Before becoming an adoptee advocate Rich was searching for his own identity. As a child, his older adopted sister vengefully told him their mom wasn’t his real mother. It made him wonder who the other woman could be. When he was in college, his adoptive parents gave him an envelope of non-identifying information. Many years later they handed him another document that revealed his birth name. Rich found himself resenting their decision to withhold information from him that he clearly wanted. When he found his maternal aunt they discussed his birth mother enough to realize she wasn’t the only sister in the family to have relinquished a son in Denver.
Read Full TranscriptRich: 00:00 I started reading her the description of the birth father from my non identifying records and she got really quiet and she said, oh, this changes everything she goes, I know who your birth father was and so once we sorted it all out, we were both in bed for two days because she hadn’t known that her younger sister had done this.
Damon: 00:47 This is Who Am I Really? A podcast about adoptees that have located and connected with their biological family members. I’m Damon Davis and on today’s show is Rich. He called me from Denver, Colorado where he works in adoptee advocacy, but before he took on that body of work, Rich was searching for his own identity. When he was in college, his adoptive parents gave him an envelope of non identifying information. Then years later he received another document with his birth name. When he found his maternal aunt, they discussed his birth mother enough to realize she wasn’t the only sister in the family to have relinquished a son in Denver. This is Rich’s journey. Rich has an older sister who was adopted, like himself, and a younger sister who was the biological child of his parents. Like many adoptive parents, they didn’t think they could conceive a child until she was born. They were set with their daughter and son they had adopted and there was no plans for any more children. It’s amazing how often that storyline is repeated in adoption. Interestingly, since adoption was such an open topic in their family, at one point their younger sister had a bit of an identity crisis.
Rich: 02:03 The funny thing, you know, how families show slides and baby pictures and that sort of thing. And um, my younger sister was the only one with the newborn new new newborn photos. And at one point she sort of had an existential crisis thinking that she was adopted too, but they just weren’t telling her.
Damon: 02:34 Yeah. You’re new new newborn in this. Wow. That’s really fascinating. I’ve never heard anyone talk about their sibling who was biological to their parents having this alignment of their identification with you and your sister as adoptees before. That’s fascinating. Yeah. The mind of a child, you know, you want to be like those around you. And if the two out of the three children in your home are adoptees you must figure, oh, I must be adopted too.
Rich: 03:03 Well, and it was, it was a hot topic for a while, uh, because my, uh, older sister one day was angry with me and she presented it to me in a different light when she said, rather than saying you were adopted, a lot of them wanted and chosen and all those things that we hear. She said, mom’s not your real mom. And I was five at the time. It was, it was pretty devastating to me. It shook my world. I said, I just said, what? So she just repeated it. Nope. Mom’s not your real mom and sort of gloried in the triumph of having stunned me. And so of course I went and asked my mom about it and she explained that even though they’d said that we were adopted, that was different than thinking that there was another mom out there somewhere. And I really struggled with that.
Rich: 04:00 I moped around and was depressed and was saying, I wish I knew who my real mom was. And finally at one point she just said, well, I’m your real mom. She was your first mom. Something in my head said, okay, and we, we move forward with that. But it never, I always wanted to know. Uh, the unfortunate thing is, is she told me I would never know. And so that hung with me and there’s a part of me that was very saddened by that and the part of me that filed it away kind of like saying, well, we’ll, we’ll see. You know, we’ll see if I never know.
Damon: 04:39 Rich said, other than that they had the quintessential suburban family. They went to church every Sunday, went on family vacations to see relatives and visit various states across the country. I asked Rich about the relative homogeneity of his family. I’m often curious about the visual clues a person might have that they are somehow different from their family members.
Rich: 05:00 And it was kinda funny because one day someone commented, that, my dad and I looked alike and we just sort of looked at each other and said, well, that’s funny. We both have blue eyes and we both have big ears, but that’s about as far as it went.
Damon: 05:16 It’s pretty funny. I remember I used to do that too. You know, people would say that to my dad. Oh my gosh, he looks just like you. And immediately we would look at each other like, really do I? It’s funny, I used to say, I said, you know, my father passed away. I said in his, the sort of eulogy speech that I gave that I think that people saw more of the spirit that you picked up from the person in the fact that you’re there together interacting. Then they did actually, you know, a physical resemblance in my opinion.
Damon: 05:58 I asked Rich to describe his personality traits as compared with those of his other family members. He said his parents were the post World War II generation, People who had a job to do and did it. They kept their commitments and they really applied themselves to their lives. He said their differences weren’t as apparent until he was old enough to be more contemplative about it all.
Rich: 06:19 Their biological heritage was mainly English and German, which, you know, if you want to stereotype cultures, tend to be a little more still like a little less communicative. And my biological heritage is Irish and Swedish and Scottish and a little bit of northern European mud. And so in that sense, I think I was wired pretty differently from what they were. And it wasn’t, it wasn’t clear at first, but I think that as I grew up and started to think more critically about our interaction and what was happening and um, some of the dynamics, I think that we really, I don’t know if we were oil and water, it’s not like, we had fights all the time or that kind of thing. It was just my internal expectation of how the world interacted was very different than theirs and at times it left me feeling, Eh, what’s the best word? Somewhere somewhere between not normal and crazy for thinking and communicating and wanting to interact the way that I wanted to and getting the message that this didn’t make sense.
Rich: 07:54 Probably I would say initially maybe about age seven which interestingly enough is the age at which many adoptees and children in general start to develop the capacity to grieve, in second grade, I would have these crying jags at school and I didn’t know why. The teacher would say, what’s wrong? What’s happening? What? Did someone hit you? Did someone do something to you? And I couldn’t explain it and I said, I don’t know. I just can’t stop crying. I didn’t learn about that until years later. At Adoptees in Search here in Colorado when Ron Nydam, who is a therapist and an author mentioned that, where you just casually mentioned in passing in one of the talks he gave that eight, seven, or eight is when children develop a capacity to grieve. And that light went off right away. And so in in the midst of those feelings with my folks, I can remember feeling things. One night I walked into the living room and sort of stood at the edge. I think my mom was reading a book and my dad was reading a newspaper or something like that. And uh, my mom looked up and inside I had all these, moist emotions roiling around as she looked up and in a very pleasant tone and just said, how can I help you as if she was sort of, you know, the family waitress, but completely or seemingly unaware that anything wrong was going, was happening inside me. She was asking like, would you like a glass of milk? And so that’s probably my earliest memory of that.
Rich: 09:50 right? It was. It was. I didn’t, I didn’t have words for what was going on, but probably probably at the time just would have helped a lot to have been hugged or held. We weren’t a particularly affectionate family, especially after a certain age. When we were little, you know, we were read to and sat on our mom’s lap, just that unite and that sort of thing. So as I said, I think pretty typical the generation, and it’s interesting because I’ve talked to people who are not adopted, men who were not adopted in particular, uh, about the dynamics in their family and how it impacted them. And it leads to an interesting conversation about what is related to adoption, what’s related to being raised by postwar parents. Many men were raised a certain way or emotionally traumatized by war and just not able to be as engaged emotionally or affectionate with their children. And it wasn’t expected. You know, there were, there were a much more defined family roles.
Damon: 10:57 So when Rich found out at five years old, the true definition of adoption, his emotions simmered inside him. But in general, things were okay in his home life as a kid, he lived his life trying to be the good adoptee to use his words. Rich worked hard for good grades, was involved in several sports and student council. He started thinking about his search when he was in high school, but it wasn’t until 1979 when Rich was in college when the big switch got flipped for him.
Rich: 11:47 I don’t really remember the details of it. It’s one of those things where you’re so stunned by the event that there wasn’t a big lead up or that sort of thing. I just had, I’ve had two big events where envelopes were handed to me and this was one of them.
Rich: 12:08 It was, it was both exciting and enlightening and uh, frustrating as hell because you’re seeing these, these descriptions of people, their physical descriptions and characteristics and a little bit about their history. But then you’re trying to envision who are they, where are they? Have I seen them on the street somewhere? When I was a kid and I talk about this in a book I’m working on, we all have fantasies and my, uh, my big fantasy was that I was the love child of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. They were coming for me. They were coming for me. We were going back to Graceland. It was just going to be great. And I’d hang out on the movie sets with them and you know, thank goodness that was not true.
Damon: 13:13 for 10 years, Rich didn’t know where to turn with his non identifying information. At that time, He had clues like dates and locations, but he didn’t know what to do next. He says that in 1989 Colorado passed a law that established a confidential intermediary program for adoptees to engage with the system to be in contact with their birth families. The organization running the program was called adoptees in search. He was living in California at the time, so his adoptive mother cut out a newspaper article about the new intermediary program, sent it to him and asked if he would be interested. He signed up for the program. Rich recalls that the very existence of the intermediary program was one of the early signs of major steps forward in Colorado law that eventually brought full access to adoption records, which he says he’s been privileged to be a part of enacting adoptees in search, as it was known then, was meeting in the basement of a local bank in Colorado. Rich said he would plan his visits home around their meetings. One of the reasons they were gathering was because a law that was intended to allow adoptees to search through the intermediary program had been struck down.
Rich: 14:26 It was amazing to me to show up someplace where there were 90 or a hundred other adoptees who were all doing the same thing and telling their stories, describing what was happening with their search or their reunion, and again, it was all on paper there. There were people who were genealogists or parents who knew how to search people who were being trained as confidential intermediaries. When that law passed, a judge in Denver struck down the law saying it was unconstitutional. So they were probably 350 people who would applied that could not move forward. They could not even receive an intermediary to do a search for them.
Damon: 15:08 Oh man, that must have been heartbreaking. Wow. Being around other adoptees and learning about their activism toward a goal, he shared a desire to reunite with his biological family. Rich got actively involved. He went with them to testify before legislative committees to try to influence lawmakers. And the organization referred to today as adoption, search, research connection, or ASRC was involved in a lawsuit over adoptee rights. But in that lawsuit, there was a subplot at play that Rich’s team never could have predicted.
Rich: 15:57 Oh, absolutely. So when that hits the news, the cry went out for him to recuse himself from this case. And it escalated to the point where he ultimately was censured by the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court and moved out of his job, uh, into a different job. We actually had him come speak at one of our meetings and I wrote a poem about him, which was floating around the Internet very, very much an emotional vomit kind of poem, as, as part of it was, uh, I asked the question, you know, can you hear anything? Can you, uh, do you understand anything? Can you feel anything? Do you see anything? And it turned out in real life, not knowing this, when I wrote the poem that he was blind.
Rich: 17:06 Well, it just, it just struck me as a metaphor that I thought emotionally, psychologically he had to have some sort of impairment to not understand this and to put his, his father’s family secrets and his bias over a law that the legislature has enacted.
Damon: 17:30 That’s really fascinating that his, you know, you, you get the, the feeling that his physical impairment, the inability to actually see the humanity was impacted by the law he was passing judgment on, could have been influential along with, his personal experience with a child being created out of own, uh, unexpected situation. That’s really interesting. Rich said, the judge’s own half sister is actually an adoption reform activist who lives on the east coast. Anyway, back to Rich’s search. Recall that Rich was living in California. Well, he moved back to Colorado for work and you may remember him saying that he’s only had two times in his life when he’s been handed an envelope.
Rich: 18:20 When I came back to Colorado, I got yet another envelope with another document on it and that document had my birth name in it. That was a point of awakening where for the first time I really, I didn’t let it out, but I felt the depth of separation and an incredible sense of betrayal from my adoptive parents that they had held onto this document that long and watched me go through some of the struggles I had in my twenties and do some self destructive things and blow up my life. And it really took that moment for me to connect with the fact that there was a person who had a name
Rich: 19:29 Had it the whole time. And that’s where, that’s where my, my written story starts out is me going home for Christmas with a whole bunch of disastrous things going on in my life and being handed the document.
Damon: 19:47 Oh Man. Was it handed to you, I mean it sounds like you’re saying almost at the wrong time or was this suddenly the right time to make a change? What did it do for you given the, what sounds like a downward spiral where you were in?
Rich: 20:02 Well, any, in my view, anytime would have been the right time. Any time, 10 or 15 years earlier would have been a better time. But it’s a, it’s one of those beggars can’t be choosers things, but it, it’s still um, on an intellectual level. I understand why they did what they did and the times and the culture and the assumptions and all that sort of thing on a, on a human level, it’s still baffles me
Damon: 20:33 between the clues that were revealed on his non identifying information in the first envelope and the last name he suddenly had with this second envelope, the ASRC searchers knew what to do with the info. There was no internet back then, but a woman named Faye a tenacious searcher and adoptive mother put Rich’s information together using a very interesting fact. Rich’s maternal grandfather worked for the railroads a long time ago. The Social Security Administration’s website says that before July 1st, 1963 the railroad retirement board issued original social security numbers to railroad employees designating them with the first three digits of their SSN between 700 and 728 when she used the social security death index, she was able to eliminate the other families Rich was possibly from and focused on the maternal grandfather’s family. They found his family with the correct number of siblings, three sisters and two brothers based on an obituary, and they were confident who Rich’s biological mother was among the sisters. He ruminated on the best approach to reach out to her. Some people send an introductory leather, others decide they’re getting in their car or on a plane to go boldly knock on their relatives front door.
Rich: 22:01 You know, the first time I picked up the phone to call it, um, the whole bit, I was sweating, my hands were shaking. I didn’t know what I was going to say, even though I had sort of a script written out in front of me. And the phone rang several times and then an answering machine picked up and there was a woman’s voice. So I didn’t leave a message. I just listened to it and then hung up. I mean, my head was spinning I thought I just heard my mother’s voice, but then I called back a couple of days later after plucking up my courage and, um, the same woman’s voice answered and I asked for my birth mother’s name and she stopped, repeated the name and said, uh, well, she’s been dead for 20 years. And so I managed to kind of somehow say, well thank you I’m sorry to bother you and I just hung up the phone.
Rich: 23:04 No. You know, she kind of sounded like she knew something might be up as it, as it turns out, she was the secretary of my birth mother’s husband who had married him about a year after my mother died.
Damon: 23:23 Interesting. Yeah. And as I put myself in her shoes, you know, when you, when after a person dies, you know, there’s only a few sort of mistaken outreaches to that deceased person in the years that follow. And they, they taper off precipitously as word spreads. So for a person to come out of the blue and call and specifically ask for a person who’s deceased is a huge flag. I’m sure she was very suspicious.
Damon: 24:03 Rich said, it took a while to recover from the news that his birth mother was gone, but the other adoptees in what is now ASRC were sympathetic. When Rich told them his birth mother had other siblings, they suggested he tried to connect with them. Sometimes siblings aren’t as close to the situation and they can be pretty helpful. Rich called another sister and he introduced himself with the classic lines about doing some family history research, saying there was a chance that they could be related. The woman interrupted
Damon: 24:38 She started telling the story of her sister who had given up a son for adoption in Denver. Then she stopped herself to ask Rich Two questions, do you want money and are you an alcoholic? When he answered no to both, the woman continued.
Rich: 24:54 Well, she said, I know who your mother is. Um, she’s not in good health. We have to do this my way. And I’m, I’m living in the world of just learning that my birth mother is dead and she’s telling me my birth mother is alive but not in good health. So I didn’t know what to make of that.
Rich: 25:14 Right? Yeah, it was. It was too much to process. And you know, she mentioned this, this, this person’s first name and that she would, it would have to be approached tactfully and uh, she would have to check into it and see and let me know. And she was a wonderful person. She ended up helping me tremendously in terms of making connections and gathering family history. But she also has, she has since passed. She also had a way of holding out tid bits of information that she knew I wanted in exchange for information that she wanted. It turned into this, uh, sometimes fun, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes manipulative dance of, of, uh, the power of who held what information. As it turned out, the sister who she thought had come to Denver and given up a baby, was not my mother, but another sister who had come to Denver and given up a baby,
Rich: 26:27 Well it took, it took us a couple of weeks to figure it out. And I finally went back to my adopted parents and I said, you know, you’ve been telling me that my birth date is this and this woman I found is telling me that my birth date is a year later in September, which is it? You know, is there any chance you were wrong? Is there any chance these records are not right? Cause I’m going, I might not even have the right family. Who are these people? Once, once we both figured it out, I started reading her, the description of the birth father from my non identifying records and she got really quiet and she said, oh this changes everything. She goes, I know, I know who your birth father was. And so once we sorted it all out, we were both in bed for two days cause she hadn’t known that her younger sister had done this. There’s a whole ruse that she put together to come to Denver and have me.
Damon: 27:28 Wow. So you were both flattened when you figured this out. You think that you found your birth mother and she thinks she knows who your birth mother is and then she finds out this deep dark secret of her youngest sister that she had had a secret baby and it’s you.
Rich: 27:51 So it was, it was, it was a huge, huge revelation to her and an unbelievable emotional roller coaster to me because at one point I thought my mother was deceased and then I thought she was alive, but being withheld from me. And then I went back to her being deceased.
Damon: 28:17 Rich learned that his mother had been involved for seven years with an older married man. He also confirmed that his biological mother was deceased, having drank herself to death before he graduated high school. He said he didn’t know how to process that information when he heard it. From the story Rich has heard his birth father was a commercial advertising art guy, good looking and charming, kind of a don draper from the hit Netflix series Madmen. Rich was born right at the end of their affair. His birth mother eventually married another man and they had four children together. His birth father went back to his wife, had another son, then they divorced. Rich’s birth father died of a heart attack around the same time Rich’s biological mother started drinking heavily. I asked Rich about finding his maternal siblings. He says he was initially screened by his younger sister, the oldest of those siblings. Then he was able to meet the others.
Rich: 29:16 The, the oldest sister who was born just a couple of years after me was coming out for a ski trip to Colorado. And so I drove up and met her and we talked and apparently I got the seal of approval cause then she went back and told the other siblings and then I, uh, flew out and met them and, and had several visits up there. It’s been, it’s been a powerful connective thing. Um, but we’re not really in ongoing contact. I think. I think that, my existence help them heal and understand the early death of their mother because they were all younger than me. The youngest brother was probably only five when our mother passed away. And so for them they had grown up believing that they were too much for her, that they were the cause of her drinking.
Damon: 30:29 On his paternal side, Rich has reached out to his aunt and uncle who weren’t exactly surprised to hear their brother had another son, based on what they knew of him, and thankfully they were welcoming. They invited him to share whatever he found out about the family because they hadn’t done much work on understanding their family tree. Unfortunately, one of Rich’s brothers died a few summers ago and they never met. The other brother has Rich’s contact information and could reach out if he wanted to, but they’ve never spoken. Going back to his maternal aunt who was so helpful in uncovering their family secrets. Rich said she invited him to a maternal family reunion where he got to meet generations of his family. He was a new face in the mix, but the older women in the family smothered him with interest and shared stories from their memories of his birth mother, but he said the younger ones were standoffish. I asked him for his theory on why that was the case.
Rich: 31:27 Well, you just, you just think about the, the shame of the generation and the secrets and that kind of thing, but to me that showed kind of a pragmatism about the whole thing. You know? They’d been through World War II. They’d been through the Korean War. They understood that stuff happened and they had that, let’s, let’s move forward with what is attitude and for me that really, that shed some light on adoption practices even even back then that yes, there was a lot of shame and a lot of secrecy, but I don’t know that. I don’t know that it came from as much malice as we try to project onto it.
Rich: 32:30 Right, these, these are people who seen their friends blown up or women who’d run the country without any men for four years or you know, it was, it was okay, here’s the situation, we adapt and we make a decision and we move forward.
Rich: 32:44 And I don’t think anybody had the foresight to see the impact that all the secrecy and shame would have on adoptees and of course the damage it would do to mothers who were forced to surrender their children.
Damon: 33:01 There’s a lot of, you know, social experimentation and um, research and other things from that and the adjacent eras that we’re not nearly as sort of appreciative of the human condition as they are now. You know, and you know, we’re better for it now, but unfortunately a lot of people had to endure some really sad, unfortunate, crazy stuff for us to get to this point where we now are intelligent enough and wise enough to ask what is the human impact of what we are proposing to do next. Today Rich works at the adoption search resource connection. It started in 1975 as adoptees in search and over the years they’ve assisted thousands of people
Rich: 33:55 for the past 20 years. I’ve been one of the point people with legislative activism and through a series of multiple bills, Colorado now has really one of the most progressive and open laws regarding adoption record accessed. That came in steps and went from a mutual consent registry to a confidential intermediary program to prospective only access and then retrospective access by only mutual consent or if the parent is dead. And, uh, kind of a cool thing, people who came through the state home now in Colorado, um, who may or may not have been adopted, some of them were just raised there as orphans, can now find siblings and get access to information about siblings they might’ve been separated from and birth parents now have access to records they signed.
Damon: 34:55 Wow. That’s amazing. That’s an amazing body of work you guys are doing. That’s incredible. Well done. How do you as an organization interact with organizations in other states? You know, there are, there are advocates who are fighting the same fight in states with completely closed adoption records that are struggling mightily with the um, you know, just the, the pure wall for lack of a better term at this particular political moment that has been put up in front of them. How do you, how do you support other organizations who want to follow the example that Colorado has led with?
Rich: 35:37 You know, we’re available for everything from ideas, talking points, ways to reframe things. Each state is different in the culture of each legislature is different and I’m not a believer in the one size fits all approach. Uh, and on my Facebook page, I recently posted a meme that said legislative advocacy is a form of sales. And if they’re not buying what you’re selling, it’s time to change your talking points.
Rich: 36:12 Cause we’ve spent a lot of time, you know, pounding our fists on the table demanding rights. And the problem is when you start to demand adoptee rights, the instant response from an educated legislator is, well what about birth parent rights? And that sets you on a path that assumes an adversarial relationship between adoptees and birth parents. And it sets you on a path where legislator to think we’ve got to find some sort of compromise between these two competing interests and the results in bills that we really don’t want. And so what we’re doing right now is trying to put out some, some different talking points that what we’re pursuing is good policy and truth and transparency in adoption results in healthier outcomes for everybody.
Rich: 37:06 And in the process you also help combat child trafficking and you create accountability. And of course in this age, much as uh, many people in the adoption reform movement like to malign adoption agencies, many, many agencies have come around on this and said this was a mistake. We didn’t know what we were thinking. And this is why we’re doing only only open adoptions now.
Damon: 37:34 Well I know I’m appreciative of all the work that advocates like you do on behalf of adoptees, you know, nationwide and it’s an exemplar for other countries as well. You know, and I’m, I just want to say thank you for the work that you and your colleagues are doing to try to help adoptees get access to their information and therefore, you know, greater understanding of themselves as people. So thanks for your work, Rich. I appreciate it.
Rich: 38:06 Well it’s an honor and our website has a lot of great resources including groups around the world that are working for the same goal as well as groups around the country that have had success with making changes and are entrenched and deeply dedicated to pursuing that cause.
Damon: 38:36 Bye. Hey, it’s me. It was interesting to hear that when Rich contacted his maternal aunt, he had to ride the emotional roller coaster of learning his birth mother was deceased then thinking she might be alive only to learn she had been gone a long time. What I found fascinating was that Rich’s emergence turned into something many adoptees are commonly afraid of. He accidentally revealed a family secret, but the secret he and his aunt uncovered was not about his own birth mother. It was about a different sister all together who had also relinquished a baby boy into adoption. When Rich returned, his biological aunt’s cover was accidentally blown. That’s part of the challenge of the search. You don’t know what you’re going to find and you have no idea who might be impacted, nor how. I want to thank Rich for his and his colleagues hard work in adoptee advocacy. I’m so grateful for all of the voices that came before the current generation of adoptees seeking answers, who stood up to tell legislators, adoption agencies and whoever else needed to receive the message that adoptees have a right and the need to know who they truly are. To all of you out there, I thank you for your work to bring truth to light. If you would like to learn more about the work of the adoption search resource connection, they can be found online asrconline.org I’m Damon Davis and I hope you’ll find something in Rich’s journey that inspires you, validates your feelings about wanting to search or motivates you to have the strength along your journey to learn who am I really? If you would like to share your adoption journey and your attempt to connect with your biological family, please visit WhoAmIReallypodcast.com/share you can choose to share your whole story, maintain some privacy about parts of your journey or share completely anonymously. You can find the show at facebook.com/WAIReally, or follow me on Twitter at WAIReally, and please, if you like the show, you can support me at patrion.com/WAIReally, you can subscribe to Who Am I Really? On apple podcasts, Google play or wherever you get your podcasts, and while you’re there, it would mean so much to me. If you would take a moment to share a rating or leave a comment, those ratings can help others to find the podcast too.
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