Memoir

Gift of the gods

FOR A FEW days as 2004 slipped into 2005, Tony Abbott and I had a lot in common. On December 26 he received the news that his son, given up for adoption in 1977, had made contact. He called the same day to be greeted with the now famous remark, "Thanks for having me."

Five days before Tony Abbott made that momentous call, I received an email from a young woman claiming to be my daughter. The name didn't ring a bell and for a moment or two I was hesitant until I read that she had been adopted out in 1968 and had her name changed. I had known her as Chantelle; she was now called Yvonne. It was just after five in the morning and I rang her immediately. Although I am sure she made several quotable remarks, the emotion of the moment has wiped them from my memory.

It seems Tony Abbott and I went through a similar mix of emotions: joy at having discovered a long lost child and anxiety about how they might react to the contact. "I was instantly anxious about how I was going to get on with the son I'd only seen once, for a few minutes, just after he was born," Abbott wrote in The Bulletin in March. My feelings were similar. How would this young woman on the other side of the world react to the moment of meeting? I had not one single clue to her identity, education or upbringing. The fact that she was Irish and living in Dublin further complicated things.

Yvonne and I spent a lot of time on the phone over the next few days. And the news I received was – to say the least – staggering. My daughter was a clinical psychologist, married with two young children. Suddenly, out of the blue, I had become a grandfather.

THE SIMILARITIES BETWEEN our stories were, at first glance, remarkable, yet on reflection some major differences emerged. Both babies had been handed over to a Catholic adoption agency, but only one willingly. Yvonne's mother, Margaret, had no intention of giving up her baby. She had returned from working in London to Ireland and, as she said in a letter, was full of joy and excitement at the prospect of devoting herself to raising the daughter she had named Chantelle Noelle. Sadly, this did not turn out to be the case. On returning to Ireland, Margaret was forced into a "mothers and babies home" by the nuns and told that she was not a fit person to be a mother and that her daughter must be given up for adoption. The night before the handover, in one last desperate attempt to keep her, she escaped with the baby through a window, only to be caught and returned to the home. The following day she was driven to a Wexford hotel where the baby was removed by the nuns handling the adoption. At the time I knew nothing of this. My subsequent letters, offer of an air fare to New Zealand and declaration of my determination to stay involved went unanswered.

To the credit of the adopting parents, both children were raised knowing they were adopted and both initiated searches for their natural parents. I had been adopted and denied any information about that adoption. I knew how important that knowledge is to adoptees, as they set out on the search for their roots. It is often the only certainty they have. Even then the quest is rarely straightforward.

Yvonne's search was a long and frustrating tussle with the layers of bureaucracy in the Irish Adoption Board. In the mid-1980s, while still a teenager, she approached the authorities and was told that there were no records. Refusing to accept this, she contacted the board time and again only to be continually rebuffed. The desire to find her birth parents did not diminish over the years. When she turned 20 she decided to pursue a new line of inquiry and track down the agency that had handled the adoption. To her dismay, she learnt that it had been closed down. But then came a breakthrough – Yvonne discovered the name and address of one of the nuns who had worked in the agency at the time of her adoption. She wrote to her and was surprised to receive a reply that further fuelled her search. The nun not only remembered her case but also gave her the first concrete facts she had ever had. In the letter, the nun disclosed that Yvonne's mother's name was Margaret and her father's Robert and that he was a New Zealander. Even more important was that, according to the nun, her father had written several times saying he wanted her and her mother to join him. Yvonne was elated. Knowing names and, more importantly, knowing that she had been wanted, was a huge emotional plus. She kept the letter for years, reading it over and over again until it literally fell to pieces.

Sadly, just knowing the first names of her parents was not enough to enable her to trace them. For that she needed information that she was convinced must be held by the adoption board. The board, however, still refused to divulge anything.

In the early 1990s, after a decade of searching, Yvonne approached the board with a request for a caseworker to assist her, only to be told that they had no brief to assist with tracing. The only breakthrough she had was a hint that there may well have been some information being held by the board. It was, she later told me, a period of intense frustration. It was to last for another decade. Working as a clinical psychologist, she was fully aware of where the records were kept and, as she once angrily pointed out to a stonewalling bureaucrat, if she changed departments she could access them with ease. The anger was still evident in her voice when she related the story to me earlier this year.

I, too, had been searching. The primary object of my search over the years had been for my own birth parents and, for me, such an emotionally fraught undertaking was not sustainable on a daily basis. Long periods of time would go by in which the constraints of earning a living took precedence and the search was relegated to the background. My own experience of adoption had left me with deeply felt issues of abandonment, which sadly flowed over to my personal relationships. The failure of my first two marriages seemed ample proof that I was a flawed individual and reinforced my sense of being destined to be abandoned. However, it also made me very aware of my responsibility to my children – those from my marriages and my missing child in Ireland.

Tracing Yvonne was an extraordinarily complex task. The affair with her mother had taken place in England. I had returned to New Zealand and subsequently moved to Australia and Margaret had – as far as I knew – returned to Ireland. Over a period of a couple of months back in 1968, I had written several letters, the last of which came back marked "unknown at this address". Having no knowledge of where she was living, and without the internet and Google, I had hit a brick wall.

Yet, as my other children grew up, I told them the story of my "Irish daughter" and though I was dispirited about my chances of ever finding her, my daughter Maha remained convinced that "the Irish Christmas baby" would turn up one day. As the years went by, my belief that Maha's conviction would prove true waxed and waned. Even when the internet and genealogical databases came online, there were some obvious difficulties.

Yvonne's mother's name was extremely common in Ireland and the search was complicated by the fact that I assumed, correctly, that she may have married and changed her name. So I hunted for my daughter. Her original name, Chantelle Noelle, was uncommon, so I figured it would be easy to trace. Unfortunately, given the delighted tone of Margaret's only letter to me about her birth, I had not even considered the possibility that she might have been adopted out and had her name changed. My searches and inquiries were fruitless.

 

FOR YVONNE, THE wait had been much longer. In 2002, she was finally assigned a caseworker and, shortly afterwards, told that her mother was indeed alive and she should write a letter asking for a meeting. Her relief was immense and, after almost 20 years of searching, she finally met up with Margaret. For reasons of her own, Margaret arranged to meet in the lobby of the very same hotel where she had handed Yvonne over 34 years earlier. The meeting was fraught and emotional. Yvonne's description of Margaret as being initially reserved accords with many of the stories that I have heard since releasing my memoir The Magician's Son (Viking, 2005). There is a consistency of behaviour displayed when it is the children who have instigated the search. Understandably, their mix of emotions is different from those of their mothers who are having to deal with long-suppressed feelings of sadness, loss, guilt and grief. Many of the women who have related the stories of meeting their mothers talk of their frustration at being unable to immediately bond in the way they desired. For Yvonne, however, it was a moment of great relief to have her mother confirm that her father had indeed wanted her. She also provided the additional information that, although her father's name was Robert, everyone called him Sandy.

Yvonne's subsequent inquiries in New Zealand produced no results. It was not until December 21, 2004 that her husband decided to do a Google search for Sandy McCutcheon and came up with my email address. Within hours we were talking. Within days we had agreed to meet in the old medina of Fez in Morocco where I was heading to buy a riad as a writing and holiday retreat.

Overjoyed as I was to know that we would soon meet, I also experienced a sudden rush of doubt. How would we get on? Would we even be compatible? In my blackest moments I was convinced that committing ourselves to spending a week together was a recipe for disaster. It was, I thought, entirely possible that simply having a genetic link would not be enough to base a relationship on. Rejection, I felt, was a real danger.

 

THE EMOTIONAL REACTION to making contact is extremely complex. For my part it was initially a mixture of sheer joy and relief. Having been on a lifelong search for my parents and my own identity, I had some understanding of what Yvonne had been going through. Yet there was envy there as well. Having known all her life that she was adopted had allowed Yvonne a focus that I had not enjoyed. My parents had denied that I was adopted and absolutely opposed my attempts to discover the truth.

People who grow up in their birth families have the building blocks of identity in place and, understandably, find it hard to comprehend what it must be like to have that certainty missing. For them, identity is a given. Without it the world seems out of kilter and the absence of certainty colours everything. An absence is difficult to quantify and it is only when the issue is resolved that the extent of its effects can be understood. So it was for me. On the day, seven years ago, that I finally met my real brother and sister I experienced a seismic shift towards stability. The previously drifting tectonic plates of my personality finally locked together with the ease of well-crafted jigsaw pieces and for the first time I felt I was standing on solid ground. The full effect of the change did not happen overnight but within a matter of weeks I was enjoying a calm sense of contentment that has lasted ever since.

Amid all the joy over having reconnected with Yvonne was also a simmering sense of guilt. Had I done enough to try to find her? Could I have done more? Though I had done searches in genealogical databases and on the web, I had missed what, with hindsight, appears to have been the most logical avenue – contacting the information and tracing unit of An Bord Uchtála, the Adoption Board. I had been in touch with a private tracing agency but I was unaware that the board existed. Fortunately, the exciting prospect of actually meeting in three weeks' time overrode my feelings of guilt.

It seems to me that the desire to know your offspring is as deeply seated as knowing your own genetic heritage. Yet, for some people, the search for one or the other does appear to be less of a priority. My adopted sister claims to have never understood my desire to trace my birth family. A search is not a single event but rather a long painful and protracted process. The emotional investment in untangling the bureaucratic and psychological barriers to the truth takes its toll. Explaining the two-year gap between discovering her mother and finding me, Yvonne said simply: "Life gets in the way." It seems something of an understatement as in those two years she had two children and completed her doctorate. Sometimes, even finding your father gets put on the backburner.

 

AT FEZ AIRPORT, on the evening of January 14, 2005, I held my daughter in my arms for the first time in my life. It was eight days after her 37th birthday. All day I had been so on edge and apprehensive I was nauseous. At times I thought I would be too ill to meet her. Yet the moment I set eyes on her the fear of rejection slipped away, replaced with an overwhelming sense of completion. The meeting raised huge questions about the nature/nurture debate. Up until that point, I had always accorded the two factors equal status as determinants of personality. On meeting Yvonne, this was totally overturned. The young woman I met was so emotionally and psychologically like me that the dominant role of genetics seemed indisputable. More importantly, we hit it off from the first moment and spent the next few days exploring every detail of each other's life. Having the fascinating medina of Fez as a backdrop provided us with a safety valve and whenever we needed a break from the intensity of our newfound relationship, we explored the city arm in arm. Not only were we absolutely compatible, we were more than father and daughter – we were friends. It was pure bliss.

It is hard to overstate the impact of being in touch with your own flesh, your own blood, your own tribe. The desire to perform such a simple act as putting your hand out and touching the face of your child and to have physical contact is overwhelming. The link buried away in our DNA seems to demand that physical confirmation, and once that takes place the bond is immediate. At least it was for me. For others I have talked with, this moment was marred by hesitation.

Yet once our bond was established, the genetic traits were glaringly obvious, even to outsiders. Not simply the physical attributes such as eye and skin colour, or the physical manifestations such as shared gestures or stance, but a more difficult to describe catalogue of emotional and psychological markers. For Yvonne and me to share tastes and attitudes in almost everything we explored was remarkable. Put simply, despite never having met before, we knew each other.

Almost a month to the day after the first public reports, the news broke that there had been a DNA test that revealed Tony Abbott did not have a son. Yet before the publicity that compelled the genetic father to come forward, there seems to have been no doubt about his paternity. Abbott handled what must have been devastating news with dignity. "I have gone through 27 years of life convinced that I was his dad, but it appears that is not the case," he said, adding that he was "sorry" he has been dragged through the public spotlight as a result of a connection to me which it now appears was never the case".

The effect on Tony Abbott of the roller-coaster ride he had endured in public must have been considerable: "To find the boy I thought I had all those years ago and to go through a reunion and now to lose him like this is pretty shocking and I feel a bit numb about it all" seems a classic understatement.

The lessons are not about political point-scoring raised in the media but about the genuine need to come to terms with what we tell children about their genetic heritage. The fact that adoptions are no longer as common as they once were is a plus, but IVF and sperm donors means there are new ethical challenges. I hope that, as a society, we learn from the mistakes made with adoption during the second half of the last century and go forward with one principle firmly in mind: every child has the right to know where he or she came from.

While there are many fascinating aspects of these stories that can be explored through psychology, biology or sociology, there is one aspect of my own story that seems to belong in another realm completely. It is timing. For 36 years I had been looking for an Irish girl whom I believed to be called Chantelle. For more than 20 years an Irish girl named Yvonne had been searching for her father. But it was not until the very last day of my publisher's deadline to return the proof sheets of The Magician's Son that we made contact. It had not been an easy task to write the book but, having done so, Yvonne's appearance felt like the universe saying: "You've done the hard work, now here is a reward." Thinking about it later, over a glass of Guinness, it occurred to me that maybe our DNA is a homing pigeon that, when separated from its tribe, demands return. That, of course, is just fanciful nonsense – what really happened was a miracle.

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