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The search for an adoptee’s identity

It was August of 1964, and Richard Hill — a brand new high school graduate getting ready to start college at Michigan State — was getting checked out for a medical complaint at the office of the doctor who had taken over the practice of his long-time family physician. It turned out to be acid reflux, and the doctor started asking him about things that could be stressing him.

Was he feeling pressured about school performance? No.

Was he nervous about starting college? No.

And then came the question that changed his life forever.

“How do you feel,” the doctor asked, looking over Richard’s records, “about being adopted?”

It took Richard Hill almost 50 years to have a final answer to that question, the question that — before that August day — he’d never even considered.

And his new self-published book Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA1 tells the story of finding that answer in a straightforward, easy-to-read, and powerful way.

For the first 18 years of Richard’s life, the notion that he might have been adopted had never crossed his mind. As far as he had ever known, he was, simply, the only child of Harold and Thelma Hill of Ionia, Michigan.

And even after that fateful August day, it wasn’t something he plunged into. He didn’t confront his parents that day. He went off to college, looking forward and not back.

But as time went by, it was almost as if fate had conspired to keep bringing the question back to the forefront of his life. The steps he took as he went about finding his answers — the things that went right with his search, the things that went wrong, the dead ends, the breakthroughs — they’re all outlined in his book.

There’s much to like about this book:

     • It’s easy to read. The language, the structure, the choice of what to leave in and what to leave out make this the kind of book that you can read, easily, in a short time, without feeling overwhelmed with detail and without feeling like you still have a lot of questions.

     • It explains both the promise — and the pitfalls — of using DNA to investigate genealogy.

     • It doesn’t sugarcoat the process. DNA isn’t a magic bullet. You can’t take a test and find out overnight who all your relatives are. It works, yes, but only in combination with a lot of hard work slogging through the paper trail.

     • It doesn’t shy away from the tough moments. When his adoptive father finally told him about the adoption — and the fact that he had a brother. When he thought he must have missed a clue somewhere. His struggle to understand some of his own emotional reactions — or lack of them. His fear when he realized getting the answer in the end depended entirely on five different people agreeing to take DNA tests for a stranger who might — and might not — be their brother.

     • It explores the issues of adoption — and the search of adoptees for their birth families — from many perspectives. The birth parents. The adoptive parents. The courts. The “adoption angels” who can help adoptees with the process.

     • And it’s just plain a darned good story.

Richard Hill

In many ways, Hill’s story is the story of so many 20th century adoptees. And the lessons it teaches — about people and family and the strains, stresses, possible successes and, yes, the frustrations and failures of the search for an adoptee’s identity — are lessons anyone thinking about this journey should take to heart.

And, by the way, if you think you know the Richard Hill story — if you’ve read the articles in The Wall Street Journal2 or his local Michigan newspaper3 — think again. There’s a twist at the end …

And no, I’m not going to give it away here; the story is too good for spoilers. Read the book.

It’s available from in paperback for $15.99 and for the Kindle e-reader for $14.25. It’s also available for other e-readers at Smashwords for $15.

My take: Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of Richard Hill’s book free. That fact in no way influences my view of its merits.

  1. Richard Hill, Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA (n.p.: p.p., 2012).
  2. Gautam Naik, “Family Secrets: An Adopted Man’s 26-Year Quest for His Father,” The Wall Street Journal, online edition, 2 May 2009 ( : accessed 15 Sep 2012).
  3. Pat Shellenberger, “Rockford man uses DNA testing, Internet searches to find his birth father,” Grand Rapids (Michigan) News, 21 June 2009, online at MLive( : accessed 15 Sep 2012).
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