You may have seen a photo of Kevin Michael Sullivan in your Facebook feed this week. He’s looking for his birth parents via a photo that has gone viral on the social networking site, shared over 237,000 times. Sullivan has done a somewhat risky thing in our digital era, sharing his phone number with the world in the hopes that it will lead to information helping him find his biological mother and father.
I stumbled on Sullivan’s photo when it was shared by my half-sister, who I came to know about and have gotten to know over Facebook. She shared it with the caption, “I searched for years and years for my half-sister and because of FB we found each other. Hopefully this guy gets the same result.” I didn’t even know I had a half-sister when she and I connected online, but I can imagine what it feels like to search for someone who you’re hoping is out there, and I’ve seen first hand the ways in which modern technology can unite long-lost people in an instant. So I decided I would call Sullivan, tell him my story and ask him for an interview. I left him a message (when the whole world has your phone number, you begin screening your calls) and explained how I found out about his story. After a vicious game of phone tag, I connected with Sullivan for a conversation about adoption rights, not knowing your birth parents and the fear that comes along with searching for loved ones you’ve never met.
The first thing I asked Sullivan was if his adoptive parents were still alive. He told me that his adoptive mother died when he was 15 and his adoptive father died when he was 18, leaving him an orphaned, barely legal adult. I’m sure the loss of his adoptive parents only compounds Sullivan’s desire to understand his origin story and to find more family to connect with. Luckily Sullivan is a father himself with a loving fiancee who is helping him in his search. Sullivan told me that having a child of his own definitely increased his desire to locate his birth parents. “You get older and you realize people aren’t going to be around forever,” he told me. “I’m 40. I want to find them before it’s too late.”
“What if you find out they’re already gone?,” I asked him. “Are you prepared to handle grieving for the death of a dream as well as two people you’ve never met?” Sullivan told me he isn’t sure how he’ll react if he discovers that his parents have already died, or – as we both acknowledged is possible – that they’re both alive but don’t want to connect with him. This I think is the most slippery part of the fallout of adoption or somehow otherwise being disconnected from part of your biological family. What happens when one party goes seeking the other, not knowing if the other party wants to be found?
Any adoptee grows up wondering why they were left behind. We ask ourselves, did my mother not want a child? Did my father walk out of my mother’s life? Am I a product of rape or abuse? Were my parents together but too young to take care of me? Were they so poor they felt I’d be better off with someone else? Even those of us who were adopted only by one parent (like me), or who were never adopted but grew up not knowing one of their parents live in the shadow of these curiosities. My 15-year-old niece, who – like me – does not know her biological father, told me, “I tried finding my dad on Facebook, but I gave up.”
When I asked her what made her want to find him, she replied, “To ask why he left and never tried to contact me.”
As a young girl I, too, harbored fantasies about my biological father, hoping at times that he would swoop in like Daddy Warbucks and rescue me from the life I ended up in. Deep down inside, though, I knew he wasn’t in a position to care for me. I’d been told about how he drunkenly tried to abduct me from my kindergarten classroom, and I’d seen the legal papers indicating that he’d given up his parental rights, which is what allowed my dad to adopt me. Since connecting with my half-sister – his daughter – via Facebook, I’ve seen maybe 200 pictures of him. He looks exactly like I imagined he would – like a torn-up, alcoholic Vietnam vet, the kind of guy who is described as having a “heart of gold” and who would “do anything for anybody” but who “just can’t get his life together” for whatever reason. He looks like me, and I look like him, and my sister and I favor each other. And yet still, I don’t feel driven to meet him. He called me once when I was in high school and dropped a Star Wars bomb on me in the iconic words of Darth Vader: “I am your father.” I was shocked and didn’t know what to say. If he tried to force his way into my life at this point, I would feel very uncomfortable. Yet who’s to say that if I ever changed my mind and wanted to meet him he would still be open to it? I have no idea. Right now, I don’t want to find out.
I stopped wondering about my biological father while I was in college and starting to develop a life of my own. He doesn’t owe me anything and I don’t owe him anything, and I’m not really willing to open up old wounds for the sake of connecting with him. I don’t care anymore about what happened when I was a small child. But I understand why Kevin Michael Sullivan does. Adoptee Rights organizations are fighting for people like Sullivan to be able to access their original birth certificates, and according to the Adoptee Rights Coalition, adult adoptees in Pennsylvania (where Sullivan lives) may soon have the right “to obtain their original, factual birth certificates,” allowing them to seek out their birth families. There’s a bill currently in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives gathering support, but until it passes, Sullivan has only Facebook to rely on.
Sullivan has gotten a few useful tips so far from callers, including one woman who thinks she might be Sullivan’s sister. He says he’s open to meeting her and exploring the possibility. Though he has gotten plenty of prank calls, Sullivan says the majority of the calls he’s received have been from well-wishers who can relate to his story. If you’d like to wish him well or have any helpful information you’d like to share, you can leave a comment on Sullivan’s Facebook photo, here.