Life & Living VII (Adoption)

We were all weeping. It was genuinely traumatic to be gathered together like that by the fireplace. My parents were sitting down and we were standing up. Furniture must have been pushed together so that my parents would be near one another. My sister and I were in our pyjamas and bathrobes, ready for bed. Was that part of the prescribed scenario? Was this the thinking?

They’ll have a good cry and then they’ll fall asleep.

Or this?

Telling them after breakfast might leave them dangerously in shock during the day; they might do something rash.

And how much practical experience backed up that advice? Who knew?

I was seven. My sister was five. At some point — was it that night? — we were assured by our parents, who were (suddenly) not our parents, that, in telling us that we were adopted when they told us we were adopted, they were doing what they had been told to do. My being seven was key. It was important that our adoptive parents be the ones to tell us about adoption. It would be regrettable if I heard it first in the schoolyard. As I might have done, if we lived in a genuine community, where people know all about one another.

What on earth did “adopted” mean? Because of course we understood nothing about the alternative.

Not that I was entirely without an idea. It was something else that my mother said that suggested what “adopted” might mean. “We loved you so much, we picked you!” she said, through her tears. My father crying as well — it was a fantastically upsetting scene. My imagination flew quickly to the supermarket. My mother had picked me because I was so wonderful. I was the best of the babies on offer. I thought of chicken at the A&P, or maybe asparagus. Learning how wonderful I was might well have made a narcissist out of me, and what happened instead wasn’t so different: I became a commodity. I was a product that my parents, who were not my parents, had purchased from the New York Foundling Hospital. What I already knew is that I wasn’t performing as advertised. That was clear.

Did the discovery that I was adopted explain why things didn’t seem to be working out the way they ought to be? No. But it went right along with the sense of unsatisfactory arrangements that had cloyed the air for as long as I could remember. Something was not right. Something was not right about me; I was often being told that. Did I work it out, from this news about adoption, that whatever it was that was not right about me not right about me, and not something that my parents could have foreseen? Was it because, after all — and I would work this bit out only years later, not fully until after both of them were dead — they had never known anyone like me?

They had brought a stranger home, and, surprise! he turned out to be strange.

When was it added that they had asked for a boy who would be tall and smart? My father was tall, and so, for a woman, was my mother; and my father was a lawyer. I think that it might have been then, along with the adoption bombshell, that I learned this extra bit of information: I was not only the best, not only loved, but I was expected to fill an order. How did the nuns at the Foundling Hospital know, I wonder now. (I never wondered anything about nuns in those days.) But here I was, tall, as expected, and smart, as expected. My parents got what they’d asked for. But they also go something that they didn’t expect. My my mother, particularly, thought it this something else was strange, because it was not what she had in mind when she asked for tall and smart.

Right now, the thing to bear in mind is that my parents, who weren’t my parents, had been instructed to have this “you’re adopted” scene when I was seven. And whoever told my parents that they ought to inaugurate it thus ought to burn in hell for eternity, along with the other architects of the adoption racket. One of the very few things that I can be sure of remembering about this traumatic hour is that my imagination flew to the supermarket. I was the best they had that day.


Our grandparents lived in Bronxville, although not for long so far as I was concerned. I used to know quite certainly the order in which they died. I believe that my mother’s mother was the first to go. Her father was the last. In between, the Judge, and then his wife. Everyone died between 1955 and 1958. I wasn’t actually sure about 1958, but I remembered that Grandpa Lilly was buried at Ferncliff, up in Westchester, and their obliging Web site confirmed 1958. Also that his first wife, Marie, was buried on 10 January 1956. Perhaps the Judge died first. My sister and I were taken to none of the funerals. But I do recall that somebody’s death put a damper on Christmas.

I don’t remember ever addressing the Judge directly. His keen, staring silence was formidable. Born in 1874, he looked every year of his age. We called our grandmother’s “Nona.” I was never sure about the spelling, but three ‘n’s always seemed too many, and “Nana,” of course, was just what they weren’t. My father’s mother, twenty years younger than her husband, was a lovely but retiring presence. She was the love of my father’s life, in true Irish fashion. While she was alive, he would take the train home from work — we had only the one car in those days — and walk to his mother’s apartment, in a building called The Towers, at the corner of Pondfield Road and Tanglewylde Avenue, in the shopping district of the village. Then he would come home to us. We would have had our own dinner by then.

Nona Keefe was slim and still somewhat girlish. Nona Lilly was the opposite. It was hinted that she was ill, which explained her not going to Mass until it was decided to tell us that she was not Catholic. She sat in her chair, just as the Judge sat in his — just never in the same room; the two sets of parents did not socialize. I believe that Grandpa was too loud for the Keefes, too hearty. It wasn’t a class thing by any means, just one of temperament. The Judge was a back-room fixer. Grandpa Lilly was a salesman. When Nona Keefe died, Dad took her car, a white Nash. I cannot imagine the senior Keefes in a Cadillac; Grandpa Lilly never drove anything else. Come to think of it, I never saw Nona Lilly in Grandpa Lilly’s Cadillac, either. His visits to our house were paid by himself alone.

Nona Lilly liked to have me sit on her lap. She was crazy about me — I do think that that’s the word. I was told to say that I got my red hair from her. I knew that the reason why I was to say this was because it wasn’t true: somehow,that information was contained in the instructions. It could be untrue in a number of ways. One would be that Nona Lilly’s hair was dyed with henna. I think I knew that her hair was not naturally red. And it didn’t look like mine at all. I was not really her grandson, somehow, because I was a delightful surprise that she never tired of opening up. It annoyed my mother to see me sitting on her mother’s lap. My mother didn’t approve of boys being coddled. Nor did her father. I was not keen on sitting on Nona Lilly’s lap, because, as I have said, being held made me hot, but I knew that Nona Lilly loved me. She did not think I was a naughty boy, even when I pressed the button under the dining room table that summoned a maid from the kitchen. My grandmother laughed. Nobody else did. I don’t remember doing anything worse. I remember upsetting a glass of Coca-Cola whilst in my grandfather’s recliner; also a bowl of Cheetos. These called forth imprecations from him. My grandmother would have laughed at the accident, and certainly not scolded me for being careless.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that I was her idea.

Nona Lilly was the oldest daughter of a man who had thirteen children by two wives. His background was French-Canadian, but he was settled in Duluth when my grandmother was born. At the other end of the siblings there were two girls, the younger of whom was not much older than my father. The sisters, Helen and Bee, lived in New York City. They were executive secretaries, and they shared a flat at off Second Avenue between 22nd and 23rd Streets. Neither ever married. They retired to Southern California during my radio days. I kept in touch, because Bee loved me, too. She and Helen took me to plays and concerts; sometimes I just had dinner with them. My mother wasn’t fond of them. She never had been. Bee, I believe, was a sort of au pair when my mother was a child, in Wilmette. Bee, who never said anything mean, smiled when she told me that my mother was always something of a princess.

Bee told me this years later, after Helen’s death, when Kathleen and I visited her at an assisted-living facility outside of San Diego. Kathleen had a convention that met, in alternating years, either in Palm Desert or at the Hotel del Coronado. We visited Bee several times. On one of those visits, she told me something else. She told it in her own way. If Bee was never mean, she was never very clear, either. She liked to talk around things, and to fill in the blanks with smiles and twinkling eyes. For example, she did not really mean that my mother was a princess. My mother never gave herself airs. But she could, as I knew, be bossy, and she was very jealous of her possessions. Despite her comfortable upbringing, or perhaps because of it, she was on the lookout for people trying to take advantage of her. Bee never said anything about this; she didn’t have to. This, no doubt, was what my mother had in mind when she complained that Bee was a flirt.

Really, Bee didn’t tell me anything. She just gave an impression. I had no trouble filling it in. The scene was my grandparents’ living room. This wasn’t a particular room but just the room that happened to be their living room at the time. It might have been in the house on Fordal Road, or it might have been the apartment in Sutton Place. My grandparents had a circle of friends. Helen and Bee were part of it. My parents were part of it. My parents were the youngest members. My parents were the only ones young enough to provide an addition to my grandparents’ circle. They were married in 1942. Nothing happened. Year after year, nothing happened. My parents were not fulfilling their roles. In the end, they were driven to adopt.

It did not matter, in those days, what anyone privately thought or felt. Childlessness was regrettable, with the force of a legal presumption. Doubly so, for if there were no children, there must be a reason, and the reason could only be shameful. Once upon a time, divine providence might be invoked, but modern medicine put paid to that. I have no idea which of my parents had a reproductive problem. Perhaps they would have been fruitful had they married other people. The simple fact was that they had no children of their own. How they felt about this I cannot imagine, partly because they would have put their feelings behind their sense of responsibility. I can see my mother embracing the task, just as she embraced so many others.

Why did it take them six years to adopt a child? It may have been nothing more than the accident of history: the American — more properly Anglophone — institution of mid-century adoption began to get underway just before World War II, but the inevitable illegitimate side of the baby boom got the machinery going at speed. I have some of the paperwork surrounding my adoption, most of it in the form of reports filed by social workers who visited the home that I was taken into, which stopped when the adoption was made final, in the summer of 1949. I don’t know anything about the application process, about how long it took. I don’t know when my parents applied to adopt a second child. But the first round must have taken a while. At about the time they would have stopped waiting for a child to come of its own, they were able to make use of an officially sanctioned procedure for gaining uncontested possession of a healthy baby.

However, whatever the wait for approval was, my mother was never pregnant. She became a mother without that. Is this an important detail? I ask the question in the present indicative because the answer is beyond recovery. Not only am I without objective grounds for forming an opinion, but the inquiry poses a counterfactual. There is now, as there has always been, nothing but surmise. And of course we are not really talking about my mother. We are talking, in this roundabout way, about me. And I don’t wish to belabor it. So here are two things that I know.

My mother always claimed to love babies, and when her grandchildren were born I discovered that this was the case. I also discovered, however, that she loved babies. She was not so enthusiastic about semi-autonomous toddlers who walked and talked.

The other fact is that my sister was brought home at the age of nine months. Whereas I had been snapped up within two months and a day of my birth, my sister’s adoption was contested. Her grandparents wanted to keep her. They managed to hold up the process until my sister was no longer an infant. Her head was crowned in blond ringlets, and her back was strong enough for her to sit up and clap her hands. She did not sleep like a baby; she laughed like a little girl. Her sunny disposition set off the shady quality of mine.

I asked Bee about a memory that I had of a cabin in the country. I did not tell her that I remembered the light that came into the gloomy rooms and passed through shelves of ruby and cobalt glass. I did not mention the rough soap or the outhouse. But yes, Bee said, she and Helen had rented a cabin in northern Westchester, still the country then, and they had taken me to spend a week there “because your nose was a little out of joint” when my sister materialized in all her pretty-little-girl delightfulness. I used to think that I was the wronged party in this transaction. But my mother was denied the great part of my sister’s babyhood, and I suspect that my sister lost out somewhere, too. Like the script that ordered my parents to tell us that we were adopted when I was seven, the adoption of my sister rested on wrongheaded assumptions about resilience.

This is where I decide whether to rant about what I call the adoption racket. As I was growing up, the fact that I had been adopted by strangers explained everything that seemed to need explaining. I heard that many adopted children fit into their parents’ lives as well as natural children would; that many adopted children never felt for a moment that their relations with their parents weren’t everything that they ought to be. I have not seen this, however. The only case of adoption that I got to see involved the family across the road in Bronxville. The parents were friends of my parents. They had a girl. The father wanted a boy, so they adopted a boy. Then they had another child of their own, another girl. The girls were lovely — much nicer than either of their parents, if you ask me. The boy was difficult from the get-go. He wasn’t odd like me, but he had a raft of learning and behavior problems that I can only hope he outgrew. I was enlisted at one point to help him with his reading. (I was only a few years older.) I discovered, with real shock, that it was possible not to want to read, not to care about books. I’m not certain that his sisters were crazy about books, either, but they were both good students and they knew what was expected of professional-class children.

So the boy across the street had what looked to me like a terrible childhood. But his was an honest terrible childhood. If he was a misfit, it was in an obvious, gender-appropriate way. He wasn’t a bad kid; he would have done well on a farm. His wretchedness was not unappealing. I, on the other hand, was already inclined to feel sorry for my parents, at least at times. I was crooked and inexplicable. I could imagine committing unspeakable crimes; happily, I had no desire to commit these crimes, but that they even occurred to me was troubling, and my parents were not so sure about my desire. (I could imagine being the victim of unspeakable crimes, too.) The boy across the street wanted to be outside, playing games, climbing trees. The boy in my room wanted to listen to Mozart’s Requiem by candlelight.

But I digress. I saw no instances of happy adoptions. I saw plenty of conflicts between children and their parents, but these conflicts always seemed to take place within a protected sphere, a bubble of connection. Even when parents and children were at daggers drawn, the parents might be angry in part because the children reminded them of a hated brother or aunt. We had none of that in our house. There was never any hatred. There was only incomprehension. There was only effort that could never quite satisfy. My sister and I weren’t bad kids, either. My sister had an easygoing personality that did not prioritize worldly ambition. I lived in my own world; my worldly ambitions were unusual. Left to ourselves, we should have turned out more or less as we have done, but, at least speaking for myself, without the sour memories of disapproval. I am dead certain that if my mother were to walk into this apartment right now, not all the testimonials from Kathleen would distract her from the unhappy observation that I am sitting here writing a book about myself instead of heading a law firm or even a history department. She might take my self-respect in good faith, but she could never accept it, because that was not part of the deal.

Adoption itself was not the problem. I have seen happy adoptions in more recent years. They differ from mine in a highly significant way: there is no expectation that the child will pass as the parent’s natural child. A good friend from law school adopted a Chinese orphan. Mother and daughter have had the usual struggles. But nobody looks for the mother’s physical or psychological traits in her daughter. There are no family resemblances to look for. There is nothing for the child to do but grow up as happily as possible. I know that natural parents are often deeply disappointed by the lives that their children lead. I know that it sometimes happens that natural parents dislike their children. But I maintain that there is a difference when the bond is contractual rather than natural. It all came tumbling out by the fireplace: we were chosen. Our parents could hold us in their arms, as a kind of test drive, before any papers were signed. They could say, this one looks good. And then they could become parents. I maintain that the disappointment that such a foundation can lead to is different from the natural parent’s gamble. The natural parent marries, and may have no idea what kind of children are likely. The adoptive parents — back in the days of the adoption racket — chose their children as a couple.

The point of the adoption racket was unwholesome at both ends. The unmarried woman, almost always a girl (but not in my mother’s case; she was apparently in her late twenties), was relieved of an illegimitate child, usually at least somewhat against her own will. She was effectively coerced, physically constrained if necessary, into giving up her child. At the same time, she came from much the same respectable background in which her child would be placed. As for the parents, they were promised all the benefits of natural birth without the physiology. The child was absolutely theirs; ties with the birth mother were utterly severed. Records were kept under lock and key, never to be disclosed to their children. The children were at least apparently healthy, and would know no other parents (something that went askew in my sister’s case). The children were placed in affluent homes, and would never want the essential things. Their new parents, successful professionals and housewives, would assure their good educations. It was hard to foresee what could go wrong with these arrangements, especially in the utilitarian light of postwar prosperity. It was hard to account for heartbeats. Like friction in physics, affinity was dismissed as a negligible variable.

The worst aspect of this discussion is the tendency that demonizing the adoption racket has to ignoring the terrible things that can happen in natural families — terrible things that really do not, I believe, occur in adoptive ones. I have no grounds for saying so, but I expect that parental molestation is very rare. Adoptive children do not find themselves ensnared in relationships characterized by cruelty. On the contrary, there is a longing for love on all sides.

My friend Kate (Bee) was a rental-car reservationist in the early days of computerized operations. She spent the day on the phone. When she wasn’t talking to customers, she was talking to reservationists in other call centers. She got to know these colleagues very well, or to think she did. She would share jokes, likes and dislikes, and vacation dreams with all of them. Over time, a young man in Atlanta emerged as more than just a friend. It was arranged that he would pay Kate a visit in Houston. She went to the airport to pick him up, and from the moment he smiled at her she could think of nothing but getting him back on a plane to Atlanta. He had horrible teeth.

So it was with parents and children during the heyday of the adoption racket — which came to an end with Roe v Wade. Adoptive parents knew a lot more about their prospective children than natural parents did, but what they knew could only sharpen the unpleasant surprise of what they didn’t, when it emerged. Natural parents had to brace themselves for stillbirth or some other birth defect. Not adoptive parents.

As I say, I had no trouble attributing everything that was out of sorts in my family life to my being an adopted child. Years passed, and people began to pry open the locked-up records. Laws were changed in a few jurisdictions, as it was agreed that perhaps the racket had been ill-conceived. (Not in New York, however.) I was often asked if I was curious. I always replied that one family had been enough. This attitude was reinforced by my sister’s experience, which it is none of my business to discuss. What changed my mind was Ann Fessler’s passionate book, The Girls Who Went Away. I was deeply outraged by this book; it was as though I had never heard of adoption, much less lived through it. I set my own feelings aside and decided that the least I could do was to give my mother some idea of what had become of me. But something that my father said led me to believe that my mother was ten years younger when she had me. When I realized that she must be in her late eighties if she were alive at all, I had second thoughts. I was also leery of disturbing the three half-siblings — three at least — who might well exist if what my birth father told my birth mother were true. I let it go.

What Bee told me near the end of her life gave the entire conundrum a new twist. Of course I had suspected that my parents had adopted children in order to fit in with the program. But I had never imagined that the pressure came principally from within the family, and, the more I thought about it, from one particular member of the family, to an extent not shared by the others. I never knew how my father’s family felt about us. I’m not sure that they encouraged feelings to develop, which is a way of saying that I suspect them of having objections that were swallowed. I feel something of the same about Grandpa Lilly. I may be reading too much into the frets and frowns of older people responding to the antics of little monsters. But I am almost certain that my mother was not really keen.

She may have loved babies well enough, but one thing that she did not love was housekeeping. She expected to have a fine home, and she expected someone else to keep it that way. The danger of making her sound like an artificial witch is very real, and I want to avoid it. My mother was not a cold person. But I think she was spoiled, and, worse, spoiled without recognizing it. I have home movies that her father took, way back in the Thirties. They show a family that was always having fun. There were always games and jokes. My grandmother was usually laughing, but always with an anxious cast to her eye, as if things might get out of hand. They never did. I realize that home movies are hardly reliable gauges of home life, but what I see is a pursuit of fun that did not involve drudgery. There was a “couple” — a man in wife from Europe somewhere — who took care of the drudgery.

My father was no neat-nik, but he had been brought up to contain his mess. Aside from rumpled clothes and laundry — he used to send his laundry home from Notre Dame by train, weekly — he did not make housekeeping much more difficult for my mother than it would have been had she lived alone. I think that she managed to keep house for him without too much strain. Children must have been different.

Had I been in my mother’s place, and had I shared her world view, I should have seen to it that the basement was turned into a rec room, complete with bathroom and maybe even a galley kitchen, and I’d have locked my children down there, allowing them upstairs only to go to bed, and then under the supervision of armed guards. Instead of which my mother put the Louis-the-Phooey spinet piano in the living room, where I was to practice, and because this was her living room she kept a Venetian decanter, ostentatiously hand-blown, on the lid. When inevitable I knocked it over in my fury about the difficulties of playing music, which of course I wanted to do without much effort, she sobbed for days. She sobbed, anyway, and could hardly speak to me for days. Had I been through law school already, I’d have rebutted with a charge of attractive nuisance. And I probably said something of the kind at the time, which can only have made things worse.

Once, or perhaps more than once, my mother told me that I liked to pull the wings off flies. I didn’t understand this at all, because I took no interest in insects. I tormented the family dog, it is true, but in my own mad way: I would make her lie down on my bed under the covers. I would tuck her in nicely, and then be disappointed when she shook herself free. I thought I was being loving. I hated cruelty. Or so I thought. I realized eventually that what my mother meant was that I was too curious. I wanted to see what happened. It took a while to understand that hurting other people might be what happened, and that gratifying my curiosity was never worth the risk of that. But she was right about my not being a convivial socializer. I was not a sympathetic person when I was young, and even now there’s a fifty-fifty chance that I will respond to another person’s troubles with impatience (which I hasten to conceal, probably unsuccessfully) rather than sympathy. I am not a participant; I am an observer. I am a born critic. I don’t think that my mother could have been unluckier short of my being a psychopath — which she wasn’t at all sure I wasn’t.

Throughout our years together, there was always a strange mist of something like misunderstanding. It wasn’t misunderstanding because it was much too familiar. Why didn’t we hit it off? In her last years, I came to believe that I had just been in the way of things that she would rather have done. She would rather, I always thought, have had a career of her own. She would rather have had a normal child. In a stab that I took at writing this book several years ago (fewer than five), I wrote,

One of the things that I hope to have accomplished is to to accomplish here is to fix a couple of the things that were strange to my mother. Because they weren’t strange. They were just characteristic, of me.

Well, I’m sorry, but the things that were strange to my mother were strange. Their being characteristic of me didn’t change that. I am strange. And yet it might take you a while to figure that out. I remember being surprised when a classmate who would become a good friend said to me, “I thought you were frivolous and shallow, but you’re not.” He wasn’t the only person to utter words to that effect. My preppy clothes throw a lot of people off the scent. Except when stressed (something I have a hard time keeping to myself), I am blandly conventional with strangers. I have learned to keep my brains to myself. Nor does this repression make me unhappy. I do not wish that I could bust out as me. I quite understand that a dose of unadulterated moi could be truly sick-making. And I don’t want to make anybody sick.

Headstrong, verbally impulsive, intellectually passionate — I was headstrong about ideas to a degree that made me ridiculous when I was a boy; and it didn’t get better when I went into my teens. I am still somewhat ridiculous, I fear. And I had “a temper.” I still do. For the most part, I don’t flare up at other people, but I am convinced that the vacuum cleaner cord is my mortal enemy, as is the odd pat of butter that I step on moments after it falls to the kitchen floor. My temper is very unpredictable, to me at least. It’s nothing like what it was when I was a boy. Equanimity was not part of my package; I had to work it.

The lesson that I learned from the adoption experience is that passing for something that you’re not — passing for something that someone else wants you to be — is fine, so long as it is not intrusive. I always try to pass for a civil human being when I am out and about in Manhattan, or even just in the lobby of the building collecting the mail. I want to pass for someone who is going to give you very little trouble. I might frown or roll my eyes if you do something thoughtless (thoughtlessness is the worst of the capital sins), but I won’t say anything or try to correct you. I want to pass for someone who is going to give you as much room as you need to be yourself while feeling good about it.


I didn’t care what people thought about me, as long as they weren’t obnoxious about it. Those who were obnoxious I sought to avoid. I used to think that I had no self-respect, because “what self-respecting young man would do” whatever I had done or failed to do. But it was respect for others, respect for the intelligence of others, that I lacked. I believe that I respected genuine intelligence whenever I met it. (I came to love my father for real when I discovered that, beneath all of his regular-guy dissimulation, he was really quite intelligent and even, shyly, thoughtful.) But I did not automatically attribute intelligence, or competence of any kind, to those who were older or in authority. I was not shy about questioning it. At the same time, I was no prodigy myself, because I really was so headstrong.

was not at all athletic. I was big and tall and reasonably strong, but
I rather disliked physical contact and hated surprises. To the best of
my knowledge (there was a lot of drinking going on for a while), I have
never been in “a fight.” No one has given me a black eye or broken my
nose. To see me creep away from the prospect of fisticuffs, you would
think that I was a ninety-eight-pound weakling. In truth, I wasn’t even
that. I didn’t inhabit my body in a normal way. I’m not sure that I was
always unusual in this way, but the pattern was set before I went to

I was reckless, but not
courageous. If I thought about something, I didn’t do anything.

But we didn’t;
we lived in a bedroom community, in Westchester County. The dads worked
in the city; the moms drove kids from here to there. Nobody really knew
anybody. Nobody came from there. Actually, our parents did come
from there, sort of. My mother’s parents moved into the area when she
was in elementary school. My father was in college when his father
was rewarded for loyalty to FDR, with a Customs Court
judgship, and
went from being a being a big fish in the small pond of Clinton, Iowa
to a medium-small fish in New York. The Judge, as he was always known
from that point on — I’m not sure that he was still alive on the night
of the announcement — settled in a surburb recommended by the husband
of a cousin of his wife’s. This was the same suburb where my mother’s
parents settled, Bronxville, sixteen miles north of Times
Square. I
don’t know how my parents met, but I’ve always liked to think that it
was through the cousin’s daughter, who was in the same class at a
private academy for girls called Brantwood Hall, long gone by the time
I arrived. For the most part, though, families moved to Bronxville in
much the same way that their heads of household moved into corner

and an exemplar
of bogus community that
the Disneys would or should have envied. Nobody in Bronxville knew what
wasn’t supposed to be known. But I’ll get to Bronxville later.