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My Secret Life


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Op-Ed Contributor
My Secret Life
By ELLEN ULLMAN
Published: January 1, 2009
San Francisco

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Sophia Martineck

I AM not adopted; I have mysterious origins.

I have said that sentence many times in the course of my life as an adopted person. I like it so much I put it into the mouth of a character in the novel I’m writing. The character and I are both fond of the idea. We can think of ourselves as living in the dense pages of 19th-century fiction, where one’s origins — the exact mother and father — are not nearly as important as one’s “circumstances.”

Some might say I came to this rationalization because, until recently, everything surrounding my adoption was kept secret from me. Even the date it was finalized was a secret. (The woman on the phone said, “Those records are sealed.” I said, “I know I can’t see what’s in them, but can I find out the date from which I couldn’t see what’s in them?” She replied, “Even the outsides of the records are sealed” — a confounding statement, as I envisioned envelopes surrounding envelopes, all sealed into infinity.)

Of course, mysterious origins are a confusing business these days. One might be gestated in an unknown womb while having genes from some combination of one’s mother and father and a stranger; from a mother’s womb with some combination of known and unknown genes — not to mention the complication of untold numbers of half-siblings who might be out there from the sperm donations of one man. There are adoptive parents and biological parents, surrogates and donors — adults of all sorts claiming parenthood by right of blood, genes, birth, law and affection.

Does one have the right to know all of these people? If so, do they have a reciprocal right to find the child in whose birth they participated?

I won’t even try to answer these questions. It seems we must have a social conversation about this subject that will last for many years. The trend, certainly, is toward openness, a growing “right” to know. I am not against this trend. I simply want to give not-knowing its due.

I like mysteries. I like the sense of uniqueness that comes from having unknown origins (however false that sense may be). I have a dear friend who is also adopted. We spoke as we were considering whether we should enter our names into the New York State Adoption Registry, where we might learn something about our history.

My friend grew up in a small town upstate near a university. She had constructed for herself a satisfying fantasy in which her mother and father were in town on fellowships from the World Bank, had the occupations “king” and “queen,” had ruled in a remote region where everyone was fit, ate a diet centered upon yak yogurt and lived 110 years. She decided not to register. “One family is quite enough for me,” she said.

My own fantasies were more vague: an evolving set of parents including actresses, folk singers, writers and intellectuals. I am certain that none were like the computer scientists and mathematicians who run up and down the bloodlines of my adoptive father’s family. I think it is because of them, the example of those engineers and math professors, that I went into software engineering, a field for which I do not have native talent. (I was good enough, but I had to work at it.) If I had been raised by the word-eaters — writers, readers and long-letter-writers — who I’m certain were my “natural” parents, I never would have spent 20 years as a computer programmer.

Which is exactly my point. I could just see my birth mother looking up from George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda” (Book V, “Mordecai”) to say, “Darling, why struggle so on those cold programs when you haven’t yet read ‘Middlemarch’?” And so I might have put aside my sweaty attempt to write a bubble-sort algorithm — and thereby missed the defining profession of my time.

No one is a genetic match to his or her parents. Nature has gone to a great deal of trouble to see that we are not like them (a strong argument against adding cloning to the human parental mix). Through the miracle of natural genetic recombination, each child, with the sole exception of an identical twin, is conceived as a unique being. Even the atmosphere of the womb works its subtle changes, and by the time we emerge into the light, we are our own persons. Knowing every single ancestor, therefore, will never solve the deeper mystery, which of course is the dreadful question of who we become.

Ellen Ullman is the author of the novel “The Bug” and the forthcoming “By Blood.”



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Jan/6/2009, 4:46 am Link to this post  
 


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