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KatGransnet (GNHQ) Mon 17-Aug-15 10:39:10

Where does identity come from?

Author Saskia Sarginson on identity and how she found her true self after discovering her father.

Saskia Sarginson

Author of Richard & Judy Book Club choice, The Twins, Without You and The Other Me.

Posted on: Mon 17-Aug-15 10:39:10


Lead photo

Is knowing your birth parents more than just DNA?

Our identity is personal, unique to each of us. Like a soul, identity cannot be grasped. It seems ephemeral. And yet it is at the root of our actions, it informs our personalities, it allows us to stand firm and be distinctly ourselves in the confusion of the world. As Ralph Ellison said, "When I discover who I am, I’ll be free."

My mother once told me that I didn’t need to know who my father was. "I thought you could make your own dynasty," she explained. Much as I loved my mother, and much as she often came up with words of wisdom, I knew she was wrong. We are shaped by the people close to us, and by those who came before us. Relatives that are dead and gone. After all, it is their DNA inside us. Some people even believe in communal memory, that we inherit the past as a kind of internal knowledge. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it beautifully when he said, "Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors."

We have an instinctive need to know who our parents and grandparents are. They are the ground we grow in. Without stories, memories and photographs to create that rich landscape, it’s like standing in a void. At least, that’s how it felt to me when my questions about my father went unanswered.

I could feel the force of history literally colouring me in, my missing half taking form and substance.

It wasn’t until my forties that I tracked my father down. He’d died before I could meet him. But I found his son, my half-brother, and suddenly I had information, facts, stories, about my father and his side of the family. As my newfound brother pulled out photographs and scribbled down names and dates and pointed out pictures in books and places on maps, I was dizzy with the rush of reality; I could feel the force of history literally colouring me in, my missing half taking form and substance.

Identity, our internal sense of self, gives us confidence, contentment, peace, strength. It helps us to work out where we ‘fit’ in the world. Of course there are other vital things that help to tell us who we are: partners, children, friends, jobs, culture, religion, to name a few. But I think that perhaps the most powerful one is the past. The rituals of the everyday might order our life, but history informs it.

Personal myths of self are passed on through family members, tales of uncles and aunts, stories about grandparents and great grandparents. All of them help us to know who we are. Perhaps you might want to fight that history, to change the way things have been and make a different future, but with access to your past, you do it standing on solid ground.

If you don’t know your birth parents, or have the opportunity to find them, there’s no alternative but to manage, to keep the loss hidden, as I once did, and make your own dynasty from scratch as my mother advised. Before I discovered my father, I only admitted to a curiosity about him. It wasn’t until I was confronted with the facts of his being that I understood the immense relief of knowing at last. And with that knowledge I finally began to understand the whole of me.

Saskia Sarginson's third novel, The Other Me, is available to purchase from Amazon.

By Saskia Sarginson

Twitter: @SaskiaSarginson

moleswife Mon 17-Aug-15 13:52:31

Reading this has really touched me today. I didn't know my father, was told by my mother he had died but later found out that she had 'married' him only to find out he was already married and so she had had nothing to do with him when he refused to leave his wife and children. I didn't think much of a man who would do that but was angry with my mother for not trusting me with the truth until just before I got married. I considered finding him but didn't want to upset my mum and then when she died I worried that I might upset his wife and family if they found out about his behaviour - they were innocent parties like me. Using genealogy sites I found out he and his wife had died but that still leaves me with half sisters (as mum didn't marry again and I have no siblings) far across the country. I don't know if their memory (and that of their children) of their father/grandfather would be tarnished and would they want to know me? It feels like it could be a rejection I'd rather not have. But I'm curious and my daughter would like to know about that side of her family. Photos of him show I look so much like him!

Nandalot Mon 17-Aug-15 15:00:42

I wish I had been more curious when I was younger. My father died when I was five and I have no memories from before that time. ( Probably psychological as a result of his early death ). I know nothing about him except the general, he was a caring man, but no stories, nothing. I wish I had asked more of my mum. This has nudged me to ask my brother, five years older than me, what he remembers.

My mother, like Moleswife, was told that her father had died when she was an infant. She only found out after her own mother's death that this was a lie and tried to trace him without success. She always felt a part of her was missing and longed to know what he was like.

My daughter's children are the result of sperm donation, but at least when they are eighteen they will have the ability to trace their biological father if they wish.

It seems strange that three out of four generations of women have no knowledge of their fathers. At least my daughter has a very present, very loving father who dotes on her.

Marmark1 Mon 17-Aug-15 19:39:58

When you're a regular at the school gates,you get to hear things.What the P C Hitlers will try and make you believe is the modern family today,but isn't yet,thank fully.Is on the increase,There are families at my goddaughters school where there is no male at all,Isn't it a basic natural urge to want to know who you are?
My friends niece grew up thinking the man she knows as dad was her true father.She learned he wasn't after a row in her local pub,with her auntie.Even though she is a mother herself now,she is in a terrible state,as is the man she's always known as dad.

Luckylegs9 Tue 18-Aug-15 06:50:05

I would say to Moleswife, seek out your siblings. People are much more open minded now and it is your birthright. You are the innocent party as was your mother, he was at fault, but you have to put that aside, he might have been a father who loved his children but not his wife, then met your mother and it all turned out as it did. You don't know what happened to that first family, so armed with the written evidence you have etc. I would go forward, you will know where one half of you comes from.

devongranny Tue 18-Aug-15 09:20:37

I was adopted and when my parents died I traced my birth parents who were both dead and unfortunately my two half brothers and half sister didn't want any contact so being able to get any information is not possible. How lucky you are to have contact with your half brothers and sisters. I expect that someone turning up out of the blue challenges your idea about your parent.

POGS Tue 18-Aug-15 11:43:35

My father died at 94 years of age and never knew who is father was.

He never said anything other than he had a happy childhood being brought up by his grandmother and later an Uncle . He did however find his mother in London during the war and found he had 3 half brothers. He kept in contact with his mother and my mother only ever said when he came home from London his only words were 'don't ask' and she never did.

I tried to find out but the nearest I got was a cousin of dad's who said "Well the Canadian Army were based in Devises' confused , a story I have told on GN before.

I will never know if dear dad did know the answer but from a granddaughters prospective I sure as hell would like to know who my grandfather was. I would like to know if I share any character traits, our physique, health history, what my unknown family is like and where do they live, how many are there..

So I guess I would say for me I understand the question raised re true identity and I feel a little cheated and believe I am missing something. somewhere. Does it play on my mind, not so much now I am older. Would it make a difference, well that's a question that is unanswerable as I don't see how my life or character would have been any different but who knows? What if he was a millionaire , I was raised overseas, my education had been different the list goes on.

Alea Tue 18-Aug-15 17:18:53

I so totally DISAGREE with much of this, I am tempted to use SHOUTY CAPITALS!

I have recently met my half brother from a liaison my father had in the early years of the war. He was adopted as a 6 week-old baby and had no knowledge of his biological parents until earlier this year( he is in his 70's)
I enjoyed meeting him and was, and still am, happy to share details of our family background, our father's personality and family anecdotes. Happy to share photographs, indeed I compiled a Photobook of family pictures going back to our great great grandfather, including pics of Dad as a child, a young man and in his last years.
So while I hope he enjoyed learning more about his biological father and his background, it seemed strange to me to be looking at and talking to a man with a strong facial resemblance to both my cousin and to a lesser extent to our father, but nevertheless, the man inside was a stranger. Of course he didn't sound like any of our family, we are Scottish and he was brought up in Yorkshire, there were no family turns of phrase, how could there be? His attitudes , likes and dislikes are not necessarily any I would recognise as typical of our family and while I am sure he feels enriched for knowing more about his biological father, I did not feel the connection I might have hoped to.
So how do we assess the importance of Nature v. Nurture?
I am delighted to say my half brother had a happy upbringing with kind and loving adoptive parents. He probably had a better life than if his young mother had married her Scottish soldier in the war years and he told me that if he had not heard from the family of his biological mother doing the usual family research, in fact after her death ,he would have felt no irresistible curiosity to look for his biological parents, assuming they must have died in the Blitz.
So I do not agree our identity is necessarily in our genes. It is in our upbringing, our family influences, our relationships with others and our own life experience.

Nandalot Wed 19-Aug-15 09:54:53

I do agree that what happens to you is important . It is almost impossible to divide nurture v. nature. But the genes must play a role. Look at the stories of twins separated at birth. For example, a recent one one programme about twins. Two girls who find each other I. Their late teens/ early reenties ( can't remember defails). They found so much in commons, tastes, mannerisms etc. importance of genes can't be denied.

jinglbellsfrocks Wed 19-Aug-15 10:04:56

Daft question that. You know who you are. Can't see how or why forerunners should have anything to do with it. Apart from obvious medical grounds of course.

jinglbellsfrocks Wed 19-Aug-15 10:05:43

Too much navel gazing. hmm

Elegran Wed 19-Aug-15 12:01:04

I yam what I yam. Some of it is inherited, some of it is as a result of conscious and unconscious decision and responses to the circumstances of found myself in.

For instance - many of my interests and abilities are the same as my father's - could be genetic, also I could have been influenced by him as a child, which would reinforce any innate similarities. As I get older I can see traits which were evident in my maternal grandmother - is that genetic or the onset of geriatric cussedness?

My feet are a different story. I have broad feet with the second toe longer than the big toe. I was complaining to an aunt about the difficulty of getting shoes that fit, when she told me where she bought hers, and showed me a pair - not new but with a bulge or two where her feet had worn them in. I tried them on - they fitted me as though custom made, bulges and all.

Marmark1 Wed 19-Aug-15 15:27:39

My friend couldn't have children,so she adopted two girls.She was a good mum,but both girls were and still are a bleddy night mare.Its definitely not upbringing.

Marmark1 Wed 07-Oct-15 08:16:43

Is any body researching their family tree?
And can they give me any tips? Please.

rosequartz Wed 07-Oct-15 10:46:41

There is another thread on that, Marmark hmm now what was it called ...

rosequartz Wed 07-Oct-15 10:53:07

Plus others on the genealogy forum
You could start a thread .....
Good luck!

ninathenana Wed 07-Oct-15 10:54:36

DH recently managed to purchase his father's records from Dr. Barnardos. His father had never talked about his upbringing. His mum forbid DH to investigate even after his dad died. Probably because FiL was, shock horror illegitimate smile
Despite having his grandfathers name DH can find no more. So is really non the wiser.

Marmark1 Wed 07-Oct-15 14:24:28

Thank you Rosequartz.

rosequartz Wed 07-Oct-15 14:27:22

I need some tips myself, so I will earmark that thread again!
And I need a kick up the backside bit of encouragement to get on with it again!

SwimHome Sat 14-Nov-15 11:47:10

I feel strongly that my identity is the sum total of every interaction I have had with others throughout my life, which of course contains a dilution of the interactions that these others have had also, and so on ad infinitum. Hence mannerisms, catch-phrases, emotional attitudes can be perpetuated for many generations as the interactions within families are usually cumulative and more intense and sustained than those outside. Hard for those who can't identify with missing family members, but I think the above still stands. Thus we can see how someone whose background has been filled with absent, fragmented or painful relationships can sometimes find it much harder to grasp a sense of identity for themselves. We can either be like someone or react against them and be different. My Gran used to say, "Be careful of the company you keep," now I understand why a little better.

gobsor Sat 14-Nov-15 17:30:34

One's reaction to this subject obviously differs so much, judging by everyone's different reaction. I had this happen to me a few years back. I received a letter one morning, with something inside I would never have suspected. It was from a half brother's family, asking me various questions ( a very nice calm letter ) To cut this story short, my Mother had given birth to her fiancées child in the 1920's.She had had to leave her village and travel to a large city, and had the baby adopted. A marriage was not considered possible apparently as her social standing was not as high as it could have been. Land owners,etc. I suspect the engagement was prob frowned on. She later married my Father and had a small family, in a different country altogether, little suspecting, I suppose that in the future the internet and so on would reveal the facts. Any way the outcome was that We found a brother, a lovely, lovely man, and his family that I love dearly. Apparently his dear wife, had encouraged him not to try to trace his Mother, for the best possible reasons, causing upset and so on. When she had passed away he felt he wanted to so much, that his family did it for him. We had three years together, until he sadly passed away. I feel that it really does depend on peoples own feelings. Some of my family weren't happy at the contact at first,For myself, I could not have ignored the letter or put it in the bin as one friend said, and I am eternally grateful that I got to meet "my big brother".