Author Emma Kavanagh: How discovering my birth family led me to overturn my ideas about nature and nurture

As a happy adopted child, Emma Kavanagh previously had little curiosity about where she had come from

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Indy Lifestyle Online

“When you are under stress, the way your brain operates can change. An increase in blood flow to those portions of the brain that deal with instinct and muscle memory can lead us to behave in ways that, were we in a rational frame of mind, we would not consider. In order to understand ourselves, we need to understand what our brain is doing.”

As a psychologist specialising in firearms training, I don’t know how many times I’d said these words, but often enough that they had become muscle memory to me. I looked out over the rows of uniformed Nato forces, men and women weeks away from deployment to Afghanistan, knowing that not all would return. I had taught this course so many times before, and what I wanted to do was to give these men and women some advance warning, some insider knowledge into how their brains  would operate when their very lives were in danger.

“So,” said one of my fellow trainers, as I wrapped up my session, “what is it about your brain that makes you do what you do?” Having taught specialist police teams and military forces across the UK and Europe, I had become pretty good at thinking on my feet. But this question… I had no answer.

I was adopted at the age of 10 weeks, was placed with wonderful, loving parents. Where I came from was, in truth, a mystery. I had the names of my birth family. I had the fact that my birth father was American. I had little else.

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And for a long time, that didn’t really matter to me. I was who I was. Entirely, intrinsically different from the world in which I grew up. The only one with curly hair, with green eyes. My parents allowed me the freedom to be myself. Although, in truth, I think that who myself turned out to be surprised them a little. I decided at the age of 14 that I would be a psychologist, eventually went on to get a PhD, and then set up my own consultancy firm, providing training to specialist police teams (firearms, hostage rescue, public order etc) and military personnel on the effects of stress on thought processes and behaviour.

People would ask me why. My mum was a housewife, my dad a telephone engineer. The career I had made for myself came out of the pure blue sky. And I had no answer for them. I did it because it felt right. But that question, that day, on a Norwegian Nato base, it pushed me to wonder: was my brain formed in such a way that this career path was inevitable?

I have always been a seeker of knowledge. “I don’t know” has never been a response I’m comfortable resting with. If I don’t know, I need to find out. And yet this, this most fundamental of questions, I could not answer for myself.

When you are adopted, you are told that you are special, that your parents wanted you so much that they chose you. Yet buried beneath that remains the awareness that, in order to be chosen, first you had to be given away. And so, for a long time, I chose ignorance about who I was, where I came from, because it was safer. But the question now sat heavy on my mind.

In the end, it took a Google search to change everything. In retrospect, the simple fact seems absurd: that my entire understanding of who I am, my genetic make-up, what made my brain what it is, all that rested on one search.

I found my birth family, living in the US. I knew where they were now, how to reach out to them. And yet that reaching out would be fraught with danger. I cradled the information, for a long time. In the end, it was my mum who gave me the final push. “I know you. You won’t be happy until you know it all. So do it.” I emailed my birth father.

I wrote the email so many times, each time deleting it, only to begin again. What do you say to someone who created you and yet has no idea who you are? How do you prevent them from rejecting you out of hand?

The email received an instant reply. “I’m out of the office for the next two weeks…” I’m pretty sure I attempted to throw the computer at that point. But it was good, I told myself. I had two weeks to brace myself for the fall.

Then, three days later, I had a reply, a real one this time. My birth family were on holiday from their home in the States. They were here, in my home town, for the first time in 16 years. They had begun the process of applying to social services in an attempt to track me down. They were desperate to meet me. Would I be willing to meet them? It was time to jump.

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Emma Kavanagh pictured with her adoptive parents during Chrismas 1979 (© Aled Llywelyn/UNP)

The walk to the pub where we arranged to meet will stay with me forever. I remember my feet stopping, seemingly unwilling to take me the final steps. Telling myself to suck it up. To move. Because the answers I had spent my entire life waiting for were right in front of me.

My birth father recognised me as soon as I walked in, even though he had never seen me before. I had a brother and sister, a big extended family. My brother and I shared the same curls. I am, physically, a true amalgamation of both of my birth parents’ features.

And there was more. I discovered that both my birth father and my sister had also studied psychology. And, perhaps most significantly for me, I discovered that my birth father was a police officer in the US, and that, while I was working in the UK training firearms tactical teams about the importance of brain function in behaviour in high-stress situations, my birth father was doing exactly the same with Swat teams in the US.

I don’t really know what I was looking for on that first day, when I typed in that first search. I wasn’t looking for parents. I had those. I wasn’t even looking for family. All I knew was that I was driven to do things – my career, my studies – that didn’t make sense to me. And that there I stood, preaching to others the importance of understanding the way in which your brain works, all the while having a tremendously limited understanding of my own. It was not easy. It is not easy. A lifetime and an ocean divide us. And yet we soldier on, coming together, moving apart, learning about one another as we go.

It has been seven years. Much has changed for me since then. Within six months of finally meeting my birth family, I met my husband – a fact that I’m pretty sure is no coincidence at all. That I had to know who I was before I was able to find someone to share my life with. We have two children now, and I can tell them that they have my family’s eyes, the same birthmark that I share with my birth father and my brother. Now I am an author, a love of writing which I share with my maternal grandfather. This search, its conclusion, has not altered who I am. Rather it has grounded it, allowed me to understand my place in the world and what it is that has made me who I am.

‘Hidden’, a novel by Emma Kavanagh is out now in hardback and soon in paperback

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