A Coda on “Twoness”

It is with my biological mother that the absence of closure has affected me the most.  The lack of closure in regards to my biological mother, however, has granted me the greatest amount of existentialistic liberation.  I’ve always experienced fleeting bouts of jealousy when I encounter someone that has the fortune of sharing their natural talents with the talents of their parents.  I have always longed for the connection, and it wasn’t until I was confronted with deciding what kind of person I would be, I felt the absence of a visual representation of whom I came from.  I do have in my possession, however, a picture of my biological mother, and I can remember what it felt like to feel the dichotomy of seeing my own facial features in the facial features of a stranger.  In the photograph, my mother, at 40, is standing in her track uniform with her cheekbones locked in a similar fashion that mine do when I smile without showing teeth.  Her eyes felt foreign, but covering her face from the nose up, it’s difficult to distinguish my features from her own.  This “half-faced” phenotypical bond she and I share is somewhat symbolic of the “twoness” W.E.B Dubois spoke of when he said, “One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” The space concealed on half of my biological mother’s face feels as a parting of the waters.  On one side I see myself, but there is room for discovery on the other and that empty canvas leaves me wondering, “Who am I?

Biological Anthropologist Helen Fisher wrote in her book, Why Him Why Her?, psychologist define personality as temperament and character.  We inherit our character traits from our experiences: Expressions of love and hate, parents’ interests and values, and cultural celebrations – These experiences are what makes up the contents of our character.  As Dr. Fisher points out, the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset beautifully answered the “Who am I?” question by saying, “I am, plus my circumstances.” Our character is the circumstance and the temperament is the “I am.”[1]

The lack of access to my temperament has always led me to question why I am the way that I am, but because I was fortunate enough to have access to loving and fulfilling character building experiences, I have been able to analyze my “twoness” with equanimity.  I will never learn about the genotype bestowed upon me, but I do have access to the character traits that were given to me.  Even with the absence of my biological mother, I was born in an environment that permeated with love.  After I was born, during the early stages of my adoption, I was scouted by different families, and before I had the honor of being taken in by the Conwright family, I spent time with a foster family.  Looking back at the notes taken by the family, I can see the level of attention that was given to my everyday movements, mannerisms, and habits.  So, with all of that, I didn’t have too bad of a start.  After being adopted, I have always been well-fed, in good health, taught to have self-confidence, and surrounded with a beautiful mother, father and family who loves me; however, I still experience what psychologist call discomfort with ambiguity.  Discomfort with ambiguity is one of the ways the lack of closure can manifest itself, as it is associated with an individual’s need for cognitive closure.  As I investigate my own process and revelations with closure, I am defining closure as it is used in a report called, “Individual Differences in Need for Cognitive Closure.” The need for closure is defined in terms of a desire for “an answer on a given topic, any answer…compared to confusion and ambiguity.”[2]

Dr. Cornel West examines the ambiguity of the “who am I” question by asking, “Who are you really, what do you see when you look beyond the physical phenotype in the mirror, what is the quality of your character the depth of your virtue… Who are you as a human being?” So, who am I?  The biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher may say, “A Director/Negotiator.” My primary personality type, director, is driven by the chemical testosterone.  My secondary trait, negotiator, is headed by estrogen. Again, I am a man of twoness. On one side, I am analytical yet intuitive and focused yet imaginative.  After a quick cheek swab and a DNA analysis, National Geographic has told me I am 74% Sub Saharan African, 10% Northern European, 7% South African, 7% Mediterranean, and 2% Southwest Asian. When I look at the migration patterns of my early ancestors, one cannot help but feel a sense of pride about being human.  Following game and suitable climate, my early human ancestors were among the first to make the exodus out of Africa, and I happened to be, along with every living non-African man, part of the only lineage to survive out of Africa. My ancestor’s propensity to survive has seemed to manifest itself in my own life.  It wasn’t too long ago that I found out my biological mother had experienced a pregnancy before me. I have not always known this and when I found out, I realized how close one could come to not being born.  I will never know if my potential brother or sister did not find the womb to be a viable vessel for life or if it were the other way around.  It is also plausible that my late sibling’s sacrifice prompted my mother’s womb or her heart to make an exception for moi. In any event, that person is not a member of the living, and life was kind enough to grant me an opportunity to partake in it.

In this dying struggle  we share, we are battling, if not marrying, character and temperament.  My struggle began when I found out I was adopted.  I do not have any recollection of the moment I found out.  I can not repeat a sentence that was said nor give any quotes of interest. All I can remember is the feeling of ambiguity and confusion, and the need to “know.” Thus, I began my journey into closure with the subject.

After years of painstaking searches and disappoints, I stumbled across the phone number of a woman named Lovie Edwards.  I called the number, explained who I was looking for and why, to which I received the reply, “I know Phyllis.” At this moment, I felt a slight relief mixed with an increase of blood circulation, focus, and uncertainty; all of which, I had to conceal.  I couldn’t let out the cathartic woe that had been growing in my body since I was 12.  I explained who I am and gave my educational history.  This is where the conversation nearly transformed into a job interview, and should have signaled what would be to come.  The contents and the cadence of my voice were of the persuasive nature.  Explaining I am a degree carrying individual, not bitter about the past, nor wanting to talk about the past, felt as if I were a redemption-seeking ex-boyfriend of some sort.  After further inquiry, Lovie responded, “If you are who you say you are, then I was there when you were born.” Trying to explain the significance of such a phrase is difficult and the only way I can explain it is that it was the first time anyone had made reference to my being born.  The point of reference has always been, “I remember when you were brought home.” I had never come into contact with anyone that could bear witness to my arrival. It was then explained that my birth was hard for my biological mother, which I couldn’t imagine Ms. Edwards describing any other way.  I was curious, however, as to whether or not the difficulty of my birth was separate from the difficulty of knowing that she wouldn’t be around for my life. I was told my mother a loving and kind individual, who had a big heart.  It was then arranged to give my biological mother my contact information.  No promises were made other than she would receive my phone number.  And this is how it all ends.  There has never been a phone call from Lovie, or Phyllis.  The ambiguity and confusion over what could have been or what might be still lingers around when I think about who I am or who I can be.

After someone finds out I am an atheist, I am often asked, “What purpose does life have if there is no God?” The grammar of the question denotes God as a creator of life and purpose, and I am left wondering does one need a creator or have access to such a being to possess purpose? It is liberating to know that the universe was not created with me in mind and that closure is the death of discovery and the feeling of wanting to know.  Closure can be a dull word and it can certainly hurt to not have it within ones grasp, but I have found life in the feeling of never knowing anything relative to enough. I never want to know why I am here.  It’s not necessary for me to meet my biological mother because I get to meet her when I see myself smiling with pursed lips and stretched cheeks.  I will not have closure through the wrapping of her arms around my body to give me comfort or the answers to questions that I’ve now long forgotten.  It is in presence of the open door of closure that I have lived my life with the beauty of incomplete security, uncertainty, and feeling that I’m always just getting to know myself.  Life is still ambiguous, filled with wonder and confusion, but knowing the process of self-discovery is the only absolute worth having.


[1] Fisher, Helen E. “Eavesdropping on Mother Nature.” Why Him? Why Her? New York: Henry Holt &, 2010. 3-4. Print.

[2] Webster, Donna M., and Arie W. Kruglanski. “Individual Differences in Need for Cognitive Closure.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67.6 (1994): 1049-062. Print.

4 Comments

  1. I recently contacted my biological father (who I had never spoken to) and was sorely disappointed in his disinterest in speaking to me or getting to know me. I also contacted my paternal grandmother, but that didn’t answer many questions, either. Although I grew up with my biological mother and maternal grandparents, I can somewhat understand how you feel. I have a longing to know where I come from, what kind of people my father’s side of the family are, and how many quirks I inherited from them. If you’re interested, I’ve recently gotten into researching genealogy and would be happy to try and find out more about your mother, her parents, their parents, etc. With my own family tree, I got back to the 1500s and even discovered that I am a descendant of Emmanual Driggers, a mulatto man born in the 1600s. I’ve read some places that he was Barbadian, other places that he was Portuguese… no one knows for sure, but it’s very interesting to research. =)

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    1. Anthony Conwright

      Thank you for reading and sharing your experiences Shayna. I’ll message you about the genealogy research. Do you feel that the research and information you learned helped you with having “Closure”?

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  2. My paternal grandmother was born in Germany and I can’t find any information on her — immigration records, birth certificates for her children, etc. But I did find a substantial amount on my mother’s side, and that information was very fulfilling. My whole life, my maternal grandmother told me that she had been told we had Native American ancestry. I researched and cross-checked everything and found that our supposed Cherokee, Sophia Paulman, was actually the daughter of a German immigrant named Henry Antone Paulman who came to America when he was only 6 years old. His father was a member of the Brethren Church and didn’t believe in war, so I assume Henry felt the same. Henry grew up, married, had TEN children. Since they lived in Arkansas, Henry was pressures to join the Confederate Army. He joined and was able to write four letters home (that are in the Paulman Family Bible) before he was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg. He contracted and succumbed to typhoid fever and is in a mass grave in Delaware. And his wife, Lydia Paulman, was never notified of his death — she was left to assume why he never came home. Sad story, but through their hardships, I have a greater appreciation of the life I was given.

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  3. Anthony Conwright

    That is really cool, Shayna. Being such a nerd, I would definitely want to know if I had any ancestors who fought in the civil war or participated in major American events. You may have just captured my interest! I agree on the positive affect that knowing the hardships of one’s ancestors can have. As I learned more about my biological mother, I became more thankful about the tenants of my life as well. Have you tried the National Geographic Genographic project? That was really cool. I can show you my results… I think I will put the image as the header for the piece.

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