Who are you? Where do you come from?
When I write fiction, I make up backstories for my characters. It’s essential. Their origin stories help explain what makes them tick.
Sometimes authors send a character on a quest to find out where they came from. My character, Silent Lee, is raised by a great aunt and yearns to learn who her real parents are. Maybe I wrote her this way because I share the desire to find my story.
I was adopted from an orphanage in Chicago. It was a blind adoption—most were in those days. Some years ago I secured a redacted copy of a social worker’s notes. It was my backstory! The social worker had interviewed my birth mother and the story was all there: A young college student taking a painting class with a professor visiting from France. An affair. An unwanted pregnancy.
He went back to his Catholic marriage and she went to a secret house where the orphanage helped her conceal the pregnancy and deliver twin boys.
A P.I. located my original, court-sealed birth certificate. My birth mother was Mary Ford. Father unnamed. I was David Ford. But I am not. The court hid that certificate and issued another in which my adoptive parents apparently were always my parents and I was always Alex Hiam.
I’d revealed the buried truth behind the fiction. Or had I?
My birth certificate gave my mother’s age as 22. The P.I. could search for her birth record. We knew she was from somewhere around Chicago. We knew she went to a liberal arts college and studied painting with a visiting professor, and we knew it must’ve been in the winter prior to my birth. The P.I. assured me she’d track down the protagonists.
However, no one of my birth mother’s name and age was born, went to school, got a driver’s license, got married, bought property, or died in the search area. Despite official documents in hand, she seems never to have existed. My actual birth mother, whoever she was, had passed off a story about herself.
I uploaded my DNA, but only found the most absurdly distant matches. While the DNA trail didn’t lead to a name, it did reveal another potential mistruth. My report highlighted the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa, not France, suggesting a father of Mediterranean ancestry mixed with a biological mother of British background. While my biological father might have been living in France—DNA can’t tell you where people live—his family wasn’t from there originally.
This leaves me with a new veil of lies, and not the clear story I’d hoped for.
I want a good story. I think we all do. And my birth mother happened to have told a story that worked for me. I’m creative, artistic, and dyslexic. My adoptive father, an MIT-trained engineer, struggled to understand me as I struggled to understand things that came easily to him, like trigonometry and Latin grammar. My favorite classroom was the art studio. I was pretty much the dead opposite of an engineer.
When I came across the story that I’d been conceived in a studio and was the son of a French painter (no doubt an at least semi-famous post-impressionist!), I felt validated. But the fiction bubble burst, and all I know with reasonable certainty is that my birth father must’ve abandoned a pregnant young woman. That’s not so story-worthy.
As a father and husband, I have a wonderful family of my own. I don’t need to find my birth parents. It’s an irrational itch, but it’s there nonetheless. And so whenever I hear about someone who wants to know their origin story, I’m sympathetic. We yearn for our own stories to be complete, and more than that, to be good stories. When facts don’t fill the gap, I understand why some people might resort to fiction.
Alex Hiam is the author of books about an adopted, biracial sleuth named Silent Lee. His titles are available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle ebooks.