Always an Orphan

By David Biddle

An Adoptee Writes His Own Story


In the summer of 2002, my wife and I took our two youngest sons to Indiana to do some detective work. The object? To find out anything we could about the woman who gave birth to me. We had no idea what we were doing.

"Fountain" © Lois SheldenFor the first forty years of my life, I was quite happy as an adopted child who knew nothing about his origins. But as my sons began to grow up, I realized the gaps in my knowledge were being transferred to them. I was like a piece of dead wood, lying precariously on the family tree.

Our trip turned out to be one of the most memorable weeks of my life. The only thing missing was our oldest son, who was in New England teaching sailing at the time.

Not only did we gather information about my birthmother, but we found her. I learned that she’d never stopped thinking about me and loving me and missing me. I reunited with three half brothers and a step-birthfather who have since welcomed me into the family. I discovered that I was mixed race, as was my biological father.

I’ve considered myself a writer since the third grade, when Mrs. Burgard told my adoptive mother that she thought I had talent. But when we took our trip east from Philadelphia to Indiana, it never occurred to me that I should record this story.

Almost a decade later, I know I couldn’t have written about it while it was happening, not even in fragmented notes. I ended up confronting an inner blind spot rather than an external demon, and when in the throes of such discovery, it’s best not to think too hard. Words can cast shadows; they can shape a fragile new reality too soon.

But it wasn’t long before I knew I had to write about that week and what it meant to me—and what the adoption search process means, I think, to most adoptees. 

• • • 

Back home in Philadelphia, a week after our Indiana trip, memories of the events that had taken place wouldn’t leave me alone.

Four days in a tiny, poorly lit motel room seemed more and more comical. I missed the smells of the town library and the courthouse records room where we’d done our research. I kept playing over in my mind the two hours when I lay on the bed in our room, summoning the courage to call the woman who had given birth to me, listening all the while to my wife and sons frolicking in the pool just outside our door.

By early September of 2002, I began to post my impressions of what had happened—and was still happening—in a blog I called The Formality of Occurrence.

The act of writing spurred a process of self-discovery I’d rarely experienced before. Creative writing is like that, of course. But in this case, I’d stumbled into something very big: I now knew the beginning of my story. I was fully connected to the world. I was no longer a dead branch resting on a single tree. I was a swirling bough connecting that tree with two others that had been there all along.

It was as if I’d stepped through a looking glass and could finally view my life and what it meant to be me from the proper side. And the first thing I saw was that I had spent more than four decades unaware of how much I'd felt like an orphan in the world.

I had always been an orphan, I realized.


"Wild" © Lois Shelden


• • • 

Orphanhood is not a simple concept. When parents adopt a child, they do their best to shield him or her from ever sensing that feeling. When you’re adopted by good, loving parents (as Bruce and Ellen Biddle adopted me), you learn early on that you were chosen, that you are special.

Still, feeling special is also part of the problem. At their cores, all adoptees are orphans. This is such a primal feeling and so closely held, so secretly self-defining, that even now, eight years after finding my loving birthmother (whom I call Mom), I can’t get beyond feeling alone in the world and different from everyone around me.

And, yet, orphanhood gives adoptees a strange power, too. The fact that we have been adopted means nothing if we aren’t also willing to adopt the family who adopted us—and to choose the particular life situation we find ourselves in.

We are powerful from the moment we understand that we are adopted. We are independent beings far too soon in life. But that independence gives us a kind of grace and intensity of feeling, as we affirm and establish daily, over and over, our connection to the world that has taken us in.

This premature ability of orphans to create their own identities and connections in the world is not lost on our culture. In some ways, it’s a major motif. Many of the great characters of the past two hundred years—Oliver Twist, Clark Kent, Tom Sawyer, Pippi Longstocking, Harry Potter, Annie—are parentless.

In one sense, adoptees are the ultimate recycled product. But, in another way, we are the least recycled. We are required to stand on our own—even if we don’t know that’s what we’re doing—and from within that solitude, we reach out, understanding that we have no choice but to define ourselves. 

• • • 

The tale of every life is supposed to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Nobody knows what the end of his or her story will be, and we’re all very busy living the middle. But most people know at least something about their beginning. It’s the piece of the puzzle that allows you to view your fate as logical and unequivocal.

Yet, for adoptees and foster kids and the unclaimed, there is no beginning. Our stories are all about the middle. It’s as if we just sprang into being full grown and talking up a storm.

Not knowing a story’s beginning can drive everything in the middle. That’s the basis of Harry Potter’s quest. It lets Pippi Longstocking be precocious and almost like a superhero. It makes Clark Kent’s dual identity compelling and tender. And it’s what gives Little Orphan Annie her spunk and fearlessness.

For those adoptees who call themselves writers, that unknown beginning opens the doors of our imaginations. We know that anything is possible.

There were hundreds of options for telling my story. I know I was chosen by my adoptive parents because they wanted me—and I chose back, intuitively understanding that love and life are about acceptance. But then, when my wife and children and I played another major game of chance, against the odds of societal restrictions and barriers to finding birthparents, we won again.

Before we began that journey, I wouldn’t have told my story this way or felt capable of writing a new beginning. But because I am an adoptee—because I found what I was looking for—I can now say I beat Fate itself.


"Vanishing Point" © Jeff Shelden


• • • 

You may disagree with what I write here. You may find it obvious. None of this was obvious to me, though, for a very long time.

Even as we drove down the streets of the town where I was conceived, it just didn’t occur to me that I was an orphan. Writing about my experiences later brought it all out. It wasn’t an epiphany or some cathartic experience; it was just an insight that helped put things into perspective—a piece of the puzzle that I’ve been putting together my whole life.

I completed a 200-page manuscript for The Formality of Occurrence about six months after our trip to Indiana. My wife and a number of close friends have read it. Three bound copies sit on a shelf in my study, awaiting the day each of my sons has his first child.

I will give them my story. I’ll remind them that while I was in the room when they were born (and when they were conceived), each of them gave birth to me as well. They gave me the courage to seek out my origins and to face the reality that I once felt so alone—and then to write about it all for them.


Art Information

  • “Fountain” and “Wild” © Lois Shelden; used by permission
  • “Vanishing Point” © Jeff Shelden; used by permission


David BiddleDavid Biddle is a contributing writer at Talking Writing.

His blog The Formality of Occurrence now offers a broad selection of writings about life in what David calls "this mixed-up 21st century." Several entries about his family's trip to Indiana can be found in the Archives section, if readers are interested.

Don't miss "Adoption, Light and Dark," David's review of Melissa Fay Greene's memoir No Biking in the House Without a Helmet.



Thank you David,
I am also an adoptee who started processing these issues in mid-life. I spent much of the past year writing a screenplay with this question at its core.

I love the way you phrased this line: "The fact that we have been adopted means nothing if we aren’t also willing to adopt the family who adopted us—and to choose the particular life situation we find ourselves in."

In my story, my protagonist has never reciprocated her adoption and she stumbles into acknowledging that fact at the moment in her life where she has to begin to forge an adult identity. I many ways I stumbled into the notion as well, writing from buried emotion and only slowly learning how to give the emotion shape in words and drama.

Thank you for saying it plainly here. It helps a great deal.

In many ways, we writers begin our stories in media res. We try to figure out how we got here and where we're going. Your story is a more literal interpretation of that.

I loved reading this. I plan to read more of your stuff, to know your story. Thank you for inviting me into this most intimate of our worlds: where we came from. How we got here. What we want from the future.


Thank you. I wrote a story recently, from another perspective. It is called:
ADOPTION: Another Kind of Love Story. I learned a lot from your piece.

Thank you David for your interesting story. As an anthropologist and an adoptee with similar experinence I can relate to many things and understand as well.
Greetings from Iceland and the best of luck to you.

Although it is -40 below here in North Pole your story warms my soul. I am sure Santa has you on his "nice" list.

Very powerful piece! Writing my experience as an adoptee has been an incredibly powerful and healing thing for me. Our lives as adoptees are quite complex- and reunion brings even more complexities.

David, thank you for your thoughtful words. My wife and I are completing the process to adopt a child from the foster care system. We don't have a child yet, so your words have given me a lot to think about as we move in that direction. Many thanks, and I hope you and your family have a most blessed Thanksgiving.

Intermittently, and, often, for periods of conscious awareness I have felt an abandonment that I liken to being adopted. I know I was not. I look too darn much like my father, but differences in perception--even perspective--caused me me to "feel" isolated and alone. Feeling loved? If you, adoptee or genetic child felt-feel loved consider yourself blessed.

My birth parents loved me; they did not "neglect" me. An intangible distance in what I call "sense of abandonment" can have nothing to do with existential angst--alone.

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