Tell Me Your Story: Of Letting Go

Marlyse and her husband’s adoption story began when Marlyse faced the fact that she would not be able to carry a child due to her heart defect. When it came time to choose where they were going to adopt from, they started by looking into domestic infant adoption, but they were surprised at the astronomical fees. They then considered adopting from Haiti, and it made sense.  Marlyse is Haitian born, she still has family members who live there, and Haiti has always been close to her heart.

In Haiti, children are relinquished to orphanages although one or both parents may be living. Orphanages are often used as a type of foster home until parents can get back on their feet. But in the interim of parents trying to get stable, the children often suffer. They may be deprived of individual attention and miss the family bonds they need to flourish. Marlyse didn’t like the idea of group homes or orphanages, and she is an advocate for keeping families together when possible. But she also acknowledges there are some unhealthy family situations where children cannot thrive and adoption becomes a viable option.

So Marlyse and Monty started the process of adopting their two children in September of 2012.  Throughout the process, the couple was frustrated with several things, including the hidden costs involved with the adoption. To Marlyse, it seemed like someone was always trying to make a profit. She explained that the very people who should be protecting children were the same ones hurting them in the long run. But even with all those frustrations, the couple was determined to keep going.

As a first time mother, Marlyse was also dedicated to learning about the adoptee experience. As she waited for the adoptions to finalize, she stocked up on reading material. She read blogs, books, and articles, trying to understand the adoptee perspective. The adoption process “taught her things about a world she knew nothing about.”  Marlyse initially worried if her children would see her as their “real” mother. She was also concerned with how much contact her young children should have with their Haitian families, not wanting to confuse them.  But Marlyse is willing to do what is best for her children, no matter the inconvenience. She plans to raise her children knowing that they have two families and bring the children back to Haiti every three to four years. She also plans to speak Creole to them at home, so they don’t lose their language. They will also reap the benefits of a mother who will cook them Haitian cuisine. Marlyse is intent on having her children stay in touch with their relatives so they don’t have to do through the pain and heartache of not knowing who they are or where they come from.

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Marlyse and Monty with their two children in Haiti

Marlyse and Monty started the adoption process in 2012, and just finalized the adoptions of their now 3 year old daughter and 2 year old son in October of 2014. They spent more than four times the amount of money they had originally planned to spend. Marlyse recalls the day she walked through the airport in Port-au-Prince. It was a bittersweet moment not just because her children were now out of the orphanage, but because there was a time when she didn’t think the day would come. A long await dream finally became a reality. When the plane finally landed in Miami, Marlyse choked up, the tears a symbol of two years of struggle.

Marlyse invited me to meet her family in Miami, and I had the pleasure of meeting her and Monty, and her two beautiful children. I held her daughter, who was so quiet, taking in her brand new world. At one point, her son curled up in my arms and almost fell asleep. They reminded me so much of myself, so many years ago, beginning a new life with a new family. I later watched Marlyse lay the children on the hotel bed to take a nap. Their little bodies were exhausted, and both were asleep within minutes. The afternoon sun streamed into the  windows, carrying them into a sweet slumber. It seems like an odd thought, but as Marlyse begins her life with her children, she must learn to let them go. They may someday want to have their own relationship with their Haitian families, and the best thing for Marlyse to do as a mother is let them. Her children need the freedom to explore a relationship with both families, a safe place to discuss their feelings, and a mother who strong enough to let them go. And for that, they will one day be grateful.

 

 

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Interview with Catana Tully

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Split at the Root by Catana Tully is a memoir that spans many years and several different countries. Catana was born in Guatemala in the 1940s and was adopted by a German family. Her German mother, or “Mutti” as she called her, raised Catana to speak German, Spanish, and English and introduced her to a world of privilege, including boarding school in Jamiaca and studies at Cambridge University in England.

After Catana earned a certificate from Cambridge, her plan was to work as an interpreter in Germany. But her plan suddenly changed when she was discovered  at an international craft fair.  When Catana realized how much money she could make posing behind the camera for a few hours, she quickly enrolled in modeling school. Once Catana finished modeling school, she was immediately booked for fashion shows and landed her first acting role. Catana’s detour into modeling and acting turned out to be a successful career move.

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Catana as a model

While she was living in Munich, Catana was set up on a blind date by a friend. She met Fred Tully, an American actor, and they eventually married. When Fred and Catana welcomed a son, and the couple decided to move to California. In America, Catana had to face new issues of identity. She felt accepted by neither blacks nor whites, and her life of privilege suddenly didn’t mean anything in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Living in California, Catana began to question everything she thought she knew about herself, including her marriage and her upbringing.

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Catana and Fred

Catana started to sort out her feelings through counseling and began examining the relationships she had with both of her mothers. Her counselor encouraged Catana to find and connect with her birthfather, which answered many of Catana’s questions, but also revealed painful family secrets.  In the end, Catana became aware of the tremendous pain caused by her adoption and started to understand her identity as a mother, daughter, and black woman. Read on for our interview!

You begin Split at the Root with a picture of you as a baby with Mutti, your German “mother” and end the book with a picture of you with Rosa, your birthmother. How did these two women shape your own identity as a mother?

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Catana with “Mutti” & Rosa

Very interesting question! I don’t know about shaping my identity as a mother, but I, too, was very protective and controlling. Mutti, had been super protective of me and, until she left me in Munich, controlled all my decisions. I sometimes jokingly tell my son that he probably needs a shrink, being that he had been so closely watched as a child. But he says that it was great because he always felt very secure and protected.

So I figure this over-protectiveness came as a result of having always been under supervision myself. I must have internalized Mutti’s and Rosa’s fears. Mutti feared Rosa might steal me, and I must have somehow absorbed Rosa’s anguish at having “lost” me. So, yes, both women shaped the fear aspect that translated into the way I raised my son.

I appreciated that you included your counseling sessions. You shared valuable conversations about your healing from being raised apart from your birth mother and from the damage caused by secrets that were hidden from you growing up. Your search for identity was inspiring and showed that it can a lifelong process. What was the hardest truth you had to confront in your therapy sessions?

Another good one. I still struggle with my identity but I know it, and so am able to identify the insecurity. The good thing is that my self-image is no longer bruised. One of the hardest things was having to recover lost memories of Rosa. Another was hearing from my sisters how much my mother suffered at having lost me. Also, of course, my having rejected her in such a heartless manner. I find it is an interesting thing with adoptees: I believe we are quite insensitive. Perhaps because of the injury at having been separated from our mother.

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You described playing the role of Eliza, a slave, for the German production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. You wrote that you struggled with that role because you had no idea how to “portray an enslaved woman, had a vague idea of modern slavery, and had no Black heroes, role models, male or female.” Who are your black heroes and role models today?

Today, there are too many to count, but here are a few that come to mind immediately: Ivan van Sertima, was a history professor at Rutgers, whose books They Came Before Columbus, and Africa and Europe in the Middle Ages impress me tremendously. Then Cheikh Anta Diop’s work is fascinating to me. Among the young writers whose works I admire: Edwige Danticat, (Haitian American) and Chimamanda Adichie (Nigerian). Add… all the African American classic writers, painters, sculptors, and musicians… There are a lot!

I was fascinated with your scenes of moving to LA, and experiencing what it meant to be Black in America. You wrote that you “knew nothing about the African American culture, where being Black was infinitely more complex than simple being dark.” Why do you think being Black in America is so complex?

The complex aspect of race in America lies in the fact that the dominant American society wants it to be that way. Racism in the US is an institutionalized phenomenon. On the surface it might appear that things have improved since slavery. However, a huge percentage of the Black population continues to be excluded from what purports to be a democratic society. I mean the fact that huge numbers of young Black men are incarcerated for petty crimes that do not affect other ethnic groups. Once they are released, they continue to be ostracized for having been incarcerated and are not allowed to vote. This is clearly institutionalized racism. And, it’s a huge problem that’s just not addressed. The important ones in our society (the ones that could change the laws) seem to have a blind eye to this tragedy.

You discussed how Mutti colonized your mind. She taught you how to dress, speak, and act, and you internalized her European ideals. Do you think her colonization was intentional? Can colonization ever be unintentional?

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Mutti was a product of her times; and those were Victorian. Dark people were seen as inferior and powerless. (Has not changed that much, really.) She expected me to assimilate into European society thus, absorbing European culture, she figured (correctly,) would facilitate my inclusion into the dominant White society. (That is also what White parents of dark adoptees feel today.) What Mutti did not realize, is that had I been given access to my mother and her people, I would have gained respect for my race, understand what my family’s struggles were, respect their values, and be pleased that they were poor, yet noble people. That would have been fair, and would have helped me gain a balanced sense of self. Most important: I would not have had the damaging issues related to a bruised and negative self image.

Do you anticipate writing any other books?

I plan to write essays addressing issues adoptees grapple with that no one seems to appreciate… including adoptees. I [also] have a children’s book in mind. It’s about history. I’ll feel blessed if I can start researching for it by the end of this year!

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 Dr. Catana Tully is an author, a retired professor, and adoption counseling expert. She offers to help both parents and their children tackle the complexities of adoption. To find out more about Catana’s services or read more about Split at the Root, visit www.cantanatully.com

Where Are You From?

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This simple question is usually meant to start small talk or find out if you have something in common with a stranger, but for many adoptees, including myself, this question is anything but simple.

I grew up in Canada and being a part of a visible minority, it seemed as if people felt they had the right to question your family history. The summer after my first year in college, I was working at a convenience store in the small town that my family had just moved to.

“So, where ya from?” The unblunted words shot out from underneath a dirty baseball hat, as the customer dumped his wares on the counter. I slid the cigarettes and beef jerky over the scanner, praying that if I ignored the question maybe he would forget that he asked. He didn’t and tried another way. “So how many of you guys are there here?”

I didn’t take my eyes off the counter and politely said through a forced smile, “I moved here recently.” And I offered nothing more. He paused, clearly not satisfied with my answer. He then scooped up the cigarettes, shoved the beef jerky in his back pocket, and moved on with his life, the tiny shopkeeper’s bell signaling his departure.

 These instances were not frequent, but it was enough to make me feel on guard around strangers. When someone asked me that question, it didn’t feel like they were asking where I was born or where I grew up. They wanted to know who I was and where I belonged. And after while, after being asked so many times where you belong, you start to feel that you don’t.

Over the years, I’ve come up with some creative ways to answer the question because there is always a follow up question. When strangers find out I’m from Canada, they ask,“But where are you originally from?” And then their line of questioning leads to adoption, my siblings, my family, and if they are feeling really brave they will ask me if I’ve ever met my birth mother. Questions that I don’t feel like answering when I am making minimum wage selling lottery tickets and stale donuts.

At the end of that summer, I transferred down to a small college in Florida. Over the next few years, I finished my degree, met my husband, and started my teaching career. Moving to Florida has made things easier in many ways. I’m no longer a visible minority in my community, and most of the time I can enjoy a certain amount of anonymity.

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It took me awhile to get to this point, but I now know I don’t owe strangers an explanation for my accent, my complexion, or my last name. When I feel like telling “my story”, I do. I am not ashamed of who I am and where I am from, but there are days when I just want to “blend in” with everyone else. And the truth is, telling someone where I’m from is just one part of who I am. If you really want to know me, ask me where I’m going.