About that Note

Over two years ago, maybe more, a commenter (I believe their handle was “maybe” but I could be incorrectly recollecting) on another blog (I think it was Brads?) directed a comment at me.  The blog thread was about coercion and intimidation in adoption surrender. I made a comment that illustrated one of the ways I had been intimidated. I shared the fact that my parents signed a promissory note before I was flown to Chicago. I explained that said note was used against me a few weeks before my daughter’s birth when I expressed a desire to keep her.

Maybe (or someone else? Apologies if I am crediting the wrong person), chimed in that he or she did not understand why my parents did not help me, why when I was slapped in my bulging stomach with the note, did I not have my parents engage a lawyer?

I winced at that comment and I never responded. The blog thread, the comment, my lack of response has stayed with me for years. Years.

It is time to come clean on something I don’t believe I have ever shared.

That note and the resulting threatening situation that occurred between my caseworker Colleen and I whilst sharing pizza at Roma pizza on Fullerton Avenue?

I never told my parents about it.

Read that again. No, better yet, let me tell you again.

I never told my parents.

I did not call them when Colleen had threatened me and my parents with lawsuits. I did not run a block away into the maternity home, up the stairs to the pay phone and place a collect call to area code 203.  Nope. I did nothing of the sort. And I am fairly certain Colleen, with all her knowledge of me, my parents, my situation, was betting on the fact that I wouldn’t do anything except capitulate.

I gulped and my breathing became shallow and my heart started to race.

I screamed internally and I began to shake with fear.  I had visions of what my mother’s face would look like if I called her on the phone and told her that she and dad were going to be sued because I was selfishly going to keep my daughter, their first born grandchild. I saw the entire family talking about me and how I had not only been stupid enough to get myself pregnant but I was also skilled enough to get the family sued in the process. I wondered where I would live with my child if my only option at that time was my soon-to-be-sued parent’s home.  I imagined myself alone, destitute and homeless with a newborn child. Visions of tenement housing, a starving child in filthy diapers flashed before my eyes. They were mighty powerful visions.

My only friend, at that time, was Colleen, the caseworker, sitting in front me, threatening me. My friend that had cared about me when no one else had. Who took me to lunch weekly, bought me maternity clothes and made me feel as if I still existed on this planet.  I thought, for that silly moment in time when I had finally mustered the strength to articulate my desire to keep my first born child that she cared about me and would help me.  Instead, she became angry with me and spit out words like lawsuits and promissory notes and poor infertile people that were waiting for THEIR child.

I crumbled inside. I had just angered the only person on this earth that cared about me.  Major faux pas. How dare I? Who did I think I was?

I don’t recall saying anything in response to Colleen’s threat. Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t. It doesn’t really matter now. What did matter then was that I was silent and I caved to the pressure and the threat and the terror. That was the first time I surrendered my daughter. The second and final time would be weeks later on May 19, 1986.

To understand my lack of action that day (assuming you want to, of course) you must be familiar with the depth of my shame.  You might also benefit from knowing about a psychological phenomenon known as Stockholm Syndrome.

I am not sure how I can illustrate my shame for you. Certainly any readers that are mothers who came from conservative Catholic families or shame based religions like mine AND later became pregnant outside of marriage can relate. Those that do not fit that demographic can likely easily discount my position and suggest, like many have (usually adoptees and adoptive parents), that I could have fought it.  To those, I say “oh yeah?”  

Consider the power of primary socialization.  Primary socialization typically occurs within the family and takes place early in life, as a child and adolescent. Socialization is the process of acquiring the norms, attitudes, self-images, values, and role behaviors that enable acceptance in a group or culture. My primary socialization, my culture, my religion, made it very clear that unplanned pregnancy, out of wedlock, was a horrible crime. I was deeply shamed by what I had done. I was shamed by what I had done to my family, to my church, to my social structure. Good girls like me did not become pregnant.

Not clear enough?  Let me offer a text book explanation.

According to cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict, shame is a violation of cultural or social values. She also states that cultures may be classified by their emphasis on the use of either shame or guilt to regulate the social activities of individuals. Shared opinions and expected behaviors and potential associated feelings of shame have been proven to be highly effective in guiding behavior of a group or society.  I ask that you trust me when I say, my shame was intense, so intense in fact that when Colleen threatened me with that promissory note I felt in every cell of my being that I could not solicit help from home (hadn’t they sent me here?). So, I didn’t.

As for the Stockholm Syndrome, it may seem dramatic to you but I assure you, I felt it.  I worshipped Colleen, my captor caseworker. She was young, tan, attractive with an athletic trim body and funky, spiky short hair. She was kind to me.  She cared (?) about me. While the rest of world shunned me, Colleen made time out of her very busy week to drive from Mundelein, IL to meet me in the city. She always expressed concern for me and was regularly asking if there was anything I needed.  I looked forward to her visits every week. It never, ever, ever occurred to me that her interest in me was false or misplaced or not genuine. I felt deeply that she cared about ME. She did not see the slut whore girl from CT who could not keep her legs closed. She saw me and my crazy hair, my intellect, my creativity. Me. She was the ONLY person in the universe at that time they cared about ME. How could I jeopardize that?

Stockholm Syndrome research suggests that it evolves when the captive (me) cannot escape and is isolated (as in 900 miles from anyone I know), but also shown token acts of kindness by the captor (like Colleen buying me gifts, feigning concern for me). Research also suggests that it typically takes about three or four days for the psychological shift to take hold. I had FIVE MONTHS with Colleen visiting me weekly. When she wasn’t there, and I was alone in the “home”, I ticked off the days until she would be coming back again. She was the light, the angel, the saving grace in my dark days.

When she threatened me that day in the pizza parlor with that note my mother signed, I was startled, yes, but I was not at all capable of fighting her or disagreeing with her. I was certainly not going to call my parents and tattle on her. Why? If not already obvious why, let me offer one more bit of research.  Stockholm Syndrome symptoms occur under tremendous emotional and often physical duress. The behavior is considered a common survival strategy for victims of interpersonal abuse, and has been observed in battered spouses, abused children, prisoners of war, and concentration camp (or maternity home) survivors.

In closing this very long post, I will offer that I did tell my mother about the threat. I told her A YEAR AGO (my daughter will be 25 years old this May). She was startled and expressed shock. She did not probe me further.  She said something like “I had no idea”.  There was no further discussion. No emotional offering of “I would have helped you if you called”.  There was nothing. I found that very telling and well, I did not push it. What’s done is done. Expressing anything but that is an attempt at revising history.

24 Thoughts.

  1. WOW..as always a very powerful, gut-wrenchIng post my love.
    Intensely moving & it had me in tears.
    xoxoxoxoxo

  2. Wow, Suz. Courage is oozing out of this post. Bravo, for confronting this demon here, THIS was a big one. Hugs!

    • Thanks Liz. My lack of response to that comment, my clear avoiding of the fact that I did nothing in response to Colleen, has been eating at me for a long time. My hope is that by getting it out in the open, it will get out of me. : )

      • I hope this for you too, Suz. I believe our minds keep us safe by avoiding some painful things that happen to us (traumas), until we are strong enough to allow the pain to move through us, when we are ready to let it go. Bravo, Suz! And HUGS!!!!!

  3. Oh my gosh Suz! This is a really touching post. I too was one of those good Catholic girls from a conservative Catholic family. I attended both a Catholic elementary school and a Catholic high school. Your words powerfully describe both the fear factor and the shame factor. It’s a feeling that one can feel today simply by closing one’s eyes and going back in time. Thank you for putting this out there.
    Gail

  4. Thank you for explaining my own motivations. I never understood what was driving me back then.

  5. In order to stand up for one’s rights, one has to (1) know one has them and (2) believe one deserves them. Everything about your experience told you otherwise.

    Every day I work with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse who carry deep seated shame for not having told. This shame is rooted in an error of perspective. There is this illusion that the child that they once were had all the emotional skills and options of the adult that they now are.

    It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. It’s also easy to be an armchair quarterback. Neither experiences the immediacy and pressure of the game.

    Thank you for sharing this very powerful post. ((HUGS))

    • Fabulous comment, Psychobabbler. Made me cry. Largely due to the fact that you validated my experience and validation always feels wonderful and touches me deeply. Thank you for your profesisional and personal thoughts.

  6. That made me cry and remember back to phone calls and letters we shared during that time. I wish I had known, Suz. I’m not sure what I would have done, but I wish I could have done something. I can only imagine how I would have felt in your situation, being the “good girl” and “getting into trouble”. You are a loved woman. I hope you understand that. I really do love and admire the woman you’ve become.

  7. (((SUZ))) Coercion comes in all shapes and sizes. It doesn’t have to include the threat of a lawsuit — I folded under far less — but in your situation it did and that is the worst kind of coercion. Colleen is the one who should be ashamed. NOT YOU. Ditto on Psychobabbler’s comment and I hope expressing this helps you.

  8. I understand shame very well. I hope you feel better, lighter, for speaking about this. Hugs.

  9. ((Suz)) I completely understand. While I was not in a maternity home, I was in a hospital. While I had only been in the hospital for 3 days, I had sort of self-isolated (i.e. I was old enough to run away from my family) and the person who was my captor suddenly disappeared. In their place, adoption lawyer, agency and doctor, all who wanted my baby. If I could have thought of anything to do, it would have been.. “RUN!” But, yeah, no where to go…. trapped. Survival. And, regarding your mom’s reaction… that was their point, isolating you so you couldn’t tell them, and they wouldn’t help you. I wrote this article if anyone is interested: Understanding the infant adoption training / brainwashing: http://reformadoption.com/Advocacy/main.shtml

  10. Suz,

    If you couldn’t speak up? It’s because the other parties involved made sure you were beaten down. You were deprived of even the basic right to question. Shame upon them all.

    I’m thinking of you.

  11. I know EXACTLY what you are talking about.
    I kept the secrets and silence for 22 years. Last summer, i came out of the fog and began to blurt everything out that had happened to me. No one seems to understand WHY I didn’t say anything or tell anyone. I was silent for the last part of my pregnancy. I was silent at the lawyers office and was silent at the hospital. My ex mother in law (I later married natural dad) is who suggested and set up adoption. It was her solution because I couldn’t come up with a plan myself at 15. I was just there, not a party to it. After birth, reality set in. I wanted and loved my daughter. I held out for 4 days. They drugged me and “my”(paid by ap’s) lawyer told me they would never let me out of the hospital unless I signed. I didn’t open my mouth until last summer. My mother, after I word vomitted the truth, told me that if she knew, she would have helped me keep my daughter. GREAT, 22 years too late, and she should have mentioned that when I was pregnant or at least at the hospital after birth.

  12. Hmm, maybe that was a different maybe (?) Doesn’t ring a bell…

    However, I also did not speak up loudly enough to voice my opposition to adoption. A social worker (one I had never met before and talked to for barely 5 minutes while she was getting my signature on who knows what) asked if anyone was forcing me, as did the lawer (court appointed 10 minutes before going before the judge). Of course I eventually realized they were just following legal procedure so they could say it was all voluntary.

    However, I kills me to know that my tongue was frozen during the only opportunities I had to possibly change the situation. But how can a teenager challenge her mother who will not allow her to come home with her baby? Or when the social worker threatens both you and your baby with foster care if your mother won’t let you come home? When you’re pregnant or have just given birth you are at probably the most vulnerable point in your life. If true support is missing during this time there’s no telling what the outcome will be or if you will be able to demand your rights. All you are thinking about is preservation of baby and self and that can be paralyzing.

  13. Suz – your description of the SW made me think of the SW that I had. Okay I know that she wasn’t going to profit from the adoption. But she was my best friend at the time too. The home I came from was quite abusive although one never thought of it as that in those days. I was 15 when I met her and I can say that she wasn’t in it for profit because she kept in touch with me until about 17 years ago. I’m 58 now, she met my husband and two RKs. But your description is exactly how I believe I felt at the time. My mother had abandoned me, had turned into a shrew and my father although not so abusive at that time was kind of stunned. I have the SW’s records of me and her notes are very interesting indeed. Anyway, just wanted to say that your blog made me think. I so admire you for speaking out too.

    • Sharon – I envy your having social workers records. I would love to see mine. I can only imagine what it says. It is something I really want to know (part of that piecing the past back together). I also want to know what my daughters adoptive parents have, were told about me, and also want the info I was given about them to be validated or not. 25 years later and I am still untangling truth from lies. I feel incomplete or disjointed somehow until I can do that. Like I am living only half a life or something.

      Colleen (my caseworker) also statyed in touch with me for a few years and then we lost touch. When I attempted to contact her a few years back when I thought my daughter found me, she gave me a line of crap and refused to answer any of my quesitons. I have written her since and asked for info (I already found my daughter so what is she protecting?) and she ignores me.

  14. My SW also stayed in contact initially but after a few years when I kept making contact with the agency to ask if my son’s family was in need of info or to submit updated info about me for the file; she finally spoke her real feelings “Carol, why can’t you just forget about this and get on with your life? You are the only mother who just won’t move on”…. I don’t buy it that many of them are truly interested in anything but placing the child. If they stay in touch it’s to make sure they have current info for their real client – the adoptive parents. Love your writings, Suz.

  15. CarolC :

    … If they stay in touch it’s to make sure they have current info for their real client – the adoptive parents.

    Most likely a very sad, but true, statement Carol. Oddly, that never occurred to me.

  16. Once again, I can completely relate. I had the same strict, Catholic upbringing. Some people really don’t understand the shame and the guilt that comes with that. Add to the shame and guilt, being young and naive. There’s the perfect recipe for coercion and taking our babies.

    • As a Catholic in recovery, I equate it to brainwashing, Carlynne. We had been conditioned to believe those things. They were all wrong.

  17. I think all of us wonder where the real us was during these times. I think we were beaten down and broken hearted. I know I was convinced my son would be a dirty, snotty -nosed kid dressed in rags if I kept him. I was one year away from a university degree, It was ridiculous but I believed it.

    We were taught to believe we were not worthy.

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