Michelle K. Johnson was born 42 years ago to a poor, unmarried 15-year-old girl, then adopted and raised by middle-class professionals. She speaks lovingly of her adoptive parents, using words like "supportive," "exceptional" and "the best family I could have had for the situation that took place."
Yet she also bluntly calls her adoption "a mistake." Johnson, who is black, contends that growing up in a white family and largely white community exposed her to years of self-esteem and identity problems. She says county officials should have placed her with one of her birth mother's 12 older siblings instead.
"I don't have a crystal ball to know whether things would be better or worse for me, easier or harder," she said. "But it's what should have happened, and my adoptive family agrees."
Although not all adoptees share Johnson's strong views, others are also speaking up about their experiences with adoption. Many share feelings of abandonment, loss and conflicts involving identity.
In Minnesota, home to an estimated 135,000 adopted and fostered adults and children, a novel state program provides them a place to talk. Adoptees Have Answers opened last year to offer services for and about adult adoptees, including support groups, public events and webinars.
Though apparently the first of its kind in the country, the program reflects a growing interest in open discussion among the nation's 7 million adoptees, said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research organization in New York. Adoptees are "coming out" to tell a side of the story that has traditionally been overlooked or even hushed up.
"We're talking about the issues of adoption in a much more honest way than we ever have before," said Pertman, an adoptive father and author of "Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming Our Families -- and America" (Harvard Common Press, 2011). "That means we bring out the problems as well as the good stuff."
The group aims to support adoptees but also to promote a better understanding of what it's like to be adopted. The hope is that parents, social workers, adoption professionals, therapists and lawmakers will be listening.
"We believe there is a basic underlying situation, when a child and her original mother are separated, that has lifelong consequences," said Kate Maloney, manager of Adoptees Have Answers. "We need to be really, really sensitive to those lifelong issues."
Once kept hidden
Amid the fascination with recent high-profile adoptions such as Sandra Bullock's young son, it's hard to recall that only a generation ago, adoption was often "a secretive, shame-filled, stigmatized process," Pertman said. Pregnant teens left town to give birth. Adoptive mothers sometimes faked pregnancy, stuffing pillows under maternity blouses. Afterward, families were often discouraged from discussing the subject.
"Parents were told to just take 'em home and love 'em and don't treat them as if they're any different from other kids," said Maloney, whose organization is funded with $589,750 from the state Department of Human Services to operate from February 2010 to September 2012.
That secrecy succumbed to social changes, including a surge in transracial adoptions that make non-biological parenthood physically obvious. Although some adoptees still encounter bias, the overall image has shifted. Now, adoption is widely viewed as a happily-ever-after alternative to problems including abortion and infertility. Though more positive, Maloney calls this "the hearts and butterflies version"-- still oversimplified.
"What adoptees are saying is that it's much more complex, really, for everybody," she said.
Adoptees' experiences vary widely, from time spent in orphanages or foster care to being whisked, as infants, into the arms of loving parents. But they often report similar feelings of loss or abandonment -- even those who remember nothing about their first mothers. Many long to know more about their biological parents but fear seeming disloyal to those who raised them.
Some, like Johnson, struggled with ethnicity. Her parents, Fred and Ethel Johnson, held progressive attitudes about race. But growing up in overwhelmingly white Golden Valley, Johnson said she faced slurs, stares, threats and profiling.
"The minute you stepped out the door, you had to put on a suit of armor," recalled Johnson, volunteer coordinator for a child advocate program in Hennepin County District Court.
Adoptive parents aren't always adequately prepared for such challenges, Johnson said. "They see these cute little brown babies and want them, but they don't really think about what that means [when the children become] 10, or 13, or 30."
A primal pull
Even a positive approach can be tricky. Holly Bloch of St. Francis remembers her mother telling comforting bedtime stories about her adoption.
"I always knew I was adopted, that I was chosen," said Bloch, 54, who is active in organizations for adoptees seeking birth parents. "But if you can be chosen, you can be unchosen."
The experience can take a toll. Although most adoptees are well adjusted, research indicates they're more likely than the general population to suffer emotional and behavioral problems.
"I spent a lifetime telling my [adoptive] mother I hated her, that she wasn't my real mother," said Deborah Jiang Stein of Minneapolis, a writer who attended one of Adoptees Have Answers' public events. "I don't know how she endured."
Stein was born in prison to a heroin addict. Although adopted in the 1960s by "wonderful, liberal" parents, she was drawn into crime and addiction as a teen. Eventually, she went straight and began writing and speaking about adoption and incarceration. Stein sees her life as a tangle of nature and nurture, the influence of adoptive parents who taught her to appreciate poetry straining against the mysterious, primal pull of the birth mother Stein located only after the woman's death.
"I really, really wish that she had kept me," Stein said. "I also am really, really glad that I was removed."
Adoptees are frustrated by laws sealing their birth records, depriving them of knowledge about their family background and health history. Although Johnson's birth certificate is on file in the courthouse where she works, she has never seen it. She could pay someone to search for her birth mother, but has resisted on principle.
"This is my history that I'm being denied and I shouldn't have to pay a red cent," Johnson said. "But my mother's getting older. In the end, I may give them their blood money."
Bloch met her own birth mother after her home state of Ohio briefly opened its records in the mid-1980s. When the two met, they immediately clicked, sharing viewpoints and personalities.
"We have some of the very same mannerisms, the same hand gestures when we talk," she said. "That's something that the adopted person misses out on. I had never looked like anybody."
Katy Read • 612-673-4583