The earliest available photos of me were taken when I was five months old, just after I was adopted. I have dark hair and freakishly large eyes that seem far too big for my face, like a Japanese anime character. In fact, they’re so big and dark that the rest of my facial features seem almost invisible. All you see are eyes.
“Alien baby!” shrieks my friend Clare, spotting one of the photos on the wall of my grandmother’s house. “Look at your eyes!” She puffs out her cheeks and opens her eyes as wide as possible, and laughs. It’s 2003, and Clare has decided that my native Alabama would be more anthropologically interesting than her native UK for the Christmas holidays. While visiting, she samples my dad’s artery-hardening fried turkey, gets overexposed to college football and Nascar, and melts when my grandmother hands her a Christmas-tree bedecked envelope labeled “Clare” with a bit of cash inside—the traditional annual Christmas present from MawMaw to her various grandchildren.
And Clare’s right. I do look like an alien baby, partially because my eyes have roughly the same proportion to my face as the eyes on the ubiquitous little green men cartoons, but also because I don’t look very much like the rest of my family. Everyone has fair skin and blue eyes, inheritances from their Scotch-English ancestors. I have olive skin and eyes that are almost black.
My dad thinks he once saw my biological mother shortly after my parents adopted me. She was working at a fast-food restaurant in Montgomery that serves pancakes and waffles. She was petite with dark features. He’s sure it was her, because she had enormous brown eyes.
There are a handful of things I know about her, my biological mother. Her maiden name was a common Latina name. She was married to someone whose surname was “Hancock” and she was 27 when she gave birth to me at a hospital in Montgomery, Alabama at 12:08 AM one morning in December of 1976. I know where she lived at the time and I know she was born in Georgia. All of this information is included in the document that’s been sitting on my kitchen table in New York for the last few days—a copy of my certificate of live birth.
Six years ago, I sent a letter to the Alabama Center or Health Statistics requesting the birth certificate, and it came back along with a copy of my adoption decree. Until now, this is the most active thing I’ve done to find my biological parents. Until now, I’ve been ambivalent about it.
Some other things I know about my life before adoption:
I was with my biological family for five months, which is a bit unusual. Infants who are lucky enough to be adopted are usually adopted right away. My bio-mom had me for several months and then decided it wasn’t going to work. When my parents got me, via a private adoption, I was visibly malnourished. I had a scar on my left ankle, which is still there. The doctor who delivered me told my mother that bio-mom was a heavy smoker, and for some reason I think I remember her telling me it might have been a cigarette burn. My biological aunt was taking care of me toward the end of that period, bio-mom having finally given up.
Because of these things, I don’t have any sparkly fantasies that bio-mom is secretly the paragon of perfect motherhood or that she would necessarily want me to find her. I don’t imagine any Hallmark reunions with tearful hugs and intimate conversations about what we’ve both been up to for the last few decades. But as I get older, my curiosity gets stronger and I find myself thinking more about bio-mom. What does she look like? What are her interests? Do we have anything in common? And the biggest question: What did I inherit from her, for better or worse?
So, six years after sending away for my original birth certificate, I take another step toward bio-mom, wherever she is: I sign up for a DNA test.
I email a friend who’s a geneticist and he recommends 23andMe.com, a DNA testing firm based out of California and partially financed by Google. I pay the $1,000 fee and a few days later, a testing kit comes. I Fed-Ex a saliva sample back to the company, where it will be compared to hundreds of thousands of other samples and I will find out, at least in part, where I came from and what I have in common with bio-mom.
In the meantime, I sit and wait. Occasionally, I peek at my birth certificate, which also notes my original name: Claudia Marie Hancock. Claudia? I try to imagine someone calling me “Claudia Hancock” instead of “Elizabeth Spiers.” I try it on the way you would try on a particularly flashy cocktail dress. It’s interesting, but could you really wear it anywhere? Does it fit?
I decide no. I’m too accustomed to strangers mispronouncing my last name as if I’m related to Britney (it’s pronounced SPY-ers) and calling me “Lizzie” even though no one who knows me calls me “Lizzie.” Hancock is too easy. And Claudia can’t be turned into an annoying diminutive.
People who do know me call me Elizabeth, which is my middle name. My first name is Mary, which is also my mom’s first name and my grandmother’s first name. And by “Mom,” I mean my adopted mother. On the few occasions when I talk about being adopted, I tend to refer to my biological mother as “bio-mom” or “the mother.” She’s an abstraction. I can’t refer to her as “my mother” because I feel that she isn’t, except in the biological sense, which seems like a technicality. She is “the” mother, not “my” mother.
My mother is Mary Alice Spiers, who also goes by her middle name, is married to my dad, Terry Foster Spiers, and is also the mother of my two younger brothers, who were not adopted. She and my dad live in Wetumpka, Alabama, a town with a population of 5,726 where the per capita income is $15,729. They’ve lived there or in Millbrook—a 15-minute drive away—for all of their lives, and most of my extended family lives within a 30-mile radius. My dad is a local lineman at a utilities company and my mother, who was a stay-at-home mom for the first six or seven years of my life, now works for the same company as an accounts receivable clerk.
She and my dad were married when she was 17 and he was 19 and stayed married until last year after over 40 years together. They were the proverbial high school sweethearts and their yearbook makes the affair look like something out of a 1980s romantic comedy. My mother was the class valedictorian and a cheerleader, and her “who’s who” designation was “Most Studious.” My dad played football and was voted “Most Popular” and “Biggest Flirt.” My mom is a devoutly religious Southern Baptist and has always been the organizing force in the house. She’s very detail-oriented, and likes things to be in order. She remembers that somewhere in the bottom of a specific drawer, there’s a coupon for 25 cents off a certain brand of laundry detergent and will take it with her the next time she goes shopping. Ever the traditionalist, she cooks for the family, cleans the house and believes that the Bible verse that reads “wives submit to your husbands” is liberating rather than restrictive. She likes pretty floral things and her shelves are stocked with ceramic knick-knacks acquired on trips or given as gifts, each of which embodies a specific memory she wants to keep.
I am the opposite of all of those things. I was religious as a child, but haven’t been as an adult and am completely incompetent when it comes to anything administrative. I remember to pay the phone bill only when the phone company calls to complain that it’s overdue. The part of my brain where my mother would file away the existence of the coupon for laundry detergent is being currently occupied by interesting-to-me-but-otherwise-useless bits of information. Japanese film star Shintaro Katsu was also a pop singer. Rats can be tickled. Evelyn Waugh used to have nightmares about boredom. But I’m also deeply analytical and would rather make decisions based on data than gut instincts. The worst fights we had when I was a teenager ended with my mother practically in tears and me complaining unemotionally that her reasoning “wasn’t logical” like some sort of miniature Dr. Spock. (Again, the alien analogy is frighteningly apt.) And I think ceramic knick-knacks exist for the sole purpose of being repeatedly dusted, which is why I don’t have any.
My dad and I are a bit more alike. He has a deep sense of irony and a penchant for practical jokes. He’s opinionated, addicted to TV news and enjoys talking about politics. And he gets a lot of enjoyment out of making things. In addition to his day job reconnecting power lines, he’s a world-class carpenter. He literally built the house I grew up in, and even now, I reflexively sneer at bad paint jobs and think my dad would be appalled that the painter didn’t remove the light fixture before trying to paint around it.
But that’s where the similarity stops. My dad is incredibly outgoing and, left to his own devices, will usually become the focal point of any social event. He likes routine and gets up every morning before dawn to run four miles and lift weights. (He’s 60, but looks ten years younger, and his age is only betrayed by the grayness of his boyishly thick head of hair.) I’m generally very quiet, and if you see me a party, I’m probably having conversations with individual people or listening to what a group of people are saying, but not participating in the conversation. I think people who are energetic before 9 AM are dysfunctional and the idea of doing the same thing every day fills me with terror.
It’s always been like this.
When I think about the differences, I wonder if they’re personality traits I cultivated on my own or if they belong to someone else who passed them onto me. Things like a preference for morning or evening hours can often be genetic, and this is part of what I hope the DNA test will tell me. 23andMe offers “recreational” genetic testing, which means that it’s not intended to be used as a diagnostic tool for medical conditions, although many of the characteristics it genotypes are predispositions for certain diseases. Many of the traits it genotypes are things like sensitivity to certain bitter tastes, and eye color.
Theoretically, I share most of these traits with bio-mom. I know nothing at all about bio-dad. The box that says “Father-Full Name” on my original birth certificate is blank. I’m a bit angry at bio-mom for not providing that information. I suspect that bio-dad was not the man to whom she was married, the man whose surname was Hancock. Did she refuse to disclose the father’s name because she didn’t want Mr. Hancock to know who he was, or because she didn’t want me to know, should I inquire in the future? Or both?
I also email my mother and ask for details about the adoption—as much as she knows and as much as she can remember. My dad has never been on the Internet, but my mother uses email for work, so we communicate more now than we did when the only option was calling long-distance. I ask her about the circumstances of my adoption, about the scar on my ankle. She emails back:
I don’t think that scar is from a cigarette burn. More than likely, it may have been a feeding tube, or tube of some kind from when you were in hospital when you were born. You were not considered premature, per Dr. Dorrough, but, you had to stay in the hospital 2 or 3 weeks. You only weighed over 3lbs, Dr. Dorrough said probably because your mother smoked while she was pregnant. Maybe that is where the cigarette thing came in. You were jaundiced, and still had a little yellow color when we got you at 5 mths. I don’t believe she abused you, but that she more or less left you in your crib, not holding & loving you very much. She told me on the phone that she loved you, but could not provide for you. She had several other children by other men. Your aunt, her sister, ended up keeping you the majority of your early months, was a very nice lady, and really wanted to adopt you for her own. But her husband did not want to, they already had 1 child.
I re-read the email several times, and every time I do, some new piece of information stands out. I’m relieved that the scar is probably not a cigarette burn because it changes my mental classification of bio-mom from “possible sociopath” to “vaguely neglectful.” It’s still not a very rosy picture, but it’s an improvement. I’m more inclined to try to find her, based on this information.
She more or less left you in your crib. This would explain some things. I remember reading about a study suggesting that people who were not held or attended to very much as infants usually ended up being quiet children, the premise presumably being that screaming for attention as a baby was never very productive, so they don’t bother doing it later in life, either. I was very quiet kid and never minded being left alone by myself, especially if I had a book to read. In a strange way, I think this may have helped me tremendously by making me very independent at an early age. I did things for myself and by myself and didn’t need much supervision.
She had several other children by other men. I have to admit, I did not see this one coming. Several? How many is “several”? Three? Fifteen? Was bio-mom incredibly promiscuous or merely a serial monogamist with questionable taste in men? She had several other children by other men. Maybe she just, uh, really enjoyed sex?
Then I start to wonder about the aunt—bio-aunt?—the woman who took care of me most of the time. She was a very nice lady, my mother says. She wanted to adopt you. Then I wonder about bio-uncle, who didn’t.
And of course, all of these questions lead to other questions that seem increasingly relevant. I walk into a local bodega and the cashier speaks to me in Spanish. (This happens a lot, incidentally.) Do I look Spanish? I wonder. Am I Spanish? My bio-mom’s maiden name would seem to indicate that she didn’t exactly fall off the Mayflower–though perhaps the mysterious Mr. Hancock did.
Then the DNA test results arrive. I am genetically a member of Haplogroup J1a, which appears most frequently in the Middle East but is also the second most frequent haplogroup among Europeans. Over 62% of Bedouin Arabs are J1a’s, and the populations are the highest in Syria, Iran and Iraq. This information produces a tiny frisson, as the geneticist who recommended 23AndMe once insisted that I probably had Iranian genes. I don’t remember why he thought so, but it looks like he may be right. I mention this to another friend and he invokes the Moorish invasion of Spain, linking my bio-mom’s surname to my genetic origins. I also think of how I arbitrarily and impulsively took Arabic in college (well before 9/11 put the language on the national agenda) and wonder if it was some sort of premonition.
But this tells me very little about bio-mom specifically; it’s merely one plausible explanation for why I have dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin. From the test results I also know that I metabolize sugar and caffeine much more quickly than most people, which explains my perpetual hypoglycemia and why I can’t drink more than one cup of coffee without feeling like I’m going to jump out of my own skin. I know that I’m slightly less likely to have a heart attack than the general population and that I have no resistance whatsoever to malaria, which I suppose will be disappointing if malaria ever hits Manhattan.
The results are interesting but they also underscore all the things I still don’t know. When people ask me how I ended up in New York, I can’t fully explain what made me leave Alabama despite the fact that no one in my family had. I probably played sports in high school because my parents encouraged it, but no one made me read books (my family doesn’t read much at all) and no one made me apply to college (my parents never went). No one made me pour myself into the hundred-and-one wildly disparate extracurricular activities—piano lessons, art classes, student government, cheerleading (rather unbelievably)—that now seem to have foreshadowed my professional interest in a wide variety of things that have nothing to do with each other. (On the upside, I am “well-rounded.” On the downside, I am “not focused.”) I don’t know where this comes from. No one in my family is like this. It doesn’t tell me why I’m terrible at managing details, why I’m a hyper-rationalist (sometimes infuriatingly so, at least to other people), or why I’m ambivalent about things being out of place and not in order and tend to be disorganized as a result, which is also infuriating to other people. The DNA test tells me nothing about this.
I also kick myself for not having my adopted parents tested. I’m curious about which genetic traits we might share despite the absence of any blood relation. The things that they taught me have certainly shaped who I am, and I hope I was able to absorb some of their best characteristics.—my mother’s ability to nurture others, my dad’s talent to make other people laugh and they way both of worked incredibly hard to make sure my brothers and I felt loved. (On top of working 60-70 hours a week, my dad found time to coach my brothers’ little league teams and keep score at my basketball games. I don’t remember when he slept.)
I look at the test results one more time. I once wrote for a group genetics blog that is now owned by a science magazine (more evidence of “not focusing”), so I know what’s going to happen when I click on the link for “paternal line” information, but I do it anyway. It says, “paternal haplogroup not available.” Because paternal ancestry is determined by the genetics of the Y-chromosome – there is no way to trace a woman’s male lineage using her own DNA.
Once again, bio-dad is a total blank. I ask for information and there’s none to be found. Not one single detail.
A few weeks after the test results arrive, I’m in France with my then-boyfriend. We’re staying at a tiny villa in a rural area with 5 or 6 rooms. A woman comes over and introduces herself in a thick Southern drawl and says she’s from Georgia. I mention that I’m from Alabama, which is close enough when you’re in a different country to think you might have something in common. “Oh, my husband’s family is from Dadeville,” she says. Dadeville is a few minutes’ drive from Wetumpka. Her husband walks over and tells a very dry joke—the sort of joke I would tell–about what he plans to do with his social security check, which he skeptically asserts that he’ll never see. Then he introduces himself. His last name is Hancock. My boyfriend raises an eyebrow. I know what he’s thinking. But the guy doesn’t look anything like me and he moved away from Dadeville as a child.
The questions return.
When I get home, I realize that I can take one more step toward bio-mom (and by extension, bio-dad) that’s not too direct. Not too much just yet. I apply to get a copy of her marriage license, supplying what little information I have. If I have a full name for the mysterious Mr. Hancock, my bio-parents will be more traceable, as families are generally listed under the father’s name in public documents.
I print out the request form, put a stamp on the envelope and send it off. And I wait for one more tiny grain of information that might provide another clue about how I got here, why I feel so—sometimes pleasantly and sometimes infuriatingly—alien.