Chapter 5: Knowing You Are Adopted: Just Look in the Mirror

Rudy Owens’ memoir on the American adoption experience

© 2017 Rudy Owens.  All rights reserved.

Fewer than 100 photos exist that document my childhood through my adolescence. Looking at them now, they confirm beyond any doubt I never resembled my birth mother, my adoptive sister, or my adoptive father. Nor did I look like their extended families. Even as a young boy I could tell that grandparents, parents, children, and even cousins shared a clear physical resemblance in the families all around me. I was different, and would always be different from all of them because my family members looked nothing like me. I also knew in my bones that I would never share my life’s journey with my “blood” kin.

Despite the volumes of advice given to parents about bonding among non-related members of adoptive families, those ties can never erase an adoptee’s self-knowledge of being genetically different. In my case, I always knew I was adopted. There is not a single “aha” point in time I can recall like those found in so many autobiographies. I never had a cathartic moment, with sudden awareness of an important and life-changing fact. That is what happens in fiction or dramatized biographies that stretch the truth and tell people what they want to believe. My life was not make believe, even if the journey to self-discovery remains mythical at its core.

The way most of us first know we belong to each other as kin is through our shared facial features. I could immediately tell I did not have the eyes, eyebrows, nose, ears, mouth, chin, or even body types with my adoptive parents. When I gazed into the mirror when I was younger, I saw a young boy and then a scrawny teenager with dishwater blond hair, ears that prominently stood out, a very large nose, thick lips, blue-green eyes, and a boxy head. I was a late bloomer, and mostly very skinny through my early 20s. Even today I weigh just above 150 pounds and stand a hair under six feet.

When I looked at my adoptive mother and father as a young boy, I saw no physical similarities. My long-deceased adoptive father stood 6’3”. He wore dark glasses and did not have my facial features, with his square German jaw and the flattop on his balding head. He was much larger than me, physically. His temperament changed like the wind. He was highly volatile, mostly because of his alcoholism. I was quiet and private. My much shorter, 5’ 6” mother, with her brown, curly hair, has a much darker complexion than mine. She always has been more outgoing than me, and our outward behaviors never had much in common. Even until I was 18 years and older, people who did not know my adoption story continued to say I resembled my adoptive mother, when neither of us believed that. Those were forever awkward moments for both of us, particularly after I had found my biological mother.

My adoptive sister was born in Saginaw in 1963. She was placed with my family two years before me. Physically she was heavier than me as we entered adolescence, and she grew heavier as she aged. I have barely gained a pound since I was 22, thanks to my diet and love of intense physical exercise.

This clear morphological difference provides the most striking visual proof we hail from different biological families. She also has dark brown hair, a big smile, and wide brown eyes. We bore and still bear no physical similarity at all. Growing up, no one seeing us together in a crowd would ever guess we’re brother and sister. As we both got older in our 30s, and my sister’s health began to deteriorate because of weight and lifestyle choices, I began to notice how she resembled many Native American women I had seen who had experienced hard lives. To this day, I believe my sister is likely part Native American from Michigan, perhaps a member of the Chippewa nation.

When I was placed for adoption in 1965, social service agencies that brokered adoption placements embraced a prevailing practice to place children with whom they believed would be families that resembled the child. Theoretically, the matching of races of parent and child served everyone’s best interest. According to one social worker, speaking for her field in the 1940s, careful matching would ensure that “no one will ever say” to an adoptive parent, “This cannot be your natural child.”

Return to Chapter 4: How Scott Became Martin: A Life Told in Records

Read More: Chapter 6: Blood Is Thicker Than Water

Editor’s note: Citations are listed in the original chapters but omitted in this chapter excerpt.