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  • Writer's pictureMary Ellen Gambutti

Family shapes and sizes

All the best have one thing in common, and that is Love.

Hello, my friends--old and new!

1/2 Sis Karen, Cousins Lawrence&Helen Cox and Leila

In writing today, I have in mind a text from one of my maternal half-sisters, Karen: "Do you ever feel like your head is spinning from all these new people in our lives? I do."

Yes, dear sister, at this time in our lives, it sometimes does feel overwhelming. When I embarked on the search for my bio mother--before we had internet access--you knew your roots and you introduced me to our mother. I can't overstate the value of our connection, and yours and our first cousin, Lawrence's willingness to help me. After what seemed like endless letters and calls to elicit help from Catholic Charities, a South Carolina local historian, a genealogist, SC vital records, and several caring adoptee search advocates in both Philadelphia and South Carolina, pieces of information were gleaned that either contributed to a true story or were found to be false leads. When the day arrived, I could scarce believe my good fortune, and that trend had just begun. My birth mother was thrilled to know the adult me. Cousins, nieces, and nephews began to tumble into my life like gold. (continued below)


Today, I'm so pleased to welcome my guest,

JULIE RYAN McGUE, an American writer. Her debut memoir, Twice a Daughter: A Search for Identity, Family, and Belonging released in May 2021. Julie writes about finding out who you are, where you come from, and making sense of it. Her work has appeared in the Story Circle Network Journal, Brevity, Imprint,, Lifetime Adoption, Adoption & Beyond, and Severance Magazine.

“What is it about you?”

By Julie Ryan McGue

For most of my life, my closed adoption was tucked neatly behind a fascinating fact: I have a twin sister. My sister and I have looked so much alike that relatives, neighbors, and classmates were often confused about which name went with which sister. When my adoptive parents picked up my three-week-old twin sister and me from St. Vincent’s Orphanage in Chicago, they were told we were fraternal twins. In 2011, DNA proved that we are not fraternal twins. We are identical.

The people we encountered in our formative years did not just marvel at our similar appearance, gestures, speech, and habits, they were mesmerized. Often, we were ordered to stand next to one another, so the onlooker could judge who was taller, heavier, or had more freckles. As irritating and as embarrassing as it was to have this happen on a regular basis, it was also a relief. I was grateful for my twindom. It served as the perfect smokescreen for something I was uncomfortable thinking about and discussing: my closed adoption.

My sister and I knew at an early age that we were adopted as infants. Back in 1959, my adoptive parents didn’t dwell on Adoption Day, which is the day we joined our new family. Instead, my family celebrated our birthday, the day that we were born. And every so often, after the cake and presents had been stowed away, our folks would call my sister and me into the living room. They would express how much they cared about us, how dearly they had wanted us, and that they would support us if we ever wanted to look into our adoption.

Beyond those “check-ins,” our adoption was rarely brought up. Occasionally, when my folks entertained at home, one of their friends would remark, “You girls have gotten so tall. Why, I remember when your folks brought you home from St. Vincent’s.” These “adoption conversations” brought a heated flush to my cheeks. I didn’t like being different or having it recognized in such a public way. I wanted to fit in, to belong. When my parents’ friends reminded me that I came from another set of parents, I wanted to flee upstairs to my bedroom.

When I was old enough to have sleepovers, I remember snuggling into my sleeping bag in a darkened rec room and whispering secrets with my school friends. On one of these sleepovers, one of the girls summoned the courage to ask, “You guys are adopted, right?” Within seconds, my embarrassment steamed up my sleeping bag.

I abhorred this question, “You’re adopted, right?” It was an unbidden intrusion into my privacy. Mostly, I hated this query because it meant that my friends, and likely their parents too, had been gossiping about me and my family behind our backs.

To my friend that night, I offered a quiet, “Yeah.” I sighed heavily because I suspected that another equally dreaded question would soon follow.

“So, what happened to your real parents?” my friend quizzed.

After this incident, I was prepared. Whenever the “adoption conversation” came up with my friends, I rattled off a well-rehearsed response. “Yeah, I’m adopted. I’ve always known about it. And I don’t know anything about where I came from.” After I spewed this out, I changed the subject.

As I look back now on those uncomfortable episodes, I believe that the reason they remain vivid is because of unrecognized shame. Even though it wasn’t my fault, I was embarrassed that I knew nothing about my background, my birth parents, or why I had been placed for adoption. It was a shortcoming. One that I had no control over and one that I couldn’t rectify because of stringent state-closed adoption laws.

What’s more? After someone posed any variation of those uncomfortable adoption questions, I had the sense that they viewed me differently than before. When I wasn’t looking, I felt them studying me. I imagined what they were thinking: “What is it about you that’s different? Is it that you are adopted or that you are a twin?”

Until I wrote Twice a Daughter, my memoir about the search for my birth relatives, I also wondered, “What is it about me?” Is it my adoption that sets me apart or is it my twindom? Unlike that shy, weary pre-teen in her sleeping bag, I have spent a lot of time reflecting upon this important question. It’s only now, that I am a middle-aged woman in reunion with birth relatives, that I’m open to discussing my adoption experience.

So, what is it about me?

I have come to view my adoption and being a twin as inseparable. It’s the intersection of these two vital details that has formed my identity, and which defines my existence. As a mature adult, I embrace both these truths. Frankly, it’s a relief to no longer allow my adoption to take a second seat to my twindom.


I highly recommend Julie's award-winning book! It may be purchased through this link:


(cont'd from top)

Since I reunited with Karen, DNA and the internet have become intrinsic to the study of genealogy and are a viable search method for adoptees. I began to search for my biological father using these tools.

I wrote for the online literary magazine Spillwords:

I had nothing to go by to find my father’s side. I tested and worked what I had learned of the Cox-Lenderman families into my maternal family tree.

In 2015, we [Karen and I] discovered our half-sister, Lottie, on an internet message board. She had made the post not long after Leila [our birth mother] died.

We were deeply touched when we read:

“I have been searching for my birth mother...My father died when I was four years old and my mother, Leila Grace Cox, left us when I was six weeks grandfather, Andrew, raised me until his death..."

Karen and Lottie tested their DNA—we wanted to confirm we didn’t share a father—and I went to work on common genetic matches, eliminating those who matched through our mother. It was the start of my paternal family tree...Two years produced no one closer than a second cousin...One banner day, a paternal first cousin arrived on my laptop screen...

In a short time, I was able to confirm that Andrew Larkin Thrasher, Jr. was my bio father by DNA test compared to my sister Carol.

I am now connected with three paternal half-sisters and a half-brother, as well as two maternal half-sisters and a slew of cousins, nieces, and nephews.


The text from Karen which I mentioned at the top of this post refers to a contact by a new DNA match that has led to the discovery of our maternal half-brother relinquished for adoption at birth. Where does the story go? Yes, it can be overwhelming. Nonetheless, I'm glad, because we all have the right to know our identity, our origins, and our heritage.


I welcome you to read my piece in Visible Magazine: Adoption Fables and the Right to Know

Thank you for being here! Until next time, please have a look through my other blog posts, and be sure to sign up for my newsletters with updates on my book launch!

(c) Mary Ellen Gambutti, Author of blog and website All Rights Reserved 2022

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