Adoption, Reunion, Connection
By SUSAN DOMINUS
Listen: Lorraine Dusky has come unstuck in time.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote that first, about Billy Pilgrim, the time-traveling soldier in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” And Ms. Dusky has Vonnegut to thank for her version of time travel, too.
In 1966, Ms. Dusky, pregnant and single, had her baby placed with an adoptive family. Anguished by the loss of that child, she wrote a memoir, “Birthmark” (1979), one of the first published accounts from an unwed mother who chose adoption. In 1981, when her biological daughter turned 15, Ms. Dusky managed to establish contact. The two became close, and also had fallings out. During one such gap in their relationship, the daughter, Jane Pertzborn, then 20, had an unintended pregnancy. Her baby, too, was adopted.
Ms. Dusky, now 66, was not actually forced, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim,to relive moments of her life over and over, but it sometimes felt that way. “I thought, ‘Oh my God — what did I start?’ ” recalled Ms. Dusky, who had become an active critic of how adoption was handled.
Over time, Ms. Dusky has also experienced, up close, how much adoption has changed since 1966. When she was young, women were said to give up their babies for adoption; now, in the parlance of the agencies, women make an adoption plan (Ms. Dusky rejects that language as too distancing). In the 1980s, Ms. Dusky found Ms. Pertzborn by mailing a greeting card stuffed with cash to a mysterious source; these days, search specialists abound. Open adoptions have become commonplace.
Ms. Pertzborn never expressed interest in meeting her own biological daughter (though she spoke of her sometimes to Ms. Dusky, to whom she remained close). After Ms. Pertzborn committed suicide in 2007, Ms. Dusky decided to reach out to her biological granddaughter. Through a state social worker, she learned that the desire was not reciprocal. Perhaps that part of Ms. Dusky’s life — the reward of the longed-for reunion — would not be repeated.
Then, another inquiry, initiated earlier through a search specialist, yielded a name, which yielded, after a Google search, a person: Lisa Brimmer, 24, writer, poet, singer, blogger. On Nov. 19, 2009, Ms. Dusky read this post on Ms. Brimmer’s blog: “KV’s birthday is tomorrow — that’s right folks — so ladies — pick up some Mother Night.”
Ms. Dusky, a longtime magazine writer, recognized the reference to the Vonnegut book. She and her husband, the writer Anthony Brandt, lived in Sag Harbor and had been friendly with Vonnegut, who also had a home on Long Island. Ms. Pertzborn — Ms. Brimmer’s biological mother — had actually worked briefly as a nanny for the Vonneguts one summer.
“This is ridiculous,” Ms. Dusky recalled thinking to herself. “I decided, ‘I’m going to e-mail her.’ She wants to be a writer — I’m going to tell her she comes from writers.”
Ms. Brimmer e-mailed her back.
Ms. Dusky’s life has been defined, sometimes painfully, by its subversion of the expected order of things: a baby before marriage, a woman outliving the child she brought into life. In connecting with Ms. Brimmer, once again, Ms. Dusky is unstuck from time — this time, more happily, starting where things never did 24 years ago. In July, when Ms. Brimmer went to Sag Harbor to visit for a week, Ms. Dusky got to know a fully formed adult, complete with glamorous sunglasses and a tattoo on her left wrist that says, in tribute to Vonnegut, “Listen.”
FEW adoption reunions are simply happy endings; they are often fraught beginnings, and so it was for Ms. Brimmer and Ms. Dusky. Ms. Dusky saw similarities everywhere — the writing, the fondness for fedoras. Ms. Brimmer saw differences, starting with how they looked. Ms. Brimmer, who is biracial, knew that Ms. Dusky was white, but had hoped to see — and craved — a closer facial resemblance.
They both know they care enough to try to build something out of whatever tenuous or primal link connects them. “I think you have to start as friends first before you build those other bonds,” said Ms. Brimmer, who lives in Minneapolis.
Ms. Dusky wrote frankly about the challenges of the reunion on her own blog, Birth Mother, First Mother Forum.
Ms. Dusky prefers the term “first mother” to “birth mother.” Those are words that “make me sound like a baby machine, a conduit without emotion,” Ms. Dusky has written. As the notion of family keeps shifting, the language will, too, and sometimes it will inevitably be inadequate to the task.