Reunion: A Year in Letters Between a Birthmother and the Daughter She Couldnt Keep
by Katie Hern and Ellen McGarry Carlson
Seal Press, 1999
Reviewed by Barbara Free, M.A.
published in 1999, is not as well-known as some other adoption-related books, but it is
well-written, and has the unusual format of, as the subtitle
suggests, letters between a birth mother and the daughter
she couldnt keep. It is a low-key, rather thoughtful
book. Many birth parents and their offspring, both reunited and
not, will enjoy this book, or be able to relate to it in the
parts that are not so enjoyable.
Both Katie Hern (the daughter) and
Ellen McGarry Carlson are writers, which makes the letters quite
articulate. Katie found Ellen, although Ellen had previously made
an attempt at search. Massachusetts, where Katie was born and
where Ellen still lives, was not an open-records state then,
although it is now. However, Catholic Charities, the agency
through which Katies adoption was processed, did have a
policy whereby a birth mother could open the file to
the relinquished son or daughter, and Ellen had done so.
Therefore, Katie was able to obtain Ellens name and
address, so no exhaustive search was needed.
Ellen had previously asked for
information, but was just assured that her daughter was in a fine
family and doing well, and should not be interrupted.
There seems to be a universal fear of interrupting
the adoptive family, the son or daughter, or, not as often, the
birth mother, who is portrayed as hiding in shame forever, having
never told anyone, not even a spouse, of her terrible
transgression. In spite of open records, and even semi-open
adoption, this attitude persists in society.
Katie starts the reunion process by
writing to Ellen, who has been notified by Catholic Charities
that her daughter has received her name and address. She begins
by telling of a happy childhood and supportive parents, who do
not know of her desire to find her birth mother. She also reveals
that she is gay, in a committed relationship, and living in San
Francisco. This was in 1996, prior to same-sex marriage laws.
Ellen replies immediately to the letter, very excited about being
reunited, and reveals that she is married with two young sons, a
college student and writing tutor.
The letter exchange begins in early
1996, when Katie initiates contact, and documents the process as
they get to know each other and explore their own and the
others feelings, as each reveals more about herself, and
they share their respective experiences and feelings, fears and
hopes. Katie and Ellen work through their feelings and misgivings
through letters and e-mails, and some telephone calls, although
they both prefer writing. After some months, they meet in person,
in Massachusetts, where Katies adoptive parents still
The reunion appears to go well, but
Katie is upset and withdrawn afterward, only gradually realizing
that it stirred up more feelings than she could handle, and led
to a strain between her and her adoptive parents, especially her
mother, who, it turns out, was not at all supportive of the
reunion; she was quite jealous and actually hostile toward the
very idea of ever meeting Ellen in person, which eventually she
did. Over the course of the first year, they visit again, more
than once, in person. Ellens husband and sons are quite
taken by Katie, and Ellen really likes Katies partner,
Cara. Katie begins to reveal more about her childhood, which was
not as rosy as she portrayed at first, and Ellen begins to
discuss her own childhood with an alcoholic father.
Several things stood out to this
writer. The first is that Katie, the daughter, is at all times,
in charge of the progression of the relationship, how close, when
to meet, what feelings or expression of them, is allowed. This is
subtle, but definite. Ellen is adaptable, more often cautious,
although not always. Even at the end of the book, and even in the
Afterword written two years later, Katie is angry and says Ellen
could have made another choice to keep her, not
acknowledging the impossibility of that for a twenty-year-old
Catholic girl in 1969. Ellen remains happy and
grateful at having Katie back in her life, and
appears never to defend herself against others resentments,
including the adoptive parents refusal to get to know her.
These dynamics are consistent with many other reunion
relationships, especially the fact of the son or daughters
being in charge of the relationship, consciously or not.
The other significant dynamic is
that both are female, so they may be more in tune with each
others feelings and freer to express them than if Ellen had
relinquished a son, or if Katie had found her birth father.
Because both are writers, which enabled them to express
themselves in letters, which, they both acknowledge, led to a
deeper exchange early on. Both had left their extremely
restrictive Catholic upbringing behind, in different ways. In the
course of that first year, Katie was able to quit being, in her
words, the Adopted Child Poster Child, and Ellen was
able let go of her grief, which she had seen as shame, and reveal
to family, friends, anyone interested, that she was a birth
mother. The exchange of letters seems to have been very important
in helping both of them come to terms with themselves.
This book would be helpful to other
birth parents and adoptees, and adoptive parents, as they
contemplate reunion, or as they experience reunion, even many
years down the road, because of the thoughts and feelings
expressed, as well as the events that take place. One wishes for
a sequel, to find out how things are going now, nearly twenty
years after the initial reunion. It would also be a good book for
therapists to read, to know better how to help persons with
Excerpted from the July 2015
edition of the Operation Identity Newsletter
© 2015 Operation Identity