Autofocus: How a Young Adult Novel About Adoption Impacted the Search for My Birth History

Books Features Lauren Gibaldi
Autofocus: How a Young Adult Novel About Adoption Impacted the Search for My Birth History

Soon there will be a document with my name on it in the mail. It’s been on my mind almost every single day since December, when I finished filling out a form that took me months to complete. It was a single page. Name. Address. Proof of residency. Simple stuff, really. But it sat on my desk for days, weeks, months.

Now that I’ve finally sent it, I’m left waiting for a response.

The returning document will take a different form than the mail I usually receive. Letters from family. Cards from friends. Bills. Student loan updates. Catalogs. Every single piece of mail bears the same name: Eric Smith. But this one could stand out.

This one might have my birth name on it.

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When Lauren Gibaldi’s second Young Adult novel, Autofocus, was released, I took a photo of it in my local Barnes & Noble. I was excited for a lot of reasons. For one, it was the first time I’d found a book in a store with my name and a blurb I’d written on the back.

So I posted it on Facebook, as one does. It was nothing too crazy, just a picture of the book with the caption: “There’s a blurb from me on the back, because it’s one beautiful novel about adoption. The sort I wish I would have had as a kid.”

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Minutes later, my father called.

“I saw your Facebook post about that book. Did we do something wrong?”

My heart sunk. I hadn’t thought about how that statement might make my adoptive parents—or just “my parents” as I call them—feel. And what’s worse is they hadn’t done anything wrong. They’re both amazing; my whole family is. So I calmed my dad down and explained the book to him.

In Autofocus, a teen named Maude travels to the college town where her biological mother grew up. Maude’s not on a quest to connect with biological relatives, and it’s not that typical story that you see in movies or on television. Her mother has long since died, a fact that Maude has known her whole life. She isn’t seeking people; she’s seeking answers to questions about her past. The same questions I was always curious about as a kid: Where did I come from? Who were these people? And does any of it offer insight into the person I might become one day?

There’s a great line in the book where Maude is musing about her journey: “It’s this deep yearning to know more about the other life I could have had, the mother I never knew. If blood makes a person, am I more her than my real parents? Or maybe blood is just blood.”

More her than my real parents. Maude doesn’t refer to her biological mother as a “real parent.” And neither do I.

I never grew up wanting to know my “real parents”—the phrase that so many careless people have used when speaking with me. “Do you ever wonder who your real—” Let me just stop you right there. I’ve always known who my real parents are; they are the ones who raised me. No one else matters.

But those questions always lingered. And that’s why I loved Gibaldi’s book. Autofocus isn’t so much about connecting with unknown people as it is about connecting with an unknown past. Will the decisions Maude’s biological mom made influence the person Maude might grow up to be? So Maude researches her biological mother’s life—not because she wants to know the woman better, but because she wants to know herself.

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In January of this year, New Jersey unsealed records to give adoptees access to their original birth certificates. Biological parents who put children up for adoption had the opportunity to redact their names before January, or they could choose to leave their names listed and even provide contact information. There’s an option to submit a parent’s medical history as well. So if an adoptee sends in a form, he can potentially receive new information in the mail about his past.

This is particularly relevant to my life now, because my wife and I are expecting our first little one. During a recent visit to our doctor, I answered my medical history questions with the usual “I’m adopted, I don’t know” routine. But I want to stop being a potential walking nightmare of unknown genes and conditions. And when my future kids ask about where I’m from—where they are from—I want to answer them with more than just a shrug.

But this law remains controversial, and I understand why. All I know is that you can’t predict the heart of a parent or the wants of a child. And I just want some answers.

So when I think about that document in transit, I also think about Maude. And I think about the adopted teens who will read Autofocus and see a bit of themselves in Maude’s journey. Her trip is a quest for answers…not a quest for family.

Because that’s not what this is about.

I know my family. And so did Maude. There’s no question about that.

Eric Smith is a literary agent and author currently based in Richmond. By day, he represents authors writing YA, quirky fiction and unique nonfiction. By night, he writes his own. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.

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