“You definitely don't forget," Diane Galiley says. Tiny body clad in A sky-blue pajamas, she’s curled up in a “papasan” chair in the living room of her La Mesa apartment. Watery eyes, huge in her pinched face, rest unwavering on yours for long minutes. “I’d say 80, 89 percent of people don’t forget” Her voice, a child’s soprano, stops and starts. “And a high percentage have no other kids.”
Concerned United Birthparents, currently the most prominent adoption reform group in the country, consists mainly of parents, most of them women like Diane, who gave up their children — “surrendered” or “relinquished” are the preferred terms — and later regretted it. Like other adoption reform advocates, CUB members believe they have a right to know who and where these children are. This right is based on a perceived emotional need for the absent person, a need they can’t elucidate other than to point out that they share the same genetic material. For adoption reformers, heredity supersedes environment as a tenet of faith. CUB uses for its logo a great symbol of biological determinism: a mother bear with a cub by her side. It is said that a mother bear separated from her cub will search for it forever, animated by some primal impulse outside her limited awareness. Within the adoption reform movement, the question of free will never enters the debate.
At private monthly meetings, CUB members provide each other with emotional support and pointers on searching for their children or parents. Nationally, CUB and groups like it lobby for adoption reform, pushing for more open adoption records. In San Diego, CUB has 110 members; approximately 70 percent are birth parents. Many are women in their 40s and 50s. Seven or eight members are men. Adoptees account for the balance.
“I think,” says adoptee Marsha Plumley, a CUB member who recently found her birth mother and is still searching for her biological father, “there’s a lot of people in the group with low self-esteem.”
Dr. Eric Blau, author of the just-published Stories of Adoption, notes that being part of the “adoption triad” — either a natural or adoptive parent or an adopted child — “can be a handy peg to put [one’s] problems on.” We all suffer an existential sorrow, he adds, that forms with the developing child’s realization of her separateness, even from her mother. Searching for a lost parent or child may be a quest for that missing unity, a unity such as others seek in romantic love.
The search is a grueling process and ultimately can be a disappointment. “Searches don’t always work out like our fantasies,” says Diane Galiley. “It’s not like you see on TV.” Now San Diego CUB’s outreach director, Diane joined the group eight years ago. She stayed on “to help others” after she located her son, whom she gave up for adoption in 1968 in Illinois. The search consumed her for years. The evidence decorates her apartment: bulging binders and file boxes, shelves full of books on adoption, mental health, psychotherapy, women’s issues. Diane shifts her small bones against the chair cushions and begins to speak.
“I relinquished him at his birth. I never even saw him. I didn’t know where he was, what he was. The date was all I knew. I didn’t even know it was a son.
“I was a single person. My family and the birth father’s family — ” she rolls her eyes. A nervous sound erupts from her throat, a kind of laugh — “well, my family disowned me. As soon as they found out I was pregnant and I wasn’t gonna get married. It was a small town. ‘What would the neighbors think?’ My mother said, ‘You have two choices. You can either get married, or you can leave town.’ ”
The biological father’s family offered to pay the expense of Diane’s pregnancy if she would give the child up for adoption, then have nothing to do with their son, whose college education was their priority.
At the time, Diane was 20 years old. “I was a puppet. Everybody controlled what I did.” Hustled out of town, Diane bounced between relatives, then entered a home for unwed mothers she and her child’s father had found. She lived out the last five months of her pregnancy there. Although the home provided her with safety and care, she felt isolated and imprisoned.
“Knocked out” during the birth, Diane never saw her child. She left the maternity home, moved to San Diego, and married the birth father after all. “I think we got married out of his guilt,” she says.
Diane and her husband never talked about the child. “Then we got divorced. Through the divorce, depression, and so forth, I really had to finally deal with the feelings. I denied it while I was married. I was in denial.” Diane has no contact with her ex-husband now, although she informed him when she began her search for their son. “He just says I’m crazy.”
Thoughts of her son nagged at her for years. “I felt guilty. I felt ashamed. I always wanted to know what happened to him, but I never talked about it. I tried to ignore it. The attitude you get from everybody is that it’s over and you should put it behind you. Finally, after we’d been divorced and I was alone, it really hit me.” Depressed and suicidal, Diane hit bottom. At a self-help fair in a mall one day, Diane saw a CUB booth. “I was so nervous I had to have a friend go over to pick up the literature for me. I was sure everybody would know.”
It was another two years before Diane attended a CUB meeting. “The reason it took so long is that my emotions were just — ” her hands fly up and shake in the air, she guffaws — “a shambles. There was so much to deal with.” There were perhaps 15 people at the first meeting Diane attended. CUB requires those wishing to search for parents or children to attend three meetings and pay membership dues before beginning their search. At Diane’s third meeting, she approached a searcher. “She asked what state I had relinquished my child in. I told her Illinois. She said, ‘I can’t help you.’ ” Undeterred, Diane struck out on her own.
In April 1985, Diane Galiley contacted the social service agency in Illinois that had handled the adoption of her son, requesting information. In June she returned home to Illinois for the first time since her hasty departure 17 years before, ostensibly for a high school reunion. Despite opposition from her mother, Diane visited the social service agency.
Pushing out of the papasan chair, Diane leaves the room, returning with a massive blue binder containing the history of her search for her son. She huddles in the chair again and opens the binder.
On her visit, the agency provided Diane with “non-identifying information” — a general description of the adopting family, including their geographical location, southern Illinois. They also told Diane that the child she had given birth to was a son. The agency telephoned the adoptive family to express Diane’s interest in contacting them. After returning to San Diego, Diane called the agency repeatedly and gained the sympathy of one of the social workers. The woman eventually revealed Diane’s son’s name: Michael Holly.
With the name, Diane requested an abstract of his driver’s license from the State of Illinois. “Once I had the driver’s license, he became real to me.” Diane scans binder pages, finds a copy of the letter she sent to the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles. She reads, “‘Here’s my check for $5.1 hope to obtain the address of Michael Holly.... He was witness to an accident, and we need to contact him.’ And they sent it! I put the date of birth in there. Who would know the date of birth of someone who witnessed an auto accident?” She shakes her head and giggles.
Once she had the address, Diane began writing letters to her son’s adoptive parents. “Here’s the first letter I got from the adoptive father, in December 1985. All it says here is that they’ve put my letters in a safety deposit box and that they won’t stand in his way should he desire to meet me once he’s out of high school. ‘We will not encourage him to do so but we will do nothing to stop him.’”
Diane’s campaign to contact her son was her main occupation for three and a half years. She flips to another page in her binder: a letter from the agency in 1988 informs Diane, “We’ve spoken to your son’s parents today. We’ve approached them with your interest in contacting your son... Your son stated that all he can do right now is concentrate on college.”
The boy’s adoptive father, however, was more receptive. Diane received three letters and four phone calls from him. The man sent her a copy of the boy’s senior picture. She obtained a copy of his high school annual. She subscribed to the town’s newspaper (a subscription she maintains). It is the kind of small-town paper that chronicles ordinary events in the lives of the town’s citizens. Through the paper, and through her contact with the father, Diane was able to keep tabs on her son.
She first spoke to Michael by telephone in the summer of 1989. Her face lights up as she recalls it. She begins to pick at her fingernails. “It was unreal! It was the first time I’d heard his voice. It was a superficial conversation. We talked about the weather. We talked about California. We have never gotten into the heavy stuff.”
Michael Holly’s adoptive mother never made contact with Diane; in fact, Diane admits, Mrs. Holly refuses to speak to her. The father was killed in a car accident in December ’89. Rather than a setback, this turn of events worked to Diane’s benefit. “Michael had joined the Merchant Marine. A friend of mine called him for me, at the academy. This was just two, three weeks after his father had died. We didn’t know the father had died. My friend called, and Michael was so needy that he poured it all out to her.”
In April 1990, Michael called Diane from Hawaii. On his return, he would have a layover in Los Angeles. He asked Diane to be there. “I met the flight. I was holding his high school annual with a sign that read, ‘Welcome Michael.’ ” As Diane recounts the day, her fingernail-picking speeds up, her eyes dart about. A friend went with her to the airport. The two waited at the gate. They didn’t spot him. Ready to give up, the friend persuaded Diane to take a look around the baggage claim area. “He was talking to a friend. We waved. He came walking over, all nonchalant. My friend goes, ‘Are you Michael?’ He said yes. I go, ‘I’m Diane.’ Huh! And then we just started talking. His friend said he’d been hearing about me all the way from Hawaii.”
Michael and Diane spent two hours talking. Diane walks over to a bookcase and retrieves a small photograph in an elaborate frame, her souvenir of the day. Arms wreathed with those of a young and healthy-looking man, she looks like a different woman. Matronly. Curly hair frames her glowing face. Her figure’s fuller. Michael beams beside her. They have the same smile.
He hugged her. “He hugged me, and he did call me Mom.” Then he caught his flight.
“We had plans to meet again in August. I had that to live for.” Diane fantasized endlessly about the meeting. She imagined she might grow close to her son, even become a part of Michael’s adopted family. But then she received a message from him via the social service agency in Illinois. “The message was, ‘He does not want to see you. He does not want to hear from you. He wants nothing to do with you.’
“So I tracked him down.”
Diane journeyed to Michael’s hometown, which was not far from her own. Her mother and sister went with her. Her mother insisted on going with her. They visited the church where Michael was baptized. “I talked to the priest. And the priest! Within five minutes of my leaving there, Michael’s mother had been warned.” The town was a small farming town, “No McDonald’s or anything. Just bars and churches.” Diane went into a bar and ordered a Coke. She asked to see the phone book. The bartender asked who she was looking for. She told him, “The Holly family.” He informed her they’d just moved, but the daughter Angie was next door at the beauty parlor. Diane “cruised by there. Just eyeballed her, you know, his sister.
“The whole town knew I was there. I could have put balloons on the car, and a banner. His mother had that social worker on the phone bright and early Monday morning raising all kinds of hell. I can understand. Like the social worker said, the mother was just so afraid that I would take him away from her.” That was not, Diane says, her intention. “I just wanted to know who he was.”
Michael has not re-established contact with Diane. She figures this is due to pressure from his mother, and from his younger brother, also adopted, whose birth mother has not attempted contact with him.
In February this year, Michael contacted the agency, asking for medical information. The social worker offered him Diane’s current telephone number, which he declined. The worker then telephoned Diane to tell her the news. “I think this is a positive sign,” Diane says. “I know he had that medical information already, so I think he was just feeling the situation out but wasn’t ready to make contact yet. I’m hopeful.” She nods her head in affirmation.
Perhaps 20 percent of local CUB members’ searches, Diane estimates, end unsuccessfully. Lack of success doesn’t mean the quarry isn’t found. In CUB’s philosophy, a search isn’t over, is not a failure, until you find death or rejection.
Eric Blau’s research leads him to conclude that biological mothers are most often rejected by their offspring. “Birth parent searches sometimes occur at a time when adoptees are vulnerable, in their teen years. They’re just becoming adults, trying to separate from their adoptive parents. Consequently, they’re not willing to take on more parents. Birth mothers tend to expect a closer relationship than the child is willing to form at that time.”
Although adoption records are sealed in all states, pressure from groups like CUB has led to an easing of laws in many of them. Seventeen states now operate mutual-consent registries, which independently record the desire of biological parents and adopted children to meet. For seven years now, California has accepted “waivers of confidentiality,” forms filed with the handling adoption agency, or the state if no agency was involved, by willing birth parents or adoptees, signifying their desire to meet. Also in California, a natural parent may make an entry in the registry at the time a child is relinquished; at age 21, the child is free to access it.
San Diego CUB members wanting to contact parents or children receive registry application forms from Diane Galiley. International Soundex Reunion Registry, run out of Nevada, is a nonprofit service founded in 1975. Any birth parent or adoptee may fill out a form and be plugged into its database. When a match occurs, parties are notified by phone. The registries are efficient. On April 13 of this year, Diane sent the forms to a Texas woman seeking her daughter. The woman mailed the forms to the registry in Nevada, the state where she had relinquished her daughter. On April 29 she heard from her daughter. On May 6, the daughter flew from her home in Arkansas to spend Mother’s Day with her natural mother in Texas.
According to Annette Baran, an L.A. psychotherapist and adoption expert, “illegal but highly effective underground routes” to assist searches exist nationwide. These rely upon sympathetic — or venal — social workers, hospital records keepers, and state employees with access to confidential computerized data. Professional searchers make their services available to members of groups like CUB at regular meetings. With sophisticated technology and an atmosphere of tolerance in place, locating the parent or child is almost routine if the birth happened in the last 20 years. As can be gathered from Diane Galiley’s story, lengthy searches consist mostly of persuading reluctant parties to make contact.
Adoptees, according to Dr. Blau, tend to begin their searches later in life. Marsha Plumley was in her 30s when she decided to find her natural parents. Secure in her identity, she was motivated by mere curiosity, she says. Marsha had a happy childhood and enjoyed a stable relationship with her affluent parents. “Still, I would look at crowds of women on the street and wonder if one of them could be my mother. You do that a lot.”
An initial membership in ALMA, Adoptee’s Liberty Movement Association, in 1988, discouraged Marsha in her search. “They were very secretive about their methods. People weren’t encouraged to share information with each other. People were very standoffish, didn’t mingle.” The atmosphere at CUB, which she joined in 1990, was more to Marsha’s liking. “Everyone gets a chance to talk, theoretically. When the meeting starts, you take a blue chip or a red chip to indicate whether you need to talk urgently or can wait. Some people are a real mess, sobbing. Others are so excited about some breakthrough in their search. Unfortunately, that means meetings can last four and a half or five hours.”
We are seated in the tastefully furnished living room of Marsha’s North Park condominium. Marsha, fresh from an evening swim, wraps slim hands with perfect red fingernails around her tanned knees. “I don’t make it to meetings very often,” she admits. Her voice is quiet, cultivated.
Starting her search, Marsha contacted the Children’s Home Society and paid $35 for “non-identifying information” about her biological mother, including height, weight, physical description, some medical history. “I was surprised, because she’s really short, she’s five two, hazel eyes. Apparently I take after my father.”
Marsha won’t reveal how she came by her birth mother’s last name, stating that her source was illegal. “At a CUB meeting, I gave the last name to one of the searchers, and the next day she called me with the first name. I don’t know how she got it, and I don’t — ” she laughs — “ask a lot of questions. But they must have a lot of contacts. All over. They can find people very quickly.” With the name, Marsha prevailed upon connections for further information. “First of all, I got her phone number. She had an unlisted phone number, but a friend of mine who works for the phone company got that for me. I had a friend call her and say that someone was looking for her, someone who thinks she might be your daughter. Of course she denied it.” Through another source, which Marsha says was also illegal, she obtained an address. “I had friends in Sacramento check out the address, go by her place and see if her name was on the mailbox.” In April of 1990, Marsha wrote her mother. “I said basically who I was, that I wasn’t looking for anything, any money, I was secure financially. I said I just basically wanted to meet her, maybe take a picture of her, and just be friends or whatever.” She didn’t hear from her. In November 1990, Marsha decided to pay her mother a visit. “It was my birthday. I had a friend fly to Sacramento with me. I was just going to go there and knock on her door.” Marsha chuckles, embarrassed. “I parked around the corner. I had my friend go knock on her door. No one answered. I thought, ‘Oh, great. She decided to go out of town for a while.’ So we walked to the church, which was a block away, to check out the registry.” She asked to confirm the address and phone number of “a friend who I think is registered in this parish.” The church obliged.
Marsha telephoned. No answer. Inquiries of the woman’s neighbors revealed that she might have been out of town for the Thanksgiving holiday. “I was so nervous. The whole day. We drove around the block for a while. Then we parked, and my friend went to knock on the doors of houses near the apartment building, to ask if anyone knew where she might be. She’s so bold! Then this older gentleman pulls up and parks. My friend stops him and asks if he knows Jane S—. And then, this woman walks up behind her and says, ‘I’m Jane S—”
Marsha’s friend led Jane to the car on the pretext of “having something for her.” Marsha got out of the car and walked toward her mother. “My friend said, ‘Jane, this is Marsha Plumley.’ Then she said my birth name!” Neither one spoke for a moment. Marsha’s friend suggested they go somewhere and talk, and Jane asked for an opportunity to straighten up her apartment before they came in. “When she took off like that I thought, ‘She’s gone. She’s never going to come back.’ ”
But she was there when the two walked up to her door ten minutes later. They sat in Jane’s apartment and talked. Marsha asked why Jane had not responded to her letter; Jane showed Marsha some photographs she had intended to send her but hadn’t quite gotten around to. “She was really nice. Kind of quiet. She had never told anyone about me. I asked her a lot of questions. My friend said we looked a lot alike. I saw that we have similar features, but our gestures are not alike.”
Marsha excuses herself and runs upstairs, returns with a photograph album. She pages through it, carefully removes pictures of her mother, and offers them for inspection. The two do look like mother and daughter, despite a disparity in height. They stand arm in arm, smiling a little distractedly at the camera.
The visit was soon over. “I guess I was somewhat disappointed,” says Marsha. “I didn’t think I was expecting much. But you hear about reunions where people fall into each others’ arms crying, and ‘Oh, we look alike, we like the same things.’ It wasn’t like that at all.”
Marsha and Jane keep in touch by telephone, and this summer Marsha plans to visit her mother on the way to a vacation in Yosemite. The relationship remains friendly but distant. What Marsha has found out of her mother’s story has been gleaned slowly from their conversations; Jane remains reluctant to speak about the past. She was 31 years old when she gave birth to Marsha. Marsha doesn’t know how long her natural parents’ relationship lasted or how serious was their passion. When the man found out Jane was pregnant, he left, Marsha gathers. As Jane was devoutly religious and rather alone in the world, she chose to give her child up for adoption.
Jane provided Marsha with her birth father’s name, said he was “some kind of an engineer.” Marsha located, in Los Angeles, a man she thought might be her father. She visited his house one day. It was another awkward meeting in which a friend acted as her intermediary. Marsha came away convinced that she had been mistaken. She continues to search for her father.
About 92 percent of people doing searches have unrealistic expectations,” says Curry Wolfe, a part-time professional searcher. Wolfe “surrendered” her five-day-old daughter Laura in 1966 and didn’t see her again until 1985. “Most people are disappointed. Birth parents more so than adoptees. We’re the ones that had the largest loss, in a sense. We lost children we would have raised had circumstances been different.”
Diane Galiley’s story sounds familiar to Wolfe, who often speaks to women who “latch on” to reunion with a lost child, hoping for a cure-all to emotional pain, loneliness, and emptiness. But in Wolfe’s experience, no matter how emotionally well adjusted one may be, searching for lost family invariably becomes an obsession. It was for Curry Wolfe, too. “During the time of search, I was the most emotional, belligerent, antagonistic person I’ve ever been in my life.” And she had the stability of “a home and the kids in college and the husband and the dogs and everything.”
The dogs whine for attention behind the kitchen door. Curry sits poised on a living room sofa, relaxed and attentive. The smell of fresh-clipped lawn wafts in through open windows. We sip Diet Coke from icy glasses. “During the search process, we fantasize to the point that we think we can fly to the moon by ourselves, you know? People say,” she puts on a plaintive female voice, “ ‘All I want is to cook with him.’ That’s a real basic thing, to eat. It’s symbolic of bonding, you know. Breaking bread is fundamental to religion and to survival.
“I always hear, ‘I just want to know where she is.’ After they find that out, it’s ‘I just want my medical history.’ Then they want to know what the person looks like. Then the photograph they’ve obtained isn’t enough, they want to meet in person.” Setting intermediate goals like this is necessary self-delusion, Wolfe notes. It’s protection against the pain of failing at the larger goals: intimacy and reconciliation.
“Some people have the wish to see their child naked. It’s not a sexual thing at all. It’s because when you normally bring home your babies, you stroke them, you change their diapers, you wash them, rub them down with lotion. Do all that caressing. And you missed that. Not that that’s what you want to do with your adult child! Or you want to look at all their parts and make sure they’re whole. That’s what a mother does with her new babies, make sure they have ten fingers and ten toes, all the right parts in all the right places.
“I have seen my daughter naked,” she adds drily. “And her boyfriend.” The pair had made an artistic video for a college class and showed it proudly to Curry, who was awed by the sight of her daughter’s body. “The boyfriend turned to me and said, ‘Aren’t her breasts beautiful?’ ” Curry cracks up. “He said it in such an endearing way!... It gave me a sense of completion. I saw in her my body at her age.”
In her mid-40s now, Wolfe has a smooth, unlined face, bright eyes. She is dressed for a hot morning in a purple T-shirt and striped magenta shorts — clothing as forcefully present as she is. Her softly curled hair is golden brown, a good match to her name. “Curry is actually my middle name and my grandmother’s maiden name. I just got tired of Catherine.”
Catherine was technically a virgin when she conceived. This was in wealthy, conservative Pasadena, California. “On September 3, 1965, at 2:00 in the afternoon, to be precise.” She was 17 years old and very much in love with a young Japanese man named Michael whom she had met as a high school senior. He “didn’t get it in very far,” Curry notes. “The doctor told me they’d have to cut my hymen so I could give birth. But actually the birth father and I took care of that long before.” She laughs. “I’d gotten pregnant so we decided to find out what all the fuss over sex was about.”
Her mother divined her state when Curry was two months pregnant. “I never decided to give up my baby. My mother decided.” Both families opposed a multiracial marriage. Curry’s outraged mother threatened to bring charges of statutory rape against Michael; Michael’s parents accused Curry of promiscuity. The young couple fantasized about elopement. “But we had no money and no place to run to.”
Her mother found a doctor, a maternity home, an adoption agency. Curry never considered rebelling — she was young and properly brought up, it was 1966. “I’ve talked with other birth parents about this. You go into a state of fuzziness, of numbness. It’s like an out-of-body experience. You turn to your family, whom you’ve always been told you should be able to trust and come to with a problem. Instead you get yelled at, screamed at, guilt and shame socked all over you. You get picked up and sent over to a maternity home before you even know there is such a thing. I mean, I didn’t know. I’d never known anyone who’d gotten into trouble. I thought it was going to be lowlife, girls with switchblades and strange habits. I was lucky. I met my roommate, and she’s still one of my best friends.”
Curry gave birth at Booth Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles. She never held her daughter, but she looked at her through the glass of the nursery. Once, she put her hand on the glass. “She looked right at me.” At that moment Curry “knew at some point we’d meet again. It was not something I thought about a lot. It was not an obsession.” She grins suddenly. “When I started searching, then it became an obsession.”
Curry started looking for her daughter in 1982. Throughout ’83 and ’84, she attended CUB meetings. As her three-year search for Laura neared its end in 1985, Curry began to offer search assistance to other people in her CUB group. Word spread that she “knew things.” She found it difficult to decline pleas for help. In 1986 she joined Independent Search Consultants, an organization with 65 members across the U.S. and Canada. Members must pass examinations created by the group in order to receive certification as bona fide searchers. They’re quizzed on practical details of searching in their area of specialization, usually a state or a couple of adjoining states. You might be asked, for example, the name of the head of the office of vital statistics.
Curry Wolfe now sits on the board of ISC. She has left CUB. Two years ago she founded a support group of her own, Adoption Connection of San Diego, which has 20 members. The group is part of the American Adoption Congress, a nationwide network of similar groups. Wolfe also helped create Birthparent Connection, a maternity home registry that “helps birth mothers reunite with women they were pregnant with.”
She opens a thick plastic-spined booklet on her lap. It’s a directory she helped compile, listing support groups and searchers all over the country— names, locations, search areas of specialty, phone numbers, and Prodigy computer network numbers. She sells the directories for $10 each, using the funds to keep the Birthparent Connection going. “We have a very strong network.”
Leaping forward from her position among sofa cushions, Wolfe fields calls on a cellular phone that emits a piercing electronic ring. A lawyer Wolfe’s been hoping to connect with checks in. A woman in New York calls repeatedly. “I really haven’t talked to her yet. I have no idea what she wants, but I know it’s adoption.”
Wolfe spends — “Oh, gosh,” sighing, eyes searching the ceiling — a minimum of 20 hours a week “doing adopto-shit,” as she calls it. It’s not her living. “That’s my own choice. I pay to go to conferences, for example, and I try to make the work pay for that, and for my phone bill, which doesn’t always happen.” Most of her time is spent unpaid, offering counseling and referrals — “to contacts in Texas or Missouri or wherever” — within adoption conferences on Prodigy. “I might not do anything for four days, then for five days in a row it seems that’s all I do. I also have a life! I have a stack of stuff in there —” she jerks a thumb over her shoulder, toward her office — “I need to do, and some days I just can’t face it.” As many as 15 adoption-related calls come in a day. “Some people phone because they want to start a search. Others just want to talk. This can be an hour-and-a-half conversation. You can’t cut somebody off when they’re going through a crisis of decision.
“There are people who just want to know the facts.” Like adoptee Marsha Plumley, “they’re curious, solving a puzzle. They enjoy the mystery. But many go through a tremendously difficult emotional process. You have to be dedicated to this work, because you’ll get calls at 10:00 Saturday night. I had a guy call me on Easter Sunday.”
There are career searchers spread over the country who make a living at it. “You can go anywhere from being able to buy a loaf of bread a week to being able to support yourself,” Curry estimates. “It’s not a greed thing. There’s not one searcher I know across the country who’s in it for the money. Some searchers charge a flat rate. Often I’ll charge nothing at all if it’s something that’s right at my fingertips.” A search by Curry will cost you $15 to $250 on average, but no more than $500. “If I have to leave my front door, to research something at the library, for example, I charge $25 an hour plus mileage and parking.” Somewhere between one and two thousand people have used Curry’s assistance to a limited degree, perhaps asking for a particular piece of information from one of Curry’s databases. She has done perhaps 250 complete searches herself. Currently, she’s working on 15 cases.
We stand up and stretch. Wolfe walks down a hall to “search central,” formerly a guest bedroom, now a cluttered office. Most of the room is taken up by an L-shaped line of desks holding Macintosh computer, printer, telephone, sheaves of printed material, file folders penciled with clients’ names, a microfiche machine, stacks of film-like rectangles of fiche. Curry slides a swivel chair over the plastic runner on the carpet, eases into it. There’s a well-worn couch facing a television, where Curry unwinds. The wall behind it is a gallery of family photographs, mostly of her two sons. Floor-to-ceiling shelves on two walls are crammed with pamphlets, manuals, and reference books on adoption, encyclopedias, sheaves of loose papers, and many, many phone books — some of them rooted out of dumpsters and recycling bins. She has Los Angeles and Orange County directories, stacks of San Diego books dating back to 1982. Phone books less often used are stored in her garage.
The first thing someone wishing to search must do, Wolfe advises, is contact the agency that handled the adoption and file, in cases here in California, a waiver of confidentiality. “Then if their loved one is also looking for them, they don’t have to go through this whole process.” The person should then request their “non-identifying information” from the relevant adoption agency, as Diane Galiley and Marsha Plumley did. “And everybody searching, straight across the board, blanket statement, should register with International Soundex Reunion Registry. If everybody would just do that, searches would be over.” Providing, of course, that everybody wanted to be found.
Joining a support group, which Curry advises as the next step, “is an important way to get in touch with people who know how this is done. Otherwise, you may find out three years down the road you’ve been doing everything backward — Oh!” Curry’s voice soars. “There was this woman, came to San Diego last week from North Carolina. She surrendered here in 1944. I knew she was coming. I told this group leader in North Carolina, ‘Tell her not to spend her money! She doesn’t even have a name! We’re going to have to find a name first!’ So she came here and spent a week’s vacation in the library!” Curry becomes doleful. “She doesn’t even know a name. She knew a first name. She figured it would just happen. That’s so sad.”
The most important, and difficult, data to obtain, of course, is a name. “You’re going to have to pay to get a name. It will cost you $250. At least in California that’s an option. I can’t tell you exactly how it’s done. In my case, someone I know got me the name, and I didn’t ask how. I didn’t want to know.” It would be a matter of having access to confidential information in adoption papers, birth records, or hospital records. “In some states there is not an option like that, and you will not find the name. If you do, it’s a miracle. Or you will dig and dig in courthouses until you’re blue in the face.”
Voter registration data, which is public information in California, is a frequent recourse for Curry Wolfe. “It lists your name, date of birth, address, your political affiliation, and when you registered. I have indexing. I can just pull it out on fiche. I can look you up.” She smiles. “I also love to use it when someone tells me they won’t tell me their birthday and I want to send them a card. I say, ’That’s all right. I’ll find out what your birthday is.’ ”
Wolfe might start a search with a mother’s birthdate only, which is listed in hospital maternity records and included in the “non-identifying information” an adoptee can obtain from the relevant adoption agency. One is no longer required, however, to give one’s birthdate when filling out maternity registration forms at hospitals. “Out of vanity, say, women may give the month and the day and then leave the year blank. So a lot of people are listed as ‘00’ for the year. But the form may also say ‘00 dash NY’ for New York or ‘dash CA’ for California. So if you know that someone was born in New York on that month and day, and there’s two women named Mary Smith in the phone book, then you check voter registration. You find there’s a Mary Smith at that one address and Mary Smith at the other, but this one’s 50 years old and this one’s 30 years old. I want the 50-year-old.”
Some searches are “a snap,” Wolfe says. She has come across cases where an adoptee, already, in possession of his adoption papers by whatever means, noticed an unfamiliar name referenced in the upper right-hand corner but didn’t realize its significance: the natural mother’s last name. “Other times, walls go up. You just won’t understand why. You just can’t find a name. Or you can’t figure out where the heck they went. The family was here, then... they’re gone? Or the name is so common. John Smith. Get real! Sometimes it’s just not happening, okay?” In other cases, a quick check of the phone book will yield results. If, for example, you know the birth mother married John Smith in 1970, and there’s a John and Mary Smith in the phone book, you need only check the birthday against voter registration data to verify.
“Access to useful information has opened up dramatically in the last three or four years,” Wolfe remarks. “This is the information age. I get things in the mail. I don’t know where I’m getting on these mailing lists. Funny things like about how to find anybody in the United States that tell you certain databases you can just call up and get into. But personally, I just use people that I know.” Wolfe doesn’t have “great access” herself, she demurs, such as connections to friendly social workers at adoption agencies or to the restricted databases of entities like the Department of Motor Vehicles, but she admits she used to and knows people who do now. “Maybe again tomorrow someone will knock on my door and say, ‘Guess what I can do for you?’” Searchers willingly share among themselves sources of confidential information, Curry Wolfe says, “but it costs. It costs because it costs the person to access. You don’t advertise it, though, and you don’t write it down. I know someone who could check, for example, to see if someone is still a licensed driver.”
When Curry takes on a client, she provides her with tasks to complete on her own. This helps the client funnel anxiety into a useful channel. “There is a lot you can do yourself. People don’t realize the tremendous amount of information that’s available just at the public library or how much information is a matter of public record. Marriages, deaths, divorces, the buying and selling of property, lawsuits. It’s almost scary! You just have to know where it is. Or hire a searcher.” Her eyebrows shoot upward. “Or pay a private detective $2000.”
Besides county administration offices and courthouses, the genealogy research libraries operated by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, such as the one on Tenth at Pennsylvania, in Hillcrest, are “treasure houses” of data. “Mormon libraries have the Social Security death index, of questionable accuracy. I know of two dead people, at least, that it missed. Here in San Diego they have it on CD-ROM. Six computers. It’s public information. Sitting right there. They also have old birth indexes from lots of states. A woman will tell me she doesn’t have her birth mother’s name but knows she was born in Texas in a certain year. It may take me five hours, but I can get the name.”
Older state records are available on microfiche from the state office of vital statistics. “You can obtain them by writing to Sacramento. For $150 I bought a whole series of marriages in California from the 1940s onward.” Wolfe picks up a stack of microfiche cards and taps their sides to an even line against the desk top. “California has had a mania for record-keeping since the World War II boom,” she smiles, “fortunately.”
Wolfe also has access to copies of the state birth index. In adoption cases, a birth record is sealed (“I’ve seen one,” Curry says, “and they do fold the paper and literally seal it”) and the adoption certificate filed with it. Both papers are encoded with the same number at the top of the form. If you have the number from the adoption papers, you can look for its match in the state birth index. “You could go to Sacramento to see it, but you have to make an appointment ahead of time, and you’re limited to one hour of research a week.”
Curry turns in her chair, points at two framed photographs. They reside in a clearing on the shelves, at such an angle that if you entered the room and faced the desk area, your eye would naturally fall on them. One, an amateur home photo, bleached by a too-strong flash, shows the elderly couple who adopted Curry’s daughter Laura. The pair sit rigidly, hands folded in laps, lips barely curved. The man wears dark trousers and a grey shirt buttoned to his neck. The woman wears a modest black skirt and a high-necked white blouse. Curry sits between them, beaming, dressed head-to-toe in bright red. “That’s something, isn’t it?” She chuckles. “I call it ‘American Gothic.’ ”
The second photo was taken on a timer by Laura’s natural father Michael, a professional photographer. Before a mottled tan back-drop, Michael (slick ebony ponytail disappearing behind black-clad shoulders), Laura, and a former boyfriend of hers (“the same one as in the video I mentioned”) lean into each other, arms across shoulders. Their skins glow warmly, big white teeth glint in their enormous smiles.
There is no photograph of Curry with her daughter. She rises abruptly from her chair, which she parks neatly in front of the computer desk. “As Reuben Panner, the man who coauthored The Adoption Triangle with Annette Baran said, ‘There’s no such thing as a bad reunion.’ If you start out knowing nothing, and you find out where they are, you meet them, you get pictures, you get a hug, whatever, you’ve gained so much in knowing who you are and who they are. And that is good. Anything you get beyond that is a bonus.”
As for herself, Curry has what she calls “a periodic, ongoing relationship” with Laura. “I can pick up the phone and call her anytime. I haven’t seen her in three years, but I call her on the phone once or twice a year. I felt my daughter would reject me for surrendering her because she’s biracial and she went to a Caucasian family, so I entered into my search knowing she has anger and resentment. I know she does, although we haven’t talked about it. It’s definitely there. I would like to know her better, I would like to have her say, ‘I’m going to drop by.’ More of a friendship kind of thing. More of a sister kind of thing. If she gets married, I would like to be invited and be acknowledged as her birth mother, but I wouldn’t expect to sit next to her mother on a pew.” Her tone says she wouldn’t want to either.
“A birth couple surrenders their parental rights. They do not surrender love, affection, and the desire to know. Okay? The adoptive parents adopt a child to be within their family, that they will love, nurture, and cherish. Okay? My daughter’s parents are her parents. I’m her birth mother. I could never in my wildest dreams go back into her life now and try to parent her. If she was five years old and they wanted me in their lives, I could not parent her. It would be hard. But if we started doing it, in time it would be normal.
“Only 2 percent of the population are adoptees. Yet 50 percent of all children in adolescent psychiatric care facilities today are adopted. That is such an overwhelming percentage there must be something wrong with adoption.” If adopted children were raised having some kind of relationship with their natural parents, Curry reasons, they’d be a lot more functional.
“Everything’s hard at first. Look at the Wright Brothers. How many airplanes did they crash before they got it right? How many rats have died in cancer research? Look at the microwave. Can you imagine cooking without it? But there were men in Alaska who found out it generates heat and they cooked themselves to death, and that’s how we found out microwaves cook meat.” She wrinkles her nose and laughs, explaining she still remembers the news reports from her childhood. “They couldn’t understand why people were dying until they did autopsies and found out they were, like, medium rare!”
Her tone darkens again, becomes emphatic. “Adoption’s a life-long issue. It never goes away. Once you’re a birth mother, you’re always a birth mother. Same as an adoptee is always an adoptee. We want open adoption records. We want people to use registries. I don’t want to have to search for people ever again. I want them to be able to get the information and search for themselves. Why not? It’s their right.”