by Michael Bowen

Mary DuChene, adopted as a baby and now 30, says she wasn't curious about her birthmother at all until she turned 18. When she went "just on a lark" to the Spokane County Courthouse to retrieve her birth documents, "they told me no, absolutely not. I was shocked. I even got a lecture from a woman there, who told me that my real parents were the ones who raised me, and that I owed them more gratitude than that."

The rebuff only made DuChene angry and more determined to uncover her past. And so began an adopted woman's search for a birthparent that has succeeded far more than most.

Many adopted persons profess unconcern about their birthparents (though they may be in denial). Most, perhaps, wonder about their origins sporadically. Some are obsessed with their birthmother's identity.

The trend toward open adoption, in its forthrightness, has bettered the situation. Done right, the child need not be confused about having two Mommies. With closed adoptions, however, adoptive parents often worry about their children doing any probing into the past. They fear that their kids are out to find a second or replacement family.

DuChene recalls that her own adoptive parents, when asked for details of their daughter's background, "were outright dishonest in a weird sort of way." They told different versions of her adoption story, apparently intended to warn against unmarried pregnancy. Still, reports DuChene, somehow "I convinced my adoptive mother to sign a letter so I could get my records. And suddenly I get about 20 pages of material -- the social worker's notes, everything -- but with all the identifying information blacked out."

Through adoption chat rooms on the Internet and the e-mailed suggestions that poured out of the Volunteer Searchers Network in particular, she learned that "fingernail polish and an eyedropper" work especially well in removing permanent marker ink. Armed with her birthmother's name and hometown, she went through the phonebook, and located her uncle-by-birth, who eventually produced his sister's, the birthmother's, e-mail address. After DuChene initiated contact and then waited through an anxious three-month silence, her birthmother -- who was new to the Net and merely thought she had been spammed -- eventually wrote back. And then the conversation really began.

"We're both really gabby people; we sent long, chatty e-mails back and forth." DuChene emphasizes, though, that the mother-daughter reunion, when it happened, was "nothing like Oprah." Instead, like many reunions, this one seemed almost anticlimactic. After all, these two women were already virtually acquainted.

Most adoptee-birthparent reunions taper off into Christmas cards and the occasional phone call. But DuChene's experience has been exceptional. She has broken off relations (for unrelated reasons) with her adoptive parents. Her birthmother moved from Seattle into a house just a block away. Since their 1998 reunion, they've become best friends.

And so, remarkably, the adoptive parents' fears have been realized. But DuChene's case is unusual. Most adopted persons do not turn from their adoptive family to embrace a birthparent. Instead, the motive for searching is simple curiosity about the basics. Who am I? Where was I born? Do I have any siblings? What's my father's name? Why this shade of hair, this captivation by all things yellow, this interest in the Beach Boys, this disdain for tomatoes? Why this quirk and that gesture? Any medical history I should know? Birthchildren take the answers to such questions for granted; adopted kids are left without answers.

In my own case, having been adopted as an infant in a closed procedure, I remember my fascination about families with mutual resemblances. I made up stories about being the unlucky 13th child of an impoverished family. Because of my attraction-repulsion to such an emotional subject, I went through periods of intense curiosity, followed by years of indifference. Then, some chance discoveries: a social worker had volunteered that one of my birthmother's brothers had attended West Point; my mother's disclosure, when I was nearly 30, that she had seen my birthmother's last name. Years of procrastination. And then the stunning discovery that, quite by coincidence, my birthmother's brother, my uncle, the West Point grad, was living just a few miles away. And had no idea that his little sister had given birth to a child outside of marriage. She had subsequently married and had five children, my half-siblings. She'd kept her secret all these years, never telling even her husband. And she refused any contact with me.

Not every search, then, has a happy resolution. Mary DuChene, in contrast, hit the birthmother reunion jackpot. Most adoptees' searches end up somewhere in between.

In 30 intervening years, attitudes have shifted, vaulting open adoptions to more favored status over the alternative of secrecy. Yet, as DuChene notes, some things remain the same.

"My birthfather wanted to marry my birthmother," after she became pregnant, DuChene says, "but she was far too independent in 1971 for that. She moved for a time into an unwed mothers' home here in Spokane. Now it's a drug rehab place over on Garland. I guess," she laughs, "it's still for bad girls."

Unwed mothers are stigmatized less often today, and frequently, unfortunately, they choose single parenting without seriously considering a planned adoption as a possible alternative. For every adopted child, however, there is an untold story, and forces at work trying to censor that story. "The truth is never a bad thing," comments DuChene, "and it should never be blocked from someone who wants it."

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.