Site Meter

The Search for a Person’s Biological Identity

In: Uncategorized

10 Apr 2014

The following is a an article published in the Spring 2014 edition of The Forum


The Search for a Person’s Biological Identity

By Michael Blumenfield, M.D.


Philomena-One of Several Films Defines The Issue

One of the top movies of 2013 is Philomena. This is the story of an elderly woman, (played magnificently by Judy Dench) who as teenager had an out of wedlock child at a convent. The movie has several interesting themes one of which is the incessant drive that a woman has to reconnect with a newborn child, which she gave up at birth. The film is based on a true story documented in a non-fiction book.

This is also a recurrent theme in several movies that I have reviewed ( The Kids Are All Right, which starts Annette Benning, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, is about two lesbian parents who are raising two teenage kids who were conceived by artificial insemination with the use of a sperm donor. The film raises the possibility of what might happen if one of the children decides to track down his or her biological father. Obviously this could happen to a heterosexual couple and is an increasing possibility as new medical techniques are increasingly used to conceive and carry a pregnancy. One of the screenwriters for this film has indicated that the script was based in part on some aspects of her life.  

The Movie People Like Us with Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks and Michelle Pfeiffer is about a man who upon the death of his father discovers that he has a 30 year old sister who he never knew about. This changed his entire understanding of his family and his own identity. The screen writing team that wrote the story also indicated that they had first hand knowledge of these issues.

Stories We Tell is a documentary film by Sarah Polley. It is about the complicated journey she has gone through as she uncovers secrets about her own family especially finding out that the man she thought was her father was really not her father. Two other very good films that I have seen in recent years that have dealt with various aspects of these themes have been Admission and Mother and Child.

Movies Mirror Real Life

These movies highlight situations that occur more often than most people realize. In situations where the man is in a relatively stable marriage, or is single and doesn’t want to get married, but is promiscuous and fathers a child, he is faced with a decision. He could acknowledge the child’s reality but choose to stay with his current relationship, or leave his original family if he is married (presumably with a divorce) and establish a family with his new child. His wife, if he was married, could make this decision for him by deciding that she would not want to live with him any more. (The second woman might not want him either.) It is possible that the father may not even know that he has created a child, as the mother of the child may not wish to tell him. The pregnant woman, of course, has to make this decision, as well as the decision whether to have the child or get an abortion.

There are also situations where a couple has a child but don’t establish a relationship and the man moves on. He then has a family at a later date and does not tell them he has fathered a child in the past. Still other variations are possible such as when a single woman becomes pregnant and gives the child up for adoption and then goes on to live her life and perhaps ultimately have a marriage and children but never mention her past history.

I am sure there are other scenarios including twins separated at birth, siblings separated at early age and not having full awareness of the other, etc. Even before the discovery of the unknown family member is made, the parent who knows the secret has the burden of keeping the secret and not being able to be truthful with people to whom they are very close, usually a spouse and children. This can lead to guilt or fantasies of what happened to the secret child. The child who only knows that his or her biological parent has abandoned him or her can never know the reason why and may incorporate fantasies involving his or her self-worth or even grandiose thoughts about being rescued by the birth parent. A story told to the child that the missing parent died will of course backfire when and if the parent appears someday and all must deal with this major piece of deception no matter how well-intentioned.

Self-Identify Founded on Life history As We know It

Our ideas of self are founded on our life history as we know it, including early childhood experiences, memories, and fantasies that are influenced by all variations and the nuances of the major players who impacted our earlier life.

There are an unlimited number of circumstances that could lead to the discovery of the unknown family members. Once a previously unknown family member is identified, the child very often has a strong desire to know about the biological parent and also meet and relate to the siblings who usually would be half siblings, sharing one parent in common.

What is the meaning of having an awareness of the existence of a biological family member who has not influenced your life for many years? What makes connecting with that person so important? Is it because you share some genetic makeup in common or that you come from some common heritage that drives the need for establishing this relationship? Is there a need to fill a void of being alone and that can be corrected by meeting someone who shares some part of you? In the case of the newly connected siblings, is it the desire to rectify the mistake of the parent(s) who were not able to construct a complete family for all their children?

Three Case Examples

I would like to present three real cases (disguised) to illustrate some of these issues. I was not the therapist for any of these people so I do not have other information about the psychodynamics.

#1. A successful attorney was married for the first time at age 35 to a 28-year woman. They had three children and a fairly close-knit family and he never had any extramarital relationships. He died at age 65 and 10 years later a 45-year man contacted the now 67-year-old widow and told the following story. This man lived in another city with his mother and he had been told that his biological father was a successful attorney with whom she had a close relationship and who had subsequently died. (In reality he left her after she became pregnant and he moved to another city.) She told her son the unusual last name of his father. He found the name easily on the Internet since he was fairly well known in his field. He never told his mother that he had information about his biological father. After his mother died, and he himself was married with an 18 year old son, he located the widow of his biological father and told her who he was. He asked permission to visit her and wanted to meet her now grown and married children and any other close family members. She agreed. She had known about her husband’s previous relationship prior to their marriage (but not about this child) and asked her children if they wanted to meet him. The oldest son was not interested but the other two agreed. An older sister of the deceased husband was not interested but her grown son was agreeable.

The younger married middle-aged children of the deceased attorney established a good relationship with the “new family member” and they would visit each other when they happened to be traveling cross country to each other’s cities for other family events. Eventually the oldest son of the deceased father found that he had certain hobbies in common with his half-brother, e.g. sports car racing and golf, and he would join in these family occasions and he began to relate to his half brother. The grandson of the older sister of the deceased man was able to help the son of the new family member get a job in the entertainment business. He and all of deceased attorney’s sibs and the widow now consider him part of their extended family. When asked why he sought out his other family, he said he felt he owed it to his son to try to give him the extended family that he never had.

#2. The new young wife of a well known sports figure died in childbirth but their infant son survived. The father was devastated and gave his son up for adoption to a distant cousin with whom he did not have any subsequent contact. The boy was brought up two loving parents. When he was a teenager he was told the name of his famous biological father who supposedly had no interest in seeing him. When this child is a grown man of 50 years old, he was in a movie theater with his wife watching a documentary about his biological father who was a legendary sports icon.

At one point in the movie the former sports figure recounted that he felt bad that many years ago he had a son whom he never met after his wife died in childbirth and he wonders what happened to him. The grown son was stunned by the interest shown in him. He contacted the filmmaker and asked if he could contact the sports icon who now lived in another country. The filmmaker agreed to arrange an all-expense-paid reunion if he could film it. The father is now a grandfather as is the son, and, after an initial meeting, the two families subsequently kept in touch with and visited each other from time to time.

#3. A teenaged mother gave her out-of-wedlock daughter up for adoption. Her daughter was raised by two loving parents. When the daughter married and had children of her own, she decided to track down her biological mother. She hired a private detective who was able to find her mother who was living alone in another city and had no other children. The daughter made contact with her, introduced her to her family, visited periodically and brought her to various family events. The oldest granddaughter became particularly close to her.

These three cases are obviously the bare facts and should raise clinical questions about the psychodynamics that are at play. What is clear is the strong need on the part of at least one person to connect with a long lost biological relative and family. There appears also to be an acceptance and probably a strong need on the part of the other family member or members to accept this contact and to learn about the lost biological family member. I believe that this area is ripe for both survey research, case reports with clinical discussion of the theoretical implications and psychodynamic and psychoanalytic theory on this subject.


Proposed Research Study

I would like to propose a research study to start this off which one or more of the readers may wish to organize. This would be a survey of the members of this Academy with the following questions:

1. If today you were contacted by the hospital where you were born and told that you were accidentally given to the wrong family, would you want to contact and meet your biological parents and or their families?

2. Explain your reason. What would your need be if you agreed to do this and were there any conflicts in considering this question?

3. Would you feel differently if the parents who raised you were alive or deceased? Explain.

4. How would you feel if one of your children were notified as above and subsequently made contact and established a relationship with his or her biological family?

I would hope that the self awareness and insight of the Academy members would provide a good start into understanding the questions which I tried to raise in this article. If anyone is interested in organizing this study let me know and I will put you in touch with others who are interested so a collaborative study might be developed. I will step aside from this project but will eagerly follow any developments.


Dr. Blumenfield is President of the Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry. He is The Sidney E. Frank Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at New York Medical College. He currently lives and practices in Los Angeles where he writes a blog and also reviews movies on a blog with his wife at

7 Responses to The Search for a Person’s Biological Identity


Ida | FilmRap

April 24th, 2014 at 12:17 pm

[…] *** Ida – sp We are pleased to report that for some unknown reason there are a number of readers of this blog who are from Poland. So we hope we will get some comments at the end of this review from them. This movie won The Eagle, which is the Polish equivalent of the American Oscar. It is in Polish with English subtitles. We understand it is also dubbed with the local language rather than using subtitles in many European countries, as it was in France, where is was a big hit. The setting is Poland in the 1960s. A young woman who is studying to be Nun in a convent is told by the Mother Superior that before she takes her vows she must go and meet her aunt, her only known family member (previously unknown to her) since she was brought to the convent as a baby during the war. She travels to the city where her aunt is located and finds out that she is Jewish. The two of them set off on a haunting road trip to find out what happened to her parents and where they are buried. The aunt, played by veteran Polish actress Aguta Lulesza, is tough as nails on the outside but has her own secret pain which is ripping her apart. Ida the novitiate, also known as Sister Anna Ida, and now with a last name Lebenstein, is played by a first time actress who was discovered in a coffee shop by the director. Her name is Agata Trzebuchowska. She is beautiful, and now burdened with a dilemma of what to do with her new insight into her origin. She also has to decide whether to go forward and take her vows, which of course includes chastity. It should be mentioned that on her road trip she does meet a handsome musician (David Ogrodnik) and we do detect some chemistry between them. The ambience of this film befits the subject matter. It is in black and white using a 4×3 format (almost square) with many close-ups. The locations are old bleak buildings, churches, a cemetery, and old roads with a lot of snow. The dialogue, although in Polish with subs, is sparse. There is a Polish 60s musical background that is mostly ambient rather than with a soundtrack. There are reminders of the role of communist rule in post war Poland. Everything is not spelled out for the viewer but there is little doubt about the story and the internal pain that our characters are feeling. It will awaken feelings about atrocities in WW II, which are still not far from the surface in many people, some now two generations removed from it. Although director and screenwriter Pawel Pawlikowski in a post film discussion said he had no doubt about how this 80 minutes film should end, there is another point of view on this subject. Finally, this movie is one of many films that have a theme which shows the immense struggle that people have to connect with a biological parent or vice versa. A discussion and summary of this issue can be found at (2014) […]


Robin Mokma Davis

June 21st, 2014 at 9:05 am

I’d like to respectfully suggest that if you do decide to conduct a research study on this topic, you be decidedly more concerned with recording and reporting factual details correctly.

Philomena did not seek to “reconnect with a newborn child, which she gave up at birth.” Her child was torn away from her by the nuns and adopted out when he was 3 years old.

Your statement, “when a single woman becomes pregnant and gives the child up for adoption and then goes on to live her life” shows you have no clear understanding of the profound, lifelong impact that loosing a child to adoption has on most women.

As a reunited adoptee, I wholly support the psychological community finally doing research on adoption and the impact it has on a person’s biological identity.

Robin Mokma Davis
Reunited 1983


Oranges and Sunshine | FilmRap

July 6th, 2014 at 5:08 pm

[…] did not have parents who adopted them. Some discussion of this topic can be found in MB’s blog  […]


The American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry – 75 Years from Now - PsychiatryTalk

July 14th, 2014 at 9:57 pm

[…] have observed and have written elsewhere on this blog about the tremendous drive of adopted, children or children raised by one biological parent to […]


The Orphan Train by Christine Baker Kline | Book Rap

May 12th, 2015 at 1:47 pm

[…] This novel follows a few orphan children who were on one of these orphan trains and tells the story of happened to them. It is quite difficult to view these experiences through the eyes of the orphan children. We see how a child would feel being on display for acceptance or rejection. This story also looks at the powerful, perhaps universal need to search out or locate a biological parent or child that through various circumstances has had no contact with their biological relatives. The desire to meet that person and maintain a bond with them is very powerful and has complicated psychological and perhaps biological determinants. I have written about this topic elsewhere.( click here to see article) […]


Cassandra M Klyman,M.D.

October 7th, 2015 at 9:42 am

Having re-united with a half-brother, not seen for 75 years, I have been examining my feelings of pleasure, relief, love and sibling rivalry. Affects of shame, guilt and sorrow around family secrets are being worked through because there is another to share it with.
I would be interested to know if there are references in the literature or interest from the Academy about this.


Lion | FilmRap

November 24th, 2016 at 12:47 am

[…] children and variations of this meaningful psychological theme have been played out in many movies.(click here to read article) Perhaps we can identify with the story because we try to imagine how we might feel if we were in […]

Comment Form

Subscribe Via Feedburner (RSS)


Subscribe Via Email:

Enter your email address:

  • Dr. Blumenfield, M.D.: We can't understand what is going on in the mind of your therapist and if she is having " countertra [...]
  • Dena: I've been seeing my therapist for 2 years. I'm concerned she is harboring negativity towards me be [...]
  • Gail Hines: I have long since stopped needed "therapy" or mental health "help". I am so much better now and have [...]
  • Teresa: Funny I happened onto this just now as it was just a week and a few days ago siblings appeared. All [...]
  • Valerie Bain: My father passed away when I was 10 and my eldest sister told me that there was a half brother somew [...]

Blog Archives

  • 2017
  • 2016
  • 2015
  • 2014
  • 2013
  • 2012
  • 2011
  • 2010
  • 2009
  • See other blogs written by Michael Blumenfield