Tuesday, May 15, 2012


When I retired and left a life spent mostly abroad as an American diplomat, I had the time to research my early history as a child abandoned to a county orphanage.  I set out to obtain my official social workers case file which I hoped would confirm and enrich the memories I had of that period in my life.  At the same time my younger sister was beginning to open up contacts with our biological family, in which I had less interest.  But she persuaded me to go with her to meet an uncle and aunt, an older brother and younger sister of our biological mother.  I agreed, mostly because I was grateful to Mary, the aunt, because she had helped me to begin to read at age four, a gift I have appreciated all my life. 
Published personal accounts of adoption seemed to me to be mostly about the unhappily adopted who had only been able to find a sense of belonging through reunions with their biological relatives.  That did not seem to fit my case at all.  But how could I be sure?  Perhaps I would also experience a dramatic and fulfilling sense of belonging through a reunion with Nate and Mary.  And if that happened, would the identity I had in part accepted and in part forged over the years of living as a Luchs crumble before the flesh and blood reality of a family whose genes I shared?  Who would I be then? 
So I was anxious about meeting these biological relatives.  If I belonged to these people biologically, did I have to think of myself as one of them after half a century living in a different family and culture?   I was almost sixty years old.  My sense of identity, which is linked to my sense of security, was hard won, primarily during my adolescent years.  I had absorbed the culture of my adoptive parents and had come to believe that our identities and fates need not be determined by our biological families.
My biological father spent most of his youth in prison and at one time, he, a brother and sister were all locked up by the state of Ohio.  Did that mean I or my brothers and sister had to repeat that sad history?   If so many of our personal characteristics are determined by our genes, why didn’t we have criminal records?  Why had none of us ever been arrested?  
We are freer than we often think.  Sure, the borders are set by biology.  We probably can't much change our IQs.  We are born with musical talent or we are not.    But I believe from my experience as an older adopted child that within those given limits, there exists a great zone of freedom and our identities and what we make of our lives is in considerable degree up to us.    
I had come to see the hard way how biological families can hurt us and keep us from developing our full potential.   I had to be freed from them to undo the damage they had done. When biological families abuse us instead of nurture us, when they seriously neglect our health and education and well being, we must be freed from them to make a new beginning.  Truly, I had to be separated from my biological families to become me. 
Well, you may be asking.  How did the breakfast meeting with your biological uncle go?  It was friendly and pleasant.  But as I said to my sister afterwards, I did not see…..a single similarity, odd as that may sound, nothing that resembled me.  He and I looked so unlike each other that I thought; if someone had randomly selected an older man off the streets and set him down to breakfast with me, the odds are he would look as much like me as this biological uncle.  It turned out that I and my siblings physically bore more resemblance to our biological father’s family. 

Monday, May 14, 2012


Michel de Montaigne, the 16th Century French author who invented the essay literary form, probed the human experience so deeply that most of his readers believe, when they read his essays, they are reading about themselves.  Examples:
Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book in some former life.”
Andre Gide:  “So much have I made him my own that it seems he is my very self.”
Bernard Levin:  “How did he know all that about me?” 
A favorite essay of most readers is “Friendship.”    As a young man Montaigne formed an intense relationship with Etienne de la Boetie, which, forever after he considered the most important relationship of his life.  La Boetie died suddenly of the plague when Montaigne was 30 years old. 
Writing years later, Montaigne compares his friendship with La Boetie to biological relationships.  “Truly the name of brother is a beautiful name…but why should the harmony and kinship found in these true and perfect friendships be found between brothers?”  He pointed out that biological brothers necessarily compete (we call it sibling rivalry) and “often clash with each other.”  “Likewise,” he wrote, “Father and son may be of entirely different dispositions, and brothers also.   He is my son, he is my kinsman, but he is an unsociable man, a knave, or a fool.”   Montaigne believed that the freedom essential to true friendship is unlikely to exist among biological relatives because “ they are friendships which law and natural obligation impose on us…and our free will has no product more properly its own than affection and friendship.”
La Boetie’s death began a tragic period in Montaigne’s life.  Three years later the father to whom he was devoted died.  Then his brother died improbably in a tennis accident and Montaigne himself nearly died while riding his horse.   His wife would eventually give birth to five daughters but only one survived infancy and lived to adulthood.
Sarah Bakewell, in her excellent recently biography of Montaigne, How to Live or a Biography of Montaigne, describes how in the last decade of his life a young woman, Marie le Jars de Gournay, came into his life.  She had read an early edition of his essays and felt, “she had found her other self in Montaigne, the one person with whom she had a true affinity, and the only one to understand her.”   They eventually met and though they were often linked only by correspondence, he eventually invited her to become his adopted daughter, an offer she quickly accepted, as well as his first great editor and publicist.  Bakewell thinks their relationship was not sexual, partly because Gournay remained on good relations with his mother, his wife and his biological daughter. One reason Gournay wanted Montaigne to adopt her was to replace her deceased father. 

Bakewell observes:  “What Montaigne’s real daughter Leonor thought of this claim to surpass biological family bonds is anyone’s guess.  One could not blame her if she felt put out, but it seems she did not.  She and Marie de Gournay became good friends in later years, with Gournay calling her “sister,” as was logical if they had the same father.”   

This is how Gournay and Montaigne described their relationship:
Gournay: In truth, if someone is surprised that, although we are not father and daughter except in title, the good will that allies us nevertheless surpassed that of real fathers and children, the first and closest of all the natural ties.  Let that person try one day to lodge virtue within himself and to meet with it in another; then he will scarcely marvel that it has more strength and power to harmonize souls than nature has.” 

Montaigne: “She is the only person I still think about in the world.  If youthful promise means anything, her soul will some day be capable of the finest things, among others of perfection in that most sacred kind of friendship which, so we read, her sex has not yet been able to obtain. (Note: That women were not capable of “sacred friendship” was a common view in the 16th Century!)  The sincerity and firmness of her character are already sufficient, her affection for me more than superabundant, and such, in short, that it leaves nothing to be desired, unless that her apprehension about my end, in view of my 55 years when I met her, would not torment her so cruelly.” 

Montaigne died at age 60, five years after he met Gournay.  This was, ironically, the same length of time he had enjoyed in his earlier intense friendship with La Boetie, which ended only when La Boetie died.   

Monday, May 7, 2012


I am one of four siblings adopted into the same family at the same time and have long believed the most important quality in any parent, biological or adoptive, is an open heart with the capacity to offer love.  That is not all a good parent needs but it is the most important of the essentials.  It seems ironic to me that of my biological parents, one had an open heart and one did not.  Of my adoptive parents, one had an open heart and one did not.  The same was true of my biological grandfather and my adoptive grandfather.  One, the adoptive grandfather, had an open heart; the biological grandfather did not. 
My biological father was a troubled man who spent too many years in prison.  I think most of his problem was a father who paid no attention to him.  A rural school teacher, Lonnie’s father let his son drop out of school in the 4th grade.  Despite his faults, Lonnie had an open heart.   When he was with you, you believed you were the center of his universe.  I became deeply attached to him.  
My adoptive minister father revealed much when in an unpublished memoir near the end of his life he wrote the following heart-rending words: 
“God, may I learn to let go the inhibitions which keep me from strong friendships… if I can let the coldness within me melt, then I shall be warm to others so that they have an opportunity to know me…I fear that people don’t want me in their company because I seem cold or I withdraw from them.

On the one hand, it was as if he was locked in his own prison.  And yet he was an extrovert who constantly praised “outgoing” people.

“Look at yourself, Luchs,” he wrote in his memoir.  What do you see when you are alone that when you are with people you can forget?”

My four parents, biological and adoptive, open and closed, change places when we come to mothers.  When I interviewed her younger sister and older brother decades after we had been adopted, they told me my biological mother was the spoiled favorite of her father and was all her life unusually self-centered.  That never changed.  At her one and only meeting with our biological mother nearly 50 years after she had abandoned us to a county orphanage, my younger sister, Janey, said of the meeting:
“I could not believe a woman could act that way.  It was all about me, me, me, me….and very defensive.”  
Through the years I often wondered why I had warm feelings for Lonnie, my biological father, and none at all for Eunice, my biological mother.  The more I learned about them and my early life, the clearer the picture became.
On the other hand, my experience of my adopted mother, Evelyn Luchs, was that she was an extraordinarily warm, open hearted and compassionate woman.  I was as lucky in my second mother as I was unlucky in my first!   I became as emotionally bound to Evelyn Luchs as I was to my two blood brothers and sister, even though she had had no role at all in the first eight years of my life. 
The same pattern existed with biological and adoptive grandfathers.  One had an open heart.  One did not.  My paternal biological grandfather lived next door when I was very young and I have no memories of him at all.  He took no interest in me or my three siblings at all.  Of my maternal McNelly grandparents, who lived two miles away, I have vivid memories to this day and especially of Grandma McNelly, to whom I became attached.  Even stranger, when I and three younger siblings were placed in the county children’s home, Grandpa Boggs did not visit us at all.  Not even once.  He lived five miles away and was in good health.
I first met my adoptive grandfather, Cliff Coulter, when the four of us were taken to his farm during our school’s spring break.  The morning after we arrived he invited me, because I was the first child up, to walk with him to a remote pasture to milk his cow.  This is how I describe Grandpa Coulter in my memoir, Children of the Manse. 
 “His voice, like his face, was warm and friendly.  He asked me about my school work and what I liked to do.  He didn't talk a lot.  He asked me question after question.  He seemed to be interested in what I was telling him. Being with Grandfather Coulter was like being with my biological father, Lonnie, because he listened to me and seemed to be genuinely interested in what I was saying and that made me happy.  I decided I wanted this new grandfather to like me.”
Grandpa Coulter listened.  He seemed genuinely interested in me.  And as I was soon to find out, he had an open heart and a great capacity to love.   That is what counts, especially in adoption.