Should Pandora’s Box Be Opened?

My favorite writer, Rainer Maria Rilke says that we should leave certain questions unanswered in our hearts. Instead, he reiterates we should love the questions themselves, taking from them a curiosity and peace in their mystery. This is not an easy feat. When I was taken from my mother, I was found broken, burnt, nonverbal and locked in a basement, with a boy just a few years older than me. For years as a young child, the identity of this young boy plagued my dreams and instilled a child-like fantasy of lost brother and sister running down the street into each others arms.

ME!-1981 - Just entering foster care.
ME!-1981 – Just entering foster care.

I would watch tearful television reunions of mothers whose separation from their child (voluntary or not) somehow impacted their life. Forgiveness and tears always followed and everyone reunited years later, running off into the sunset, full of new colors. As a young, confused child, these Hollywood images were indeed saddening in many ways. Foster children, aside from dealing with abuse or neglect challenges, do also have a whirl of mystery surrounding their life. Identity is equally as challenging as safety and trust. Some, if not all foster children, use this fantasy as a self defense mechanism; it gives an abandoned or abused child the hope that they were loved in some way even by perpetrators of abuse.
Even into adulthood, some foster children remain hopeful that the orphan Annie musical is somehow written for them. Surely, every parent loves their child? Surely every parent regrets abusing/neglecting/ abandoning a child? Sadly, those statements are sometimes wrong. There are indeed many foster children and adopted children who go on a hunt for “real” family many years later and are successful. Wounds are healed, transgressions forgiven, and sometimes well-intentioned parents live up to the fantasy of loving protectors. They loved their child, they lost them due to some mistake made, and they have good souls.

Sadly, not all parents are benevolent. Not all biological families had good intentions. Abusers NEVER have good intentions. For foster children whose past involved physical, sexual or emotional abuse, I would say this “fantasy” does more harm than good.

This fallacy, this little candle in the dark, can bring great torment to those who “solve” the mystery by finding biological relatives and bring great emptiness to those who do not. While I advocate the reunion of biological relatives with foster children, when that child or adult will be safe from physical or emotional harm; all too often opening Pandora’s box, opens Pandora’s box. For me, this was certainly true.

When my mother’s court visits ended at age 10 and she disappeared from my life, I found myself obsessing over a reunion. Sometimes that fantasy involved her groveling, sometimes it involved forgiveness and baking apple pies. Either way, it was fantasy; there were no roots in reality, except the shattered dream of a child. I had grand ideas of my father, thinking he was some poor unlucky soul, who happened upon my mother and had no idea he had this great beautiful daughter he would adore. Again, fantasy of a disillusioned child.
I had only a small recollection of the boy in the basement’s face, and some equally frightening memories of intense violence he took as I watched along. For years and into my young adulthood finding him, too, became part of his fantasy. It was an unhealthy fixation, rooted in wanting answers to things I was not intended to know. I was convinced, that even just finding him would fix my own personal identity challenges and even my intimacy struggles I had with men (some men far too old for me to be intimate with at the time but they made me feel secure). I thought maybe it would solve the bouts I had of isolation, maybe it would protect me from later issues I had in my new home, maybe it would bring me closer to the good people in my life, the new siblings I came to know. Illusions, until 2004. I published an article in a journal on a new law protecting abused children and received a strange email from someone claiming to be my “brother,” who had found the article online.
By this point, I had a new family. I had mini me and was married to her dad who at that time was serving in Iraq. My life had moved forward and I was secure in the life I built for myself. I was happier and more settled than I had been before that point. My new focus was the war and this beautiful gift of having my own child, who was and is loved by me beyond belief. My now ex husband, suggested I speak to this relative. We were curious.

So, with trepidation, we met. He was the boy in the basement and spent most of his life in and out of my mother’s home. He was a grown man with children of his own. We met for just one weekend. He had small trinkets to prove himself; a “birth record” which only read “baby,” he had a photo of me at I guess about 2 in a crib in what looked like the middle of the street. He brought with him news that my mother had died recently and that she did not ask for me. She did however have other children whom she called by my first name all the time. He and another relative studied the freckles on my arm, commented on the shape of my it reminded them of their mother. My ‘brother’ did give me a photo of my mother, probably in her in her 30s. It was upsetting to see such a stark resemblance to the woman who haunted my dreams. I very much have the same physical features of the stranger in the photo. He wanted to discuss finding our real father and also talk of the identity of a mystery man who abused us both so many years before. I decided I was happy not knowing either and instead focused on a new brighter relationship with a new sibling.

I kept in touch briefly with the boy in the basement, until one day he told me he could not let other people in our “biological” family know he spoke to me or found me. I later found out that my mother told everyone that I was killed in foster care. She used this false mourning as a way to gain sympathy and excuse her behavior. I indeed was not dead, but the ghosts of my presence would unsettle their network of secrets. I was the lid of their box.

Nothing that had preceded that meeting hurt me more than knowing my own flesh and blood spent her life, not repenting for her sins, but mocking me and pretending that I was no longer alive. It was a neat, bundled up way of precluding her from any acknowledgement of her behavior. And it broke a childhood fantasy, that would have sustained me had I not known more of the truth. From that day on I no longer associate with my “brother,” realizing that indeed Pandora’s box had too many shadows and my life is far better off. And indeed, some things are better left unsolved. My world is a safer place far from that identity and well into my new one; where I enjoy baking apple pies with my own daughter.

I advocate for mandated health background information for children left in the system. However, I do always encourage safety and counseling BEFORE a foster child, (especially one where abuse was a circumstance) ever searches for something that can only re-open wounds and make those scars just a bit more prominent. I want to see all foster children propelled into a better life independently from their past, showing all the world, that they are indeed not dead or forgotten.

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10 thoughts on “Should Pandora’s Box Be Opened?”

  1. What an amazing post! While I was never in foster care, I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I spent many years thinking “do they love me? They must love me. He is my father he has to love me. I know my grandfather loves me because he says so and buys me things.” My grandfather has been dead for over a decade, and I have no proof that he actually loved me. I have spoken to my biological father twice in the past twenty years. He never told me he loved me or that he was sorry for abusing me. My stepfather (I call him my “real” dad, because he’s earned the title of dad) is my one true dad, for all intents and purposes, as far as I am concerned. He never once has hurt me: physically, emotionally, or sexually. I consider that the real gift in keeping my own Pandora’s Box firmly closed and locked.

  2. I am sorry for your challenges, the impact of child abuse is a lifetime if healing. I am glad some one earned the title of a trusting parent in your life. In my opinion, those we can trust are all that matter. And we can become better than our past. Be well. And thank you for reading!

  3. I agree. We may not be able to choose those people who are related to us biologically, but we can choose to let the people whom we can trust be our true family. With the love ans support of those people, overcoming our past is a real possibility. Take care. I look forward to reading more form you!

  4. What an amazing post and how courageous you are. It seems strange to say I “like” it…there ought to be another word. I was really moved by this and it makes me appreciate my own family even more. Thank you.

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