William Troxler wants to assure everyone that there’s nothing to worry about. He is not interested in humiliating the woman who gave him life. Nor does he want her to become his mother; he’s already got one he loves and doesn’t need another at his age. But Troxler, who is the president of Capitol College in Laurel, Maryland, would like to meet Marianne at least once, if she’s still alive, if for no other reason than to understand the circumstances that led to his adoption 53 years ago.

“I want to tell Marianne, first, that whatever trauma she suffered in giving me up, it turned out OK,” says Troxler. “I want her to know I’ve had a great life, I have a great family, and I’m okay about the decision she made, whatever her reasons. To whatever extent she has been tormented because she didn’t know what had become of her child or has suffered from wondering what I think of her, I want to alleviate that pain, at least.” Then, if she were willing,” Troxler continues, “I’d ask her what she could fill in about my biological family information– her own and my father’s. Is he around? Do I have any siblings? Is there anything I should know, historically or medically, that I could share with my son? Basically, I want to deliver any information about myself that she thinks is important, and then we’ll figure out where to go from there. I’m not looking to terrorize anyone or invade her privacy. I’m not even looking for a relationship. I just want information about myself that most people take for granted. That’s all.”

The search for identity is an essential, inescapable part of life. As children, we ask our parents questions about where we came from, who we look like, why we’re short or blond or freckled. Our teenage years are typically characterized by angst, anger, and a panoply of other inflamed emotions because our insides are burning with the need to discover who we are. Then, as the embers cool, some of us travel to our ancestral homelands, many of us sort through photos of deceased relatives whom we resemble more by the day, and a steadily growing number of us while away the hours scouring the Internet in search of grandfathers or great-aunts to add to our family trees.

For generations, most adoptees were told– or assumed, if they were told nothing at all– that they should view their adoptive parents’ backgrounds as their own. They did that, and for the most part they still do, because it feels good and right to embrace every aspect of the family in which we grow up. But the adoptees always knew that they had a second background, too, the one that explained their appearance, that accounted for some of their talents and traits. They knew there were people out there from whom they’d inherited their strong chins or weak hearts, a woman with whom they had shared at least nine months of early life and hundreds of years of history. Some adoptees cared deeply about all this, while others seldom gave it a second thought. But they all knew.

Today, the most overt and passionate adoption revolutionaries are adoptees who believe they have the right to obtain all the pieces of their personal puzzles. These people come in all ages, colors, and religions. They are conservatives, moderates, and liberals who disagree on just about everything else, including many other issues relating to adoption. On this one subject, though, their feelings converge along a high-voltage pathway. They bristle at the well- intentioned explanations and hushed excuses of the past; they’re livid that America’s laws still single them out for treatment they consider demeaning; and they’re determined to overthrow the status quo.

Troxler is among many adoptees of his generation who grew up believing he was the genetic creation of the only mother and father he ever knew. He always sensed something was amiss, though, because visiting relatives would whisper to his parents while glancing over at him, and because he never saw one person in his extended family who looked anything like him. Once, when he was 9, he asked if he was adopted. His mother scolded him for even suggesting such a thing and sent him to his room as punishment. He wasn’t suspicious by nature, so he carried on, making friends, heading off to college, getting married, accumulating several graduate degrees, raising his son.

The paranoia didn’t kick in until he was 46. In July 1993, while he was teaching at a small college in North Carolina, a student asked what relationship Troxler’s father had with the institution. “None, I’m sure, since I’m the first person in my family to get past high school,” he replied. “That’s strange,” said the young man, “because a portrait that looks just like you is hanging in our classroom.” Troxler finished his lunch and walked over to the building the student had mentioned. “I’d never seen anyone who looked like me, so I was curious,” he recalls.

As he stared at the painting of a former president of the college, Alfred O. Cannon, his knees grew weak. He shivered. “It sounds crazy now, but it scared the hell out of me. There was this guy staring at me from out of this gilded frame, and he looked exactly like me. It was a very strange experience.” On the way home to Maryland a few days later, Troxler decided to visit an elderly aunt, uncle, and their children in his father’s hometown of Gibsonville, North Carolina. The portrait fueled his desire to see his relatives, but he didn’t intend to ask them anything about it; he figured the resemblance was “just an eerie coincidence.” Still, it weighed on his mind, especially after his Uncle Walt – whom he hadn’t seen in 20 years – inexplicably launched into a monologue about how Bill didn’t look like any Troxler he’d ever seen. He went on and on, as though he was trying to tell his nephew something.

When he got home, Troxler dug out an album of his childhood photos, at the front of which was a copy of his birth certificate. It was much shorter and contained far fewer details than he’d expected, so he decided to get a look at the original. “I wasn’t searching for anything,” he says. “It really was just curiosity at that point.” So, a few weeks later, he went to the Office of Vital Records in Washington, D.C., paid a few dollars, and asked to see his file. He immediately knew something was wrong. The “original” birth certificate contained no doctors’ signatures, no scribbled notes. All the information on it was perfectly typed, clearly at the same time. It didn’t look like his son’s birth certificate, or his wife’s, or any other he had ever happened to see.

“Don’t worry about it,” the clerk told him when he said something seemed odd. “It’s valid, it’s just not true.” The words were in English, but Troxler had no idea what she was talking about. He asked for a translation. “It means you’re either part of the federal witness protection program– or you were adopted,” she answered, smiling. “Which would you rather be?”

At that moment, Troxler discovered the document he was holding was a legal fiction, one of millions routinely created to reflect that adoptive parents had given birth to their adopted children. He reflexively asked for the original. The clerk said she was sorry, but she couldn’t comply. “That would be illegal,” she said. “It’s under seal of the court.” Troxler left the office addled and angry. He didn’t know what to think or do. He’d never given adoption a second thought, and now, suddenly, it felt like the epicenter of his existence. One effect took hold immediately: His father had died years earlier, but this newfound knowledge crumbled his image of his frail, elderly mother. She had lied to him all his life, deprived him of the ability to learn basic facts about himself. Now, as he was entering what should be the fulfilling years of his middle age, he felt empty.

The gravity and intensity of such sentiments can be very hard for most people to understand. The adoptee has had a good life and a successful career, so what’s the big deal if his well-meaning parents omitted a little information? The people who ask the question, of course, have never had the most rudimentary facts about them hidden away by their mothers or fathers and locked up by the government.

Most adoptees start coping with identity issues by the time they’re 7 or 8. Developmentally, that’s when children begin the transition from concrete to abstract thinking; for adoptees, it’s the time when the word “adoption” becomes a multifaceted concept rather than just a description of a procedure. Most pointedly, they start to internalize a fact they might have known but never really understood: that, in order for their parents to have gotten them, someone had to give them up. And, as these children acquire a rudimentary grasp of reproduction, they add another volatile variable to their emotional mix: that the someones who gave them up were their mothers and fathers, too.

It can be a confusing, painful revelation. It causes some children to begin grieving, others to become angry or feel guilty, yet others to withdraw. Whatever its effects, it’s one of a series of distinct stages in most adoptees’ lives that can powerfully influence their maturation– perhaps making it difficult for a child to make attachments, or, alternatively, making them clingy, and presenting particular challenges for their parents. The ensuing stages– typically during the teenage years– are marked by progressively greater ranges of emotion, desires to assert independence or control, and, sometimes, resentment and depression. Adoptees aren’t necessarily tougher to raise because of their own concerns– certainly no more so than, say, the children of divorce or those with other familial issues– but it is important that adults, whether they’re parents or teachers or psychiatrists, understand these phases so they can anticipate and respond to them.

How they do so obviously depends on the individuals and circumstances. An insecure 10-year-old boy who seems reluctant to ask questions of any kind, for instance, might need gentle reminders that he didn’t cause his birth parents to relinquish him, while an assertive 15-year-old girl might need support in her genealogical research. At any age, adoptees benefit from reassurances that their anger, guilt, and grief are normal, that they are unconditionally loved, and that their current families are theirs forever, whatever they may do in their lives or whatever other relationships they choose to establish.

The more information adoptive parents have during these critical junctures, the better they can explain and demonstrate their points. Relationships with birth parents can also play an important role, when they’re possible, because they allow children to obtain a firsthand grasp of the complex reasons someone might have had for relinquishing them. It can take years for adoptees to internalize the notion that an adoption placement itself is an act of love, a selfless decision intended to do what’s best for the child.

The key to understanding the adoptee-rights movement is knowing that the people driving it believe deeply in their cause, much in the way that anti-abortion activists and gun-control advocates do in theirs, that there’s little anyone can do to diminish their determination. They are players in a riveting, ready-for-prime-time melodrama whose characters include not only zealous adoptees but also distressed birth mothers who insist that their lives will be ruined if the children they relinquished decide to find them and elated birth mothers who insist that their anguish has been soothed by the children who found them.

The unapologetic idea behind sealed records was to keep secrets. Now they are relics that have somehow managed to survive the bad old days of deceit and denial; whatever they might or might not accomplish, they serve as an icon of discredited practices that most adoption professionals and adoption-community members are trying mightily to overhaul. Still, the fight over their continuation offers a prism through which we can gain valuable insights about our nation’s judges and lawmakers. And about ourselves.

For more information, please contact:

Adam Pertman, Executive Director
Adoption Nation Education Initiative
617-332-8944 (work)