An adoptee uncovers the risks of knowing
In some ways, the search for a woman I’ll call Marie was like countless others I’d done as a journalist.
It began with a name and an old address. I surfed the Web and worked the phones, and before long I was pretty sure I’d found her.
So I bought a ticket, hopped on a plane and took a rental car to her neighborhood in a small town outside Dublin, Ireland. I drove up and down her street, looking for a good spot from which to watch and wait for the right moment to introduce myself.
The difference between this stakeout and the many others I’d been on was that my quarry wasn’t some corrupt public official or otherwise newsworthy figure; she was the woman who gave birth to me -- and then gave me away.
Like countless other adopted children who are pulling back the curtain of secrecy around their births, I had many questions. All of us adoptees risk something in trying to find answers. My determination to satisfy my curiosity would cause pain in ways I could not foresee. It would also change my life profoundly.
i was born in scotland on Aug. 19, 1966, and adopted within a matter of weeks by an American couple, John and Susan Glover. John, in the U.S. Navy at the time, was stationed at a naval security base in the small town of Edzell.
We lived in Scotland for a year before returning to the States. I grew up an American “Navy brat,” moving from base to base as the Navy saw fit. Though by no means perfect, my childhood was a happy one, filled with memories of camping, fishing and baseball. I never felt that I was anything less than a full-fledged member of the Glover family.
Though I was told at an early age that I was adopted, my first realization that I was somehow different because of it occurred when I was about 10.
My cousins and I were standing around a pool table in the basement of their home near Saginaw, Mich., when the topic of adoption came up. The oldest, a girl about 12, was attempting to explain to the younger kids what it meant.
I don’t remember exactly what she said. But I do remember what I took away from the conversation: that my cousins were blood relatives of my parents and I was not, that in some fundamental way they were closer to my parents than I would ever be. I didn’t show it, but I was crushed by this realization.
I began to suppress the fact that I was adopted. I just didn’t want to deal with it.
When I went to college, I began to think more about who gave me away, and why. But by this time I had another concern. Although I was sure my adoptive mother never would discourage me from looking for my birth mother, I was afraid that bringing it up would hurt her feelings.
So, for years, I did nothing.
Eventually, I told this story to a friend and fellow reporter at a party. He was struck by a contradiction that hadn’t occurred to me: As an investigative reporter, I specialized in prying into other people’s lives. Yet I was ignoring a central mystery of my own.
through most of 2000, I watched my wife, Evelyn, go through pregnancy and labor and wondered what it must have been like for my own mother. When our son, Nicholas, was born on Christmas Eve, I looked at him and tried to imagine what it would be like to give a child away.
Then, in the spring of 2004, my parents came for a visit. Over dinner, my inhibitions loosened by a couple of pints of beer, I began to poke around the adoption question. Where did you say she’s from? How old was she? What did you say she did?
My mother answered each of the questions. After a long pause, she added, “I know her name. I’ll tell you if you want to know.”
Tell me, I said.
And she did -- not only my birth mother’s name, but the one she’d given me when I was born.
How did my mother know these things about a supposedly closed adoption?
Thirty-seven years earlier, shortly after my birth, my parents had received a copy of the adoption papers courtesy of a bureaucratic snafu by the U.S. Navy. My mother said she had promised herself that she wouldn’t say a word about it unless I asked, and even then, only after I’d become an adult.
The adoption papers listed an address in Ireland, not Scotland, where I’d always presumed my birth mother lived. A few days later, after receiving the document in the mail from my mother, I typed the address into an Internet search engine and found a phone number. I dialed and a young woman answered. I told her my name and explained that I had been adopted and that I recently learned that my birth mother was from a small town outside Dublin and I was trying to find her. Then I spoke my mother’s maiden name.
“You don’t mean Marie?” asked the woman, clearly stunned by the disclosure.
As it turned out, my birth mother still lived in the same town. The woman knew her well. What she hadn’t known was that Marie had given birth to an illegitimate child and put him up for adoption.
Marie was now happily married, I was told, with grown kids and grandchildren.
“Are you sure this is the same woman you are looking for?” she asked. “You must be mistaken.”
But there was no mistake, and we both knew it.
At first, I was thrilled to have found my birth mother so quickly. But that soon gave way to a feeling of dread. She’d been keeping this secret, and now it was out.
I called the woman back. I asked her not to tell anyone about our conversation. She and her husband, whom she’d already told, agreed.
But with this new information, a topic I’d ignored for the better part of 37 years became a near obsession. I could think of nothing else.
I thought about writing a letter, but decided against it. I pictured Marie’s husband sorting through the mail one evening and seeing a letter from some stranger in the United States and asking questions. A telephone call presented similar problems. How do I get her on the phone without arousing suspicions? And even if I did, the idea of launching into such a delicate topic over a transatlantic phone line seemed absurd.
Within a week, I decided I was going to Ireland. My plan was to find her house and “sit on it,” like a cop on a stakeout. I’d wait for her to run an errand, and follow her. I’d approach her when she was alone, but in a public place. This was the only way I could protect her privacy.
Virtually everyone I knew, including my parents, supported my decision to search for my biological parents. But they were also dead set against the way I was planning to go about it. They felt I was being brash and not taking into consideration the many things that could go wrong or the many people who could be hurt, myself included.
“Scott, what can I say to you that will make you reconsider your approach to this,” my mother wrote in an e-mail a few days before I was due to leave. “Everything inside of me screams ‘No, not that way!’ ”
as the aer lingus jet reached the coast of Ireland, it was low enough that I could make out the waves crashing onto the beach below. The land was a lush green. It was beautiful.
It was quiet on the plane. Evelyn was asleep, with Nick stretched out on her lap in the row across from me. Most of the other passengers were sleeping, too. I pressed my face against the window to take in the view, and I felt tears rolling down my cheeks.
Is this where I was supposed to grow up? I wondered. Is this where I’m supposed to be from?
A friend from my college days was in Dublin for a wedding, and he met us at the airport. As Evelyn and Nick napped, my friend and I went to a bar. We were in the middle of our third pint when he told me that he’d brought up my little adventure in the boozy wee hours of the wedding reception he’d been to. There wasn’t a single woman there who thought it was a good idea, he said.
That night, due to a combination of jet lag, alcohol and anxiety, I hardly slept. In the morning I walked over to Ireland’s general registry office and pulled the birth and marriage records for the woman I thought was my mother. The signature on the marriage certificate so closely resembled the signature on my adoption order that I was all but certain I had the right person.
So Evelyn, Nick and I piled into a rented Volkswagen Golf and headed for a small town in the Irish countryside. It quickly became apparent that my plan was flawed. For starters, all I had for an address was a street name, with no house number. It would have been easy to ask which house she lived in, but I feared that doing so would trigger questions by her neighbors.
After two hours driving up and down the road, we left. I went back on my own the next day and repeated the exercise before deciding it was futile. Back in Dublin, I decided to try the number listed for my mother in an online phone book.
I called her by her married name.
“Yes,” she responded.
I asked if she’d gone by the maiden name I’d found on the marriage record.
“Yes,” she said again, a bit hesitant this time.
At this point my heart began pounding, and the words I’d rehearsed so many times were nowhere to be found.
“Well, my name is Scott Glover,” I think I said. “But that’s not the name I was given when I was born.”
I told her what that name was.
There was silence.
“I think I’m your son,” I said.
Oh, my God, I thought to myself, she’s going to deny it!
Then, softly, she said: “I guess I’ve got some explaining to do.”
as i had suspected, no one in her family knew about me. If her secret got out, she feared it would cost her her marriage and maybe even alienate her from her children. More than once she asked: “Can we keep this between ourselves?” I agreed. That meant that in any retelling of the story, including this article, I would have to change or leave out the names of many people and places.
We agreed to meet the next morning in the lobby of my hotel. As I walked into the room, I realized that we hadn’t described ourselves to each other.
Moments later, as I stared into eyes indistinguishable from my own, I knew no description was needed.
“You must think me a demon,” she whispered, clenching my arm as we walked toward the hotel lounge.
I told her I thought nothing of the sort.
When we were seated, a waiter came by to take our drink order.
“Just water,” she said, too nervous to eat. She told me her hands were trembling so badly on the steering wheel on the way to the hotel that she was afraid she was going to run off the road.
I was thinking about ordering a pint to ease my own nerves, but decided on water, too.
I was soon glad I had.
“Your father was a horrible drinker,” she said. “And he was totally irresponsible.”
I’d yet to ask a question, but we both knew what we were there to talk about. Marie explained that I was conceived while she was on a visit to Scotland, but that by the time she learned she was pregnant she was no longer in love with my father.
He offered to marry her, but she told him no. Not only did he drink, she said, but he gambled, was careless with money and couldn’t hold down a job.
A Catholic, Marie turned to the church for help. She went to live in a convent until she gave birth and agreed to give the baby -- me -- up for adoption. Her only condition was that I be placed in the home of fellow Catholics.
“What life could I give you?” she asked, a pleading tone in her voice.
I handed Marie a letter I’d written before our meeting. It contained a brief biography and an explanation of why I’d come to find her. Aside from mere curiosity, I said, I wanted to thank her for giving birth to me and to free her of any guilt she may have been feeling. I assured her that I didn’t come to Ireland looking for a mother -- that I had one at home whom I love very much. She briefly scanned the letter, smiled and tucked it in her purse.
We agreed to meet for dinner the next evening, but left the details to be arranged over the phone. When she answered her cellphone the following day, she was much more lively and outgoing, as if sleeping on the situation had eased her mind.
We met for dinner at a hotel in Dublin. For the first 45 minutes or so the conversation flowed. I felt almost giddy looking across the table at this woman who for so long had existed only in my imagination. It was precisely the kind of reunion I had imagined.
But then I broached a subject I’d been avoiding. I told Marie about that first phone call, to the couple who knew her. I had sworn them to secrecy, I quickly added.
It was as if a waiter had dropped a tray of glasses.
Her face went pale.
These people would never keep quiet, she said. Her marriage was over, she feared. Her husband was a good man, but how could she explain keeping him in the dark all these years? He would feel horribly deceived, she said. Though she tried to reassure me that she understood how this had happened and that it wasn’t my fault, the mood of the evening had been killed. Her appetite was gone. She began fidgeting with her jewelry and her eyes darted around the room.
After an awkward goodbye with Nick and Evelyn, I walked her to the garage where she’d parked her car. Her hands shook as she tried to feed coins into the machine to pay for her parking.
She gave me a weak smile as she drove off.
I walked back to our hotel and flopped on the bed, depressed. The many warnings about the unpredictability and potential danger of my plan had suddenly, sickeningly, been realized.
I’d careened into this poor woman’s life to satisfy my own selfish curiosity, and now she quite possibly was going to pay the price.
I didn’t hear from Marie the next day. I wondered if I ever would.
before the disastrous end to our dinner, I’d asked Marie whether she thought my “father” was still in Scotland.
When she left him, she said, he was sitting on a stool in his favorite pub in a small town outside Glasgow.
“If he’s still alive,” she said. “I’m sure he’s still there.”
She’d given me his name -- for this story, I’ll call him Ian -- his approximate age and what he did for a living: He was a tailor.
As bad as I felt about the way things turned out in Ireland, I knew I couldn’t fly home without attempting to find my biological father. To do so would leave me as curious and distracted as when I’d begun. Also, I was less concerned about disrupting Ian’s life. I had a gut feeling that he wasn’t married and, based on what Marie had told me, might not even be alive.
I bought a ticket to Glasgow, and Evelyn and Nick headed home as planned. But not before Nick threw the temper tantrum of his 3-year-old life in the Dublin airport. I cringed at the thought of Evelyn having to deal with him by herself on the 12-hour flight.
Seized by uncertainty, and with several hours to kill before boarding my own flight, I headed for the bar.
early the next morning, I walked a few blocks to Scotland’s official records office. Operating on a hunch, I gave the clerk Ian’s name and asked if there were any matching death records for someone born around 1940.
She came back a few minutes later and handed me a slip of paper with information about a man who was born in 1939 and died in 1997. Another document listed the decedent’s occupation: tailor. There was no doubt: The father whose name I’d learned just days earlier was dead.
The second document listed Ian’s home address. I took a cab there, thinking that whoever was living there might be able to help.
A woman who looked to be in her mid-20s answered the door. I told her whom I was looking for. I had the right house, she said, but Ian had died years ago. She stood in the doorway, waiting to close the door -- or for me to say something else.
I told her I was from America, but that I was born in Scotland and put up for adoption. Ian was my father, I said.
A smile spread across her face.
“I was adopted, too,” she said. “Come in.”
Her name was Sharon, and she decided to help me. She began knocking on neighbors’ doors and making phone calls. I was introduced to a neighbor who’d known Ian since he was a boy. The woman insisted I watch a video of her daughter’s wedding. Ian was on the tape. It was surreal watching the stranger in the video, to whom I bore no resemblance. He was taller than I am, and heavier. Though well into his 50s at the time, he still had a full head of hair, I was happy to see.
Back in Sharon’s living room, I met a woman named Angela who had been both Ian’s neighbor and his bartender at the local pub. As it turned out, Marie was wrong about Ian still frequenting the same bar where she’d left him. That place had gone out of business. And when it did, Ian began drinking at the pub across the street. I’ll call the place the Red Lion.
Angela said Ian was a kind man who never forgot her children at Christmas and seldom had a bad word to say about anybody. But he did like “a wee drink,” she said.
Was he an alcoholic? I asked.
“Oh, no. I wouldn’t say so,” Angela said, shaking her head.
Well, how much did he drink? I asked.
On an average night Ian might knock back six or eight shots of whiskey, each followed by a pint of beer. Maybe a bit more on weekends.
This answer didn’t seem to surprise anyone in the room. By their standards, “alcoholic” was a term reserved for hard-core drunks who sleep in the gutter.
A few minutes later, Angela led me to the nearby home of Ian’s Aunt Margaret.
Margaret was a tall, thin widow with white hair and a warm smile. She invited me in and introduced me to her niece, also Margaret, who happened to be visiting from Glasgow. The Margarets, though clearly stunned by my sudden appearance, were wonderful. They made me feel at ease as they told story after story about the father I had never met.
He was a highly skilled tailor. He had a small shop in the center of town. For a time, his business thrived. Some of the area’s wealthiest residents were clients.
But the pub was just a short walk from his shop. He’d pop in for a quick drink at lunchtime, come back around 4 in the afternoon and wouldn’t leave until closing. He would periodically announce that he had quit drinking, only to start again a few months later.
“It was really quite sad,” said the elder Margaret.
Ian eventually lost his shop and began working out of an upstairs bedroom in the house he shared with his mother until his death in 1997, at age 57. The cause of death was lung cancer, but friends and relatives say his decline started when he slipped and fell outside the bar. He landed hard, cracking some ribs.
After he died, some relatives were cleaning out his bedroom and work space when they found an envelope full of photos. Inside were pictures of him and Marie together in the ‘60s, before I was born.
“I’m sure he was still in love with her,” the younger Margaret said. “I don’t think he really ever got over her.”
The elder Margaret recalled a night in the 1980s when Ian arrived at her home late, unannounced. He had been drinking and was visibly upset. He wanted to talk with her husband. That night, she later learned, Ian confided that “he had a son out there somewhere.”
He was devastated that he had no way to find him.
As I was leaving, the elder Margaret handed me a ring. She told me it had belonged to Ian, and that I could have it if I wanted it. I held it, rolled it around in my fingers for a few seconds, then handed it back.
“No, thanks,” I said.
I’m not sure why exactly, but I remember feeling that taking it would have somehow been disloyal to the father who actually raised me.
though it was early on a weeknight, the Red Lion was doing brisk business. I edged up to the bar that had been my father’s second home and ordered a pint. Then another.
I didn’t speak to anyone at first. I just looked around and got a feel for the place.
It was a beautiful room, with high ceilings and lots of light. The long, U-shaped bar looked as if it was made of oak. Everyone seemed like a regular.
Almost everyone knew Ian. Or thought they did, anyway.
All they really seemed to remember was an affable and generous drunk who was always buying.
“I felt sorry for him,” said Tracy, a woman who once tended the bar. “People would take advantage of him. From behind the bar I could see what was happening. When he was drunk, he couldn’t.”
That night I hit it off with a couple of guys about my age, and I began putting away the pints until I stopped keeping track. At one point it occurred to me that, had I not been adopted, there was a better-than-average chance that I, too, would have been a regular here.
I got back to the hotel after midnight. There was a message from Evelyn in Los Angeles. It was marked “urgent.” I reached her at work, where it was late afternoon. She told me she had received a call from a priest in Ireland early that morning. Apparently, she said, Marie could no longer bear keeping the situation to herself. She called a meeting with the priest and some of her children. With the priest’s help, she told them what was going on.
On the phone with Evelyn, the priest wanted to know “why in God’s name” I had shared my mother’s secret with one of her neighbors. What were my intentions, he wanted to know. As if I were some sort of extortionist, he asked: “What’s his next move?”
Evelyn explained that the disclosure had been inadvertent. She told him I was in Scotland looking for my father, and that I was scheduled to return to L.A. the next morning.
The priest told Evelyn that he had to get in touch with me before I got on the plane home.
“The girls would like to meet him,” he said. He was referring to Marie’s daughters -- my half-sisters.
I returned to Dublin, and with a pounding headache from my “research” the night before, I rented a car and drove to the same small town where I’d met Marie. I checked into a hotel, crawled into bed and took a nap. That afternoon, I reached the priest.
He said three of Marie’s daughters would meet me in the lobby of my hotel in half an hour.
I was sitting in a leather chair sipping coffee when a fit-looking woman with dirty blond hair and angular features walked into the lobby. I somehow knew she was one of my sisters.
We extended hands, as if to shake, but ended up in a hug. We were joined minutes later by two of her sisters.
All three were warm and wonderful. We sat by the fireplace in the hotel bar and talked for about an hour. I apologized for having disrupted their lives and upsetting their mother. They told me that they didn’t blame me for anything and that they were happy to get the chance to meet me. They were afraid I’d already gone back to California. They’d spent the previous night at the airport with their mother looking for people getting off of planes from Glasgow. Though I was sorry they’d wasted their time, I was elated they’d gone to the trouble.
For the next several days, we had lunches and dinners together and talked. I heard about husbands and kids and work and vacations. They asked about my life -- my adoptive mom and dad specifically, saying how grateful they were that they’d taken care of me.
We talked about how difficult it must have been for Marie to give me up. They often seemed on the verge of tears. We agreed that she had done the right thing, and that we were all happy with the result.
It occurred to me then, as it does now, how much more difficult this situation might have been for someone who did not have the good fortune of having been adopted by parents as loving and supportive as mine.
In the time since our meetings, my sisters and I have traded e-mails and photos and talked over the phone.
But distance and the fact that my existence remains a secret to some members of their family, including their father, have made it hard to really stay in touch.
as i searched for a deeper meaning in what I’d discovered, I found myself thinking more of my dead father than my living mother. Meeting Marie -- just seeing her, actually -- was a tremendous relief as far as satisfying my curiosity goes. But it did little to change my understanding of myself. She was young and scared and did what she had to do. And then she moved on.
Ian was a different story.
Though I’d enjoyed my evening at the pub, I was also saddened and scared by what I’d found. Here was a man -- my father -- who had quite literally drunk his life away. All the sadder was the realization that, despite decades of sitting together at the same bar, his drinking buddies barely knew him.
The scary part was the voice in my head telling me that if my father left me nothing else, I did inherit a healthy dose of his drunkard DNA.
Alcohol had been a ubiquitous presence in my life: I associated it with meals, sporting events, parties, family gatherings, vacations, travel -- everything.
My first experience with alcohol began not with my own drinking, but with my dad’s. He began drinking heavily when he returned from Vietnam in 1971. He would sometimes come home stumbling drunk -- one particularly memorable time in front of a group of my friends, some of whom then mimicked his inebriated state.
His drinking nearly caused my parents to divorce before he quit in 1982 after wrecking a truck while drunk at work. He hasn’t had a drop since, an accomplishment of which I am immensely proud.
Though I used to pray that my father would quit and sometimes went as far as pouring his remaining Old Milwaukees down the drain the morning after a bender, I did not shy away from alcohol myself.
I drank my first beer, which I stole from a neighbor’s garage, when I was 14. It was a can of Michelob -- warm, no less -- and it tasted terrible. But I liked the way it felt to drink it. By the next summer, I was getting drunk regularly on weekends, though my parents didn’t know it. I was arrested for DUI when I was 16 and spent a long weekend in jail. I had to crawl into the corner of my bunk and pull the covers over my head when nuns from the Catholic high school I attended came by to cheer up the prisoners.
My college years and early 20s were awash in alcohol, beer mostly. I lived the bohemian life in San Francisco, working as a waiter and bartender as I slowly made my way toward a journalism degree at San Francisco State. I drank, often to excess, several times a week. But so did pretty much everyone else. Or, looking back, pretty much everyone I chose to hang around with.
Work hard, play hard always made sense to me.
After I got my first newspaper job, I generally limited my drinking to Fridays and Saturdays but was happy to make exceptions. If I had a few on a weeknight, I’d just make sure to pop a couple of Alka-Seltzers and get to bed early so I’d be “fresh” in the morning.
I’d get a good buzz on once, twice, sometimes three times a week. Few people knew how much I drank or how drunk I was. I didn’t drink at work or come to work drunk or crash my car or have an affair.
I was, in my estimation, a very good drunk.
But after learning about Ian, it occurred to me that maybe I needed to quit.
That I was nowhere near “rock bottom” actually made my decision all the harder. I mulled this over for more than a year. I drank in spurts, a few months on, a few months off.
Once I started drinking, I came to realize, I didn’t want to stop. I really had no interest in one or two. Seven or eight was more like it. That, I realized, was a sure sign of alcoholism.
But it took months more to decide what, if anything, to do about it. I had never understood people who didn’t drink. Or, for that matter, people who didn’t drink a lot. I thought they took themselves too seriously. At 38, I was beginning to wonder if maybe I wasn’t taking myself seriously enough.
I had the sense of inching up to a ledge, getting close, but not yet ready to jump.
I took my last drink on the night of June 30, 2005. It was either scotch or expensive brandy. I can’t say for sure because I’d had so much to drink earlier in the evening.
Either way, it was the sort of liquor that simultaneously shocks and soothes as it burns a path from your mouth to your stomach like some hybrid brew that’s part ambrosia and part paint thinner.
As I was feeling this sensation on that night, I somehow knew it would be the last time I ever would.
In the two years since I quit drinking, I’ve come to discover a whole range of emotions that, looking back, had been suppressed since I was a teenager, including my feelings about having been put up for adoption.
Drinking kept me at arm’s length from everyone, even those who wanted desperately to be close. This is one of my deepest regrets.
Facing life stone sober isn’t easy, as many before me have discovered. But it is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
And, in some way, I’ve got Ian to thank for it.