Like a Stranger

There once was a woman who kept changing everything: her hair, her glasses, her furniture, her style, her husbands and her lovers. She moved 34 times and changed her name seven times. Her restless journey was almost unconscious. She described herself as emotionally and physically peripatetic. The idea of not belonging was who she was. It was not so much that she had lost her identity, but that she never had one.

I am that woman.

Identity as a concrete concept would hardly occur to any of us if it were not denied in some way. The idea of ‘having an identity’ is not relevant when ‘belonging’ defines your reality.

In our slumbering selves, we go way back, not to the moment of our birth or even conception. We go back to the dark reaches of our ancestors. Some cultures sing to their ancestors. Some dig up their bones and worship them. Others keep their ashes in finely carved containers. While others mark their graves for centuries.

These conversations with our dead are how we make our own stories real. We are here because of them, and their echoes inform our lives.

In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit says ‘to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.’

That vastness has swallowed the thousands of New Zealanders denied their real stories.

I have been one of them.

The practice of secret, stranger adoption was widespread in New Zealand. For many years, the government sanctioned the forced removal of babies from their mothers.

The reasons were always spurious and moral and based on marital status. Those babies were then deposited with women considered more worthy – read married. In essence, making one woman childless to resolve another’s childlessness.

Children were handed over by the state as if they were inanimate objects, commodities, pets or windfall fruit. Blank slates.

You arrive into this new family reduced to nothing but your breath and your body.

The adopters must then infuse you with their culture, their family, their history and their mores and beliefs.

As if there is only nurture. As if nature is an aberration, worthy of denial.

But what happens when you grow up utterly unlike them? Taller, stronger, more fleet of foot and mind than those who took you?

In a dozen different ways, my adopting mother asks why can’t you get over it. My need to know exasperates her. As if I am somehow a defective person for not being ‘like them’.

If an open conversation were possible I would answer, why can’t you acknowledge what happened? How can you not see that closed secret adoption causes a primal wound?

And this is the question I will be asking of the courts.

Why can’t you get over your control and power of my life?

Why am I denied the most basic human right that many of you here enjoy?

I will ask the Judge, the stenographer, the officers and the lawyers – do you know your whakapapa? Do you have grandparents? Great-grandparents? Do you have famous ancestors? Are your roots Irish? German? Scandinavian? Polynesian? Jewish? Are you even a little bit interested in your family history? Have you had your DNA done? Do you have a family tree? Do you have cousins and siblings and aunts and uncles? Do you think you look a little like great aunt Sally? Do you share a trait: physical or intellectual with a forebear?

If you answer yes to even one of these questions then you are enjoying the complexity of your heritage. Something I am still fighting for.

I am a 58-year-old mother of four, stepmother of one and a grandmother of six. In this time of DNA, I finally know who my parents were.

My mother and I connected when I was 23. She was desperate to get to me and boarded the next flight out of Madrid. That plane crashed, and she died. She left behind two other daughters. For many years now we have been close and loving sisters.

I found my father only last year using DNA. He died five years ago at 92. Now I have another sister to make our family whole.

Identity may be porous but it is also rooted in our genes. One sister wrote columns and articles in the UK. I wrote columns and articles in New Zealand. Another sister loves to ride horses. I loved and longed to ride horses. My parents had significant lives, painted on large and complex canvases. My father was famous in his time. A jazz drummer and a race driver, his ribald humour, and bon vivant lifestyle was widely written about. My mother had a business brain, developed a remarkable tourist destination and possessed endless energy and verve.

These are the tiny scraps that constitute my inheritance.

I will also tell the court that DNA technology has negated the moralistic need to protect families from the spurious religious inspired shame of the past.

The governments continued theft of my identity serves only to protect the Catholic and Anglican Church, the Salvation Army, the doctors and institutions who all claimed the moral right to abduct children from their mothers.

You might reply that since I have this information, why do I need my birth files opened?

Because I want and need a complete picture. I want to know what the files say about me. And because to fully normalize my life I need to remove the stigma of being considered an illegitimate person. I am an equal citizen. I am owed the same right as non-adopted New Zealanders. The same right my children and grandchildren have to access their birth files.

Why do my birth files constitute a risk to society? And why am I still subject to a law created in 1955 and the narrow religious morality of those times?

The foundation of closed secret adoption in New Zealand is identity theft. As an adopted person, you lose your birth certificate. You lose your mother, your father, cousins and siblings. Aunts and uncles and grandparents disappear. In short, you lose everything and everyone that makes you unique. And your own children and grandchildren also lose their rightful place in the sweep of humanity.

Every single day of my life I long for my mother. For her smell, her touch, the sound of the voice I heard for nine short months. I am 58 years old, and I still grieve that I will never have the chance to hold and be held by my mother.

I have two birth certificates. The one I consider legitimate has me stamped as illegitimate. The other is a legal fiction showing my adopters as my biological parents. Then there’s the dropped comment from an Oranga Tamariki worker who had my file in front of her – that I’m actually born six months earlier than my birth certificate. And then a third item: a single sheet of yellowed paper, attesting to my time at Bethany Home. Except the dates do not match.

So which one is true?

How can the state continue to deny me the right to confirm the actual date of birth? How archaic. How cruel.

The very least the courts can do is hand over my records. And the records of anyone trapped in a closed secret adoption.

And, if not now, then when will the state return my identity to me?

 sketch at top by Meryl - a frustrated me talking to Ministry for Children