My niece was adopted 35 years ago -- and never told!

I feel that she should know the truth -- but should I tell her?

Published September 18, 2008 10:07AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My niece was adopted at birth 35 years ago and has not been told she is adopted. When she was 5 years old my sister remarried and has remained in that marriage for 30 years. My niece's present "stepfather" has led her to believe he is her biological father, and my sister has gone along with the lie to "keep the peace."

I am an MSW adoption social worker of 40 years and believe adoptees should be told of their adoption when they are able to understand, or at the minimum when they reach maturity, age 21. In other words, they should not be continually lied to by their adoptive parents due to the parents' need to "own" the child completely. I am uncomfortable being a part of this ongoing deceit. I feel my niece should know the truth of who she is, and perhaps in her knowing she would search out her birth parents before they die.

Should I, in maybe some anonymous way, tell my niece she is adopted? Or should I just live with helping in perpetuating the lie?


Dear Undecided,

I do not know what the right answer to this question is. I think it is something that you must decide for yourself. On principle, I agree with you. It seems a terrible injustice to deceive someone. If I were in your shoes, I would probably tell her. But you must consider for yourself the effect of the action you are contemplating, keeping in mind that when we take actions within a family, they sometimes have unintended consequences. I am sure, with your experience and your background, that you know this and perhaps have seen it in action.

I am a slow learner. One of the hardest things to learn has been how fundamentally different other people are. They really are other people! I don't know how to say that so it sounds smart, because it is such a simple matter. It's just that it takes a long time to fully accept. For instance, people do not see things the way we do. We may take an action out of a concern for justice and principle, but others will not necessarily see our actions as stemming from our concern for justice and principle. They will interpret our actions in accordance with their own assumptions. In the same way that we tend to assume others are like us, others assume we are like them. And if they are not accustomed to taking actions based on principle and a concern for justice, i.e. that no person should live her life being deceived about her origins, then they will not assume that's what our motive was. They will assume that our motive was whatever their motive would be in a similar situation -- to gain power or influence, to harm someone, to make us appear a certain way.

There are probably people who think there is a right answer to this question. And, in the abstract, from a formal philosophical perspective, there may be a right answer. I am not schooled in formal philosophy. I do think I know what I would do if I were in your shoes. But if I were in your shoes, my primary concern would be the niece. In the instant situation, my primary concern is not with the niece, but with you. That is how this column works: My concern is with the person who asks the question. I have to ask what action would be best for you. And I can't know that. You have to decide. If you are willing to take whatever consequences accrue from your decision, then you are free to do what you believe is right.

All I can say is that you are cursed with freedom of choice. You have certain beliefs and these beliefs are of course valid. But you cannot know whether in acting on these beliefs you will improve the lives of others and incur their gratitude, or make their lives more harried and tenuous and incur their wrath. My experience has been that in matters of family we cannot predict what will happen when we take certain actions.

If we are prepared to accept the consequences of our actions, we can freely act on principle. I just can't in good conscience advise you to do what I might do.

You must decide this one yourself.

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