About the author:
Anstey Harris teaches creative writing for Canterbury Christ Church University and in the community with her own company, Writing Matters. She has been featured in various literary magazines and anthologies, been shortlisted for many prizes, and won the H G Wells Short Story Award. Anstey lives in Kent, UK and is the mother of the singer-songwriter Lucy Spraggan.
I cried at Long Lost Family last night. I don’t usually. Usually I think it’s socially irresponsible and very misleading television. There, I’ve said it. It’s a great format for the programme makers: lost and lonely adults – still bruised from the abandoned children they once were or parents permanently scarred from giving up children to adoption – reunited, at last and forever, to the joy of the nation.
Except real life doesn’t work like that… In real life fewer than one in ten adoption reunions is successful.
16,000 babies a year were put up for adoption in the UK in the 1950s and 60s and I, like so many other people my age, was one of these children. It was a story that played out in families up and down the country: it had no regard for class or religion or education. It ignored marital status or wealth. Contraception was difficult to access and safe abortion was illegal.
My mother, Christine Harris, had been living in Scotland. She had gone there, aged 18, to protest against the building of the Faslaine Nuclear Submarine Base with the Scottish Committee of 100 (an offshoot of CND who believed in non-violent direct action). It must have taken real guts for a middle class Cheshire teenager. Christine met my natural father at the protests and they had a relationship for a while. By the time she came home, older, wiser and undoubtedly sadder, she was four months pregnant with me. She was 20-years-old.
Like many others at the time, Christine went to an unmarried mothers’ home (ours was in Liverpool) where she stayed until I was born. Much is known now about the inhumanity of some of these, particularly Catholic, homes. Women were encouraged to breastfeed their babies and build strong bonds with them for up to three months to ‘help them learn their lesson’ when the baby was taken away. It seems unthinkable today – when we worry for the provenance of a puppy or the stability of a rescue dog – but this was 1965, and the brutality of the Second World War still cast a long shadow. No one worried about the mental health of adopted babies or bereaved mothers. Attachment Separation Anxiety hadn’t been invented and the fragile post-war society, rather than being able to help, just needed these undesirable situations hidden.
No amount of research can ever reveal where I was – or who with – for the first nine weeks of my life. There are no surviving records and no one left who knows. Christine took her own life in 1970, five years after my adoption.
In 60s Britain there was no Welfare State. 307 babies a week were adopted (and that doesn’t include adoptions within the family): adoption was, literally, an everyday solution. My grandmother had a teenager, a six-year-old, a toddler, a failing marriage, and a pregnant single daughter: adoption must have seemed like the only solution.
This was a process in which no one won. The loss was across generations: grandparents who would never speak of their grandchild; who would see their first ‘official’ grandchild and wonder whether the one they’d lost was the same. For my own maternal grandparents, I cannot imagine the burden of guilt when that first traumatic loss was followed by their daughter’s suicide.
I contacted my grandparents in 2001 having already found out, as part of the process, about Christine’s death. When I talked to my grandmother, it was the first time in over thirty years that she had spoken about me.
At what point do you tell your surviving children – particularly when, as my grandmother, you have an exceptionally close, supportive, and loving relationship with them – that there is a family secret? Do you tell them whilst you’re sitting around a Christmas dinner table, or on holiday, or after the birth of their own children? Or, as happens so often when things are this complicated, do you not tell them at all?
Mary, my grandmother, had just begun treatment for cancer when we spoke – by phone and letter – and we decided to leave contact until she was better: a time that sadly didn’t come. Mary told me the names, ages, and circumstances of her remaining three children. Judith, the youngest, had two children despite not being married to her partner at that point. Mary told me – and I felt her pain – how different that was to how it would have been perceived thirty years before. Mary sent me some photographs of Christine. We looked very alike and the comfort of seeing photographs of someone who actually looked like me was astonishing.
I had learnt, over the years, to be an island and I was a very good one. And then you see someone who has your face and everything changes.
The most important thing Mary told me was the name of her son: Anthony. Although I didn’t stay in touch with Mary or her ex-husband (who was far less keen on my contact), I didn’t let go completely. Given that Anthony was less likely to change his surname than his sisters, I focussed my search on him. One evening in 2003, I trawled Tonbridge Wells boys’ schools on Friends Reunited and there I found Anthony. His brief biog said that he lived in London and gave the name of his company. Bingo.
I was 99% certain I had the right Tony. He ran a media company so entries about him appeared on Google from time to time. Every so often I’d check in on his Twitter profile and make sure he was still there. Then one day, a couple of years ago, Tony posted a selfie that was an absolute game changer.
When I sent the picture of Tony’s face to my eldest daughter she found it really unsettling that we were so alike. There could be no doubt at all now. Tony was my mother’s brother and my uncle.
In 2017, after a mere 15 years of thinking about it, I sent Tony a tweet. ‘Could you follow me back so that I can send you a direct message (viz Macclesfield 1960s)?’ By morning, Tony had followed me back.
I checked by direct message that he was the Tony Harris I was looking for, the one who’d had three sisters and had lived in Macclesfield. He replied – immediately – that he was.
There was nothing for it but just to tell him that I was his late sister’s child, his niece. Tony’s response was the only one I had never considered: ‘Welcome to the family.’
My aunt, Judith, was the first to meet me – a week later in London. We hit it off over a long lunch, followed by a second – longer – one on the earliest day we could get together with Tony. Even as a writer, I cannot find the words to describe the feelings that settled on me after I’d met my birth family. I had explained to people over and over during my life how you can’t miss what you don’t have – and that’s why I wasn’t as devastated at my natural mother’s suicide or the fact that my grandparents couldn’t speak to me, as non-adopted people thought I should be. What it means to be part of a ‘family’: not just to look like someone but to feel that you have a connection, a role, a sense of belonging, had been a lifelong mystery to me. Within my adopted family I have never been seen as a ‘proper’ part of the family: they have a loyalty to one another that excluded me – I was never ‘team’.
Finding a heritage, a tribe, has literally been life-changing. I had been aware of Tony, of where he lived and what he looked like, even his wife and children’s names, for almost twenty years and we were finally meeting. Now, there he was – sitting opposite me – and it was pretty much like looking in a mirror.
Judith, Tony and I sat in a London park in the sunshine and ran through all the things we share: colour blindness, a snaggly eye tooth, asthma, overly sturdy thighs. We also, fortunately, have a deep-seated love of partying and an easy access to our emotions – we put that down to our genes whether they’re responsible or not. In the last two years, my family and I have spent Christmas at Judith’s, we’ve been camping at a festival with Tony’s family. Judith and I text almost every day and we meet for food and wine – or even just a dog walk – whenever we can.
Would things have been different if we’d met earlier? Maybe. But they might not have been better. Tony and I had wildly disparate politics in our younger years and he remains convinced I would have hated him (I’m sure he would have found me enormously annoying). What effect would knowing about Christine’s suicide have had on my dramatic attention-seeking teenaged-self?
As a child, I was lively, animated and fiercely intelligent and utterly incongruous with my adopted family who were, on the whole, not easy with emotion or loud noises. Christine, I now know, was quirky and bold, unusual and political. These are qualities that run through me – & my children- like a watermark and qualities that – now – I can own and be proud of. I don’t apologise for – or worry about – who I am anymore.
I can tell that my grandmother parented well, despite the tragic outcome for Christine. Mary’s other children are welcoming, loving, and emotionally literate. Most compelling evidence for the parenting they had is that they themselves have raised buoyant, tolerant children (they range between 20 and 15) who have accepted their 53-year-old cousin, her children and granddaughter, without batting an eyelid.
So what made me cry at Long Lost Family last night? The warm and forgiving people who made up the subject’s new – old – family and the way they were ready to let the past go and move forward together. People who understood that almost everyone involved would have acted differently if they could have forecast the change in society and attitude but that, given that human failing, it’s never too late to value what you do have, however late it happens.
For my new family and me, we have made our own peace with the things that we cannot change and have embraced the positives we will take with us into the future. We are united in these decisions because, as it says on the framed vinyl my aunt bought me last birthday, We Are Family.