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by Charlotte Laws
Thursday, Aug. 16, 2007 at 9:26 PM
As an adopted child, I felt ideologically out of place. I wondered if a person could have a genetic predisposition towards particular moral values? Could DNA be a factor in a person's attraction to sports or sequined evening gowns?
I was born in the backseat of an Oldsmobile. My mother was in labor for 15 minutes, not long enough for my father to drive us to Grady Hospital in downtown Atlanta. I popped out during the Drifters’ song “There Goes My Baby;” and moments later, there I went. In the emergency room parking lot, I was whisked away by a nurse, complying with a pre-arranged adoption pact and who was under the assumption—as were most adoption “experts” in 1960--that cutting ties should be done in an abrupt and swift fashion like pulling off an old Band-Aid. I would never see my natural parents again. At least that’s what everyone thought.
My adoptive family always had the appropriate number of cars, boats, housekeepers and country club parties; they were skilled at complying with “old money” standards. Those who had “new money”--such as show business folk or overnight get-rich schemers--were naturally inferior to us, or so I was told. By adopting me, my parents were on track for procuring a suitable number of children for a respectable family: two. My brother was adopted a couple of years later.
To the neighbors, everything looked primed and painted, but I was well acquainted with the wood filler and industrious termites beneath the surface. Partly, my negativity stemmed from a perception that I was an outsider with an entirely different value system. I did not qualify as the black sheep of the family for only one reason: sheep tend to be followers. I was more like the independent, black cat, who went my own way.
From grade school to high school, my classmates regularly criticized me for supporting the civil rights movement, for rejecting communism conspiracy theories, for failing to be enamored with all Republican candidates, and for not accepting Jesus as my Redeemer, despite the fact that I attended religious services six days a week.
It galled my friends when I lusted over the flashy, sequined evening gowns that the “new money” movie stars would wear to the latest premiere. Then I’d show up at the school dance wearing one and watch the whispers percolate throughout the room.
I felt ideologically out of place regardless of whether I was at home, school or the local mall and wondered why. Many studies point to a connection between biology and criminal behavior, but what about biology in relation to simple, run-of-the-mill beliefs? Could a person have a genetic predisposition towards particular moral values and favored activities? Could “nature” make a person more likely to support universal healthcare, gay marriage, educational vouchers or the National Rifle Association? Could DNA be a factor in a person’s distaste for vintage automobiles or her attraction to sports?
The answer seems to be yes. British and Australian researchers determined that twins who are reared apart think similarly on subjects ranging from sex, religion, politics, divorce, apartheid and tough-mindedness; and twin research at the University of Minnesota confirmed the finding. “Nurture” has little influence on a child’s personality. In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker makes the case that as much as 70% of the variation between individuals, in areas such as political leanings, personal philosophy, intelligence and personality, are derived from genes.
According to the Washington Monthly, a study conducted by Bruce Sacerdote found that biology rather than environment correlates with income. He learned that “being raised (as an adoptee) in a high-earning family doesn’t seem to have much effect (on the income of the child when she grows up), while being born (as a natural child) to a high-earning family does.” Did this mean I might have to give up those big-ticket gowns and go from being “old money” to “no money?”
Adult children often seek out their natural parents in order to address health concerns, such as to determine whether cancer or heart disease runs in the family; but I wondered if it could help a person better understand herself? I aimed to find out and started the search for my natural parents at the age of 25.
The process was jammed with roadblocks. Adoption records were closed; in other words, I was not supposed to gain access to names or identifying information. Although the bulk of my detective work took place by phone from my home in Los Angeles, at one point I traveled to the Atlanta adoption agency that had placed me and persuaded an employee to divulge the names of my mother and father.
When I was told “Wilson,” I anticipated a needle-in-the-haystack search and realized I had not even arrived at the farm. Today, there are two and a half million listings on Google with my father’s exact first and last name.
As I sleuthed after data, I picked up helpers along the way. Amiable strangers in Georgia, Maryland and Virginia—most of who lived in residences that were once occupied by my mother or father--volunteered to devote investigative hours and legwork to my pressing mission. I made calls. They made calls. In the end, I found my father’s former college and got his contact number from alumni records. I located my mother via a Baltimore school that had employed my grandmother.
I learned one parent is a university professor and author, and the other works for the U.S. Government in Washington D.C. They gave me up for adoption because they were in graduate school and did not plan to stay together. They didn’t.
In the end, I found parents—as well as aunts, cousins and a grandmother—who have values and interests akin to my own. They study philosophy, are environmental advocates, teach aerobics, have similar taste in art and suffer from the migraine headaches that have plagued me since I was a child.
My mother’s religious path detoured in the same way as mine. We were both raised Christian, then attended a Unitarian church for a while, and eventually converted to Reform Judaism.
Although my natural family is rich in heart, their pockets are not totally bare; so genetically speaking, it looks like I may be able to feed my “frock habit” for a few more years.
The ongoing connection with my kin has taught me why I am the way I am, and why I am unlike those who raised me. I appreciate my adoptive parents’ efforts, but have learned that one can never have too many parents.
Charlotte Laws is an author and Los Angeles Commissioner.
This article first appeared in The Simon magazine on August 13, 2007.
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