Family Secrets

by Anonymous

I spent the first eight years of my life in a Catholic orphanage. My birth mother became pregnant at fifteen, and her father sent her to a home for pregnant girls and insisted that she put me up for adoption. Although my family was not Catholic, they placed me in an orphanage run by nuns. It was 1938. I was two months old.

Many people think of an orphanage as a sad place. That was not my experience. As a child, I was tucked in every night. I received lots of attention. People often tell stories of cruel or abusive nuns, but I didn’t know any. When I was eight, the nuns told me I was going to be adopted. I wasn’t thrilled. I should have been delighted to have my own room, but I missed the big dorm. I longed for the structure and order of the orphanage-everything done according to schedule, everything in its place. Regular family life was more spontaneous and relaxed. I had trouble adapting.

Initially I liked my adopted father. But our relationship deteriorated over time. My dad had two jobs: he farmed and he worked in the oil fields. The work took its toll. He labored twelve hours and slept with a fifth of whiskey. At eighteen, just before I went off to college, my parents divorced. Looking back, it is clear that life with my adopted family was more dysfunctional than life at the orphanage.

I was a very good athlete, and I received a scholarship to play football at a large state college. I excelled, both academically and athletically, and after graduating I enlisted in the service. One day, while attending Officer Candidates School, I was summoned to meet with one of the officers. He was doing a background check for security clearance, and dropped a bomb: “Do you know that your adopted mother is your birth mother, and that your father is her oldest brother, your uncle?”

That was the first I had heard of the terrible family secret. My mother had been raped by her older brother.

I felt more hurt than shock at hearing the news. Why hadn’t my family told me? Didn’t they trust me? It took me several years to confront my mother. She told me that even though she took me to the orphanage, she retained the right to adopt me later. She did not come for me until her father died. He would not have approved. She explained that the family had agreed to keep silent until my grandparents, my mother, and my birth father died.

After I talked with my mother, we became more estranged. I never discussed the situation with my uncle. He never acknowledged me as anything more than a nephew. Forgiving him and my family is something that has haunted me for years. For a long time, I pushed the idea aside, put it out of my mind.

I’ve learned a lot from all this. I am prolife, and I always cringe when I hear people argue that abortion should be allowed in cases of rape and incest. I am a product of both, and I’ve had a good life. I’ve learned that the individual needs to take responsibility for his own life. There were hundreds of kids in that orphanage. Some made it, and some didn’t. I know of five or six who are serving life terms in prison, and another group who have managed to find a good life. It wasn’t the orphanage. It was the person’s response to it.

I got a lot out of my years in the orphanage. I learned the value of routine and order. The nuns gave me a firm faith foundation. Although my family was not Catholic, I was baptized in the orphanage and my parents agreed to raise me Catholic when they adopted me. As a child, I went to church on my own. It was good for me. It helped me become my own person. I left the church a few times over the years, but I always came back.

I have one piece of advice for people considering adoption. Don’t hide anything from the child. Let the child know he is adopted, let him know the circumstances. If you don’t, someone else will, and the news may not come with a parent’s love and kindness.

Published in the 2007-04-20 issue: 

This story was told to Carl Koestner, who lives in New Mexico and is working on a book of oral histories of adoptions. The narrator, the father of four children, has been married for nearly fifty years.

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