In Jean Straus’ recent documentary A Simple Piece of Paper, she asks, “What if you were adopted, and could never see the record of your own birth? What would it feel like if your state finally let you have this simple piece of paper?”
Straus invites us into the stories of several adults – some in their thirties, some middle-aged, and some senior citizens, who receive their birth certificates for the first time. I struck by the sight of an adult adoptee who was brought to tears by receiving his original birth certificate for the first time at age 74. Even after a life has been nearly fully lived, questions of origin still seem to have remained powerful in the back of his mind.
These adults receive more than information, sometimes. One learned that she was the third of three children; she reached out and found a sibling, and explained while meeting him, “For 60 years I’ve wanted a brother. Now I’ve got one.”
This film is successful in connecting us with the emotions of the people who finally receive answers to lifelong questions. It’s particularly successful in that Straus’ subjects speak honestly and insightfully. Here are some of the more powerful statements that have stuck with me:
“Were you born on your birthday?”
“This will show that I was actually born.”
“The State has kept me from knowing who I am.”
We’re introduced to the impact of learning one’s birthname for the first time. We see that a recurring theme is the question that many of these adult adoptees had been silently asking of their birthparents all their lives long, “Did you think of me?” When an answer is given to that question, it seems to always be, “Yes.” One man, Bill, now perhaps in his sixties, finally learns the name of his birthmother. She had kept him a secret from her family, and by the time he reaches out to his family, his mother has died. No one in his family knew about him, and yet, when they searched through the wallet of the family matriarch, they found, hidden behind a picture of a daughter that she raised, a photograph of Bill as an infant. She had carried his photo with her for sixty years. Even though she kept her secret, she thought of him.
Some of the adoptees had less happy outcomes. Some receive less information; some receive birth
certificates where the names of father and mother were never filled out. We hear their pain and anger. Some are turned away by their families. Even through pain, one says, “If it’s incomplete, or not the answer you hope for, it’s still an answer.”
This short film captures pain and joy, rejection and reunion. It’s powerful and touching, and effectively shows the value of adoptees having access to their original birth certificates.
A Simple Piece of Paper is best suited to teens and adults. It’s worth seeing and worth sharing.