On Nov. 22, five Oregon storytellers will share intimate stories about the ways adoption has touched their lives. It’s certain to be a three-hanky event, if not more.
Local storytellers Sharon “Shay” Knorr, Beverly Allen and Dana Buckendahl will be joined by Ralph Steadman, of Eugene, and Lynne Duddy, of Portland, at the event, the first installment of the third season of Solo Speak Sessions.
Solo Speak is the brainchild of storyteller and actor Knorr, who said it was some fellow storytellers who inspired the evening’s theme.
“A couple of my storytelling friends both told stories about being adopted, and I’m running across so many people who have that in one way or another in their life. I thought it would be an interesting show because I know there’s a lot of people out there who adoption has touched,” she said.
Knorr hesitated to participate as a storyteller in the Nov. 22 program, but decided to talk about the 1966 birth of her son.
“Bev Allen’s story is about giving a baby up. She was 19, and I was 18, and I decided to keep my child,” Knorr said. “At some point, sometimes, I think maybe it would have been better if I had given him up for adoption. Of course, I don’t really believe that, but it certainly did change my life … I chose to take this completely other path.”
“I didn’t go to college, I didn’t go to Broadway. I didn’t do all those things that I had planned. I did this child instead,” and if she hadn’t, “I wouldn’t have had him and I wouldn’t have had my grandchildren.”
“What I’m learning in listening to all these stories is it’s only about choices, and there really is no right or wrong choice. And the babies don’t have a choice, but we certainly do.”
Knorr added that as a pregnant teen, she benefited from a supportive family.
“I realize in hearing other people’s stories that I was very lucky in that my family — they weren’t happy, obviously, but they didn’t throw me out or anything. I was totally supported,” she said.
Options suggested to her at the time included adoption or abortion, then illegal. (Still another was temporarily moving to “one of those homes where you have him, and then you come back like you’ve just been at summer camp but you’re thin now,” she said, laughing.)
She wanted to keep her son.
“I was very clear at 18 — I don’t know why — that I was going to have that baby, and I was going to raise that baby,” she said.
Her son, her only child, died in 1998, but Knorr enjoys being grandmother to his two surviving children.
She said it’s important for the storyteller and the audience to hear these personal tales.
“Just getting your story out and sharing it helps you, and it helps other people in the audience,” she said. “There could be a lot of people who were adopted and maybe they haven’t found their parents or they didn’t think about it, or they thought they were the only crazy one there. Everybody has a story, and there’s somebody that needs to hear that story.”
Buckendahl, of Bend, is a stand-up comedian who studied storytelling in one of Knorr’s First Speak personal story performance workshops. She plans to discuss adoption from the vantage of someone who for many years had not been drawn to parenthood.
What changed for her was entering into a relationship with Trudi Cruzen.
“When I got together with my girlfriend, she was in the process of adopting, and if I wanted to be in a relationship with her, that’s what I need to jump on board and do,” she said.
“We adopted our first daughter when she was a baby. She came from India, and then eight years later we ended up adopting another little girl from Brazil,” she said.
Buckendahl said she never had the desire for pregnancy nor expected to be “a mother to humans.”
“I had just thought it was animals that were going to be in my life,” she said. “And then all of a sudden at age 39 I find myself a mother.”
Buckendahl had never changed a diaper in her life, and “all babies hated my guts when I held on to them. They would all scream,” she said. “I’ve always loved kids, but I was never good with babies.”
Both Steadman and Duddy were adopted and reunited with their birth families as adults.
Duddy located her birth family 18 years ago, “and I’m going to be talking about what that’s like 18 years later, because I don’t think people really talk about that much. It’s like, ‘And then they lived happily ever after.’ I think, in real life, people have family, and family is a complex and deeply emotional experience for all of us, whether we’re adopted or not. It’s complicated.”
Both Duddy and Steadman had positive experiences growing up with their adoptive families. Duddy grew up knowing she was adopted. “I had a brother who was almost eight years older than I, who did not know he was adopted until they brought me home,” she said. “That blew his mind.”
On her 42nd birthday, Duddy finally met her birth mother, who’s just 15 years older than she is.
“She brought my baby shoes to the meeting, because that’s the last thing she knew of me,” Duddy said.
A few weeks later, the two were having lunch, “and I’m thinking, ‘Wow this is going pretty good,’ but then I thought, ‘I should ask her what it’s really like.’”
“I said, ‘This is going pretty great for me. How’s it going for you?’ And she looks down at her plate for a moment and pauses, and looks up at me and tells me, ‘it’s as if a knife has been removed from my heart.’”
Actor and radio veteran Steadman choked up frequently when talking to The Bulletin about his search throughout adulthood for his birth family, with whom he reunited in 2001.
“Everything that I am is defined by the moment in time when, early in my life, people reacted in such a negative way because of (adoption). It’s cruel, it’s cold and it’s unbelievably inhumane.”
As a boy growing up in Eugene, his adoptive parents had been honest and open about his adoption.
“I thought it was pretty spectacular” at first, he said. “My mom explained that it makes me more special, and more significant because adopted kids get to be loved more.”
Once the socialization process of school began, however, he began to feel like an outcast. He describes a first-grade experience in which he and his classmates were supposed to stand up and talk about their background.
“It gets to me, and I stand up … and I said, ‘Hi, I’m Ralph Steadman, and I’m adopted.’ There was that silence, and then everybody laughed. Even the teacher.
“I’d already been told by some people that if I didn’t please my mom and dad, I’d be sent back to hell where I came from. Those two experiences locked in how non-human I was,” Steadman said. “It makes you feel like you have no soul. That’s my experience. I don’t know that everybody has it. It was majorly important.”
Stedaman said that for years he felt like he wasn’t a person, but “just another entity looking for the real boy to show up and take my place,” he said.
He was 49 when he located his birth family. He learned the family’s surname was Lewis. That he had a Greek and Italian background. That he had a younger brother and sister.
His birth mother died just a few years prior to his reunion with his birth family, but the years since he met his birth brother and sister have proven a watershed for Steadman.
Not long after he located his birth family, Steadman’s supportive adoptive parents asked him to invite his birth siblings to Easter dinner.
They accepted, and traveled to Eugene for the dinner. Steadman said that when he walked in his sister’s hotel room the day before Easter, he saw balloons. “Those silvery balloons that said, ‘It’s a boy,’” he said. “I walked in and it was like I was born, literally born, into their family.”
At Easter dinner with his adoptive and birth families, all forged a bond, he said. “We became a unit that day. We became related.”
The fact that it was Easter “wasn’t lost on me. You know, the resurrection. It was as if I was given new life,” he said. “That’s how it’s been ever since.”
“I’m 63 years old,” he added, crying so hard he was almost difficult to hear, “and this is how it feels all the time. It’s good. It’s God-given. It’s a miracle.”
Said Duddy: “I think the important thing to keep in mind is that love is a powerful force. Whatever the configuration of the family … it’s really the love that connects us and sustains us and our relationships.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0349, firstname.lastname@example.org