Sheila Ganz is writer, producer, director,
principal camera and editor of the documentary Unlocking the Heart of Adoption.
There was a time not too many years ago when Sheila Ganz felt like
she was living the life of Sisyphus, the character from ancient Greek mythology who was
condemned to roll a block of stone up a steep hill, which tumbled back down when he
reached the top leaving him to start all over again. But, those days are long
past for Sheila Ganz. Today, shes a woman who walks tall with determination to
increase awareness and understanding around all aspects of the adoption experience.
Sheilas story begins at the age of twenty. It was 1968. While
others were doing the Watusi and grooving on the music of the Beach Boys, Sheila, was
instead absorbed in her passionate pursuits that started in her early teens classes
in oil painting, listening to Beethoven and studying the lives of the Masters...
Rembrandt, Michaelangelo, Renoir, Van Gogh. After high school she commuted to Boston
to attend the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. She dreamed of creating something
with her art that was never before accomplished. But on a hot August Saturday of
that year all of those dreams came to an abrupt halt. Sheila was raped and
became pregnant. Abortion, not yet legalized, wasnt an option. Her
parents solution: Send her to a home for unwed mothers.
Sheila did not want to go there, so she decided to take action. She found
a job, saved money, bought a car and made plans to move to California where she would keep
her baby. Thats when, once again, tragedy hit. It was an early Sunday
morning January 19 while driving to California and just east of Pittsburgh,
PA, Sheila hit a patch of ice on a hill and lost control of the wheel. The car flipped
over throwing her partway through the rear side window. Lucky to be alive, she was
pinned under the car with a fractured pelvis. Sheila was five months pregnant.
For the next two months unable to walk for weeks and then on crutches, Sheila
recuperated in a small hospital outside of Pittsburgh. Her parents, fearing the
winter snowstorms, felt it best that they stay at home. Hundreds of miles from her
family, Sheila was alone. She looked forward to the weekly telephone call from her
brother. He sent her books. But, she couldnt help feeling deeply
depressed and ashamed. With her car totaled, she felt stranded with no safe
place to go. When it came time for Sheila to leave the hospital, it was a home for
unwed mothers exactly what Sheila tried to avoid became her destination.
The home in Pittsburgh sat eerily in silence on a hillside by itself.
Though Sheilas child was conceived in rape she became attached to her unborn
child as it grew inside her. Two days after Sheila gave birth she was allowed to hold her
daughter for a mere ten minutes. It was during those moments that Sheila was captivated by
the miracle of life. And she was struck by how much her daughter resembled her. She still
remembers the heartbreak of her parents "no" when she asked to bring her
daughter home. Given no other option by the social worker, Sheila unwillingly relinquished
her child for adoption to the unfathomable unknown. It was at that moment that she
made a sacred vow to herself and to her daughter. Someday she would find her. Someday she
would tell her the truth. Someday her daughter would learn just how very much she is loved
Eleven years later, Sheila returned to school and completed her interrupted
college education majoring in sculpture. She had continued oil painting all
through these years. School gave Sheila a vision of unlimited possibilities for what
she could explore artistically. She constructed a group of seven seated life-size
figures placing them in a circle on campus as a message for people to talk instead of
making war. For her graduate project, she wrote, directed and produced a play, Pretend
It Didnt Happen, about her experience of relinquishing her daughter. At
this same time, Sheila practiced karate and earned her Black Belt at the age of 36.
And, she implemented a daily meditation practice that she continues to this
day. After graduation, Sheila wrote a second play, Leaving Joe, about
As an activist for adoption reform Sheila testified
before the California State House and Senate Judiciary Committees on behalf of the civil
right of adult adoptees to obtain their birth records and birthparent rights.
With a solid commitment to make a difference in the world through meaningful
media in 1988 and after 14 years in the making Sheila launched her
filmmaking career through the writing, directing, editing and producing of a documentary.
Unlocking the Heart of Adoption is a film that bridges the gap between
birth and adoptive families through diverse personal stories of adoptees, birthparents and
adoptive parents in both same race and transracial adoptions. Two months after
Sheila began work on the film, her fondest dream came true she found her daughter
at age 19. They met only once, but Sheila held hope for the future.
In essence, Sheila Ganz is a woman who moved beyond simply surviving
shes a woman who chose to throw away her guilt and connect with a life filled with
Unlocking the Heart of Adoption ends with these words from Sheila in
voice over a slow pan of the completed sculpture, "When I realized social forces were
behind my having no choice but to surrender my daughter for adoption, I threw my guilt
away. And I forgave myself for not being able to defend myself or keep her.
This freed me to speak out for the truth.
Its hard to know why some adoptees welcome their birthparents and others
do not. But, I do have hope that some day well be part of each others
lives. Every year I send her birthday card and let her know that I will always love
Sheila now has an update on her story, "I called my daughter to let her
know that the film was done and she was open to talking to me. She was happy to hear
things were going well for me and congratulated me on finishing the film, and she told me
she was married and has three beautiful children. And I told her how happy I am that
she has a good life.
We met some months later and enjoyed a really nice visit. I let her know I
would tell her all that happened, if she wanted to hear the story and she did. So, I
told her everything from start to finish. Later, she thanked me for being so honest
with her. It has always been my belief that, even though it is not a great story for
a beginning, it is her right to know the truth. And now she knows that though I was
not able to keep her that she is loved and wanted. We are now in touch on a
regular basis and are building a relationship.
Friends ask me what changed between finding her at 19 and then meeting her again
at 34. Actually, we're both different. Through my desire to make a film that
tells the adoption story from all three perspectives, I've learned a lot and healed, so
that now I feel better about myself than when we first met. And for my daughter,
shes grown up, has children and just understands life better."
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