Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
Late Discovery, Revisited
By Kevin Gladish
Five years ago, only three short months after receiving my original birth certificate in the mail and learning what I had suspected my whole life: that I was adopted, I wrote an essay for this blog called “Late Discovery.”
At the time, I had also begun writing a blog called A Story with No Beginning, which would chronicle my ongoing journey and search for birth family.I look back on that essay and on the early entries in my blog, and I am filled with compassion for the person who wrote them.
They are, among other things, the words of someone emerging from a deep fog of shame and bewilderment. They were my first attempts, after a life of avoiding and pretending, to write something true. And in that process, writing and storytelling became the things that saved me.
The act of telling was both frightening and liberating, and it did what I didn’t know I needed most – it connected me with others like me.
As I shared in that essay five years ago, my late discovery was really a late confirmation. I’d always suspected I was adopted, enough to finally ask my mother at the age of 37, and my father at 40. In both instances I was given a lie, along with the clear message that my question was hurtful and should not be asked again.
It was only by sending away for my original birth certificate, a right had only recently been granted to adoptees in Ohio the year before, that I learned the truth. By then, my father had been dead over a year, and my mother was losing her mind to dementia. The truth I sought so desperately to hear from them came in the form of a xerox copy of my birth records from the Ohio Department of Health.
I was invited to write again for Portrait of an Adoption about how things have been with me in the past few years.
And yes, much has happened since I wrote last. Through a relentless search, online, on the phone, and in library records, I discovered that my birth mother had passed away in 2007 as had her husband, and that they left no other children. I learned that she herself was adopted, and that we had both lived as babies in the same Cleveland infant home.
Later, through DNA testing, I learned the identity of my birth father and that he too had died long ago. I learned also that I had five half siblings, all alive and well.
In November of 2018, I drove to Cleveland to meet them. We are still in touch, though mostly through social media and the occasional text or phone call, to this day. And last year, again through DNA matching, I met cousins from my birth mother’s side.
During all of this, I have continued to write and tell my story.
I tell stories on stage in addition to positing online. There is a strong community in Chicago of storytelling. Check out The Moth to get an idea if you’ve never been to a storytelling event. We get up and we tell personal stories. Some are funny. Some are sad. But our stories are true, or at least that’s the idea.
I am drawn to this medium now for different reasons. I used to act in plays, but I have lost my taste for it. Perhaps I have grown tired of playing someone else, as I have done too often in life.
But in storytelling I get to be me, and I get to tell the truth. I began telling stories before my discovery, and they were always humorous. Like my dad, I enjoy entertaining and making people laugh, and he actually found his way into a couple of my stories, a larger than life character who I still enjoy writing about and whose memory I love keeping alive on stage.
After my discovery, I began talking about my adoption, my family, and other stories of love and loss and grief. I began to discover that not all my stories had to be happy ones, nor did I need to negate my wonderful family memories with new painful ones. My stories could contain both.
For example, my father kept scrapbooks of my sister and me. On one of them is piece of molded plastic in the shape of the word “Love.” In place of the “o” there is a shape of a heart into which he pasted a small picture of me as a child. But the inside of that scrapbook also contains the clues to the lies I had been told, the inconsistencies, the evidence that did not match up.
And so within one scrapbook is evidence of both a great love and a great betrayal. And within me is both a great love and great anger and heartbreak, the book holds all of it, and so will my stories. Because, folks… life is complicated. And so is the truth.
I am always nervous before getting onstage, but once I’m there, it’s a rush. A warmth floods me when I see the audience, and my voice comes out clear. The first time I told a story about my adoption discovery, though, was different.
I thought I would not get through it. I felt lightheaded, my mouth dry. The audience appeared to me, not as a friendly crowd, but a stern jury. I was sure that I would make a fool of myself.
What I was fighting was shame. I was speaking truthfully about something that hurt me deeply but that also made me who I am. And there is a part of me, even now as I write this, that believes I am bad for doing so. It is the part if me that I need to confront each and every time I speak or write about my discovery.
I got through that story. I didn’t clam up or draw a blank or pass out. And afterwards, a woman from the audience came up to me and told me that her family had secrets of its own, and that she still carried a similar shame. “Thank you,” she said. “That really helped.”
In March I was planning to perform, for the first time, a full hour-long solo show at a conference of The Adoption Network Cleveland, the organization that fought for years to unseal birth records in Ohio, and that offers support for adoptees, as well as both adoptive and birth parents.
It was to be my tryout, the first time performing it in front of a friendly audience. I even had a local volunteer stage manager named Tracy who offered to help me with logistics since I was in Chicago. That stage manager also happened to be my newly-discovered half sister. The show was to be called A Secret in Plain Sight. And thanks to the pandemic, it will have to wait. But I have faith that that it will happen someday.
When I last wrote, I was just coming to accept the term “late discovery adoptee.” To tell you the truth, I’m still not crazy about it, but it’s who I am. I no longer feel stupid for pretending that what I knew to be true was not true.
I no longer judge myself for choosing to believe the lie. It’s what I had to do to belong in my family, I had to play a part that was assigned to me. I had to deny my perceptions, my feelings, and the evidence in front of my face.
I had to pretend that I did not feel what I felt, that I did not know what I knew. And that repeated act of pretending, over the years, became most of who I was. The mask had become my face. And in return I got to be loved and to belong.
I wish that I did not have to make that choice. I wish that I did not have to choose between love and belonging on one hand, or being myself on the other. But I did. To some degree or another many of us, adoptees or not, find ourselves having to make that same choice. I did the best I could with what I had. But I don’t have to make those choices anymore. I believe now that I can be loved and belong without having to audition my way in. And if I need to pretend to be someone else to be accepted, then I need to find the courage to walk away.
So, what have the last few years been like? Well, besides the wonderful new family I have discovered and the mysteries that have been solved, and all the blessings my search has brought me, I am still making some late discoveries.
I am discovering who this person named Kevin is. I am discovering how to be honest and true, and to find connection in my life, not because of who I pretend to be, but because of who I am. It is not easy, and it does not come naturally. But that is why I tell my story, and why I will continue to do so.
Because if I am honest about the things that happened and the heartbreak and rage and, yes, the love that I still feel toward these imperfect people who passed down the scrapbooks of my life, and if one more person comes to me afterward and says, “Thank you. That helped.” Then it will all be worth it.
Kevin is from Cleveland, OH, and now lives in Chicago where he’s an actor, writer, and storyteller. As a late discovery adoptee, he is now searching for his birth family and writing about the journey here: kevingladish.blogspot.com.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter