Ask Me No Secrets, I’ll Tell You No Lies:
How Privacy Protects; How Secrecy Harms

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC, LADAC

     The theme of O.I.’s recent conference was “Unleashing Secrets; Empowering Our Lives.” That leads to several questions. How could letting our secrets out possibly empower us? What is the difference between secrets and privacy? What’s wrong with secrets? Whom do secrets protect and whom do secrets harm? And, finally, should we keep other people’s secrets?
     At first glance, we might think that keeping secrets, about adoption or any other issue, would give us control over our lives. As the title says, “Ask me no secrets, I’ll tell you no lies.” That implies that secrets involve lies! In reality, trying to keep even the truth a secret means we have to continue to protect, lie, cover up, be hyper-vigilant—the secret has control over us. Secrets are based on fear of detection, and usually are based on shame—the fear that if someone learns the secret, we will be shamed. The difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is about something we knowingly did wrong, and for which it is possible to make amends, while shame is about being essentially flawed and for which there is no remedy. It is about who we are, not what we did. Secrets are more about shame than about guilt. When we let go of secrets, we actually regain control of our destiny.
     There is a real difference between secrets and privacy. Secrets imply that there are things we are embarrassed about or feel negatively about, and we want to withhold that information out of fear. Privacy is why we wear clothes and have curtains. It’s why we don’t tell everyone on the city bus that we’re adopted, or birth parents, or adoptive parents; it’s not others’ business unless it’s relevant and we choose to share. Privacy has to do with boundaries and respect.
     In The Girls Who Went Away, author Ann Fessler states, “The girls who went away were told by family members, social service agencies, and clergy that relinquishing their child for adoption was the only acceptable option. It would preserve their reputation and save both mother and child from a lifetime of shame.... Many of these girls, even those in their twenties, had no other option than to go along with their families or risk being permanently ostracized.” A birth mother identified as Diane IV says, “They were simply told they must surrender their child, keep their secret, move on, and forget. Though moving on and forgetting proved impossible, many women were shamed into keeping their secret.... The secrecy has dominated everything. It’s so powerful and pervasive and the longer you keep a secret, the more power it takes on.”
     Fessler continues, “The secrecy has, in part, allowed some of the old myths about women who surrendered babies to survive.... The assumption that these babies were unwanted is ubiquitous. The act of relinquishment seemed to confirm this, since it is commonly believed to be a personal decision made by the mother based on her lack of interest or desire to be a parent—a decision that is independent of social, family, and economic pressures.”
     When we keep relinquishment and the details of adoption secrets, how would anyone ever learn the truth, that most birth mothers wanted to keep their babies, but were given no such option. “She didn’t want him, but we’ve always kept that a secret to protect him,” is usually a terrible lie, and no real secret, either.
     One of the big issues around relinquishment, search, and closed records is that the proper concepts of secrecy and privacy are turned wrong-side out. Other people have information about us that we don’t have. They have invaded our privacy and are keeping secrets about us, from us, and, in many cases, they don’t even know us. Joyce Pavao, author of The Family of Adoption, states, “My mothers died six weeks apart. They both died of secrecy.” She also says, “It is painful for adoptees that they do not hold their own story, that others hold many of the secrets and many of the pieces of it.”
     Birth parents also do not know what was said about them in the written records, or what was told to adoptive parents. Whether positive or negative, this information ought to be available to birth parents, who are, after all, adults. Adoptive parents don’t know the birth parents’ real or full stories, and therefore their child’s story. When this is the case, it is tempting to turn all those who hold our information into “they.” “They” might be adoption agencies and their employees, state bureaucrats, even the court-appointed intermediaries, to whom we have turned. When other people are in charge of our information, we feel powerless, angry, and fearful. In former times, most medical information was also kept secret from us; we weren’t allowed to see our medical charts or know what was written about us, possibly not even our diagnosis or the name of the medication we were given, maybe not even allowed to see our own x-rays. Yet everyone in the office or hospital had access. The same was true in schools. Much of that has changed in the past several years. Yet, closed adoptions and closed adoption records still keep secrets, as if knowing the truth would harm us. Actually, knowing the truth, even difficult facts, allows us to face that truth and integrate it into our lives as we see fit. Adoption seems to fascinate people because of the secrecy, in fact. We see that portrayed in movies, books, and particularly in soap operas, both U.S.-produced and Latin American telenovelas; there are always multiple story lines about adoption, switched babies, babies fathered by someone other than the husband, and so on. As long as it’s someone else’s story, it is entertaining. For our own stories, in our own real lives, it is frustrating, not fascinating.
     Whom do secrets protect, then? In adoption, many birth grandparents carefully guard the secret that their daughter (or son) had a child and relinquished him/her. The fear is that if others found out, these birth grandparents would be judged or perceived as less than perfect parents, since “experts” have claimed that pregnancy outside of marriage happens because the young person, especially the young woman, is rebelling against the parents, or is disturbed, or immoral—flawed, shameful. It is hard for birth grandparents to be very supportive of a daughter or son while focusing their energy on protecting their own self-image.
     Secrets may sometimes protect adoptive parents’ fantasies that they are the original and only parents of the adoptee, which is also a shame-based perception that they are flawed because of infertility or even because they have not produced a child of the desired sex. Adoptive parents have not always been told the truth about the birth mother’s decision to relinquish, either, but have been told that she had adequate counseling, had no hesitation, and was just happy to “give” her baby to “more deserving, married people.” This lie protects, or is designed to protect, adoptive parents from facing the birth parents’ loss and grief. Loving adoptive parents do not want to think they are in some way complicit in the birth parents’ sorrow, and the lie that there was no such sorrow keeps them from facing reality and still feeling good about having this child.
     Adoption secrets also protect adoption agencies’ and bureaucracies’ power, and this may be the biggest obstacle to having open records. Agencies, and their workers, gained power and professional recognition as experts by getting laws passed that gave them the power to place children, to take children away from parents, to “match” them with new parents, to test both children and adoptive parents, to judge people’s homes and even their financial and religious situations, and furthermore, to charge for it. As Katarina Wegar, in Adoption, Identity, and Kinship states, “Like welfare policies in general, adoption has been used as a vehicle for controlling women’s behavior and sexuality and for perpetuating the patriarchal family.”
     In many states, agencies gained the political power to declare non-agency adoptions (where a birth mother might have some say) illegal, and “illegal” is interpreted by society as immoral, shameful, and to be feared. Even now, with semi-open adoptions where a birth mother does have some say in who receives her child, the agency may retain a great deal of power. Agencies became able to enforce hierarchal and patriarchal ideas about who could raise a child—certainly not this young single female, nor these non-white, non-religious (or wrong religious) or poor people, either. Gay or disabled people were certainly out of the question.
     Then, even when the adoptees are grown, they remain children in the eyes of those who would keep the records closed, and the birth parents are still considered sub-adult, or less than capable of handling information about their own children. It would really be more convenient if birth parents ceased to exist, and perhaps that is the reason for the “your parents died in a car wreck” story or “your father died in the war and your mother couldn’t keep you.” One man said it was many years before he figured out that his birth in 1947, well after the end of “The War,” made that impossible.
     Adoptive parents fare no better, having been judged incapable of handling full information about the children they were raising, and told if they did a good enough job (based on no particular help or training for raised adopted children), the adoptees would never search and never even wonder about their birth parents.
     So, whom do secrets harm? It is tempting to say “everyone,” and that may be true, but let’s be more specific. Birth parents are harmed because they cannot openly grieve their losses. Loss gets twisted into guilt and shame. The loss remains, like an internal infection that eats away at the person, maybe without their awareness. As Jayne Schooler writes in Searching for a Past, “Adoption is the only relationship in life that by its very existence creates loss for everyone involved.”
     That does not mean adoption should never exist; it often creates wonderful relationships and saves lives, but we must acknowledge that it always involves loss. Subsequent spouses and offspring of birth parents sense this loss, even if they’ve never been told of the relinquishment. Carol Schaefer, in The Other Mother, remembers, “So much pain has to be buried in order to go on with life that memories are buried along with the pain. The mind can’t be selective when it’s in a traumatic situation. Many women are actually amnesiac about that period of their lives, having only trace memories for years after.” It affects not only birth mothers’ self-concepts, but also those of the rest of the family, and affects their abilities to have healthy relationships, clear in the next generation.
     Adoptees are harmed by secrets because they cannot fully know who they are. Being given medical histories or birth parents is not really helpful, even if true, because medical information quickly gets out of date. Seventeen-year-old birth parents cannot predict their medical histories for the next thirty years, or even their own parents.’ Furthermore, a medical history does not tell a person who their parent really was. Adoptive parents are harmed, because they don’t fully know their children and don’t have access to the children’s extended families. Other family members may be harmed because they can’t figure out what’s missing.

     In the last issue of this newsletter, Part 1 of this paper, which was presented at O.I.’s One-Day Conference in March 2007 was printed, exploring the differences between secrets and privacy. Secrets are things we are embarrassed about or feel negative about, and we seek to withhold information out of fear, while privacy is about boundaries and respect. That portion discussed how secrets can harm all those affected by adoption and prevent healing and positive self-images for all concerned.
     There are those who would disagree with all of that. A man who writes a column on parenting, printed in The Albuquerque Journal each week, John Rosemond, has repeatedly stated that he thinks adoption is “no big deal,” that even trans-culturally adopted children, and/or those adopted from traumatic backgrounds, should receive no special help or attention, and he states that he is adamantly opposed to open adoption, on the grounds that “when they are teenagers, they will rebel and run off the find the birth-parents,” making the adoptive parents insecure and in the position of being only temporary custodians. Aside from the fact that even unadopted teenagers rebel, and that, in fact, all parents are only temporary custodians, given that when children are grown they generally leave home, this seems like an appeal to fear, justifying the deliberate withholding of information from an adoptee. Some of this man’s comments are simply untrue, such as that “Adoption experts” tell parents to “repeatedly tell the child ... that he is adopted, referring to the adoption at every possible opportunity, singing ’you’re adopted’ songs to the child when he’s a baby.” He advocates only mentioning the adoption once: “I simply believe they should not be told until it is either necessary or they are old enough to truly comprehend the implications, ask intelligent questions, and participate in a rational discussion of what it means.” He says don’t bring the subject up! As his example of how great this advice is, he mentions a friend who didn’t find out he was adopted until he was nineteen and that he is “a highly successful professional.” We have no idea what is meant by that. He further states that open adoptions are confusing to the adoptee. He claims to know of many cases of this. He applauds an adoptive mother who wrote to him that the adoptive parents are the one and only set of parents. Obviously, he is not interested in hearing from birth parents or any reunited triad member. Unfortunately, this man’s column is read by many across the country, and he presents himself as an expert on the subject.
     Joyce Pavao, on the other hand, who is a reunited adoptee, a therapist, and writer, and who runs the Center for Family Connections, which offers life-long adoption issue services, but does not do placements, says “When there are secrets, there is no control of choice-making for those who inherit them. ... Patterns caused by loss, secrecy, and only a partial understanding of adoption are passed down in families from one generation to the next. ... The word adoption needs to be made familiar.” She does not say anything about singing “you’re adopted” to babies, and I doubt that anyone else does, either.
     Although we would never advocate “outing” anyone about their adoption, relinquishment, or other personal matters, the end result of letting go of the secrets can still be positive. Oprah Winfrey stated recently that, although she was devastated and felt betrayed when her half-sister told a tabloid paper about Oprah’s having given birth to a premature baby when Oprah was a teenager (for $19,000), a secret Oprah had kept all those years (the baby died), she still felt “having the secret out was liberating,” and that it allowed her to finally begin to heal from her sexual abuse as a child.
     Schools quite often don’t know what to do with information about adoption, and may not have good information. They may not be entitled to details of an adoptee’s life that are irrelevant, but also may need to know some details in order to best serve the child. Again, if secrecy, rather than privacy, is the norm, no one is sure what’s going on. The same is true when there are foster parents or stepparents involved. Many still confuse all of these terms, mixing up foster parent, adoptive parent, stepparent, half-sibling, step-sibling, and so on, when a six-year-old is capable of sorting out who these people are in relationship to himself, including birth parents and adoptive parents. The term “intentional” families would be preferred over “blended” or “adoptive,” in my opinion, because it is neutral and implies that the people in that family truly have chosen to be together.
     Keeping secrets automatically implies that there is something negative and bad about the information and further, the secret keeper is being deceptive, lying, possibly even breaking some law. Society, families, schools, and especially churches teach that one is to be honest at all times, yet adamantly insists on lies and deceptions around relinquishment and adoption. If a birth mother is simultaneously told to be honest and that she must lie about her child’s very existence for the rest of her life, how can she possibly reconcile these completely opposite and equally demanding rules?
     If an adoptee is told he/she was adopted, but also that he/she must never think about, much less attempt to find birth parents, that also implies shame about the facts of adoption, and induces both guilt and shame for the adoptee’s thoughts, feelings, and certainly for possible action in the form of searching, even though the desire to know one’s family is normal and healthy. It implies that the adoptee has only conditional approval to be adoptive parent’s son or daughter, subject to their not searching or even wanting to. This is not love—this is probation. To quote Nancy Parkhill in Healing the Adoption Experience, “Sadly, there are situations where the adoptive parents won’t even discuss the possibility of a search.” One might respond that if the adoptee is never told of his/her adoption, this problem would not arise. However, someone always knows, and the adoptee knows it at an unconscious level, even if there has been an attempt to “match” looks and personality. Eventually, he/she will find out for sure, and how will that affect trust? With DNA testing, it becomes even more certain. Again, Nancy Parkhill says “When we are stripped of a belief we held to be true for many years, it turns the whole world upside down and makes one doubt many other beliefs.” In that instance, she was talking about those conceived by donor insemination or donor eggs, but the statement applies to all aspects of adoption. Subsequent spouses and children, and even birth grandparents who were not told of the relinquishment also have to reassess their world view when the facts are revealed. This includes a wife learning that her husband had previously fathered a child she (and possibly he, too!) did not know about. It does not mean that family members cannot integrate this new information and have healthy relationships; in fact, knowing the truth may eventually enhance the relationships, but it certainly does mean they will see their mother, father, sibling, or offspring in a new way.
     The burden of keeping secrets about adoption and relinquishment, or about search and reunion, takes a lot of energy and time that could be spent enjoying life, enjoying open, honest relationships, and even enjoying just being alive. The stress of keeping secrets, whether abuse, infertility, or adoption, is hard on the immune system. In our society today, we will talk about “erectile dysfunction” or “overactive bladder” (although both are euphemisms), or, rather, the TV talks to us about them, but we don’t want to talk about infertility, financial difficulty, or adoption. Those three topics are not unrelated, either. Financial difficulties and poverty are considered shameful today, and in the past were grounds for removing children from a home, even if the parents were married. A woman’s need to relinquish, particularly in the past, was not only tied to society’s outrage at her assumed sexual behavior, but to her inability to financially support herself and a child, due to women being paid less than men, due to females being valued less by society, particularly single women. We’re not over that yet!
     A current billboard says “Married people have healthier children.” If that is true (and it’s easy to skew statistics to imply cause and effect when it doesn’t exist) it’s not some magic that happens during a marriage ceremony. Single women still make less money, are less apt to have jobs with healthcare benefits for themselves and their children, and are more apt to be exhausted and stressed out, therefore possibly less able to notice a child’s health concerns at the earliest level. The purpose of this billboard is to persuade young women to marry the fathers of their children (as stated by the group posting the sign, funded by federal grants), but it gives a shaming message to every single parent, woman or man, and to their children. It will not result in more marriages, fewer divorces, or more relinquishments. I was a single mother for eight or nine years after my first marriage, and even now that billboard seems shaming and invasive. In fact, my children were healthier after my divorce. Telling others what their marital status should be does seem to be about invasion of privacy.
     There are also different levels of secrecy sometimes disguised as privacy, related to adoption. For instance, a reunited birth mother may still keep secrets about the birth father, the circumstances of conception (not that she needs to reveal details), or the reunion itself, not telling spouse, children, or parents about it. How does that make the “secret” adoptee feel? More than one has said “I feel that I am a skeleton in someone’s closet.” An adoptee may keep that search and/or reunion a secret from adoptive that search and/or reunion a secret from adoptive family, or may tell them of the initial contact but not of an ongoing, developing relationship, assuming they’re not capable of handling this information. An adoptee may keep secret that he/she has searched for the second birth parents. Adoptive parents may imply, or even say, internalize this fear and denigration.
     While there are some circumstances in which a child adoptee needs some protection from previously that they don’t want to know the birth family, which really means they don’t want to give up their won fantasies, fears, and possible resentments. Joyce Pavao talks about divided loyalties, and this may happen to all parts of the adoptive and birth families if people cannot be open and honest.
     Even in open adoptions, many adoptive parents either don’t know the birth parents’ full names or addresses, or they know the birth parents’ information but don’t want the birth parents to know their names, addresses, or phone numbers. Society teaches that birth parents on the one hand, “rejected and abandoned” the adoptee, and didn’t care, but on the other hand, still care so much that they might snatch the child back at any time, and are to be feared. Many adoptive parents, due to these largely unconscious attitudes, don’t want birth family in their homes. This is not about privacy and respect—this, is about fear, secrecy (What would the neighbors think if they knew the birth mother came here? What if she’s a drug ad dict?) and usually, it’s about classism, looking down on birth parents as inferior. The adoptee will always internalize this fear and denigration.
     While there are some circumstances in which a child adoptee needs some protection from previously abusive birth family, that is rarely the case when an infant was relinquished at birth, and an adult adoptee can certainly figure out how to have healthy boundaries, if they were raised with people who respected their boundaries. A 35-year-old adopted woman or man does not need to be protected from birth parents and neither do the adoptive parents need to fear the birth parents.
     All of this does not mean that those who have kept secrets are bad people, including agencies, social workers, and state or local bureaucratic clerks. They are usually well-intentioned, but they are afraid of the truth, and they collude in keeping other people’s secrets, perpetuating dishonesty, fear, and trauma. Yvette Melanson, in Looking for Lost Bird, says “A part of me was missing. ... Secrets can break your heart .... Secrets can be dangerous. Not knowing can make you sick.”
     Finally, it’s important to remember that search and reunion, and sharing appropriate information, are not about closure, not about happy endings, or endings at all. They are about opening a new chapter, a fuller view, about continuing the truth. That’s the real empowerment!

The entire text of this article was presented at the One-Day O.I. Conference on March 10, 2007.


Fessler, Ann. The Girls Who Went Away. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

Howard, Sally. Finding Me in a Paper Bag. Baltimore: Gateway Press, 2003.

Melanson, Yvette. Looking for Lost Bird. New Yorl: Avon Books, 1999.

Parkhill, Nancy. Healing the Adoption Experience. Martinsville, IN: Bookman Pub., 2004.

Pavao, Joyce Maguire. The Family of Adoption. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998, 2002.

Rosemond, John. “John Rosemond’s Traditional Parenting.” The Albuquerque Journal. November 9, 2006 and December 28, 2006.

Schaefer, Carol. The Other Mother. New York: Soho Press, 1991.

Schooler, Jayne. Searching for a Past. Colorado Springs: Pinon Press, 1995.

Wegar, Kartarina. Adoption, Identity, and Kinship. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Excerpted from the April and July 2007 editions of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2007 Operation Identity