Denene Millner is a New York Times-bestselling author, award-winning journalist, and director of the Denene Millner Books imprint. She has written 30 books for adults, teens, and children, and her latest, “One Blood,” comes out on Sept. 5. The novel is about the connection between three women: a birth mother who had her child taken away; the adoptive mother who raised that child; and the child herself.
It’s a novel inspired by the questions Millner was asking herself, as she parsed her own story — having figured out at 12 that she was adopted, and keeping it a secret for years. Read her reflections on that moment, and so much more, in her own words below.
I was 12 years old when I found my adoption certificate in my parents’ room. They used to lock their bedroom door — I’m not sure why. Probably to keep us nosy kids out of their private, grown-up things. But my brother and I quickly figured out that if you tapped the door in just the right way with your hip — just a quick little aggressive bump — the door would pop open. I liked having access to my mom’s lipstick and her perfume, but what I was most interested in was this little gray, steel box my dad kept his bills and paperwork in. I was just naturally nosy and I wanted to know what was on all those little papers.
So one afternoon after school, I popped the door open and sprayed some of my mom’s perfume on my wrists, then dove into the metal box. There were mostly bills — Sears, Macy’s, the light bill, the mortgage, my parents’ marriage certificate, their birth certificates. And then at the very bottom were papers that I could tell held some kind of importance. By the weight of them. And the color. And how old they appeared to be.
I tucked the discovery of my adoption deep in the recesses of my mind.
When I unfolded the papers and read what they said — one was my adoption certificate, the other was a letter from a lawyer congratulating my parents on my adoption and letting them know my birth certificate was on the way — I was stunned. Like my heart felt like it had been dropped off the side of a skyscraper and hit the sidewalk with a big, explosive boom. I didn’t know what to do, what to say, how to react. I know I was scared. I was learning that my parents weren’t my birth parents — and in my 12-year-old mind, they were going to be mad I was snooping in their room and mad that I knew their secret and maybe my standing in our family was precarious and not so rock solid and permanent. I quickly put the papers back in the box and slammed it close and pushed it back underneath my parents’ bed and locked the door and never looked in that box again. I never spoke of it to my parents or brother until the day we buried my mom. That’s when I confided to my dad that I knew.
I tucked the discovery of my adoption deep in the recesses of my mind and made a point of not thinking about it. Doing so would mean confronting the secret, and maybe making my parents upset, which could make them maybe want to give me up like my birth mother did. Doing so would mean I’d have to really confront what led my birth mom to give me up, and who my family or origin was and whether they were good or bad people and what of them I carried in me. So I kept my mouth shut and I did my best to make sure that I remained a fiber in the fabric that was the Millner clan.
It would always irk me when I would go to doctor’s visits and I’d have to leave my entire health history on my medical chart completely blank because I didn’t know anything about my birth family — what ran in my blood. I would just explain that I was adopted, and then suffer through the awkward bumbling the doctors would inevitably reduce themselves to, I think perhaps understanding how stupid it is that adoptees don’t have access to their health histories.
That bond, that connection, made me understand more fully just what kind of sacrifice my birth mother had to make.
But when I got pregnant, that changed. I was going to give birth to the only two humans I knew personally who carried my same DNA. That was a whole mindf*ck. And it brought a whole ‘nother level to the immense love I had for my children as I gave birth to them. That bond, that connection, made me understand more fully just what kind of sacrifice my birth mother had to make to carry me, her child, for nine months and then give me away. I just couldn’t imagine the heartbreak of that decision. Giving my daughters up for adoption would be akin to handing my beating heart to a stranger. I wouldn’t survive it. I don’t know how she did.
More recently, I’ve also been considering what not being able to have kids meant for my mother — that desire and how she had to translate that into love for me, a child not of her blood but hers all the same. My feelings on it are ever evolving.
While writing my novel, “One Blood,” about three women connected by adoption and a yearning to truly understand how their pasts shaped the kind of mothers, significant others, and women they ultimately become, I stumbled on information that led me directly to my full birth certificate, which had my birth mother’s full name, her address at the time she gave birth to me, the town and state she was born in, and precious information I didn’t have — the time of my birth, the name she gave me when I was born.
Her name was super distinctive, as was her hometown, and though she, at some point, married and took on her husband’s last name, her father (my grandfather) had a very distinctive name, too, and that allowed me to trace her and her family all the way back to pre-Civil War. More importantly, I was able to track down her last known address, which — and I couldn’t even make this up if I tried — was in the same small town that I lived in when I moved from the North to Georgia. She lived in that town at the same time as I did, which means that I could have been in line with her at a local restaurant or sitting just a few pews away from her at church. Knowing that blew my mind. I mean, I was stunned to learn this. Because as a child of adoption, no matter if you are actively looking or content with not knowing, chances are that, like me, you’ve looked in people’s faces and wondered if they are blood relatives — if that’s your sister or brother or cousin or auntie. You wonder where they are, if you have siblings, if you could have access to them. You may not act on it, but it definitely crosses your mind. And here was my birth mother, living in the same town as me for years, and I didn’t know it until she was gone.
Beyond that, I was able to track down a picture of her on her son’s Instagram page and my God, I just stared and stared and leaned in close and saw my face in her face. I am clearly her daughter. We look just alike. My daughters look like her. That was trippy. Even more trippy was being scared to tell my father that I’d found her — or that I was even looking. I didn’t want him to think that my desire to know who she was was some kind of measure of my love for him — that I wasn’t grateful for his parenting, his taking care of me my whole life, his being my moral center. My everything. I just didn’t want to hurt him. He means the world to me. As does my mother, who passed away 21 years ago, but whom I love all the same as when she was alive. Thankfully, when I finally gathered the courage to tell my dad I’d found her, he was happy for me. So happy. For that, I was grateful. He understood that my knowing did not reduce the immense love I have for my family.
I am convinced that both of my mothers were present as I wrote.
Ultimately, I wrote “One Blood” because I had questions — questions that I’d always wanted to ask my mother but never got the chance to because the relationship we had didn’t make room for me to ask her about her life and the choices she made as a woman in a time when we had very little power. When I had my first daughter, our relationship certainly changed; she became softer, more open, more emotionally available, but then I only had three years with her like that, and I was consumed with raising my first child and being pregnant with my second a whole state away from her, so the time we spent together was limited, and that limited our conversations, too.
Similarly, because I did not know who my birth mother was until sometime in the last year, I had a lot of unanswered questions for her, too. And so without access to my mothers and the information I longed for, I asked those questions of my characters. For my mom, it was, why did you marry Daddy? When you came to New York from South Carolina, what was it like to assimilate into a whole ‘nother way of being? What did it mean to be a woman who did not have access to the capital — the ability to create and birth children — that women needed to get a man and a place to live and a life within a patriarchal society that didn’t even let women have credit cards or even the ability to sign a lease or mortgage without a man’s co-sign?
For my birth mom, I wanted to know how she got pregnant at 16, and what her family thought about it — how she ended up in New York City from her little town in the South. How she ended up giving me up for adoption. If she loved me. If I was made from love.
These were all questions that strike to the heart of who I am as a woman, a mother, a daughter; their pasts greatly informed who I am. And so it was a really emotional journey for me to ask the question and listen to the answers my characters gave me — some of them rooted in history, yes, but also some embedded in the struggle for Black lives, particularly those of Black women.
I am convinced that both of my mothers were present as I wrote; I could feel their energy around me and I know that they embedded ideas in my dreams and in my subconscious, even when I was awake. There would be times that I would hunch over my computer almost trance-like and, hours later, I would pull back from my computer and hardly know where the words came from. I have no doubt that they were guiding me. That they were answering some of my questions. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude and grateful for their love.