Our guest blogger Linde M. Brocato (University of Memphis) serendipitiously reflects on the conditions, and, it may be, contradictions, relating to the several names which official documents might perforce adopt at various times when referring to a single individual. Particularly an individual whose history also passes through various times and, it may be, places of different forms of record.
Her own experiences, energetically related here, may allow us to consider — as she encourages us to do — how medieval cartularies (among other forms of records) might sometimes reflect personal conditions (and contradictions) in their naming patterns. A companion post for our blog on Manuscript Studies will describe these reflections about medieval cartularies in their own terms.
As she remarks in sending this essay for our blog, “The other aspect that intrigues me is how we tend to judge medieval habits of re-inscription (in cartularies) as though we were innocent of the same habits in the case of a high-stakes issue like renaming an adopted child to erase any other origin for the child.”
It can always be important to think about the person behind, within, or beyond, the official record. And to be aware that the documentary evidence might not always be transparent. Hence our respect for Linde’s willingness to share her experiences with us, devoted to the manuscript record — fragile or tremulous as it can, or must, be.
Over to her:
I have a “birth” certificate.
All the governments of the various states concerned – Illinois, Alabama, Hawaii – are satisfied. The documentation is complete and legal – but it’s a lie.
From it are erased all traces of its origin and transformations, so that there’s no way to SHOW the changes within it.
And Lillian Vail Dymond is gone.
I have gone from being a hostage of the Patriot Act and its aftermath, to being a fiction of legal documentation, based on the wishful thinking of straight infertile couples from the 1950s. And I am not satisfied, nor do I feel somehow complete, and this kind of legality is meaningless.
“What do you mean?” you might ask. Or perhaps you might say, “What’s the big deal?”
The disaster of 9/11/2001 created an atmosphere in which it became possible to impose ongoing restrictions to legal documentation of innocent individuals, in the hopes of inconveniencing some minuscule number of criminals and terrorists.
Having had driver’s licenses in various states from 1974 until 2006 with no problem, upon moving back to Illinois, I went to get a license, but had no documentation to satisfy the state in re: my date of birth; no unofficial transcript, no expired passport, no previous-but-cancelled licenses from any state including Illinois itself, not even a current valid license (from Arizona) was enough. (Why would I fake an expired passport? Does the expiration of the passport or license invalidate the information?)
So I set about getting a copy of my birth certificate, which still contained my name at birth, the name of the woman who conceived and bore the biological me, and her husband (who was not, as it happens, actually my progenitor). I explained all the particulars in the request to the Department of Health, Vital Statistics Office, of the State of Hawai’i, since my name is not what was on the certificate: my adoption and my adoptive parents with their identifying information; the name-change from right after my dad died. I had gotten a copy of the certificate – facts of my birth and all – when I had gone looking for and found my biological mother (Sally).
Hawai’i, as you who are in the know anticipate, wrote back to say that the photocopy of the name-change document was insufficient, and that they also needed an official copy of the final decree of adoption. Thank you very much for your payment for official copies, but until you meet these requirements, you can’t have a copy of anything.
My next communication was with the Probate Court of Jefferson County of the State of Alabama (a county with plenty of its own problems from speculative funding that went – further – south). They explained that Alabama has recently closed all adoption records, and only by employing a liaison and jumping through various legal hoops to determine that all the parties involved in the adoption were agreeable could I personally access the documents. I talked to the Vital Records department in Montgomery, which had just sent all its adoption-related birth certificates from other states back where they belonged, and had no kind of birth certificate recorded for me in the State of Alabama. I talked to the Adoption Office folks in the Department of Human Resources; they were nice enough, but there was nothing that could be released to me without the legal ritual declaring my purity of intent and the benediction of my various ancestors. That was going to be one hot Ouija board.
Homecoming, Of Sorts
The irony is that I had found Sally; I knew her the rest of her life, and know a good many folks in my maternal biological family. Over the years, I learned a lot about many of the players (and their names) in the drama of my conception, birth, and adoption. In fact, I’d bet my bottom dollar that I know more than is in any document in the Alabama adoption files – except for the name of the brilliant social worker who evaluated my parents-to-be for the state (a bit of information I would like to get). I was present with Sally when she died. I’m pretty close with her sister, who’s more family to me than most of the relatives I grew up with.
What I didn’t realize until this whole process started, but should have suspected when the name given me when I was adopted turned out not to have been legally recorded, is that, in 1959, someone had left the process unfinished. The adoption was finalized Tuesday, 29 December 1959, Sally’s 21st birthday and her attainment of full legal majority, and Lillian Vail Dymond became Lillian Vail Brocato – and that’s all.
Name Change, Or Not so Fast
Both my parents thought that their instructions to the lawyer to change my name to Linde Marie Brocato had been carried out, and, on that basis, they convinced the Social Security Administration. I grew up as Linde, though I had always known that my name had been changed from Lillian; all my school and medical records are in my name.
Imagine my surprise in 1973 to realize that, legally, I wasn’t me, I was “Lillian Vail.” And, then in 2006, to find that, not only had someone failed to make the final name change, which, I suppose, they should have done first, but they failed to send any documentation at all to Hawai’i to amend my birth certificate. Talk about really seriously dropping the ball.
And a ball that’s been dropped for about 50 years is, as mama would say, lost in high weeds.
[WebEditor’s observation: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered”. Ralph Waldo Emerson.]
Weeds or Virtuous Plants?
Needless to say, I was feeling seriously resentful at the onus laid on me – an expensive and lengthy burden of getting access to documents that had less information that I already had, and therefore didn’t need. Bingo! That was the key: I didn’t need the information, the State of Hawai’i did. For Alabama to give me the documentation required leaping through hoops that would put Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey’s finest to shame. But for the states to share documents among themselves doesn’t require anything like that. It just requires one office to make official copies, and send them to another office. Thus, I suggested that the Jefferson County Probate Court send the documents to Hawai’i, in a letter pointing out the unreasonable burden on me and containing a list of all the necessary documents: adoption papers from 1959 and change of name from 1979.
Whew! That’s taken care of.
After a while, I received another letter from the Vital Statistics Office in Hawai’i: Alabama had sent the adoption papers, but not the name change. Please send an official copy, with this letter, etc. etc. etc.
By this time, the more I thought about the end result of this process, the more ambivalent I felt about the whole endeavor, and dragged my feet considerably in getting the documentation sent. I had an official copy of my own; I considered sending that, but didn’t think I should be without it. Yes, I needed an Illinois Driver’s License, but I wasn’t prepared for Lillian Vail Dymond’s entire documented legal existence to simply be erased, amended out of history.
She’s the one who was born there and then, and in those circumstances, not Linde Marie Brocato. And Eunice and Jimmie certainly didn’t cause her conception and birth. Why should everybody on the original “certificate of live birth” be completely eradicated? Why not add to the record instead of scratching out some names and putting in others? Of course, she’s in those sealed adoption proceedings in Alabama, but it would take an act of God to get to those, and, probably, she’s in a microfilmed file in the records of the State of Hawai’i, equally inaccessible.
With the County of Jefferson in the State of Alabama threatening to lay off the vast majority of county employees, I wasn’t sure, having already tried to get them to send an official copy of the name change to Hawai’i, that they would be particularly efficient. So I resolved to go to the Records Office in the Jefferson County Courthouse to get another official copy myself, and send it on – and eventually did.
Birth Place & Time
Biologically, of course, I was born there, my organism, if you will. I came into this world and took consciousness in Hawai’i in February 1957, to someone (Sally) who was married to someone else (Dymond), who was not my father and from whom she was estranged, coming into the complex and fraught emotional tangle that was her life and her family.
Time Passing & Restructured
But I am also the product of the changes and shifts that happened afterward. The names now on my birth certificate are my parents, yes, but they weren’t at that moment, just as Linde Marie Brocato didn’t come into existence until later. So the birth certificate that now has my name is a fiction, a legal fiction, reordering the past to serve the necessities of the State to license, to identify, to control. It records, not my birth, but my fate: the basic outline of my historical community and what came of that, but not that of my biological genesis, which, you would think, is what it should represent. In this, we should suspect birth certificates of being like those medieval cartularies that declare the results of the last few hundred years of property ownership, i.e. as potentially “falsified”.
Why not a codicil that traces those shifts? Say, in bureaucratese and documentary layout, declare “Lillian Vail Dymond was born on that date to those other people, and then in 1959, she was adopted by some other people, and her name was changed.” The document actually does include just that sort of codicil, to show the name change from Lillian Vail Brocato to Linde Marie Brocato, but makes no mention of the truly significant fabrication of progenitors. Would that somehow abrogate the legality or stability of my present identity? I’m not feeling terribly unstable knowing the vicissitudes of who I have been and am, and the other adopted kids in our neighborhood, who didn’t know they were adopted, went through some serious identity crises when they figured it out (and it was so tedious to be forbidden to mention it). I’ve had my identity crises over the years, but never that one.
That’s what made the social worker who evaluated my parents brilliant in following the general policies for handling adoptions at the time. She told my mother to simply introduce me from time to time, in my hearing, as “my beloved adopted daughter, Linde,” and to always answer my questions honestly. I always knew; Sally had rented from one of my aunts, who had brokered the adoption in hopes of saving the marriage of her childless sister. No muss, no fuss, no pretzellated sense of self (on that count). Well, it’s not like it’s that hard to tell, really, and it’s not like the biological information doesn’t need to come out at some point. Which is why I’ve never understood all the secrecy around it.
Naming as Hiding Place or Finding Place
That secrecy is said to protect . . . someone. But whom?
To protect the woman who’s given up her child? From anyone knowing she had and gave up a child? Like nobody’s going to notice a slight case of pregnancy? Maybe in a really really small town where she went missing for 8 months or so, and then suddenly reappeared, nobody would know, but I’m betting that the gossip mill would make up something close enough to the truth to be no protection to anybody. To keep her from intruding into the child’s (and parents’) life having once given up the child but reconsidered? To keep the child from intruding into her life if it found out? To erase awareness of any possibility of other options than the “legitimate, (pseudo-)traditional family,” its containment of desire and sex, and its control of fertility?
To protect the child? From what? Knowing that someone else’s body produced it, and then went away? From knowing that someone had sense enough to know that they weren’t in a position to raise a child? Or maybe to protect the child from the taint of bastardy (the case for many if not most of us)? Which means what? Protecting the child from folks who assume that bastardy must lead to similar “moral turpitude” in the offspring? Or protecting the adopted child from imputing moral turpitude to itself (with their help, that is)?
Or was it to protect 1950s Americans from having to reveal their infertility? And why is fertility, a natural occurrence, so important? Surely enough children are generated at any given time to go around – the virtue of adoption, of course, is to provide children to love, as well as heirs for the worldly goods of grownups. Clearly, it’s more than that; perhaps the perfect traditional couple to which the “traditional” family has been reduced requires manly men and womanly women, and the proof of that pudding is its offspring. You’re not really a man or a woman, not fully validated in your proper gender if the man-woman, birds-and-bees relationship doesn’t produce a child. Someone could be shooting blanks, i.e. they fail the full test of virility or femininity. And the whole edifice of gender and social straightness falls down, bringing with it the traditional-since-the-fifties nuclear family.
Now, of course, we revel our artificial fecundity and thus unwittingly in our natural infertility, and prop up that house with the further proliferation of pharmaceuticals and high-tech medical treatments to redress (or just get around) the mess we’ve made by polluting the world. Not just fertility, either, “masculinity” can always be enhanced with meds or prostheses. And still we worry about adopting someone else’s child – especially if of some other race or with some physiological problem. By god, we want our own DNA, or at least half of our DNA, renting some woman’s body or borrowing some man’s sperm. It used to be called “blood” which was the equivalent of “family;” as my biological grandfather said right after “hello” the first time I met him: “I could never stand the thought of someone of my blood being raised by strangers.” Strangers? They weren’t “strangers” to me.
Granted, in my situation, nobody was really “protected” from anything. Before I was born, Sally made sure everyone was aware of her pregnancy – it was meant to be as public as possible – and then I spent the first year and a half of my life with her. The adoption was not via any agency, state or otherwise, except that of my aunt who saw an opportunity to get a neglected child out of an untenable situation and into one where she would be better loved and cared for. And, like I said, thanks to the wisdom of that anonymous state adoption agency social worker, I always knew everything that my mother and aunts knew.
When I was 21, I set about finding Sally, in the throes of the romanticized Oedipal impulse of that age. (“These louts cannot possibly be whence my brilliance and sensitivity proceed. Nay, all my problems are from them; all my gifts from my biological family.”) And I found her, and the whole troop, and the romanticized version of my origins came tumbling down: the longer I’ve known my biological family, the happier I am that I was adopted (but, then again, with some of the problems of my adoptive family, I don’t regret not having those genes).
The question, then, is whether anybody really needs to be protected from such truths as an accurate birth certificate might reveal, from a document that corresponds to the historical realities of a life and not merely one result of the process? (The Adoption History Project at the University of Oregon considers these issues.) I would think that such protection is necessary only if there have been lies of omission or commission previously – and, frankly, I think we mostly know truth from lies on some level, even if we don’t know the particulars. We need truth, we hunger for truth, not “happiness,” whatever that is. We mistake truth for happiness, or vice versa. But, if the truth sets us free, the freedom that these truths – possibly ugly – offer is a profound clarity about who and what each of us is and is not, has been, might be, and the world as it is.
Moments of Death
Both my mothers died within 15 months of each other, mama in June of 1999 and Sally in September of 2000. The two deaths could hardly have been more different, just as their lives were, and, to the end, my mother never erased Sally, even when she was most anxious about my possible defection. Sally, on the other hand, never recognized my mother in any of our conversations – her landlady, my aunt Dot, yes. And Sally, ever a bit of a cuckoo who expected others to raise children she still considered hers (I am one of three), in her last conversations didn’t really get that I had no legal relationship to her; legally, I was a stranger, and only there by my choice – Lillian Vail had been gone for a very long time.
So, what’s the big deal?
Moments of Truth
I am unhappy that Sally’s child, Lillian Vail, who refused the name and called herself Linde, has been erased – as I’m disturbed when any individual and their particular truths are erased. I’m disturbed that an entire chunk of my life has been summarily eradicated from all legal records, in particular since it seems to me that the purpose of the erasure is to appease a need for unitary identity, evidence of gender-straightness on the part of my adoptive parents, and proof of the viability of the nuclear family, which is no more “traditional” than identity is unitary or gender necessarily unbent.
Identity and Authenticity
Continuity of a biological entity there may be — the “me” that was first named Lillian Vail Dymond and eventually became Linde Marie Brocato — that the essentially false documents don’t violate, but the historical reality is otherwise: we, too, are cats with any number of lives (I think I’m on my fourth or fifth at this point). It serves us better not to forget or obfuscate that – and I refuse to live a lie, no matter what the legal document says.
© Linde M. Brocato 2009–2016
composed December 31, 2009
revised January 2010, July 2010, May 2016
published here July 2016
WebEditor’s Note. Our 2013 Symposium on Identity and Authenticity was one of the subjects explored in the Serendipitious Meeting at the 2016 Congress Parking Lot which Linde mentioned above. Some of the posts for our blog on Manuscript Studies report on such subjects. Who We Are and How We Are are constant subjects of Exploration. And sometimes of Amelioration. Always in look-out for Progress.
We thank Linde for her brave and generous contribution. Important, we think, to keep in mind the Sentient Being Now and the possibly Sentient Beings of Earlier Eras, insofar as we might glimpse them, from both their traces and any other signs. Hence our continued, devoted, studies about written traces. Please Contact Us.