Adopted as a child, Alex Kane recalls nothing of his first six years... yet he is still haunted by terrifying nightmares. So, what happened when he made his first return visit to the orphanage where he had lived?
The NI political commentator made that epic trip for a Radio Ulster documentary, Before I Was An Orphan, to be broadcast this Sunday. Here, he reveals the extraordinary experience that unfolded
Of all the words I've written in the past 40 years - and there have been a few million of them - none have come close to generating the response to a piece I wrote for the Belfast Telegraph Weekend Magazine on April 5, 2014. It was the first time I'd written about my adoption, my struggle to speak (I was mute when I left the orphanage in 1961), the nightmares which still haunted me almost 60 years later and how the sheer determination and unconditional love of Adelaide and Sam, my adoptive parents, allowed me to begin my life again from scratch.
I mentioned that I remembered nothing of my first six years. And I do mean nothing. No faces, sounds, smells, colours, places, people, other children, or even my birth parents. Nothing. No memories of the orphanage I lived in for two years. No memories of the school I attended for about six months when I was in the orphanage. My own children are able to tell me about things they remember when they were three, four or five years old, so I know that strong, verifiable memories from a young age are possible. All I could conclude was that I had closed down and buried something very, very deep in my brain: something so bad, so traumatic, so frightening, that I didn't want to be reminded of it.
And yet I am reminded of it. Hardly a week goes by when I don't scream or whimper in my sleep (it happened most recently two nights ago). I'm in a black hole. Total blackness. No chinks of light. And a thumping noise as if someone is beating hard on the door behind which I am cowering and shouting for my "mummy". That's when Kerri, my partner, wakens me. Rubbing my back and returning me gently to her world. It takes me what seems like for ever - although it's only a few seconds - to realise the terror is over. For now. I know I'll be back in that hole in a few nights' time. No amount of Kerri's love, the love of my children, the work of Sam and Adelaide, or the career I have forged for myself as a writer and commentator, will prevent the return to that hole.
This is what I wrote in that original piece: "Is there something I need to know about my past? Are the dreams some sort of internal message that I need to confront the issue rather than try and keep it at arm's length? It would be very easy to contact social services, make an appointment and see all of the available files relating to my first four years and my time in the orphanage. I might discover the real reason I ended up in an orphanage. Who knows what I could find out about myself? And maybe, just maybe, the dreams would end."
The trouble with the files route is that it is enormously risky. Lots of adopted children want to know something about themselves and their birth parents. But most adopted children don't have recurring nightmares about something that still has the power to terrify them and reduce them to tears. Sam and Adelaide never spoke to me about my life before the orphanage. And, apart from one piece of paper which stated that I was almost certainly "educationally subnormal", I never saw any other file about me. Even after Adelaide died and I was sorting through her papers, I never came across anything which might have shed light on my beginnings.
Did they know? If so, was it so bad they chose never to let me see? So bad they never wanted to talk about it? If that was the case, was there another route I could take? On Mother's Day this year I tweeted a thank-you to Adelaide for rescuing a "mute, terrified six-year-old boy" from an orphanage and giving him a new life. It received thousands of likes and comments. I also received a call from BBC NI about the possibility of a documentary.
I met producer Conor McKay - one of the nicest people I've ever met - for a chat and we discussed possible formats. He set up a meeting with David Huddleston from the Public Records Office, which held files on Gleneyre, the home I had been sent to. That turned into one of the oddest experiences of my life, in the sense that it reassured me. I had always wondered if the orphanage had been a 'bad' place, somewhere that didn't look after children; somewhere that might have been responsible, in part at least, for my nightmares. That's an impression which was probably fuelled by so many horror stories which have emerged since the early 1970s about children in care.
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But Gleneyre seems to have been a place which looked after children well, and I was particularly pleased that so many of them - originally sent because they'd been born out of wedlock - were returned to their parents or family circle fairly quickly. Adoption outside the family circle seemed to be the exception rather than the norm. Again though, it did leave me thinking that my circumstances were far from 'normal'. I didn't see files for the two years I was there, but I'll keep looking.
I also discovered, through calls that Conor had made, that Gleneyre was still standing. It had ceased being an orphanage decades ago and had been converted into a home for the elderly. It has recently been sold and seems set for demolition. We went to see it. I did worry that it would trigger a forgotten and unwanted memory, but since it looked like my last chance of seeing the place I reckoned it was worth the risk.
It was. I had no memory of the building at all and no memory of driving up a long avenue I must have been driven up and down hundreds of times when I went to and from school.
We walked around the building - the original orphanage part is much as it would have been in the late 1950s/early 1960s - and calculated where my bedroom might have been. We couldn't get inside, although I'm hoping to be able to do that soon.
But when we went across to a side garden I had a very distinct sense of deja vu: a real, running-through-my-veins thrill of having stood there before and of being happy in that particular spot. No words can convey the peace of mind that standing in that place gave me: the very powerful sense that, even though I had no memory of the home itself, it had been a place of safety.
We also went to see the school I had gone to for a few months: what had once been the Bluestone Public Elementary School (and before that, an Orange Hall). It, too, is closed, derelict and up for sale, so I'm glad I got the chance to see it and walk around the outside. More important, I got to meet Grace Creggan, who was a young teacher at the time and remembers the children coming everyday from Gleneyre. Was I one of those children she remembers? Is it possible that I'm meeting someone - maybe the only person still alive - who remembers me before I was adopted?
She's not sure. But she does remember the orphanage and a car, driven by a member of staff, leaving the Protestant children at her school. The Catholic children were driven in another car to another school. She remembers the Gleneyre children as being well cared for and content. Again, I found that very reassuring. It would have been nice had she a particular memory of me, but it was 60 years ago and I wasn't talking at the time. I may not even have been in her class.
But the Grace I met a few weeks ago was wonderful, warm, compassionate and obviously deeply committed to children and preparing them for the next stages of life. Whatever else may have been going on in my mind when I was in the orphanage, I had that same sense of reassurance I had when I was in the side garden: Grace was a good person. Bluestone was a good place.
And that's where this particular journey ended. Gleneyre and Bluestone school seem to have been safe spaces, spaces where I was cared for and protected, places that did their best to look after me and help me. That's important for me to know. It has given me a certain, unanticipated peace of mind. I'm glad I made the documentary and I'm very grateful to Conor for his particularly delicate handling of a potentially very tricky area. Neither he nor I could know what memory could have been triggered, nor the impact it might have had.
But I'm still having the dreams. Still being woken by Kerri and brought to my safe space in the present, which suggests that whatever I'm looking for, wherever the answers are, lies somewhere in my life before the orphanage. How important is it for me to know the truth, though? I've lived with the dreams for 60 years and I've learned to accept them as part of my life, albeit a very unwelcome, serially intrusive part.
But here's the thing. I exist because of my birth parents. I exist because of that "mummy" I scream about in my nightmares. What happened to her? Why were we parted? Was she trying to protect me when I was screaming, or was it fear of her which caused the screams from me? Was anybody else trying to hurt me or protect me? Would knowing the truth help me or just add to the naked despair into which those dreams plunge me?
That's another journey: the final journey I need to make.
Before I Was An Orphan, Sunday, Radio Ulster, 12.30pm