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I had never met these two little girls before—flesh and blood relatives—but when I did, it was a lot of fun. They were full of energy and cuteness.

It was 40 years ago. I was 15. My parents had taken me back East one summer, to the Bronx, to the neighborhood where my father grew up. It was so green, so lush. We stayed with my grandmother, and met various aunts, uncles, and cousins. One day, we drove upstate and hung out with my dad’s first cousin Marcel, his wife Leah, and their two daughters, Nina and Didi —the two little girls, energetic and cute. They were about seven or eight years my junior. We frolicked in their backyard and sauntered through their neighborhood and hung out at their local country club and swam in the pool and rode on a golf cart and it was an all-around splendid day with newly-met, distant relatives.

Over the years, my father rarely talked with his cousin, Marcel. I had no contact with my younger cousins, Nina and Didi, especially given the fact that social media hadn’t yet emerged.

Then, about fifteen years after that fine New York vacation, in the 1990s, one of those little girls, Nina—my second cousin once removed, I think?—was now a young woman and happened to be in LA with her college soccer team. My Dad and I drove out to watch her play. Nina was a rock star out on that field. I think maybe we got lunch together after the game; I can’t recall for sure.

Several years later still, Nina was again in LA for some work-related reason and met my father for lunch.

It was then that he slipped up:  “I almost made a terrible blunder,” he said.

“What happened?”

“Well, Nina and I were sitting at lunch and I mentioned something about her being adopted and she was confused and said, ‘I’m not adopted’ and I suddenly remembered that her father and mother, years ago, had decided to keep it a complete secret from her. So she never knew. I quickly said, ‘Oh, right, sorry, I made a mistake—I confused you with someone else’ and it seemed to work.”

It did.

And didn’t.

My Dad told me more about the situation: 25 years earlier, Marcel and Leah adopted Nina and felt it would be best for her if she never knew she was adopted. They wanted her to feel like she was fully, “truly” part of the family. To them, that would be ideal for her emotional well-being, her social growth, and her sense of self. Thus, even though many of Nina’s aunts, uncles, and cousins knew that she had been adopted, they were all strictly instructed to keep it a secret. And they did. Including my Dad—save for that near mess up over lunch.

And, well, then I knew. Once my Dad told me about Nina’s adoption, I suddenly became the keeper of a secret that I hadn’t wanted to possess. It felt wrong. After all, shouldn’t Nina know? Why should I, of all people—some distant cousin who lived on a different coast—know more about her life than she knows? And something quite fundamental, no less.

My folks advised me against telling her. They said it wasn’t my place. It could cause problems.

For years, I struggled about whether or not to reach out and just tell Nina.

The main factor preventing me from doing so was the distance of our relationship: we weren’t close. We hardly knew or saw each other. Wouldn’t it be presumptuous of me to just up and drop a bomb like that into her lap? And worse, wouldn’t I be playing God—rocking a woman’s life that maybe didn’t want or need to be rocked? Perhaps telling her would only create pain and drama— pain and drama that I would have instigated.

So I didn’t tell her.

But it pecked at me for years, especially with the advent of Facebook; I could see Nina’s posts. Of her travels. Of her wedding. Of her kids. Of her life.

At one point, I wrote a letter to the New York Times Ethicist advice column:

Dear Ethicist,

Many years ago, my father told me that a distant cousin of mine is adopted. However, her parents didn’t want her to know that she was adopted. So she doesn’t know. Now she is an adult living her life and has a family of her own. It somehow seems wrong to me that I know more about her true identity than she does. It seems wrong to me that I know more about her origins then she does. We are not close at all and I have only actually seen her a few times in my life. So it kind of feels wrong that out of the blue I would drop this heavy information into her lap. But I do see regular posts from her on Facebook and I keep thinking how strange it is that I know this information about her and she doesn’t. Should I tell her? Or is it not my place? What is the right thing to do?



I never got a reply.

I also periodically broached the situation in my “Social Construction or Morality” class that I teach at Pitzer College, where students grapple with and debate moral dilemmas each week. This one, however, never seemed to produce much grappling. Everyone was unanimous: it simply wasn’t my business to tell a distant cousin that she was adopted.

And, so it went.

Until Nina—now a successful professional, married, and the mother of her own children — decided to take one of those DNA tests. The results were baffling. She sent them to a friend of hers, a geneticist. Within five minutes, her friend said: “you’re adopted.”

As soon as the news reached me that Nina had learned that she was adopted, I gave her a call and we had a lengthy, lively conversation. She is doing very well. Yes, the news had shaken her up good and hard. But the dust, sparks, and tears had mostly settled. She was stunned that her parents had never told her. She was mystified that none of her relatives had ever told her. She badly wished that they had.

Two particulars stood out.

First was the ability for Nina to meet her birth mother and father. While Nina’s birth father had died a very long time ago, her birth mother died just a year before Nina found out about her birth origins. Had someone—anyone—told Nina sooner that she was adopted, she could have had the chance to possibly meet her birth mother. But because her adoption was kept secret from her, she missed that opportunity. Of course, meeting her birth mother may have been a disaster. Ugly. Painful. Or maybe it would have been pleasant, affirming, or fulfilling. Who knows? Certainly not Nina, who never got the chance to find out, either way.

Second: self-knowledge concerning her own health. Like everyone, Nina has contended with various health issues over the course of her life, but unlike most people, she also learned as an adult that she has a very rare autoimmune disorder. Concerning the latter, she has met with various medical experts, she has been subjected to various tests, and she has participated in various clinical trials—and all of which needed an accurate as possible medical history. In her ignorance, Nina was unable to provide this. Even worse: the medical history that she did provide was false. All the details of her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles were provided in good faith. Nina thought they were her relatives. But this false medical history could have had real negative repercussions for her own healthcare, to say nothing of the ongoing research she was participating in. Additionally, there’s the matter of screenings. Nina learned that her birth mother had died from a highly inheritable disease, one that Nina should have been screened for long ago, and would have, had she known.

I wish that I had told Nina. She had the fundamental right to know the truth of who she is and how she came into this world. We all have that right.

Hearing all this made me regret not telling her. But even more so, I wish that I had told Nina— or if not me, someone perhaps closer to her—for the very existential heart of the situation: she had the fundamental right to know the truth of who she is and how she came into this world. We all have that right.

Secrets and lies are corrosive. They may sometimes serve a benevolent purpose—obviously if one is hiding innocents from killers, then yes, lying is an ethical imperative. But beyond the trite (“yes, your son’s painting is amazing…”) and beyond the lifesaving (“No, sir, I haven’t seen any runaway slaves…”), lies are poisonous. They almost always making social circumstances less stable and intimate relationships intrinsically askew. Lies among immediate family members are particularly toxic and destabilizing.

If Nina had grown up knowing the truth—or had even been told it when she turned 18—she would have had many years to work through all the emotions and mend the damage done to her relationship with her parents. Instead, finding out so late in life means dealing with awkwardness and anger resulting from 45 years of silence, or what it feels like to Nina— betrayal.

Adoption is a difficult, thorny, but often beautiful phenomenon. For everyone involved, directly or indirectly, there is no one approach, no universal experience, no easy path of navigation. But the path is always smoother when devoid of lies and illuminated by truth. Sure, the truths around adoption can be agonizing, hard, cold, scary—but they are almost inevitably and ultimately freeing. That is because truth is a needed requirement for living in reality. What we do with that reality is up to us. But it can’t be up to us if we’re not ever privy to it.

Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...

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