Adoption tales aren’t about villains. They’re about real people making very difficult decisions—a fact this writer, whose background mirrors the Olympian's, knows well.
It began, as so many conversations with my siblings do, with a group text message.
My sister Lisa sent a link: “Little Girl Abandoned by Father and Drug-Addict Mother Is Adopted by Christian Texas Family, Becomes Best Athlete in the World“
With the message “So many things wrong with this headline, I don’t even know where to start.”
I clicked on the article, and braced myself.
I share a few biographical details with Simone Biles.
I am one of seven biological siblings. My siblings and I were adopted by five different families and raised apart. While strangers adopted my four youngest sisters, my first mother’s estranged father and stepmother adopted me. I was adopted alongside one of my biological siblings, my younger sister, Becca. Both Simone Biles’s and my grandfathers-turned-adoptive-fathers served in the Air Force. We were both raised Catholic.
My first mother never struggled with addiction like Biles’s did (the warping forces in my story were poverty and mental illness), and while I am nowhere near a world-class athlete, I did publish my recollection of my family origins in a memoir called Bastards, which was released in the U.S. in the summer of 2015.
Before my book was published, I had read books written by adoptees, spent time on adoption forums, and spoken to other adopted people. I had experienced several reunions with my biological siblings where we navigated the tricky verbal terrain of what to call one another, how to address the various parents we were all connected to in a way that was accurate for each of us. We said your mom, our mom, first mother, birth mother, sometimes we simply used first names Peggy, Michael, Mimi. The conversation was made trickier because my adoptive father is also, ancestrally, a grandfather to all of us.
Before my book was published, I had seen the reflex to simplify complicated adoption stories into easily digestible binaries, pitting “real” parents versus birth parents, heroes versus villains, as if the main purpose of sharing an adoption story was to identify the correct faces to place on a dart board.
It would have been simpler for my siblings and me if labeling someone as “real” could clarify the muddy emotional terrain we wandered into when we began reuniting 15 years ago. It would have been simpler if my sisters and I had not felt a connection to one another, if we did not have shared interests and similarities that bonded us to one another. If we could stop wondering what the flip side of the “real” label implied; that if one person can be “real” then someone else must be “un-real.” And if real is legitimate, then un-real illegitimate. If we did not share “real” parents, could we be real to one another? How do you go from being un-real to real?
I have to reconcile on a regular basis that I am connected to four parents—my first mother and father, and my adoptive mother and father. They are all real people, who have contributed—in visible, and imperceptible ways—to the person I am. My beloved adoptive father was also my first mother’s estranged father, my adored first mother was unable to care for me, my bewildering and complicated first father is undoubtedly the man from whom I inherited my musical abilities, and though my biological siblings and I felt immediate bonds when we first met, we will always struggle to make room for one another in our lives.
All those things are true. They exist in a complicated web of blessings and losses, none of them strong enough to erase the others.
But that narrative arc is not nearly as eye-catching as “Little Girl Abandoned by Father and Drug-Addict Mother Is Adopted by Christian Texas Family, Becomes Best Athlete in the World,” a piece that, according to the counter on the bottom of the webpage, has been shared nearly 700,000 times since it’s publication on August 8.
In a recent interview with NBC, Ron and Nellie Biles are careful to say that Simone’s first mother “struggled with addiction.” They do not refer to her, disparagingly, as Simone’s Drug-Addict Mother. When they tell their story, they acknowledge that the villain that sent Simone and her sister into foster care and splintered their first family was a struggle with drug addiction, a specter that haunts many American families. I am sure that when Ron, Nellie, and Simone Biles told their family story to the press, they had no idea that the story would be recast into headlines that would shame Simone’s first mother, a woman who has been sober since 2007, keeps in touch with her daughter, and at times accompanies the superstar and her parents on family vacations.
That doesn’t fit the Good-versus-Bad story that is so meme-able. The Biles family must be surprised by the public shame that is being piled on Shanon Biles, Simone’s first mother in comment sections all over the internet. I wish I could say that my siblings and I were surprised, too, but sadly, we were not.
When my first mother was arranging for my sisters’ adoptions, every one around her gave her accolades for her brave choice. They told her she was doing the right thing, they celebrated her sacrificing her own happiness in order to ensure my sisters and I would have a “better” life than the one she could provide us.
But once we reunited with her as young adults, the tone changed. Her co-workers and in-laws called her inhuman, selfish. They wondered aloud about whether she had struggled with drug addiction. They called her lazy, fat, and stupid. They stopped accepting her invitations to Thanksgiving, and stopped inviting her to Christmas.
So when stories about our family and reunion started to get published, my siblings and I made a pact to protect her identity. We nearly pulled out of a lovely profile in a Philadelphia paper when the writer considered publishing our first mother’s real name (he ultimately published the piece using a pseudonym for her). My first mother had been present for all the sad bits of our story, and I was preventing her from participating in the positive part.
It gutted me.
The first comment on that piece was from a stranger, accusing my biological parents of being meth addicts (for the record, they are not). And so a story about the power of sibling bonds became a forum for mud-slinging the woman who gave all of us life.
I love being right (ask my sisters). But accurately predicting my first mother’s public shaming? That’s something no one wants to be right about.
None of the strangers ridiculing her on the internet knew my first mother’s story—the time she spent in foster care, her mother’s mental illness, how hard she worked to keep her children together, how desperately she wanted a family, how difficult it was for her to lose us. Her pain and struggle does not matter, I guess, because she is not real to them.
In most adoption stories, there are no villains (but if you want to identify poverty and struggles with addiction as villains, I won’t disagree with you); there are simply real people in tough situations trying to make the best decisions they can. And while shaming someone for her past might make a clear narrative arc for blog post, it does nothing to reveal the deep complexities that families impacted by adoption must navigate.
It does nothing to express that adoption is a circuitous web of intersecting blessings and losses on all sides.
A sentiment that, I know, I am unlikely to see screen-printed on a onesie in someone’s Etsy shop.
But I hope one day I will see it in more headlines.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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