Julie's Story: "I Am Not Insane!"
November 22, 1963. I am sitting on a dirty orange chair, guarded by a male orderly, waiting to be admitted to a state hospital for the mentally disturbed and criminally insane. I'm a 19-year-old blue-eyed blonde—a debutante from the Main Line of Philadelphia. I am also three months pregnant.
The waiting room is small, the walls a dingy green. Behind a cracked sliding-glass window, two admittance ladies stare, slack-faced, at the old black-and-white Philco television hanging in the corner. "No," one of them cries out. Peering up through my long veil of unwashed hair, I see Walter Cronkite take off his glasses and announce, "President Kennedy died at 1 p.m....some 38 minutes ago." "Oh, God," whispers the orderly, who collapses onto a chair by my side. "Oh, my dear God."
I wrap myself even more tightly in my wrinkled camel-hair coat. Just then, I feel a vague stirring in my stomach. Seconds later, another soft utter. I reach down and cover my belly with my hands. Here, in this room that smells of vomit and floor cleaner, my baby decides to announce itself for the first time.
Surrounded by strangers engulfed in grief, I feel a surge of joy. I'd steadfastly refused the abortion my mother had done everything in her power to get for me. Now I know for sure my baby is alive.
In 1963, abortions were illegal. Threats to the mother's physical or mental health were the only grounds on which one could be performed. And when my mother informed me I was pregnant—something the family gynecologist had revealed to her, not me—she also told me that he had, conveniently, diagnosed me as severely depressed. In our circles of Philadelphia society, you were considered charmingly eccentric if you were given to extreme mood swings, romantic depressions, even the odd suicide attempt. Giving birth to a bastard child, however, was unforgivable. Although my mother was a staunch Catholic, she had so convinced herself that an abortion would save my future that she was able to justify an act she normally would have abhorred. I was committed to a private psychiatric facility, where an abortion could be performed legally. Except, much to everyone's dismay, I wouldn't sign the papers to authorize the procedure. I held out even after they moved me to the state hospital. I didn't object to abortion on moral grounds; I just desperately wanted my child—a baby conceived in love, with a man I loved—to live. I had no idea what would happen to my baby, or to me, as a result of my decision. But I'd never felt such conviction before.
Ironically, though my parents were traditional in some respects, they were wildly unconventional in others. My father was a Philadelphia blue blood whose paternal grandfather was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Railroad. However, his first job after college was traveling with a carnival sideshow. He was a re-eater and sword swallower, and a journalist who wrote (with the help of my actress-writer mother) books on a wealth of subjects, from carny life to big-game hunting to the history of torture. Many are cult classics; Those About to Die, a history of the gladiator games, inspired the film Gladiator.
He and my mother traveled for extended periods, dropping me, as they went, in various boarding schools around the world. When I was 9, we settled at Sunny Hill Farm, a stone house outside of Philadelphia built by one of George Washington's generals. My parents hired several women to care for me, my brother, and our menagerie of pets: Rani, our cheetah, enjoyed full use of the house, as did a 15-foot python, a spider monkey, several ocelots, and a little fox cub named Tod. My father wrote a book about him, The Fox and the Hound, which Disney turned into an animated film.
As I got older, I learned how to live with my strange and glamorous parents, how to admire them but keep out of their way. I also began my training as a debutante. After graduating high school, I was presented to society at a party so unusual that the Philadelphia Bulletin described it as the most thrilling coming-out in a decade. Colored flags blew from the circus tent tops. There were 12 dancing llamas, a baby elephant called Queenie, fortune-tellers, clowns, and, of course, bottles and bottles of the best champagne.
Shortly afterward, I left to study acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, then got a summer apprenticeship at a theater in Westbury, on Long Island. There I met Frank von Zerneck, a 23-year-old Jewish kid from the Bronx. With parents in the entertainment business, he'd worked on and backstage at practically every Broadway and off-Broadway theater. Each day he wore a fresh button-down shirt, which he ironed himself. He had an infectious enthusiasm for life. I loved him madly.
At the end of the summer, just before going back to the Neighborhood Playhouse, I found out Frank was married. I was devastated—and I was also pregnant. Just like that, the life I'd known suddenly came to a halt.
A letter arrived several days after I was admitted to the state hospital on Women's Ward 4.
Darling daughter, It is obvious that you are so overwrought that you are not able to think clearly. Your father and I are terribly afraid that you might try to hurt yourself. Therefore, it has been arranged that you will stay where you are until this dreadful ordeal is over. We will think of you every day. Mother
I took her note, tore it up into minuscule pieces, and flushed it down the toilet, where it belonged. I'd given my parents no reason to be afraid for my life; they could have sent me to a home for unwed mothers. The mental hospital was my punishment for refusing to have an abortion. Being betrayed so horrifically by my family—and Frank, I couldn't even think about Frank—shattered me. I wanted to shake the psychiatrists so hard their heads would roll off. "I am not insane," I screamed into their faces. But no one would listen to me. So I stopped talking. I would not speak another word until the end of my stay at the state mental hospital.
My room was dirty, white, and small, just large enough to hold two single metal beds and two dented lockers. Down the hall was the sunroom, which was actually a dark space with windows entirely covered in thick, grimy mesh. It was where I sat, making myself as small as I could, watching my fellow inmates as they twirled frantically or walked the halls screaming gibberish. The safest place on Ward 4 was the padded cell. There I could pummel the walls with my fists, kick the metal door, and cry a kind of silent, open-mouthed cry that shook my body and left me still and exhausted.
After a month, I began to wonder if maybe I really was insane and just didn't know it. To keep calm, I lay in bed for hours every day, imagining a happy little child—always a girl—with long blonde hair like mine, and brown eyes like Frank's. I imagined her laugh. Little by little, I began to think of what I would want for my daughter when she was born: a mother, a father, a home, a room of her own, and a happy, ordinary life. And that's when I knew—I couldn't give her any of those things. I was held in the state hospital for six months, until the day my water broke. On April 19, 1964, at a Catholic Charities hospital near Philadelphia, I gave birth to a beautiful and healthy little girl. I was allowed to see her only once, from five feet away, before I gave her up. She had my nose, her father's chin, and my mother's large brown eyes. I named her Aimee Veronica. Aimee means "loved." Veronica means "bearer of victory." As I signed the adoption papers, my heart ripped apart. I put down the pen, turned away, and, on shaky legs, I left my baby behind.
I thought of Aimee constantly in the decades that followed. My longing for her triggered a series of deep depressions, which would come on quickly and linger for weeks. The passing years never softened them. When I contacted Catholic Charities for news about her, I was told what I knew already: that all records were sealed after adoptions were finalized. There was nothing to do but pray that she was with a good family and growing up loved. Most of the time I could console myself with the thought that I had fought to keep her alive. At least I had done that much.
Frank divorced his wife while I was institutionalized. He had called and written me daily, but all attempts at contacting me were thwarted by my parents. After giving up Aimee, I moved to New York to become an actress, and Frank and I began seeing each other again. On January 15, 1965, we were married. (When my parents found out, I was, unsurprisingly, disinherited.) We had two more children: Danielle, born in 1965, and Frank Jr., born in 1968. Eventually, we relocated to Los Angeles, where Frank produced miniseries and films for television.
Every year on April 19, Frank and I celebrated Aimee's birthday, the date of which we had engraved on the inside of our wedding rings.
Kathy's Story: "I Feel Like a Daughter Again."
"She's a screamer," the nuns warned as they handed me to my parents in May 1964. "She just needs attention."
The sisters were right; I would foam at the mouth if it meant all eyes would be on me. My grandfather called it a "mean streak"; my father deemed it "determination"; my mother, who had waited 10 long years for me, simply smiled.
My life as Kathleen Marie Wisler had a seamless start. I had a big brother to admire, a younger brother to boss around, and doting parents who read us stories and played with us in the backyard. It was as if I had been dropped into the first chapter of a fairy tale—but we all know how fairy tales go.
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 4, the year we moved to Florida. Over the course of the next two years, Mom was in and out of the hospital for weeks at a time. Children were not allowed on the cancer wing, so the nurses would wheel my mother to her third-floor window. From the grassy area below, my brothers and I would hold up our finger paintings and perform cartwheels for her to admire. Hospital visits became a part of our routine, like a trip to the grocery store or a Saturday matinee.
Mom passed away in May 1970, when I was 6. My brothers and I each mourned her in different ways: My older brother was controlled and pragmatic, speaking about her in measured doses; my younger brother was undone. I chose to write her letters, placing them in a shoebox under my bed, hoping I would one day find them replaced by her handwritten replies.
Jerry cries for you every night, but I told him when he's 7 like me he won't cry any more.
My father was determined not to leave us motherless for long. After a six-month courtship, Dad married Janet Douglas-McCoy* the year I turned 10. She was a slender, green-eyed brunette with a luminous smile and a spontaneous laugh; at 29, she was 16 years younger than Dad. In the interest of becoming a united family, he decided to legally adopt her two daughters from a previous marriage. It would be nice if all the children had the same last name, Janet had suggested, and the girls' father quickly allowed the adoption to go through.
But the marriage was a disaster from the start. There were constant fights about money—and really, everything else. Amidst the chaos, Janet's daughter Kimmy and I managed to forge a friendship; at times, we were almost like siblings. Which, of course, meant that we fought. It was during one of our typical quarrels that Kimmy spat out: "At least I'm not really adopted."
A cold syrup of insecurity pooled in my gut. I walked to my room, sat on the edge of my bed, and waited for Dad to get home. Within the hour, I was greeting him in the driveway, asking him if it was true.
"I thought you knew. Your brothers are adopted, too."
I ran into the house, pinballing through the rooms, sorting out the implications. My brothers aren't my brothers, and then, like dominoes, one realization touched on another until I was left with this one: My mother, the one I had loved, had longed for—she was never my mother. I couldn't even think of Dad not being my dad; it was too painful. My body anesthetized itself into a deep sleep.
When I woke up, Dad was beside me. "Want to talk?" he gently asked, and I nodded. "I've never thought of you as anything but my daughter," he said. "I'll never forget the day Mom and I went to the hospital to get you. You were crying so hard, but then—" he smiled, "they handed you to Mom and you stopped. You knew you belonged with us. You're my daughter, kiddo."
Janet and my father divorced two years later. He paid child support for her daughters while she remarried a man with a bigger bank account. Misfortune continued to plague my dad. A casualty of the Reagan recession, he was laid off from his engineering job, and eventually we lost our home. But somehow, the descent into poverty pulled my family closer together. In 1986, I graduated from college and started a job with a stock brokerage firm. I also reconnected with Bryan Hatfield, my high school boyfriend, who had grown into the man I knew I couldn't live without. We were married on a brilliant morning in January 1988. "Mom would be proud of the woman you've become," Dad whispered as he walked me down the aisle.
It wasn't until I gave birth to my daughters, Amanda and Kathryn, that I finally allowed myself to think about my birth mother. Bryan and I both had golden-brown eyes, yet Amanda's were a brilliant blue. My birth mother is probably blue-eyed, I realized. Kathryn was extraordinarily agile. My mother's father was an athlete, I guessed. I observed every suggestion of difference in them and fleshed out my birth family in the process. This is enough, I said to myself.
And it was enough, until the day our neighbor's son was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease, a genetic disorder. I began to wonder about diseases that ran in my family. So I wrote a letter to Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia requesting my background information. Three weeks later a large white envelope arrived. I held it for nearly a minute before slicing it open and pulling out the document. First, there was the information about my mother: age 20, Catholic, 5-foot-4, blonde hair. And yes, blue eyes. Then my father: age 23, Jewish, 5-foot-6, black hair.
I had only envisioned a mother, and the thought of my birth father rattled me. I read his information again.
"Special Aptitudes: singing, dancing, acting." He's gay, I immediately thought. For her it was first love; for him it was an experimental fling; for me it was bad timing. I imagined my rejected, pregnant mother turning to the nuns at Catholic Social Services, then leaving me behind to start a quiet life in a predictable town where she would regretfully live out the rest of her days. I felt guilty for picturing her in such a cheerless light, but to think of her thriving without me seemed somehow worse.
I slid the form back in the envelope, along with any desire to find my birth parents. I just wasn't ready. And that didn't change three years later, when my father died and I found my adoption papers among his things. I just felt orphaned and alone. Eventually a sense of normalcy resumed, along with the grocery lists, soccer schedules, and dirty laundry separated into warm-hot-cold piles. Then one day, while sorting through some files, I came across that envelope from Catholic Social Services. It had been 10 years since I'd looked at it last. Armed with it and the birth name, Aimee Veronica Mannix, that was on my adoption papers, I turned to Google.
The original document said my grandfather was a writer. Maybe he wrote for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, I thought. I typed in the keywords Writer - Mannix - Pennsylvania and clicked on a New York Times obituary for a Daniel Pratt Mannix IV, an adventure writer and the author of The Fox and the Hound. He was 85 when he died in 1997. I did the math: This man was the same age as the grandfather on my document. It went on to say he left behind a son and a daughter named Julie.
Next, I searched Julie Mannix, which led me to the Internet Movie Database. The Julie Mannix now in front of me was an actress with a career dating back to the mid-'60s who had married a television producer named Frank von Zerneck in 1965, the year after I was born. Together they had two children, also actors, named Danielle and Frank Jr.
What if this is them? I stood and backed away from the computer. Within minutes I was seated again, reading an article about Danielle, born two years after me; she had a role on General Hospital back in the '80s and had also played Donna in the movie La Bamba. I grew frustrated that I couldn't picture her face.
It's them, a voice inside me said. They're fine without you.
I called for Bryan, to show him what I'd found. "Don't do this, Kathy," he cautioned. "It's not them."
"But it all lines up," I insisted, pointing to the screen.
"I don't want you to get hurt; leave it alone." I saw the halo of good intentions circling his words, but even so, I found myself renting La Bamba a week later.
"Look," I said to Bryan as I watched Danielle, "we have the same smile, same laugh, same way we tilt our heads."
The next day I wrote Frank and Julie von Zerneck a letter.
Dear Mr. & Mrs. von Zerneck:
How do I begin a letter like this? Well, I think I'll simply just start with: I was born on April 19, 1964, in Philadelphia. Based on the documents Catholic Social Services provided me, I find it plausible that you may know some information concerning my birth family.... It is not my intention to interrupt their lives; I simply want to connect on any level they feel comfortable.
Please, at your convenience, let me know if you can assist me with additional information.
I held on to it for two weeks before mailing it on a Monday morning in late November 2008. Two days later I got the call:
"Is this Kathy?" "Yes, this is she." "Hi, this is Julie Mannix. I received your letter. I have some information for you, but could you first tell me a little bit about yourself?" Her voice was crisp and kind. I corralled my thoughts and took a calming breath before I spoke. "I was adopted through Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia—I think I mentioned that in the letter," I said. "I had wonderful parents, but," I paused, "my mother died when I was 6."
I heard a gasp on the other end.
I continued a synopsis of my life, and when I was done, I was met with silence, followed by a deep inhale. "Kathy—," she said, with a tenderness that filled me with hope, "I'm your mother."
I will never forget that moment. I was standing in my daughter's darkened bedroom, looking out the open window, running my fingers along the hemmed edges of the long white sheers.
"I want you to know, I—" she hesitated. "We—" she paused again. "We did not want to give you up." Half of me was listening, but the other half was mesmerized just by the sound of her voice.
"Your father wants to talk to you. May I put him on?" she asked. And then I heard his voice, so full of warmth. "Julie and I cried when we read your letter," he said, clearing his throat. "We married after you were born. We had your birth date inscribed in our wedding rings, and we've celebrated every one of your birthdays. I just want you to know," he said gently, "you were loved all along."
My cab pulls up in front of the Ritz-Carlton hotel. It's been eight months since I first spoke to the von Zernecks, and 10 steps and two sets of doors are the only things that separate us now. After taking things slowly, exchanging photos, emails, and talking on the phone, we have decided to meet in a neutral location and the place where I was conceived: New York City.
I enter through the double doors. Every seat in the lounge is taken. Scanning the crowd for her, I try not to panic. I calm my nerves with a self-audit, smoothing my trousers and touching each piece of jewelry: earrings, necklace, wedding ring.
I feel a gloved hand tap my shoulder.
"Madam, are you meeting someone?" the doorman asks.
I turn and look over my shoulder to see her. It's like looking at my own eyes staring back at me.
"Kathy," she says, asking yet knowing. I can only smile in response. She steps toward me with open arms, and for the first time, I feel the embrace of my mother.
One day this fall, during one of our weekly Skype conversations, my mother notices I'm listless. "Is everything all right?" she asks.
My eyes fill with tears. "I've been feeling guilty." She nods her head as she listens. "It's like I'm floating between two families. And sometimes I don't feel really settled with either of them. If I choose one, it's as if I am rejecting the other."
"Oh, Kathy," she says, blinking back her own tears, "that must be so hard. But you don't have to choose. When I met your cousins and heard all the stories they told about you growing up, I could hardly look at them. I was so envious they got to have parts of you I never will."
"I didn't expect this to be so complicated," I admit. "Neither did I," she says.
"But it's worth it, isn't it?" I ask. "Yes," she says with a smile that puts everything in perspective. "Very worth it."
Bryan comes in from work and Mom calls out, through my laptop screen, "Hey, Bryan, did you have a good day?" "Not bad," he waves. "How are you?" Before she can answer, Amanda steps out of the bathroom with her head wrapped in a towel. "Hey, Granny," she calls out excitedly. "You got your hair cut!"
Later, after I've turned the computer off, I sit and think back to those months after Dad passed away. I never imagined I would feel like a daughter again, and yet here I am, cherished by two strong and thoughtful parents who worry when my kids are sick and who call for no reason. I feel as though we have never been apart. It's as if we have been dropped into the concluding chapter of a fairy tale—and we all know how fairy tales go.
*Name has been changed.
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