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Who I Am

One man’s search for his biological family—and his own history

By Michael Van Allen

Roots of the family tree: Michael Van Allen and his half-sister outside their great-grandparents’ old home on Lark Street.

My parents met through The National Enquirer’s Pen Pal Club. My father worked at the post office on South Pearl Street at the time and my mother was living in a town farther upstate that is, more often than not, difficult to find on a map. They started writing to each other in the late 1960s and, soon after, my mother took a Greyhound bus to “the big city” to visit her future husband. They were married within months.

The fact that I owe my existence to a supermarket tabloid perhaps explains the often cinematic qualities that my life has had to date. The person responsible for coordinating the pen-pal club at The National Enquirer, as the story goes, paired my mother with my father because they were both born in May 1944. I doubt that he or she also knew that they were both schizophrenic.

I read the first letter that I ever received from my mother on New Year’s Eve 1999 in a diner on Church Street in San Francisco. The West Coast, like the rest of the planet, was holding its collective breath to see if the world was actually going to come to an end. Y2K was the talk of the town. The millennium was upon us. Newspapers and magazines polled the hell out of us trying to find out how we were going to spend our collective last night on Earth.

I hardly noticed and didn’t much care.

The letter I held suspended above my French toast and strawberries was written on a manual typewriter in Albany and dated March 21, 1972. The name at the bottom was whited out completely and efficiently because the orphanage where I spent the first years of my life is, even to this day, legally bound to keep all records of my biological parents confidential.

Gaston, my partner of almost a decade, held my hand across the black tabletop as I started to cry, not boisterously, but enough that people started to notice. Black Sabbath blared in the background and it occurred to me that the other patrons likely assumed that I was being dumped.

There were other documents included with the letter from my anonymous mother, including one written by a nun at the orphanage to a social worker assigned to my case.

Dear XXXX:

I am writing to you to express my concern about the possibility of Michael’s discharge to his parents. The child was referred here for emergency placement because of the mother’s attempted suicide. My contacts with both parents would indicate that there is much risk involved in considering Michael’s discharge to them. Both parents manifest much emotional disturbance and confusion in thought process. The mother seems much more aware of the realities of her problems than Mr. X. The latter is excessively pre-occupied with medical problems—real or imagined—and has made several requests for a variety of diagnostic services for Michael. As much as the parents’ situation precludes a feeling of optimism in discharge of Michael to them, we are concerned about his need for further observation. He has been observed to walk on his tip toes and to “hug the wall”—both of which are manifestations of a child deprived emotionally and living out of reality.


This letter was also unsigned, but closed with a series of dates and results underneath the heading “Tests & Innoculations.”

We went to a party in Oakland that night and rang in the new year every hour on the hour with people in various time zones on television. We all wore cardboard tiaras and threw a lot of glitter. After everyone had gone to bed or simply lay where they had fallen, I sat on the front porch with a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes and drank a hole in my heart and smoked a spot onto my lung.

Having spent most of my life searching for her, I met my mother for the first time the following November. When I started looking for her in earnest 11, 12, 13 years ago, all I had to work with was her last name. I took this single word and, with the help of several phenomenal friends, scoured print and Web archives, databases, genealogical societies, city directories, phone books and church records all over the country to find my mother’s first name. I then submitted this information to a professional investigation firm in Southern California, which returned 37 listings nationwide. After receiving this list, every day felt like a free fall from a great height while I whittled down the possibilities by a process of intuition and blind luck. Eventually I found her.

When I met my mother, I was 30 and had been living in California for almost five years. I had flown back to New York for the long holiday weekend, and I stood on her front porch in Schenectady and waited with one of my best friends from grade school. It took some time for her to descend the stairs from her second-floor apartment. As a student at Union College, 10 years prior, I had lived directly around the corner from her, but had never seen her face until that Saturday after Thanksgiving.

At the time, I was working as a scientific editor for a major Web directory in San Francisco and began conducting my own research on the causes and symptoms of schizophrenia on the sly. I had studied psychology, briefly, at Cornell and started to recall some of the images that were projected onto massive screens for the almost 2,000 students usually in attendance in Bailey Hall for the Psych 101 lectures. They were short film reels of patients undergoing electroshock therapy, cross sections of malformed and diseased brains, and near-silent clips of catatonic patients in stark facilities.

The woman who greeted me at the door that day (who had my blue eyes and my kinky hair!), however, wore one of the gentlest expressions I have ever seen, and she changed my life in an instant. I had resigned myself to the fact that I would be overcome by choking sobs and searing tears, but I was not. My mother, however, wiped her eyes for the hour and a half that I spent with her. She told me stories about our family and about relatives I didn’t even know I had, and I listened, every once in a while wondering how much more I could stand. In the course of my research, I had discovered that because of her condition I was predisposed to the development of certain conditions like depression (check) and alcoholism (check, check, check), but I was not prepared to hear about all of the lives cut short in my family by drinking and violence.

My mother kissed me on the neck as I left (I’m a bit taller than she is) and I felt the weight and trauma of a decade of my own substance abuse fall away from my body as I walked back down the steps of her apartment building. The whole experience was like making a pilgrimage to Lourdes without having to cross the Atlantic, but I was the only one who could see the crutches and leg braces falling to the sidewalk.

In February 2000, I received the results from the New York State Department of Health’s Adoption and Medical Information Registry. Almost 30 years after the fact, Peter M. Carucci, director of vital records, wrote to inform me that my parents were white Americans and that my father was male and that my mother was female.

According to public record, there are 19 women in the United States with my sister’s name and date of birth. I have called each of them at their homes in Minnesota, Washington, Texas, Georgia and Ohio. I listened to their answering machine messages over and over again trying to discern if their surnames were acquired by marriage so that I might cross them off of my list and move on to the next address and phone number. On the rare occasion that one of them actually answered the phone, she would invariably become angry at the invasion of privacy and would demand to know how I found her information. When I was able to explain that I was looking for my sister whom I had never met because we had been separated as children, then her tone would soften abruptly before she hung up on me.

It wasn’t until September 2001, while Gaston and I were bouncing around western New York and southern Ontario, that I found myself standing on her front porch just outside of Rochester. We had been invited to a friend’s wedding in Buffalo and I leapt at the opportunity to run down one of my 19 leads in person, but no one answered the door for three days in a row. Each time we approached the house in our oversized rental car, I panicked and feared success as much as I feared the failure I had become so accustomed to. Hours before we were to fly back to San Francisco, I located her foster mother at work by following one of the most tenuous leads that I had (a name in an article about a local food drive). “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” is all she could say after the receptionist finally put me through to her office.

I met my half-sister for the first time last August at the airport in Oslo. She flew in from Japan, where she has lived for the last eight years, and I paced the terminal for hours and hours, waiting for her connecting flight from Amsterdam to arrive, rehearsing the things I might say and the things I wanted to say when she walked through the gate. Statistically, there is a 15 percent chance of developing schizophrenia if one of your parents has the disease. I think that this number was in the back of my mind when I scanned her face and lost all of my words and simply offered her a piece of my Kvik Lunsj chocolate bar on that bright, unforgettable, Scandinavian afternoon. We traveled for a week by train north through the country until we arrived in a small farming village just south of the Arctic Circle. There we buried the ashes of our great- grandmother, Agnes, alongside her own brothers and sisters. I never had the privilege, nor the legal right, to meet Agnes, but hers was the first memorial that I have ever attended for a member of my own family.

Statistically, I am screwed. I am screwed because my father also has the official diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, so my risk of developing the disease jumps to just shy of 50 percent. My father, bless his congenitally defective heart, has refused any and all contact, and I have respected his wishes. He returned a Christmas card and a picture of me that I had sent to him with the following holiday greeting scrawled across the front of the envelope:


He resides on a locked ward near the Quebec border and hordes batteries, stamps and bits of machinery (among other things) in anticipation of the coming apocalypse. My mother talked about him that first day, in a monotone that is peculiar to people with schizophrenia, and told me about his inexplicable tantrums in the middle of the night when he would wake up screaming and smash glasses and dishes in the kitchen until there was nothing left to break. I take solace in the knowledge that his response to me was (hopefully) a product of an altered brain structure and erratic dopamine levels rather than a pointed rejection of his long-lost son.

There should have been a label slapped on my ass as I was being scanned through the orphanage checkout that read: ‘Warning: This Product May Self Destruct When Combined with Alcohol.’

I located one of his brothers (my uncle Duane) and have spoken to him twice. The first time that I summoned the courage to pick up the phone and introduce myself to yet another unknown relative, he asked me, point blank, what was “wrong” with his brother. They hadn’t spoken in years and my father, apparently, was a bit off while they were growing up. When I got to the word “schizophrenic,” he interrupted and barked, “What’s that?”

My uncle has a son named Larry. I have a picture of my uncle Duane and my cousin Larry taken in 1988, and it saddens me because I know that they too have not spoken in years. I don’t have the heart to tell my uncle and his new wife that Larry’s got it, too. You can see it in his awkward stance, the Velcro shoes on his adult feet, and the expression on his face. It could be described as “dim,” but I’ve come to perceive it as extreme disinterest coupled with a very self-conscious and overwhelming confusion. I have a picture of my mother as a child, given to me by a distant relation while I was in Norway with my sister, and she has the exact same heaviness in her eyelids that makes them both look like they’re trying, unsuccessfully, to hide a great sadness from the camera.

At my desk, months before meeting my mother, I had discovered a condition known as alcohol-induced schizoaffective disorder in the course of preparing for the reunion. I was stunned. I have threatened, and attempted, to take my own life on several occasions (with alcohol, drugs, gravity, speed, blades) and had attributed these episodes to certain unfortunate aspects of my strange upbringing. The more I’ve learned about this particular brand of psychosis, triggered both by substance abuse and by withdrawal, the more the scales tipped toward a clinical explanation for my desperate and terrifying actions and away from an overblown artistic temperament caused by a difficult childhood. As with alcoholism and depression, I have inherited another predisposition that I’ve come to think of as a “schizophrenic sensitivity” that is expressed only when I am under the influence.

In their now-famous paper about the form and structure of DNA, James Watson and Francis Crick wrote: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing [of purine and pyrimidine bases] we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” (From “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” by James D. Watson and Francis H. C. Crick, April 25, 1953, Nature, Vol. 171.) What this says to me 50 years later is that, despite the fact that my name changed three times within the first 10 years of my life, I was and will continue to be myself, genotypically speaking. Gattaca notwithstanding, there should have been a label slapped on my ass as I was being scanned through the orphanage checkout that read: “Warning: This Product May Self Destruct When Combined with Alcohol.” I was placed with a foster family, however, solely on the basis of my blond hair and blue eyes, and all of my actual hereditary traits and potentialities were sealed away, essentially forever, with my medical records. No one thought it necessary, then or now, for me to know that suicide runs rampant through my family history.

I assume that this was also the case with my brother, whom I found out about on that first afternoon at my mother’s kitchen table. He is named after my father and turned 30 at the end of January. I’ve got a copy of his birth certificate, but little else. Unlike my sister and I, he was taken by social services at birth, and his name was changed almost immediately. My mother has told me the story of that day dozens of times in the last three years. She describes his hair and his eyes and the birthmark on the back of his neck and how the nurses refused to ever let her hold him.

While I do not question the fact that my parents were unable to care for their own children, I do take offense at the fact that the three of us were expected to never look back after our placements in the various households full of strangers who raised us throughout New York state after we were separated. I doubt that professional scientific journals such as Nature were required reading for social workers, attorneys or members of the clergy in the early 1970s, but in retrospect, I think they really should have been. I find it criminal that the people responsible for my placements used my physical appearance as the sole criterion to match me with potential foster and adoptive families. These same “professionals,” however, turned a collective blind eye to a number of potentially life-threatening inheritable traits that I then had the pleasure to discover, by way of a nightmarish process of trial and error, later in my life.

In July, I stood on the front steps of a home on one of the quiet side streets behind Crossgates Mall. After I rang the doorbell, I stood face-to-face with a man who was born on my brother’s birthday (Jan. 28, 1973) and who was born at the same hospital (St. Peter’s). The man standing in front of me was angry for the intrusion and had an olive complexion, brown eyes and fine, straight brown hair parted in the middle. The man standing in front of me was born on my brother’s birthday at the same hospital, but the man standing in front of me was, unfortunately, not my brother. His features were distinctly not Scandinavian in the least, so I asked him what his background actually was. (“Italian? French?” I queried.) And he didn’t know because his father had been adopted. I thanked him for his time and left angrier at the system and the laws than I had been before I had walked the excruciatingly long block from the rental car to his front door.

There was another letter from Peter M. Carucci in my mailbox when I returned home to California that informed me that “the adoptee,” my brother, “has not yet registered.” The letter went on to say that my brother’s parents were white Americans and that my father was male, that my mother was female, and that my brother was (astonishingly) male.

The New York State Adoption Information Sibling Registry is, for all intents and purposes, a cruel joke. In order for a reunion to be facilitated, both siblings must submit their respective applications to the New York State Department of Health. However, in order to submit an application in the first place the adoptee is required to supply a copy of his or her original birth certificate with both parents’ names listed on the document. This, simply stated, is unrealistic and offensive to a population of American adults who may not even know their own family surnames. My “official” birth certificate, on record in the Office of Vital Statistics in Albany’s City Hall, contains only the names of my adopted parents and is dated 1980, a full decade after my actual birth.

Crazy is a word that no longer peppers my casual conversations these days, because crazy is also a word that may already have taken my brother’s life. He is the last member of my family that I need to find, and I hope that one day in the near future I’ll be able to pick up the phone, dial his number and tell him secrets like “SNAP-25,” “RGS4” and “HLA-B44.” These are proteins, genes and gene types thought to be involved with the development of schizophrenia, and they may have already conspired against him. Crazy is the fact that, when I am finally able to locate and dial the number that will allow me to warn him about the electrical storms that might one day rage through his prefrontal cortex, there might not be anyone to pick up the phone when I call.

In May, I stood in front of a judge in San Francisco Superior Court and petitioned my adopted state for the legal right to use my own name. I filed the papers for this in March, and the first available court date was early morning on my 33rd birthday, a total coincidence that I jumped at instantaneously. At 9 AM on May 19, 2003, I reclaimed what was taken from me by the archaic adoption laws that are still in effect in my home state. Before the doors of the courtroom actually opened, I noted that since I was representing myself in court without the assistance of an attorney, under my adopted name were the words Propria Persona (“In one’s own proper person”) and I thought this a fitting title for one of the proudest days of my life. I took back my own name for myself, but I also did it for my sister and my brother and for the thousands of other adoptees whose lives, identities and families are still being held hostage by the state of New York.

Michael Van Allen holds degrees in English and creative writing from Union College and San Francisco State University. He can be reached via e-mail at

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