I twirled, alone in my apartment in Cambridge Square. Cell phone wedged to my ear, I flopped down onto my bed and kicked my feet up into the air behind me, crossed at the ankle. The voice on the other end was deep and masculine. It resonated inside me. After initial introductory pleasantries, I remember he said, “oh, I grew up right near there. I actually went to school next door to your apartment, what a funny coincidence.” My mind spun and I giggled after every story he told about his life, like I was a junior high school girl with her first crush. An hour later we hung up and I lay alone in bed, mind racing like I’d downed a shot of espresso.
A few weeks later we met in person. I had driven alone, across the swaying Tacoma Narrows Bridge — an apt match for the butterflies in my stomach. I pulled up to his house a few minutes early and sat in my car to catch my breath for a second. He pulled up beside me on his motorcycle, having just come from running errands. When he took off his helmet, I saw his face for the first time. Thick wavy brown hair with a patch of gray in the front. Glasses. Shirt untucked from his jeans. Black riding boots. I walked up to him and we hugged, awkwardly. I wasn’t used to hugging men so much taller than me. With big grins on our faces, we both went inside.
The kitchen was warm and bright, and I was immediately greeted by his wife, only ten years older than me, who came up and wrapped her arms around me saying, “Oh, Jenna, I’m so happy to meet you. James has told me all about you.”
I didn’t know what to say. I’d called him on a whim and then there he was, after 25 years.
My biological dad.
We weren’t alone. My half-sisters, nine and four, came bounding down the stairs. The older one was tentative, wide eyed, having only just recently learned that she had another sister. The youngest, though, bounded into my arms with a bundle of energy that hit me in that squishy soul place. All afternoon we spent sharing stories of our lives, examining physical traits that we share, and laughing. So much laughing. It was natural, timeless, with six hours feeling like six minutes before I finally peeled myself away to go home.
I spent the next three weeks in a post-adoption reunion state of emotional frenzy. Growing up, I had never imagined meeting my dad — simply believing in the cultural story around sperm donors being deadbeat men. When James invited me to join the family at their yearly tradition of attending the Puyallup State Fair, I was beyond excited. Rides and corn dogs with people who looked like me. People who got my jokes intuitively. Family.
The day was going great, except the lingering feeling I couldn’t quite place. A pinch in my heart when my four year old sister was too tired to walk and crawled up into our dad’s lap. The way the nine year old held his hand so casually. Their physical proximity appeared so natural, was so natural. A dad and his daughters. I kept close to my new “step mom,” tried to place my feelings in a category I had experienced before. Everything felt mixed up. In-between.
I was halfway through a Masters in Counseling when I met James, my biological dad. All of my research and advocacy had been focused on issues in adoption. It was during this time that first learned the term GSA: Genetic Sexual Attraction.
A quick Google search on the term can bring up the stuff of nightmares, as incest taboos run deeply against so many cultural values. I found stories of mothers and sons, brothers and sisters (or siblings of the half kind), fathers and daughters, and — shockingly — grandparents and grandchildren. These were tales of childhood estrangement, post-puberty reunification, and an overwhelming attraction leading to sexual activity. Sometimes Genetic Sexual Attraction even results in marriage and children between blood relatives. In online forums, I learned that this was a common fear amongst adult adoptees, especially when they first began to date as teenagers. If you don’t know who your biological relatives are, then how can you be sure that the person you’re out at the movies with isn’t your cousin or sister? Or father.
A quick Google search on GSA brings up the stuff of nightmares, as incest taboos run deeply against so many cultural values.
I thought about those many anonymous voices in the forum as I stood in line for a fair ride. My feet hurt, and I was starting to hobble a bit, as I thought “apparently Birkenstocks aren’t as good for walking as I thought.” My littlest sister piped up with a perceptive, “you walk just like daddy,” and I saw her big blue eyes looking up at me. Earlier in the day I had been mistaken as her mother, my dad mistaken for my husband. Genetics are strong. Magnetic. Undeniable.
Psychologically, GSA makes sense.
Psychologically, GSA makes sense. Babies feel a type of love toward their early attachment figures, usually their mother and father. Parents are the baby’s whole universe, and then as they grow up, they show childhood affection, like my four year old sister crawling up into our dad’s lap, snuggling in for a hug. It would be weird for a grown woman of 25 to do that with anyone but a romantic partner. There is childhood love for parents, and then, post puberty, those feelings are turned outward toward strangers, which is translated into romantic feelings or expressed in sexual activity. Emotionally, I felt like I was a baby again, trapped in an adult’s body. Wanting affection I couldn’t have.
My brain had exploded with champagne bubbles, my stomach was full of butterflies, and I wore rose colored glasses. If my dad had been a 14 year old boy in my 8th grade math class, I would have called it a crush
“When you’re in a room together, it’s like there’s only the two of you,” my husband told me early on in my reunion. “Like one of those movies, where you see the spotlight on two people. I mean, sure you talk to others, but no matter where you are or what you’re doing, it’s like you’re drawn to each other, aware of where the other one is.” It felt true. My brain had exploded with champagne bubbles, my stomach was full of butterflies, and I wore rose colored glasses. If my dad had been a 14 year old boy in my 8th grade math class, I would have called it a crush. What do I call it? How do I risk the puckered lips and raised eyebrows when I try to explain it to anyone?
Not once did my dad do anything to make me feel uncomfortable. It was like we had an unspoken agreement of side hugs, hanging out only in public, or surrounding ourselves with family while eating home cooked meals and looking at photo albums. I took all the professional advice I’d give anyone contacting long lost relatives. I was armed with strong boundaries learned from therapy and good common sense. I leaned on my friends, online community, and husband for emotional support in navigating the nuanced swirling emotions.
The intensity faded after a year or two, just like a crush would. Even after ten years, every time I cross the Tacoma Narrows to visit my dad and sisters, I think of how the swaying bridge had once famously collapsed into the choppy waves of the Puget Sound far below. I think of how I barely avoided my own destruction. My dad and I never talked about that strange time in our reunion. Because what would we say? I fell in love with my dad, and lived to tell the tale.
Jenna Fox is described by her community college students as “sympathetic, but with a blunt sense of humor.” She is currently writing a memoir of adoption reunion, and podcasting about the things that annoy her. An experimental sociologist at heart, her quirkiest accomplishment was a year spent barefoot. Listen to the podcast and read her essays at www.thejennafox.com.