Media Bias And Late Discovery Adoptees

Another Chicago Tribune article that, on the face of it, does not appear related to adoption until you take a closer look. It’s about a doctor who is helping a homeless man get back on his feet. Scroll down a bit and you’ll see how this is related to adoption:

A talkative man, Atkinson [the homeless man] traces his downward slide to a defining event of his youth: finding out at 18 that his parents had adopted him as an infant. His father had died eight years before; as an only child, he was extremely attached to his mother, who passed away in 1973.

“[She] used to tell me: Whatever you do, Everett, tell the truth. And then I found out, she never told me the truth [while I was growing up] about who I was,” he said, sighing. Atkinson said his drinking and drug use started after he found his biological family — a father who was abusive, a mother who got hurt, and a dozen frightened brothers and sisters.

While I can’t claim to speak for Mr. Atkinson, I understand how he feels. Although I was always told I was adopted, I didn’t find out til my mid-20s that my adoptive father knew the complete details of my adoption including my birth name. I know how much that rocked my world. Imagine what you’d do if you found out as an adult that the people you called parents lied to you your whole life. Your life might take a turn for the worse too.

What annoys me about this article is the skewed way in which it is presented. Little mention is made of his adoptive family, yet many negative details are included about his birth family. To me that second paragraph implies that Mr. Atkinson’s problems stem from the “bad stock” of his birth family rather than from being lied to by his adoptive family. This, despite Mr. Atkinson himself tracing the “defining moment” back to the lie. In fact the reporter makes a point of mentioning that Mr. Atkinson was “extremely attached” to his adoptive mother, as if issuing an apology to any adoptive parents who might be reading, as if excusing the fact that he was lied to. This kind of biased reporting perpetuates the myth that all birth families are teetering on the brink of destruction and to find them is tantamount to destroying your life. Is there any family out there that is perfectly unblemished? Instead the article could have explained that lying to your adoptive child sets them up for emotional difficulties later.

Now, if original birth certificates were available to adoptees in Illinois instead of being sealed, it would not be possible for adoptive parents to lie about their childrens’ origins. People justify sealed records by saying the child should be “protected” from the truth of their biological families. But if this man had grown up knowing he was adopted and knowing about whatever problems his birth family might have had, he would have been able to deal with it slowly and with support rather than having to deal with it on his own when it was dumped on him at the age of 18.

Let this be a lesson for all adoptive families: TELL THE TRUTH! I wish Mr. Atkinson much success in his fresh start on life.


  1. You are right on track with that article and all its implications. Why is it that lying to an adoptee is accepted by society? Because adoptees are seen by society as inherently flawed. This goes back to the old Puritanical view of illegitimate bastard children and society’s unwillingness to acknowledge sexual desire in human beings. However, society has changed on that front. It had to because there are nearly as many children born to unmarried parents now as born to married ones. And open adoptions are the norm now too. But for Everett Atkinson and many of us born more than 20 or 30 years ago, things are different. All states need to allow adoptees their OBC’s. Thing is that years ago (Baby Scoop Era) even OBC’s contained lies, so getting yours may not bring you much closer to the truth. Mothers registered under false names or used the adoptive parents names on the OBC to hide the trail and their shame. Sad but true. No picture ID’s back then. Money in the right hands worked. Preists, doctors and lawyers handled “the small details” – us.

  2. http://Anonymous says

    As an LDA who found out at 50, I can attest to the fact that being lied to by the people whom you loved and trusted the most is devastating. I can never fully trust anyone again. I too was told never to tell a lie, always tell the truth. Fortunately, I did not fall into addiction, but moderate depression is something that has plagued me since youth. And I consider it caused by that early separation from my birth mother, unconscious feelings of something being wrong, and because of the lie, not being allowed to make sense of it all. Not being told doesn’t make being adopted go away. It just makes everything seem toxic.

  3. Harmonygirl–Falsified OBCs are definitely a problem, but perhaps if the records were open and there was transparency in the process it would lessen the likelihood. I’m not sure there are any 100% perfect answers. All I know is that sealing OBCs is the wrong way to go.

    Anonymous–What you said describes the problem perfectly: “Not being told doesn’t make being adopted go away. It just makes everything seem toxic.” That was how I felt when I found out my adoptive parents lied about what they knew of my origins. I commend you for finding your way out of the darkness.

  4. I don’t think the reporter’s bias is conscious because I have read other articles she wrote. She does acknowledge what Atkinson himself has come to realize — that his downward slide began when he learned that the person he loved most in the world had allowed — one might even say encouraged — him to believe a lie.

    Late Discovery Adoptees (LDAs) very often report that they did not feel as though they belonged to their adoptive families, that something was wrong but they had no idea what it was. Atkinson was apparently different. Whichever scenario describes an LDA, learning the truth is traumatic, either because it presents you with confirmation of that gut feeling that you don’t belong or because you learn your life as you know it is a lie.

    At the heart of my own beliefs about adoption is that there is always some sort of family dysfunction associated with it — often, but not always, it is the biological family whose dysfunction set up the circumstances that resulted in an inconvenient but not always unplanned pregnancy. Certainly that was true in this case. Given those circumstances, when Atkinson found his birth relatives he might well have found siblings who resented the fact that he escaped those circumstances by being adopted. His adoptive parents owed it to him to acknowledge his adoption. If his adoptive parents knew of his biological origins and the problems within that family, they may have thought they were protecting him but they were not. I’m inclined to believe that had no clue — my adoptive parents didn’t either.

    But nature will out! If for no other reason, that’s why all parties need to know the truth — all of the truth. I think that part of the problem is that adoption agencies think they will not be able to “sell” children from troubled backgrounds because they might be viewed as defective merchandise. If we could get away from the financial motives that pervert adoption practice we might hope for some improvement.

    What is missing from this article is any investigation of the phenomena of LDAs and corollary exploration of the far-reaching consequences of secrecy and deception in adoption.