Every good writer concentrates on what they know, which appears to be what you have done with your two works: “Akin to the Truth: A Memoir of Adoption and Identity” (2013); and sequel “After the Truth” (2017). Author, reviewer, and writing coach Belinda Nicoll summarized the themes behind your first published work as being about “identity, grief, acceptance vs. rejection, and exploring father-daughter relationships” as well as “secrets vs. truth” and “coping with change whether it’s our choice or not.”
To the person who is uninitiated in what it means to be adopted, this is an eye-opening collection of concepts. From what I could grasp from summaries of your work, yours was a case of closed adoption, where your mother and your adopted family agreed that you wouldn’t be told who the people behind your birth were, and this left you feeling less human than those who were around you. Your quest for the truth led you not only to that truth, but to changes in your family relationships.
There are so many questions I could start with, but I would suppose the first question I’d have would be how it came about how you decided to go from what was probably a personal and intimate life experience to publishing a memoir. Was the idea of a memoir something that you carried with you all along, or was it an idea that was born afterward?
Yes, It was a closed adoption, which was the traditional and usual thing to do back in the early 60s. Actually, (teachable moment here), the adoption time period between the 1930s to circa 1985 (approximate years) is often called “The Baby-Scoop Era” when a lot of records became permanently closed between adoptees, birth and adoptive families. Open adoptions were rare unless maybe in a kinship case, where other family members take in a relative’s baby/child due to death, hardship, etc.
For years, growing up, I felt ashamed of being adopted. I absolutely detested the label. I hated that it had to happen. I had a “good” adoption with a great family, but still…I was the only adopted kid around and I did not want to be different in that way. I never told my friends. Even my dog had more family lineage than I had! I just plain did everything in my power to forget about it, and my parents did as well. We just went on with life, but from time to time, the fact that I was adopted and not “real” kept nagging at me. Little reminders or “triggers”, if you will, would pop up in life. The only “peer” I shared my secret with was my husband.
In 1987, after watching a TV talk show with adopted people on a panel of guests, I decided it was time to face my story and explore what happened. I did all my searching and reuniting with my biological family before I had children of my own. I did not want my kids to grow up with only a half-past just because their mother had a missing past. I wanted health information and to know my true heritage/nationality. My kids have never known life any way but as a blend of biological and adoptive relatives. They never had a life in “The Before” and in “The After” as I have had. As they grew older, they began to ask more and more questions about how all these aunts, uncles and cousins are related and how many grandparents did they have exactly. LOL. (Adoption never goes away; elements get passed on to your kids who also want answers.)
I recall my mother and her interest in genealogy, which started back when I was a kid. I guess she wanted that I felt the sense of belonging or pride of knowing where I came from. However, my instinct that there could be something to this did not really develop until my teenage years. I sense that your story followed similar lines, only your “brick wall,” as they call the generation at which you can no longer trace your family history further, stood at your birth parents. Your first book covered this, of course, but without giving away too much of the story, how did you manage to get over that wall and find your birth parents?
I found out from watching that local TV talk show that my OBC (Original Birth Certificate), was actually available to me as an adult. Growing up I believed, because I was told by my parents, that my adoption was “closed.” They understood this to mean that no one would ever be able to find my birth parents because records would be sealed forever. Later, as an adult I learned that Ohio adoptees born before January of 1964 (me) could acquire their original paperwork, even from a closed adoption. The Ohio laws have been amended and updated since to include ALL adoptees, but at the time, in an era when you wanted something very much but dare not question authority, (in this case the State), my parents were not too concerned about loopholes and small details of Ohio law. Closed meant always closed to them. Some people might wonder if my adoptive parents might have lied about this to keep me in the dark and prevent me from searching, but I believe they simply did not fully understand the law in Ohio and did not care as long as they were able to adopt at the time.
Once I sent away to Columbus, Ohio, for my pre-adoption paperwork, (which I joke around and call my “pedigree papers”), and enclosed a $20 money order and a SASE, I received back about a month later a long, fat envelope. Inside were copies of my decree of adoption, my name change document and my OBC. The OBC was hand-written, which was still the norm in 1961, but very legible and accurate. BOTH of my birth parents’ names were listed fully. It is rare for a birth father’s name to be included if the birth mother was not married to him and planning on adoption, but there he was anyway. I got lucky because men are usually easier to find than women are because they typically don’t change their last name if they marry. I then went to public records at the local courthouse to check out marriage and anything else records on both of my birth parents. I also used old criss-cross city directories in the downtown library to search for them throughout the years. I even checked some neighboring counties when I hit a few dead ends. Some days I took a brain break, sat home, and read books in the sun. I’d get clarity and go back downtown the next day. It took a whole summer.
I actually found my birth father in three days because he lived in the same house, never changed jobs and stayed married to his wife (not my birth mother.) He was only 20 minutes away the whole time. I did not contact him fast though. People today find birth family in a matter of days to hours via social media and the Internet in general. Finding my birth father was kinda like that because it was a fast reveal of a lot of info in a very short time. I also found out he had four other kids who were close in age to me. I knew where they went to high school and went one day to their school to see yearbooks and found a few photos. So, I kinda “stalked” him/them for a while. LOL
The local news told me that my birth father’s workplace was shutting down and laying everyone off. I decided to not contact him right away since I knew he was going to be dealing with job loss, which is pretty awful after all those years and you are 50 and might not be easily hired again.
As far as my birth mother goes, I found her ex husband, but I could not find her. I also could not find a death record, so it made no sense to me. Also, according to my OBC, a box was checked indicating that I was not her first birth. I had a sibling on her side out there somewhere.
I ended up calling her ex and he gave me the scoop. (I could go on, but….spoilers…LOL.)
Yes… for the rest of that story, readers can get their own copy of the book.
Yes. Anyway, when my kids began asking many deep questions, I began to write down my story. I wanted to preserve the memories of my grandparents and my dad who raised me who had all since passed away. I wanted to give a written explanation as to how my family “morphed” from one group into a much larger and more diverse group of characters. (Believe me, we have some characters! LOL.) The more I wrote the bigger the project became, and between 2002 and 2010 I created a book! I shared excerpts with a couple of writing groups I belonged to, and everyone said I should pursue publishing, so I did. In 2012, after much eating on my own, I had my first book professionally edited. Writing about adoption is kind of a niche market. It’s hard to find a super-wide reader/audience base, so I opted for the self publishing (Amazon/Kindle) route. This way of publishing is becoming more of a norm, which is helpful.
So to answer your original question, the choice to go from living a total secret, a.k.a. lie, to sharing pretty much everything was very gradual but fueled by my kids’ interest in the family as a whole. Then I had a lot of encouragement from writing friends. It’s a little like “coming out” because I went from something I felt ashamed and embarrassed about and thought that society might criticize me for due to doing the search and reunion… Not everyone believes that an adopted person should do this. Plus, I did not want to deal with people’s comments like: “What about the family you do have? Well, aren’t you special / Isn’t that special, You were chosen for a reason…” blah-blah-blah… to sharing with my husband and kids, which was an easy step, to sharing with writing friends, which was harder but a positive experience, to sharing in “secret” groups on social media to just being able to tell people everywhere, “I am adopted and I have found my birth family”. (Of course, if I want to sell books, I’d better be ready to share that info, right? LOL)
Certainly the more books you sell, the less secret the story is going to be. What were the steps you took to successfully self-publish? What do you do to market your two books, and if they take off sufficiently through Amazon/Kindle, will you try to pursue more traditional publishing options for future works (getting an agent, etc.)?
First, have a decent professional editor. Also, have a decent editor who also likes your book! LOL
Second, have a decent technology-abled person if you are not one. In my case, it’s my husband who is the tech guru. He knew what to do to get me using Scrivener. He knew how to transfer my chapters to a Kindle format and also made sense of how to follow all the directions at Amazon for ordering physical print books. He also figured out Bowker, which is where you get ISBN numbers so your book is “legit”.
The ways I market my writing… It’s easiest here to just make a list:
- Be a guest blogger on other writer’s blogs.
- Contribute to anthologies should the opportunity arise because the editors/authors/promoters of those anthologies will also by default be promoting you. Moreover, it builds your resume.
- Have an Amazon author page.
- Join and participate in book promo groups on social media where I can basically “pimp my write”.
- Join and participate in Facebook adoption groups as just an adoptee. If you’re in the group long enough the members figure out you write. In this way, you are not so directly coming off as only caring about other adoptees just to sell books.
- Have a blog around adoptee issues and articles. In my case, I read and review other adoption-themed books, films, etc. Then cross post the review on Social Media. I think some good sales Karma is happening from this. Because I read and review another author, promote their work around in the adoption groups and, “Boom!” I get noticed too, ergo, I also get a spike in sales a few days later.
- Having a sequel memoir has unintentionally fueled sales for the 1st book. My books are written so that you don’t have to read the first story to understand the 2nd book. I have seen people buy “After the Truth” and then go back and buy “Akin to the Truth”.
- Have a Facebook “book page” or “author page.” (Mine is one in the same for both books.)
- Do interviews like this one! ; )
My memoir (especially the first book) is a bit of a sensitive subject for my mother. (My dad is deceased.) Some of that is because it brings up some old memories she is not comfortable with. Not that my mom did anything bad, but she doesn’t always want to think about the past or share everything. I have to be very careful about sharing and spreading the writing word (my writing words) around our friends and family. That is where your initial sphere of influence for sales is supposed to start. I know some of her pals (or my dad’s) might want to read the book, but my mother does not want that, so for now I lay low about the book business at family dinners, etc.
I’ve run into that in my own family history work, in writing my father’s life story. I managed to capture a lot of his memories in interview notes before he passed away, but when it comes to those parts of his life that he shared with my mother, well, she has a very different perspective from his. It’s probably going to be difficult to balance the two, when it comes time to write about that. I wholeheartedly agree that even little things in a life story can be quite sensitive.
With that in mind, though, do you think you’ll try to work with her at some point on something that includes her perspective as well, or is that outside of the scope of what you want to write about?
That would probably be out of the scope of my writing. She was an art major in college. Most of her artwork was in drawing and a little painting. If she would do it (getting her to do anything is a challenge at age 89,) I would love to see her do some drawings that she could pass on to grand and great grand kids. She has/had the skill. Her handwriting and use of drawing tools is a little compromised now, but she could do something. I’d compile her work and put it into a book that everyone could share. That wouldn’t be something commercially published though….more like a Shutterfly, ™ , type thing. She needs a project. LOL
I’ve tried to encourage her to do arts and crafts at the senior place where she lives. In her mind, the activities they have the residents do are “lame” but that’s because my mom has an actual degree in the subject area. I told her she should offer to lead some classes instead of complaining. Again, she is 89, so….
As to the possibility of traditional publishing my own work, “Akin” and “After the Truth” are niche-market books. They will appeal to people in the adoption community mainly. They might appeal to readers who like “memory-lane” stories about the 60s-80s maybe too.
If I ever manage to write a more mainstream fiction type book, I will definitely pursue traditional publishing before going independent. Agents, editors and publishing companies like to see some writing experience under your belt before taking on new authors.
What do you foresee writing in mainstream fiction? Do you have any story ideas brewing in the background?
Not yet. I would probably have character(s) who come from non-traditional families and or out to find missing people in their lives probably. I just need time to focus and play around with writing.
Considering the news that seem to come out of the United States these days, I can see how the story idea of finding missing people would have a lot of potential. Do you think your books have had the intended effect? For instance, in what way are your children benefiting from having their story at their fingertips?
I’ve had good feedback from readers that they could relate well to my experiences, so that’s a good effect and what I wanted. For my kids, yes…They have all of their answers and information. Now that grand babies are coming, it’s all there to be passed on one day! They have no hesitation in telling other people that I have written two memoir books about being adopted. Their in-law families are all aware and are accepting of it.
That’s excellent that your children’s in-law families are accepting of your personal history. I imagine that this is also reinforced by the values that you’ve passed along to your children. As a parent, I often find myself worrying about that, even though by all accounts my kids are growing up pretty good so far. Do you think that your experiences of being adopted might have generated useful values within you that were later passed on to your children?
I was very much aware that many birth mothers were unwed teenage girls, and I knew how that could happen. I’m not sure if knowing this information made me more “conservative” when interacting with boys or if it totally stunted my social skills, LOL, but one way or another I stayed out of that kind of trouble while growing up. LOL. My parents never had to worry that I would end up like my birth mother. It was the last thing I ever wanted.
I think I passed this message on to my daughters too because they were pretty “good girls” all through school. Truth be told, I was terrified of what boys/men could do because of being an adoptee product of single teen motherhood. My daughters also saw what could happen to a teen mom even if they get to keep their baby, and not just from watching the “Teen Mom” reality show on television… I had a niece who had this happen. It’s been a huge struggle although we are so grateful that her son is a part of the family.
In addition, I think adoption search and reunion has also sparked their interest in all the family lore and wanting to know who was who and who is who. I was obsessed with any family history I could gather in my adoptive family. Then when I found my birth family…. Wow! My Ancestry.com account is about to explode!!! LOL. I amassed all the family stories and copies of photos I could there as well. My kids also think this stuff is important.
One thought on “Being Adopted (part one): adoptee Paige Adams Strickland writes her story”
Thank you so much, Ben for hosting me!