Dawn Gable


After being in reunion with my birth parents and our extended family for 35+ years, my DNA test knocked a whole branch off the maternal side of my family tree. My experiences of adoption and of a late discovery of misattributed parentage couldn’t be more different. There’s so much to unpack in comparing them. But I feel like I now have a more balanced understanding of the range of emotions, reactions, and outcomes that are possible in such situations.

I grew up knowing I was adopted. It would have been impossible to keep a secret since I didn’t look anything like my adoptive family. They all had dark hair and tanned easily; I was blonde and fair. My raising parents, after trying several times to have a girl, had three boys and a number of miscarriages so they finally gave up and bought me.

I remember my first 7 years being idyllic – at least for me. We lived in the Michigan forest and my mom stayed home and baked bread, sewed my clothes, led my Brownie troupe, and made holidays magical. However, my dad’s violence towards her and their sons was terrifying. One Sunday we left church and mom drove us across the country to stay with relatives while he moved out. My raising family was shattered and we girls were on our own as the brothers were old enough to move on by then.

Life became hard for us. Mom struggled financially and emotionally and I began having emotional problems. I developed severe separation anxiety and stuck to my mom like glue. At the same time, I daydreamed and talked to my “real parents” all the time, sort of like imaginary friends. I had memorized the sparse details and made up a whole story from the non-identifying information in my adoption file that was stashed in my mom’s closet.

Over the next several years I was bounced back and forth between my raising parents and living with various stepfamilies in new towns and schools. I experienced ongoing violence and sexual abuse. I went from talking to my imaginary “real parents” to praying (literally) for them to come rescue me.

At age 14, I gave up on being rescued and struck out on my own. It’s a miracle I survived to adulthood. But I did. Whenever I think back on it all, I am shocked. It seems like some Hulu original limited series.

At 19, after completing a stint in Job Corps, my raising mom came to visit me in my tiny studio apartment in San Diego. I was getting my life together and I was proud of myself; she was proud of me too. I told her that I felt ready to do the work to find my birth parents. She was genuinely supportive and said she would send me my adoption papers. She did send them, along with a semi-coherent letter apologizing for my upbringing and wishing me luck on my search.

A couple of weeks later she purposefully overdosed. I went into free fall and my life fell apart all over again. I knew I had to somehow re-tether myself to this earth or I wasn’t going to make it, but I didn’t really care one way or another for about a year. It is then that I started my search. It was 1987. No internet. No DNA testing. Just a group called the Adoptees Liberation Movement Association, which met up to help members search.

A year later I was calling up my birth mom and my life changed completely. Our first conversation lasted for hours. I knew her voice. I had heard it before. It had always lived in my heart. She was over the moon that I had found her. I felt hopeful.

But it wasn’t until I received a call from an old cowboy one Sunday morning that I really felt tethered again. He said, “Well hello there. This is your grandpa, old Fred Webster. I’m fixing dinner up here and I sure wish you were coming over to eat with us.” Of course, he lived a 20-hour drive away, but that was his way of welcoming me into the family. At that very moment, I felt my feet solidly connect to the ground. I was going to be ok.

Since then, recovering from my raising family and reintegrating into my natural family, while developing my own sense of self has been a wild ride. But through it all, and even today, posthumously, my grandpa, old Fred Webster, has remained my tether – my home.

Fast forward to 2020. While working on my family tree, I decided to take an Ancestry test, just for fun. SURPRISE!!! Old Fred Webster and I don’t share any DNA.

How could this be? I was sure I was misunderstanding the data. But then I did the work and I identified the interloper (my biological maternal grandfather), who happened to have been a close family friend back in the day. My emotions run the gamut, but more than anything I am curious. What I wouldn’t give for a 5-minute chat with my grandmother!

Unlike with my birth parents, I don’t have that same burning need to personally know Mr. Burks or his (my) family. All directly affected parties are deceased now. My first cousins are the closest relatives I have on that line. I haven’t contacted them, although I know perfectly well how to. I’ve seen their social media profiles. They look like great people who I would get along with quite well. But what’s the point? I did reach out to one peripheral relative for medical history, which I received matter-of-factly. That’s it.

In contrast, several of my “first cousins” on the Webster line have learned about this family secret and all have been so supportive, saying, “You’ll always be a Webster to us!” And that’s true. I will always be a Webster, just like my birth mother who went to her grave never knowing any different.