The Kindness of Strangers

The Kindness of Strangers

Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.

By Suzanne Gilbert

After not meeting my birth mother for four years, during which she travelled extensively and planned then cancelled several cross-Atlantic visits, I decided to reach out for my birth father. I started by going to the library to use some software that contained two national telephone directories.

This was about a half dozen years before family and genealogy websites began to appear and change the nature of Search and Reunion for many domestic adoptees. I would join one of those early dot-coms,, in 1999.

But this was still 1995 and I was staring at a black and white database screen. One directory was for people east of the Mississippi, the other was for people west of the Mississippi. On a hunch I picked the eastern directory and typed in my birth father Bill Ray’s name.

There were 200 of them. Undaunted, I circled the Bill Rays in the city where he had lived at the time he met my birth mother. That night, as I sat down to make the phone calls, my hands shook.

Of course, I thought, they should be shaking. This is the first I’ll be speaking to my birth father and I don’t know what I’ll find. A few years ago I had been unprepared for my emotions at the adoption agency.

I had been surprised again at the wave of feelings that overwhelmed my adoptive mother and me when I got that first phone call from my first mother. But now I was no longer in denial. Of course I would feel shaky before calling my first father. Why shouldn’t I?

None of the people I spoke to matched up with what I knew about my first father. I then tried several other ways of tracking him down, including making use of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 because one of the family details I gleaned at the adoption agency was that my birth father was of both Indian and non-Indian descent.

Years later I would learn that his son, my half-brother, applied to and attended Princeton University as a native American, drawing on our Cherokee paternal great grandmother having grown up on the reservation in Oklahoma. We are also of slight Iroquois descent.

Among other provisions, the ICWA returns to Indian adoptees access to their original birth certificates with their first parents’ names on them. Despite that, I was imperiously scolded by someone who answered the phone at the Indian Museum in Manhattan that I had no right to search because I, apparently as an infant, had “legally agreed to protect” my first mother’s confidentiality.

After that, another adoptee, adoption reform activist Barbara Cohen, put me in touch with the attorney who helped draft the ICWA. He in turn put me in touch with a tribal historian on the Iroquois reservation in upstate New York.

She told me that many Iroquois had moved to the outer boroughs of New York earlier in the 20th century as construction workers on Manhattan’s many skyscrapers. The belief was that they had better balance for walking across high rise steel girders than non-Indian workers. She also told me that Ray was a surname found on the reservation and she would ask around. She was unable to locate him.

I tried talking to Bill Ray’s former employer. Someone in the office there was sympathetic to me and promised to find out what she could but I never heard from her again. Yet a few weeks later I happened to contact a Bill Ray in another city and his secretary laughed when I asked her if he had ever worked in the art department of a certain company.

“The man doesn’t have an artistic bone in his body,” she explained, “We can’t even read his handwriting. But you’re the second person this month to call and ask that.”

The other phone call must have come from either the sympathetic woman I had spoken to at his old job or the Iroquois historian. This Bill Ray’s secretary put me through to him anyway. It turned out he was seventy-eight years old (too old to be my first father), but at the end of our conversation, he told me sweetly, “Don’t worry, I’d adopt you any day.”

After I made a few more creative attempts that led nowhere, Rita, the head of Adoption Crossroads, an adoptees’ search and support group in northern New Jersey, helped me out. The news she had was bittersweet.

She had found a Bill Ray that fit the information Ellen had given me, but in 1987, he had died. All I could get now would be a copy of a government document he had filled out. I would send away for that and when it came in a few weeks I could put that in my family album as a memento.

I was disappointed that I did not feel grief. Instead, I felt satisfied at having tracked him down. It is hard to explain but I also felt a kind of contentment at having survived one of my forebears. It made me part of the flow of generations.

Just as Bill had probably survived his parents, so had I survived him and so, I hoped, would my children survive me.

I called my birth mother right away and told her. I thought it might make her more open with me, now that she knew she couldn’t “lose” me to him. In my next letter to London, I asked her to tell me what school he had been attending when she dated him so I could at least find a yearbook picture of him. She ignored the request anyway.

In a few weeks, the government document came. When I scanned it, I saw the box for race was marked “Negro” while I am more or less white.

I had the wrong Bill Ray. With no other leads, I decided to let matters rest for a while.

I put my energy instead into telephoning and writing state legislators to try and push through a bill that would give adoptees at the age of 18 in our state access to their original birth certificates, so others would be spared the kind of quest my birth mother and the system had sent me on.


Suzanne is the author of the adoption quest novel Tapioca Fire and the manuscripts for its sequels The Birthfathers’ Club, and The Ghost Net. Her fiction interests include adoption lit and cyber espionage. She curates the virtual bookshelf “Orphans, Adoptees & Birthsearcher Fiction” at

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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

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