Legacy of loss
Leslie Mackinnon’s grief over relinquishing
her sons for adoption inspires her
passion to change the process.
The gray porcelain floor tiles of the upstairs bathroom felt cool against her hot skin. Leslie Carroll Pate had left her job at the family’s appliance business before lunch because she didn’t feel well and was stretched out on the bathroom floor near the tub. As the blares and whistles of the college football game Granny watched downstairs filtered up through the floorboards, she swallowed her own screams. It was Oct. 28, 1967, three days after her 20th birthday.
Another wave of pain squeezed down her body. She grabbed the side of the tub until the pain passed. For a brief second, she wondered if she were having a miscarriage. If she were, no one would discover the shame she had been hiding for months under loose tent dresses and 50 extra pounds. Only a year after giving up her first-born son in an Alabama maternity home, she was once again giving birth, this time at her family’s home in Florida, unmedicated, untended and unseen.
In the months leading up to this moment, Leslie had been running escape scenarios through her mind.
At first, she’d thought of running away to Washington State and telling people her husband had died in Vietnam. But the thought of losing her family, in addition to her first son, seemed too high a price.
She had tried to bring on a miscarriage by throwing herself down the front stairs, drinking a bottle of castor oil, soaking in the hottest baths she could stand.
One day, she took her dark green Austin Healey out on a winding road and pressed the gas down hard, racing up to 100 mph. As she approached the hairpin turn, she wondered if she had enough nerve to crash. When she realized even death would not erase her shame — an autopsy would reveal the truth for all to see — she accepted there was no way out.
So she stayed busy working three jobs, coming home only to sleep or change clothes, and hoped a solution would magically appear.
The only way to outpace the pain that Saturday was to shift positions. When it hurt to lie flat, she kneeled in front of the tub, resting her forehead on the rim, and tried to catch her breath. When that failed, she stood and gripped the sides of the sink. Finally, she felt the baby move down. She crouched over the bathmat in a stance she would later recognize as primal and universal, and felt the newborn slide out. She caught her boy in her hands and pulled a towel down from the rack to wipe his face and cap of dark curls. His eyes opened, trying to focus. Neither of them made a sound. She pulled two more towels down from the rack and lay on her side, curved around her baby, and they slept.
A knock on the door woke her.
Leslie? Why is this door locked? Let me in. Her mother’s voice on the other side of the door. Leslie pulled herself over to the threshold and reached her arm up to the knob.
Mom. I have to tell you something, Leslie said. I have a baby in here.
Photo: Leslie’s story was featured in a documentary film by Ann Fessler about unwed mothers called “A Girl Like Her.” The movie poster hangs on a wall in her home.
The way back
Lost children and missing parents were themes that ran through Leslie’s family as surely as the genes for blond hair and blue eyes. She was born in Kansas City, Mo., to parents who had married young and were not a good match. Her father, Wendell, was a chemist for Standard Oil by day and a jazz sax player by night, and her mother, Jean, was a bookkeeper. They divorced when Leslie was 5, sharing custody at first, but not peacefully. Seven years later, Jean remarried, and Leslie and her sister went to live with her in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
In 1960, life settled down and Leslie threw herself into making friends, going to the beach and attending Choctawhatchee High. In her senior year, Leslie fell hard for a dark-haired football player who took her to the prom and loved her in return. He drove her around town in his red Bonneville, going as far as Atlanta that August to see the Beatles play Atlanta Stadium.
After the concert, they parked on a dark street before driving to Decatur to spend the night with her aunt and uncle.
Pouring herself a glass of water at the kitchen sink later that night, Leslie felt something flip in her belly. It felt like the Fourth of July in there, as if actual fireworks were exploding under her skin.
What if I got pregnant? she said.
We’d get married, her boyfriend replied.
Six weeks later, Leslie was getting ready for class at Pensacola Junior College when she was overcome with nausea. When she told her boyfriend the news, he drove to Fort Walton Beach the next weekend and told his parents they were getting married. They were having none of it and hustled him right back to the University of Florida.
Leslie’s parents sent her to a maternity home for unwed mothers in Mobile, Ala., telling anyone who asked that she was spending the semester in France with family. Leslie was instructed to write letters to her friends and then mail them home so Jean could ship them over France to be postmarked and mailed back. No one was to know she wasn’t off having the time of her life.
And in a strange way, she was. The girls at Allen Memorial maternity home felt a little like family. When they could forget what lay ahead, they acted like any other group of teenage girls thrown together at camp or college. It was also where Leslie got her first glimpse of a job she thought she might one day do: Talking to people about their lives, the way the nun they called Sam did. It was her job to sit with each girl for a half-hour every other week to “go over the plan.” It wasn’t counseling, but the idea of talking to people to help them through a difficult time made an impression.
When she reported feeling the first signs of labor, Leslie was dropped off alone at the hospital and made to labor in a hallway because unwed women were not allowed in the labor ward with married women. The nuns had promised the girls they would not feel a thing when their babies were born; that much, at least, had been true. As labor progressed, they were put under; when they woke, their babies were gone. Instructed to never tell a soul — even a future husband, who “would not want damaged goods” — the girls were told to resume their lives as if nothing had happened.
As if that were possible. Leslie tried, hiding her grief and obediently going off to the new school her mother had selected, a Catholic girls college in Cullman, Ala. Then an old high school boyfriend stopped by after Christmas, on his way to Vietnam, for a bon voyage weekend.
Six weeks later, the familiar sensation of nausea left Leslie terrified and ashamed. She felt paralyzed, lost and more alone than ever. There was no way to tell anyone it had happened again. So she came home for the summer as planned, started eating everything in sight and made sure she was busy all day, every day. She worked at the family appliance store as well as a department store and a church nursery. She let out the seams of her muumuus and stitched up newer and looser shifts on the sewing machine in her green-and-blue bedroom, where albums by the Beatles and Smokey Robinson littered the carpet.
The day Leslie’s mother found her daughter on the bathroom floor with her newborn son, she sat down beside her weeping child and stroked her hair, telling her, Everything’s gonna be OK.
It would take Leslie years to see any gifts in that afternoon. In time, she was able to recognize and reclaim the strength that got her through the birth and adoption of her second son and recognize it as the seat of her empathy for all women, including herself. In time, she discovered that reframing her perspective on all she had lost would uncover the depths of all she had to give.
Making the connection
After losing her second son to adoption, Leslie felt herself split in two. The shame-filled girl who couldn’t look anyone in the eye stayed hidden inside, frozen in time. The girl on the outside transferred to the University of Georgia in 1967 to study social work. There, she learned the only way to keep the pain at bay was to work longer hours and aim higher than anyone else.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1969, Leslie moved to Atlanta and was hired by Families First, one of the biggest social service agencies in town, which gave her a scholarship to get her masters. She got her degree at Tulane and returned to Atlanta to work as a licensed clinical social worker.
In the late ‘70s, Leslie started to notice that many of the teen patients who showed up in crisis at West Paces Ferry Hospital and Ridgeview Institute were adopted. Nearly a fifth of them.
“I had to shut it down,” she says, looking back. She wasn’t ready to think about how adoption might impact a child’s emotional well-being.
When she was 41, Leslie married Bill Mackinnon, a fellow therapist, and became pregnant with twins. Leslie was ecstatic. But as soon as she delivered the babies, things took a turn. She immediately broke out in hives. Doctors chalked it up to a reaction to the Betadine solution used on her C-section incision. But Leslie wondered if it wasn’t some bone-deep fear of having her newborn twins, Elliot and Annelise, taken away, too.
The fear of losing them cropped up at home whenever the nightly news ran a story about a child abduction, and she’d have to switch the TV off. Once her babies were big enough to crawl around, a sense of all she had lost started to build.
“I was sitting on the floor playing with them,” Leslie remembers. “And I started wondering about what my sons had been doing at this age. Here were these two people who looked like me, and I remembered [the boys] looking like me. I had a 100 percent awareness that they were full-grown men who had gone on to have lives and I didn’t know one thing about them.”
She became depressed and struggled to feel connected to the twins. Something had risen up in her and was standing in her way. She had written to the agencies that had handled her sons’ adoptions years ago, making sure they knew she was open to contact and updating her information any time she moved. In the closed adoption universe, that’s all you can do — send a letter and hope it gets filed. But now, she realized, she had to do more.
“I got my buns back in therapy,” Leslie says, “and started dealing with their loss.”
One night, she had a dream she was driving down a road. Not just any road — that familiar hairpin turn back in Fort Walton Beach where, as a pregnant 19-year-old, she had considered crashing her car. Two baby boys sat on the side of the road. Scared someone would run them over, she stopped the car, picked them up and put them safely in the back seat.
Oh Leslie, when are you going to find those boys? said a colleague with whom Leslie had shared her dream.
Bill supported her search for the boys as long as she waited until the twins were in kindergarten.
So in the mid-‘90s, Leslie started educating herself on adoption and search and reunion. One book led to dozens, which led to internet research and phone calls to strangers. She reached out to the regional representative for Concerned United Birth-parents (CUB), a support and education organization based in California, and met Margy McMorrow, a fellow birth-mother who would become a dear friend. Margy assured Leslie she was not the only woman in the world to have surrendered more than one child for adoption and invited her to a CUB retreat in Carlsbad, California. There, Leslie tried to overcome the shock of being able to say aloud what she had spent 30 years hiding.
“It was so scary,” she remembers. “Every time I opened my mouth, I was terrified. But I realized I had never said it in public, so I was going to say it until I got used to it: ‘Hi, I’m Leslie Mackinnon, and I gave up two sons.’ ”
When Margy learned Leslie was a therapist, she rightly predicted Leslie would end up doing work in the field and gave her a list of other professionals in the adoption reform community whom she needed to meet.
“I was devastated to learn how damaged adoptees could be,” Leslie says. “And I felt responsible. That’s when I started trolling back through my cases (with former clients) and feeling, Oh God — that’s what that was! I started becoming so fascinated with the whole topic. Every conference I went to, I bought every single book I didn’t already have. I’d always been fascinated by the whole world of psychology — and here was a whole new branch.”
The family of adoption
On a sunny fall afternoon in 2011, a dozen girls between the ages of 8 and 13 sit cross-legged on the floor in the back room of the Vinings Library. For most, this is the first time they have met other adoptees like themselves. A third were born as far away as Ethiopia, Russia and China; the rest were born here. Older adopted girls and a handful of birthmothers join them in the circle. Once she has their attention, Leslie provides the theme of the day.
“In regular life, everything is not about adoption,” she says, looking around the room. “But today, whether we are making art projects, journaling or talking about our lives, everything is about adoption.”
And it is. The topic that underlies their lives is brought to the surface. For one day, no question is off limits, no feeling is judged. The older adoptees who serve as mentors go around the circle and say a little about themselves. The littlest ones just listen. For most, this is their first exposure to a support group, but it’s not billed as such. This is The Girl Connection, a quarterly day-long event Leslie dreamed up to bring some of her youngest clients together, to give them the kind of reality check and mutual support opportunities that older adoptees and birthmothers get from the Adoption Triad Connection, the monthly support group Leslie facilitates for adults.
For Leslie, The Girl Connection is just one of the many healing branches she has created on the family tree of adoption. Broadening the adult Triad support group to include adoptive parents, siblings, spouses and social workers is how she proves they’re all in this together.
“The pain adoption can cause is nobody’s fault,” says Leslie. “We were all sold a bill of goods by professionals coming out of a very punitive era toward unmarried women.”
Birth mothers were told they would go on to have other children and forget they had lost their first. Adoptees were told they should be grateful for the families they were placed in. Adoptive parents were told loving their children would solve all their problems. No one was told that separation from families of origin could cause a hole in one’s life that might never go away.
“It drove me crazy that everyone thought the other side was the enemy,” says Leslie. “I wanted there to be a conversation between all sides.”
Threads tie together
Reconnecting with her own sons happened quickly. Once Leslie listed herself with the International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR), a mutual consent registry that reconnects family members, she learned that the son she had delivered alone in her bathroom was named Keith. He was 28 and had signed with the registry at 18. They spoke on the phone for the first time in 1997. He grew up one town over and recently had returned to school at Pensacola Junior College, the same school she attended when she discovered she was pregnant the first time. She mentioned she’d heard he was into art.
Music, he said.
What kind of music?
Do tell. My father was a jazz saxophone player.
He laughed, relieved to know where the interest — not shared by the family that raised him — had come from. They met the following year in Destin, where her family always spent spring break.
“It was incredible,” Leslie said. “I remember I told Bill I had to go shopping the day before to get a new shirt, and I started telling all the clerks about it, and then we were all crying.”
He stopped by the condo for the afternoon with his girlfriend and her toddler son.
“I was glad there was a 2-year-old we could focus on. I was really nervous, had a lot of butterflies. I wondered how I looked, how I came across. I don’t remember actually opening the door or any of that. I remember being seated on the couch next to him, watching the baby play. I don’t even know if I did hug him. I knew enough to follow his lead.”
Just before Leslie met Keith, she said a little prayer that they could have a year of getting to know one another before she started to look for her first-born. The following spring, she was back in the Florida Panhandle on spring break. She reached out to her high school boyfriend to see if he was interested in helping her search. He was. The week she returned to Atlanta, the phone rang. It was Catholic Charities in Mobile, Alabama. A social worker asked if she was sitting down.
I can be, Leslie said, grabbing the kitchen stool.
Your son wants to meet, the voice on the phone said.
Pete, her firstborn, had grown up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and had first tried to find her in his 20s, without success. After he got married, his then-wife encouraged him to try again — and this time, he vowed he wouldn’t let the social services agency off the hook until they gave him his files. In them, he learned not only had his birthmother been interested in contacting from the start, she had sent letters for him since he was a child.
He drove to Atlanta with his wife to meet Leslie and her family. Elliot and Annelise, who were in third grade at the time, were so delighted to meet their second “long-lost big brother,” they took him to show-and-tell at their elementary school.
But reunions are a process, not an event, and even the best bring up painful feelings. They change over time, and can leave everyone feeling — at one point or another — overwhelmed, uncertain or confused. Both of Leslie’s reunions have evolved to suit her sons’ preferences. Shortly after getting to know one another, Keith’s adoptive mother (who is now 90) told Leslie how glad she was about their reunion because now there would be someone to watch over him when she was gone. Yet Keith is more likely to think of Leslie as a friend he sees once in a while.
Pete, on the other hand, calls Leslie Mom and is glad to be part of her family. He recognizes that many adoptees don’t have a positive reunion experience and he counts himself lucky. He has co-presented with Leslie at several conferences, and accompanied her on some of her most high-profile media events. He was there when she gave a presentation on “Birthmother Grief: A Lasting Sorrow” at Harvard; he flew up to New York City with her to appear on Katie Couric’s daytime talk show
“She’s on a mission to save the world and I’m in the middle of it,” he says. “I haven’t even scratched the surface of things she knows and has dealt with.”
The wider world
Not content to just counsel those whose lives were changed by adoption, Leslie is out to change the adoption process. She is an advocate for helping women with unplanned pregnancies find ways to parent, and if they decide that adoption is the only choice, to arrange an open adoption. She reconnects families separated by adoption and advocates for open records, traveling the country to speak to academics, attorneys and agencies. She joined the staff of TLC’s Sunday night series “Long Lost Family,” after suggesting to producers they needed to offer families counseling if they were going to reunite them. The show resumes airing new episodes next spring.
In September, she spoke at a conference examining the outcomes for children created by third-party reproduction who, once they reach adulthood, often experience the same emotional issues as adult adoptees. She urged attendees not to repeat the fallacy that adults won’t want to know about their origins. By bridging the worlds of adoption and third-party reproduction, as both a mother and a therapist, Leslie sees her life coming full circle. Because her twins were born through in vitro fertilization, she likes to say she has a foot in each world. When the company that stored her remaining embryos asked if she would consider donating them to a childless couple, no strings attached, Leslie replied with an unequivocal: No thanks. Once down the road of secrets and lies is more than enough.
“A true change-maker” is how April Dinwoodie, chief executive of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, characterizes Leslie, who serves on the organization’s board.
“Her skills, spirit and passion for reforming adoption have had a transformational impact on organizations, systems and individuals,” Dinwoodie wrote in an email. “She is fierce, bringing her leadership, knowledge and insight to our work.”
Around her wrist, Leslie wears a delicate bracelet that bears the words, “Let your life speak.” It has become her motto, and she lives it every day.
Who would have thought that the girl who had been so filled with shame would one day tell her story on network TV? Who would have thought that the girl who came to UGA in 1967 “doing everything (she) could to keep bricks on (her) mouth” would one day return as a sought-after lecturer? She tells students what she learned the hard way by letting her life speak.
ABOUT THE STORY
I met Leslie Mackinnon in 1996 at a local support group meeting for adoptees and birth parents. We connected as fellow birthmothers embarking upon our searches for the children we’d lost to adoption and became friends for life. Since then, we have seen each other through good times and bad, traveled to adoption conferences and vacations, sung alto in the choir at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on Boulevard and — until 2012, when I moved away — shared the joys of quarterly events with the members of The Girl Connection.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Eileen Drennen worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as an editor and writer in the features and news departments from 1987 to 2008. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2009 and taught critical writing at the University of Georgia in 2011. She is married and lives in Lafayette, Ind., with her husband, Terry Stevick.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Branden Camp is a freelance photojournalist based in Atlanta. He grew up in a musical family and planned a career in the music business. It was not until later in life that he found his true passion — visual storytelling. He is a graduate of Kennesaw State University, with a degree in communications with a focus in journalism.
ADOPTION SUPPORT RESOURCES
Families First. Support Group 6:15-8:15 p.m., third Thursday of the month. 4298 Memorial Drive, Suite A&B, Decatur. 404-657-3555.
Roswell Adoption Support Group. 5:30 p.m., fourth Sunday of the month. 987 Canton St., Building 14, Roswell. 770-377-4958.
Georgia Adoption Reunion Registry. www.ga-adoptionreunion.com.
American Adoption Congress Conference. April 5-9, 2017, Grand Hyatt Atlanta in Buckhead, 3300 Peachtree Road NE. www.americanadoptioncongress.com.