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Should An Adopted Daughter Tell Her Adopted Brother What She Knows of His Origins?

Dear Belladonna Rogers,

My brother George and I are both adopted, although we have different birth parents. He’s five years younger. My biological parents were college students in 1954.  My adoptive parents told me about them because they believed I had inherited their intellectual potential, which they did all in their power to encourage.  They took the opposite approach with George, giving him no information about his biological parents. George and I always thought of our adoptive parents as our only parents and loved them with all our hearts. Mom died last year and George took her death very hard.

The day of her funeral, Dad mentioned privately to me that, as he had in the past, George had recently asked about his adoption.  Dad told him nothing.  Then, suddenly, without my asking, Dad revealed to me that George is the son of a married man who’d had an affair with a much younger woman, and that George still has some biological family members living in our area. Dad told me never to tell anyone, especially George. Mother had asked Dad never to reveal even as little as Dad told me that day.

I’m torn. I can’t tell my brother what little I know without disregarding Dad’s request or our mother’s final wishes. But I feel I’m being disloyal to my brother by not giving him this piece of his puzzle while he could still get some information from Dad, who’s very frail and, I fear, nearing the end of his life.

What can I do with this burden? George has never been as comfortable as I’ve been about being adopted. I think he might benefit from knowing the facts about his birth and adoption. Everyone else involved in my brother’s adoption, other than his birth mother and my father, is now dead. If I can’t persuade Dad to reveal the truth, I’ll never be able to tell my brother, because I don’t think I can tell him anything useful without names. I’m now extremely uncomfortable around both of them. Help! Please!

Agonized in Arkansas

Dear Agonized,

There’s no question that you’re in a deeply distressing situation.

One source of your anguish is that you feel pulled in opposite directions by two conflicting loyalties: to your parents (now to your father), but also your brother. Their interests — that which is good for each of them — are diametrically opposed.

The law of agency offers a useful analogy: your father has reposed great trust in you, confiding the circumstances of George’s birth and then forbidding you from telling George.

You also feel a sense of responsibility for George. The impulse to protect a younger brother never ends.  You feel it’s your duty to tell George the truth.

You are, in this sense, an agent of your brother’s when you’re with your father — trying to learn more on George’s behalf; but you’re also an agent of your father’s — his disclosure has implicitly made you his agent, but has also bound you to secrecy.

Your distress stems from your feeling that you’re a double agent.  You can’t be loyal to your brother without defying your father, and can’t be loyal to your father if you reveal to George what you think — as a fellow adoptee — may be helpful for him to know.

What could be more agonizing, since you love them both?

In this tug-of-war, I come out on your brother’s side. Since he may live another 40 years without this potentially important information, you owe him a greater duty to try to learn the facts he desires, or to help him get them.

Yes, this would mean going against the wishes of both your parents, but their desire for secrecy may have been based more on the shame they associated with an out-of-wedlock birth stemming from an adulterous affair in 1959 than on a realistic assessment of what is in George’s best interests in 2012.  Perhaps you could ask your father the reasons for his revealing less to George than he and your mother did to you, and try to let him know how much you believe George would benefit from the kind of knowledge given to you.

Returning for a moment to the law of agency, an agent’s responsibility to his or her principal (the person who entrusted the agent with information in the first place) ends with the principal’s death, so it could be said that after your father’s death, you are no longer bound by his insistence on secrecy.

My suggestion is to do all you can to learn the names of George’s biological family members, and as soon as possible. Since your father is unwell, time is of the essence.

The crux of the question is whether the knowledge George has long sought will be helpful to him in understanding his life, which is, after all, the goal of every human being.  You know George and believe it will help him.

If you’re able to learn more from your father and then postpone giving George the information until after your father’s death, you may feel less disloyal to your parents and better able to give George what could turn out to be the precious piece of his life story that he now lacks.

The dilemma you face is one reason I favor open adoption, discussed in depth here, the website of the American Association of Open Adoption Agencies, some of whose beliefs and guiding principles are:

Open Adoption is the healthiest form of adoption. We define open adoption as a form of adoption in which the birth family and the adopted child enjoy an ongoing, in-person relationship. … Given the extraordinary vulnerability of all the participants in adoption, it is crucial that services are provided according to the highest standards. We are keenly conscious that, for all its potential, there are painful dimensions to adoption. We recognize the importance of family preservation and view open adoption as an extension of that thrust. The essence of open adoption is respect and candor.

The legal standard of asking what is in the best interests of the child — and not of the birth parents or even the adoptive parents — strikes me as more important than doing everything possible to protect the privacy of the parents involved and deeming the child’s interests to be secondary to the adults’.  The child did not ask to be born, nor to be given up for adoption, and has a basic human right to know his or her origins, if he or she desires this knowledge.  Among the finest writings on this subject is the luminous In Search of Origins: The Experiences of Adopted People by John Triseliotis .

Most important for your peace of mind is to know that the best thing you can do for him is to be, as you’ve been since the age of five, his protector and loving sister, which will be all the more important with the death of his second adoptive parent.

Whatever the outcome of providing your brother with this “forbidden” knowledge, there is much you can do for him through your kindness, sustained loyalty, emotional support, devotion, good sense, and love.  Knowing you are available to him may be, no matter what happens with his birth mother, the greatest gift you can give him.

—Belladonna Rogers

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