I want to know more about Nikolas Cruz. He is the adoptee charged with killing 17 people at his former high school in Parkland, Florida.
The media described Cruz as a disturbed orphan who recently lost his adoptive mother. Nobody seems to know anything about his biological parents. What would his biological family’s history show? What secrets lie in the young man’s DNA, and what does Cruz know about his blood relatives? Did his adoptive parents know about their son’s natural parents?
The media quickly pointed out that Cruz was adopted, which offended some of my adoptee friends on Facebook. Nobody knows if being adopted played a part in his rampage.
Do Adoptees Have a Greater Propensity for Violence?
Many adoptees have mental health problems. Whether they are more prone to violent behavior is open to debate. While adoptees appear to be overrepresented among famous serial killers, criminologist Scott Bonn does not believe being adopted turned them into killers. Being adopted does not determine violent behavior, Bonn told A & E Crime Blog.
Typically, serial killers are psychopaths who lack normal emotion or empathy, have other personality disorders or severe mental illness, Bonn said.
“The personality disorders are the instability that drives them to violence, not the fact that they were adopted,” Bonn said. “They are very disturbed individuals to begin with.”
“He is a broken human being,” said assistant public defender Melissa McNeill.
For Adoptees, Does Nature Trump Nurture?
As a child, I watched “The Bad Seed,” a movie about an eight-year-old girl named Rhoda who killed a classmate after he beat her in the penmanship competition. When the caretaker at home threatened to expose her crime, Rhoda killed him by setting his bedding on fire. The movie’s adoption angle went over my head. Seeing a little girl kill people and show no remorse left an impression on me.
Decades later, I watched “The Bad Seed” again. Rhoda’s kind and loving mother, Christine, was the biological daughter of a notorious serial killer. Though raised by good adoptive parents herself, Christine could not change Rhoda. She was a bad seed with blonde pigtails and pinafores. The melodrama made me wonder about our ability to overcome bad genes.
David Berkowitz, aka “Son of Sam,” also had loving adoptive parents, said Bonn the criminologist who corresponded with him. Berkowitz achieved notoriety in 1977. Armed with a .44-caliber revolver, he killed six people and injured seven others in New York City.
Cruz experienced loss and rejection throughout his life. His adoptive father passed away when he was a little boy and Cruz’s loving mother died in 2017. His mother’s death and his recent expulsion from school may have unhinged Cruz. He had a history of causing trouble, behaving strangely and posting disturbing images on social media. I wonder if he inherited defective genes or was harmed in the womb by his mother’s drug or alcohol use. Maybe multiple traumas led to Cruz’s rage. What do you think triggered him?
I was a bundle of nerves as I drove to JFK to meet my sister, Stephanie, and niece, Rachel, for the first time. We made plans to spend three days together several months ago and while I felt good about these people, they nevertheless were strangers, unknown blood relatives that I found through DNA testing.
Late Discovery Adoptee’s Search Ends
I’m a late discovery adoptee, born in the 1960s when adoptions were kept secret from the children who were adopted. I didn’t know Stephanie existed until 2017 when I hit a breakthrough in my search for my biological father. Stephanie and I have the same father, Steve, who is deceased, and different mothers.
I wanted this first meeting with Stephanie and Rachel to be perfect. Irrationally, I worried that they would find the accommodations at my home inadequate even though the twin beds in my finished basement are comfortable with a bathroom nearby. Everything that could possibly go wrong crossed my mind. What if my nervous beagle, Lainie, bites them, what if they don’t connect with my husband, Tom, or our son, Jake, or worst of all, what if the three of us run out of things to talk about?
But I had a feeling we’d hit it off. Stephanie and I had discussed personal things on the phone, exchanged text messages and liked each other’s posts on Facebook. Rachel and I also had friendly conversations via Facebook. We all seem to prefer digital communication.
DNA Test Helps Adoptee Find Bio Father’s Kin
Stephanie and I found each other after I’d nearly given up searching for my biological father. My cousin, Shannon, a genealogist, pushed me back into active search mode. After reviewing my DNA matches on Ancestry, she encouraged me to reach out to my matches named Green. I contacted a match named Janis, who is my first cousin once removed, and she encouraged me to look up her grandmother’s tree in Ancestry’s database. After poring over that one and other trees and jotting down notes on a spreadsheet, I focused on Steve. I thought he’s either my father or my uncle. His obituary, which I found online, listed Stephanie as his daughter and fortunately for me, Stephanie has an uncommon surname. I found her on LinkedIn and luckily, her profile includes her work email address.
In my first email, I told her we were related somehow, possibly first cousins. I never raised the possibility that we could be sisters. In an email the next day, Stephanie, told me she knew she had a half-sibling and, based on the circumstances of my birth, location and my birth date, Stephanie believed we could be sisters. Looking at photos of each other, we saw an uncanny resemblance. Tom saw it, too.
“You have the same eyes,” he remarked.
Now I know where my blue eyes came from. In a photo she sent me of Steve, I saw a young man with light-colored eyes, like mine, looking tentative in his Navy uniform. The way he gazed at the camera, with one eye looking a little off, reminded me of the way my eyes looked in photos. In my son, I saw a resemblance to Steve.
Having found my blog, Stephanie knew about my long and frustrating effort to find the parents who brought me into the world.
“My heart immediately went out to you,” Stephanie wrote in an email. “You’ve been searching for your biological father for so long. If it is Steve and we are sisters, it could be life changing for both of us.”
Though she’s not adopted, Stephanie understood where I was coming from with my questions and desire to know my father’s identity. In my experience, it’s unusual for people who are not adopted to understand what drives adult adoptees to search for their blood relatives.
Stephanie took Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test and, after what seemed like an eternity, the results confirmed what we had suspected. On the phone that evening, I was struck by her openness to this new relationship. I bombarded her with questions about Steve and she was forthcoming with family anecdotes and more photos.
In JFK’s baggage claims area, I glanced at the travelers and didn’t see my sister and niece. Minutes later, I stepped out of the restroom and there they were near a baggage carrel. Stephanie turned in my direction and let out a little shriek when she saw me.
Adoptee Meets New Sister and Niece
We’d all been waiting for this moment, ever since Stephanie booked the flights months earlier. Stephanie and I hugged, Rachel and I hugged and I felt my eyes tear up.
“I’m seeing double,” Rachel said, glancing at the two of us.
Stephanie and I like to keep our thick hair smooth and straight. We have big light colored eyes (my sister’s are green and mine are blue), round faces and similar smiles.
In the car, we talked so much so that I missed the exit, adding a few minutes to the drive home to Brooklyn.
“What’s your favorite food?” Stephanie inquired.
“Greek,” I said.
Stephanie loves Mediterranean food, too and like me, wants to visit Greece someday.
Finding a Kindred Spirit
The first time I talked to Stephanie on the phone, I felt like I’d found a kindred spirit.
Stephanie was friendly, interested in my search and open to the possibility of having a new sister. She grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago while I grew up 35 miles away in the Gage Park neighborhood of Chicago. We both saw marital combat up close, raised by parents who bickered. Maybe that’s why as adults we avoid conflict.
Our father, Steve, was a talented auto mechanic, the youngest of several children who grew up in rural Arkansas. He was an agnostic like me and an introvert. At Thanksgiving dinner at the home of one of his sisters, Steve left after just a couple of hours. He didn’t enjoy chitchat.
Stephanie describes herself as an introvert and while I like talking to people, I tend to be introverted. When I’m alone, I feel comfortable, creative, able to think clearly and come up with ideas.
Stephanie and I have similar political views. We voted for the same candidate for president in 2016.
After lunch at my home, we walked to Seventh Avenue and turned north. It’s sunny and mild, a perfect day to walk and talk about our likes and dislikes. We turned around at Grand Army Plaza and headed back to Windsor Terrace where we ordered pizza for dinner. Tired from their traveling, Stephanie and Rachel turned in early.
On Monday morning, the three of us took the subway to Midtown where we soaked up the natural beauty in Central Park, checked out the skaters at Rockefeller Center and took lots of photos.
For lunch, Stephanie and I noshed on salads while Rachel enjoyed truffle fries and asparagas at Anassa Taverna across from Bloomingdale’s. After lunch, we admired the beauty and architecture at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. By the time we had walked south to Times Square, it was time to take the crowded F train back to my neighborhood.
Stephanie and I were well into our 30s before we had our children. We love White Castle hamburgers, NYDJ jeans and shopping. We both followed the adventures of Carrie Bradshaw and her friends on “Sex and the City.”
On Tuesday, the three of us took the F train to Dumbo and walked up a flight of stairs to the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a glorious and windy walk to lower Manhattan. On Broadway in Soho. Stephanie was thrilled to find her favorite store, White House Black Market. At Uniqlo, she and I fell for the same lightweight quilted down vest, a beige one for Stephanie and an off-white one for me.
Blood Relatives Bond
That evening, our last one together, we joined Tom, Jake, and my mother-in-law, Helene, for dinner around the kitchen table. It felt comfortable and cozy. I made meatballs in marinara sauce that morning so all I had to do was warm it up, boil water for pasta and make a salad. My sous chef, Jake, served the sauce over spaghetti. The conversation and the red wine flowed.
I put myself out there when I started this search. I know adoptees who searched for years only to be rebuffed by the blood relatives they worked so hard to find. Adoptee rejection is common. So far, I’ve been fortunate not to have experienced the pain of adoptee rejection.
My other half-sister, Michelle welcomed me the first time we talked on the phone. Michelle and I had the same mother, Lillian. When we met for the first time in Galveston, Texas in 2015, we were nervous wrecks. Michelle was smoking and pacing outside her home as I drove up. Within minutes, though, the anxiety passed and Michelle and her daughter, Chrissy, spent a lovely afternoon getting to know one another. Michelle and I have stayed in touch since that first meeting.
I didn’t know what to expect from this first meeting with Stephanie and Rachel but our three days together felt easy and comfortable. We’re strangers no more. I consider it a gift to be related to these awesome women who welcomed me with open hearts and minds.
My search is over. A DNA test has confirmed the identity of my biological father.
I was beyond thrilled when I got the email from a woman I suspected was a close relative based on countless hours of detective work. She had taken a DNA test at my request.
“Tom, I found my father,” I told my husband, who was under the covers at 6 a.m. “Congratulations,” he murmured.
The 1960s: Secret Era of Adoption
I was adopted in the 1960s when adoptions were deep secrets. As a late discovery adoptee, I did not discover the truth until I was 38. Without going through an adoption agency, my parents, both in their 50s, worked quietly with a doctor from Chicago’s northern suburbs who may have been a baby broker.
A door to my secret past opened in 2011, when Illinois unsealed original birth certificates. Up until then, I didn’t have any documentation related to the adoption. Once I got my birth record, I had to dig around to find out who my father was. My mother was listed, of course, along with an address in Northbrook, Illinois, but my father was “not legally known.”
After spending four years on and off combing genealogical records and comparing snips of chromosomes from distant DNA matches, I felt proud and satisfied to get the truth. To finally have a name, photos and some details about my dad and his family made the tedious, often frustrating effort worthwhile. I felt relieved, having unraveled a mystery that’s burdened me for years. I felt complete. I had roots like everyone else. My family history is coming together on both sides.
I was on top of the world but the high didn’t last. I crashed quickly.
Learning About My Biological Father
My father, Stephen, a skilled auto mechanic and co-owner of a gas station, was living on King Court in Wheeling, Illinois with his wife and two daughters when he got to know my troubled mother, Lillian, who lived a few miles away on Alice Drive in Northbrook with her husband and four young children. Lillian was an alcoholic who suffered from bipolar disorder. Her children, my half-siblings, often had to fend for themselves since Lillian wasn’t there when they needed her. Like my mother, Stephen was a drinker and carouser. Did Lillian and Stephen meet at some suburban watering hole? Maybe it all began when Lillian brought Stephen a menu at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress or at the service station when she brought the car in for a tune-up. Did they have a fling or was it something deeper? Did they share a bond over their rural roots?
As an adoptee, I’ve been on a journey to uncover the truth about my original family. As I look back on 2015, meeting my sister, Michelle, and niece, Chrissy, stand out as high points.
Meeting a Newly-Discovered Half Sister
The reunion came about after many phone calls. During those calls, Michelle spoke candidly about her childhood, revealing the unvarnished truth about growing up as the only girl, with three brothers, a beloved father, Dick, and Lillian, our hard drinking, hard living bipolar mother who struggled to keep everything together. They all lived in a modest house in Northbrook, a leafy suburb 35 miles north of the bungalow where I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago. Without going into all the details, Michelle survived a lot of hard knocks.
As I shop online for last minute Christmas presents, I think about gifts adoptees would appreciate. Three gifts come to mind (and you can’t buy them on Amazon).
Original birth certificates. My home state of Illinois unsealed original birth certificates in November 2011 and that’s how it all started for me. At first I was hesitant to request the document. I was apprehensive about searching for family, concerned about what I would find. My husband, Tom, pushed me. He handed me a check for $15 to send to the Department of Public Health in Springfield.
It hurts to find out, as an adult, that you were adopted.
Every late discovery adoptee’s moment of truth is delivered differently but there’s no way to sugarcoat it. The blow may come in a relatively gentle way as it did for me. Thirteen years ago, my sister, Melissa, called me one evening. “You and I were both adopted,” she said very matter-of-factly, with no tears or anger in her voice. (Melissa and I both hate drama.) MeIissa, who suspected we had been adopted, confirmed it with our cousin, Gina, who had been adopted by a couple who were close friends with our parents.
I was stunned. I felt betrayed by my parents who never so much as hinted at the possibility that I was not their biological daughter.
They fooled me and now I felt foolish. Here I was, married, a mother, 38 years old and finding out for the first time that I had been adopted. Mom and Dad were both in their 50s when I was born and baby Melissa arrived 14 months later so I should have figured it out on my own. I was no detective, despite having devoured Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden mysteries as a girl growing up the 1960s and ‘70s.
Knowing what I know about my mother, Lillian, and grandmother, Susan, makes me appreciate my life as a mom.
Lillian and Susan both lost children under different circumstances.
Lillian was forced to give me up for adoption. Her husband insisted on it, knowing in his gut that I was not his child (He was right. My sister Michelle’s DNA test confirmed we have different fathers.) It must have been painful for her to endure a pregnancy, deliver a healthy baby and hand her newborn over to a couple of strangers. How did Lillian feel going home to her husband and four little kids with no baby in her arms? Maybe it was relief mixed with sadness.
Thirteen years later, my brother, Joey, ended his life after things went south with a girlfriend. Lillian, who was battling alcoholism and bipolar disorder, went downhill after her Joey’s death at age 18.
Losing loved ones was nothing new for Lillian. My mother lived with foster families when she was a girl. In 1940, four-year-old Lillian and her three-year-old brother, Eric, were “welfare children,” the Census Bureau’s label. They were the only children living in a middle-aged couple’s home in Daviess County, Indiana. Their 52-year-old foster dad worked in road construction.
Here it is St. Patrick’s Day. What an ironic time to learn I may not be all that Irish.
As I checked my email on the subway last week, I saw the message from Ancestry. “Your Ancestry DNA results are in!” Excited, I opened the message, and clicked on the analysis of my ethnic makeup. Much to my surprise, Ancestry estimates my Irish-ness to be merely 18 percent. About two-thirds of my ancestry can be traced back to England, Scotland and Wales.
A while ago, I wrote about discovering and embracing my Irish roots after going through life assuming my ancestors came from Poland and Germany. This is a common phenomenon for late discovery adoptees. We grow up believing what our parents tell us and find out, as adults, that the truth is something entirely different.
My Polish-German identity started to crumble once I learned, at age 38, that I was adopted but I didn’t stop seeing myself as Polish and German until a DNA test made it official.
I also confirmed my heritage, or so I thought, with blood relatives. Chatting with my biological sister, Michelle, who told me our mother, Lillian was Irish, and talking to a family genealogist who suggested our family’s oldest known ancestor was an indentured servant from Ireland who immigrated to Maryland in the 1700s, left me convinced I was at least 50 percent Irish.
Of course, not knowing anything about my father and his relatives leaves a big hole in my story.
Also, the science of determining ethnic origins is evolving. DNA test companies can only provide estimates of ethnicity so I’m not going to read too much into those percentages from Ancestry. Besides, being English, Scottish and Welsh isn’t all that different from being Irish, right?
Have you heard conflicting things about your roots? I’d love to hear your stories.
When we first talked on the phone about 1½ years ago, my biological sister, Michelle, told me almost immediately, “I’ve known about you for a long time and I’ve always loved you.”
As sweet as it was to hear, I was also put off hearing those words coming from a stranger. How can you love a sister you’ve never met? I tend to keep people at arm’s length. It takes a while for me to trust them, let alone love them. Yet since that first conversation, Michelle and I have talked dozens of times about our family. She’s opened up about the trouble she had with our mother, Lillian, the fun times she had growing up with three brothers, and her deep love for her father, Dick. I’ve grown comfortable saying “I love you” to the sister I never met.
Still, it’s one thing to talk to a brand new sister on the phone, quite another to meet her in person. It took me a while to feel comfortable with the idea. Finally, after months of thinking about it, I was ready to go to Galveston, Texas, to meet Michelle in person and have her take a DNA test. (I was hoping that comparing her results to mine would allow me to identify members of my elusive father’s side of my family.)
As I planned my trip, I was anxious every step of the way. The prospect of meeting Michelle made me nervous. Yes, she is my sister but we don’t have much history. I worried how the reunion would go and if we would struggle with awkward moments.
Going to Galveston by myself was also a little scary. A couple of hours after buying a round-trip plane ticket, I saw the documentary on TV about Robert Durst, the rich and eccentric New Yorker who was accused and ultimately acquitted of murder charges in the shooting death of a neighbor, whose body was found carved up in pieces in the Galveston Bay.
The next day, I read about a man who was picked up by police in Galveston in connection with the murder of a University of Virginia student. I wondered, “Am I going to die in Galveston?” What a terrible way for an adoptee’s search to end. I won’t even get to write about it if I get cut up in small pieces and dumped in the Gulf of Mexico.
In my mind, I knew I was being a baby. To steel myself for the trip, I told my friends and relatives about it and they gave me the moral support I needed. By the time I boarded the plane, I was psyched for a family reunion in a strange city.
Unlike my flight, which was delayed a couple of hours, the drive from Houston to Galveston was smooth and painless. I pulled my rented Prius into the parking lot of a hotel on Seawall Boulevard, right across from the Gulf of Mexico.
But when I checked in and asked the front desk clerk about where to eat dinner, some of my anxiety re-emerged; she told me it was not entirely safe for me to be out walking around alone after dark and that if I was going to go out, I should leave right away. To get to the nearest restaurant, I had to cross several lanes of traffic without the benefit of a streetlight.
Safely reaching my destination, I dined on fish tacos and enjoyed views of the Gulf from three sides. I felt better but still felt a bit edgy and uncertain about what lay ahead.
My sister and I planned to get together the next day. After a poor night’s sleep, I rose early and was shocked by the strong odor of marijuana in the hallway. Part of me wished I were on a vacation, a business trip, anything but what I was really there for.
Time to do this, I thought as I left the hotel. As I parked the rental car on Michelle’s block, I saw my flesh-and-blood sister waiting for me outside her modest home. The first thing she said when she saw me was, “You’re beautiful.” Up until now, I had only seen photos of Michelle as a little girl and teenager. Almost five years my senior, Michelle is several inches shorter than me and has fine brown hair and green eyes. She has slender, fingers, much smaller and more delicate than mine. I wrapped my arms around her. Michelle’s pretty, blonde daughter, Chrissy, gave me a big hug. She lives in Florida, but came to Galveston to see her mother and meet her new aunt.
Michelle packed several photo albums into the trunk of the car. Over lunch at the Golden Corral, we talked about our lives. My nervousness started to fade.
As girls, Michelle and I grew up in homes just 35 miles apart in the Chicago area but our childhoods could not have been more different. I was sheltered – smothered, really – by overprotective parents who had time to focus all their attention on Melissa and me, their adopted daughters. Growing up in Northbrook with two young working parents, Michelle didn’t get enough protection. She was exposed to good and horrible things, living with a mother who had a temper and drank too much.
Michelle thinks my voice sounds like our mother Lillian’s. I can’t vouch for that but it’s easy to see the physical similarities between Lillian and me when I look at the old photos.
Looking at new photos in Michelle’s albums stirred up my curiosity about the family I never knew. I would have been the youngest, a girl with an older sister and three older brothers, Michael, Joey and Fritz. Only Michael is still living.
My birth mother, Lillian, had a tough, impoverished childhood in rural Indiana, a stormy, alcohol-fueled adult life in suburban Chicago and an early death from breast cancer at age 48.
Having Lillian as a mother was painful, according to Michelle, who couldn’t wait to get away from her mother. (For different reasons, I was also eager to leave my parents’ suffocating nest and get a taste of freedom.)
I wonder how Lillian, a 28-year-old married mother of four, felt during her pregnancy with me in the early 1960s. Did she think, “Oh, not this again!” Was she angry?
Some time after I was born, Lillian told Michelle about me. “You have a sister but your father made me give her up.” To me, that sounds like Lillian telling her daughter the truth about the child she relinquished. Michelle thinks it was Lillian’s unsuccessful attempt to drive a wedge between her and her dad. Michelle thought the world of her father, and understood why he didn’t want to raise a child who wasn’t his.
Still, Michelle has told me, “I wish you had grown up in our family.”
We tiptoed around the topic of my adoption. Chrissy thinks it’s a shame I never got to meet Lillian, the grandmother who took her fishing and treated her with kindness. What would it have been like to talk to Lillian, to know the woman in the faded photos? I’ll never know. But this visit helped me put some flesh and blood on those images.
Back at Michelle’s home, I said goodbye to my sister and Chrissy, giving them hugs and fighting the tears that welled up in my eyes. This kind of bonding never would have happened over the phone.