoptees. I had never thought of the term “adoptee” in reference to myself. But again and again in the adoptee stories, I encountered familiar feelings: hesitancy in searching; a sense of responsibility for the needs of others; fear of being disloyal; satisfaction, even joy, at gaining knowledge, but continued, seemingly insatiable longing.
So I’m grateful to adoptees who openly explore and share the complex web of their feelings about themselves and their parents, and how it can shift over time. As much as any piece of census data or tiny black-and-white snapshot or reminiscence by an elderly relative or old love letter, the experiences of other adoptees have helped me make sense of my life. I, like anyone, am unique, but I’m also not unique. And that’s a good thing to know.