The Life of Judy Lewis: When You Think You Are Adopted But You Aren’t

Here’s a story that shows the corrosive effect of secrecy/lying in a context that is nearly the reverse of the one we’ve focused on.   It’s actually the obituary of Judy Lewis who was the daughter of Loretta Young and Clark Gable.

Lewis was conceived when Gable was 34 and married to someone other than Young.  Young was 22 and a rising star.  Given the mores of the time (1935) and out-of-wedlock birth could have ruined Young’s career (and perhaps even compromised Gable’s.)   So Young gave birth to Lewis secretly and Lewis spent the first 19 months of her life hidden from view.   At that point Young brought Lewis back into her home, asserting that she had adopted the child.

Thus Lewis grew up with one of her genetically related parent being told she was not genetically related.  A lie for sure but the reverse of the lie we’ve mostly focused on here–which is that you are related when you are in fact not.

When a family lies about something like this I think it can be quite hard to separate the harm caused by lying from any harm that might have been caused by the underlying truth about which one was deceived.   What I mean is it may be hard to separate harm from concealing adoption from any harm that might actually come from the fact of adoption, or it may be hard to separate harm from concealing use of third-party gametes from harm that might actually come from the use of them.   Presumably you can get at this in studies by comparing those lied to and those not lied to, but there are many reasons why those studies are very difficult to do.

There’s something terribly sad about this story.   Lewis believed she was adopted when in fact she was not.  She was raised by the women who gave birth to her but didn’t know it.   She also didn’t know that Gable was the man involved in her conception when everyone else did.    This seems to me quite clearly a case where the secrecy inflicted far more harm than the truth ever could have.

I think about what drove the parties to this concealment, which really must have been difficult for Young?   Shame and fear, I think.   Fear of intolerance and social opprobrium.   I’d like to think the story would come out differently now because we’ve learned to accept the unmarried mother and Young could be honest with her child.   But it’s a cautionary tale, too, about the harm that can be inflicted on a single child by the fear of social condemnation that once ruled.

And of course, the fact that single mothers may be more widely accepted (I think this is largely so, though not universally) there are still family forms that people want to condemn.   I understand that this condemnation may be rooted in the idea that the to-be-condemned family form is a bad one (as was the case with single mother families), but whatever the motivation it’s good to remember that social condemnation can exact a price from real children.

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10 responses to “The Life of Judy Lewis: When You Think You Are Adopted But You Aren’t

  1. No its not difficult at at all to separate the two things. If you ask someone how they feel about being what they call donor conceived you are asking them how they feel about the people who conceived them who are absent, not the people who didn’t and are present.

    You might ask how do you feel about having two mom’s instead of just one and how do you feel about the way they handled the subject that you are not biologically related to one of them and their relatives. How do you feel about the way they handled your missing biological relatives. Do you feel that your feelings have been adequately considered blah blah.

    Or you ask them how they feel about donor conception and they would tell you how it feels to have a biological parent that is not interested in raising them and how it feels to know that they have a biological parent that would maybe be embarassed to admit that they were a member of that genetic family or about how it feels to know that the name of their biological parent is sitting in a drawer in a doctors office and everyone is hiding it from them because they don’t count.

    They are so separate as issues. I don’t understand how people ever got the idea that telling kids the truth about it would stop the harm from it. Its pretty obvious if I tell you that you were robbed its going to make being robbed all the much more of an affront especially if the people who did it are people you have no choice but to live with. Its F’d up its so easy to see why legal parents would rather lie than tell. But of course then that is way worse because then they are robbing them of another truth

    • I actually agree that there are separate issues here–it’s just that they are very hard to disentangle and it is very hard to accurately assess what harm is caused by what. If a person is adopted and also deceived about being adopted, or if a person is conceived via third-party gametes and also misled/lied to about this, then they necessarily discover both things (the truth of their origins and the fact that they were lied to) at the same time. You can certainly ask them how they feel about the two things separately, but I think they are so tightly connected its hard for people to actually know–they cannot separate out their experience into handy little parcels.

      Now you could compare a person who had that experience with a person who grew up always knowing that they were adopted/donor conceived. This would give you some insight into the psychic costs of secrecy and, through some sort of subtraction exercise, the psychic costs of being adopted/donor conceived. But you are now comparing two people (or two batches of people) who grew up in significantly different environments and I’d guess there are other factors that complicated comparison. For instance, those who grew up in an open household grew up with people who must be more comfortable with the child’s origins–that’s why they can choose to be open about it. So if you find differences in these two groups, how do you know how much of the difference is attributable to the parental attitude and how much to the actual underlying facts? I know there are ways for social scientists and statisticians to sort all this out, but I don’t think it is easy.

      I’m sure you are unsurprised to hear that I fundamentally disagree with your robbery analogy. Indeed, I think it cuts the wrong way. As I hope I have been clear, I believe it is far better to be honest.

      • OK fine its not robbery of a biological parent if the biological parent chose willingly to walk away and hide from his offspring and hide his offspring from the rest of his relatives that are the relatives of his offspring as well. But this is the sort of thing that other mothers normally protect their young from right? Other mothers fight like hell to make sure that biological fathers don’t just ditch out on their offspring; they hunt them down have them tested and make them pay support which at the very least means the child is not a dirty secret to his or her paternal relatives. Other mothers do this for their children but not this certain group of mothers and I guess one question those mothers should be prepared to answer is, why don’t their children deserve that same level of support from their biological fathers? I understand in some instances the mother is married to someone who is willing to provide support in lieu of the absent bio father but if the mother’s are married to them they’d have to do that anyway for as long as they remained married. So why can’t their children have the support of their bio fathers and the support of the mothers spouse as a step parent the way other children do. Why do they have to loose contact with all their paternal relatives? It seems only to serve the mother’s desire to honor the person she’s in a relationship with and everyone then has to pretend as if her partner and her conceived a child together. Its all a bit of a farce at the child’s expense.

        The harm you did not cover is that when some biological parents don’t have to take responsibility for their offspring it results in those people’s offspring not having the same rights to care and support as other people’s offspring and that is wrong. Its as much an equal rights violation as gays and lesbians not being allowed to get married only its worse because gays and lesbians are loosing an opportunity to get married while offspring of gamete donors loose the right to be financially supported by their genetic parents, accurate birth records for medical purposes, contact with their genetic relatives, inheritance rights and the list goes on. Offspring are not the only ones not being treated equally when some biological parents don’t have to take care of their offspring. Its not fair to the other biological parents that don’t intend to take care of their offspring but have not given their offspring up for adoption – why can’t they do it to? Why can’t other people who want to raise other people’s offspring avoid having to adopt? Why does the community have to get inaccurately recorded birth statistics. Everyone gets robbed of rights by letting some biological parents off the hook and not others. Those are the harms we can prove which I suppose is why you like the emotional harms that are not felt the same by everyone equally.

        • It’s probably not worth pursuing this line of discussion too much further as I think we do understand where we disagree and neither of us is likley to persuade the other of anything. But at the risk of prolonging things, if you do not start from the assumption that the gamete donor is necessarily a key player in the life of a child then it does not seem so very odd that you would write that person out of the child’s life. By contrast, if you do start with the assumption that the gamete donor is necessarily a key player, then the behavior I just described looks bad. All of which is to say this comes down to whether you think the gamete donor is necessarily an important player. I do not and you do and that is what gives rise to all the rest of the disagreement. Adding terms like “robbery” (which I think is a trifle inflammatory) into the discussion just make it harder to see what the root of the disagreement is.

          • Julie can I at least get you to agree that if a gamete donor has no business being recorded as a parent for legal purposes the unrelated legal parent has no business being recorded as a parent for medical purposes?

            Both parent types are critical to a person over the course of their lives at different times and the ability to communicate with both parent types as well as to ones legal and genetic relatives is very important as well.

            Can you agree that a person who does not know or is not known to their genetic parents and genetic relatives is short something that everyone else gets?

            And what purpose does shorting them that serve?

            • I hope you don’t think this is an unreasonable quibble. The legal parent needs to be recorded for medical purposes because the legal parent is the medical decision maker for the child. So I do think you need to have the identify of the legal parent noted somewhere in the medical record.

              It’s also probably important to have a record of who the child lives with and what the child’s status in the household is. There, too, you’d want the legal parents to be noted, as you would want to note other adults who might be major players in the child’s life. It even seems to me possible that the health of a legal parent might be relevant to the health of a child–to the extent the legal parent is actually present in the child’s life sometimes.

              I don’t mean to be overly difficult here–but I suppose it depends what you mean by “recorded for medical purposes” and the long and short of it is, there are reasons why the identity of the legal parent matters. This is not to say that the legal parent should be recorded as being genetically related. Indeed, it’s probably important for medical records to note when the legal parent isn’t genetically related to the child. Perhaps that’s the agreement you seek?

              On your other question–being short of what everyone else gets–I’m not sure I agree with the premise. Some people have little to do with genetic relatives for a wide range of reasons that have nothing to do with ART. And many children grow up with some incomplete set of genetic relatives–as is true for a child with one genetically realted parent and one non-genitically related parent.

              It also comes back to what one thinks is important. I think something over 97% of US homes have TV. That means the child who grows up in one of the minority non-TV households is short on something virtually everyone else gets. is that a problem? I don’t think so. The fact that a child doesn’t have what almost everyone else has is irrelevant if the thing in question isn’t an important and good thing.

          • You spent the better part of a month blogging about the various harms described by people who refer to themselves as donor conceived saying you wanted to respond to each of the harms as part of an academic paper you planned to write in January.
            1 Concealment Harm
            2 Anonymous Donor Harm
            3 Lack of Medical Information Harm
            4 Identity Harm
            I told you I thought the whole harm exercise seemed phony to me because you have what amounts to an almost mathematical formula for discrediting those very view points; the upshot of which is to say that the harm is not universally experienced by all offspring therefore these experiences don’t qualify as harms to be universally rectified. I commented that you were documenting only the harms you could discredit using your little formula and asked that you include the harm of inequality – their lack of equal rights because that is universally experienced by all donor offspring regardless whether or not they feel traumatized by it. You have not done that and in fact just shut me down above saying you did not think that it was a harm worth pursuing any further because you don’t think the gamete provider is an important person therefore the harm of inequity does not need to be documented but really then what would be the point of documenting any of the harms Julie? I mean what is the harm of concealment if in fact the gamete provider is so irrelevant? What would be the harm of not knowing the paternal family medical history if in fact the gamete provider was so irrelevant? ?And finally what’s the point of documenting the identity harm if the gamete provider is so irrelevant? Like I said you only want to document the harms that are easy for you to refute because your not really interested in helping fix any of those harms. Your interested in maintaining the status quo so you simply seek to discredit the validity of claims that harm is done. Its a hollow attempt to look look concerned about the lives of the people with one or more parents who are not in their lives.

            Donor conception is not about the people who are raising the child its about the parent (donor) who is not raising the child. Its about that guy and his family and their absence from his offspring’s life. When you ask the child how they feel about donor conception what you need to ask is how do you feel about his absence and the absence of all those genetic relatives. But no you and all the other people raising kids who are not their own offspring only care about how great the kid’s life is with them and how well the kid is doing with them and how wonderful everything can be when a child gets raised by people they are not related to.

            Honesty in the home where the child is raised has NOTHING to do with “donor conception” or adoption for that matter. A person can be blissfully happy with the people who raised them and be freaking miserable about the fact that they have been excluded from participating in the family that they are related to. They can be fully well adjusted and successful having grown up in a home of loving unrelated people and be furious that they are not part of the constant flow of communication back and forth with their genetic relatives for health reasons if nothing else.

            If you really cared about how people that call themselves donor conceived feel and what they are subjected to you’d ask the questions that make you uncomfortable ones with answers you might not like because your formula does not solve those harms.

            You said you’d return to the harm of inequity and I think you should and your not playing fair if you argue that you don’t think the gamete provider is important therefore its not a harm. It makes no difference whether anyone is traumatized by the inequity – the inequity itself is wrong and should be corrected. You said here you’d return to it but above you just told me there was no point. What’s it going to be?

            • To the extent your comment highlights that I didn’t finish the exercise you are most right. It’s a problem I have generally with this blog–and I take responsiblity for it–no one’s fault but my own. I do tend to start trains of thoughts and fail to finish them and you are right that I did just that in cataloging the harms and then not working through the whole thing. I accept your comment as a construtive reminder and I do mean to get back to it. Other things intervene (as is often the case on the blog) and then I get side-tracked. I need people to pull me back.

              But I do not accept the more general sense/tone of your comment, and in my view your accusations aren’t fair. It seems to me it is perfectly reasonable to point out that some harms are universally shared (like say the absence of medical information) where others are not (like the experience of feeling a lack of identity.) This doesn’t mean that for those who experience the identity harm it is irrelevant nor does it mean that their experiences should be ignored. It is, however, a difference to observe.

              I’m not sure what you mean about “my little formula.” Would that life was simple enough that we could have forumulas. It is, however, true that don’t agree with you in your suggestion that I need to include some harm of inequality. Frankly, I don’t see clearly enough what it means. I started with a general category–the donor-conceived. Those who are donor-conceived are not being raised by both of the people who provided gametes–I think that’s sort of definitional? What I mean is that if you are being raised by those who provided the gametes then you are not in the category of donor-conceived, are you? It seems to me that your equality harm is just a restatement of the definition. But the whole point of this exercise (for me) was to look more closely to see what the actual harms experienced by people in this category were. Hence the list you quote.

              Part of the point for me is that things might address one harm but not another. So for instance, it might be possibel to provide a donor-conceived person with access to medical information in some way that migth not give access to information that actually identifies the provider. This would address the medical harm but not the identity harm. Alternatively you could give the person access to identifying information when you turn 18, say. This might not addess the medical harm (at least during childhood) but might partly address the identity harm.

              I cannot promise to get back to all this while I am travelling, but will do my best to do so early in the new year.

  2. Julie – there is still a section of society that deems children of single mothers (they still use the term unwed) to be products of sin and the only redemption is for the child to be adopted into a two parent male/female married family to be redeemed. That section of society seems to be growing rapidly.

    The harm of not telling the child in today’s society, be it adoption or donor conceived outweights the parents concern of condemnation.

    • Yes, such a segment of society surely does exist, but I’m rather hopeful that it isn’t growing rapidly. I suppose time will tell. (The fact that people may be noiser doesn’t mean there must be more of them.)

      I agree that the harm of not telling outweighs concerns about stigma, etc. In part that’s because the level of stigma has diminished quite substantially. There was a time when social stigma was reinforced by legal status (illegitimate children were second-class citizens in many ways) and at that time I’m not sure I’d strike the balance the same way. But that’s an academic question–very hard to say and not really even necessary.

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