Life is just a shock to the system.
It turns out that the man I have spent 50 years believing to be my father is not my father.
My mother lied to me about who my father is. My father is Bob Adelman, the photographer, who most famously caught Martin Luther King Jr. in profile having a dream on the Lincoln Memorial. You know the shot. You know many of Bob’s pictures. When they say something is iconic, they just mean everyone knows it. Bob was early for history.
I too chanced young upon the world. When my first book came out, I was 27 years old. Prozac Nation changed the way people see mental illness, and it changed the way publishers see memoirs. The New York Times Book Review called me “Sylvia Plath with the ego of Madonna.” I was a hashtag before there was Twitter.
My mother had an affair with Bob Adelman when she was working at Random House. I was born in 1967.
I knew Bob all of my life. When I was 4, Bob gave me a print of his photo of protesters being hosed down in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. He gave the same shot to Martin Luther King, who was shocked “that beauty could come out of so much pain.”
I never found it remarkable that I had received such a sophisticated present when I was not yet in kindergarten. I got a lot of attention. My mother took me everywhere. I had table manners. I had big eyes and thick bangs. People played with my long chocolate hair. I was used to adults. I thought I was one of them.
I thought I was important. My mother says I was the center of attraction.
Bob Adelman’s adopted daughter, Samantha, was my playmate on the Upper West Side until we were 6, when she moved to Canada with her mother. There was that playground in Central Park at 97th Street with the monkey bars and chipped-paint yellow seesaw we loved.
We lived a block apart. Was that a coincidence?
Bob’s marriage split up when his wife found out he’d gotten another woman — my mother — pregnant. Did Bob’s ex-wife know I was his daughter when I went to her apartment for SpaghettiOs?
Bob was at my wedding in 2015. He gave me $5,000, which stunned me at the time, but now I see why: Bob is my father.
I reported Bob’s death to the New York Times.
It was March of 2016. Branka, his Serbian yoga-instructor girlfriend with blonde curls, called me crying right after he died. I emailed Trish Hall, op-ed editor at the paper, to make sure there would be an obituary. I told her Bob was the father of my childhood friend.
The first article I published, in Seventeen when I was 16, was about my father, Donald Wurtzel, the father I always knew.
My mother divorced him when I was 2. I saw him once a week, but eventually it was less than that.
Donald Wurtzel was not so much wrong for me as wrong for anyone. He relied on pills to get by. He was hard to reach.
He was not much of a father, and when I was 14, he disappeared — disconnected telephone.
His mother, my grandma Dorothy in Coney Island with plastic covers on the sofa and wing chairs, would not tell me where he was. She lived her life in linoleum. She was used to the brutal architecture of Trump Village, a lower-middle-class complex built by Fred Trump. Was she looking at the Cyclone when she told me he loved me?
My father and I never really reconnected. We tried, and eventually we stopped doing even that. When he died in 2014, I had not seen him since 2001.
I have been working out that relationship all of my life, in writing and therapy and conversation, with cocaine and heroin, with recovery and perseverance, and with my thoughts. I think so much. I can’t stop thinking. It’s all exposed. I don’t have a subconscious.
You can’t surprise me.
But this surprised me.
I have been working out the wrong problem.
Thousands of words on the wrong problem. I have perfected a two-handed backhand to clobber the lob that is coming at me that is: the wrong problem. I have aced the wrong problem.
After Bob Adelman died, I was trying to find out about plans for his funeral. I wanted to say something in his memory.
It turned out there would only be a graveside service at the cemetery, which was in a remote location in Suffolk County, that stretch of lawn near the Estée Lauder factory where they all are, tombstones galore.
What was the name of the town?
I cannot recall.
Many people in New York City would have wanted to pay their respects if only they’d been able to get out there. Bob Adelman was 85 when he died, born in Brooklyn, a graduate of Stuyvesant and Columbia. Roy Lichtenstein was his best friend. Bob was close with Ann Beattie. He did a book of photographs with Raymond Carver. He took that famous picture of Tom Wolfe, a man at ease in his white vest and shirtsleeves, arms stretched out on his sofa, a writer who could take anyone on.
Branka, his girlfriend, called me: Bob is your father. I was in a car on the way to Mount Sinai Hospital for physical therapy after breast-cancer treatment in 2015. I probably should have taken the subway, the 5 to the 6, those few dreary blocks of walking on the upper Upper East Side, tenements on Park Avenue, projects on Madison.
I could have been out of reach.
Instead, I was in traffic on the FDR. Branka told me more than once: Bob is your father. He talked about it every day.
I thought she was crazy. I laughed. I told her I was flattered that Bob believed that. But no, not true. I look like the man whom I have always believed to be my father.
Of course, I also look like Bob.
My mother has a type.
I was still in the car, heading for the exit, when my mom called. It’s true, she said. Bob is your father. He is the only one who could be your father.
She is sure. She told me to get a DNA test.
I told her that I should not because I know she needs to believe this and the test will prove it wrong. I know she wants my father to be someone accomplished and not who he was.
My father, the one who disappeared when I was 14, he was just some guy.
I know Donald is my father because it is random. That’s what I tell her.
I got breast cancer as a result of the BRCA gene.
My mother does not have the BRCA mutation. She was tested. My first cousin, my mother’s sister’s daughter, got breast cancer at age 47 just like me, but she does not have the BRCA gene. I inherited BRCA from my father.
It was a surprise to find I had the BRCA gene when I was diagnosed.
I now have advanced breast cancer.
People see me now, I look the same, there I am with the same artificial blonde hair I’ve always had, and they think cancer was a phase. Aren’t you done with cancer? Isn’t that what happened in 2015? I think in this age of immunotherapy-IPO mania, it’s hard to remember that cancer mostly can’t be cured.
This is a publishing story.
Without Random House, I would never have been born.
It was the ’60s in New York. It was an uncalm time. Before you could say “What next?,” it happened. It was just like now.
Donald Wurtzel got a job at IBM in Poughkeepsie after my parents got married in 1965. He never went to college, and my mother, fresh out of Cornell, took a personnel test that qualified her for a better position at IBM than he had — but, as she recalls, company policy did not allow a wife to outrank her husband. So my mother found this or that part-time thing. But besides Vassar College, what was there?
On days off, my father would sleep. My mother would go out to run errands and come home to find him passed out on the living-room couch, the ashtrays overwhelmed with Vantage butts running onto the coffee table.
It was a Paul McCobb mid-century-modern piece with long, sexy angular legs, and his cigarettes were blotching it with burn marks. My father was torturing the furniture.
My mother fretted. She got a chimpanzee named Percy for company. I know, unbelievable: a chimpanzee. But it was common enough at the time that their neighbors had one too. The two of them would roam around and climb in windows. They stole the guy upstairs’ pipes and pretended to be smoking them. When my mother realized Percy was a mistake, she gave him to the people next door, who were happy to take in their chimp’s playmate.
My mother hated Poughkeepsie and living with Donald Wurtzel.
Donald Wurtzel was from postwar Brooklyn. He grew up in the Brownsville section, the son of German Jews. My grandfather Saul was a diabetic who worked on an assembly line in a baby-carriage factory and could not stay away from quart-size bottles of sugary soda. Saul loved Canada Dry ginger ale. He loved Dr. Brown’s cream soda. He killed himself with sweet stuff. By the time the Wurtzel family moved into Trump Village, the household was grim. It was the Brooklyn you escaped from. My grandmother was hospitalized for her despair.
Donald Wurtzel met my mother on an escalator at Macy’s in Herald Square — she was going up and he was coming down. She was in the executive-training program, and he was a buyer in the boys’ department. She was working in the books section of the store. In the old Broadway building, the ancient escalator has wood slats. My mother was still living with her parents in Hewlett, on Long Island, in the house she grew up in.
Their first date was at Pete’s Tavern on Irving Place, which seems perfect: an old favorite that serves mussels and pasta and beer on tap. My mother married my father because he was the first one who asked. He was handsome. She was 23.
After a while of trying to find a job, my mother left Poughkeepsie for an apartment on East 84th Street. That’s where people like her lived. That’s where couples with their degrees from Brown and Penn rented walk-ups and found jobs at Ogilvy & Mather and Time Inc. In 1963, Elaine’s opened on 88th and Second Avenue and became the hangout for Norman Mailer and Gay Talese.
The idea was that my father would get transferred and join her.
In 1966, Jason Epstein, a Random House editor on the rise, hired my mother.
She saw a classified ad in the Times under the women’s section, since in those days job listings were segregated by sex.
This was Bennett Cerf’s Random House, which had its headquarters in the northern wing of Villard Houses on Madison Avenue, a Beaux-Arts building that was mostly occupied by the Catholic Archdiocese. Today it’s become the lobby of the Palace Hotel. All these years later, my mother recalls entering through the side door at 26 East 51st Street with the other women on staff and not at the front entrance, which was reserved for executives, who were all men. The memory of this distaff doorway still bothers her.
This was during the Johnson administration, the era of the Great Society. It was also the heyday of educational media, when PBS was invented and Joan Ganz Cooney started the Children’s Television Workshop, which introduced the world to Sesame Street. Even Jason published children’s books — his big hit was The Phantom Tollbooth.
Random House got funding to publish a weekly newspaper for high-school kids in New York City. They put Jason in charge. Bob Adelman had already taken all his famous civil-rights photos. He was shooting for Life and The Saturday Evening Post and putting together books of his work. Jason hired him to be the house photographer for this teen weekly and sent him to London on assignment.
Random House meant to be serious about this.
The newspaper was called New York, New York. One of the features was an inquiring-photographer column, asking questions like What did you think about Da Nang? Do you like Mayor Lindsay? How do you feel about the draft?
This was my mother’s job.
There would be a photograph of each kid who answered. Jason wanted to get them in their atmosphere, have it be more than a headshot. He got Bob to do the pictures.
Once a week, my mother and Bob would go together to a different school and talk to kids and get them to pose. They would take taxis because Random House was paying for it.
Ah, the delicious delights of the expense account. Oh, to be young in the city and burning up a tab on someone else.
On the rides to and from the schools, they would talk about their crummy marriages. Nothing like the common bond of common bondage to get things going.
So it was a yellow-cab romance.
Bob had a studio and darkroom in the Photo District, that stretch of 18th Street full of camera stores and image labs. They would look at the day’s work as it developed, the pictures hanging from clips on a line to dry.
And, of course, my mother was alone in her apartment on East 84th Street.
But no dates. No Tiffany-lamplight dinners of wild boar and caviar under the stained-glass ceiling at Maxwell’s Plum. My mother was afraid of getting caught.
It was an affair.
And so my mother got pregnant, which is what happens when you are 25 and not using birth control.
She knew it was Bob.
It could only be him.
She never saw her husband.
She only told Bob. Bob knew. And she asked him not to tell.
She was old fashioned. Is.
My mother was ashamed that she had an affair, so she hid it and made her husband think he was my father.
She was brought up to believe that only bad girls have premarital sex and extramarital sex. She was scared of what people would think. She was afraid of the judgment of her family.
My mother has a feeling that she is the only one on her own side.
She ran up to Poughkeepsie and spent the weekend with her husband as soon as she realized she was pregnant.
What did he know?
What do men ever know?
Do they count days? Months? Years?
That is what women do.
The difference between men and women: Every woman has a clock implanted in her brain. An alarm clock with Mickey Mouse bells.
Every woman keeps track of her age, because we are temporarily credentialed with youth and beauty.
We watch it all go by.
Men don’t. Men do not notice that a football game that is supposed to last an hour goes on for over four. Men linger at the office, avoiding home, which is chaotic.
Women watch out.
We are vulnerable.
It is so easy to fool men, who aren’t scared all the time.
My mother’s husband believed he was my father.
I believed he was my father.
She never told me the truth on the many occasions that it would have made sense.
Like when he disappeared when I was 14. And ever since.
Shame is powerful.
She kept this secret for half a century.
She considered telling me when I was 12.
I went to yeshiva on the Upper West Side. The principal was also the rabbi of our shul and has since moved on to founding one of the largest settlements on the West Bank. My mother went to him for advice. He told her that discovering such a truth about oneself often leads the person to suicide. This was the thinking at the time, which is why they did not always tell children of adoption that their birth parents were different from the ones they lived with. It was a world coated in the slime of shame, it was a muck of lies men told women for their convenience.
My mother asked my psychiatrist what to do. He counseled her to tell me the truth with both Bob and Donald present. My mother could not figure out how to work the geometry of that four-way.
None of the men my mother turned to for advice in the very patriarchal culture that we lived in told her to do the right thing and be truthful.
Patriarchy is a negotiation. Motherhood should be honest.
Because my mother is human and it was easier not to, she did not tell me.
Instead, she let me struggle with my father. She let me work — she let me build pyramids in Mizraim — with the man I always believed was my father.
She divorced him when I was 2, and she could have told him he was not my father. He was 28, with years of life ahead. It was 1969, and people stayed married. My mother, who is traditional, left my father because she knew he was not my father. And yet, she did not tell him.
She says: I did not want to hurt him.
Yes. I know. I know what you are thinking. I am thinking it too. But my mother did not and does not see all the hurt she has caused by not inflicting the quick serration.
My mother was hoping to get away with not mentioning it. What’s the big deal? Things will take care of themselves. It was a lie she told for so long that it became true. It became a way of life. And yes, she believed she was doing the right thing.
She was doing what people do: She was postponing the inevitable, pretending this was not the balloon mortgage of problems.
When I was little, on our Saturday visits, my father would pick me up, take me back to his walk-up studio apartment on East 88th Street, put on the small black-and-white television with a rabbit-ear antenna, and fall asleep until it was time to return me to my mother.
I remember Star Trek reruns and NCAA basketball. Did they call it March Madness in 1971?
I learned to raise one eyebrow like Spock. I practiced in the bathroom mirror, the one on the medicine cabinet over the sink that glowed gray with dust and turquoise with Windex streaks, standing on the stepladder to see, while my father lay with the TV on, not moving.
Most of what I remember about him is how he diminished in my life over time, the Rorschach’s blots of orange and yellow and pink at sunset going gradually black.
There are years of nothing between us.
What does dysfunctional mean? We use it to describe a macrocosm like a government or just one behavior.
I refuse to say my father was dysfunctional, because he was not even that defined. He slipped, he fell, he landed on a life.
They fought, my mother and father did pitched battle, and he could not handle it. He was drowning, not waving.
When I got morose at age 11, my parents argued about what to do. They yelled about money. They went to court. I became more depressed.
Because they could not agree about a therapist, eventually I no longer saw one.
Because they could not agree about what to do, they did nothing.
Everything got worse.
I saw my father less and less.
Late at night, my mother would scream at him on the phone.
She would shriek.
She would cry.
When I saw him, he would tell me how awful she was.
Life was smoky. I remember a constant miasma. There was shouting. Phones slammed. Back then you could get angry and smash the receiver. I heard clangs all the time.
My mother would sit on the sofa in the dark, stare into space, dragging on yet another Gauloises Bleu.
I avoided my father because I did not want to hear his side. I learned young about alternate facts. Children of divorce have a high threshold for multiple realities. But I could only handle one extreme parent. And my father was useless, unless it was about how much he hated my mother.
His anger at my mother gave him purpose. He was the Russian Army at Stalingrad when it came to hating my mother.
I was in pain.
My parents were pain.
When I called my father and the phone was off, and the recording said there was no further information, I was relieved.
The long emergency that was my childhood was over.
Surely at that point, my mother should have told me.
Instead, she left me to figure out my missing father.
I am a redeemed person because I worked out that relationship.
And then there is Bob Adelman.
He should have told me.
I visited him at home in Miami a month before he died. Alistair, my husky mix with a feather-boa tail, knocked coffee all over the glass table and drenched some prints Bob said were nothing important.
But Bob is human and he is lousy, so he did the easy thing and did not tell me.
Bob has often done the difficult thing, in Montgomery and Selma. Bob was brave so that the world could see what was going on.
But photojournalism is a sneaky art. Bob ducked behind grand old oak trees. He hid away from nightsticks. He felt only the precipitation from fire hoses. He was behind the lens of his Nikon.
He did not confront me.
Bob died without telling me who he was, who I am.
I love Bob. He knew intimate details about the slave trade in America, the difference between Tobacco Virginia and Cotton Arkansas. His undergraduate thesis was about the market for human beings from the Middle South to the Deep South, from Tara country to the Mississippi Delta. Bob taught me that there has never been a legitimate election in Georgia.
Bob was a radical. Like me. We sat around agreeing.
The best people are the ones you have to forgive for everything. You have no choice; it would be worse to live without them.
So I have to forgive my mother. Of course I do. She is the only parent I have. She wanted to be a single mother. She did not want men to tell her what to do. “I wanted to be independent,” she recently told me. “I wanted to make my own way.” She was a woman in a man’s world. She did not know how to have what she wanted without being duplicitous. In 1967, the year I was born, a woman could not have an abortion or a credit card.
My mother tried to get a job at IBM, but she was too qualified to work at the same place as her loser husband.
My mother had to take the side entrance into the Random House office building with all the other women.
Men made my mother feel shabby. She thought her best bet was lying.
That is the corruption of sexism: My mother lied to me too.
Because I am a feminist, I have to forgive her.
My mother is the author of this story.
She made me who I am.
Who else is like this? Fifty years is a long lie.
I don’t just have a new father. I also have a new mother.
When she worked at the newspaper at Random House, my mother made up crossword puzzles, which explains my penchant for doing the Times’ on Sunday in purple ink. It was an entry-level thing for sure, but my mother had a writing job — reporting to the most important editor in publishing. Jason Epstein helped found the New York Review of Books. He worked with Norman Mailer. He invented the trade paperback. You would think my mother would have mentioned her literati life to me before just now. It’s like she’s got something against kismet or genetics or the way she rubbed off on me.
Or the truth.
I have always valued the truth so deeply. I felt like we had a relationship. Maybe we were even co-dependent. I understand that this is only my version of events, that the truth comes in multitudes. Shock of shocks, we often cannot even agree on the facts. My mother is a private person. She wants no part of this. She has never read any of what I have written about her. But she respects what I do. She believes it’s possible to reach people with words.
And she knows that the truth will set you free.
I did not believe that narrative, the one where you get information about the person who you are and — eureka! Voilà! — it all makes sense.
I believed the story that I had to reckon with my whole life, the one where I made peace with my parents, who are not right for me, which makes me — which makes me just like everyone else.
I came to terms with having the wrong parents by becoming myself anyway.
I was a miracle. I was unlikely. I was inexplicable. I came from out of nowhere. No one in my family was anything like me.
Everyone is out there with their adoption fantasies, doing AncestryDNA and 23andMe, because they have a funny feeling that there is something they don’t know.
In 2007, I did a DNA test through National Geographic and opted into a database of matched kits called FamilyTreeDNA. I recently got an email from a woman in Las Vegas who is Bob Adelman’s first cousin. She got an alert that we are first cousins once removed.
So I would have figured out that Bob is my father even if Branka had not told me, even if my mother had not told me. A consumer DNA test would have led me to it, just as police solved the Golden State Killer case through GEDmatch. It would have been another remarkable discovery enabled by pop science.
By now I should know that if it can happen, it will happen to me. Now this.
Now I know why.
I am Bob’s daughter.
Bob Adelman was in the Movement, which meant a lot of moving around. Political activism is serious, and it is serious fun. It is a hotbed of hot beds.
Bob was so promiscuous that I am not even his only biological child — he has at least one other daughter, my half-sister, whom he never met.
I have to find her. She, too, may have the BRCA gene and not know it.
Also: I have to find her. She is my sister.
And perhaps there are others Bob did not know about.
I have spent my whole life driving people crazy. If you should not say it, I can’t wait to scream it out the window. I am impossible.
I never understood why I was so wild. I never knew how come I had to be a firebrand. I thought there was something wrong with me. Then I realized there is something right with me. Now I know I was born this way.
I did not invent myself after all.
I found the Rosebud in my garage. Yes, of course: What else did I miss?
© Estate of Robert Adelman, whose license does not imply any approval, endorsement or representation regarding the content of this story.
*This article appears in the December 24, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!