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 young girl named Annie (Aileen Quinn) who ends up being adopted by billionaire Daddy Warbucks (Albert Finney). The movie is based upon the 1977 play of the same name. The movie, and the casting process itself, was advertised extensively and my adoptive parents pushed it on me with full force.
At the time of the movie’s release, 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 my own adoption after taking an Ancestry DNA test. (Related: read about my shocking adoption discovery here) This post isn’t intended to be a critique of the film, but to show the heavy impact unrealistic adoption stories like this can have on the adoption narrative and how it perpetuates the savior mindset in some adoptive parents–as it certainly did in mine.
I remember having very mixed emotions about Annie as a child. I liked the music and, of course, Sandy the dog. But it 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 theme I was told, as though money can somehow 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. I was also 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.
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 orphanage version of Annie (of course she did!) but I specifically remember her having a difficult time finding the right kind of boots that Annie wore in the orphanage. Instead, I was the much more polished red & white dress version of Annie (like pictured below) and wore my official Annie wig and my black tap shoes. I even had a little heart locket to go along with it, because of course I did.
In early November 1982, Annie was released on VHS. I vividly remember my adoptive father taking me to the local video store and 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 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.
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. 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 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. Kids parties today are out of control, but my party was about as good as it got in 1982 for a 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 definite 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.
On the surface, some people may look at 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. It’s humiliating. Looking back knowing what I now know, it feels so dehumanizing. They turned me into an accessory. I don’t think any child–adopted or otherwise–would appreciate looking back on this blatant objectification.
I am absolutely certain they were trying to recreate the feeling of the final scenes of the Annie movie where they are celebrating Daddy Warbucks’ acquisition of “poor little orphan Annie”. During these scenes, there is an epic celebration at Daddy Warbucks’ mansion where they eventually perform “I Don’t Need Anything But You” while tap dancing in front of President Roosevelt. While our house certainly was not Daddy Warbuck’s mansion, it was a beautiful large home in a very nice town in southern New Jersey. It was about as close to Daddy Warbuck’s 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 in the yard just like the movie. (lol!) I’m certain Ronald Regan would have been there too had it not been for his historic Latin American trip that week.
I look at these 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 that little girl in the photos and she doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on or what is coming her way. I want to hug her and tell her everything I now know. I want her to run away and find her mom and dad and meet her sisters. I want her to have the life she was supposed to live. It all just makes me so sad. (cue ‘Maybe‘ from the Annie movie soundtrack)
If I had known I was adopted and I chose to see 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 paraded around as 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 fabricated stories intended to answer questions that would ultimately reveal that I had been adopted if they had told the truth. After my discovery in 2017, I’ve had numerous people in my life come forward and tell me stories about how they, or in some cases, their parents, got weird vibes from my adoptive parents. Some knew the truth. Some suspected. Some had absolutely no idea. Most have told me they now regret not saying something to me or to my adoptive parents. A few friends told me their parents didn’t want them going to our house. 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 expensive travel. We went on dozens of cruises and extravagant vacations. On many of the cruises we took, there would be a passenger talent show. My adoptive parents would often suggest a duet with my adoptive father singing “I Don’t Need Anything But You.” Thankfully I always found it creepy and declined to participate, and they never forced me to do it. But just the idea that it was even suggested is stomach turning. Again–I had no idea I was adopted and they knew everything. To suggest something like a duet from Annie, where Daddy Warbucks “saves” this poor orphan girl seems to strongly suggest 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 that one, especially since I had no knowledge of the significance?
One time when I was quite young, probably not too long after the movie was released, my adoptive mother made some sort of statement about her being Grace Farrell from the film–the beautiful young secretary of Daddy Warbucks portrayed by the amazing Ann Reinking. I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but I clearly remember responding to her with something like “you’re more like Miss Hannigan.” She obviously 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. The thing is, what I said was so true. She even looked and acted like the character a bit–especially the drinking. (no offense to the very lovely Carol Burnett)
I wholeheartedly believe they felt like they “saved” me from some terrible life I was destined to live as the child of two unmarried teenagers. They wanted a baby and so they purchased one. 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 to remind me of that fact.
The reality of the situation, looking back now, is that I would give up everything I had growing up for the opportunity to remain with 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