A review of Shameless by Marilyn Churley

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Shameless: The fight for adoption disclosure and the search for my son
by Marilyn Churley
Between the Lines
2015, ISBN 978-1-77113-173-5

Marilyn Churley’s non-fiction work, Shameless, is a mother-child reunion story, and more. The former Ontario (Canada) cabinet minister has written a memoir about the search for the baby she relinquished in 1968, and, as well, a history of the struggle to get the Ontario adoption disclosure law changed. She shows how social mores of the 1960s were hostile to women’s needs, and how men’s concerns delayed the effort to open adoption records to adoptees and birth parents.

“On January 30, 1968, at the age of nineteen, I delivered a seven pound, thirteen-ounce boy in a hospital in Barrie, Ontario,” she writes. “I never got to hold him.” She gave him up for adoption through the Children’s Aid Society because she lacked the means to support him on her own.

Churley’s story is commonplace, yet unique. She grew up in a log cabin in Gander-Happy Valley Labrador where her father was a cook at the military base. Her parents, from Newfoundland, had married young and had little education, although her father eventually retrained for a skilled trade. The second of five children, Marilyn did well in school, attended church, and was raised “blissfully ignorant” about sex.

On graduating from high school in 1966, she went to Ottawa, the nation’s capital, to attend university. Churley underwent extreme culture shock, experiencing a major city, so different from the small town in which she had grown up. Living in student co-op houses, she found that “a sexual revolution was happening; women were fighting for equality and being sexually active was part of that equality, yet it was nearly impossible for unmarried women to get birth control… abortion was illegal.”

When Churley s sought a prescription for the birth control pill, her doctor refused, saying that it might “make her promiscuous.” When she realized she was pregnant, she and her boyfriend, the father, were no longer a couple, so she briefly considered abortion. After seeing the seedy abortion venue, she fled and decided to have the baby.

When she contacted her former boyfriend, he said she could move in with him and his spiritual mentor, a charismatic monk who was hostile to her. Fearing for her safety, she contacted a woman friend in British Columbia and asked to come and stay. Knowing her parents would be shocked and angry, she didn’t tell them she was pregnant, but instead said she was dropping out of school to get a job in B.C.

British Columbia denied her welfare assistance unless she could show that she’d told her parents of her condition and that they’d refused any financial assistance. Eventually, the ex-boyfriend of her woman friend, who was visiting from Ontario, asked Marilyn to come and keep house for him until the baby was born. She accepted, and moved with him to Barrie, Ontario, near his military base, where they “lived the life of a normal couple expecting a baby”, except that the baby wasn’t his. Though Marilyn hoped they could be a family and raise the child, the young man insisted that he wanted her to move out once she had recovered from the birth and relinquished the baby for adoption.

In hospital, after a terrifying labour, a nurse called Churley a “shameless little hussy”. Marilyn replied: “I am frightened and sad, but I am not ashamed.” (This insult provided the title for her book.)

After giving up her baby, Marilyn went to live with friends. Some months later, after the grace period for reclaiming her baby had passed, the man who had provided her with a roof during her pregnancy asked her to marry him. She did, but on her mind was the thought: “Here we were, married, and my baby wasn’t with us.”

Marilyn writes that this man, her first husband, was “a product of his time, as was I”, and “one of the finest men I’ve ever known.” Clearly he didn’t want to raise another man’s baby. Certainly he had no obligation, and he never led her to expect that he would, but his attitude is ungenerous, compared, for instance, to that of the adoptive parents who took Marilyn’s son to be their own.

Thirty years later, when Marilyn contacted the birth father because her newfound son wanted to meet him, she received a similarly cold, ungenerous response. Her former boyfriend, now married with children, first reacted with the thought that she or his son wanted money. He had never believed that the baby was his, and wanted a DNA test to prove paternity. It did. His attitude was like that of those who later opposed changes in the law governing adoption disclosure.

Marilyn and her first husband went to Europe, then broke up. She spent a year travelling in Europe and North Africa, then returned to Toronto to become a temporary worker in government agencies. At twenty-five, in a relationship with a music events promoter, she had a daughter under happy circumstances. The family moved to Montreal, then to Vancouver, where Marilyn enroled at Simon Fraser University. But her common-law husband was not the sort to settle down, so eventually she returned with her young daughter to Toronto, where she administered a community health centre and a housing co-op, and found a new relationship which was to last fifteen years.

Her activism on social issues like affordable housing brought her into the public eye, and in 1988 she won a seat on Toronto City Council. She next ran as a New Democratic Party (social democratic party) candidate for the Ontario legislature and won her Toronto-area seat. When the New Democratic Party won a majority in 1990 and formed the provincial government, Marilyn became Minister of Consumer and Commercial Relations and Registrar General of Ontario. Adoption records were part of her purview.

Between 1927, when “closed” adoptions became the rule, and 1979, when the first step toward opening records began, over 250,000 children were adopted in Ontario. By the 1970s, adoptees were demanding to know their biological roots, and organizations such as Parent Finders were being formed. In 1979, thanks to a New Democratic Party legislator, an adoption disclosure registry was established. It allowed birth registrations and adoption orders to be provided to an adult adoptee or to a birth parent, provided that both parties had indicated a willingness to have that information divulged to the other. If one party had asked and the other hadn’t, no disclosure could take place.

Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Churley started looking for her lost son. When she contacted the Simcoe County Family Services for non-identifying information about the adoptive parents’ circumstances, she received a patronizing refusal. She then joined Parent Finders, an organization of volunteers who searched old newspapers’ adoption announcements, and published a newsletter in which adoptees and birth parents could request information. Parent Finders located the family who had adopted Marilyn’s son, and, in 1995, Marilyn wrote to him, saying that she did not want to disrupt anyone’s life, but only wanted to know if he was all right, and to explain why she had given him up.

In 1996 he replied. He had always known her name, which was on his adoption orders. In recent years, he’d seen “Marilyn Churley” as the signature on elevator certificates (thanks to her position as Minister of Consumer and Commercial Relations) and wondered if she could be his birth mother. Busy with university and happy in his adopted family life, he hadn’t gotten around to looking for her. Their reunion and subsequent relationship is the sort of story of which adoptees and birth parents dream.

When the New Democrats lost the next provincial election to the Conservatives, the their full-disclosure bill on adoption became defunct. As a private member, Churley introduced another bill on the subject, and, in 1997, went public with her own story. “People told me I brought a bourgeois respectability to the movement, which made me laugh, but I guess it was true,” she writes.

In 2001, Churley’s third adoption disclosure bill reached committee stage, the opportunity for people on both sides of the issue to air their views. Opponents of retroactive full disclosure claimed concern over the privacy of birth mothers. In fact, no birth mother had ever been guaranteed privacy in writing, and birth mother’s names were usually on the child’s birth registration, as in Churley’s case.

In time, Churley realized that the opponents, mostly male, were worried because birth mothers sometimes named the birth fathers on the registration. Men were afraid that children they had fathered, or might have fathered, would turn up on their doorsteps.

Their fears were unfounded. If the birth mother had added the father’s name to the birth registration, the government deleted the father’s name from the birth certificate. Relinquishment of a baby meant that the birth parents had no obligations – as well as no rights over – the child. While a few adoption reunions hit the headlines, such as singer Joni Mitchell’s, with her daughter, in most cases any contact between adoptees and birth parents happened discreetly, not in the realm of public knowledge.

Adoptees told the media that they were well aware that their births had involved problems. They had weighed their fear of what they might find out, against their need for medical and other information about their roots, and most had decided that they wanted to know.

In 2003, when a new Liberal government in Ontario announced its plan to reform the adoption disclosure laws, Churley got behind their bill. It faced strong opposition and a court challenged. Although 75% of Ontarians wanted full and retroactive adoption information disclosure, the opposition Conservatives “conjured theoretical scenarios” about aged rape or incest victims being “outed” in their old age by unwanted offspring. In response to one farfetched article in the National Post, Churley wrote: “This bill is not a search and reunion statute, but about the right to personal information.”

Finally, in June 2009, an adoption disclosure bill, which included disclosure veto and contact veto provisions, became law, and Ontario joined the many other jurisdictions that had updated archaic systems. Nowadays, when adoptions occur, the birth parent is usually given the option of staying in touch with the adoptive parents and receiving photos and updates about the child. The right to know one’s background is still a struggle among people conceived through reproductive technology and by aboriginal Canadians adopted by white families during the “1960s Sweep.”

These days, Churley is happily married and the grandmother of two little boys, one her daughter’s, the other, her son’s. Her son is proud of his background, both birth and adoptive, and is on good terms with all of his relatives. Still, Churley says she still can’t look at Billy’s childhood photos without weeping. “I was a tough little nut,” she writes, “a real survivor, and, as bad as things were, I got through it and was able to do well in my life. But what I really wanted was my baby back.”

Information about Ruth Latta’s books is available on http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com