Rape, Relinquishment and Closed Records

Rape, Relinquishment and Closed Records
by Sheila Ganz

(Published in national newsletters The Communicator of Concerned United Birthparents, Origins an organization for women who have lost children to adoption, and Bastard Quarterly of Bastard Nation 2000, 2002.)

“Take your clothes off, or I’ll cut them off!” My back is against the wall. My feet are trying to find solid ground on top of his bed. It’s a narrow little room. He waves an empty wine bottle at me and echoes his demand. He’s blocking my way to the stairs. I’m 20 and grew up sheltered in a middle-class family. I have no verbal or physical skills to defend myself. He’s in his 20’s. It’s the end of the summer of 1968.

“Now!” Petrified, I take my T-shirt off. “Everything!” Like a deer caught in the headlights, I go through the motions and do as he says. I turn my head away in disgust. He rapes me.

Afterwards, he lets me get dressed and follows me up the stairs to the front hall. I get out the door as quickly as I can. On the 45 minute drive home, I am shaking and think I am pregnant. I don’t know what to do. 


I can’t tell my parents I drove into Boston to see this guy. When they told me earlier in the day, that they had to pay for my younger sister and brother’s college tuition and couldn’t afford to send me back to the Museum School, I panicked. 

I went to art school for two years and left for a year. Then I decided to go back and get my degree. My parents suggested I take out a loan to finish college, but I didn’t see how I would be able to pay it back. I was very upset. I needed someone to talk to… 

Since I’ve been away, I’m out of touch with friends. I am close to my sister and brother, but they are both at summer camp working as counselors. My parents and I haven’t been getting along since I hit puberty.

When I don’t get my period, I tell my mother. She takes me to a doctor. After a quick examination, the doctor declares, “You’re pregnant.” I tell my parents I went to see this guy and he forced me. They say, “You shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

They take me to look at a home for unwed mothers in Boston. I don’t want to go there. So I get a job, save my money for four months, buy a car and head out ‘cross country to Los Angeles.

On January 19, 1969, the day before Nixon is inaugurated, I skid on some ice at the top of the hill. I’m just east of Pittsburgh, PA. The car flips over and I am pinned underneath. The impact fractures my pelvis. I’m five months pregnant. I spend two months in the hospital recuperating. My car is totaled and I end up having to sign it over to the garage to pay the towing and storage fees. I’m stranded.

My parents call me every Sunday to see how I am doing. They don’t want to travel in bad winter weather to visit me and I don’t want them to see me pregnant. Because I have no place else to go, the social worker in the hospital makes arrangements for me to go into the Booth Memorial Home for Unwed Mothers in Pittsburgh for the remaining two months. The home sits alone on a hill by itself. I am on crutches.

The one time I walk down the hill, I make it to the middle of the block and realize that I look pregnant and everyone in the neighborhood knows where I come from and what I am. I turn around and walk back up the hill. I am so ashamed, I don’t think of trying it again.

I am assigned a social worker in the home. To her, adoption is a matter of paper work. She doesn’t give me any options, or ask me what I want to do. She tells me I can name my baby and I do. “But,” she says, “the adoptive parents don’t have to keep the given name.” From then on, I only think of her as “my baby.”

Two days after I give birth to my daughter, I get to hold her for about ten minutes. I am struck by what a miracle life is and how much she looks like me. I want to keep her. I go down the hall to the pay phone and call my parents to ask if I can bring her home. They say, “No.”

No one told me about welfare, or that I could place my baby in foster care until I get a job and a place to live. I’m in a strange city. I have no idea of where to go. When people say to me that I “chose” to relinquish my daughter for adoption, I say, “No one asked me, if I wanted to do A, B, C, D, or none of the above. That is choice.”

The nurse tells me to go on with my life. My baby is going to a good home with a two-parent family. It’s best for her. When I leave a piece of my heart rips out of me.

Legitimacy is a major cornerstone of patriarchy and makes women and children dependent on a man and his name. I don’t think relinquishment as we know it would exist in a matriarchy. The unnatural mother/child separation, especially right after birth, is not the language of women. Non-cooperation with the dominant white male patriarchal system places “other” people on the fringe of mainstream society. They are looked down upon as of lesser value, second-class citizens.

Shame enjoys a prominent position of power over the population, especially women. Laura, a birthmother, calls this society’s “web of shame.” It managed to snare a lot of us. We had to hide our shame until we were able to show ourselves unencumbered by our “mistake.” Today, women are given more power than twenty-five, thirty, or fifty years ago. The web is weaker, but it is still with us. And when a person steps outside of the traditional father-mother-child family they are still looked down upon as “not good enough.” Shame over my unwed pregnancy stopped my parents from helping me keep my daughter, their granddaughter. The only way back over the line is to “pretend it didn’t happen.”

But my empty arms know. My broken heart knows. I lost the most precious thing in the world to me – my flesh and blood, my baby. The shame of being raped, the devastation of having to give my daughter up for adoption and my endless secret grieving conspire to make me feel as though I am not entitled to any good thing in life. I failed my daughter and I failed myself.

The separate experiences of rape and unwed pregnancy can get twisted in a knot of emotions and societal judgments. Being raped is a private trauma – a disempowering, humiliating violation of one’s personhood. When the sexual assault results in pregnancy, it transforms the personal experience into a public display. Being pregnant “shows.”

Up until the 1970’s, society’s solution to out-of-wedlock pregnancy was to erase the event through relinquishment and adoption. The unwed expectant mother was hidden until she gave birth. Then she was told to relinquish her child to a married couple, who would give her child legitimate status through adoption. The “wayward” girl/woman was “re-virginized” and the infertile couple had a child. 

Voila! Society’s major concern that everything looks right according to traditional standards has been accomplished. And as a “kindness” to the rape survivor/birthmother, there is no acknowledgment of the trauma of rape, or relinquishment. Everyone around her denies the truth of her experience and she is silently reintegrated back into society.

Having no choice but to surrender my daughter for adoption cemented my victimhood. It cut deep within my being affecting my self-esteem and my ability to make positive decisions for myself. I reacted passively to outside forces. I started to believe everything was out of my control.

The shroud of victimhood is unshakeable. It follows me everywhere… to unsatisfying jobs, an abusive marriage, into the farthest reaches of my soul. The emotion of passivity freezes me in a kind of ceaseless numbing pain. I live for the day when I will find my baby.

Adoption records were closed in most states during the 1930’s and 40’s. It was the Great Depression and thousands of children whose parents were indigent, homeless, unmarried, or deceased needed homes. Closed adoption records were considered an incentive to prospective adoptive parents. That way they didn’t have to worry about the birthparents finding their children. Closed record laws protected the child from the stigma of illegitimacy, the unmarried mother from the shame of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and maintained the “integrity” of the adoptive family though in reality, birthparents are an integral part of the adoptive family.

Closed adoption record laws is the third assault on birthmothers who were raped. These laws legitimize the first two traumas by keeping them secret. This “no tell” law protects the victim as well as the abuser. Sealed adoption records keep adoptees on the fringes of society. When adoptees are unable to obtain their original birth certificate, a right enjoyed by all other citizens, they are relegated to second class citizenship, like their unwed mothers and fathers.
The world has changed a lot since 1969. Society is more accepting of single mothers, now. But some prejudice persists. The stigma that makes birthmothers the “bad guy” is the easy way out for society. This way they don’t have to deal with us as thinking feeling people with hearts and souls just like everybody else.

The current argument to keep adoption records closed is to preserve the secrecy surrounding the identity of unwed mothers. Advocates for closed records say that unwed mothers were shamed and they want to help them hide their shame. Advocates for closed records wrote the Uniform Adoption Act to keep adoption records sealed for 99 years. Under this Act, which so far no state has passed, the relinquishing mother will never see her child again. Her child will never call her mother. She will be buried with her shame.

I personally do not believe these lobbyists, paid by adoption agencies, give a hoot about birthmothers. Closed adoption record laws serve adoption agencies, who do not have to divulge how they conduct their business… to anyone. Society should beware of cover-ups. Where there is no accountability, abuse cannot be far behind.

Several birthmothers have told me that their child was not placed in the kind of family they requested, with the same religious or ethnic background. Adoptive parents were often not given important medical information about the child’s birthparents, since agency workers didn’t want to tell them anything negative. 

With closed adoption records there is no follow-up when health issues do arise. And it is not known how many adoptive parents do not tell the child that she/he is adopted.

We also need to address the adoptive family politic that says there is “no difference” between biological and adoptive families. This notion glosses over the fact that the child has a birth family and that that family matters. The attitude that the birth family is unimportant or unnecessary does a huge disservice to the adoptee by denying they come from anyone or anywhere.

When my daughter turned thirteen, my desire to find her slowly made its way to the surface of my life. With a friend’s help I took the first step to contact the adoption agency and update my file with medical information. After the agency confirms the information was passed on to her adoptive family, my world looks different. For the first time, I know… my baby is alive.

Two years later, in graduate school at San Francisco State University, my secret bursts out of its seams. I am inspired to write a play about my experience as a birthmother. I am determined to tell the world the truth about how losing my daughter to adoption has affected my life. It is tortuous to write.

When it comes time to present my project in class I shiver in fear. As I tell my story, I wait for them to throw rocks at me. When I finish a woman comes up to me and tells me that she, too, is a birthmother. She asks me not to tell anyone.

Then an interesting thing starts to happen. In talking to people it invariably comes up that I am writing a play and they ask, “What’s it about?” I shrink for a moment and then I tell them. I tell lots and lots of people my story. A few look at me, stare and say, “I could never relinquish my child.” Most are sympathetic. 

Gradually, my fear of telling dissipates. Telling my story is healing. At last I feel validated for all that I have been through.

One afternoon, Pat Ferrero, my professor and the head of, CEIA, Center for Experimental and Interdisciplinary Arts, visits me in my studio. We work at the old Navy base in Tiburon, just over the Golden Gate Bridge. I am writing my play on the second floor porch of one of the empty barracks buildings. Looking out over the bay, we discuss the play. The perfect blue sky begins to crack when 
Pat asks, “Why didn’t you call the police?”

I have no answer. I think back. Why was I so passive? Why didn’t I call the police? It is the most logical question in the world.

The rest of the day, I try to find the answer to Pat’s question. When I get home, I go to my room and walk to my dresser. I look at myself in the mirror. There’s something not right about my hair. I brush it. Maybe I should cut it. I start to get the scissors and stop. I want my hair to grow.

Pat’s question won’t go away. “I couldn’t call the police because… I was afraid my father would go after him and get hurt. The guy said he was in a gang war with rifles the night before. That’s when I got up to leave and he stopped me. I didn’t want to have sex with him and he knew it!”

“You threatened me. I hate you! Why did you do this to me?!”

I land on my bed. I look at my pillow and hit it. “You ruined my life!”

I punch it again. “You! You took advantage of me!”

I want to scream and rip the heart out of my pillow. I shake it. “You attacked me! You scared me. You used me. I wish you were in front of me right now so I could punch you! Shake you! Kick you!”

I pound my pillow over and over again. “NO! NO!”

The familiar mass of sharp dark pain fills my heart and chest. Tears stream down my face. “You forced me.”

I feel razors of pain pointing into my breasts. “Get out of me!”

I punch my soggy mangled pillow. I collapse onto it. A thick silence hangs in the air. I gurgle, “My baby… I wish I could tell you a better story for your beginning.”

I open my eyes and see shards of the dark pain floating out of my body. “Is this real?”

I barely breathe. The pain is leaving me. I touch my heart. “It’s not there.”
“It’s gone. Fifty, seventy-five, ninety percent of the pain is gone!”

I feel light and sleep deeply that night. The next morning I realize that mass of pain was my suppressed anger. Finally expressing my anger after all these years released me from the pain. I couldn’t get angry because I thought it was my fault, because I was ashamed of what happened and didn’t want people to know. I was afraid to even say the word… rape.

Unwed mothers are treated as though we are a menace to society. We are not supposed to be angry. We are supposed to be repentant. We were told, “If you love your baby you will give her away, because someone else can better raise your child than you.” They’re married and they have money. These words are still being said to single and poor mothers today. But, having money doesn’t automatically make you a better parent.

I believe that everybody’s soul weighs exactly the same, from the bag lady on Sixth Street to the Queen of England. We may be on different paths and different stages of growth, but our Souls weigh exactly the same. Who’s to say a single mother can’t raise a child to be an astronaut, a scientist, an artist, a gold medal athlete, or president?

So I say to birthmothers, “Lift yourself out of your particular situation for a moment and take the high view. By affirming rather than denying the existence of your child, you allow her/him access to their original birth certificate. Giving adoptees the same rights as other citizens acknowledges they do have a whole birth family ‘out there’ and validates the existence of birthmothers and birthfathers, as the original parents of their relinquished children.”

And to birthmothers who were raped I say, “It would be good to get some help in dealing with this trauma. And this would give you the perspective to separate your experience of being raped from the child you bore and gave birth to. Supporting the rights of your child, now a grown adult, to obtain her or his original birth certificate and adoption information will de-stigmatize her origins, and integrate her as a full citizen with the same rights and privileges as everybody else. Punishing a person their whole life for the accident of their birth is inhuman.”

I know many birthmothers who support open adoption records. But, if you don’t feel safe meeting your grown child, you can put your story and important medical information in a letter in case they find you. It’s your responsibility as the mother to give your child information that no one else can provide. Everybody has the right to know the story of her or his origins. It is part of our birthright as human beings.

I never doubted I would find my baby. I never doubted that I should find her. As her mother, I felt it was my way of making things right. The logical equation for me was, “I relinquished my daughter, therefore I should find her.”

My search was stalled when the director of the Catholic Charities adoption agency told me that my daughter’s family had moved out of state. With the help of the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association I found her when she was 19 years old. She was living in the same zip code as the agency. We met once, but she was very reserved. Her adoptive parents didn’t want to know me. A couple of months later, she broke off contact. And I lost her again.

Every year, I send her a birthday card. Even if she doesn’t want a relationship, I feel that letting her know I love her and think about her, especially on her birthday, is important. I do have hope for the future.

I remember when I was in high school and struggling to learn how to draw trees I told my art teacher, Miss Sparks, that I felt like a failure. She said, “You’re only a failure if you quit.”

I am a rape survivor. I am a relinquishment survivor. I am a reunion-on-hold survivor. Being a survivor is not quitting on yourself. It’s time for birthmothers to throw off the oppression of pretense and secrets. To step out of the shadows and tell their stories. To stand up for the rights of their children and be counted. There are millions of us. Together we can show the world – Birthmothers never forget. We nurtured our children in our bodies and gave birth to them. And we will hold them in our hearts, forever.