On my desk is a copy of my Interlocutory Decree of Adoption. This decree is an interim court order that, more than fifty years ago, simultaneously created an adoptee and made adoptive parents out of a Maryland couple. It did other things as well.
Judge Joseph C. Waddy signed the decree on February 1, 1966, nearly three months after my birth. The decree would last exactly six months, until August 1, 1966, at which point the order—and my adoption—would be final. That is, no going back, no chance to undo the termination of my first parent-child relationship and the creation of my next parent-child relationship.
In addition to required legalities—such as stating “satisfaction that the adoptee is physically, mentally, and otherwise suitable for adoption by petitioners”—the order also says:
ORDERED further that the name of the adoptee shall henceforth be fixed as GREGORY DEAN LUCE.
If you—whether adopted or not—found such a document buried at the back of a desk drawer at home, would you want to know the full story, from top to bottom, from henceforth to now, from your birth to the point where your role and your name and your identity are fixed three months after being born? I do, for plenty of reasons.
My life has been wrapped up within the identity of adoptee. Not so much an all-controlling identity but one that remains essential and undeniable. And I’m luckier than some because my parents told me at the earliest possible age that I was adopted. They did not lie. They did not say, for example, that my birth parents were killed in a car accident, one of the more common lies some adoptive parents told their children back in the day. My parents also did not pretend I was born to them. My adoptive parents were, and still are, kind and honest and loving and they have never hidden who I am. For most of my life I have been an adoptee.
Things get fixed when you are adopted. Not fixed as in problem solved, but fixed as in securing the various legal rights related to being a child. Like who raises you and what rights imbue to your selected parents. Or what rights you retain over your identity. Or what, if anything, your birth mother retains of you, other than memories. The court fixes all this and also establishes:
for all purposes the relationship of natural parents and natural child between . . . the adoptors and the male infant adoptee
“Fixed” does another thing: in 1966, three months after I was born, it fixes my name. Prior to this time, from November until February, I was called different names and different things by different people. My birth mother had given me one name, and she carried that name with her for the rest of her life. My adoptive parents gave me another name. The court and adoption agency called me child or adoptee or sometimes prospective adoptee. Sometimes I may have been called court case number A-822-65.
But until Judge Waddy’s signature in February 1966, I held the name provided to me by my birth mother, a name that may also appear on my original birth certificate. I was fixed as an adoptee by Judge Waddy on February 1, 1966. I also became fixed as Gregory Dean Luce. Before then, I was someone else. And would continue to be that same someone else for a bit more.
Henceforth conjures up all the wonder. When I first saw it, I read it to myself over and over. It is hard to understate the legal and emotional significance of henceforth. In plain English, henceforth means “from now on.” As in, what was once “that,” from now on will be “this.” Henceforth in this context means that I had a different name, that I came from different parents, and that somewhere there is a record from whence and from whom I actually came. The judge who signed the order knew from whence I came. The clerk that filed the judge’s order probably knew from whom I came. The clerks and social workers at the adoption agency certainly knew all the details, including my name. Though Judge Waddy is now dead, the social workers have since retired, and the court clerks are likely dead or long gone, today there are new judges, new clerks, new social workers, new secretaries, new historians, new researchers, new people who can, if they are so lucky, have access to my original name. I don’t. I’m not as lucky as strangers.
Why? Like the concept and reality of being an adoptee, it’s simple and complicated at the same time. The lack of unrestricted access to my identity is simple: the law says it is so. The complicated factor relates to the why. And in most states, including the District of Columbia where I was born, it comes down to making our original birth certificates, our court records, and our adoption agency files forever secret. It also means, for glaringly strange reasons, that while others may have a right to know your original name and the details of your origins and identity, you don’t, even after you have long become an adult.
Let’s back up again to November 1965. I am born and I am given a name, and that name is recorded by a nurse on an application for a birth certificate that is then filed with the District of Columbia when I am four days old. At the age of four days, I have also returned from a hospital with my mother, and I am being cared for at a local maternity home. The application for a birth certificate at this point—at four days of age—has been completed and signed and is sent off by the hospital and comes into the hands of a government clerk. That clerk reviews the application and records my birth, my mother’s name, possibly my father’s name if it is listed, and the hospital where I was born. It is filed. It is stamped as certificate number 65-25834. I have no other birth certificate. Just one. This one, the original.
At the maternity home my mother also signs a consent form, which propels me out of her world and into the world of adoption. But through that I am not yet relinquished to real people or to adoptive parents. Rather, and the consent form says this clearly, I am surrendered and propelled into the care and control of a non-profit corporation. While that corporation—the adoption agency—has already chosen my adoptive parents from hundreds of applications, it now agrees to take me from my mother and to begin mediating me through a liminal period of existence, from born to named to home to adopted.
A few days later, my mother—or maybe someone else—dresses me in a layette and a social worker from the agency arrives at the maternity home, makes a bit of small talk, and then places me into a Moses basket, which she carries outside and places on the front seat of a car. The social worker gets in the car, starts it up, and pulls on to Reservoir Road to begin a drive across town to an agency office not far from the White House and a few blocks away from the Washington Public Library.
My adoptive parents meet me there. They pick me up, hold me, and then they go downstairs with me and get into a car and head north on US-29 toward Maryland, my mom in the front seat holding me while my dad drives.
As we pull into the driveway of my new home, at seven days of age, I still have one birth certificate. I’m still in legal limbo. A petition for adoption has not yet been filed. Though my adoptive parents have a name they use for me, it is not legally me. My legal name remains the one given to me by my birth mother, the one recorded on the only birth certificate still existing for me at this point in my life, the one filed a few days before with the department of health.
It stays that way through November. Through December. Through January. Finally, case number A-822-65 is called on February 1, 1966, and Judge Waddy reviews the petition and looks over the consent forms and the agency’s recommendation. With everything apparently in order, he signs the interlocutory decree and fixes me, as in ORDERED that the name of the adoptee shall henceforth be fixed as Gregory Dean Luce.
Though I have been fixed, the order is still interim, in process. I have to wait, at least under DC law, for six more months until the order becomes final. So I wait. And, believe me, my adoptive parents wait as well.
We wait through February and March. Through April, May, June, July. On August 1, 1966, it is final. And at that point—more than 250 days after my birth—a clerk sends the court order and an adoption form over to the department of health. This begins my final transformation. Until that time, until nine months after my birth, I’ve had one birth certificate. When the court’s order and the adoption form makes its way from a court clerk and into the hands of another government records clerk, a new birth certificate is prepared. This new one gives me the name of Gregory Dean Luce and says I have been born to my adoptive parents. It does not replace the original birth certificate. It just becomes the one I can see when I request a birth certificate later.
You ask “so what?” First, let’s say, for whatever reason, my adoption does not pan out. Let’s say the adoption is denied or is not finalized or is simply never done. Myriad reasons may unravel a plan for an adoption. In DC, a decade before my own birth and adoption, a judge denied a couple’s petition because the adoptive parents—one white and the actual mother, the other black and a stepparent and a law student and taxi driver—were a biracial couple who refused to sign a loyalty oath to the United States. Tanked adoptions happen, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for reasons that are plainly absurd.
In any event, if it goes south, no other birth certificate for me is created or issued. I retain the one listing my name and the name of my mother. I retain my identity, the original one. I move on and into the world and so does my birth mother. We continue to be separate and we continue to move apart. But I stay liminal, between birth and somewhere else, still an infant in the custody of a nonprofit corporation, still awaiting some other fate.
And while I await that new fate, if any new one there is, my original birth certificate remains available to me, as me. It will sit there, mine. It will sit there, mine, always, even if I am adopted, even if I am not adopted. But if I am not adopted it is my only birth certificate, the only one I will ever know. No one will have a claim to it except me, and that’s understandable because any specific person’s claim over it was extinguished when I was less than a week old, when my mother agreed to surrender me to the world, when she signed the consent form and had faith that the adoption agency would successfully mediate my life and find me a new home.
It sits there today, a true record, filed, stamped, recorded, a past linked to a future. My name, my mother’s name, maybe my father’s name, it is all there. And yet, if I want that information today, it is denied. Why? It’s a little unclear. District of Columbia law says I cannot have that information without a court order, and I have tried with a court order before to get it. When I did, the agency offered me “search and reunion services,” at a price of $500. At the time, I didn’t want search and reunion services (nor could I afford it). I wanted to know the full scope of my identity as a human, starting with the simple understanding that I was born, like you and everyone else, to two humans who also had names. I wanted my name, and I wanted the identity that linked me to my heritage. I wanted my full genealogy, not only one half I have come to know as an adoptee. Instead, I got offered search and reunion.
Why? I don’t know. Maybe it is because people cannot easily grasp the notion of an adoptee growing up to become an adult. Honestly, that’s probably it. For some reason, people believe that an adult adoptee’s request for identity—a request that relates solely to a basic issue of proof—is the same as being reunited as an infant with a lost teenage mom. Or the same as rejecting your adoptive parents. Whatever—these are typical but misplaced reasons for denying access to our full identities.
Remember, my mother surrendered me to the world without any promise that I would ever be adopted, with a clearly stated possibility that I’d keep all the information she gave to the nurse about her and about me, all recorded in my original birth certificate. She provided that information when I was four days old, and then she signed over her right to control any part of me, passing me over a threshold and into the custody of a corporation. But despite all that, despite all the records that were signed, dated, handled, stamped, filed, and sealed, courts and legislators and strangers insist that my request for my identity, my request for my original birth certificate, infringes on a latent need to retain control over me as an infant. That’s it. Infancy and control. That’s why. And, honestly, both of those reasons are wrong. Both are unjustifiably, plainly, and legally wrong. And never mind that the vast majority of birth mothers also think it is wrong. And that the vast majority of adoptive parents think so too. And that these reasons continue to hold because adoptees are denied control over their own narratives, over their own identities. Others continue to retain that control, typically legislators and adoption agencies.
After my parents picked me up in DC and drove me to my new home in Maryland, my birth mother remained at the maternity home for another week. She left at the end of November. She too went out into the world after a difficult transition, from college freshman to expectant mother to mother to, well, to an unknown and eternal state known as mother but not mother. When she left the maternity home after giving birth to me, she was promised many things. That she would forget. That she could pretend it never happened. That her life would get back to normal. That this period of her life would disappear. That she could now finally go forth and get on track, back to school, married, have her own kids, etc.
Most of what she was told, as well as nearly all of the promises that she was given, were false, or at best misleading. She did not forget. Giving birth to me, utterly alone and terrified, did not disappear from her mind, did not cease to exist as something that actually happened in the world. And while her life would get back to a sense of normalcy and she would accomplish many things, she always carried that liminal period of her 19-year-old life with her, stuck in some ways in the transformation from teenager to pregnant to mother to not mother. She later married—to my father actually—but they never spoke of me, and she did not have another child.
If there were any false promises more damaging to her, they were likely the promises used to enforce shame, which in turn helped to induce my surrender. Promises and statements that I would have a better future, that I was better off without her, that she was not yet worthy of a child. That she should be ashamed of being pregnant and unmarried, for screwing up as a white middle-class student, expecting but without a husband. And that a solution to the shame resides in the hidden transformation of herself from mother to not mother, from teenager to woman. And through that transformation her problems will go away and I too would be hidden and would disappear and never come back. In time, nothing would be left to existence and all would be forgotten, all records would be sealed, a child would go forth and meld seamlessly and anonymously into the future. Such is the erroneous but dominant and underlying understanding of secrecy in many adoptions today—from continued control over us as hidden infants to the shame used to induce our initial surrender. And we preserve that hidden infancy and those decades of shame by maintaining secrecy over of all of it, by denying the truth of our full identities as humans, and by controlling our narratives and deceiving everyone into believing that it was always supposed to be this way. That we should eat the lotus and forget.
After my mother died, I found a draft of a letter that she had written to me before we had found each other. The final letter she had asked to be filed away with the adoption agency. In the draft letter she wrote in part:
I did not feel, I, as a 19 year old single mother could offer the care and nurturing I wanted for you. I hope my decision, not one I wanted, proved to be a happy one for you.
Edited out was “I remember so well awaking late at night in the hospital and”—ending there, the entire phrase crossed out in pen by her hand, no further details of what she awoke to, what she saw, what she may have thought about on those nights when she awoke late at night in the hospital, presumably with me there or in a nearby nursery or, possibly, nowhere near at all. I never asked her where I was those nights, or the few days that followed. I also don’t have her final letter. It’s sealed up. It takes a court order to get it.