September 2000


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Eleanor's Rebellion: A Mother, Her Son, and Her Secret Adoption is an ancient arrangement dating back to biblical times and probably even earlier. Even so, it was not until the 1850s that adoption was legally recognized in the United States, and decades later, in the 1930s, that laws were created to ensure the confidentiality of adoption participants. Of the 87,250 children born to unwed mothers in 1935, many were placed with orphanages to be adopted. David Siff was among them. In 1975, when he wanted to make his own astrological chart, Siff needed the exact minute of his birth; it was this quest that lead him to a secret more revealing than the stars. Not only did Siff learn at the tender age of 40 that he was adopted, he also learned that the woman who adopted him was the birthmother who had placed him in the orphanage just a year before. The author's biological father died before the secret was out, but Siff eventually uncovers another startling fact about his heritage: his father was none other than stage and film star Van Heflin. At the mercy of somewhat unwilling biological relatives to understand the father he never met, Siff turns to his father's celluloid surrogate for clues. Siff repeatedly watches Heflin's movie performances (including those as Joe Starrett in Shane and as a mad bomber in the 1970 movie Airport ) in a desperate attempt to learn more about his father, and to understand his mother's secret. Siff's winding journey, a mid-life discovery process if not an all-out crisis, examines how the layers of his family were folded and shifted to cover up his mother's rebellious decision to reclaim her son from the orphanage. As he examines the fabric of his family, the author finds that the secret affected his mother even more than it did himself. With a thorough and thoughtful examination, Siff reveals that the emotional effects of adoption, like the ripples from a pebble dropped into a pond, have no concrete border. Though difficult to measure over time, the ramifications are life-altering for many in the extended circle.

An actor and journalist, Siff has also written several books on sports under the name David Falkner.

Diane Stresing is a freelance writer in Kent, Ohio.

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