'Steve Jobs' and 'Blue Nights' Reveal Dark Side of Adoption

Bestsellers 'Steve Jobs' and 'Blue Nights' reveal anguish of being adopted.

November 23, 2011, 7:54 AM

Nov. 23, 2011— -- Quintana Roo Dunne, the adopted daughter of writer Joan Didion, had frequent nightmares about "The Broken Man" -- an evil repair man in a blue shirt with a L.A. Dodgers cap and "really shiny shoes" who told her in a deep voice, "I'm going to lock you here in the garage."

"She described so often and with such troubling specificity that I was frequently moved to check for him on the terrace outside her second-floor windows," wrote Didion, 76, mourning the death of her daughter in the memoir "Blue Nights."

Quintana died of acute pancreatitis in 2005 at the age of 39, only two years after the death of her adoptive father, writer John Gregory Dunne, who was the subject of "A Year of Magical Thinking."

Didion agonizes about her parenting and Quintana's recurrent fear of abandonment and a failed reunion with her biological family. "Adoption," Didion writes. "I was to learn, though not immediately, is hard to get right."

Such fear also haunted Apple founder Steve Jobs, who died last month at the age of 56. In numerous interviews with family, friends and lovers, biographer Walter Isaacson unveiled the dark side of adoption in his life.

Jobs ultimately formed strong bonds with his sister, author Mona Simpson, but he refused to meet his biological father, despite the lifelong sense of loss.

More than 1.5 million Americans are adopted, about 2 percent of all children, according to the New York City-based Evan B. Donaldson Institute for Adoption.

Both bestsellers, "Blue Nights" and "Steve Jobs," expose an unspoken truth in the adoption world: Fear of abandonment is universal.

"Attachment and abandonment issues are part of every adoption. It's just a matter of how much," said Marlou Russell, a Santa Monica, Calif., psychologist who works with adoptive families. She, too, was adopted.

"In the best-case scenario, everyone is on board," she said of adoption. "But you cannot separate a child from its mother without an impact. There is always an impact."

Parents of an earlier generation told their children, "You're adopted and you were chosen and very special," said Russell, who is author of the 2002 book, "Adoption Wisdom."

"The problem with that," she said, "is that, "If my adopted parents chose me that means there was someone else who didn't choose me.'"

Such was the thinking of young Quintana Roo Dunne, according to her mother's account in "Blue Nights."

When her beautiful little girl was born at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica in 1966, friends told Didion, "You couldn't possibly tell her."

Many viewed adoption as "obscurely shameful, a secret to be kept at all cost," according to the author.

But Didion said they never thought to do otherwise. "What were the alternatives?" she writes. "Lie to her? Leave it to her agent to take her to lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel?"

Quintana was baffled by their explanation that she was "chosen," according to her mother: "What if you hadn't answered the phone when Dr. Watson called?" or "What if you hadn't been home, what if you couldn't meet him at the hospital, what if there'd been an accident on the freeway, what would happen to me then?"

Psychologist Russell said she advises adoptive parents to say, "Your birth parents were unable to take care of you at that time and that covers every situation, even if they go on to parent other children."

"When you get the story line that you were adopted because you were very loved, that sets up love to mean leaving, and you might leave them, too," she said. "I tell parents not to use love and money or poverty. ... If you are in Toys R Us and say you can't buy something because you can't afford it today, they might think you can pack your bags and go."

Quintana had a fascination with meeting her "other mother." She wondered what she looked like and when her father asked what she would do if she met her birth mother, the girl replied, "I'd put one arm around Mom and one arm around my other mommy and I'd say, 'Hello Mommies.'"

In 1988, a letter arrived from Quintana's full sister, who was one of two siblings born after their mother and father married. "They were "strangers," according to Didion, who "welcomed her as their long lost child."

A reunion was arranged, but it was a weekend of "willed excitement, determined camaraderie and resolute discovery," Didion writes. Soon, Quintana seemed distraught and "on the edge of tears" when her birth mother wanted to explain why she gave her baby up and kept calling.

Eventually, Quintana backed off from her newfound relatives, telling them it was "too much to handle" and "too much too soon" and she needed to "step back."

Her birth mother disconnected her phone and cut ties, Didion says. "She didn't want to be a burden."

The two sisters sent flowers when Quintana died.

Steve Jobs knew from a young age that he had been adopted and had a similarly conflicted relationship with his biological family.

When he was 31, his adoptive mother was dying of lung cancer and he peppered her with questions about his past. "When you and Dad got married, were you a virgin?" he reportedly asked her, according to his biography.

"It was hard for her to talk, but she forced a smile," Isaacson writes. "That's when she told him she had been married before to a man who never made it back from the war. She also filled in some of the details on how she and Paul Jobs came to adopt him."

In the early 1980s, Jobs had hired a detective to look for his birth mother, but found nothing. Until then, he had been hesitant to tell his parents about the search, afraid he would hurt their feelings. But when Clara Jobs died in 1986, he told his adoptive father, Paul Jobs, and began a search in earnest.

Jobs learned the name of his mother -- University of Wisconsin graduate student Joanne Schieble -- and through her the name of his sister. Mona Simpson was a full biological sibling, born after his mother married his biological father, Syrian academic Abdulfattah "John" Jandali.

Jandali left Jobs' biological mother and daughter when Simpson was 5 and she went on to remarry and divorce.

Jobs eventually arranged a reunion, hoping to tell his mother she had "done the right thing."

"I wanted to meet [her] mostly to see if she was OK and to thank her, because I'm glad I didn't end up as an abortion," he told Isaacson. "She was 23 and she went through a lot to have me."

Both mother and sister spent Christmases at Jobs' house, but his birth mother often burst into tears, telling him how much she loved him and apologizing for giving him up. "Don't worry," Jobs told her, according to his biographer. "I had a great childhood. I turned out OK."

Jobs said he was surprised at how much he and Simpson were alike. "As we got to know each other, we became really good friends and she was my family," he said. "I don't know what I'd do without her."

Still, he never took an interest in meeting Jandali. Jobs, then a wealthy man, worried about being blackmailed, but he also was angry that his father had left his family.

"He didn't treat me well," Jobs said. "I don't hold anything against him -- I'm, happy to be alive. But what bothered me most was that he didn't treat Mona well. He abandoned her."

Steve Jobs' decision to ignore his father's overtures was likely rooted in issues of control, according to psychologist Russell.

Even for a man as in control and successful as Jobs, adoption inevitably evokes "a lot of pain and heartbreak," she said.

"When adoption occurs, everyone is out of control," Russell said. "It's a crisis. Adoption doesn't happen when things are going well. Sometimes adoptees do not want to meet their birth parents and the bottom line for that is to be in control, not to meet someone who wants to meet you. The last bastion of power is to say, 'no.'"

But Jean Strauss, a Washington state filmmaker who for 30 years has chronicled the lives of adult adoptees in books and documentaries, argues the "secrets inherent in adoption are diminishing and disempowering."

Fostering open adoptions and allowing adoptees to freely learn about their identities is critical for psychological well-being. Strauss, herself, reconnected with her birth mother and an entire biological family when she was 35.

"Steve Jobs and Quintana Roo did have different experiences and choices regarding their birth parents," Strauss said, "but as the writer Betty Jean Lifton once said, 'It isn't what you find, but that you find it.'"

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