Unlocking the Heart of Adoption chronicles the filmmaker’s journey as a birthmother interwoven with diverse personal stories of adoptees, birthparents and adoptive parents in both same race and transracial adoptions. These stories span 70 years, from ALICE, a birthmother whose child was adopted out without her consent in 1922; to RON, an adoptee who uncovered the truth after his parents died when he was 36; to PHYLLIS, a birthmother and ALISON, an adoptive mother in an open adoption with twin boys born in 1991. The film includes interviews with three mixed-race transracially adopted people: DEBBIE, a Japanese American woman; PAUL, a Filipino American man and MARTIN, an African American man with HAL, his Caucasian adoptive father.
Their stories provide a window into the lifelong process of adoption following the path of relinquishment, adoption, growing up adopted, raising an adopted child, years of silence and shame, and searching for answers to unasked questions. In the process, they explain what the universal issues of “identity” “loss” and “needing to know the truth” mean to them.
The people in the film stirringly reveal, with honesty and some times humorous candor, the enormous complexity in the lives of normal people when impacted by adoption. Bridging the gap between adoptees, birthparents and adoptive parents by showing the commonalty of their experiences.
Many candid snapshots touchingly enrich each story. Throughout the film, as filmmaker Sheila Ganz tells her story, she constructs a life-size sculpture of a mother holding her baby in a hospital bed using chicken wire, bamboo, burlap and plaster commemorating the 10 minutes she was allowed to hold her newborn daughter. Historical footage is threaded through the film and serves as an illuminating background.
Unlocking the Heart of Adoption gives the viewer a powerful way to understand what ‘adoption as a lifelong process’ means today.
The People in the Film
JODY grew up knowing she was adopted, but she says, “I felt unsettled about not knowing where I came from. Do I look like anybody?” In her early thirties, she found her birthmother, DEE. Because of the shame and secrecy around her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, DEE was shocked when JODY contacted her. After they got to know each other DEE says, “I am really delighted to be part of her life now and to have her be part of mine.”
PAT is JODY’S adoptive mother, DON is her stepfather, who is supportive of PAT. PAT was worried at first when JODY told her that she was searching for her birthmother. After JODY’s adoptive mother and birthmother met at her wedding, PAT says, “I was thinking, what would be the harm, if we became friends?” And JODY tells us that her search brought her closer to her adoptive mother, “Because she was willing to go down that path me and be supportive, even though it was painful for her.”
GINGER, an adoptive mother, tried for three years to start a family after she married. She says that when she was waiting to adopt a child, “every hour of every day felt like an eternity.” Adopting her daughter was the happiest time in her life and she was shocked when WHITNEY was diagnosed at age nine with “a feeling of abandonment.” WHITNEY tells us that when she was young, “My mom and I were complete opposites and I never really felt that she understood where I was coming from and vice versa.” After some rocky teenage years, WHITNEY and GINGER now enjoy a good relationship.
TOM, a birthfather, says that he was told it was “selfish” of him to want to keep his son, since he was 16 and his girlfriend, Rita, whom he loved, was 15 years old. After the relinquishment he felt like “a jinx in her life” and his self-esteem plummeted. Nineteen years later, they reconnect and later marry after finding their son.
RON was raised an only child. He had suspicions, but did not find out he was adopted until after his parents died when he was 36. He says, “I had a dawning sense of anger and rage at my adoptive parents for keeping this a secret, for lying to me my entire life. I also started to feel very sad about it. Since they were dead… there was no resolution to this.” Two years later, RON searches and finds out his birthmother has died, and that he has 12 full and half siblings.
DOLORES was an honor student in college in 1964, when she got pregnant. Her mother wouldn’t let her bring her baby home and so she relinquished her son for adoption. DOLORES later married. After she gave birth to her second son and brought him home DOLORES says she “cried… realizing what I had given up. What I had lost.” She finds her first son when he is 19 years old.
DEBBIE is Japanese American and transracially adopted. She grew up feeling “a complete lack of empowerment” and that fundamental choices were not hers to make. “If I’m just good enough, I won’t get given away again. If you don’t have a real identity and you’ve constructed a false identity, it’s a very fragile thing.” DEBBIE always wondered what it was like to be Japanese. It takes having a child to give her the courage to search for her birth family.
PAUL is Filipino American and transracially adopted. His adoptive mother is Chinese, his adoptive father Irish. He grew up believing he was half Chinese. Even though he finds his birthmother, he says, “I feel like I’m living in this strange separated slice of time. I’m having a hard time joining up my history and what comes before, the family before and having a sense of moving beyond today into the future.”
HAL and his wife had a biological daughter, then decided to adopt a mixed race child. They love their son, but were ill-prepared to raise an African American child. MARTIN is HAL’s adopted son. MARTIN says, “We didn’t get along…. Had to do a lot of family counseling when I was young. I was the identified problem.” It wasn’t until HAL and his wife looked at it from a new perspective, “adoption was the central issue that we hadn’t really dealt with” that things turned around. They help MARTIN find his birth family.
SHEILA, the filmmaker and a birthmother says, “From the day I signed the paper I wanted to find my daughter and tell her I love her.” Later on she says, “my arms ached to hold her. I can remember one Halloween seeing kids in costumes and wondering what she might be wearing.” SHEILA never had other children. “How could I have one and keep it, after giving one away?” She finds her daughter when she is 19 years old.
ALICE, a birthmother, became pregnant out-of-wedlock in 1922. She lived in an “infant asylum” until she gave birth to her son. ALICE intended to return for her baby, once she made proper arrangements. ALICE tells us, “…and when I wrote to the Sister that I was coming for my baby, I immediately got a letter back that told me he had died.”
ALISON underwent several years of infertility treatment until she and her husband decided to adopt. They wanted it to be an open adoption, because ALISON knows what her six adopted cousins are going through in closed adoptions. When asked if her adopted twin sons will be confused, she replies, “How can they be confused when you are telling them the truth.” PHYLLIS did not have the means to keep her twin sons and so chose ALISON and her husband to raise them. Relinquishing her sons was very emotional for her. Phyllis says, “I began to visit the boys about twice a week for the first year. That’s the only thing that saved me.“
HELEN HILL narrates a brief history of adoption from the Orphan Train Era, 1856-1929, to the sealing of adoption records during the 1930’s, to the practice of open adoptions initiated in the 1980’s, and the current civil rights struggle for adult adoptees to obtain their original birth certificate being fought in state legislatures. HELEN HILL, an adoptee was Chief Petitioner for ballot Measure 58 in Oregon. This landmark legislation passed in 1998, giving adult adoptees in Oregon unconditional access to their original birth certificate.