Sorry to bother you, but we’re related, if that’s okay with you.

I started writing this post as a spoof of a contact letter but it came off as really bitter, and I am not really bitter about this. I think it’s strange, and I think it says a lot about where adoptees tend to naturally locate themselves in family relationships, and I even think it’s an indicator of our general broken-ness when it comes to figuring out where we fit, but I’m not really bitter about it because it’s hard to imagine things being any other way. I think bitterness requires a sense of how things could be and should be much better, but I really do not have a sense of what a “normal” family relationship would be like so it’s hard for me to feel bad about not having one.

Contacting biological relatives who may or may not know you exist, who may or may not be ashamed or resentful of your existence, who may or may not want to just forget about some shameful bit of family history that you, to them, embody, is scary business. It’s not the same as contacting the woman who (hopefully) knows that she gave birth to you. The connection isn’t the same, the facts are not undeniable, and they do not share responsibility for your existence and the obligations that spring from that. If you’ve read my other posts then you know that my letter was well received, but in preparing to make that contact I had no idea what to expect.

What I did know was that I wanted any contact I could possibly get, if for no other reason than to confirm or disprove my conclusions about my mother’s identity and death. But I also knew I’d want a picture of her, and stories about her, and to find out how she died, and a list of other things I’ll refrain from posting so I don’t start tearing up as I write this at a table at Panera. I had to anticipate all the negative ways my letter might be received, and this boiled down to doing what adoptees always seem to wind up doing when it comes to matters pertaining to our adoption: putting others’ feelings and needs before our own and trying not to be too much trouble.

So I’m writing this in the form of a How-To, as in “How to write a letter to someone you think might be a relative of your dead natural parents when they might not know you exist and/or may be deeply ashamed of you.” Only this isn’t a How-To for anyone else to follow. It’s the How-To that I followed when I wrote my letter, and I’m not presenting it here for anyone’s use, but for the analysis of my own thinking at the time.

First, state who you are and who you’re writing about. Not what you’re writing about, who. Nothing controversial yet. Then apologize. Yes, that’s right, say you’re sorry for what you’re about to do: “If this is indeed the case then I hope that you will be able to provide some information about your sister, and I hope that my request and the reason behind it are not painful or troublesome to you and yours.” Because she’s dead and you’re about to bring up something that many people might think is shameful about her life: your existence. You are not very many steps away from speaking ill of the dead in the minds of many. And when you’re writing this letter, you really have no idea what kind of people you’re dealing with. Every word you write is written with the awareness that the person reading it is probably only a few steps away from a trash can. One false move and you’re history. No, you’re not even that, you’re erased from history.

Now it’s time to build up to your claim. Start listing the things you know. Don’t come right out and say you’re her sister’s illegitimate child. Build up to it. State when and where you were born. State that you are an adoptee. If she doesn’t know, she’ll start putting two and two together at this point. Provide enough information to support a link between you and her sister: your original birth name, her sister’s husband’s name in the newspaper’s birth announcement, her sister’s maiden name in the county birth index entry for your original name. That’s enough. You have a lot more; you could totally nail it down with the marriage record and the match in ages. Don’t. This is not Law & Order. Lead her down the path gently. She is your relative, not a hostile witness, and you need her help. And admit it, you really want her to like you.

Now state your claim, but state it as a belief. Hedge. Leave some wiggle room. And assure her you aren’t some troublemaker. Walk on eggshells. “I think it is very likely that ____ _____ was my biological mother. If at all possible, I would greatly appreciate your help in confirming this. I do not wish to cause any trouble or intrude upon your family’s lives in any way. I understand that if this is true it is likely to be a very delicate matter. I have no desire to bring back painful memories or reveal secrets and I sincerely hope that I have not done so by sending you this letter.”

Then state that all you wish is to know something of the woman who brought you into the world. State that you had wanted to tell her that you were happy. In other words, make it clear you’re not some needy loser looking for a family, because there’s a very good chance she thinks that, thanks to every stupid TV show plot about searching adoptees (I still haven’t forgotten the horrible one from Family Ties). Now sit back and try not to feel dumb for having to state something so obvious as wanting to know something about your own mother. Try harder. Okay, go browse Bastard Nation for a bit and get mad about some other adoption issue to take your mind off this.

Finally, wrap it up by asking for her help in confirming or ruling out that her sister is your mother. Make it clear you’re not asking for much. Include a SASE on the off chance you really have the wrong person and there’s no way you’d hear back otherwise. Drop it in the mail and then sit and worry, worry, worry that maybe you were too pushy, or that maybe these people don’t need any more trouble in their lives, or that the only reply you’ll get will be a restraining order.

It turned out that none of my fears were justified, at least as far as I can tell. She was great, she already knew, and if there was any shame it was certainly drowned out by the love she had for her sister. In short, she is a terrific lady and I’m looking forward to getting to know her. Were my fears reasonable? Why did I feel like I was apologizing for my existence the whole time? And why did it feel perfectly natural for me to do so? Where did all this baggage come from?


3 Responses to “Sorry to bother you, but we’re related, if that’s okay with you.”

  1. 1 Theresa June 11, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    Fears very reasonable. Are you kidding? I apologize for the very air I breathe from my illegitmate not supposed to exist lungs. The thought of contacting my mom’s sisters, or my own brother and sister, makes me wheeze. I’m covered in calamine lotion from the hives resulting from the letter I sent to my own mom.

    This post is great. I am so happy about the response you received from your aunt.

  2. 2 iBastard June 11, 2007 at 11:33 pm

    It’s still a little hard to tell for sure how much contact she wants. Generally people don’t say no to your face about things like that. The only way to know for sure is to see how much contact I get.

    I have half-sibs too and I’m really not sure how to contact them. I was told they’re not close to the rest of the family. I’m going to see how this goes before I do anything else, though.

  3. 3 Valentina July 5, 2007 at 6:55 am

    It is scary business – very. And if you’re like me, you will get to do it repeatedly for some time. The apologetic feeling fades, a little anyway.

    I remember agonizing over whether to write or call. Writing seemed more natural but I was urged by some in adoption search with many years of experience and whose opinions I respected to make the call. Of course, I wrote notes for myself so that I wouldn’t nervously dial and then just breathe in some woman’s ear before I slumped over in a dead faint. I did manage to speak, but the breathing part was iffy.

    BN is a good place to get fueled by anger, or laugh. More recently I’ve found some blog writers whom you have probably also found.

    Yes, your fears were reasonable. The baggage came from… hmm… some other time. Various thoughts on that.

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