Finding Mother: Science and the Search for Identity

Written by  Alice Toler

This year I did something I had thought was a virtual impossibility for most of my life: I found my genetic family. More than that, I have found the keys to my identity, and the foundation for a much deeper peace of mind than I have ever known. The search has not been easy and it has been very emotional, but it has been deeply rewarding.

I was born on January 1, 1974 at Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau, Bahamas and adopted by a local couple, a Scottish man and a Bahamian woman, the following day. My adoption was no secret. My mother was always honest with me, and I knew that I was adopted, I think, even before I really understood what "adopted" meant, and that other children weren't adopted.

Mum promised to help me find my birth family, she said, any time I felt like I wanted to find them. She recommended only that I wait until I was 18 years old and cautioned me that my birth mother might have gone on with her life, married and had other children. But she said that it was certain my birth mother thought of me all the time, and especially on my birthday.adoptivemomWith my adoptive mom, Yvonne

As a child I daydreamed a lot. I was disconnected from consensus reality; when I was five years old, the school recommended that I get my hearing tested because I wasn't attending in class. Nothing was wrong with my ears, but nobody—teacher or otherwise—could provide me with an experience more interesting than the escapades I got up to in my own imagination. I also wasn't very social. I remember spending recess alone a lot of the time. It seemed to me all the other kids understood something among them that I was missing out on.


I was, to put it bluntly, a dork. I felt very much like an alien beamed down to this planet from a starship in a cloaked orbit high above the Earth. It was as if I were somehow missing a big chunk of my memory. As an adult I put myself into therapy and spent years figuring out some of the roots of my own behavioral quirks and trying to iron out the rest of my social cluelessness, but I never felt like I was a member of the human race.

I tried a few times over the years to begin a proper adoption search, but was thwarted by some very unfriendly laws in the Bahamas and the fact that both the doctor who'd delivered me and the lawyer who'd finalized the papers had been dead a long time. My adoptive mother always stood by me and on several occasions tried her hand with the Bahamian authorities on my behalf, but to no avail. I felt rootless and cut off and it seemed like that was my lot in life.


In 2009 things came to a head. Mum was diagnosed with lung cancer and I was very much afraid that she would die. My adoptive father had died in 2004 after a protracted illness of more than a decade. I was raised an only child, so I had no siblings to help out. I quit my job and spent a lot of that summer at my mother's house, seven time zones away in Britain, trying to care for her as best I could.

When her condition stabilized and I came home to Utah, I realized that I had to give my adoption search another try. For all I knew, my birth mother might have cancer, too, or she might already be dead. I was aware that this was a pretty emotional decision; but in any case, I had to know. But how to proceed? I had no information at all, not a single clue from which to begin a search.

dadMy bio dad, Joe, ca. 1964 as he first entered US Navy

Science came to the rescue.

It was at around that time that DNA testing first became available to the public. The National Geo­graphic Society launched the "National Genographic Project" to map human mitochondrial and Y-chromosome "haplogroups" (genetic subtypes) all over the world, and they made a basic test available for $99. Mitochondria are little structures with their own genetic code that float around in the cytoplasm of every human cell, generating chemical energy from food and oxygen provided by the bloodstream. Their DNA (known as mtDNA for short) doesn't recombine when a sperm and egg merge to form a zygote, so the mitochondrial line is passed down virtually unchanged directly from mother to child. My mitochondrial haplo­group would not tell me much about my birth family, but it would give me some insight into my deep ancestry. I ordered the kit, sent off a scraping of cheek cells, and waited for the results.


When they came, I was thunderstruck. My mtDNA indicated that I was most likely Native American! I am pretty darn Caucasian looking. The haplogroup in question, A2h, is a subgroup of one that arose in Siberia 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. People with A2h mtDNA are overwhelmingly Native American, though, as that line was brought to North America from the Siberian side of the world. In any case it definitely wasn't European.

My interest in my genetics was piqued, and when I found out that two other companies, 23andme and Family Tree DNA made more detailed tests available, I ordered them.

Both of these companies offered testing of the autosomal DNA found in the nucleus of every human cell. This is the DNA that recombines when sperm and egg meet, and you get half from your father and half from your mother. The tests looked not at the full suite of my genetic variation, but only at certain places on the genome that had already been mapped and understood as creating this or that kind of physiological variation.

Reading these single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) could give me the beginning of something I'd never had in my life...a genetic history. The test at 23andme promised to tell me whether I had a genetic predisposition to diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer's, and could say whether I was a genetic carrier for other nasties like cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs disease. This was a particularly big deal as my husband and I had recently decided to try to have kids. The spec­ter of being an unknown carrier ho­vers over the head of every adop­tee who lacks a family history.

The second, and most compelling, thing that SNP tracking could give me was the possibility of finding blood relatives. Both 23andme and Family Tree DNA maintain relative-matching databases, and by opting in as a public match, you make yourself searchable to other people who are also trying to map their own genealogical lines.

Over on 23andme I turned up a match in the U.S. at the second to third cousin level, which is extremely close. Family Tree DNA also provided a handy geographical map of my mtDNA matches, showing me that my mother's Native American blood was from northern New Mexico. Here was some concrete connection, finally.

I sent a message to my match on the 23andme database...but I heard nothing back from him. It was disappointing, but not unexpected. These days, every online service tries to provide its own messaging, and I know too well what it's like to be barraged with trivial notices—you just tune them out or route them straight into your spam folder. I put aside this cousin of mine and went back to trying to talk my records out of the Bahamian authorities for a few months.

This got me precisely nowhere. I was told to contact the Registrar General's office, and they told me to call the hospital, who told me to call the Registrar General's office again, who then told me I needed a court order. I tried to hire a lawyer to petition the court to release my records, but the attorney I talked to thought that $10,000 was a "reasonable" fee for such a service, so that was a dead end as well.

I found out who had inherited the paper records from the deceased lawyer's office, but could not get the man on the phone to talk to him. I found a nurse who had worked for the doctor who delivered me, but she couldn't remember one baby out of the thousands of births she had assisted. I even visited the Bahamas with my adoptive mother again and managed to make a connection with a doctor who said she had access to my records, but that lead also went nowhere.

I went back to my second cousin match and looked at his name (publicly available, but a very common name in the USA). There had to be a way to figure out who this guy was. But when I Googled him, I got over six million returns. Then I looked at his username—the unique handle he'd chosen to represent him in the database—and saw that it contained a number. I tried the Google search again with his full name and the number...and, bingo, the returns all referenced the same guy. Turns out the number was part of his business street address.

I wrote him a letter and sent a hard copy of an article that a Bahamian newspaper had written about my search. Two weeks later I got an email back from him, but he didn't seem like he was in a position to help me out very much. Again, I was disappointed, but not very surprised. At least, I figured, I had his name...and perhaps I could use DNA triangulation to figure out how I might be related to him.

A few more months went by and I kept myself busy trying to chip away at my cold leads in the Bahamas. Then I checked my database matching results once more and found something extraordinary: A new match, even closer than my second cousin, and with the same mitochondrial haplotype as him! This meant a strong likelihood that the new match was part of my cousin's family. I wrote him another email asking him if this was the case, and if so, if he would be comfortable introducing me to this person.

He wrote back immediately, saying that the match was his mother, who had unfortunately just passed away. However, her line of the family had written up an extensive genealogy in the 1930s, and he offered to send me a copy! The next evening I received a 71-page PDF file as an email attachment. I printed it out and started reading it and marking it up.

Here was a branch of the family that had moved to New Mexico in the last 19th century! That line had something like eight children. It had to be my mother's father's side, since my mtDNA did not match with my cousin's, so I was looking for a male line. Alas, the genealogy ended in 1935.

Eventually I located a partial continuation of that genealogy online, and found a daughter born in New Mexico who had married and had three sons, any of whom could have been my grandfather. I took that information to a friend of mine who is an adoptee himself and works as a private investigator, and who does some pro bono work for adoption searches. I asked him if any of the men had had daughters. It turned out that the middle one, John, had. My PI friend gave me a name, a phone number, and a street address.

Was this my mother?

Catherine Ann Gilbert LordMy birth mom, Cathy

The information was like molten metal. I could barely figure out how to handle it. I had by this time found an adoption support group in Salt Lake City and had been going there for several months. The members of the group are all affected by adoption and in various stages of search and reunion, and I had learned some valuable things from them. One of the biggest was about mental preparedness, and about how adoption reunion changes your entire life. I was not ready to reunite with my family yet. I didn't know why, and I didn't know what I needed to do before I felt ready to try to connect, but I knew in my gut that it just wasn't time. I sat on the information that I had for another three months.

Finally one day the angle of the sun was just right in the sky, or maybe there was precisely the right amount of relative humidity in the air, or maybe the planets had realigned themselves just so. I don't know what changed, but I knew that now it was time to reach out. I wrote a letter to "the candidate"—basically explaining the circumstances of my birth and asking her if she was my mother, and enclosing a picture of myself and my husband. I sent it off certified mail and waited to see when it would be delivered by the USPS. It was at once both incredibly intimidating and perfectly natural. My friends who were aware of my search asked me the obvious question: What if you find something you don't like? Will you regret having searched? I'd considered this question deeply and the answer was a resounding no. It didn't matter to me what I found. I needed to know. I needed to know the story of my genetic history. I needed a family medical history, at the very least. The most unfriendly of birth mothers would probably provide me with that kind of information, even if she wanted nothing else to do with me. If I were rejected, or if the things I found out about my birth family were difficult, I would just have to take my lumps and get on with life. But I at least had to try to make contact. birthmomWith Catherine, my bio mom

Two days after I sent the letter, my phone rang. The woman on the other end explained that she wasn't my mother...she was my aunt!

"We always wondered what happened to you!" she said. She was overjoyed to hear from me. She gave me my mother's contact information, and I sat down and wrote another letter. I had found my birth mother!

Our reconnection took a little while. We were both a bit intimidated, but eventually we agreed to meet in Fernley, Nevada, which was a reasonable driving distance from both of our residences. I walked into the hotel, and there she was standing at the reception desk: my birth mother.

The experience was surreal. She was so happy to meet me, and she has a friendly dorkiness to her that suddenly opened a window of understanding onto my own dorky personality. We are nerds together!

She is incredibly intelligent and has a great imagination. She's worked as a computer programmer since the days of punchcard coding —an accomplishment in such a male-dominated industry. We toured around the Black Rock Desert together for a day, and she was as enthusiastic as I was about stopping the car at any interesting-looking area and going out to see what we could find. She told me all about herself and her family, and about my conception and my birth. Some of the stories were sad and hard to hear, but I was glad to hear all of it. She told me the name of my birth father, and where I could find him. It was amazing and exhausting.

That was two and a half months ago now. Since then, my husband and I have visited my birth mother and my birth grandmother and met an aunt and uncle. It has not gotten any less weird or wonderful. It's the little things that I never knew I missed before that get to me the most. On my last visit, my birth mother and grandmother and I all went out to have our nails done together. When the lady painting my toes noticed a familial similarity, for the first time in my life I was able to say that it was a true one. When I looked at the palms of my grandmother's hands, I noticed that we have similar patterns of creases. I can see that I have my grandmother's long face and my birth mother's hips and long legs.

I have located my birth father and talked with him; he, too, is an adoptee. My father sent me a picture of himself from when he joined the Navy back in 1964; the resemblance I have to him is uncanny. We will meet in November.

birthmomWith Catherine, my bio momI have never felt so lucky.

My adoption reunion case is striking in many respects. Firstly, my adoptive mother has never flagged in her support of me and my search; that is not the case for many adoptees. Even through her illness, she still supported me, and understood my need to search. She is still alive and doing well. We have a date to meet in Atlanta this October and I am very much looking forward to seeing her.

Secondly, I caught a series of amazing breaks in my DNA search. Not many adoptees turn up so close a match, and even fewer find a match who will help them with their search.

Thirdly, my birth family have all been delighted to hear from me. Closed adoption, which was the norm during much of the 20th Century, has been associated with a lot of shame on the part of the relinquishing parents. Many adoptees from that era complete a search only to be rejected by their birth family. The fact that I have been so warmly welcomed is pretty striking.

I feel, finally, as if I am becoming human. The sense that I might be beamed up to the mothership at any time is starting to dissipate. I have become a bit of an obsessive genealogist. I went from having no information at all, to finding out that I have extensive recorded family lines on my mother's side—in fact, my grandmother's family is recorded all the way back to the Spanish conquistadors. The fact that my father has no information about his genetic family is a fun new challenge. He has agreed to take the same DNA test that I did and to let me work with the results. It may take a while, but I'm pretty confident that I can find some of his genetic family. Most people only have two parents and two ancestral lines. I have four parents, more cousins (both adoptive and genetic) than I can count, ancestral lines documented back hundreds of years, AND the challenge of a new mystery to solve. I am truly lucky.

Gestation

bigbeeAs I got more serious about my adoption search, I found myself forming small goddess figurines out of clay. The “Venus of Willendorf” was the archetype that caught my attention. This 25,000-year-old sculpture from Willendorf, Austria, depicts a fat little mother-goddess with a golf ball-shaped head. At some point I realized that if you turned the goddess figure over, the reverse side could easily be made to resemble a bee, and so my little goddesses started to become bee goddesses. From there I had the chance to submit a design for a piece of large-scale burn art for the 2012 Burning Man festival, and my Bee Goddess design was accepted! I worked on creating the Bee Goddess effigy as I furthered my adoption search, and making my design a reality helped keep me grounded during the more difficult times. A large and talented construction crew (including lead construction engineer John deJong) helped me make my design a reality! I was reunited with my birth mother a month before the Bee Goddess burned on the Black Rock Desert playa. As I watched the effigy go up in smoke, years of genealogical bewilderment went up along with her. It was a beautiful ritual and a great way to celebrate the success of my search.

Resources for adoptees and birth parents

DNA testing companies

23andme.com

FamilyTreeDNA.com

genographic.nationalgeographic.com

Support networks American Adoption Congress: americanadoptioncongress.org

Utah contact: Donnie Davis, 801-583-6664; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. The local support group is an “adoption constellation” support group open to adoptees, birth parents or other birth family, adoptive parents or other adoptive family, and the donor-conceived alike.

Recommended books: The Journey of the Adopted Self, by Bettie Jean Lifton

The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler

The Primal Wound, by Nancy Verrier

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Alice Toler

Alice Toler

Alice Toler is an editor at CATALYST and a Salt Lake-based artist. Look for her blog updates, appearing several times a week, here: http://catalystmagazine.net/component/k2/itemlist/category/150-outside-the-box

Website: catalystmagazine.net/component/k2/itemlist/category/150-outside-the-box

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