In Kenneth’s family all of siblings were adoptees, each fostered in their parents home before their adoption were made final. That scenario worked out great for Kenneth, but not so much so for his oldest sister who never bonded with their mother. Seeking reunion, Kenneth carefully approached his half-sister and learned the truth about his brith mother’s institutionalization which led to his sister’s adoption, and his own conception.
Kenneth was still seeking answers as to his birth father’s identity at the time of our interview… for now at least he knows more about where he came from.
Kenneth: 00:00 Yeah. You know, and it’s kind of funny in being the adopee, I think it was a lot tougher on my sister. My sister would visit my mother there and my mother had electroshock therapy and all that kind of stuff and it’s like I didn’t have to experience it myself, but my sister did.
Damon: 00:36 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 Kenneth. He called me from Cole City, Illinois. His family of siblings were all adoptees, each fostered in their parents’ home before their adoptions. That scenario worked out great for Kenneth, but not so much for his oldest sister. Seeking reunion, he bonded with his half sister and learned the truth about his birth mother’s institutionalization, which led to his sister’s adoption and Kenneth’s conception. He’s still seeking answers as to his birth father’s identity, but for now at least he knows more about where he came from. This is Kenneth’s journey. Kenneth was the youngest of four adoptees in the suburbs of Chicago. He had two older sisters and a brother. So I’m sure you can imagine adoption was an integral part of their lives, but that doesn’t mean it was entirely a great thing for all of them. Listen to the stories Kenneth tells about his siblings start in their home
Kenneth: 01:44 and it’s kind of funny now that I look back on it and I hear other people’s adoption stories, I see how unique in one sense my situation was, my parents became foster parents solely for the, um, to be able to adopt and they figured, well if we start out as foster parents then we’ll have the in that would allow us to, um, be given children. And they were, they got four children and I’m not exactly sure that was the best idea for them because what ended up happening is, is my oldest sister was a foster child to start and they got her at 10 months old and she wasn’t adopted until she was like almost four. And at that point you really don’t have any much bonding that my, my mom and my mom especially. I don’t sense she could totally give her heart to my sister because she never knew if she was going to get her or not and so and and my sister would have visitations with her biological family and when she was three there, my sister can vaguely remember the goodbye to her biological family where everybody’s crying while they were going to be giving her up and I don’t think my sister bonded well with my mom because my mom didn’t know whether she was going to have my sister forever or whether she was going to have to give her up.
Kenneth: 03:09 And I think that happened in several, with my oldest sister, definitely my second eldest sister was a foster child until she was eight years old. And that situation was actually opposite. My oldest sister, my second oldest sister, she was used to my mom being her mom, her adoptive mom. But she would visit her biological family and didn’t want to visit. And then they ended up getting into a court fight at the end because the biological family wanted her back at like eight. But they were sensing that they wanted her back so that they could take care of the invalid mother. So there was a court battle. And so my parents ultimately won. And so in this situation, I was constantly growing up in an adopted situation with case workers and social workers around. My brother, my older brother, he actually, they got him and they had a little bit of complication with him, because they were going to allow my parents to adopt him but then they discovered he was deaf. And then there was question marks about whether, you know, should, you know, would they be able to give him the need that they needed? And my parents had to beg and beg them to give give them the chance. And so you’ll notice there’s a lot of turmoil with my parents getting to be able to adopt the three eldest children. With me, it was very simple. My mother was this, my biological mother was a schizophrenia and she was in a mental institution and they knew I was never going to be, she was never going to be coming out. So, I was the first child my parents got and they got me at four months and it was like they knew they were going to have me.
Kenneth: 04:51 So I think my mom bonded with me really quickly because there was none of this well we’re fostering and we don’t know whether we’re going to be able to keep this child. I was the only child they knew right off the bat they were going to keep. And I bonded. So my adoption situation was really wonderful. All rosy. I, you know, I loved my parents. I Love My, my dad and my mom and I could see within our, my family, there’s a different, a different way each of us children took adoption. I was the rosiest and my eldest sister, she never took with my mom.
Damon: 05:26 Wow. That is really fascinating. You know, I’ve as you know, have heard so many stories, but I’ve never heard this perspective on foster to adoption where because the child was being fostered and was in such a tenuous situation that they might not get to stay with the foster parents who intend to adopt them, that it created this false barrier, and actually a very real barrier. Honestly. That’s really interesting. I’ve never experienced that. Kenneth’s adoption situation was really wonderful for him. He said that since he was brought into his parent’s home as a foster child first, his parents were given way more information about him than a parent who is adopting straightaway gets in a child’s non identifying information, but since his parents were fostering, he got pretty used to seeing social workers come in and out of their home and was generally used to the culture of adoption and fostering
Kenneth: 06:24 and my mom would turn and say, Oh yeah, you, you’ve got a sister somewhere and she’s about 16 and your mother was very, very sick. My mom really wanted to stress that I was wanted. It’s like your biological mother couldn’t take care of you. That’s why you’re here with us. But um, so she’d be telling me know, you know your, we know what your last name is. And so I grew up knowing a lot about, you know, especially having a sister. I was told it at about the age of five or six that I had a half sister out there. And that played on my mind for years because it’s like, you know, I go through life and it’s like I wonder if I’m ever going to see my sister. Is she somewhere around here? But then eventually I got to the point where I just, I resigned with the fact that adoption was closed. I was never going to know anything in this life. I always presented the fact that, you know, there are family members in my life that are out there somewhere and I could not ever be told who they were. And I could not have my birth certificate that just drove me up a wall. It’s like somewhere, somewhere in some office in Illinois. There’s a, a file that’s closed and has real big information on it for me and I can’t get it. And so, but I just figured, hey, it’s, it’s a closed thing. There’s nothing that can be done about it.
Damon: 07:43 Yeah. Wow. That’s, that’s unbelievable. Um, cause you’ve also said that basically being raised in foster care allowed you earlier access to this. You know, most, a lot of adoptees will say they’re in the fog. They don’t know enough to know that adoption is a thing, that they are disconnected from those whom they’re biologically related to. But you grew up in an environment where the entire culture of the house was, was, was penetrated by this whole process of moving children from one family to the next. And the legalities of it and the, and the visitations of it and the emotion that is involved with it yet still, it doesn’t give you any solace to know that there’s someone out there whom you’re never potentially going to meet. That’s really fascinating. Kenneth’s family life sounded really interesting to me. I was so curious about what life was like in a home with children of different ages in different fostering statuses with a variety of needs and even differing levels of family connections. Kenneth said every child had a very different experience at their house. His parents brought him when he was four months old and he bonded with their mother and felt like they were all just one big happy family. His adopted siblings were just his brothers and sisters and it was all good for Kenneth. When we talked about what compelled him to search for his birth family, he described his initial position that he didn’t want to search because he felt it would be disloyal to his parents.
Kenneth: 09:17 I think I was lying to myself, but I’d say, I don’t care. I really don’t care. You know, I don’t need to find anybody else. And um, as a matter of fact, when I first met my wife, um, I told her I was adopted and she says, oh, well do you ever wonder where your parents are? And I told her, well, my parents are at, and I, you know, I said, they’re at home, they’re, you know, right down the street
Damon: 09:42 after he turned 18 in 1983 at his adopted mother’s suggestion, Kenneth went to Catholic charities to get his non identifying information. His mother was similarly interested in his paternal heritage. Kenneth’s adopted father died in 1991 and his adopted mother later in 2005. Before their deaths, Kenneth had always been told his mother’s heritage was Polish and Swedish, but he had no idea what his paternal heritage was. Much later in 2017, at 51 years old, Kenneth’s wife bought him a 23 and me DNA test because they were both really curious about the entirety of Kenneth DNA genetic makeup.
Kenneth: 10:35 And, which is kind of interesting because, you know, I grew up in, as I say, in a, in a, in a white suburb of Chicago and everybody in my class were white. I, and I, the thought of me being biracial never occurred to me, but I did notice when I started going to college. Um, I would start interacting with African Americans and they would tell me that I was African American and I was like, you know, being an adoptee, I didn’t know. And it’s like, yeah, I’m not sure.
Damon: 11:11 You’re naive. Right? If you, you know, you’ve grown up in a predominantly white neighborhood, gone to Oh, you know, school that you probably had a bunch of white friends and never really contemplated it before until this cadre of others of African American descent can recognize things in you that you probably hadn’t seen in yourself. That’s really interesting.
Kenneth: 11:32 I, I can remember the day clearly. I was at Northern Illinois University and I was sitting down and one of the, one of the African American girls who was sitting next to me, she looked at me and she, she included me in the African Community. She said, well, you know what, it’s like, you know, you know, being black. And I’m like, no. And she gave me a look. She looked at me and I said, no, I’m, I’m, yeah, I’m white. And she’s like, I don’t know if she thought I was trying to pass for something, but she looked at me and she made that look, and she’s like, you may not know who you are, but I know you’re African. But being an adoptee, I, you know, I, you know, I scratched my head and said, well, she could be right, but I, how do I know? But when the 23 and me, uh, results came back, uh, you know, there was 30% African American and it’s like, wow. Or, you know, it’s all well sub subsaharan African. And it’s like, wow. And, uh, and you know, I had hints that you, there were people that I think people suspected but nobody, uh, would talk to me about it.
Damon: 12:39 That’s really interesting and it’s funny too, you know, you sent me a picture of yourself and your sister and as you were talking I had to go back and look again to see would I have thought so, and I can see it. Kenneth told me that that kind of automatic association with being African American by other African Americans who just naturally included him in the group happened all the time. So when he got his 23 and me results back, he went online to the platforms chat rooms regarding ethnicity, where someone posted that Illinois was an open birth certificate state. He filled out the paperwork, got the document, and saw the name of his birth mother. Over on ancestry.com he was able to assemble a maternal family tree fairly quickly. Since he was finding so much good information on ancestry, Kenneth decided to submit a sample for their DNA test too. That platform matched him up with a first cousin once removed, who was really a genealogy Whiz, and had mapped his maternal family back to Poland in the 1700s but Kenneth wanted to be cautious because he wasn’t sure if the sister he already knew about was equally aware of his existence.
Damon: 13:48 Rumor had it, the sister had been adopted by their natural grandparents who were young at the time, so there was a possibility that the woman was never told the truth about her relationship to them. While searching, Kenneth found obituaries online for the sisters grandparents, where she was listed as their daughter, so she truly might’ve thought they were her parents.
Kenneth: 14:09 because I’m sitting there worried. It’s like, am I going to be the one who pops up and tells her, Oh, you know, the woman you thought was your mother? She’s really not your mother, she’s really your grandmother. And I really worried about that. And so I got in contact with my first cousin once removed, who I’ve matched DNA wise and I told him, I says, I have a sister out there and I don’t want to pop up on, you know, and be a shock. And so he wrote to me and he said, well, tell me who your mother’s name is and we’ll figure out what’s what it is. And I told him my mother’s name from the birth certificate and he said, oh, that’s my first cousin. And he knew her and he started telling me about how she was intelligent and beautiful and she had a wonderful singing voice. And I’m sitting there pinching myself, going, I’m talking to a guy who knew my biological mother.
Kenneth: 14:57 This is something, like I had never thought in my wildest dreams I would ever be able to talk to somebody like this. And he said, he says, so he knew the whole story about me. He told me that my mother gave birth to my sister around 1950 and right after she gave birth she started to have problems and she was put into a, there’s a, a famous uh, asylum in Chicago named Dunning asylum. She entered there in 1950 and died there in 1980 and and so so she was there her whole life. So if you look at the, if you look at the year she got put into there, in 1950, I was born in 1965 and she died in 1980. So okay. That made me even more slow about wanting to get in touch with my sister cause I didn’t know the, how it would have happened.
Damon: 15:49 That’s an interesting scenario to contemplate. How did a woman who was institutionalized for decades get pregnant? Kenneth’s father could have been a doctor and employee or another patient for all he knew. When I googled dunning asylum, the very first link that popped up for me was titled Dunning, a tomb for the living. Since Google thought it was the first thing I should see. I read the 2013 article from WBZ Chicago. One excerpt said for many generations of Chicago children, bad behavior came to a halt with a stern warning quote, be careful or you’re going to dunning close quote, the prospect sent shivers down the spines of youngsters who regarded it as the most dreaded place imaginable. It goes on to talk about the state of Illinois taking over the hospital, some changing mental health practices in the 1950s and the discovery of unmarked graves after the institution’s land was sold to developers. Back on Kenneth’s Sister, he was really concerned about popping into her life unexpectedly. So he took advice from other adoptees online about how to proceed.
Kenneth: 17:01 but I didn’t want to pop up without being, you know, being a surprise. Somebody told me, you know, if your sister doesn’t know who you are, just get in contact with her, write her a letter and say, um, you know, I’ve matched your, we’ve, I’ve matched a first cousin and somehow we’re related. Maybe you can tell me how we’re related. And he said, let her tell you what she knows. If she knows that her mother was in the asylum, she’ll tell you. And if she thinks the person in the asylum was her sister, she’ll think you are, she’s your aunt and then you can take it from there. I thought, well that’s a good idea. So I thought, hey, if, if my sister thinks I’m, you know, she knows that I’m her brother, then that’s fine. And if she thinks she’s my aunt while I’ll play along and not, I’m not going to blow the cover. I’m not gonna. I didn’t want her to feel miserable discovering things you don’t have to.
Damon: 17:48 So Kenneth, his sister, a letter that included a copy of his birth certificate, a photo of himself and his children, and a copy of the DNA report connecting him to their first cousin once removed, he also included a link to his Facebook profile. Three days later, Kenneth had a Facebook friend requests from his sister, so they connected through direct messenger.
Kenneth: 18:10 She was really excited. She’s like, oh wow. And I asked her a question really quickly. I said, um, as far as you know, do you know who I am or do you know how we’re related? And she said, Oh, you’re my half brother. We share the same mother, so turn and it turned out she knew when she was 16 just after I was given, I was born. She told me now this is why I got to tell you and I think when you get into these adoption situations, I don’t know how much truth she was told by my grandmother, you know, she was told things and I’m not sure how much of it was true or not.
Kenneth: 18:45 Yeah, she, she said she was 16 she can remember the day she was told that her mother gave birth. She said it was, I was already in the adoption process before grandma and she or anybody else knew that I was in existence, you know, I scratched my head and I don’t know how much of that I, if it’s true or not.
Kenneth: 19:10 Later on, Well later on, I talked to my sister and she was kind of showing regret that my mom had given me up or that Grandma and he said, I remember going to the room and I don’t know if grandma saw you or not. So now this story changed from, nobody knew about me to potentially, there was a point where grandma went in to see what, see something after I was born and there was regret that grandma might’ve given me, you know, shouldn’t have given me up.
Damon: 19:36 Kenneth conveyed that he had always wondered about nature versus nurture. With his siblings, you could just tell that they were very different from one another with starkly different personalities. But seeing his half sister’s Facebook profile, it was clear from the persona she projected that they were kin to each other.
Kenneth: 19:54 I mean, just looking at my sister’s website before I even met her looking at, it’s like we’re, we’re related. That’s my sister. I mean the, the things that she writes about, the way she writes, the way she sees the world. It’s like we see the world the same way.
Kenneth: 20:11 And it’s like one of the things that I can tell is, um, the discussions that we have like that, you know, sometimes I have a, um, I have to struggle with worry and anxiety and I can see my sister doing the exact same thing. It’s like you can tell your, I could tell that I’m related, that she’s my sister and then when I met her, it was pretty close. She’s my sister.
Damon: 20:33 Kenneth, got to know his sister through her Facebook page. And the first time they messaged one another, she was eager to meet, but then she pulled back just a little bit, taking her time too, to get to know him. Kenneth thought empathetically about his sister’s perspective on his emergence.
Kenneth: 20:50 But I realized that this was just coming out of the blue for her. I knew she knew I existed. She always tells me, she said she had a daughter, my niece and she’d tell the niece, oh, I’ve got a brother. And the niece is like, well, we’ve got to find him. We got to find him. And she’s, she would tell the daughter, we have no way of finding him. I don’t have any clue, but she was wanting to see me. But I guess once it, once the reality that I was there, she didn’t know me anymore, better than I knew her. And I think she wanted to make some time. And especially considering our mother had schizophrenia for all she knows. Um, I could have schizophrenia.
Kenneth: 21:29 Yeah. And I, and so it’s like I wanted to make sure she was not suffering any problems for like my mom did and she wanted to do that. And it took six months. And then finally we, uh, set a time to visit. And, uh, it was like, as I say, she, I showed you the picture. We’ve looked very, very much alike and
Kenneth: 21:49 And then see, to me that’s the most special thing is cause it’s like I’ve gone through my whole life and not have anybody look like me. And it’s like finally, and you know, I get some pics now. I got some pictures of my, uh, my sister and my grandmothers, my mother, and it’s like, okay, I look like that family.
Kenneth: 22:14 Then I was really, really excited and so we’re, we’re driving there and when we got to the coffee house, she was standing on the porch standing on the, the, uh, at the door of coffee house and uh, oh, that was, I mean it was really kind of memorable. I got out and I gave her a hug and my wife was with me and uh, I had thought that she was going to be bringing her daughter and her son in law and she, she was there by herself and she looked and she said I was going to bring my daughter and son in law, but she says, this is for me. And she says, I don’t want to share ya at this point. I want you now. And it’s really been, I mean, for the six months that we’ve been communicating on messenger and all that, I’m, I, in one sense I think I’m blessed cause I hear so many of the adoption stories where they, lots of people have to meet lots of family members and all that. And with her, she was raised as an only child and most of our family is either dead or out of the picture. So when I met her, it’s like instead of having to focus on a whole family, it’s just she and I getting to like getting to know each other. And I think we’ve gotten really, really close in the last year. Very, very close.
Damon: 23:26 Yeah, I can imagine there’s an odd thing that happens. I probably quite naturally when these reunions occur in the way that yours has, that, you know, you’re kind of the only folks left. You know, you either get along famously, which it sounds like you guys have, or you kind of checked the box on having met the person, You go your separate ways and you returned to your life. But it’s really cool that you’re, you’re bonded to her. That’s amazing.
Kenneth: 23:53 Yeah. I realized, one thing with adoption is that you get, people get raised in different ways and so you may not have a mesh but with, with my sister, yeah. I, I took to her right off the bat so
Damon: 24:07 Kenneth admitted that he started out truly wanting to know who his birth mother was, but once he got the information that he was also African American, learning more about his paternal side became a priority too. Now Kenneth’s mining the data points he finds about his family to learn more about his personal history.
Kenneth: 24:25 It was like, wow. Considering I was conceived in 1964 right during the civil rights movement, it was like, I mean, how does somebody end up 30% African American at 70% European in that era? That’s, that was a big question in my mind and I had my second cousin matches on my father’s side and people have been nothing but helpful to me. I would have been able to figure out who my great, great grandfather was born in South Carolina and what’s interesting is he was a, he was listed on the free registry in 1860 he has brother and his sister. He was seven, his brother was 17 and his sister was like 15 and they were listed as Mulatto, but they were free, which I think is kind of an unusual situation. I think I know who my great, great, great grandmother was and I believe she was a slave.
Damon: 25:32 Kenneth has followed his family’s lineage to make some of the mysteries of his past become clearer. But I was interested in what he thought about the events leading up to his mother’s pregnancy with him. Kenneth has a theory about how he was conceived.
Kenneth: 25:46 I was expecting when I met my sister that her attitude would be, boy, how did, how did you come into existence? We’ve got to scratch our heads. She said, no. She said my mother, while she was institutionalized, she was able to leave the institution at times as she said to go shopping or you know, like my, my mother had was the person who committed herself and so they would let her leave the asylum for day trips.
Kenneth: 26:19 Yeah. Here’s the thing. I mean there’s a lot of speculation and I read from my, um, from my, what you call it, the non identifying information that there are alcohol and abuse in the family. And I don’t know where the alcohol, where the abuse was, but I have my suspicions that my mother was being abused by her husband and she was having mental issues because she really, she really did.
Kenneth: 26:47 But she checked herself in and my sister told me that my mother wanted my grandmother and said, you know, you’re going to have to take care of my daughter cause I check in. I’m going to be checking myself into the asylum. And so this was the first time I realized that while my mother was in the asylum, her whole, you know, from, from the about the age of 20 to the age of 50 when she died, she could leave for day trips. And I also discovered that my mother had a pension for drinking and going to bars. And my niece said that she had heard that my mother had had a relationship with a trucker in the area. So, but now that I know that my mother was, had a pension for going to bars and drinking, I think she probably met somebody and um, well had a party and I’m the result. That’s why you know, as I’d say, and I’m in trying to find my paternal side. I’ve tried to be as slow as I am with what, you know, I’m concerned I don’t want to pop out of nowhere and just say, hi, I’m here and destroy a family over it.
Damon: 27:53 Kenneth shared that his first concern was that his birth mother had been raped. As a matter of fact, one of his concerns about meeting his sister was that his face would bring her some pain as a reminder of the rapist who had attacked their mother. Thankfully that wasn’t the case. He said he’s looked up the history of the area around dunning, asylum.
Kenneth: 28:13 There are bars right off where the asylum used to be and they would say that the inmates would jump the walls, they’d go get drinks and come back. Turns out this was a thing that was happening. So I’m glad to be here. Sure, go ahead.
Damon: 28:42 No, you’re absolutely right. That’s really fascinating. I mean from your beginnings in a family that started off with foster care and adoption is such an open thing to locating your biological mother, having seemingly checked herself into an asylum and ultimately gotten pregnant there 16 years after the birth of her first child. I mean, it’s just a fascinating story. Wow.
Kenneth: 29:06 Yeah. You know, and it’s kind of funny in being the adoptee I think it was a lot tougher on my sister. My sister would visit my mother there and my mother had electroshock therapy and all that kind of stuff and it’s like I didn’t have to experience it myself, but my sister did. I think she turns to not want to talk about it as much as I’d like to talk about it because I think that the memories are painful for her.
Damon: 29:30 Yeah, that makes sense. Hmm. Well, I’m glad you guys are bonded together. It’s really cool that you found each other and I certainly wish you luck and trying to find your paternal link. Ah, there’s much information out
Damon: 29:42 there. I think it’s entirely possible and it’s going to be really interesting to see, uh, how your heritage plays out across that side of your family. So I wish you the best. Take care Kenneth good talking to you, man. Thanks for the call.
Damon: 29:58 All the best. Bye. Bye. Hey, it’s me. Thinking back on Kenneth’s childhood, it was sad to hear about his eldest sisters start with their family and the lack of a bond between her and their mother. I had never thought about how rough it is for a child to grow up in foster care, even if adoption is the intention, but to have the process take so long or have the birth parents be so indecisive such that the child is left unattached to anyone. I’m glad Kenneth’s paternal second cousins are helpful and supportive in his search for his birth father and I’m especially glad to hear that he and his sister are so much alike.
Damon: 30:38 She knew who he was and she was able to give him details about their mother that allowed him to shift his thinking from wild speculation about his conception to something closer to the truth. I’m Damon Davis and I hope you’ll find something in Kenneth’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? Right. When I finished editing this episode, I got an email with this summarized message from Kenneth. He said, I think I found either my father or my uncle. I matched a woman who was younger than me, my matches mother shares a grandparent with me. I got in touch with my match and her mother and they told me who my great grandparents and grandparents are. They asked me for my phone number and told me that they wanted to have others get in touch with me.
Damon: 31:30 I gave them my phone number, waited for a call that never came. I suspected my biological family didn’t expect to get a surprise like me. I went to ancestry and found a yearbook picture of a man who is either my father or my uncle, one look at him and I know I probably found my people. Kenneth included a picture of himself as a young man around the same age as the man in the picture, and I’ll tell you the resemblance is undeniable and hey, quick side note, I recently finished my book also called, Who Am I Really? And it’s available now for preorder. Go to WhoAmIReallypodcast.com then click shop, where you’ll be redirected to the publisher’s bookstore. Thanks for adding my story to your reading list. If you would like to share your adoption journey and your attempt to connect with your biological family, please visit who am I really podcast.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.