The child of a secret underground adoption goes hunting for her past

adoption stories

Out there, in her little house on the mountain, the days passed slowly for Debbie Boursier — much more slowly than they had in Cleveland.

She'd moved to that rural patch of Rapid City, South Dakota, with two toddlers and a husband. She hadn't wanted to go, but Charlie was a second lieutenant in the Air Force. As any good military wife knows, when the Air Force says move, you move.

South Dakota was beautiful, but also isolating. Their ranch overlooked acres of farmland, and from her studio window, Debbie could see her neighbor's horses lolling about the pasture, their tails swooshing like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. Charlie was away most nights. Often alone, Debbie felt like she was slogging upstream. Everything seemed hard; even the act of waking required extreme effort.

But then, one morning in 1984, everything suddenly felt different. She woke feeling exuberant but frantic. Her 32-year-old body suddenly pulsed with electricity. Though she hadn't painted more than an hour at a time in the past few months, she knew she had the ability inside her that day to create a masterpiece.

So she grabbed a brush and splattered streaks of turquoise across a canvas, admiring how the paint dripped down like raindrops. She dipped another brush in gray and flung more color onto the surface. Then she added greens and pinks and reds. But she wasn't done. She took out another blank canvas, this time experimenting with golds and silvers. When she was done, the floor was speckled with bits of rainbows.

Debbie felt flushed and re-energized. She moved to the kitchen and started to make dinner — for the whole week. She made lasagna, spaghetti, risotto, hand-rolled meatballs, and salad. It went on like that for days, she recalls, with no desire for sleep or food — living purely off her own adrenaline. But on the seventh day, she collapsed. All the brightness of the days before suddenly dimmed. Everything seemed blurred and out of focus. All she wanted to do was sleep.

Something, Debbie realized, was very wrong.

She called her doctor back in Cleveland, who urged her to fly back home for tests. He thought she might have a thyroid problem — or, God forbid, a brain tumor.

It turned out to be neither. He diagnosed Debbie with manic depression, also called bipolar disorder. It was, he said, most likely a genetic condition.

Debbie sat in his office, trembling with fear and anxiety. She knew nothing about the disease. Didn't know anyone else who'd ever been diagnosed with a mental illness. The word, she kept thinking, sounded a lot like "maniac."

Then the doctor asked her the question she loathed most, the reason she often avoided doctors' offices in the first place: Do you have a family history of bipolar disease?

Debbie had no idea. She would spend the next two decades searching Cleveland for the answer. And when it finally arrived, even Debbie — who'd known since day one that she'd been adopted — could barely believe it.

From all appearances, Ruth Wildau had the perfect life. It was 1953, and Ruth lived in a cute suburban colonial in University Heights. Her husband, Fred, adored her. And as the wife of a shoe-store owner, she could get any style heel delivered to her doorstep at any time.

But what she didn't have was a child. And after two years of trying, it became obvious that she would probably never conceive one naturally.

Ruth called the adoption department of Jewish Family Services to ask about adopting a child. Social workers from the agency came to her home, asking questions. At the end, the workers smiled kindly, then explained that the waiting list was already lengthy. It could take two years before the agency contacted her again. And there was no guarantee there'd be a baby available then.

"I thought I'd never get a baby," says the 87-year-old widow, who still lives in University Heights.

But a few weeks later, Ruth arrived for a scheduled visit with her doctor, who also worked at Mount Sinai, a now-defunct hospital on the East Side. In the checkup room, Ruth broke down. Her doctor waited while she dried her tears. "If you really want a child, there are other ways," he said quietly.

Adoption was a booming business in the 1950s. With more adoptive parents than potential adoptees, a practice called "baby brokering" was growing, driven by women like Georgia Tann. A social worker in Tennessee, Tann privately arranged more than 5,000 adoptions across the country. Some of the transactions were legal. Other times, though, Tann went to bizarre lengths to get the children, even stealing babies from the back yards of poor homes and transferring them to the arms of wealthy patrons in other cities — including Cleveland, says author Barbara Raymond, Tann's biographer.

Though many state officials knew how Tann operated, most ignored it. More than a few, including the then-governor of New York, had adopted children through her organization themselves. "She had the system in her hands," says Raymond.

Throughout the country, from tony suburbs to rural Appalachia, boarding homes that catered to pregnant females were emerging. Females who entered these homes were expected to give up their children immediately after birth, often in exchange for room and board. But the places weren't always safe havens. Pregnant teens were often viewed simply as "breeders." At the Frances Crittenden Home for Girls, on Eddy Road in Cleveland, a teenage mother from West Virginia told doctors that she wanted to keep her baby. Post-birth, Doctors informed her that the child had been stillborn. The woman learned of the lie only decades later, when her daughter came looking for her.

Most private brokers weren't so nefarious. They were men and women you'd know from church or the grocery store, a lot of them "doctors, working out of local hospitals," says Betsie Norris, the executive director of the Cleveland Adoption Network. They were the first people to learn about a pregnancy. Arranging a private adoption meant their clients wouldn't have to go through the very complicated — and very public — adoption process. So they helped arrange their own so-called "gray market" adoptions, using an underground network of doctors and lawyers. The process was viewed uneasily by social workers, who found the lack of screening and oversight worrisome. But it was perfectly legal.

And Ruth's doctor just happened to know about one of these chains.

His name was Dr. George Goler. He was head of the OB/GYN unit at Mount Sinai — a jovial, competent man, graduate of Case's medical school, and a well-known activist in Cleveland's Jewish community.

In 1953, a 35-year-old woman named Ida Pearlman went to see Dr. Goler. Pearlman, a waitress at the Carousel Bar in downtown Cleveland, already had four children and was about to go through a divorce. Her pregnancy was an accident.

Goler told her he could help.

A few months later, Ruth and her husband were packing to leave for a monthlong vacation to California. The night before they left, Ruth decided to check in with her doctor. She wanted to know whether he'd heard any more news.

"Don't go," the physician said. "I've got a baby that's about to be born any minute."

Ruth canceled her trip. She and her mother had less than a week to prepare her home for a new baby. They bought cribs and blankets, diapers and formula and bottles. Soon their living room seemed more a storage space. Four days later, Debbie was delivered to the Wildaus' front door.

The attorney who brokered the private adoption was Goler's brother, Abby. Ruth immediately trusted Abby — he was young but kind, and he had the doctor's seal of approval. From his easy familiarity with the adoption process, she assumed he'd done this many times before. So she paid him for hospital bills and legal fees. It would take a year for the adoption to be finalized.

For four months, Ruth lived a blissful existence. Debbie was an easy baby, with plump chipmunk cheeks and a sprig of brown hair that looked just like Fred's. Most people assumed they were biologically related. But in the spring of 1954, Estes Kefauver, a senator from Tennessee, decided to take on black-market adoptions as his personal crusade. Hoping to set a federal standard for adoption practices, he held a series of senate hearings in which birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees told chilling tales of unethical adoption processes. There were stories of children kidnapped by private agencies and sold to rich families, of birth parents whose newborns were stolen from hospital nurseries, of children with life-threatening medical conditions who were placed in the homes of unsuspecting adoptive parents.

"The problem," says Raymond, "is that he tarred everyone with the same brush. He equated independent adoptions with black-market adoptions."

Soon the feds started cracking down on private adoptions, including one that attended their Cleveland synagogue. Ruth got scared. "I worried someone would take away my Debbie," she recalls. She called Abby, hoping he could ease her fears, but he didn't answer. When she went to his home, Ruth learned he'd fled the state — with all of their paperwork. He was scared of getting prosecuted, neighbors told her.

"Oh God," Ruth recalls thinking. "What will become of us?"

For weeks, Ruth and Fred worried about what to do. If they confessed, would the courts simply take the child away? What if they moved out of the country? Would that save them?

They opted against life as fugitives and called a lawyer instead. And then they went straight to the courts and explained how they'd adopted Debbie.

The magistrate was sympathetic but stern. Ruth and Fred were allowed to keep the baby for a year — but were treated as any foster parents would be. For a year, they underwent intensive scrutiny, with social workers dropping by for unexpected visits to grill the couple. Ruth felt like a pledge during sorority rush — always being studied, never knowing whether she was good enough. She spent sleepless nights staring at Debbie's face, memorizing the shape of her eyes, listening to the sound of her breath.

"It was a very tough year," Ruth says. "We lived in fear."

Finally, in August, the magistrate reported back. The Wildaus received stellar reviews. The adoption could proceed. Everything was legal. And more important: "No one could ever take Debbie away," Ruth says.

The years passed, and Debbie began to crawl, then walk and take in her surroundings. From the beginning, Ruth told Debbie she was adopted. Other adoptive parents took extreme measures to hide this fact from friends and family — mothers wearing pillows under their shirts, fathers forging new birth certificates. Ruth took the opposite tack: She read Debbie books on adoption, told her how special she was to have "been chosen."

And then one day, she told Debbie her birth parents had died. The child began to cry.

"I remember thinking, 'I'm alive and they're not. That must be my fault,'" Debbie, now 54, says, fiddling with an empty Caribou Coffee cup at a shop near her home in Beachwood. Her squinty blue eyes, framed by chunky glasses, look briefly into the distance.

She never stopped thinking about her birth parents, she says. When she picked at piano keys, she wondered: Was my mother a musician too? When she looked in the mirror at the sharp, arrowhead-like angle of her nose, she wondered: Did my dad have that profile too?

"It was kind of like an archaeological dig, and all I was getting was dust," she says. "There was no recognizable picture of me anywhere, because I had no history. No pictures. No stories.

"I spent my childhood mourning these people."

Then, one day in her 16th year, Debbie was in the bathroom, when her mother knocked at the door.

"There are some other things about your birth mother that I never told you," she said hesitantly.

Debbie sat up in the tub, heart pounding.

"At the time of your adoption, your mother was separated and going through a divorce," Ruth began. "Your father was not the man she was married to."

"What else do you know?" Debbie was screaming now.

Ruth spoke slowly, sitting on the side of the tub. There were other kids, she said. Three others.

"Do you know their names?"

Ruth shook her head.

There's one more thing, she said.

"Your parents didn't die."

She left Debbie in the bathroom, stunned and alone.

I have to find my family.

That was Debbie's first thought. There were people out there built from the same genes. Were they anything like her? Did they have her perfect pitch, her small-lidded eyes?

And, most pressingly: Did they know about her?

Then, just as quickly, she decided she didn't want to know. Was it fair to these children to show up unannounced, to arrive at their homes like a ghost? And what about her adoptive parents? They'd been nothing short of amazing. How would they feel if she started searching for her "real mother"?

And there was another thing: There must have been some reason her mom chose to give her up. Debbie wasn't sure she was prepared to find out what it was. "What if I found her, and she had swept the whole adoption thing under the rug?" she asks. "The fear of rejection is a driving force."

She pushed the news to the back of her mind, trying to forget all she'd just learned. For the next few years, she'd glance at the obituaries every few days, looking for her birth mother's name. When she went to the mall or out to dinner, she looked hard at people's faces, trying to find traces of herself. The brown-haired boy behind the counter at Macy's, with the narrow nose — he had the same shape face as her: Could that be her brother? The waitress at Swingos, whose blue eyes were also flecked with yellow. Was she a relative?

So it went for the next few decades, as she graduated from art school in Minnesota, got married to her college sweetheart, raised her children in Beachwood, and started substitute teaching. The facts surrounding her adoption became just another part of her origin and history — like the date of her birth, the time she first menstruated, the moment she first fell in love.

And then she got her diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Suddenly, she was faced with a whole new slew of concerns. She wondered what other kinds of medical life sentences she might pass on to her children. And she decided that searching for her heritage was no longer a selfish decision. It would be selfish not to.

Debbie possessed a road map to her past, but it was full of holes and blanks. On her birth certificate was the name of the man who had delivered her: George Goler.

So in 1984, after receiving her diagnosis, she found her way to the lobby of her doctor's Beachwood office and picked up a pay phone outside. With shaking hands, she slid two dimes into the coin slot and dialed the number listed for Goler. He answered, and Debbie introduced herself. She told him he'd delivered her 32 years ago, that her birth mother's name was Ida Pearlman. Did Goler have any idea where her mother might be?

From the other end of the line came a long spell of silence.

"I can't help you," Debbie remembers him saying. Then he hung up the phone.

Debbie next tried to contact the Cuyahoga County courthouse. The receptionist was kind in bearing the bad news: "All records are sealed." In the interest of protecting birth parents who might not want to be contacted by children they'd given up, Ohio had ordered all records closed in 1965.

For the next few years, Debbie tried to fight the twin demons of an unpredictable illness and a marriage that was slowly suffocating. She and her boys left South Dakota and moved back to Cleveland for good.

Not long afterward, she attended an outdoor family picnic with her mother. On the way home, Ruth turned to her daughter.

"Did you see that tall man with gray hair talking to your cousin Carol?" she asked.

Debbie nodded, wary of yet another setup attempt. Ever since she'd separated from Charlie, everyone, it seemed, had a nice, available man they wanted her to meet.

"Well, that was Abby Goler," Ruth said.

It was the first time Ruth had seen the man since 1954, when he'd arranged Debbie's adoption and skipped town.

A combination of nausea, excitement, and outrage welled up in Debbie's stomach. "Why didn't you say anything to him?" she asked. "Aren't you livid? Why didn't you hit him with a frying pan?"

Then: "Do you think he knows about my birth mother?"

Ruth promised to find out.

She called Debbie the next day with news: Abby had fled to Florida after the crackdowns started making the front page. He'd come back to Cleveland about 10 years ago. The lawyer believed that Ida had passed away a few years before. He didn't know anything about her other children.

The quest was deadlocked once more. But Debbie's mission was about to get a little easier, thanks in part to the Ohio legislature.

The next few years were challenging. The medications Debbie was taking left her sluggish and sleepy. "It was very rough going," she says. "It took a long time to come to grips with everything."

But in the early '90s, Debbie was referred to a new psychiatrist, who didn't believe in overmedicating his patients. He lowered her doses and weaned her off the harsher drugs. Slowly, she began to feel better. "It wasn't like a window shade suddenly snapped open," she says. "But the light definitely started moving in between the cracks."

In 1993, Ruth, tired of seeing her daughter alone and depressed, urged her to get involved in a philanthropic organization. Debbie finally agreed, signing up to solicit donations for a charity auction for cancer. One of the first places she went to ask for a donation was Pastabilities, an Italian restaurant on Cedar Road. There she met Harvey Smith, a charming sommelier with kind eyes and a loud laugh. A few days later, he asked her out. One year later they were married. The following year, she gave birth to a daughter, Zoe.

At the same time that Debbie's life was changing, Ohio's adoption laws were getting their own makeover. In 1996, after decades of fighting by Ohio adoptees, the courts finally changed their rules governing sealed records. Anyone born before January 1, 1964, was now allowed access to original adoption files.

But now that the door was open, Debbie was unsure whether she wanted to walk through. "Once it's opened, you can't shut it again," she says.

But an unexpected diagnosis forced her hand. In 2007, doctors found a rare type of tumor, the size of a fist, on her liver. As Debbie sat in the hospital, shocked and scared, she wondered: Is this another genetic whammy I'm being handed?

So in January 2008, after undergoing a successful round of surgeries, Debbie called Columbus and asked for her adoption file. Three weeks later, the package arrived at her Beachwood doorstep. She pulled out a white, typewritten form, filled with identifying details of her mom's past — her birth date, place of birth (Michigan), and most recent street address: Hamilton Avenue, an old West Side street that used to house dozens of apartment buildings.

Sitting at her kitchen table in Beachwood, Debbie reached for her husband's hand and squeezed it hard. She felt both anxious and excited. "I'd been looking for this information for such a long time," she now says. "To see this stuff there, substantiated in documentation — it's like legitimizing your own life."

On the form, under the section listing "children," someone had typed in the number "four" — two more than Debbie had originally thought. She reached for the Kleenex box.

"As a single child, I'd grown up fantasizing about two little sisters — now there were two others? It was unbelievable," she says.

The pieces of information were small — things that most biological children inherently knew and took for granted. But to Debbie, each new piece was a gift. And over the next few days, as she moved between chores, she'd stop and take the documents out, gazing at them with a look of disbelief.

These documents provided Debbie a key to her biological road map. Armed with Ida's last-known address and her age at Debbie's birth, Debbie and Harvey began searching through old Cleveland directories and newspapers for any mention of the name "Ida Pearlman."

It was long, time-consuming work, and their eyes blurred and throbbed after hours of looking at microfiche. But one day, Harvey came home triumphant: He'd found a marriage certificate with Ida's name. Two years after Debbie's birth, Ida, they discovered, had married again to someone with the last name Dailey.

Back they went to the archives. Weeks of searching yielded another gem: Ida's death certificate. She'd died in 1989 in California.

Reading the news, Debbie felt a strange sense of abandonment. She'd mourned her mother's death years before, when she was six. She thought she'd buried all expectations when Abby confirmed Ida's death a decade before. But as Debbie went through these records, Ida felt like a living, breathing person. Reading the death note, Debbie felt her mother slip away once more. A vital connection had been cut. "I was angry and sad all at once," Debbie explains.

But she kept digging, and the trail of records led her to exactly what she sought: her siblings. Contained in the divorce files were the names of two of Ida's children, Bonnie and Sharon Pearlman. Originally, Ida had been given custody of the girls. But, citing "abuse" and "neglect," the government had taken the kids back from Ida in 1954. According to the documents, both were temporarily placed in Bellefaire foster care.

Afterward, Sharon was moved to a house on South Taylor Road — mere blocks from where Debbie grew up. The many times that she'd spent picturing her imaginary siblings, they could have been passing her on the street or sitting next to her on the bus. "The thought," Debbie says, "was incredibly spooky."

Armed now with names and dates of birth, Debbie and Harvey headed back to the archives. Just this February, they hit pay dirt: Records showed that a Sharon Pearlman, originally of Cleveland, married Alan Knard in 1974. And there was a listing for a Sharon and Alan Knard in a small southeastern Ohio town on the border of West Virginia.

Harvey handed Debbie the phone, but Debbie was too nervous to take it. What if her sister didn't want to talk to her? What if she slammed down the phone? Called her a liar? "I didn't know if I could handle the rejection," she says.

So Harvey dialed the numbers. From Debbie's spot in the living room, she could hear muffled sounds. He'd reached Sharon's son. They now had her personal phone number.

Fingers trembling, Debbie wrote the digits down.

And then she picked up the phone and dialed her sister's number.

"Is this Sharon Knard?" she asked.

In a soft, measured voice, Sharon said yes. And Debbie, filled with a wholeness she'd never felt, began to cry.

Later, she'd learn that Ida too had most likely suffered from bipolar disorder, that her face mirrored that of her sister Bonnie, and that Ida had insisted, for some reason no one understood, that Sharon name her first child Debbie. But at that moment, all Debbie could think was "I'm home." And in the calmest voice she could manage, she told her sister: "I've waited my whole life to meet you."

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