When Sag Harbor journalist Lorraine Dusky gave her daughter up for adoption in 1966, she regretted the decision immediately. But she had little idea at the time that the experience would be the genesis of her life’s work.
Ms. Dusky, whose 1979 memoir “Birthmark” tore open the veil over the regrets of women who’ve made the decision to give up their children, has just published a new memoir, “Hole in My Heart: Memoir and Report from the Fault Lines of Adoption.”
A lot has happened in Ms. Dusky’s life the years between the two memoirs. She found her daughter, Jane Pertzborn, who was suffering from epilepsy, developed a friendship, and then had to come to terms with her daughter’s suicide in 2007.
Ms. Dusky said her regrets began as soon as she signed the paperwork allowing her daughter to be adopted.
“I went forward in the adoption not knowing the records were sealed and she was never supposed to know me,” she said. “It’s very hard to explain what it was like then. I didn’t really feel that I had a choice. This is the way it was if you had a child out of wedlock. But I always knew I was going to try to find her.”
When Ms. Dusky published “Birthmark,” she wasn’t prepared for the tremendous amount of attention, both positive and negative, that it would bring to her. But she’d been hoping, in a way, that the book would help her find her daughter.
“It was the first book from a natural mother about this situation and it was very controversial, very shocking,” she said. “I would get excoriated at dinner parties and I heard people said all sorts of things at dinner parties when I was not there. It was a big surprise. At the time, I didn’t know if I would ever find her, and I hoped to use that book as a way to find her.”
Ms. Dusky said that changing the law to make it easier for children and natural mothers to find each other has become her life’s work since the publication of “Birthmark.”
“I hope to not leave this earth without making an impact on adoption law,” she said.
Ms. Dusky said the great majority of U.S. states still prevent adopted people from getting their original birth certificates. Only seven states allow unfettered access to the records.
The laws in New York haven’t changed since 1935, when then-governor Herbert Lehman had adopted children, whom he planned to raise to never know their natural parents.
“The whole idea was that we will make this child a complete part of the family,” she said. “The records were sealed to prevent mothers from interfering. The law was never written to protect birth mothers’ privacy. It was written for a lot of other reasons.”
Ms. Dusky said that South Fork State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and the East End’s state senator, Kenneth LaValle, have been staunch supporters of adoption reform, but the leaders in the state legislature has never allowed a reform law to be discussed on the floor.
“There’s just this kind of attitude that we’ve done it this way and we’re not going to change it,” she said. “Birth is not such a private event. It’s giving a certain kind of protection to a small group of women who shouldn’t have this protection. Their fear of being embarrassed usurps the ability of others to find their children.”
Ms. Dusky said that in six states that have opened records since 2000, out of 800,000 adoption files, only 600 women have requested no contact with their children.
“That’s one-thousandth of 1 percent,” she said. “In those six states, nearly 30,000 people to date have asked for their original birth certificates.”
Ms. Dusky began seriously searching for her daughter at the encouragement of her husband, Anthony Brandt, who told her not long before they married that he supported her quest to find her daughter. In 1981, she hired an investigator, and after she returned from their honeymoon, a letter was waiting for her saying her daughter had been found.
“Tony helped me make the decision, ” she said. “I really felt that she needed me. It was like sonar coming in on a boat. If you write to the adoption agency, you’d get letters back saying she was fine and happy, but she wasn’t ok. Her family doctor was trying to find more information about me because she had epilepsy.”
Ms. Dusky called Jane’s adopted mother, who told her that Jane had wanted to find her, and the next weekend she flew to Madison, Wisconsin to meet her.
“I was kind of speechless. It felt like I was floating above the whole scene, seeing her at the airport in a lavender sweater and blue jeans. She decided to keep her hands in her back pockets. She wanted to hug me, but didn’t,” she said. “Adopted people intuit there’s a conflict between families and she didn’t want to hurt her adopted father.”
“it was like a floodgate of relief,” she added. “I know where she is, she’s not dead.”
But the epilepsy drugs proved a hinderance to Jane’s life. She wasn’t able to keep a job for long, and had given up her own child to adoption. At one point, not long before she took her life, she did take a college English course and managed to get an A.
While the story tells a very personal tale of Ms. Dusky’s difficulties getting to know her daughter, and how their relationship grew and changed over the years, she said it’s a story that she’s heard from many other people as well.
“It’s really every adoptee’s story,” she said.
Ms. Dusky discussed the book this weekend at Sag Harbor’s John Jermain Library and she is planning future readings on the East End in the upcoming months.