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.