Monday, February 7, 2011

Oprah is Touched by Adoption: A Sister Given Away

I'm a few weeks behind in posting about this, but sometimes it's good to let the stories simmer for a while before jumping in--often what remains unsaid is what I hope to highlight here.

On her show two weeks ago, Oprah revealed that she has a half-sister, named Patricia, who was given up for adoption in 1963. Oprah was nine years old and living with her father at the time, and she hadn't even known her mother was pregnant.

Patricia began searching for her birth mom, Ms. Vernita Lee, in 2007. Ms. Lee refused to talk to her. Eventually she got through to Oprah via a niece. Oprah was naturally skeptical at first, but finally her mother--as the reports say "reluctantly"--revealed that it was true. Oprah seems most touched by the fact that Patricia kept the whole thing a secret instead of selling the story to the media. 

What's our take-away lesson? There are several, I think. Many of us in the adoption community hope that when adoption touches a celebrity and results in media attention people will recognize the underbelly of the adoption process and help us change the system. Most of all the closed-records structure that perpetuates a culture of unhealthy secrecy. Some of this secrecy is rooted in shame, and laws that conceal personal information only reinforce this.  Obviously Ms. Lee was not keen on being contacted by her relinquished daughter. Rumor blogs say that she didn't want the show to run, either, but participated because she felt she had no choice (she appears later on the Jan. 24 episode). No doubt Ms. Lee needed time to digest the reappearance of her daughter. I suspect, though, that part of why she was "reluctant" about meeting her daughter or letting word get out is because of shame, a feeling many birth parents report experiencing.

People should be able to keep personal matters private, yes, but it gets complicated when your perceived "right" to secrecy or your feeling of shame or embarrassment impinges on another person's right to knowledge of self and family. I hope Ms. Lee is working through any shame now, and has sought supportive resources for sharing her story with others who have similar experiences (such as Concerned United Birthparents). I hope people are telling her again and again it's not shameful that she placed a child for adoption. I hope the media will stop using the words "hidden secret" in headlines about this story--why not "surprise sister returns" or "lost sister found"?

I hope, too, that people truly hear Patricia as she talks about why it was so important that she find her roots. Even her children expressed joy at seeing someone who "looks like [them]" and "has the same mannerisms." We must recognize that this knowledge is important in an unquantifiable yet fundamental way. Let us allow for openness and acceptance. Let us heal together these wounds of separation.

Further reading:
Huffington Post
Speakeasy (Patricia's failed attempts for contact with Ms. Lee)
Declassified Adoptee blog (excerpts from several bloggers' responses to Oprah's story)

Note: Oprah's new network OWN will begin airing a series called "Searching For," which follows a professional genealogist who helps people connect with lost loved ones, next Monday at 9 PM EST.

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