Adoption and Identity, Part One
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
Stranger in the Mirror
“For so long, without knowing why, Austin had avoided mirrors whenever possible because of the discomforted, unsettled feeling that washed over her every time she saw her reflection, as if a stranger was staring back at her. Now, as she stared at the photo of her mother, she understood. Without the benefit of growing up and seeing herself reflected in a jawline here and eyebrow there, she had no frame of reference for recognizing her face, a strange form of self-prosopagnosia. Her reflection remained a perpetual familiar oddity.”
- excerpt from Secrets My Mothers Kept
Unlike Austin, the main protagonist of Secrets My Mothers Kept, I learned about my adoption at a very young age. As a result, I knew why I didn’t look like anyone in my family. My older sister, also adopted, had blonde hair and brown eyes. My younger sister, not adopted, had my mom’s curly dark hair and my father’s deep brown eyes. I have light brown hair that turns blonde in the sun, with eyes that shift colors from grey to green, depending on my mood, the weather, and my clothes.
"I questioned whether my inability to recognize myself in the mirror had something to do with lacking a frame of reference...That, like Austin, I suffered a strange form of self-prosopagnosia."
I knew why I looked different but, like Austin, I was never comfortable looking in the mirror. It did feel like a stranger was gazing back at me. I often puzzled over why I couldn’t connect with my reflection. For a long time, I didn’t connect this odd disassociation with being adopted. Then, I started noticing how family members often looked alike, if not with members of immediate family, then with a grandparent or an aunt. I see it every day with my younger sister and both my parents. With my wife and her mother. I questioned whether my inability to recognize myself in the mirror had something to do with lacking a frame of reference; namely, that I had never seen a single biological family member. That, like Austin, I suffered a strange form of self-prosopagnosia.
I had been searching for my birth family for 20 years to no avail. When DNA tests became prevalent and affordable around 2015, I jumped at the chance and sent off tests to three main companies: FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe, and Ancestry. Long story short, I discovered relatives from both sides of my birth family though, sadly, both my birth parents had passed away. The first picture of a relative that I ever laid eyes on was of my great grandmother, Annie Missouri Hamm. What a name! Here’s the picture of her.
And it may be wishful thinking, but I think we look a lot alike! I must have looked at this picture every ten minutes the first day, and many many times thereafter. I also showed it to everybody I knew. More than once. A bit later, I received a picture of my father as a boy. I’m not sure, because I lack practice in this area, but I think we looked a bit alike at that age as well. Take a look below, then at the photo below it and tell me, what do you think?
I can’t tell you yet whether the stranger in the mirror has morphed into me as a result of finding my personal frame of reference. I’m still practicing the art of finding family resemblances. I can say that when I look into a mirror now, instead of feeling disconcerted, I feel curious. What can I see now that I was blind to before? As an adoptee, I know the ties that bind a family together are not made of blood or even growing up in the same house. But being able to visually see my points of origin viscerally filled a space inside me I didn’t know existed.
What do you think about family resemblances? Do they mean something to you? If so, what? If not, why not? Let me know in the comments below!