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Ever since she was a little girl, Irish journalist Caitriona Palmer knew she had been adopted. Yet, in her late twenties she developed a growing sense of unease. She sought to calm those feelings by reaching out to her birth mother. The two developed a close attachment, but their relationship had one condition – no one could know. Palmer’s mother had kept her pregnancy a secret for decades, the shame of her experience still trailing her. As the two women continued their clandestine meetings, Palmer began to research the history of her adoption, along with the social issues in 1970s Ireland that surrounded it. She tells the story in a new book.
- Caitriona Palmer Journalist; author of "An Affair With My Mother"
Read A Featured Excerpt
“An Affair With My Mother” by Caitríona Palmer, published by Penguin Ireland.
MS. LISA DESJARDINSThanks for joining us. I'm Lisa Desjardins of the "PBS News Hour" sitting in for Diane Rehm. Caitriona Palmer's search for her birth mother was surprisingly simple. But what happened next was anything but. The two women developed a deep connection, yet Caitriona's very existence remained completely hidden. Irish journalist Caitriona Palmer tells her story in a new book, "An Affair With My Mother," a story of adoption, secrecy and love. And Caitriona joins me now, sitting across from me in our studios at WAMU. Thanks for being with us, Caitriona.
MS. CAITRIONA PALMERIt's such a pleasure, Lisa. Thank you.
DESJARDINSLet's start when you were a child. How did you find out that you were adopted?
PALMERI was told I was adopted on my sixth birthday,
PALMER...in April of 1978. I was making my bed with my mother. It was a sunny, bright day. I was very excited. There was a birthday party.
DESJARDINSYou have sharp memories of this.
PALMERYes, it was a really defining moment. And as we were making the bed, my mother, who I called Mam, asked that we sit on the edge of the bed and that we -- she had something to tell me. And at that moment, she told me that there was another woman in my life, a woman who had carried me, who had given birth to me, but who had had to give me away.
PALMERAnd on this day, my birthday, my mother wanted me to remember this other mother, this other woman, and to say a prayer for her.
DESJARDINSHow did you understand that as a six-year-old?
PALMERIt was an extraordinary moment. It was a sad moment. I remember wanting to cry.
DESJARDINSYou immediately, yeah, felt a loss I guess.
PALMERI did. I felt an immediate sense of dislocation, of grief, even though I was very young. But the memory is so strong I can almost reach out and touch it.
PALMERBut, at that moment, I realized that things, moving forward, would be different. I had a different sense of myself. I was deeply curious about this other woman. She became this enormous person in my mind, this fantasy mother, this goddess creature who I daydreamed about constantly. And I think that moment also cemented within me this feeling of dislocation...
PALMER...an inner sense of loss and of grief that then stayed with me for the rest of my life.
DESJARDINSI'm talking with Caitriona Palmer about her search and finding of her birth mother and their secret relationship that ensued. Listeners, give us a call to comment on this, whether -- what your relations have been like. Are you an adoptee? Perhaps you placed a child for adoption or you know some who have secret relationships in their families. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Or you can email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter, we're @drshow.
DESJARDINSYou were able to find your birth mother pretty quickly, especially for the time. And she actually did reach back. You set up a meeting through an intermediary organization. Would you mind reading a passage from your book about that meeting, which I know had to have -- you had years of build-up and longing and waiting to it.
PALMEROf course. "It's hard to know what to wear when you're meeting your mother for the first time. After some deliberation, I chose dark, denim trousers, a fitted black jacket and low black heels, with minimal makeup and simple jewelry. Reviewing myself in the mirror that Saturday morning, I felt satisfied. Ready for business, my reflection said. Ready for anything. My adoptive father, the man I've always known simply as Dad, offered to drive me into town. I wanted time alone on the train to listen to my Walkman and prepare. But a heavy rain started to fall and so I relented. By the time we pulled outside Number 82 Haddington Road, Georgian house near the Grand Canal, I was sweating and felt nauseous."
PALMER"Dad, never big on displays of emotion, patted me gently on the hand. I can wait here if you'd like, he said softly. No problem at all. You're fine, Dad, I said, reaching over to kiss him gently on the cheek. You head off. I'll be okay. Dad waited, his yellow hazard lights flashing as I climbed the granite steps towards the door. As the door opened, I turned and bent down to see his face as he drove off. Our eyes met and he waved. I had never loved him more than I did in that moment. At the same time, I felt like a traitor, the worst daughter in the world."
DESJARDINSWhat an incredible moment, sort of being between these two forces in your life that you're so drawn to at the same time. What happened when you walked in and you met the woman that you call Sarah. And we should tell our listeners, that's not her real name. But that's the name you use for her, is that correct?
DESJARDINSTell us what happened when you did -- when you left your father, emotions obviously swelling, and you walked inside.
PALMERIt was an extraordinary moment. I had also left my mother behind in the kitchen of our suburban home in Dublin and I felt immensely guilty...
PALMER...even though my parents knew and had participated in the search and we were all on the same page. I felt so torn, so conflicted and so nervous. And I had brought this moment to fruition. I had begun the search. It was what I wanted. And yet standing at the threshold of that door, I wasn't sure that I wanted it.
PALMERI thought I wanted to run away.
DESJARDINSFight -- it's a flight or fight moment in a way, right?
PALMERAbsolutely. And I was so conflicted. And the passage that I've just read, as it continues, it's quite a stark passage.
PALMERAnd I still worry about how stark it is, because it portrays what you don't see on reality TV in terms of adoption reunions. It was a very traumatic moment. My birth mother Sarah entered the room and she was seeing me, a 27-year-old woman, for the first time since she had last held me when I was two days old. So she was immensely emotional. She was sobbing. She was just beside herself.
PALMERWhereas, I was numb. I was incredibly stoic. And I had worried about that moment.
DESJARDINSAnd she did not match your image.
DESJARDINSYou had expected one thing but -- and you, sort of, perhaps in that moment you saw unexpectedly a stranger.
PALMERI did. I saw a stranger, an immensely vulnerable stranger.
PALMERAnd I felt like the parent in the room at that moment. But, of course, Sarah could never have met my expectations. I had built her up in my mind for decades to be this goddess...
PALMER...woman, whereas she was a vulnerable mother.
DESJARDINSShe had been struggling with this.
PALMERWho had been struggling, who had been living this double, bifurcated life. So I still, Lisa, I still feel as though I failed in that moment, that I didn't...
DESJARDINSWho did you -- do you feel you failed?
PALMERI feel I failed her.
PALMERI failed myself, in not being able to show emotion. I was composed and warm and friendly, but it was such a bizarre moment. Subsequently, it changed, obviously, on our second meeting. I fell head over heels in love with her.
DESJARDINSAnd that's a -- it's a fascinating part of seeking your identity, that you had such a dramatic reaction. Take us to, then, how that did change. It sounds like it had changed -- it really blossomed, the relationship blossomed after you were able to, I don't know, take a step back or catch your breath.
PALMERI think just catching my breath. I mean, there was a lot going on in my life at the time. I had just left post-war Bosnia.
PALMERBut it's also a common phenomena in adoption reunions where you literally fall in love. Yeah. You're flooded with love hormones, with reconnection. So the second time that I met her, I came out of there dancing on air. I think our interactions were a little constrained because they took place in the dreary reception hall of the adoption agency that had brokered the adoption. There was a social worker present. It wasn't really a private moment. So subsequently we began meeting in a hotel, which is then what I began to see as the terms of our affair, because there was one massive catch to our relationship.
DESJARDINSAnd I think it sounds, reading into your book, it seems at the beginning you sort of assumed -- or maybe you didn't think about it too deeply -- you assumed that this was a temporary state. You know, that she certainly would -- this would change and that you would, somehow you would have a public relationship. But how long did this secret continue and what was it like having to meet in secret? And for a while, only, I think your boyfriend, now husband knew of this.
DESJARDINSAnd you're adoptive parents.
PALMERYes. I mean, when I first began the search, the worst-case scenario for me was that she would be dead or that she would not want to meet me. What I never anticipated was that she had actually never told anyone about me, that she had lived a double life, that I was a secret. So when we first met, she explained this and said, you know, I need time to adjust to the reality of you being back in my life. Let's just move forward slowly. I will tell everyone at some point.
DESJARDINSAnd everyone, including her husband and your two siblings, her two children.
PALMERYes. And she has three...
DESJARDINSOh, three children.
PALMER...three children. So nobody knew.
PALMERNobody knew whatsoever. So she would have to slip out of the house. And at the time, she had young children. And I now have young children and I don't know actually how she did that.
PALMERWe would meet in secret in a hotel in Dublin. It would be a brief meeting, no longer than an hour or two hours. It would be rushed. She would then leave to return to her family. I never asked her what excuse she had given. Initially, because I was in love, I would bring her flowers and perfume. And then I realized that she would obviously have trouble explaining these gifts...
DESJARDINSWhere this came from.
PALMER...back at home. So I stopped bringing them. So that is why I called the book "An Affair With My Mother." It literally felt like a secret, clandestine affair.
DESJARDINSAnd one sided and that you were progressing with your life and she was sort of keeping this in a stasis of some degree.
PALMERYes. And, you know, she had access to me, had -- knew where I lived, had all of these ways of contacting me, whereas I did not have that for her.
DESJARDINSA fascinating story. We're talking to Caitriona Palmer, author of "An Affair With My Mother," about her adoption and secret relationship with her mother. Going to take a quick break but stick with us. We'll go to some of your calls and your emails.
DESJARDINSWelcome back. I'm Lisa Desjardins with the "PBS News Hour" sitting in for Diane Rehm. Today we are talking about identity and what for one woman was a crisis of identity. Caitriona Palmer is a journalist and also the author of "An Affair With My Mother: A Story of Adoption, Secrecy and Love." She was able to find her birth mother but her birth mother, who we call Sarah, kept that relationship secret. We're getting a number of emails and calls.
DESJARDINSI want to read this email from Lynn. She writes, "I gave up my baby girl at birth in 1974. I got a Facebook friend request seven years ago and she tracked me down. Love, she writes. I call her my clone and I have a granddaughter. Never had any other kids, so this is, she writes in all caps, FABULOUS." Now on the other end of the perspective, we have, Eric Lloyd writes us, "what's the big deal with birth mothers? I'm adopted and I have no interest in my biological parents. They didn't raise me, Mom and Dad did."
DESJARDINSI'm sure you get these kinds of questions. I want to ask you about why it was so important to you. And I also know many people ask you, how did your adoptive parents react? I don't want to ask you that. Instead, I wanted to talk to you about, you approached them and sort of what that meant for you to raise this with them? Why did you begin this search and why did you -- how did you approach your -- the parents who raised you to tell them about it?
PALMERGrowing up, my adoption was a footnote in my life. I was aware of it. It didn't affect me openly.
PALMERBut I realized, as I got older and older, that it was something missing within me that I needed to fill. I'm obviously speaking for myself. There are many adopted people out there who don't feel that way. But in 1999, I was living and working in post-war Bosnia for a wonderful American human rights organization called Physicians for Human Rights. And they had the very grim task of exhuming the mass graves left from the civil war and identifying those remains. And I was in very close proximity to the graves and to the corpses, but also to the relatives of the missing, these people who were just torn asunder by grief and by a need to know.
PALMERAnd obviously, in no way was my situation similar, but their need sparked in me this decision to go forward with the search. It was a very profound...
DESJARDINSIt was about identity and connection.
PALMERIt was about identity and realizing my DNA is out there somewhere. And I want to find it. I want to know. And you can be adopted and be happy and be raised by wonderful parents. You know, my parents are my parents. They're Liam and Mary, my Mam and Dad. They're the only family I've ever had. They're the only family going forward I will have...
PALMER...apart from my own children. I wasn't looking to replace them. I can never replace them. But I needed to know my own story. I needed to know where I came from. I needed to have this footnote for my own children moving forward. And that was very, very profound for me. I needed to know that. And that's why I decided to search. But then also the flip side was having to tell Mam and Dad, who had always said, you know, if you want to do this, we'll be with you. Don't worry. You can do this. But I still...
DESJARDINSYou still felt...
PALMER...I felt terrible, you know? And making the call and I write about it in the book. I was just filled with anxiety. I tried to make it several times. I failed. And then one day I thought, okay. This is it. I have to do this. And my brother, David, had said to me from London, you know, maybe just go ahead. Don't worry. You know, don't tell them. But I knew, going forward, that there had to be total transparency. That if I was to do this...
DESJARDINSBut that seems like an act of loyalty in of itself, that you weren't going to be deceptive with them about it.
PALMERNo. And though now, knowing the story as it has unfolded, I'm so glad that I did that.
PALMERThat there are no secrets amongst us.
DESJARDINSWe're getting a lot of calls, as you can imagine, from personal stories. And I want to go to New Jersey now. Pamela, you're on the line.
PALMERGood morning, Pamela.
DESJARDINSTell us your story.
PAMELAWell, it's the secret that I think can destroy a family. And I know it's a lot of fear. My sister had a baby when she was 16. She left and married the man. He was a little bit older than she was and subsequently came home when she was just shy of her 18th birthday with this beautiful baby boy. And she was unable to raise him. And my parents adopted him. And...
DESJARDINSHmm. And they told him that they were his parents, is that right?
PAMELACorrect. Because he was just an infant when we had him. And my sister left our life and would come back and forth into our life in the few years. And it was a rule in our family that we were never allowed to tell our brother -- who was ultimately my biological nephew, but he's now my brother -- that my sister was ultimately his mother. But the strangest thing would happen, when she came into our life, the connection with him was magical.
PAMELAHe didn't have it with us. And he would cry and sob when she left. And it was such a hard line that my parents had made with us that we were never allowed to tell him. And we begged them, because he was having difficulty, my sister was having difficulty. But their fear was that she was going to come back and take him.
PAMELAAnd it was an unsafe situation. The saddest part about this is when he was seven, my sister passed away.
PAMELAAnd she had gone back to her husband and ultimately was pregnant and died in a car accident. And she passed away and she was pregnant. So she -- the baby passed away.
DESJARDINSOh, Pamela, I'm very sorry for your loss and for what your family has gone through. Does your nephew know the truth now?
PAMELAHe does. He was about 10 or 11, where my younger sister and I put our foot down. And he was having some difficulty and we said, we have to tell him who he really is. And we have to be there for him. And when we told him, he was so angry that he didn't have the opportunity to meet her. And as years went on, his, you know, typical teenage anger and stuff started to get a little out of hand and we really gave him the support, the love and the therapy that he needed. And my parents realized that they should have told him early on who he was. And it might have taken away a lot of the burden.
PAMELABut now he's in his 40s. He loves my mother. My father had passed away and he adored my father, adores my mother, has a child of his own. But in his 30s, he decided to reach out for his biological father. And I was really the only one that knew how to find him.
DESJARDINSOh, that's interesting. Wow.
PAMELAAnd when he did, he had passed away.
DESJARDINSOh, Pamela, wow. I think what she speaks to -- thank you, Pamela, for that call -- we know this is by far not the only story in America and especially in Ireland, Caitriona, in the era you grew up in, your mother was one of many women who the Catholic church played a role in the adoption of their children. Some of them by choice -- your mother describes it to you as sort of a hazy situation. Can you talk a little bit about what she experienced, the -- I think it was the mother's home you called it? And you spoke with Philomena Lee, who is one of the more famous people who's gone through an experience like this.
PALMERWell, back in 1972 when I was born, there literally was no choice if you were pregnant outside of marriage. Some women did keep their babies but the vast majority were forced by society to give their babies away. My mother was lucky in the sense that she was working, she was independently able to pay her way out of the situation. The society, aided by the state and the church, enabled her to be hidden, sequestered from society. She went to the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, who gave her a fictitious health certificate saying she had a kidney infection...
PALMER...which allowed her to take time off from her job as a teacher. A Catholic agency then put her in a suburban home of a young couple who had children. She hid in that house until I was born.
PALMERVery isolated. She was entirely alone. The only people she saw were this couple who she says were very kind. She gave birth to me in April 1972. I was with her for two days. And then I was taken, brought to a baby home. So we were not together in the sense that Philomena Lee, who was with her son for three years, which...
PALMER...just, I cannot comprehend the idea of having to be with that child for three years and then have that child...
PALMER...to be separated. So in a way, Sarah -- her circumstances allowed her to bypass some of the horrors of the mother and baby homes. But that...
DESJARDINSThe trauma, it seems, remains with her and then later with you.
PALMERAbsolutely. Well, the trauma is she has lived a double, bifurcated life. She is the product of that experience. She's deeply traumatized, deeply vulnerable. And yet, on the flipside, she's also a very strong woman, because she was able to go on, to marry and have other children and to be a loving mother to those children. And she speaks very movingly about living this double life and keeping me in a box in her head, that she would unpack at night when she was alone, when her kids were in bed and perhaps her husband was downstairs. She would go up to her bedroom and luxuriate in thoughts of me. And that was the way that she was able to cope.
DESJARDINSIncredible. And to continue your story, we're talking about you, you formed this real bond with her. And then, ultimately, you were able -- and to some degree with the help of Philomena Lee, who sort of advised you and sent a message to your mother for her to tell people...
DESJARDINS...to get rid of this secret. Your mother did tell your siblings about your existence, but not her husband. You talk about that moment when you heard from one of your siblings sort of out of the blue. And it was mixed -- a mixed joy. You hadn't known it was coming but yet it was something you'd wanted for so long.
PALMERAnd it's one of the, I think, ironies of being adopted, that you're often on the outside of your own story or your own destiny. I met Philomena Lee from my job as a journalist with an Irish newspaper and had an almost spiritual moment. I was there to interview her about her story but she turned the tables and managed to pry my story out of me. Because of that, that caused a shift, I think. And Sarah, my birth mother, without ever expecting that she would do this, one day told two of her three children, which is a complication, of my existence.
PALMERAnd I was driving to school to pick up my kids here in Washington one day, when my phone beeped and there was a text message. I had to pull over. I read the number, I didn't recognize it, but there was a message from a woman saying, Mom has just told us about you. We're thrilled. And then there was another text message from a young man, my brother, saying the same thing. So there was this extraordinary moment where she brought me out into the light and the sky didn't fall. Her children embraced her. They thought it was the best news they'd ever heard. But still, the legacy of fear and shame and secrecy was so deep within Sarah that she felt she couldn't share this news with her husband.
PALMERSo now we're in the strange situation of more people being inculcated into the secret and yet it's not fully at the surface.
DESJARDINSI'm Lisa Dejardins with the "PBS News Hour." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we're talking to Caitriona Palmer. She's a journalist, also the author of "My Affair -- "An Affair With My Mother: A Story of Adoption, Secrecy and Love." Which is, you know, we're going through sort of the history here. But I want to say, the book is actually quite touching and quite well written. And you hit on so many themes in here. One of them is this idea that you and your birth mother told many lies, I think...
DESJARDINS...in your quest for the truth, strangely. You would sort of tell people, oh, everything's fine. You know, tell different people everything's fine. How does that make you look at the world? How has that changed you as a person? And how does that make you evaluate people when they're vulnerable? Is it just a natural thing that we all kind of lie to ourselves, even as we're trying to pursue our identity? I know that's such a very -- I don't mean to be overly deep here. But it seems to be a theme of your book.
PALMERWell, I think one thing I have discovered through the process of writing this book and through my own story is that you never truly know a person. Everyone has secrets. And I think I was able to unpack our secret through the process of writing this book. But one thing that, if you do read the book, becomes very clear is that I was never really very good at telling Sarah how I truly felt.
PALMERI tiptoed around her. And I think that was in part a fear of losing her again.
PALMERWhen she told me that she would tell people -- her family. I'll tell them next year. I'll tell them the year after. I didn't want to push her. I didn't want to push her away from me. And so I acquiesced.
PALMERShe, on the other hand, did the same thing. So we were in this dance, a mutual dance of deceit I think...
PALMER...but ultimately one that was anchored by love, by a mutual love. And it...
PALMERIt is complicated. Adoption is really complicated on many, many levels.
DESJARDINSAnd I want to -- we're getting some more calls from our listeners. Let's go to Yanica in Washington state. Yanica, what is your experience here?
YANICAOkay. Well, it wasn't exactly adoption. My real mother was very young, I think she was 19 or 20 when she got pregnant. And basically she married my father because she was pregnant, right? And it didn't work out at all. She left me when -- left when I was less than a year old. And I was raised by my father and my stepmother. And when I was about nine or ten, I think, just that age range, I discovered some letters from some distant relative of my mother who was writing to my grandmother and I found out. And I was totally enraged. I felt so betrayed. And I -- it's like distrusting all the nice lies that grownups tell children. (laugh) I didn't believe any of those anymore, because I'd been lied to about who I was and who my mother was. So I...
DESJARDINSHmm. Did you ever -- did you connect with your birth mother?
YANICAWell, I, yeah. I somehow, I got her address and I tried to reach her when I was a teenager. I was very, very unhappy. I had a very dysfunctional family. And she had been forbidden to tell her new family about me. And so she couldn't see me. And then a couple years later she committed suicide.
PALMEROh, I'm so sorry.
YANICAAnd then I accidentally discovered my brother and sister. And the story goes on. But basically, so this happened and I was born in '42. So this was, you know, quite a while ago.
DESJARDINSAnd this is a trauma that's still with you it sounds like.
YANICAYeah, I guess so. I'm 74. I think I've healed somewhat from it. But of course it is.
DESJARDINSOkay. Yanica, thank you for that call. We want to hear your stories of adoption, family, family secrets. But we're going to take a quick break. Join us on the other side.
DESJARDINSWelcome back. I'm Lisa Desjardins with the "PBS News Hour," sitting in for Diane Rehm. Today we're talking about families. And our caller, just before we went to the break, was talking about her dysfunctional family and a long secret. I'm sitting here with Caitriona Palmer, who is on the other side of a secret. She knows her birth mother, but her birth mother has not told her entire family about her existence.
DESJARDINSWe're getting a lot of emails, of course, from people who have experienced one form of adoption or another, especially, or family secrets. And I wanna read this one. This is from an anonymous listener. I believe this is a man. He wrote, "I gave up a child with a teenage girlfriend for adoption. We were 14 and 15 respectively. We did it because it was best for the child." He writes, "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about him, a little boy, what he feels, what he dreams, what he's like."
DESJARDINS"He has remained a secret in my family. Only my ex-girlfriend's family knows. My mom suffers from depression and I never wanted to burden her with this." He asks, "If I was ever to meet him," his son, "if he ever wanted to meet me, would you have any advice for that?"
PALMEROh, what a beautiful email.
PALMERMy advice would be just to love him. You know, you're holding him in your heart and you think of him every day. And I'm sure that he thinks of you. And my advice would just be to embrace him.
DESJARDINSDo you advise birth parents to reach out? Often we hear of the adopted son or daughter looking for their birth parents. But, on the other end, what do we know about how a birth parent can try and search for a child that they placed for adoption?
PALMERWell, it's varies, obviously, from place to place. In Ireland it's rather complicated because of the closed nature of the adoption system. Even now, as an adopted person, I have no rights to my birth records or my birth certificate. There is legislation in place to change that. But I refrain, actually, from giving advice, in the sense that it's so deeply personal. As one of your listeners earlier noted, that he's never wanted to search. So I never - I explain my story. I have used my story as an example of - hopefully of resilience and love and the power of mother/child love.
DESJARDINSI suppose your lesson is to be true to yourself.
PALMERAbsolutely. I mean…
DESJARDINSAnd to listen to your instincts.
PALMERIt's funny, this book has been an amazing journey for me. And I am forever grateful to Sarah, my birth mother, who allowed me to use our story and who participated in the writing of this. But it's a - it's been a difficult journey in standing up and telling my truth.
DESJARDINSI can only imagine.
PALMERParticularly in Ireland, where, you know, silence in Ireland is a defensive strategy. We're very good at keeping a lid on things. I'm the first adopted person of my generation to actually write a memoir like this. I've been criticized for it in some quarters back home. People think I've had a wonderful life. I have wonderful parents. Why should I search? Why drag up the past? But what I wanted to explain was that in some people there is this profound need to know your identity.
PALMERMy identity, because of Ireland's system, has been denied to me. And because of my journalism background and my curiosity, I decided to approach it in this way. And it's been of comfort to others.
DESJARDINSDo you know how common it is to have this kind of relationship that might be secret? Have you - I'm sure you've been contacted by others - or have you - who have said we - I also have found my birth parents, but they will only acknowledge me in secret.
PALMERSo the most extraordinary aspect of this process for me has been the messages and emails and letters that I have received in the wake of publication. I am inundated with letters…
PALMER…from people, secret birth mothers, children who are secret, others who are affected not by adoption, but by the weight of the family secret.
DESJARDINSAs we heard from one of our callers, right.
PALMERAbsolutely. So it's been an amazing experience. And it's been gratifying because I'm hard on myself. And I worry all the time that I've not done the right thing by writing this book, but these people are reaching out to say thank you. And…
DESJARDINSIs - and I see a letter - you're receiving letters.
PALMERYeah, and I brought some. Today I'll just read one. And this is a letter that I printed out and that I keep with me all the time. And there's been a follow-up, which I can tell you about later. But it's from a birth mother who writes, "Dear Caitriona, I'm around the same age as you, but I am a birth mother. My Irish parents were horrified at my teenage pregnancy. I was told without question that I would not be allowed to keep my baby. I was mortified at having caused them such shame and horror."
PALMER"I felt I had to do that thing that everyone told me was for the best. I can relate to so much in your story and the sadness that Sarah experiences. Although I have many blessings in my life, I, too, feel that death will be a release from all the pain and guilt. People forget that this situation continued well into the 1980s. Thank you for sharing your story."
DESJARDINSOh, my goodness.
PALMERSo that's just one example.
PALMERAnd I respond to everybody. And it's as though there's this river of sadness coming into my inbox on a daily basis. And yet, it's also a river of strength because by standing up and telling my story, at least there's been some resemblance of…
DESJARDINSIs that empowering? Is it exhausting?
PALMERIt's both. But it's empowering. And, you know, if there was anything I could wish for, it would be for Sarah to read these letters, too. Because she was so brave in allowing me to tell this story and to use our story as a means of navigating the secrecy, the legacy of secrecy in Ireland. So for her I would wish she could read these, yeah.
DESJARDINSSee this, what she's - what her story has done.
DESJARDINSAnd let's tell our listeners where things stand. This is not in your book. You're - as you were going to publish your book, as you say, you let Sarah know, you let her two children know as well, your two half-siblings. And understandably she was nervous about it, but seemed to accept that this was happening. What has happened in your relationship since with Sarah?
PALMEROur relationship has always, because of the nature of the affair, been based on communication between our respective cellphones. We text back and forth. I can't send her a letter, obviously, or knock on her door. The last text I ever received from her was Christmas Day 2014. I had written to her to wish her a happy Christmas. She responded very warmly. And since then I haven't heard from her.
DESJARDINSAnd since then your book was published, is that right?
PALMERThis was actually even before the book was written.
PALMERI've sent her the book, a PDF. I couldn't mail her a copy. I've sent the same to my siblings, but I have not heard from them. I can only speculate that they're fearful. Ironically, the book brought us closer in the sense that because Sarah participated in the - in allowing me to interview her for three or four days in Dublin. We spent the most time together that we ever have. I was able to sit with her with my tape recorder and get my story. So it was a wonderful thing. But it's also now, I think, drift, you know, caused us to drift apart.
DESJARDINSThat is heartbreaking. I'm very sorry for you.
PALMERYeah, but I think - I am a mother. And I believe profoundly in the power of love and in the unbreakable bond between mothers and children. And I'm hopeful she'll come back.
DESJARDINSLet's go to some of our listeners who have many stories to tell as well. This is Kathleen from Rochester, N.Y. Kathleen, you're on the line.
KATHLEENHi. Yes, I was adopted from Ireland in 1962 and have been engaged in tracing of my family. I found out about five years ago from a social worker - the first time that I met with a social worker rather than the Sisters or nuns - that my adoption was black market. I'm engaged, actually next month going to meet a sibling for the first time after 33 years of tracing. And I've reached out to the church and to the Archbishop Martin of Ireland.
KATHLEENAnd I'm seeking restorative justice action by the church over the issues of adoption, especially in the stage where women were forced or black market adoptions occurred. And I wondered what the author's experience was in researching that history.
DESJARDINSGreat. Kathleen, thank you for your call. Caitriona?
PALMERWell, thank you, Kathleen. And I'm wishing all the very best with your reunion. One of the threads that I discuss in the book is this - I wanted, as a journalist, to go back and investigate the history of Ireland's legacy towards unmarried mothers. And I delved into the archives of the archdiocese in Ireland. The one thing I discovered was that Ireland is very particular in terms of adoption and its treatment towards unmarried mothers.
PALMERPost-independence, when the free state was trying to grapple together, they abdicated control of all social welfare to the religious orders. And as a result of that, there was no government oversight or inspection or monitoring throughout the decades. So as Kathleen mentions, there are horrific stories of children being trafficked, essentially, sold from Ireland to the United States and elsewhere. As now, there is no restorative justice. We're still grappling with the history of the Magdalene laundries.
PALMERAnd there are some amazing organizations like Justice for Magdalenes and the Adoption Rights Alliance who are working for those women. So sadly, I have no update. But I would tell Kathleen that there was a new initiative launched just yesterday in Ireland, called the CLANN, C-L-A-N-N Project, which is seeking testimony for people who had any experience with adoption or the mother and baby homes, to give testimony for a commission investigating the practices in mother and baby homes. So I would urge you, Kathleen, to reach out and provide your testimony to them.
DESJARDINSIt is a real moment, looking at all of these issues surrounding both the past in adoption and now progress in adoption. I know more and more in America - and I don't know if in Ireland, if you know - more adoptions are open now. It seems more adoptive parents are in touch with the birth parents and the child may grow up knowing everyone. What kind of cultural change do you sense here and in Ireland? Is there a difference between the two, can you tell?
PALMERI think Ireland's situation has always been special because of the very close relationship between church and state. And as a result, the system there has been very closed. There was an element of taboo and shame surrounding adoption. But I welcome so warmly the idea of open adoptions. Growing up having this connection to your birth family is very profound. I was very lucky in that my parents, for their generation, were quite progressive in discussing my adopted status with me. It wasn't a taboo subject at home, so we were…
DESJARDINSAnd very supportive.
PALMERIncredibly. And if there's a measure of grace to this story, it is my parents, Liam and Mary, who have just been so phenomenal. I'm very grateful. They're wonderful people.
DESJARDINSI wanna go to another adoptive mother. This is Elizabeth in Tampa, Fla. Elizabeth, tell us your story.
ELIZABETHYes. Thank you so much for taking my call. And, Caitriona, my heart does go out for you. I am an adoptive mother. I adopted, with my husband, a son who was two days old in 1992 in New York State. And to give some perspective, yes, I was a Catholic. And what destroys family, I agree, is secrets. Because one of the things that my mother said to me is this child will need to know how he came to our family. There are different ways.
ELIZABETHAnd so from the time he was two days old and we talked to him, we equated the term adoption with forever. And if someone asked him at two what does adoption mean, and he would say forever, Mommy. Now, also we explained it this way, that there are some life mommies and some love mommies and I was not able to give you life, that was your birth mother, but I was able to give you love, as she does, too, but it's from afar.
ELIZABETHIt was a closed adoption at the birth mother's request. The child is now 24 years old, the records are unsealed. But I want to share a light moment, in that when you are open with your child and you understand that they, too, have feelings, I can tell you exactly the moment when I knew he understood what adoption meant. We were in a grocery store and he was in the cart and there was a very pregnant lady behind him. And he said to her, excuse me, lady, can we have your baby? We'll take really good care of it.
DESJARDINSElizabeth, that's fantastic. Thank you for that story. And I'm Lisa Desjardins with the "PBS News Hour." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So there's some beautiful moments like that, obviously, out there as well. I'm curious of your thoughts on adoption overall. You know, you write in the book that you sort of had to - you had sort of a preconstructed narrative that you sometimes told yourself.
DESJARDINSThat adoption was the right thing, my life is better because I'm adopted. I never saw in the book if you'd ever had a conclusion or if you'd ever tackled that idea of whether you think adoption in general is good. And I don't know if you even can say, that it might be case by case, or what you think the role of adoption is properly.
PALMERWell, I think it is case by case. And I think my view of adoption has been colored by my country, which is a very…
PALMER…beautiful country, but at times quite broken. And I think we handled adoption badly. And I see that in the emails that I'm receiving day by day. I advocate for open adoptions. I advocate for families to be kept together at all costs. But I don't regret my adoption. I don't regret my life. I am the product of my parents, Liam and Mary. And I'm the product of my birth mother and my birth father. I'm a part of each of them. And that's my life, that's who I am. So it's very hard for me to comment on it.
DESJARDINSRight, of course.
PALMERBut adoption has brought immense joy into my life and also some sorrow.
DESJARDINSHow do you tell your story to your children? Your oldest, Liam, is now, I think you said, 11.
DESJARDINSAnd does he - did they ever meet Sarah when they were old enough to remember?
PALMERWe met Sarah every summer when I would go home for the summer holidays. And I was very clear from the beginning that I would break the generational legacy of secrecy. So when they were at the age of reason I told Liam and my daughter, Caoimhe, who's eight, exactly who Sarah was. And that was very, very important to me. I may always be a secret in her life, but I wanted them to know exactly who she was. They have their granny at home, my mom in Dublin. But Sarah is their other grandmother.
PALMERThey call her Sarah, which, obviously, is not her real name. But - and that was critically important to me. And I think some of the sweetest moments that I've spent with Sarah has been in her company and theirs and watching her. And I remember once Liam clambering up a tree in a hotel where I used to clamber in the same tree. And she was terribly worried about him and worried he was going to fall. And she was fussing. And that moment brought me immense joy because I was watching her being a grandmother.
PALMERAnd I think if there's any sorrow, real sorrow to this story, it's that my life is infused with immense happiness and joy. I'm very, very lucky and I have a wonderful family and there's a lot of love to give and she's missing out on that. So that's what brings me sadness when I think of this tale, when I think of the other secrets and the people who are contacting me. There's so much love to give, and yet, because of this legacy towards these vulnerable women in Ireland, their hearts and their lives are closed.
DESJARDINSSuch a phenomenal story. And thank you for sharing it. You're brave. I wish healing for your birth mother and continued joy for you.
DESJARDINSCaitriona Palmer, thank you so much for joining us. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Lisa Desjardins.
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