I am not your little orphan Annie.

by Michelle Riess

In May 1982, the movie Annie was released in the United States. Annie, which takes place in New York City in the 1930s, is the story of a 10-year-old girl named Annie (Aileen Quinn) who lives in an orphanage due to the death of her parents, but ends up being adopted by billionaire Daddy Warbucks (Albert Finney). The movie is based upon the 1977 play of the same name. The 1982 movie, and the casting process itself, was advertised extensively and my adoptive parents pushed it on me heavily.

This post isn’t intended to be a critique of the film, but to demonstrate the impact unrealistic adoption stories like this can have on the adoption narrative, and how that perpetuates the savior mindset in some adoptive parents–as it certainly did in mine.

Aileen Quinn as Annie (1982)

At the time of the movie’s release in 1982, I was 5 years old. As this website shares with you, I did not know I was adopted until 2017, at the age of 40, when I accidentally discovered I was adopted after taking an Ancestry DNA test. (Related: read about my shocking adoption discovery here)

As a child, I remember having mixed emotions about Annie. I liked the music and, of course, Annie’s dog, Sandy. But the movie also made me feel sad and uncomfortable despite reassurances from my adoptive parents that it was a very happy movie. “Look at everything Annie has now!” was the basic message they repeated to me, as though money alone can, and should, replace the loss of a child’s entire biological family, ethnic identity, culture, siblings, grandparents, life until that point, etc. It just does not work that way, but I was a young child being manipulated by my adoptive parents, so of course I believed whatever they told me.

And it wasn’t just the movie… I was taken to the theater to see stage productions of Annie. I was given virtually every Annie toy known to existence–the dollhouse, the car, the dolls, bags, clothes, books, records, even the official Annie wig and dress. You name it, I probably had it.

I was Annie for Halloween that year too. I don’t remember asking (or even desiring) to be Annie for Halloween; it was selected for me that year by my adoptive parents. Originally, my adoptive mother wanted me to be the raggedy orphan version of Annie (of course she did!) but I specifically remember her having a very difficult time finding the right kind of boots that Annie wore in the orphanage. Instead, I was the much more polished version of Annie after she is “rescued” by Daddy Warbucks (the red & white dress version of Annie like pictured below.) I wore my official Annie dress, wig and my black tap shoes. I even had a little heart locket to go along with it, because of course I did.

Final scenes of the 1982 movie Annie include this elaborate party celebrating the acquisition of Annie

In early November 1982, Annie was released on VHS. I vividly remember my adoptive father taking me to the local video store (that’s how we watched movies at home in 1982–LOL!) and him pleading with them to purchase one of their copies of Annie on VHS. I remember them being resistant to sell it to him, but ultimately he succeeded. It was the first movie we owned for our new VHS player and they made such a big deal about it to me. So much so that I still have it in my possession today because it feels almost criminal to get rid of it despite the feelings I have towards it now. (side note–I really should hold a ceremonial burning of that VHS tape one day…)

Naturally, my birthday party that year was also Annie themed–again selected by my adoptive parents. I mean, doesn’t every child who doesn’t know they are adopted as part of an illegal adoption ring dream of having an Annie themed birthday party? (…crickets…)

My Annie birthday party took place at our home on Saturday, December 4, 1982. My actual birthday is November 30, but they waited until that weekend to have the party.

Annie Adoption Michelle Riess Christina Gellura
An elaborate 1982 Annie-themed birthday party for a child who would never be told that she is adopted.

In 2017, I learned that December 4th is a monumental day in my life. It’s the day that my mother, Hollie, reluctantly handed me to the adoptive parents in the hospital after being lied to by them, by her Ob/Gyn and by the attorney the adoptive parents paid to find them a baby. This was the same attorney that illegally arranged my adoption. The same adoptive parents who used fake names so my biological family could never find them. The same adoptive parents who promised (in writing) they would tell me about my adoption as a young child but knew they never really would. The same adoptive parents who had to testify in the eventual trial against their own shady attorney about my adoption. Surely the significance of this date was a detail not missed by them while planning my Annie party that year on December 4. It just oozes with ickiness.

The party was quite elaborate for 1982 home birthday party standards. Today, kids parties are out of control, but in 1982 my party was about as good as it got for the average child’s birthday party. There were all sorts of officially branded Annie decorations–plates, cups, tablecloths, napkins, centerpieces, and a banner. There was a custom-made Annie cake. I don’t remember what food we had, but knowing my adoptive parents it was probably extensive. I wore a little red and white velvet dress with white tights and black shoes that gave off obvious Annie vibes. I’m honestly surprised they didn’t make me wear my official Annie wig too. They hired a clown. They hired a magician. They played the movie on the tv in the background, which may not seem like a big deal now, but many families at this time didn’t even own VHS players, let alone movies just released on VHS. There were balloons and presents everywhere. I’m sure there are plenty of other details I overlooked in all of the excitement of the day–but you can get the idea.

Michelle with a bird from the magician at her Annie themed birthday party in 1982

On the surface, some people may read about this party and think “how wonderful” or “how loved” I must have been for them to throw such a nice party for me. I can assure you “love” had nothing to do with the organization of this party, or even my adoption for that matter. This party (and my adoption) was all about my adoptive parents and making them feel good about themselves. It was them showing off, building their façade (because they had much to hide), and making a spectacle of me in the process. I don’t think any child–adopted or otherwise–would appreciate looking back on this blatant objectification.

Michelle at her Annie themed 6th birthday party

I am absolutely certain my adoptive parents were trying to recreate the feeling of the final scenes of the 1982 movie where they are celebrating Daddy Warbucks’ acquisition of “poor little orphan Annie”. During these movie scenes, there is an epic celebration at Daddy Warbucks’ mansion where they eventually perform the song “I Don’t Need Anything But You” while tap dancing in front of President Roosevelt. While our house certainly was not Daddy Warbucks’ mansion, it was a beautiful large home in a very nice town in southern New Jersey near Philadelphia. It was about as close to Daddy Warbucks’ mansion as any upper-middle class child (or adult) in 1982 could imagine. If it hadn’t been December, they probably would have had elephant rides and fireworks in the yard just like the movie. (lol!) Had it not been for his historic Latin American trip that week, I’m certain Ronald Regan would have been there too.

I look at the party photos now as an adult who knows she is adopted and I cringe. I just don’t know what my adoptive parents were thinking on so many levels. It made a mockery out of my adoption, my personal experiences as an adopted child (even as one who didn’t know she was adopted because they knew), but especially the great sacrifices my mother, Hollie, made on that same day six years earlier. I look at the little girl in the photos and she doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on or what is coming her way. It all makes me so sad. (cue ‘Maybe‘ from the Annie movie soundtrack)

If I had known I was adopted and I chose to see the movie Annie and talk about adoption openly with my adoptive parents that would have been a completely different situation. If I had known I was adopted and I chose an Annie themed birthday party (or to be Annie on Halloween) that would have been a very different situation. That was never the case though–my adoptive parents made sure I never had that opportunity. For forty years, they crafted a web of lies with made up facts & stories intended to answer questions that would ultimately reveal that I had been adopted if they had told the truth.

Michelle with the magician at her 6th birthday party on December 4, 1982

After my discovery in 2017, I’ve had numerous people in my life come forward and tell me how they, or in some cases, their parents, got weird vibes from my adoptive parents. A few friends even told me their parents didn’t want them going to our house because something about them made them uncomfortable. None of this surprises me now. Obviously, the fault does not lay with anyone but my adoptive parents. In the end, their own lies and behaviors destroyed any hope of a continued relationship with them once I discovered the truth in 2017. (Related: Could you secretly be adopted?)

“People trust their eyes above all else – but most people see what they wish to see, or what they believe they should see; not what is really there” -Zoe Marriott

Over the years, we traveled a lot. If there is one thing I can appreciate from the life I had with my adoptive parents, it was their ravenous appetite for very expensive travel. We went on dozens of cruises and extravagant vacations all over the world.

On many of the cruises there would be a passenger talent show. When I was younger, my adoptive parents would often suggest a duet between my adoptive father and I singing “I Don’t Need Anything But You” from the movie Annie. Thankfully, I always declined to participate, and they never forced me to do it, but just the idea that it was even suggested on multiple occasions is stomach turning. Again–I had no idea I was adopted and they knew everything. To suggest a duet from Annie, where Daddy Warbucks “saves” this poor orphan girl strongly suggests that this is how they genuinely saw themselves in relation to me. Their behaviors and attitudes towards me over the years also support this. I mean really, out of all the songs in the world we could have performed together, why suggest that one, (and only ever that one) especially since I had no knowledge of the significance? It’s sickening.

One time when I was quite young, probably not too long after the movie was released, my adoptive mother made a silly comment about my adoptive father being Daddy Warbucks and her being Grace Farrell–the beautiful young secretary of Daddy Warbucks portrayed by the amazing Ann Reinking. I remember responding to her very matter-of-factly with something along the lines of “I think you’re more like Miss Hannigan.” Obviously she did not like hearing that and slapped me across the face. That was the first time I can recall her hitting me in the face, though certainly not the last. The thing is, what I said was so accurate–she even looked and acted like the character a bit, especially the drinking. (no offense to the very lovely Carol Burnett) She had a very similar reaction one time when I called her “Mommie Dearest” after a particularly harsh punishment (who, ironically, also had an adopted daughter named ‘Christina.’)

Miss Hannigan–the mean red-headed drunk that ran the orphanage where Annie lived. Sound familiar?

Growing up, my adoptive mother’s mother lived with us. She moved in with my adoptive parents shortly after they were married in 1970 and remained with us until her death in 1999. She was a no-nonsense kind of woman and basically the complete opposite of my adoptive mother. She lived simply, she was a hard worker and she made the most wonderful comfort foods (she previously had owned a restaurant with her deceased husband.) Over the years, she suffered with some debilitating medical conditions and eventually was unable to walk, stand, or really care for herself. By the time I was 15 years old, it was clear that she needed a lot of help. My adoptive mother did not work outside of the home, yet somehow, in the middle of high school and my teenage years, it became MY responsibility to be her caregiver. My adoptive mother literally did nothing for her other than maybe bringing her a glass of water or throwing a frozen meal in the microwave for her from time to time. I always thought it was so strange that my adoptive mother was home all day but always claimed she “couldn’t” help her–yet a CHILD was expected to. I loved my grandmother so at the time, even though it was very difficult, I couldn’t allow her to be neglected, so I did what I was told. It was honestly terrible. Some of the things that I was required to do for her–as a teenager–included dressing her, bathing her, feeding her, transferring her to/from the wheelchair, transferring her to/from the recliner, transferring her to/from her bed and transferring her to/from the toilet. I did everything from changing her diapers to wiping her–and she suffered from some pretty severe gastrointestinal issues… I also co-managed her medications and glucose monitoring with my adoptive father.

Michelle as a teenager caring for her adoptive grandmother

When I was in high school, she attended an adult daycare program so that my adoptive mother could have “a break” during the day. (seriously!) I was required to come straight home from school every day so that I would be there to greet the adult daycare bus when it arrived at our home. I would then wheel her into the house and start her afternoon routine (which always began with a visit to the bathroom.) When my adoptive father returned home from work in the evening, these responsibilities mostly transferred to him. At some point, my adoptive parents also hired an aide to help out on weekday mornings.

When I went away to college, my grandmother’s health began to decline and she required more care. My adoptive mother continued to not help with her own mother’s care, and even made my adoptive father come home from work during his lunch break to care for her. (again, she did not work outside of the home and was home all day, everyday!) While I was away at college, my adoptive mother frequently reminded me of the heavy burden I had selfishly placed upon my adoptive father by going away. This, along with some other serious issues happening with my adoptive parents at this time, placed an inhumane level of stress and guilt upon me at a time in my life when I should have been preparing for my future. Eventually, I did return home to resume her care until she died in 1999. Looking back on all of this now, especially as a parent, I am completely disgusted. All of it just makes me think of Miss Hannigan from Annie and the overwhelming feeling that my adoptive mother genuinely felt like I “owed” them for “saving” me. I think back to this time in my life, and honestly, I’m not sure how I made it through. I genuinely feel sad for that young girl and everything she went through silently while everyone on the outside thought she was living a beautiful life. [Related: Hidden abuse amongst affluent families]

I wholeheartedly believe my adoptive parents thought they “saved” me from a horrendous life they were sure I was destined to live as the child of two unmarried teenagers. The ironic thing is my parents, Hollie and Rick, raised three very smart, successful, kind and wonderful daughters despite being young parents. It is very obvious that my three sisters were very loved, well cared for and treated with respect and dignity. I cannot say the same about my adoptive parents. Over the years, my adoptive mother always took the opportunity to remind me “how lucky” I was to be living there. I know in my heart she meant it and that she didn’t really love me the way a mother is supposed to love her child. I still have the cigarette burn scars on my body to remind me of that fact every day.

The reality of the situation, looking back now, is that I would give up everything I had growing up for the opportunity to remain within my biological family. There is no question in my mind. No amount of money, travel, toys, clothes, fancy things and experiences can ever replace the love between a mother and her child. That was all I ever needed. Nothing more.

I was not your Annie.

You did not save me.

You destroyed me.

“By ignoring the complex reality of adoption, we are also corroborating a sentimental narrative that drives a billion-dollar, for-profit adoption industry whose sole purpose has been successfully shifted in modern American history from finding homes for children who legitimately need them, to supplying hopeful prospective parents with kids to call their own.” –Liz Latty (read more)

P.S. Learn more about adoptee rights here: adopteerightslaw.com

18 Comments

  1. As another late discovery adopted person I am disgusted by this. They should be ashamed but theyre probably not. Probably just think to themselves what a nice party we gave her she should be greatful. sickening.

    1. Author

      Julia, you are probably correct. I think it is difficult for some adopters to really see beyond what adoption means to them and not really take into consideration the long-term impacts adoption can have on the child. And they don’t care to learn. It’s very unfortunate.

  2. I am so sorry this happened to you. I think they did all of this for themselves. I hate to throw around the term “narcissism” but truly this sounds like narcissistic abuse. They treated you like an object to fulfill some weird fantasy of theirs. It’s creepy and weird and so wrong.
    I am also a late discovery adoptee. I know about the lies and half truths and delusional behavior. I stand with you in solidarity!

    1. Author

      Lori, as always, thank you for your support! I know you understand. Love, Michelle

  3. I’m also an LDA. I did love Annie as a child, and very much identified with her yearning. My adoptive mother and I had the matching lockets, and it makes my skin crawl now. I was 34 when I found out that the malicious narcissists who raised me, who promised “I brought you into this world and I can take you out” were much worse people than I realised.

    The image that echoes for me is when I was 11 I discovered Santa wasn’t real after being mocked at school. I confronted my Mom. She slapped me and told me I ruined Christmas forever. It was such an over reaction and I realize now a part of their fantasy world. Even once we were adults she would insist we “talk to Santa”.

    1. Author

      Kate, sometimes I think you and I were raised by the same mother. LOL! You, more so than any other LDA I’ve met over the years, truly understands the kinds of nonsense I experienced. Thank you for always being supportive. Love, Michelle

  4. Also Late Discovery Adoptee 59, although in my case not adopted into a comfortable upper middle class home, my first bed in the adopters home was in a drawer in a chest of draws
    – I found your story intriging as it was disturbing also in many ways relatable in it’s dellusion
    – I have said often that I was an unwilling actor in someone elses pantomime, my adopters were the directors and the adoption legislation the script writer – although I am a male, the movie I remember being coerced to watch and questioned about was “The Bad Seed” I am not sure of the purpose of having watch this was, just seems a strange movie about adoption, lies, deceit & murder to coerce an adoptive child of 8 or 9 to watch. Like you adoption did not enhance my life for 59 years it destroyed it as it had from the first day of separation from my mother, the erasure of my identity, the dellusional replacement identity that followed, an existence of an inner knowing that all was not right with the world, my world, the ultimate disclosure at 59 via DNA, the ultimate deception exposed, the realisation that I had been played the fool over and over, yes the embarrasment of that, the cringing at the constant expression of we love you, yes so much that they withheld my truths, my human rights to know who I am, denied to me for life, for my children and granchildren and beyond – this is not just a crime against us adoption is a crime against humanity, it is human trafficking and in many cases kidnapping & then human trafficking – all involved in child removal and adoption should hang their heads in shame – we are no longer children, yet we are perpectually treated as children for life – reminds me of the saying “don’t pick on children or drunks, cause children grow up and drunks grow sober”, we are now grown up and for the best part sober, we are a force to be reconned with, together in our grief and distorted lives, our lived experiences we are a powerfull force to dismantle this cruelest of industries that benefit from child then adult misery disquised as savourism – the veritable wolf in sheeps clothing that continues to retell, reinforced the false narrative of adoption rainbows & unicorns

    1. Author

      Peter, I am just realizing that my response to you has disappeared. I am so sorry! Thank you so much for sharing your story here. You are a late discovery adoptee ICON and I am so grateful for all of your insight and work to spread awareness. Thank you! -Michelle

  5. Michelle,
    I can’t believe that they forced the “grateful” Annie Theme on you! The poor little orphan that had to scrub floors and was rescued by the wealthy Daddy Warbucks. I’m sure they thought of themselves as your “rescuers” It was all about THEM!!! I still don’t understand how their relatives and friends could stand by knowing you had no idea that you were adopted, and witness things like this. It’s not normal… They thought it was ok? I know they didn’t see most of their Families (for this reason) but some close family or friends must have noticed this was not the humane! If only one person had spoken up back then.. I’ll add that to my never ending “If Only” list, it makes me want to scream and vomit all at once… I love you my sweet daughter! I am so proud of you and your strength and resilience through this journey.
    Love, Mom ❤️

    1. Author

      Thank you Mom! I replied to this months ago but it looks like it was deleted or never went through somehow. There are so many things I wish could have been different in my life. Having a relationship with all of you, either by remaining within the family, or by having an open adoption, is my #1 wish. It’s so sad but I am grateful to know the truth now. Love, Michelle xoxo

  6. Adoption is always portrayed as “saving” a child or doing them a favor. You become the adoptive parents living doll.
    I am an LDA as well. I think of many of my life choices-they were all decided for me. Any individual idea I made only led to discipline, arguments and or threats. So I started keeping plans/thoughts and decisions to myself. Even with those well into adulthood, I was haunted by reactions from adoptive mother.
    Adoption is traumatic for the child and celebrated by others. Finding out later in life-further trauma, disappointment, anger, sadness, a permanent hole that LDA’s must re-fill themselves and it’s not an easy task. Yet, we are told to be grateful and thankful for the deception of the trauma. I cannot compare this trauma to other types without it being taken out of context. I can say it has me questioning everything from my youth, past and current relationships, truthfulness, inner strength or lack there of and how I am towards my own children. This is now a journey for me and my fellow LDAS-it is not a movie. Our reality every single day.

    1. Author

      Thank you for sharing some of your story with me here. I agree with everything that you’ve written here. Take care! -Michelle

      1. Michelle..Hollie and Family..I am so glad you found each other Cousins!! Hope to see you all soon! We are in North Myrtle SC..2 miles from beach. If you ever head this way…you have a great spot to stay! Cousin Debbie

  7. Thank you for posting your story. It is horrifying and I am so sorry it happened to you.

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