In 1992 my birth mother found me, and through her I contacted my father—who asked me to take a DNA test to prove I was his daughter. My relationship with my biological parents wasn't exactly smooth, and ended abruptly when she died unexpectedly in 1998; he and I spoke for the last time a few months later.
Years passed before I felt able to deal with the story again. By 2005 I was the mother of a small child—for the first time in my life living with a blood relation—and feeling I needed to know more about who I was and where I came from. With little to go on, I began a kind of electronic dig—a virtual search for self.
Genealogical research is one of the top-ranked hobbies in the United States—in some ways it's like a sport, collecting ancestors like baseball cards. And it's addictive. As soon as I start, I am at it round the clock. On the Internet, one can within seconds locate the long lost and create a family portrait out of scraps of information. Every clue leads to another; you find that there are several versions of the person you are looking for—the wrong ones, the almost right ones, and then the one.
I begin with my father's parents. I do not know their names; I know only that my birth mother told my father she was pregnant on the day his mother died—so that had to be sometime in 1961. I search the Washington Post obituary archive for the last name, Hecht. And there she is—my grandmother, Georgia Hecht—who passed away on April 11, 1961. And then I put her name into a search of the 1930 census and find her living with my father, who is 5, at her parents' house in Washington, D.C. Now not only do I have her maiden name, Slye, but I have her mother and father, my great-grandparents—Mary Elizabeth Slye and Chapman Augustus Slye.
My father's father is more difficult. And then I find him almost accidentally one day when I am again in the Washington Post archive looking up the Slyes. There, buried in the January 25, 1955, obituary of my biological great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Slye, is a notation, mother of... "Mrs. Irving Hecht" (a.k.a. Georgia Slye). Here is the information I've been looking for. Irving Hecht—my father's father.
Each time I locate a detail, a fact, a missing fragment of information, I have the sense of having made a match—something lights up, bingo. We have a winner! And for a moment everything is incredibly clear, and then just as quickly, I am all too aware that still, always and forever, there will be an enormous amount that remains a mystery. I believe we all know things that we don't know we know—bits and pieces of information visit us as if somewhere between dream and reality. The trick, if one can call it that, is being open to identifying where they fit in.
The search becomes more and more urgent; I am up in the night surfing, connecting the dots. When I find Irving Hecht's obituary, I also find his brothers, Nathan of New York, Arthur S. of San Francisco, my great-uncles!
I go to bed at midnight, and at 2 A.M. find myself at my desk—logging on. In the middle of the day, I nap. My brain is constantly reshuffling the files and organizing the new information. On the one hand I want to know my history, and on the other it is overwhelming to become aware of so many lives and to realize that most if not all of my ancestors are completely ignorant of my history or even my existence. At times the pain is overwhelming and I have to slow down to accommodate a self that is constantly struggling to catch up, to recalibrate.
At the New York City Municipal Archives at 31 Chambers Street, I sign in at room 103 and pay $5 to use the microfilm machines. The people who work there know how to dig for buried treasure, but they are cranky—picture Danny DeVito playing the hostile clerk behind the counter.
The room is full of people piecing together their own private puzzles, and the first thing that occurs to me is they're not all adopted—so what are they looking for? I remind myself that the quest to answer the question, "Who am I?" is not unique to the adoptee. In this room, everyone is looking for something that will help them either confirm or deny part of what they believe about themselves. They are looking for backup, support, for definition. They are all deep in it, buried in names, dates, codes, but most are also happy to render assistance—some volunteer helpful hints, while others tell their stories. I often ask, "How long have you been at it?" "Seven years," one woman tells me. "It started as a hobby, a birthday present for my husband," another says. "It started when my father died," another woman says. "Have you tried the Italians? They keep good records, even on the Jews." Another woman leans over and whispers, "Have you been to Salt Lake City?" Salt Lake is "the mountain," the mecca for genealogical information—home base for the Mormons, who go around the world collecting genealogical data. Every month five to six thousand reels of microfilm are added to their collection. "I went once for two weeks," the woman tells me. "It was heaven. Think about it," she says.
There is the whir of the machines, juxtaposed against the virtual silence in which everyone works—it is difficult to stay focused. A guy in a white shirt is hogging the files; he's got multiple drawers open, his arms filled with reels, and he's blocking the way. The rule is one reel at a time, take it, look at it, and put it back—which also makes it harder to misfile upon return. "Excuse me," I say, "it's one reel at a time." He ignores me. "Excuse me," I try again. "Just a minute," he grumps, digging through a drawer. I push my leg against the drawer, threatening to close it on his hand. "Excuse me—is your dead person somehow more important than anyone elses's?"
I find marriage certificates for David and Rika Hecht; my biological paternal great-grandparents, both born in Germany, and with each comes the names of their parents, my great-great-grandparents: Nathan Hecht and Regina Grunbaum and Isaac Ehrenreich and Rosa Steigerwald. Within the hour, I have birth certificates for Irving (born Isaac), Arthur S., and Nathan—my grandfather and great-uncles.
Along the way, it becomes apparent to me that I am searching not just for biological history but for my combined history—the intertwined narrative of how I became who I am. From my adoptive relatives, I collect tales of my great-grandfather Jacob Spitzer's dairy farm on the Mohawk Trail in North Adams, Massachusetts, and information about Simon Rosenberg and Sophie Rothman—my adoptive maternal great-grandparents, born in the 1870s in Braila, Romania. With each name and date comes imagery. I start making mental pictures of who they were—who I might be. I am the granddaughter of an English Southern belle. I am the granddaughter of a Romanian-French immigrant. I am the granddaughter of the Lithuanian farmer girl, the granddaughter of the Russian bookie, the granddaughter of an Irishwoman. I am the adopted daughter of the guidance counselor and the leftist artist and the biological daughter of the adulterer and the wayward girl, the little girl lost.
I am back in time, wading across a clear running creek, I am a farmer on a plantation, I am captain of a ship, I am the woman in a long white dress, my curly hair high up on my head, I am feeling the heat of summer—the Southern humidity, the thick, stagnant afternoon air, the coming of thunderstorms. I am conjuring sea captains and drinking glasses of bloodred wine. This is the stuff of poems and strange fever dreams. I am of a plantation, and I can say I knew it all along at some preconscious level. I am imagining the lives of indentured servants and slaves—some of whom had the very same names as the people I am looking for. When were they freed and where did they go?
What becomes clear is that all of this is about narrative—the story told. I can't escape the oddity of how it happened that I, a person without a past, became a novelist, a storyteller working from my imagination to create lives that never existed. Every family has a story that it tells itself, that it passes on to the children and grandchildren. The story grows over the years, mutates, some parts are sharpened, others dropped, and there is often debate about what really happened. But even with these different sides of the same story, there is still agreement that this is the family story. And in the absence of other narratives, it becomes the flagpole that the family hangs its identity from. The choices these generations of relatives made became the twists and turns, the turn of the screw of my family history. I am thrilled by what I am finding, by dipping into history, by seeing how people lived and died and considering how and why they made the choices they did. There is great comfort in connecting the dots—in having names and dates and some sense of where my family lines and I fit into history.
In the end, did I find what I was looking for—did I find myself? After a lifetime of feeling I had no right to exist, I finally felt I was claiming a place of my own. Discovering my biological background, I felt an identification with people I had never known, with locations I'd been drawn to since childhood; things that had inexplicably resonated now made sense on a very primitive level.
The search for self is ongoing; having located a sense of self within myself, I feel more grounded, less likely to evaporate at any moment. I am better able to sit with the fact that to accept and understand one's past is a never-ending process. The struggle to reconcile who I am and where I came from, beginning with my early feelings about having been given up and then later the identity crisis of being "found" by my biological parents and on through making the decision to have a child of my own, have all contributed to building a kind of inner strength that is now an integral part of how I move through my life.
And being able to articulate the ways in which I am of not just one of these families but all of these families brings a sense of wholeness to my identity that carries over into my life with my daughter. I am my daughter's mother, and while my own birth may not have been something that was planned or desired, I am now claiming my place as a legitimate person—saying there is in fact no such thing as an illegitimate person. And from this new connection, I am better able to tell my daughter about where she came from and who she is and to help her explore who and what she will become.
A.M. Homes is the author most recently of The Mistress's Daughter, from which this piece is adapted, and This Book Will Save Your Life (both Viking).