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.
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.
I’ve heard adoptees searching for family should fish in many ponds so I’m casting my line in Ancestry’s pond, hoping I might net some clues about my blood relatives, especially those on my father’s side.
While most people were getting psyched for the Super Bowl on Sunday, I shopped for a DNA test from Ancestry.com.
I dove into the DNA pond a couple of years ago, purchasing the Family Tree DNA FamilyFinder test. The results did not turn up a father, brothers, sisters or first cousins, just distant cousins, hundreds of them. My experience is fairly typical. Very few people find a parent or sibling match directly through a DNA test.
Still, every week or so, Family Tree DNA uncovers a few new cousins and sends me their names. Which side of my family these relatives hail from and where they belong on the family tree is usually unclear.
Analyzing the results can be frustrating and time-consuming. Why didn’t I pay more attention to the genetics discussion in high school biology? If I had, maybe I’d have my DNA cousins sorted out. (Actually, all I remember about biology is the fetal pig dissection, which I delegated to my lab partner.)
The truth is I have not spent enough time with my test results. Too busy with my everyday life.
Despite my lazy approach, I have confirmed relationships with a number of cousins on my mother’s side, including several second cousins. I had the pleasure of speaking with Shannon, my second cousin once removed, on the phone recently. You have to be adopted to understand why it was exciting to speak to a blood relative, only the third one I’ve talked to in my entire life.
My biological son, Jake, is the only bio relative I’ve hugged and kissed in real life. My half-sister, Michelle, and I have never met in person but we talk frequently by phone and end each conversation by saying “Love you.” But that’s it for my blood relatives.
If you’re adopted and searching for family, you should give DNA testing a chance. Unlike me, you may have been riveted by your high school genetics lecture so sorting through DNA matches might come more naturally. Or maybe you have the time and patience for parsing the test results.
DNA tests cost around $99 each. While they are affordable for many of us, it never hurts to save a few bucks if you can. Through a Google search, I found a free shipping offer, which saved me almost $10 off the cost of the Ancestry test. Every penny counts, especially since I’m sure this won’t be the last DNA test I purchase. My fishing trip continues.
From my own adoption experience and as someone who hangs out with adoptees on Facebook, I know many of us have grievances with our adoptions.
Here’s mine. My parents, Claire and Bob, never told Melissa and me we were adopted. Claire and Bob were recovering from the death of their only child, Bobby, when they decided to adopt a baby girl – that would be me. A year later, Melissa joined our family.
Claire and Bob took these “secret” adoptions to their graves. I use the word “secret” ironically since everyone in my family except for Melissa and me knew about our adoptions. I didn’t find out until I was 38 years old. By that time, my parents were both gone so I could not ask them about the adoptions. When I asked my cousins for details, they knew very little so I was left with many unanswered questions.
I don’t like being a late discovery adoptee. Really, who would?
I’ve been thinking about what I would tell a couple planning to adopt a child. I’ve never done it but as a mother, I think I speak for many parents when I say parenthood is a job you can’t really prepare for. Doesn’t matter if you give birth or adopt. No parent knows what she’s getting into when she has a child.
Of course, adopting a child brings with it some special issues. I’ve put together a short list of suggestions for would-be adoptive parents. Call it the “do’s and don’ts” of adoption from the adoptee’s point of view.
• Be straight with your child. Tell her the truth about being adopted. That doesn’t mean you have to reveal every unpleasant detail about the circumstances behind your child’s birth especially if those details are painful. Tact is not a bad thing especially with a little one.
But you owe it to your child to be honest. Yes, adoption is complicated. It’s also one more way to create a family so why hide the truth? Besides, isn’t it better that the truth comes from you rather than having your child discover the facts on her own? Believe me, if you choose not to tell her, she will find out anyway.
• Don’t play favorites. I cringe when I hear stories from adopted adults who are scarred, having been made to feel like second-class citizens compared to their parents’ biological siblings.
Note to parents: don’t bother adopting if you don’t have a big enough heart to love the child the same way you do your natural offspring. No one ever said blending a family would be easy but I assume as an adopter, you chose to bring a non-biological child into your home. Nobody forced you to do it. So make the best of the situation, no matter how tough it is. Bend over backwards to make your adopted child feel loved and protected. Be sensitive to her feeling of being different. Whatever you do, don’t make her feel second-class by treating her differently than the other kids in the house.
• Don’t feel threatened. At some point, your adopted child will want to know about her origins. Don’t take it the wrong way when your child asks questions about her birth mother or father. Don’t be offended when she embarks on a search for facts about her biological family. Don’t be hurt when she wants to meet with her blood relatives in person. Understand that your child’s curiosity and need to know are natural.
If you are not adopted, you probably have known about your family since Day One. Your mom and dad filled you in on the story of your birth and the details about your first days of life on this planet. You’re not curious because you know your story. If anything, you take it for granted.
Put yourself in your child’s shoes. If you were adopted, wouldn’t you want to know about your first family? Be supportive of your child’s desire to learn about her kin. Oh, and if you happen to know things about your child’s other family, it’s time to come forward. Don’t be an obstacle in your child’s search for truth. She will appreciate your love and support.
• Educate yourself as much as you can. If you plan to adopt a child from overseas, go into it with your eyes open. Ask questions. Do your homework. Many children from faraway countries have been hurt. They may have health and behavioral problems that you’ve never heard of. Can you make a lifelong commitment to loving and helping a troubled child? It won’t be easy.
Last year, Reuters exposed the underground practice of “rehoming,” where unhappy parents seek new homes for the kids they regret adopting with no official regulation or oversight. Vulnerable children, many from foreign countries, have ended up in the hands of unfit even dangerous people.
Until I read the articles by Reuters, I never knew giving up was an option for adopters. The idea of adopting a child and then changing your mind when the going gets tough makes me angry. When you adopt a kid, you make a commitment to loving and raising the child. It’s not a consumer purchase.
Before you adopt, ask yourself if you have what it takes to be a good mom or dad even when things become difficult. Maybe you’re up for the challenge. Or maybe not?
I took a DNA test to find blood relatives on my father’s side. Ever since I got my DNA results a few months ago, I’ve been semi-obsessed with solving the puzzle of my past from the comfort of my home. It’s a work in progress (emphasis on “work”).
I know many of my fellow adoptees are in the same boat. Many of you are thinking about taking a DNA test, so I want you to know what I’ve learned about DNA over the last couple of months. Keep in mind I’m pretty green about the science of DNA, actually quite feeble with science in general. I’m still learning the terminology and the tools for understanding DNA results. These are just my impressions.
• DNA tests are easy. I ordered Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test online. A few days later, it arrived in the mail. Following the simple directions, I used the little brushes that came with the kit to scrape cells and saliva from inside my cheeks. I bundled up the results and sent them back to the test company. The process was quick, painless, easy and cheap. The test only cost $104.
• DNA test results are hard. When I got my results a few weeks later, I was stunned to see the names of more than 600 new cousins, none of whom are first cousins. What should I do with all these matches? I have not found an easy way to sort out the relatives from the two sides of the family especially since none of my matches are closer than second to fourth cousins. I’ve also learned DNA can be random in the way it’s passed down from one generation to the next so that complicates things.
It probably would be helpful for my half-sister, Sissy, to take A DNA test. A cousin who’s a genealogist also suggested I do mitochondrial DNA testing, which would trace my mother’s ancestry only. That would help determine whether I am related to various cousins via my biological mother or biological father.
Hmmm. I’m reluctant to shell out more money for DNA testing. Fortunately, there are smart people with a passion for DNA and genealogy who will answer our questions at no cost. Genetic genealogist Roberta J. Estes has a great website on DNA. Check it out. It is especially helpful if you’re curious about Native American ancestry. The DNAAdoption Group on Yahoo is also helpful and extremely active.
• DNA is time-consuming. Don’t take a DNA test thinking it’ll provide answers to all the burning questions you have about family. I’ve spent countless hours comparing matches in the chromosome browser, attempting to determine who’s related to who on which side of my family. Oh and did I mention the hours I’ve spent writing emails to matches?
• DNA cannot replace old-fashioned detective work. As an adoptee searching for blood relatives, my most significant discovery to date has been finding my half-sister, Sissy. DNA had nothing to do with that discovery. My wonderful search angel, Marilyn Waugh, pointed me in the direction of my mother’s family. Working with online records and old newspaper stories, my husband, Tom, found Sissy’s stepmother’s name. I gave her a call and she put me in touch with my sister.
• DNA is social. I’ve had many pleasant and interesting conversations online with my new DNA cousins. Many are genealogists with a passion for family history. Some are adoptees on a mission to fill in the blanks in their life stories. Whatever their goals are, I can tell they’re good people. I can picture myself having dinner or coffee with some of these folks. That’s how friendly the connections feel.
• DNA is tantalizing. The DNA game never gets old. Every week or so, new cousins are added to my ever-growing list of matches.
Are you sitting down? Here’s an amazing story. Just the other day, I heard about a woman whose birth mother turned up as a DNA match. How thrilling that must have been for her. She and her mother have talked on the phone. Maybe a face-to-face reunion is on the horizon.
Hearing that story sends chills down my spine and inspires me to stick with this project no matter how long it takes.