A couple of months ago, a conspicuous email appeared in my work inbox. The subject read: "Seeking Adoptees to Share Their Stories." My heart jumped as it always does when I see something like this. I read on...
I saw, to my surprise, that it was a pitch to be in a pilot episode for a reality TV show (or as they called it "non-fiction programming"). Apparently, someone had found a reference to me in a news article for the Columbus Dispatch about my attending the Adoption Network Cleveland's conference in Cleveland and thought I'd make a good addition to the show. The idea was to follow the story of someone who was about to make a life changing decision. Along the way they would interview people who would try to persuade the person one way or another. The pilot episode would focus on an adoptee from Chicago trying to decide whether or not she should search for her birth family. She was already cast. What they needed were people who had been through the same dilemma and could give advice. That's where they thought I could come in.
Hmmm...Reality TV, I thought. It seemed to me a bright and shiny thing, a way into something, though I didn't know what. It felt like it could be an opportunity to reach a wider audience and provide a good adoptee perspective. And the thought of being on television, talking about an issue I care about, seemed exciting.
But I also felt wary. The old jump-to tendency to say "Wow! Thanks! Of course I'm interested" was not there. So I listened to my spidey sense and wrote, "I'm interested in learning more," then waited. After a week or so with no reply, I forgot all about it.
For the past year, I have been telling my story here. This blog has been a lifeline to others, but also to my myself. Telling my story has honestly been one of the best ways for me to stay sane. I find that when I am away from it for too long, when I forget this part of my identity, things tend to feel fuzzy and unanchored. I tell my story to you, whoever is reading, so that I can find you, so that you can know me better. But I also tell it to myself. Otherwise, for me, it's hard to know what's real.
If that sounds weird, I guess it is. My experience as a late discovery adoptee is pretty surreal sometimes. To feel a deep sense of something not being right your whole life, to know in your heart who and what you are, and to be told that you are wrong...well, it doesn't exactly do wonders for your sanity and confidence. Even today, if something clearly happened, and you try to convince me that it didn't, my first instinct is to do everything I can to try to believe you, even if I don't.
The truth that I saw all around me in the faces of those I was told were my blood relatives, but who looked nothing like me, was a truth I was forced to deny. I was told a story about myself that just didn't fit what I saw. But where was the alternative? The lie was my only frame of reference. And as for my true feelings? Those could only make sense if I believed that I was the crazy one.
Getting my birth certificate started to change all of that. It was one of the most important things that has ever happened to me. Here was a frame of reference that was solid, certified, undeniable. Aside from the names, dates and places written on it, the unspoken words written in invisible ink read YOU ARE NOT CRAZY. The shift was profound. The ability to finally tell a true story about myself opened up a part of me that was locked away. To simply say, "This is what happened." felt like I was meeting myself for the first time. Yes, I am often filled with a profound grief for the 43 years of my life that I could not do this. But I know that I cannot alter the past and re-live those years.
Nor can I blame those around us who kept silent, as much as I wanted to. They had no idea I was in the dark. It seems unbelievable, but those very relatives who looked nothing like me? They all assumed I knew. Every single one, when I told them of my discovery, reacted with some form of: "Well, yeah. Of course you're adopted. You mean, you didn't know?" My father had informed everyone that were were told at a young age, so there was no need to speak of it. We were family, and that was that.
Do you see why I have to tell my story? Why some pieces of it must be repeated over and over again in order to be believed? If I wait too long to speak, the old familiar silence begins to creep back. And once again, I might wonder... did all of this really happen? Could I still be wrong?
I also tell stories on stage, and recently I had the opportunity to submit one to a performance venue. It was an early story about how I tried to learn the truth of my adoption by asking my parents, and how I finally had to learn the truth, by asking the state of Ohio. It's a hard story to tell. It's raw and real and I don't know if it's very good as stories go. But it's mine. And so when I received their feedback telling me that I could re-submit it with some changes, I couldn't do it. They wanted me to write more about my adoptive parents. They wanted more of a story about how my relationship with them changed after I found out. "Did you ever wish or hope you were adopted?" they asked. "We'd like you to write more about that."
Fine, I thought. But that's not the story I'm telling.
Did I ever wish or hope I was adopted? To me that question doesn't even make sense. I felt an anger and a defensiveness which was uncommon in situations like this. I normally love feedback from other writers and from directors. I want my stories to be better, and I welcome constructive criticism. But here, I couldn't bring myself to change the content of my story to fit what someone else wanted to hear. I'd been doing that my whole life, and I was finished. Saying no doesn't come easy to me, but I said no thanks. Nothing against them. It just wasn't for me.
Which brings me to reality television.
The next email I got from the production company came three weeks later. They had a "materials and appearance release" form for me to sign, and they needed it ASAP. Whoa, I thought... I hadn't even talked to anyone about being in the show yet, and they wanted me to sign my life away? I told them I needed to have more time and more of a conversation about it, so they immediately put me in touch with the casting director, who planned to Skype me from Los Angeles for an audition (Shouldn't that have come first?).
I won't give the name of the company, but I did my research. It was legit, and they produce shows you've probably heard of. The casting director was friendly and seemed genuinely interested in my story. I chattered along, telling her everything that came to mind about this whole wild journey of discovery, from learning about my adoption, to searching for my birth mom, etc.... She was fascinated. But close to the end, I could feel her tone changing. We were running out of time and I could sense that she was not getting what she wanted from me. After all, this episode was not going to be about me. My job was to give an opinion to the young woman trying to decide if she should search for her birth family. And they wanted a "strong point of view." In other words, they wanted drama.
"For the producers," she said. "I'm gonna need you to say into the camera something along the lines of: 'If you are an adoptee you absolutely need to search for your birth family.' Say it as if you were saying it to her"
I paused, my survival instincts flaring up. "Um... How about this?" I asked. "Every adoptee ought to have the right to search for his or her origins."
"No," she said. "This isn't about rights. This is for TV. This is about whether or not this woman should search. You need to have a strong opinion about what she should do. You need to say that she should search for her birth family."
I paused again.
"But I don't necessarily believe that," I said. And I could see this was going to be a problem.
And it's true. I don't believe it. If an adoptee doesn't want to seek out his or her birth family, there should never be any pressure to do so. Not everyone needs to do what I'm doing. For me, it's important. And I strongly believe that every adult adoptee should have the right to do it. We should have free access to our birth information so that we can choose for ourselves what we wish to do. But to say that all of us should search? No. That is a matter of personal choice. I didn't even know this adoptee who would be in the show, but my gut instinct was to stand by her and protect her, not to tell her what to do in front of the whole country.
The next day, amazingly enough, I got another email pressuring me to sign the release forms, even though I had yet to be cast and had a feeling I probably wouldn't be anyway. It said, among other things, that I would give consent to the producers to use, edit, dub or juxtapose any footage of me (including my audition interview) in any way they saw fit. I would also waive the right to sue for defamation and I would hold the producers blameless for any physical, mental, or emotional injury incurred.
Physical, mental and emotional injury? I imagined that this was the same form that other contestants signed before being starved, humiliated, and dropped into a pit of scorpions. I couldn't imagine what kind of harm would come to me in a show about adoption, but still, everything inside me shouted "Run!"
What began as a gut feeling was something I could only put into words later: These people were not seeking, as the original email said, "adoptees to share their stories." These people were seeking adoptees to use in telling their story, one that would entertain and get ratings. They could, if they wanted, edit my footage to make me look as if I was saying anything they wanted me to say. They could take my reality and shape it to fit the one they wanted to create.
Again, I said no.
While it has often been hard to hear and feel that gut instinct, it's getting easier. I fall out of practice at times, but the silence of sitting in a regular meditation practice has helped immensely. So has talking to trusted friends and advisers. The trust part of any relationship takes time for me, but I am lucky to have some great people in my life who are not only supportive, but who are also honest. One good friend simply asked me: "How important is this to you? Do you really want to give it away to people who don't care about what you have to say just to be on tv?" That was all I needed.
If the show ever gets produced, I will tune in, fingers crossed, hoping that they don't make something vulgar or sensational about the adoptee experience. But I don't know... Something in me feels like I dodged a bullet.
For now, I will just have to keep writing here and try to get these stories out in front of an audience. I hope that, by doing so, I can keep making connections, doing my part to help others and broaden the conversation about adoption. But the truth is that there's a selfish side of this for me too. Even if no one ever heard me, I know I'd have to tell my story anyway.
As one of my favorite writers Tim O'Brien says, "Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those
late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where
you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is
erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."
This one is mine. And it's the only one I'm telling.