I was impregnated by a rapist 32 years ago

I gave my infant daughter up for adoption. Now she's found me and wants to meet.

Published May 6, 2005 7:49PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Thirty-two years ago, when I was a 19-year-old college student home for summer break, I became pregnant as the result of being raped.

A 30-year-old neighbor who had lost his wife and infant son in a terrible car accident the year before struck up a conversation as I passed his house. He said he owned a book I had been looking for and would loan it to me, so I followed him inside. Needless to say, he didn't have the book and I stumbled home later having been physically, mentally and emotionally violated. It's difficult to believe in these days, but my only sexual experience to that point had been with the son of longtime family friends when our families shared a cabin at a lake the summer before, and that hadn't proceeded much beyond the petting stage.

Because of the rapist's standing as a sympathetic character due to the loss of his family, the jury believed his version that the sex was consensual and he was acquitted of all charges. I remember almost nothing of that time except for three horrible days on the witness stand. At some point near the end of the trial I became cognizant enough to realize that I was almost six months pregnant and that not all my vomiting was caused by stress.

I was (and am) the beloved only child of two wonderful parents who believed and supported me throughout the whole ordeal. After the neighbor's acquittal, we moved from our town to a large city in the same state, where I gave birth and put the child up for adoption without ever seeing her. Subsequently, I enrolled at a large college in a different state where I met my husband and eventually settled down to raise a family. Early in our relationship, I told my husband the story of the rape and the adoption. He was as loving and supportive as my parents had been. Since that time, my husband and I have had two children, a son, 25, engaged to be married next year, and a daughter, 27, married to a wonderful man and the mother of our delightful 4-year-old granddaughter. We've never told our children my story simply because it seemed irrelevant and disassociated from our family. For 30 years I have only rarely thought about the rape and adoption. I feel I have led a truly wonderful life.

The state where the child was adopted had some of the strictest privacy laws in the country at that time, so I never thought I would be contacted. But the laws have changed. Two months ago, I received a call at work from a woman asking if I might be her mother. The situation was so far behind me that it took several seconds to understand that this could be the child I placed for adoption. When the realization hit, I almost collapsed. All I could comprehend was that she wanted to meet with me. I stammered something about it being an inconvenient time to talk, and left work in a high state of anxiety and stress. A week later, I received a registered letter from this woman.

She told me about her life. Her adoptive father was abusive (she didn't elaborate on the type of abuse) and her adoptive mother (since deceased) couldn't protect her children from the tyrant she'd married. The older brother had left home when the girl was 10 and she hadn't had contact with him since. Beginning in her middle teenage years, she'd drifted from one relationship to another. The relationships ranged from bad to violently abusive. Along the way she'd had two abortions and a daughter who is now 3 years old. Two years ago she decided to turn her life around. Contacting her biological parents was part of that process. She had already contacted her father (the rapist) six months ago because he was easier to find, being in the same state. His second wife had died of a long illness several years previously, leaving him childless and lonely. He was delighted to discover a daughter and granddaughter waiting in the wings. They have since moved into his house and become a family. He hasn't informed her of the circumstances of her birth. She wants to meet me.

She included a picture with her letter. Her daughter looks exactly like my daughter and granddaughter (and me) at the same age. Except for the inherent gender differences, the woman is a dead ringer for the man who raped me 32 years ago.

I feel like my genes have betrayed me by lurking in the future, waiting for me to catch up so they can prove that I have no control over my destiny or happiness. I don't have it in me to sit across a table from her. I don't know if I could do it even if she looked like my mother, or my father's Aunt Tilly, or a complete stranger. But I do know that I can't face that face. The same face that blandly, smugly stared at me while his defense attorney implied that I was desperate for male attention, and just by walking into a neighbor's house I was complicit in the violence that happened against me.

I've had endless conversations with my husband and mother about whether to meet this woman. They both tell me the same thing, Do what's right for you. I just want someone to tell me what they would do in the same situation. Should I meet her? If I meet her, should I tell her the circumstances of her birth, thus potentially ruining the first good relationship (and possible inheritance leading to financial security) she's ever had? If I take the next step and introduce her to my children, do I tell them of the circumstances? If I don't tell any of them, will I one day be compelled to attend a family picnic or other gathering at which I will come face to face with the man who raped me?

I can imagine my daughter being overjoyed at the prospect of a sister and a cousin of the same age for her child. Once the story is out, I will be snowed under with the novelty of finding a long-lost sibling and be encouraged -- no, expected -- to include her and her daughter in all things family. I've always lived my life dealing with things honestly, yet this situation seems to beg for lies. What should I do?

Lady Madonna

Dear Lady Madonna,

I think you can deal with this honestly by stating clearly to this woman that you do not want to meet with her.

You have obviously thought this through in detail, and your reluctance is palpable. So I do not need to outline the pitfalls of meeting her. My point is that if you do not take action now, events may overtake you. So I would respond to this woman by registered mail at the earliest opportunity, telling her that at present you prefer not to meet with her.

If you wish to expand on your reasons, you might tell her quite honestly that you do not agree with changes in privacy laws that now allow adopted children to track down their biological parents. You might explain that when you made your decision, laws protected your privacy and you had no reason to believe they would change. You might say that while the laws have changed, the reasons for their existence remain.

You might go on to say that as far as you are concerned, the woman who raised her is her mother. If you feel a need to characterize your own role, you might say you are at most an anonymous donor who helped her come into being. And if you are the type to expound philosophically, you might even go so far as to argue that the reasons for every person's existence are at root mysterious, and are made only marginally less so by knowledge of one's lineage; this is true no more so for adoptive children than for biological children. You might wish her a happy and healthy life; tell her you will pray for her if prayer is something you do; but be firm on this point: You do not want to meet with her, now or in the future. Close the door on that possibility.

This may sound quite cold, but remember: Your main goal is to discourage her from contacting you. While you may entertain thoughts of meeting her some time in the future (perhaps when the man who raped you is dead), I would keep those thoughts to yourself.

Having settled that, other questions arise. Is she exposing herself to harm by living with the man who raped you 30 years ago, a man whose two wives have both died prematurely? If so, do you have an obligation to inform her of the risk? I find it strange, actually, that she remains ignorant of the trial. If I had been searching for my biological father, I would have searched court records. But apparently this detail of his past has gone unobserved. If she becomes a part of the community and gets to know the neighbors, one would think she would learn of these events eventually.

So should you tell her? I think not. Your reason for avoiding contact with her is not only to shield your own family but to shield her as well. Only if telling her becomes necessary for some reason would I tell her. If this were a Victorian novel, perhaps you would include in your letter something like this: "I must warn you that the man you call your father is a dangerous man. Conscience forbids me to say more." In real life, for instance, if she were to show up at your door, in order to impress upon her the revulsion with which you would view the possibility of meeting her father again, you might tell her. Even then, though, you might simply tell her that if she wants to know why you wish to have no contact, ask her father.

Ah, and that is the stuff of novels. For you, the important thing is to avoid the messy and painful entanglements that bringing her into your life would create. To that end, I urge you to be resolute in your refusal; let's hope that she will respect your wishes.

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