L500 With Interest

L500 With Interest

by Jill Johnston

I HAVE FLOWN TO LONDON, MY BIRTHPLACE, ON many occasions as an adult, but last September I went to see what I could do about my missing birthright – the inheritance of my long-dead father, whom I had never met and who never married my American mother.

My once-dated personal circumstances – in the 1960s both United States and Western European laws and customs began to change, embracing rights for children born ex paternitas – had become oddly au courant. I could now see my lot reflected in recent political struggles in America over welfare mothers, single mothers with children born out of wedlock, in the restoration of the very word illegitimate without quotes around it, and the attempt to rehabilitate marriage as man’s exclusive domain for recognizing offspring.

As I was raised very nicely outside patriliny – a limiting, prohibitive, death-dealing institution, a system inherently oppressive to women – why would I want from it a belated acknowledgment of my existence? Having grown up in a kind of fugitive matriarchy, knowing only my mother and various maternal female relatives and finally only women in prep schools and colleges, I was given the most unusual illusion of freedom – sans father, sans any kind of male at all (no brothers, uncles, nephews, cousins, stepfathers, or mother’s boyfriends) who might promote the idea that I was worth less than they were, that I couldn’t do all the things they did, or that I was here just to serve their interests.

The immediate reason for my retrograde venture, during this past summer of my 66th year, was the abrupt if not unexpected death of my father’s widow in England at the age of 93, which potentially changed my status from filius nullius, meaning “the son of nobody,” to “one of my father’s children” – an expression of a legal concept indicating proper membership in patriarchy. Filius nullius for all practical purposes means the heir of nobody. While I was of course “the daughter of nobody,” the feminine ending, filia nullia, does not exist in common law literature on illegitimacy, presumably because daughters were not inheritors, whether products of a legal marriage or not.

As the child of a post-colonizing force – the British Empire before it fell – I have always deemed the father, both personal and generic, to be a figure of enormous power and remoteness. Watching the tell all BBC interview with the besieged Princess Diana, rebroadcast here last November, I could identify with her solitary and unequal struggle against the English royal establishment. With a “marital war” at issue, perhaps all women can. I quavered especially for her myself, with cause for protest and action no less compelling, if not exactly of note to the universe. To get the attention of palace and people, which Diana obviously has, thus to be able to make my case (as dubious to the powers that be as hers) most effectively, I would have to do something a lot more drastic than Diana, whose acts look suicidal enough. Since I am half American, even should I, say, crash the Queen’s bedroom to obtain an audience, my complaint would seem about as serious to the descendants of George III as would a suit to compensate former colonists for defective Rolls-Royce’s.

Diana’s situation is instructive, highlighting the prefeminist yet still existent destiny for women as wombs to incubate male heirs. Very much the daughter of somebody (Lord Spencer) but given away to a stranger (Prince Charles), Diana has had as her primary if not sole purpose to produce the sons of his high somebodyness. The marriage of a daughter, at least as traditionally understood, has been a form of de-legitimation – a state my mother avoided by remaining single, even as she courted high censorship by violating the marital code and having a child unsanctioned by a man. Now we see Diana, a woman divested of her marital status even while married, swinging in an abyss of abandonment by husband and his family – not so unlike the problem I inherited from my mother, whose daughter I most assuredly was.

By no means have all bastard children known who their mothers were. In America, not long before I was born, it became possible, with the Adoption of Infants Act of 1926, for parents to give up their parental rights in a clear and unambiguous way – a boon to young unmarried and pregnant middle-class girls who could now save selves and parents the terminal embarrassment and shame of bearing illegitimate progeny in full view of their extended families or communities. With that and subsequent adoption laws, the transfer of property (child) from biological mother to adoptive parents, engineered in secret by state authorities, ensured the future sealed identities of both mother and child. The child, who would be “legitimized” through adoption by a woman properly married (i.e., able to give the child a man’s name), would never know who her parents of origin were; and the birth mother, while going on presumably to exemplary womanhood by marrying at some future date – no one but herself and her parents any the wiser – would never know her child’s adoptive identity.

MY MOTHER’S INGENIOUS SCHEME FOR KEEPing me herself was made possible by having me abroad (akin to a “home” where prospective mothers like her were often sent while lying in) and by having selected a man to sire me who, while a frequent traveler to America (she met him on shipboard circa 1925), would never (have to) be known to family, friends, or fellow workers. He came on business; the moment I was born his business excluded my mother; for all intents he existed safely 3,000 miles away. Still, once my mother returned to American soil, ready to present me to her mother and assorted maternal relatives, she had to have a story. Obviously she couldn’t just say oh I met this wonderful Englishman a few years ago and then I became pregnant and he wanted me to have an abortion and I decided to have the baby and then he would have nothing more to do with me. The stigma of unwed motherhood was simply extraordinary at that time (a demonization that Mr. Gingrich and the Christian Coalition are dedicated to reinstating, with even a revival of orphanages for the unfortunate children). My mother knew her options – she had to have been married and divorced or left widowed by the father of her baby. And since divorce was itself a stigma, also difficult to obtain then, and the father of her baby was already virtually dead by reason of considerable distance, she opted for widowhood. This made sense for the additional rationale, which perhaps my mother understood, that her ex-inamoratus was legally dead to both of us.

Her story established, our new name Johnston set (“stolen” from my father), my mother had only to figure out how to survive alone with a child, and how to keep her child in the dark – a sine qua non of these histories. My ignorance was key to making it all work. I was, after all, not only the repository of my mother’s secret; I was her secret. The ancient order of illegitimacy, which has shaped the murky underside of patriarchy, has been best served by the mother’s hardship, optimally expressed in a secret child, whether adopted or lied about.

Or in a secret murder. Infanticide has been a popular solution to the illegally begotten – a fact implied by an act passed in 1624 under James I “to prevent the murthering of bastard children.” It’s the form of infanticide called abortion – strictly speaking fetuscide – that exercises people legally today. Pro-choice people, mostly women, want the right to abort extramaritally conceived children (along with the side benefit of expelling the unwanted in marriage). Prolife people, so-called, are in effect only concerned to uphold man’s right by tradition to deposit his seed when and wherever he likes and to see every successful union of egg and sperm come to light. Deep conflicts over abortion and adoption (with the latter: a recent movement to make records available, establish registries, create private and TV reunions, have open adoptions, all opposing traditional forces) reveal wide fissures, if not pathologies, in the modern nuclear family, in the dying institution of marriage as we have known it, in patriarchy itself.

I was left with my
biggest legal
fantasy of all: a
public apology by
Queen and
Parliament, for the
undue trouble one
of their subjects
caused me and my

With open adoptions and legal abortions, secrecy obviously no longer defines them. Co-existing now with the continuing blight of illegitimacy is the fledgling form of legitimate parenthood by couples who are unmarried. Complicated as this may make new legal terms for naming and inheritance, and presupposing an end to exclusive male rights, it also promises, in principle at least, that children will no longer be shrouded in secret origins. I can see myself poised awkwardly somewhere between my mother’s time – charged with serving her interests, and mine as she saw them (to protect me from prejudice, from certain social pariahdom) – and the present, when efforts to undo broad damaging consequences of a secret upbringing may appear anachronistic at best. This seems true in America even as patriarchal presumptions of the ownership of children are under redefinition. In England, where I have close relatives still unaware of my existence, and where the law still considers me filius nullius, I have no sense whatever of being “out of my time.” My position seems oddly analogous to that of the young Diana – a modern woman, child of a modern divorce, challenging an archaic system entered in ignorance, imagining that her mistreatment under its unequal conditions will be understood and reparations made. The members of my father’s family, royal minions to the core, cannot feel any more obliged to jeopardize their status by acknowledging me, an illegal child, than Charles and his are moved to undermine their position by recognizing the claims of Diana, a mere abused wife.

MY FATHER HIMSELF DID ACKNOWLEDGE ME, however obliquely, in his will. He died in 1950 (at which very moment, aged 21, I learned simultaneously of his death and of his existence – my mother having sent me, with a cover letter, his New York Times obit). A paragraph in his will, which it did not occur to me to obtain until 1984, asks his wife to dispose of £500 as he had indicated to her “without any legal obligation.” A month later I found three mentions of that £500 next to my mother’s name in my father’s trustee papers. One entry notes that the trustees were writing to my mother and enclosing an extract of the will, saying they understood that my father’s widow intended to send her this sum. To obtain these telling documents, I had only to call the legal establishment at Gray’s Inn (which held them), identify myself as the daughter of a long-dead client of theirs (whom I named), go over and collect the massive bundle (which had been moldering there for decades), and stagger into a taxi with it.

At that point I only thought, naively as I would learn, that the “proof of paternity” clearly spelled out in the papers might give me a certain cachet with my father’s family. With my father’s widow still alive, inheritance per se could not be an issue. And I had long understood that my inheritance was my story, or what I could make out of it. My goal had always been to meet family to find out more about myself, and to feed my autobiographical project, plotted to culminate in a volume featuring my father. I had a potential intermediary in my half brother, the only family member I knew, and the only one who knew of me, apparently. In 1978 I had located him and introduced myself, whereafter we would meet for “secret” teas and lunches. In 1984, emboldened by my “proof of paternity” and the further evidence it provided that my half brother’s mother knew of my existence, I pressed him to meet her. As a result, both my relationship with him, such as it was (he was always tight-lipped for instance on the subject of our mutual father), and my efforts to open a lock to his family ended abruptly. Having no intention of acknowledging my existence (in relation to her dead husband), his mother was hardly inclined to meet me. His “main concern,” he said, was “for his mother and her feelings.”

I could understand that, and I went on my way doing what I had been for the past three years – circumnavigating the family, criss-crossing the country researching lineages, excavating histories, e.g. my father’s career, which exists plentifully in the public record, not only abroad but in America. In this I must have conformed to my outlaw profile, waiting till my mother, who had always warned me not to enter the fatherland, much less try to contact family, had died.

A new gloss for my “proof of paternity” was provided when I met Helena Kennedy, well known in Britain for her defense of battered women, also of one of the Guildford Four. Today she is a QC (Queen’s Counsel) and “one of Britain’s leading barristers/’ according to a recent Newsweek cover story that quoted her describing Princess Diana as “a postfeminist woman of the ’90s who feels she’s got rights.” After our first fateful meeting in April 1988, over tea at the Waldorf in London, it became easy for me to imagine that access to my family might be created only through legal pressure. When Kennedy asked me to list my “priorities,” I developed great legal fantasies on the spot, never hitherto conceived. Remembering the words of an American lawyer friend several years earlier that I could “spearhead a movement for reform,” I said right off I wanted to change the law, meaning the Family Law Reform Act of 1969, which granted new rights to the illegitimate but was not retroactive. Kennedy then blew my mind by explaining that there simply had to be a cutoff point (’69), because what’s left of the British Empire “would crumble if all the scullery maids’ children,” those products of all the king’s men’s mistresses or one-nighters, were to crawl out of the woodwork and lay claim to inheritances. “Think of the thousands of cases….” Imagine, she added, what “terrible pain” it would cause. “It would totally undermine the whole economic system.” No, the law could not be changed, she pronounced with finality, but I could, she said, be a “special case.”

My “special case” would pivot upon something called a Declaration of Paternity, which is where my “proof” would come in handy. A “live issue” had to be concocted first – a probate, or any interest my family might have in suing me, like over my book project. Kennedy saw us getting a “publicized declaration” to a higher court, leading to a meeting with family in the “inner chambers” of a Lord she knew, a “liberal peer.” Since neither this nor a later plan hatched by Kennedy, to flush out the family by simply blitzing the media with my story (articles I would write on roots, an appearance on her own ITV talk show), ever came to pass, I was left with my biggest legal fantasy of all: a public apology by Queen and Parliament, for the undue trouble one of their subjects caused me and my mother, a ceremony perhaps capped by the presentation of a scroll with a seal outlining their atonements. Throw in the keys to the city.

HY WOULD I WANT TO JOIN AN INSTITUtion that originally militated, and still does, against me, my mother, indeed all women, by obtaining a Declaration of Paternity? The answer must lie in a sense of outrage I carry, contradictory as it may seem, that any father should be allowed, even encouraged, to sire a child that he can refuse to recognize, not to mention support, or can endow with a lifelong stigma. Add to that the political understanding that women by themselves cannot legalize their offspring, making women in effect illegitimate. Add further: an appreciation that every child should inherit every benefit of the system into which it is born – i.e., until such time as we have a fully equal society, why should not all women have the advantages I had inside a supportive insurgent matriarchy (without of course the onus of secrecy that cast a shadow over my blessings)? But within these assessed indignities must lie a deeper emotional issue: the desire for intimate knowledge of the father. With the death simultaneously of my father and of the possibility of knowing him, a trajectory that could lead eventually to his family seemed promised. Upon learning last summer of the death of my father’s widow – the keeper of his flame and all – I saw an obstacle apparently removed, the way obviously clearer.

THE “LIVE ISSUE” OF PROBATE, RAISED BY Helena Kennedy back in ’89, was now established. The potentiality existed of becoming “one of my father’s children” through his will, a document of relevance once his widow died. Between last June and September my file shows 48 communications by fax and phone back and forth New York/London with Kennedy and various solicitors. In the end, despite evidence in my father’s will of his intent to benefit me (along with his “legitimate” children) through his mention of that £500, which could be shown to be directed to my mother, no solicitor saw a loophole to exempt me from having been born before 1969.

Now another approach to family, strangely never imagined before, hove into view. One solicitor, Nina Solomon of Stephens Innocent, a firm recommended by Kennedy, held out hope – to “find some…way to create a lever against the Johnston family to allow [me] access to papers,” and wanted £1,000 for the consideration. At the same time her boss, Mark Stephens, referred me to a “professional counselor,” encouraging me to connect with “a group that works with adoptive children who want to find their real parents.”

Here it was – that inescapable traditional connection between adoption and illegitimacy, suggesting that in my case, as I had long recognized, I had been my mother’s de facto adopted child, with the identity of half my parentage “sealed.” Modern agencies for reuniting parents and children act in the gap between the law and the general human good. Man’s law called marriage, creating whole populations it aims not to benefit, gives rise to such rescue operations, primarily women-led and -organized.

Touching down at Heathrow September 18, I went first to see that “professional counselor” recommended by Stephens, an “independent social worker” as she calls herself, and I felt immediately at home. She characterized her specialty as “family secrets,” and said things of great resonance for me, such as “Your mother led a life of subterfuge to protect your father’s decision.” In a trance of jet lag, I rested in the powerful ambiance of mediation. Reminding me that I have never been attracted to paying money for perpetuating adversarial relationships – the business of the law, after all – she said the solicitors would cost me £10,000 and I’d get no change. Recently when a friend asked me what I thought of the Baby Richard adoption case, I said it’s a crime to have such a case handled by the law, to have “winners” who would take the child, “losers” whom the child would irrevocably lose, secrets created in the wake of the decision, and attorneys making money off their problem.

I ENGAGED THE COUNSELOR ON THE spot, but the next day, still hoping to change England, which remains in thrall to a 1575 paternity act formulating the father’s begetting of a bastard as “an offense against God’s law and man’s law,” I kept my appointment with Nina Solomon on the premises of Stephens Innocent. Quite pregnant, and looking at me with a sort of droopy, apologetic expression, head cast down and sideways, large brown eyes up from under, Solomon might have been read right then as saying she couldn’t do anything for me but I had to pay her anyway. And indeed, once seated in her office, after she collected me from the waiting area by the reception desk where I had been given a very large tumbler of coffee, I learned that a barrister she’d engaged in my case, one Alexandra Mason, had no positive news for me either, that it was useless to go over to see her, but that nonetheless I owed both of them the £600 (reduced from £1,000) Solomon had agreed to. So now I shaved off another £50, thus giving back (to England) the amount my father’s widow once sent my mother – plus interest!

I was intimidated, it’s true, by the country that once intimidated my mother, causing her to sail away meekly with her “stolen” child, but I was mindful also that it was perhaps in my best interest to pay the solicitor who recommended the mediator who could do what he could not – and in so doing render unto the royal Caesars for so kindly providing my mother with their estimable seed.

JILL JOHNSTON’S Danish wedding confection, “Deep Tapioca,” was served in ON THE ISSUES in summer 1995. Her books include Lesbian Nation; Mother Bound and Paper Daughter, both subtitled Autobiography in Search of a Father (Alfred A. Knopf); and Secret Lives in Art (Chicago Review Press). Her critical biography of jasper Johns is forthcoming from Thames and Hudson.