Ask Me No Secrets, Ill
Tell You No Lies:
How Privacy Protects; How Secrecy Harms
by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC,
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?
Whats wrong with secrets? Whom do secrets protect and whom do secrets
harm? And, finally, should we keep other peoples 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, Ill 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-vigilantthe secret has control over us. Secrets are based
on fear of detection, and usually are based on shamethe 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. Its why we
dont tell everyone on the city bus that were adopted, or birth
parents, or adoptive parents; its not others business unless
its relevant and we choose to share. Privacy has to do with boundaries
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. Its 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 parenta 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
didnt want him, but weve 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
dont have. They have invaded our privacy and are keeping secrets about
us, from us, and, in many cases, they dont 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 dont know the
birth parents real or full stories, and therefore their childs
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 werent 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 its someone elses 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 immoralflawed, 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
mothers 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 peoples 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 womens
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 childcertainly 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 couldnt 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 lets 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
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 theyve 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 cant be selective when its 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
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 dont fully know their
children and dont have access to the childrens extended families.
Other family members may be harmed because they cant figure out
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 mans 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 youre adopted
songs to the child when hes 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 dont bring the subject up! As his example of
how great this advice is, he mentions a friend who didnt 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 mans 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 youre 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 Oprahs
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 dont know what to
do with information about adoption, and may not have good information. They
may not be entitled to details of an adoptees 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 whats
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 childs 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 adoptees thoughts, feelings, and certainly
for possible action in the form of searching, even though the desire to know
ones family is normal and healthy. It implies that the adoptee has
only conditional approval to be adoptive parents son or daughter, subject
to their not searching or even wanting to. This is not lovethis is
probation. To quote Nancy Parkhill in Healing the Adoption Experience,
Sadly, there are situations where the adoptive parents wont 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 dont 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 womans need to relinquish, particularly in the past, was not only
tied to societys 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. Were not over that yet!
A current billboard says Married people
have healthier children. If that is true (and its easy
to skew statistics to imply cause and effect when it doesnt exist)
its 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 childs 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 someones 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 theyre 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 dont
want to know the birth family, which really means they dont 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 dont know the birth parents full names or addresses, or
they know the birth parents information but dont 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 didnt 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, dont
want birth family in their homes. This is not about privacy and
respectthis, is about fear, secrecy (What would the neighbors think
if they knew the birth mother came here? What if shes a drug
ad dict?) and usually, its about classism, looking down on birth
parents as inferior. The adoptee will always internalize this fear
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
peoples 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, its 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. Thats the real
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
Rosemonds 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