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 (FilmRap.net). 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.
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 PsychiatryTalk.com and also reviews movies on a blog with his wife at FilmRap.net