Palo Alto Weekly

- August 26, 2011

Who am I?

An adopted daughter embarks on a challenging search for her birth mother

by Carol Blitzer

"Growing Up Is Hard to Do When They Won't Tell You Who You Are," by JoAn E. Chace and Katherine E. Chace; Patsons Press, 232 pp.

"Oh look, she's got Grandma's blue eyes."

She's as persnickety as Aunt Susie."

"It's about time someone could run as fast as cousin Hal."

As an adopted daughter born in 1970, Katherine Chace never heard those comments. Hers was a classic, closed adoption where even her birth certificate denied her access to basic information, such as her birth parents' names.

Growing up in Palo Alto, Kate never knew why she didn't quite fit, why she was short, sturdy and athletic, why school was a challenge.

The question really wasn't why, but rather who.

She and her mother, JoAn Chace, have co-authored and self-published a book that chronicles her journey — with a lot of help from her adopted mom — to discover who she is.

JoAn wrote the majority of the book, with Kate's voice interspersed. JoAn shares her personal story, beginning with how scarring from pelvic inflammatory disease rendered her unable to bear a child. She walks us through the labyrinth of adoption, recalling conversations with social workers, one of whom told her outright:

"You and the doctors. The professors and the doctors. You all expect a healthy child. And you want a child that will be able to learn and achieve."

She was even advised to give up working and change her babysitter (for her adopted son, who is two years older than Kate), if she expected to get a second child.

Once they had adopted Kate, who spent her first 22 months in foster care because of legal issues, the Chaces took the social worker's admonitions to heart. They soon moved to Palo Alto where Bill became a Stanford professor, dean and vice provost. JoAn lectured in freshman English at Stanford when the children were growing up.

An avid athlete, Kate played soccer, studied violin and rode horses, even keeping a horse in the foothills. School was a challenge: She didn't learn to read until third grade, when she got glasses. Later she was diagnosed with learning disabilities.

And, by the time she was in middle school she began slipping out of the house at night. Fearing that she would not thrive at Palo Alto High School, she went to Mid-Peninsula High School. Although her parents knew the local police officers by name — and tried to set and enforce limits — Kate continued to sneak out. At 15 she ended up pregnant by her boyfriend (who JoAn described as "hostile, drank, rode a motorcycle" but welcomed into their home "as the devil they knew") — and chose to give up the baby boy for adoption.

Kate chose an "open adoption" for her son, and interviewed the prospective parents. They sent her photos for three years, then abruptly stopped. Although the adoption was "open," there were no guarantees.

She hasn't heard from them since.

She writes in the book: "I have so much to tell him. I want to tell him that I've always loved him and that I gave him up so that he'd have a better life than what I could have offered. ... I think you have to love a child tremendously in order to give him up."

Kate finished high school and started community college the year her father became president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. That's also the year she began her search for her birth parents.

From the beginning, JoAn joined Kate in her research, filling out endless forms and waivers to obtain her files. Although Kate's adoption was "closed" she had learned from her released file that she had two older half brothers and that her natural father was actually her legal father's brother. (Her birth mother had an affair when her husband went to Vietnam as a civilian worker, broke off the connection and then disappeared.)

Some of what Kate learned was disheartening: One grandfather died of cirrhosis of the liver and her natural father also had a drinking problem.

But she also learned that her birth mother was caught up in legal matters, unable to fully give her up for adoption because her husband was missing — hence the long stay in foster care.

"The earnestness of Kate's mother was touching and inspiring to us all. Greater knowledge of her mother was a gift and a treasure for Kate," JoAn wrote.

But getting a little bit of information simply spurred them on to look for more.

Although secrecy surrounding adoption historically was designed to protect the birth mother (think "The Scarlet Letter"), later thinking has eased the strict confidentiality demanded in the 1950s through the 1980s. Some states today have "mutual consent" registries — where adopted people and their birth parents can give up their anonymity — but California's is passive, requiring consent from the over-age-18 adoptee, either adoptive parent. and the birth mother or other birth family member. And the consent cannot be solicited by the adoption agency.

The end of the book reads like an unraveling mystery: Someone failed to fully black out Kate's birth mother's marriage and divorce dates, so Kate and JoAn were able to check through public records in San Francisco, spending three days checking and cross-checking until they came up with the first, middle and last name of her birth mother, as well as the last name of her birth father.

Then the letter-writing began — but with no response.

The book's ending is a bit anti-climactic: Kate learned her mother was living in San Francisco, and she called her, only to be rebuffed. She followed with letters, even including a photo of her dog.

Wanting to reassure her that she wasn't looking to blame her or bring up bad memories, Kate wrote: "I turned out great. Thank you."

That was 1995.

Fast forward to 2011.

JoAnn sits in her University South home, offering Southern iced tea to the reporter who can't resist asking a few things: Has Kate ever contacted her son? Did she ever connect with her mother? What about those half brothers?

No, Kate hasn't met her grown-up son, now 26 years old. Even with an "open" adoption, she never knew the last names of the adoptive parents. The information is out there on California's passive registry, but because he's a boy JoAn said he's less likely to search, much like her own adopted son, Will.

As JoAn put it when Will chose not to look further for his own birth parents, "He couldn't see the gain, didn't want her pain."

Will did go as far as requesting his file, where he learned that his mother could have kept him. At first he felt she just threw him away, JoAn said, but "after that he began to pull himself together." Today he's married with two children of his own, living and working nearby in Scotts Valley.

Kate stopped trying to contact her birth mother, but sought her brothers via Facebook. She learned via notes that their stepfather (Kate's natural father) had been abusive and harsh. One called Kate "the lucky one."

Then one brother visited the Chaces in Palo Alto, and JoAn gave him a copy of the book. Three months later, he brought the book to his mother.

"She was quite fascinated. She'd forgotten much of this history. ... It brought back a period of her life she hadn't thought about in a long time," JoAn said.

Then she called Kate.

So the story is ongoing: Kate hasn't met her grown-up son. She's married now and still hopes to have another child. And she lives in Atlanta, Ga., where she works with primates at Emory University. She still hasn't met her mother face-to-face, but they've talked.

And for JoAn, writing this book with her daughter has fulfilled her desire to get to know her daughter better. "The book project brought us closer together," she said.

In Kate's words, "Over time you showed me that you loved me unconditionally and your love, in part, has made me the strong adult I am today."

Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be emailed at cblitzer@paweekly.com.

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