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About Face

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Have you read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking? It chronicles the period after the sudden death of the author’s husband’s and the concurrent illness of her adult daughter. It is starkly written and trance-like in nature.

On the back cover is an intriguing photo, one with such interesting composition and mystery that I found myself staring into it on occasion. It was taken in Malibu in 1976. I play the guessing game.

I think on their names. John Dunne and Joan Didion — Irish, perhaps? Quintana Roo, their daughter. Must have a connection to Mexico — but the name is not fully explained in the book. Their daughter looks to be about my age that year.

I study their faces. Yup, Quintana looks like the perfect combination of John’s facial structure and Joan’s self-assured sassy. She looks as if she’d like the photographer to leave already, and let her get back to the conversation she was having with her parents.

I read for several nights. I found out, as part of a casual mention, that Quintana was adopted. On page 118: “…John and I had brought Quintana home from St John’s Hospital. She was three days old.” Not much of a clue until two pages later: “We took Quintana there on the day of her adoption, when she was not quite seven months old.”

I study the photo again with this new information. I look at the faces to re-verify their connections.

I do this face-study thing often, and I wonder if I do it more often than most (read: non-adoptive parents). I look for genetic clues in faces to see if families are biological or adoptive. I look for similarities in chins, matching mouths, equal smiles, companion expressions, between children and parents and among children.

I wonder if, on this playground or at that school function, there are other families like us — connected by biography rather than biology.

Do you? Study faces?

Lori Holden
Author: Lori Holden

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  • comment avatar Gwen January 14, 2010

    I think us adoptive parents think to look for these things. People constantly tell my son how much he looks like my husband and how he has my blue eyes. Which of course isn’t genetically possible. But I don’t think biological parents think to look for the physical traits. It’s not something they’re “trained” to do, so they assume every child they see is biological (unless, of course, it’s blatantly obvious). I just smile and say thank you. Our next child might be dark skinned and black hair…then it’ll be interesting to see what the public’s reactions are.

  • comment avatar Mel January 14, 2010

    I don’t do the face comparison thing, but I think it’s also because I never see it–I never see the similarities, even when someone points them out to me.

    I was very drawn to that photo too.

  • comment avatar Rebecca January 14, 2010

    Interesting! I don’t do the face study too often, but my daughter shared with me how hard it is for her when people say we look alike – almost like she is “faking it”… She does not necessarily look like her birthparents either, but it was through tears that she told me how much it bothers her when people say that. With red hair, MANY people ask her “Where did you get that red hair?” Ouch. Constant reminder for her. hmmm

  • comment avatar Lori in Denver January 14, 2010

    Gwen — we get genetic comments, too. When people say, “where did they get the blond hair?” I answer “somewhere back in the gene pool.”

    Which is totally true.

    I’ve been following your story here — could be an exciting year!

    Melissa — it’s odd because I don’t see family resemblance among my parents, siblings and me. But others do.

    Rebecca — I have heard that is a tough moment for adoptees, when people mistakenly assign some aspect of them to their parents. Do they speak up? Do they squash it and just say “uh huh”? Tough moments.

  • comment avatar JoAnn January 14, 2010

    I don’t really study faces, but whenever there are stark resemblances, they jump out at me. What gets me is when I see my sister’s kids in my daughter’s expressions. She has an expression that is dead-on for my nephew when he was her age.

    I also have a photo that my grandmother saved of my mom when she was 18-months old. She and my daughter (around that same age) look ALMOST EXACTLY alike in the photo. In fact, when I pulled it out of the envelope, my first thought was how Grandma got a black-and-white photo of Claire. I was stunned to see the similarities. Here is a link to if if you’re curious:

    We have some friends who adopted a little boy from Russia, and he honestly looks like he’s biologically related to them. I wonder how they handle those similarity questions?

    That being said, people always asked me where I got my red hair, since my parents are both brunettes now. I’d been told time and time again that I had my grandmothers’ hair (on both sides), so that was my go-to answer.

  • comment avatar T January 14, 2010

    I’m not an adoptive parent. I notice these similarities in some other families, and I see similarities between my son and his father, but I honestly cannot find any visual resemblance between any of my three kids and me. It’s weird.

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