The Human Side of Genealogy

The Mary Gordon Story


In the process of searching for their birth parents, some adoptees often achieve satisfying new relationships, while others recoil from the sting of bitter facts they uncover. Even while growing up with your natural parents, experiencing the loss of a parent in your youth can create a similar hunger for such truths.

Coming to terms with genealogical discoveries, both pleasant and upsetting, is a complex process of dealing with a new definition of oneself. Mary Gordon's memoir The Shadow Man gives the account of a bereaved daughter and her search for insights about her father.

Devoted to her father, Mary Gordon last saw him when she was seven years old. He had estranged himself from his own family, and in time, even Mary's mother and her maternal relatives seemed to forget about him. The child hid her profound grief, but always idealized his memory.

He had been a writer; she too became one. Grappling with his memory, she sought out his writings. She learned that he had written many virulently anti-Semitic articles, even though he was born a Jew and only later in his life had converted to Catholicism.

Then began her effort to uncover his past through genealogical research, particularly the United States census. It was there she discovered discrepancies that began to unearth lies told by her father to mask his true identity.

He had claimed to be born in Lorain, Ohio, as David Gordon on 25 March 1899; the census records for 1900 and 1910 revealed an Israel Gordon born in Vilna, Russia on 25 March 1894. His conversion from Judaism to Catholicism prompted his disassociation from his family and his vilification of his people.

On the hundredth anniversary of his real birth, Mary sat in the research room of the National Archives suffering a rebirth as the daughter of a man ashamed of his family and his history. Still her quest for all the truth continued.

Searches in passport records, wills, city directories, and high school yearbooks turned up more lies, but they also yielded the names of David's sisters, Aunt Hattie and Aunt Rose. Rose had lived in two state mental hospitals from 1922 until her death in 1959. Hattie's lawyers' files included baby pictures of Mary, sent to her by David after he had estranged himself.

Mary's book details her struggle to accept the father she discovered, whom she still loved deeply, but who had deceived her about his past and their roots and who had written many shameful things. She became someone else in the process of discovering him, dedicating her memoir of her father to Aunt Hattie and Aunt Rose.

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