Leaving the Ghost Kingdom
In the past, one could only enter one’s Ghost Kingdom through fantasy, but now in this Age of Search and Reunion, the ghosts are being morphed into real life people who inhabit the real world.
Once I knew I had found him, the speed with which I composed and then sent a message disgruntled my measured and methodically planning self. But, after all these years of searching, it came as no surprise that my impatient and impulsive side triumphed. Still, I read over what I had written 10,000 times before sending (and another few thousand after I sent), but once the decision was made that it was what I wanted to say, I hit ‘send’, and thus began the reunion with my birth father.
The message sat for what seemed like years, unread and unanswered. I would soon learn that my biological dad was not the most internet savvy person on the planet. Voices from friends and family, and even some of my own internal voices (that pesky over-thinker who has run the show far too long) — voices of reason and moderation — told me to just be patient.
I did not listen.
Upon finding out via a DNA test I was closely connected to a person I would soon learn was my dad’s brother — my uncle — I messaged him, but that was also turning up no results. My incessant sleuthing told me my uncle was married to a professor AT THE SAME UNIVERSITY WHERE I HAD SPENT A YEAR AS A VISITING PROFESSOR.
There! I thought. This is my in.
So, I rattled off a most academically-inspired email opening — an erudite professor-to-professor ‘philosophical’ inquiry:
Hello, we are old colleagues, and so on, until I dropped the plot twist on her:
Oh by the way I’m the niece of your partner whom neither of you have met.
As soon as I hit send, an auto-reply immediately popped up informing me that the recipient was on sabbatical until mid-January. I slumped back in my chair and let out a frustrated sigh. I have been on academic leave this semester as well because my daughter was recently born, and I DID NOT answer emails during that time. With all avenues thus far exhausted, I reasoned that the impetuous and stubborn side of me would finally have to take a few seats and wait this one out. I urged my racing brain to just chill for once.
The next day, I found an email in my inbox. It was from my uncle.
There were stories exchanged, all sorts of questions answered, and most of all, the confirmation that 1. My dad was still alive, 2. My existence was not some deep dark secret hidden from the rest of the family, and 3. My uncle and dad were in close contact. So this was it. I could finally talk to him.
It wasn’t so simple. It never is.
I began hemming and hawing. Why, after all the years longing to know, after all the pain that this gap in my story has left me with, after all the tireless searching, did I suddenly become paralyzed with fear? When my uncle offered to make the connection, with my permission, why couldn’t I decide? Why wasn’t I rushing in as usual?
I now realize it’s because I was afraid to leave my Ghost Kingdom. Coined by Betty Jean Lipton, an influential psychologist who specialized in adoption therapy and fought for adoption reform, the Ghost Kingdom refers to the hypothetical world adoptees enter when imagining their birth relatives. Because nothing is real in this make-believe realm, all manner of fantasy can be true, good or bad. From grandiose idealized versions of birthparents who have become famous artists, to gut-wrenching stories of lives cut short by tragic accidents — there are no rules in the Ghost Kingdom. Unlike non-adopted children, who, for the most part, grow up and stop having imaginary friends, adult adoptees who have not met their biological kin continuously return to these fictional worlds, perhaps even daily. They wonder, in crowded arenas, are my birth relatives here right now? They worry that they might unintentionally sleep with a half-sibling. They see faces that are vaguely familiar and think, what if?
This is true of my experiences. For the last 39 years, the deepest corners of my mind have created entire universes where my birth relatives hang out. They are happy, sad, alive, dead, rich, poor, do not know about me, miss me, wish they had aborted me.
Sometimes, they wish they had never put me up for adoption.
They are everything, and they are nothing, because they are not real. Bringing them forth into reality has seemed far too dangerous, because, as Lifton notes:
All of these ghosts fluctuate between dispensing comfort and wreaking havoc in the psyche.
Since mine was a closed adoption in one of many states that still denies adoptees access to their original birth certificate, I knew finding my dad this way was not an option. Oddly, however, I had not even thought to try this route until one day, taking a shower, the realization that I was being denied the testament to my own birth hit me like a bolt of lightning and I punched the tile wall so hard I nearly broke my hand. Suffice it to say, a lot of pent up rage has surfaced lately. The anger is directed at no one person, but rather, at a system. Though, if I’m being completely honest, even if the system were different, I’m not sure I would have been any more capable of making a definite decision that day my uncle offered to finally connect me to my dad. After all, it had taken me this long to join Ancestry.com, which has been around for half my life, and then to take a DNA test, which I could have done for decades now. For all my desire to find answers, there was an equally compelling force beseeching me to stay, comfortable and safe, in my Ghost Kingdom.
Maybe it was because I had met my birth mom once, briefly, when I was 17. I just wanted to know what she looked like. I crawled out of my Ghost Kingdom momentarily to learn that I had two half siblings, and that the story my adoptive parents have told me my whole life checked out on my birth mother’s end. She just wasn’t ready to have a baby. I asked about my birth father, and she gave me only his first name and said she didn’t know much about him these days except that he always wanted to be a musician. So, he remained in my hypothetical fantasy land — possibly some kind of rock star in L.A. Maybe just an average dude. Most definitely not concerned about me.
A s life went on, I would peek outside my Ghost Kingdom with timid glimpses. I would contact a half-sibling, inquiring as to the status of my birth mother or the whereabouts of my birth father. This was usually met with very little help and a ton of heartbreak. Whether I liked it or not, I was being dragged out of the hypothetical world where my birth mother’s side of the family dwelled. As I learned of their struggles with drugs, homelessness, prison, and all sorts of other unsavory details, there was no longer much left to imagine. It saddened me but also strengthened the narrative by which I had framed my life, namely, that I was rescued. All the same, I suffered another trauma when I decided to give up ever connecting to that side of my birth family and heritage. The feeling of being unwanted and abandoned by the woman who should have wanted me most — a feeling that I was not supposed to have or talk about because, after all, I was the ‘most wanted’ child by so many others— it flooded my heart again when I realized that she had no desire to reconnect.
Rejected, all over again.
These forays into the real lifeworld of my birth mother had the effect of painting the ghost world of my birth father in a much darker and less inviting light. I stopped pretending that he was out there making music, wondering about me, hoping I’d find him one day. He became the prototypically absent father to me. Therapists helped to solidify this image of him by reminding me that it is not only possible, but likely that he is uninterested in knowing me. For all my research as a professor who specializes in feminist philosophy, I should know better than to cop to stereotypes (so should licensed clinical therapists, but that’s another story altogether), but these tropes were for my protection.
As long as I stayed safely in my Ghost Kingdom neither he nor any other birth relative could ever hurt me.
Anonymous. Uninterested. Dead.
I already have a family and I don’t need to know him.
These are the lines I recited over and over again to try to will myself to believe that I was ok never finding him.
But I wasn’t. His ghost was haunting me even as I denied him his existence.
And when my uncle emailed me to tell me that many of the family on his side were saddened that I was to be given up for adoption, that my grandmother protested and wanted to keep me herself, and that it was such a close call that they had named me, against the adoption agency’s wishes, I was once again confronted by the ghosts I had tried to exorcise. I was forced back into the kingdom I had all but forgotten.
And I realized that those real life people who had only until now haunted my imagination — they had Ghost Kingdoms of their own. Mental terrain where I lived in suspended animation, in a superposition between real and make-believe. The fortress protecting my imaginary world was crumbling.
Our kingdoms were colliding.
So, I finally agreed to let my uncle put us in touch.
Rather than actually read my message, however, my dad sent me a friend request on facebook. This came through one morning while I was having breakfast and I was bewildered, but I accepted. I messaged him again to see if maybe the original message was lost in the aether because we had not been connected before.
Then, the actual first communication with this man I had never met but knew from my dreams — it came in the form of a comment on one of my posts, and it made zero sense.
Um, wtf do I do with this? I asked my partner.
He shrugged. Maybe politely ask him to check his messages?
So I did.
He responded that his fingers were too fat to type properly and then suggested we connect via phone. He left his number there for all my friends to see. By then, I had nothing left to do but laugh hysterically.
This is the very first time I’ve spoken with my biological father and it’s this train-wreck of a social media interaction.
I screenshot it all to save for posterity, deleted it, and sent him a text.
With the help of his partner, we set up a video chat for the next day. That entire day, my eyes randomly filled with tears. What the hell is wrong with me? I wondered. I felt like puking. The doors leading out of my Ghost Kingdom were wide open now and I was scared to death to walk through them. While grocery shopping a few hours before our scheduled call, I got a text from him. He said he was so excited to hear my voice finally. I cried like an idiot right by the tofu. We texted several times leading up to the call. He told me he loved the band XTC, especially the song Dear God, and that he hoped his thoughts on religion didn’t offend me. I told him we put a Flying Spaghetti Monster on top of our Christmas Tree, so not to worry.
And then it was finally time.
I was so worried I would just crumble into a pile of tears when I finally saw him, but the tofu meltdown was an effective purge, so I was able to keep my composure. We just began talking like old friends. We talked for two hours. And there is still so much both of us want to know.
I spent the days following our conversation breaking down, sobbing, having panic attacks, withdrawing from everyone and everything. It dawned on me that I felt just like I did when dating some of the worst exes in my storied history of failed relationships. You know, those people who leave you hanging, wondering if they will ever text you back, wondering if you are being…ghosted?
I realized the fear inside me, though obviously not related to a romantic relationship this time, was of the same type. In some ways, adult adoptees who have not found their birth relatives never fully grow up. Their imaginative fantasies about their kin involve a yearning to feel accepted by them — to know that they would be proud if they knew this or that about their lives and accomplishments.
And that was just it. I wanted my dad to be proud of me. Despite being told by by many people that I ought not feel this way — that this is about me, not him, and who cares what he thinks — you cannot deny an adoptee’s inner child her voice. She’s been in there this whole time, hurt by the initial rejection and terrified of it happening once more. I didn’t want to feel rejected all over again. I didn’t want to lose this man I had fought so hard to find.
The stories he has shared with me — raw and unfiltered and honest — scare me and give me reason to believe he might ghost me too. There are half-siblings I might never know because he is estranged from them.
More ghosts for my kingdom.
His life has not been a fairy tale. But I knew that going into this. He suffered his own trauma the day I was adopted. And he has tried to heal from it. Instead, he’s lost more children.
I’m not saying the effort is a waste of time but I just love you for all the things you couldn’t change though you’ve tried.
Ever since our conversation, these lyrics keep ringing in my head. I do love my birth father, but that does not change how complicated this whole reunion is. People unfamiliar with the lived experiences of adoptees and birth families turn reunions into Hallmark movies in their minds — their own Ghost Kingdoms where phenomena they know nothing about play out magically. That’s because the truth is hard to face sometimes and it’s prettier if you wrap it up with bow and make it into a cringe-worthy made-for-tv movie.
“Reunion,” as Mindy Stern writes, “is a marriage. It requires maturity, insight, self-awareness, empathy, compassion, honesty, forgiveness, and commitment. From everyone. It requires fear and insecurity take a back seat to trust, shame clear the way for love, the past resolve for the present to flourish. It is a Herculean task, and that’s why most reunions fail.”
Leaving my Ghost Kingdom — reuniting in the real world with my birth relatives — is not some immediate teletransportation. It’s a journey that will probably take the rest of my life to complete. And it will be hard to navigate at times. My next step is to see him in person. I will fly out to visit him soon. Virtual reunions cannot take the place of the physical contact both of us have been denied the last 39 years.
What do I call him now? Birth father is just too formal. My adopted dad has always been my ‘real’ dad in the sense of what it means to be a ‘parent,’ but then, in a biological sense, so is my birth father. What do my children call him? When my three-year-old asked me who’s that? as he walked by the computer while I video-chatted with my dad, I had nothing to say except, it’s your grandfather. He already has three — my adopted dad, his dad’s dad, and dad’s mom’s current husband. Why can’t he have a fourth? What kid wouldn’t want more grandparents?
Fundamentally, I know who my parents are, and they will always be the ones I call Mom and Dad — the real ones. But as I leave my Ghost Kingdom, there is another real person — my biological dad — and together, we must exit this imaginary world and forge a real relationship. There is no other way but forward, whatever that journey might bring.
It’s a journey I am willingly embarking on because the lie that I don’t care about these ghosts cannot be maintained anymore. This lie thrived on other lies that are being disproven. I believed for so long that many of them didn’t even know about me.
In reality, that’s not true.
I believed that my dad didn’t really care one way or the other.
I assumed he abandoned my birth mom while she was pregnant and so I never heard his voice outside her belly or on the day of my birth.
During our video chat, he told me that when I was born, he held me before he had to say goodbye.
He texted me just before that video chat to say he couldn’t wait to hear my voice for the first time.
Once I found out that I had haunted him since the moment he said goodbye, the strange feelings I had been experiencing suddenly became familiar.
I was excited to hear his voice too.
For the first time.