interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
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Who am I? Who are my parents? Where did I come from? When, where and how was I born? Most of us take the answers to these questions for granted. But it’s not so easy if you were adopted. Then, as Patrick McMahon née Shields found out when he got the legal records of his adoption from his adoptive mother in 1990 and decided to use them to start a search for his birth mother, he was told by a “nasally bureaucrat” at the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, that “all adoption records, including original birth certificates, are impounded, it costs hundreds of dollars to try to get them, and that rarely happens, only under the most dire of circumstances.”
Finding that the authentic record of his birth was treated as if it were a state secret whose revelation would jeopardize national security was just the first of many amazing, infuriating and ultimately exhilarating things that happened to McMahon on his two-year search for his true origins. He details the story in his new self-published book Becoming Patrick, whose title references the fact that when he decided to search for his birth family he also abandoned the first name “Pat” and insisted on using the long form of his given name.
Patrick McMahon shouldn’t have had to publish his book himself. By rights he should have been able to place it with a major publisher and go on Oprah to promote it. It’s an extraordinarily well-written combination of self-discovery memoir, suspense thriller, soap opera and wrenching reunion story. As a writer, McMahon knows when to comment ironically on his tale and when to get out of its way and just let the story tell itself in clear, succinct language. A multi-media artist — he majored in music at San Francisco State University and also is a photographer and sculptor — and an openly Gay man with an unusual relationship history that also becomes part of his book, McMahon is a fascinating character whose memoir will touch the heart of anyone who’s been adopted or dealt with the sense that one or both of their parents never really wanted them.
Becoming Patrick can be ordered online from McMahon’s Web site, www.deeprootpress.com. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Zenger’s: When did you first realize you were adopted? It’s not quite clear from the book whether your adoptive mom actually told you, or you overheard it and then she told you. How old were you when you found out for sure, and how did you find out?
Patrick McMahon: The truth is I really don’t remember being told. I don’t ever remember not knowing I was adopted. My mother started reading me a book called The Chosen Baby, probably when I was four or five years old, and that book explained adoption in the way books did back in the 1960’s. I don’t really remember not knowing I was adopted, but I don’t remember a big “aha!” moment of being told as well.
Zenger’s: So she was reading you that book, and explaining that it applied to you.
McMahon: Right. In the book, Mr. and Mrs. Brown go to see Mrs. White, who has a baby for them; and later has another baby for them, which is how they explained my little brother when he came along. That’s the book she read to him as well, and it seemed to work.
Zenger’s: Even though your brother came from another Mrs. White.
McMahon: Yes, exactly.
Zenger’s: You say that you really only got the idea to do the search for your birth parents in your early 30’s. What triggered it?
McMahon: I grew up in a household that had some alcoholism. My adoptive father became an alcoholic, a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde alcoholic. There was a lot of turmoil in the house off and on. I was a quiet, shy, reserved child for the most part. My little brother got to be the acting-out clown and rebel. But, anyway, I didn’t want to cause trouble for my mother, who was sort of my protector from my father when I needed.
So if there was any question or thought about adoption, it never really came to the surface for me. I buried it, because I thought it might cause problems or get somebody upset — either get my mother upset at me, or get my parents upset at each other, one of the two. Then I got into high school and college and was pretty much living my life. My friends were probably more curious about where I came from than I was, at that time. I just professed not to have any interest in it.
Then, in my late 20’s, I really started to deal with the dysfunctional family stuff. I started going to Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) meetings and digging into all that dysfunctional family stuff. After doing that for a few years, I started seeing a therapist because I still wasn’t feeling quite right in the world. I was struggling with a sense of belonging, and some intimacy issues, not feeling connected, not having much direction in life.
So I ended up getting into therapy, and the therapist would bring up the adoption piece over and over. And I kept putting it down. I would put it away and say, “No, I’m not interested.” But finally, after about a year or two, she convinced me that not knowing one single thing about where I come from might have an impact in how I see the world now and how I interact with the world. So she finally convinced me that I needed to know more.
Zenger’s: How did that interact with your coming out as a Gay man? This may be the only memoir I’ve ever read by an openly Gay author that doesn’t contain the coming-out story, right?
McMahon: That’s true. I briefly mentioned going into a Gay bar for the first time at 21. That was really my coming-out time. I was dealing with being Gay a lot earlier, and I think that may have also influenced putting the adoption stuff in the background for a while, because I think when you come out as Gay first, you spend a lot of time coming to terms with that, forming your identity as a Gay person. If you’re going to move to a Gay ghetto first, then you do that. Or if you’re going to get involved in Gay rights groups, then you do that. That may be part of why I waited longer to deal with the adoption stuff.
Zenger’s: What was the actual trigger that set you off on the quest for your birth parents?
McMahon: I think it came in two stages. One was getting the adoption decree and all the documents from my adoptive mother for the first time, and holding those documents in my hand and reading the story of my adoption, and hearing the story of my adoption for the first time. I had never asked my adoptive mother for any details of what happened when I was adopted. She told me the story, and it was such an intriguing story because there were neighbors involved, and it was a private adoption [rather than through an adoption agency].
My birth parents’ names were on the decree, because it was a private adoption. That’s very unusual. Usually birth parents’ names are not in the documents that are executed by the state or by agencies. So having all that information, I don’t think I really quite doubted that I would search. But it took about a month for me to say, “Really, this is never going to be enough.” I reached a point where I thought, “I’m never going to be satisfied with just this information. I need to know a lot more.” So I decided to search.
Zenger’s: The story you tell in the book is almost like a suspense novel: this clue leading to that clue. At one point you actually compare yourself to the character of Jason Bourne, who was trying to find out his own identity.
McMahon: Exactly. I actually read all those books when they first came out. I was very familiar with Robert Ludlum and Jason Bourne and all of those hidden-identity kinds of characters. I really identified with them way back when, even though I wasn’t quite sure why. It hadn’t got settled in why I was identifying so well with all of that until I got started into this search.
Zenger’s: I think one of the most powerful aspects of the story is that you found out a lot of people in your birth family were also alcoholics, so you couldn’t watch your adoptive dad and think, “He’s not my blood. I don’t have to worry about this.”
McMahon: Yes, that was a big shocker. I found out that out in the first phone call with my birth mother. That was one of the main things I wasn’t prepared to hear. I’d done my high-school and early-20’s sort of partying, thinking that I wasn’t genetically predisposed to my adoptive father’s alcoholism. So that was a bit of a shock, and of course I re-examined my relationship to alcohol after that.
But I also found out that the sister, my biological sister whom I did not grow up with, whom I’m very much like, has not struggled with alcoholism, and neither have I. It seemed as if there are two strains of genetics, as far as alcoholism goes, in the family. One of the brothers in my birth family was in A.A. also, and I think one of my sisters has had her struggles as well. So that shattered some illusions.
Zenger’s: You mentioned relationship issues, and there are a lot of interesting tales in the book. You describe yourself as being in at least two long-distance affairs, and I was thinking, apropos the old joke of, “Why don’t you find a nice girl and settle down?” “Because I’m Gay.” “Well, in that case, why don’t you find a nice boy and settle down?” You seem to have no particular problem finding the nice boys; it’s that you have a great deal of trouble settling down!
McMahon: Settling down, exactly. It was a turbulent time of life for me. The quest for my birth family really was the emotional priority of my life. During the first part of the search I was dating a guy I had dated for a year, and during the search I really realized that he wasn’t able to go with me at all, emotionally, on this journey. Not that I expected him to be able to understand everything, but I just realized that I wasn’t feeling as close to him as I thought I should have been at that point in time.
So I did break that relationship off, and then I met somebody else who seemed to be a lot more emotionally available, and did get a lot of this stuff, but was moving to another city somewhere. At the time I was off to L.A. to meet my birth family — I moved from Kansas City to L.A. just to meet my birth family — and so I was really happy to have any kind of support going in a relationship. We kept that long-distance thing going for as long as we could, which was actually about two and one-half years. And if you want to know the rest of the story, we lost touch for about 15 years and reconnected a couple of years ago.
Zenger’s: I think one of the really powerful things about this book is that anyone who reads it who has any unresolved issues with their own family, it’s going to bring them up.
McMahon: The thing about being adopted is that until you find your birth mother and your birth family, nothing fully makes sense. Once I found my birth family and discovered all these things about my mother and my father, a lot of things fell into place that really didn’t have a way of falling into place before.
For example, my two mothers are completely different people. My adoptive mother is a very strong, stoic woman who got our family through some really tough times, but is not terribly emotional. We don’t talk about deeply emotional things. We have a good relationship, but she’s a little bit reserved in some ways. And then my birth mother is a very, very emotional, expressive kind of person, and will tell you anything that’s on her mind.
So it kind of explains how sometimes, until I’m comfortable with somebody, I can be a little reserved. But once I cross that barrier of getting comfortable with somebody, then I think I’m very open and very expressive.
Zenger’s: So what do you think finding your birth mother did for you?
McMahon: Well, finding her, meeting her and meeting all the rest of the family really totally changed my life. If anybody asked me before I actually met them why I had searched, I would have said things that a lot of people say: I was looking for my medical history, or my ethnic background, or I was looking for answers to questions like how did all this happen, why did it happen, who was involved, all that sort of thing.
But I think when I actually met them and hugged my mother, and talked to her, and sat at a kitchen table with her and talked and talked and talked, I felt this feeling of connection and belonging I had never felt before. It’s just kind of a feeling in your gut. I grew up in an adoptive family that loved me, and I loved them, but this was a new feeling. It was something that became treasured, and I think it connected me to a sense of naturalness inside.
It’s sort of like a big exhale, in a way. Part of you that’s been tense all your life can just relax. And once you do that, you start relaxing into other things. I started forming different kinds of friendships as a result, maybe a little more authentic sometimes, and going into a more authentic type of work. I’d always been into photography, done photography, but years after I met my family I started working in photography and started writing and doing things that really felt more natural to me. I also used that photography to develop greeting cards and calendars that have to do with adoption. I started going to national conferences, doing workshops and speaking on the subject.
So it really changed my life pretty dramatically. In fact, I pretty much divide my life into before June 10, 1991 and after June 10, 1991, the day that I called my mother.
Zenger’s: One thing I noticed in the book is that your adoptive mother really started feeling — the word that came to my mind, even though you didn’t use it, was jealous. How did that work out in your relationship with her, that you were looking for this other mother? Did she go through the thing of, “Hey, I was the one who raised you, I changed your diapers, I sent you to school, I put food on the table, and you’re going halfway across the country just to be with this other woman whose only connection with you is you popped out of her womb?”
McMahon: She never said any of those things to me, but I imagined her saying all of those things to me at one point in time or another. There were times when I was feeling very concerned about how she was handling this, and I was dealing with what seemed like a very irrational terror of my adoptive mother walking away, or disowning me, or not being able to handle this.
I would have these fantasies that that was what she would say. She never did. She was what I would call passively supportive during the search. She didn’t ask a lot of questions, but I wanted her to know what was going on. I didn’t want this to be a secret or anything like that, and when she realized it was really going to happen, then she became more interested.
Zenger’s: As I recall, that was about the same reaction she had when you came out to her as Gay: passively supportive.
McMahon: Yes, I guess so. She didn’t ask a lot of questions about my lifestyle or anything like that. We would talk a little bit, but she really wouldn’t initiate too much on any of those subjects. Over the years, though, she became more comfortable with it.
The book itself only covers about a year after I find my mother and meet all these people, but the story kept unfolding for years and years afterwards. My two mothers eventually did meet, and they were together four times over the past couple decades. They were able to say things to each other that I think they needed to say to each other. But, like I said, they’re like night and day. They’re not going to be buddies. They exchange Christmas cards, and that’s fine.
Zenger’s: You’ve talked about meeting other adoptees. Have you ever met people who said, “Well, if that’s what you needed to do, fine, but I don’t know and I don’t want to know”?
McMahon: I meet people like that all the time, of course. I would say the great majority of adoptees don’t search, and don’t seem to want to. I totally respect that. I understand it, and if anybody had asked me that question before I was 32 I would have been one of those people.
I guess what I’d say about that is it was really one of the most emotionally difficult things I’ve ever done, and to undertake that kind of a task one has to really be ready and want it badly, because it’s going to shake up your life and it’s going to occupy your life for a period of time. My own adoptive brother has not searched. He has seen me go through all of this for the last 20 years and he still doesn’t see any need to find his birth mother. So it’s a very individual, personal thing.
I will say that it’s hard for me to believe that anybody that knows absolutely nothing about where they come from doesn’t have somewhere deep inside them a need to know something, or has questions about that. But I can certainly understand somebody saying that they don’t feel the need to search, because they’re not ready or they just don’t have that need inside them.
Zenger’s: And if someone came up to you and asked the question, “Should I or shouldn’t I?,” what would you say?
McMahon: I would say, “Well, if you’re thinking about it at all, you should probably explore it. If you’re asking me this question, then it means you’re thinking about it, and I think you should look more into why you’re thinking about it, and what your needs are for connection and family.”
I will say that many adoptees I know who have searched have not found particularly happy situations, or have met with some rejection from their birth mothers or families. But I would say that about 98, 99 percent of all the people I know who have searched don’t regret it, because they gain a lot of knowledge about where they come from and often they connect with other people in their birth families, like a cousin or an aunt or an uncle, and they form relationships that are valuable to them.
Zenger’s: Yes, one of my favorite people in the book is the woman who found her birth mother and found she’s a hopeless, derelict alcoholic, but she loves her anyway.
McMahon: Yes, Safia. Yes, that’s an inspiring story, isn’t it? It was amazing. And that was the first story I heard!
Zenger’s: One thing I noticed in a way that your story is very dated. It occurs before the Internet. Do you think it’s easier now to do a birth parent search now that the Internet is available?
McMahon: Oh, it’s infinitely easier to find birth parents, because with the Internet, Facebook, all the social media, there are lots of people out there who do these types of searches, sometimes for a very small fee. Some people try to charge a very large fee, which I don’t recommend anyone paying because these days you can find people to help you for very little money.
But there’s almost a problem with that now, because sometimes people will say, “I would like to search.” They will approach a searcher, give them their information, and the searcher will locate their birth mother in two days. And sometimes people aren’t emotionally ready to proceed that soon. Sometimes they jump in a little too quickly, because it really helps to find some support group before you jump into this, and work out what it is that you’re looking for, and prepare yourself emotionally for all the different things that could happen, and talk to the people who have been through it.
So I think the quickness of the searching these days is a good thing in a lot of ways, but in other ways it doesn’t allow people enough time to prepare.
Zenger’s: One thing that struck me in the very beginning of the book, that you found that your birth record had been “impounded,” that there was this heavy veil of secrecy, that your true origins were treated like a matter of national security. I was wondering if any of the changes of the laws relating to adoptions, the availability of open adoption as an alternative, had changed that so that future adoptees won’t go through that kind of traumatic experience that you did, at a time when the law really did try to draw the line and say, as the decree in your case did, that from then on the people who were adopting you were your parents, period.
McMahon: Unfortunately the laws have not changed that much in the last 20 years. There’s been some progress made, but there are still 40 states in the United States that do not allow an adult who was adopted to access their original birth certificate. Ever. I mean, they can be 80 years old and still not be allowed to go down to the Department of Vital Records and see the actual true birth certificate of their live birth.
These laws were all passed back in the 1920’s, 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s by all the states, eventually — except for two. Two states never closed their records: Kansas and Alaska. But all the other states closed their records because they were supposedly protecting the legitimacy of the child. They didn’t want the child to be billed as an illegitimate child. Obviously, times have changed and we don’t really need those protections anymore. And also, because of the Internet, people can find anybody, any time they like, pretty much.
These laws don’t make much sense. However, I’ve been involved in four different legislative efforts over the last 14 years in two different states, Illinois and California, and I was just amazed at how much resistance there was.
Zenger’s: Where’s the resistance coming from?
McMahon: The resistance is coming from a variety of people. The resistance is coming from the Catholic Church. There’s Catholic Charities, which is a very large adoption organization, and they feel like they’re compromising the confidentiality they supposedly promised women who were relinquishing children. However, in all my years of this activism, I have never seen one document that promised confidentiality to a birth parent. No one has been able to produce one. They claim that it was implied.
Right-to-life groups often oppose access to original birth certificates for adult adoptees because they think it will increase abortion rates: that some woman will say, “Well, if my child can find me in 18 years, then I’d better not do this. I’d better just have an abortion instead.” That’s their reasoning. However, abortion rates in the states that do have open access are actually lower. The statistics don’t support that at all.
Resistance comes from the Mormon Church, because they have very rigid ways in which they view the adoptees that come into Mormon families. The family they came from is pretty much wiped out from their history. I guess they’re afraid that if Mormon adoptees go back and reconnect with their birth families, that will be upsetting their lineage.
Adoption attorneys sometimes oppose these efforts because they think that it will somehow reduce the amount of business for them. I hate to say it, but adoption is a big billion-dollar industry in the United States, and it’s a for-profit industry, except in Illinois, which is the only state that has outlawed for-profit adoption. So anyone who perceives that they’re going to lose income somewhere along the line is going to oppose anything they think will do that. And a lot of people think that adults who are adopted having access to their original birth certificates is somehow going to lower the number of people who are relinquishing children.
Zenger’s: You’re sitting there saying, “Oh, the Catholic Charities, the right-to-life groups, the Mormon Church,” and I’m thinking, “Oh, my God, it’s a laundry list of the Gay community’s enemies as well.”
McMahon: Yes, but strangely enough, in New Jersey they’d been trying to do this for 30 years. They’ve put bills forward for 30 years in a row, and this last year they finally got a compromise bill put through, and one of their opponents was the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), strangely enough, because “privacy” is a real buzzword for the ACLU, and when that came up the ACLU decided that they needed to protect the “privacy” of birth parents, even though they weren’t specifically implied and even though the statistics show that 95 percent of all birth parents are open to contact from their children. It’s not a national policy of the ACLU. It was just that particular ACLU chapter that took that position.
But seven or eight states have now passed laws which do allow adults who were adopted access to their original birth certificates, and there’s plenty of statistics now that show, gee, no earth-shattering effects have occurred. No adoptees have become stalkers, and adoption rates have not gone down. Abortion rates have not gone up.
Like I say, 95 to 98 percent of birth parents who express a preference are open to contact, so ultimately I think it’s a business thing that is a lot of the resistance. And a lot of fear among adoptive parents, and among adoptive-parent organizations, that somehow if their children reconnect with their biological families, they’re going to lose their children. I think that also is an unfounded fear. In all of my years of meeting adoptees, I don’t think I’ve met one adoptee who has rejected their adoptive family in favor of their birth family without any provocation from their adoptive family.
Just because they’ve reconnected with their birth families, they don’t leave their adoptive families. It’s an unwarranted fear. I get pretty worked up about this issue, as you can tell. I have been out there protesting, and I’ve organized marches, so yes, I feel pretty strongly about it.
Zenger’s: You’re active so that future generations of adopted children shouldn’t have to work as hard as you did.
McMahon: Yes, absolutely. And you brought up open adoption. The great majority of adoptions these days do have some degree of openness or knowledge between the families. So, effectively, this is all going to go away in a generation or two anyway. But there are still six million adoptees in the United States, and many of us want to know, want to have the same legal access to the true information of our births as everybody else does.
And in a way, it’s like being treated like a second-class citizen. The government still thinks of us as children, that we can’t handle having our records, or we can’t work out these relationships that might result with our birth families in a way that the state doesn’t need to be involved.