Who am I? Where am I from?

Mystery: Peter Raymond with pictures of himself as a child.
Mystery: Peter Raymond with pictures of himself as a child.

FOR much of his life, Peter Dale Raymond did not officially exist. There seemed to be no record of his birth or his adoption into the home in which he grew up. He could not tell you where or when he was born or to whom; his first months of life are shrouded in a mystery that 40 years of investigation have failed to unlock.

Raymond was raised with an elder brother in St Kilda by Enid Raymond and her mother Amy Mackie and celebrated his birthday as September 16, 1948. Growing up, he had wondered about the identity of his biological father (a subject that was strictly out of bounds) but never doubted that Enid Raymond was his birth mother. It was only after her death in 1980 that he began to ask questions.

As a young adult, Raymond's sole proof of identity was a driver's licence, which Enid Raymond had helped him obtain by signing a statutory declaration at a police station. He had never needed a birth certificate but in 1983 applied for one nonetheless. After learning there was no record of a Peter Raymond, or a Peter Mackie for that matter, he tried at least six other combinations of family names - to no avail.

Lacking official proof of his existence, Raymond began looking through his late mother's personal effect for clues - and noticed a series of anomalies.

His childhood had been well documented in a series of albums but there were no photos of him as a newborn with Enid. What is more, her marriage licence, obtained in May 4, 1957, when she wed Raymond's stepfather, identified her as a childless spinster.

Looking back, Raymond says there was no epiphany: the realisation that he wasn't who he thought he was dawned on him gradually and reluctantly. And time has not tempered his curiosity.

''I wonder if my father was a famous person or a criminal. I wonder if I am the product of an assault. Am I a hand-me-down or a pass-me-round?''

In 1984, the Victorian government introduced new adoption legislation, opening the way for adoptees to get access to personal files that had previously been sealed. In the past decade alone, more than 12,000 Victorians have done this , according to figures compiled by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

There is no way of knowing how many of them then went on to trace their birth mothers but snapshot data compiled by the adoption support group Vanish suggests a high strike rate. Manager Colleen Clare says most adoptees who go looking for their birth mothers end up finding them but in some cases the paper trail goes cold. She has dealt with a handful of cases in which records were lost or destroyed, or birth mothers were simply untraceable. Before the inception of Medicare in the 1970s, identification was not a requirement to check into a hospital and women using false names could conceivably have delivered babies - no questions asked. Raymond's case is an extreme example of what happens when bureaucracy fails. With no documentation to speak of, he has been forced to explore other avenues. He is convinced Enid Raymond knew his secret (his unpublished autobiography carries the working title I should have asked) and has delved into her past in search of clues that could shed light on his own.

So far he has learnt that his elder brother was also adopted and that Enid Raymond faked her first marriage to raise her boys without arousing moral judgment. The name Raymond was an invention and the studio photo of her as a bride most likely a mock-up.

Raymond has raised two children with his wife of 41 years and had successful careers as a teacher, a school principal and business consultant. His search has taken on varying degrees of intensity but as he ages, he says he feels a greater urgency to find answers. ''I want to leave my children and grandchildren the missing bit,'' he says.

''I don't need to do it for myself. I am comfortable with who I am. I was well cared for, well educated and had good fortune in life but I want my grandchildren in particular to know who their pa was, who his parents were and where he came from.''

IN RECENT years, the veil of secrecy surrounding adoptions has been lifted. The few adoptions that are still brokered in Australia are done so openly and transparently so the adoptee can readily access their files.

''Most people have a more solid sense of identity if they know who the parents they were born to were and why they needed to be adopted,'' Clare says.

But for much of last century, it was regarded as counterproductive for an adoptee to know too much about the circumstances of their conception. Shurlee Swain, a historian at the Australian Catholic University, says adoption was often conflated with illegitimacy.

''In adoption, people thought they were erasing the shame so a child would not know where they had come from, and that was a jolly good thing. If you go back to the 1920s and 1930s you see people writing to problem pages saying, ''I am engaged to be married and just found out I was adopted. Should I break off the engagement?' Illegitimacy was a terrible stain.''

When children went to live in adoptive homes their identities were effectively erased. Names were changed, plus, in some cases, birth dates. Jane Potter had celebrated her birthday on September 24, until she reunited with her birth mother Christine and learnt her true birth date was September 23.

Aged 15 and heavily pregnant, Christine landed in the care of a gynecologist in Seven Hills, in Sydney's west, after moving there in 1963 to live with her sister and brother-in-law. Unsolicited, the doctor had found a childless couple willing to adopt the baby and pay Christine's medical bills.

When it was time to sign the adoption papers, Christine noted her baby's birth date had been crossed out in pen and the new date written beside it. But her concerns were brushed off.

Potter believes her birth date was altered to prevent any foreseeable contact with Christine. She was raised in Greenacre, less than an hour's drive from where she was born, and the two could feasibly have tracked each other down, had Potter's birth date been accurate.

Christine Cole, an adoption activist and PhD candidate, says such date changes were common. ''Anyone involved, adoption agents, parents, were always terrified that the mother and her extended family were going to reclaim the child.''

It's estimated 150,000 Australian babies born between the 1950s and 1970s were taken from young, mostly unmarried mothers and put up for adoption. Much of Cole's research has focused on this so-called ''white stolen generation''. She has written extensively on ''rapid adoption'' - the practice of giving a woman grieving the loss of an infant a healthy baby to adopt - and says in some instances these replacement babies were taken from mothers who had been deceived into believing they had died.

Kim Menta, who has tried unsuccessfully for 39 years to track down her birth mother, has read widely on rapid adoption and can't help but wonder whether she is a victim. (One scenario that plays over and over in her mind is her birth mother being told she had died.)

In October, when Premier Ted Baillieu apologised to victims of forced adoption, she secured a seat in the parliamentary chamber to witness the historic event. His speech brought her to tears, even though she has no way of knowing whether it actually applied to her.

Menta was born on July 14, 1959, at a private hospital in East Malvern that closed decades ago. For reasons that remain unclear, her adoptive parents never officially adopted her.

According to Menta's birth certificate, her birth mother was a 25-year-old Londoner by the name of Shelagh Collins. During her investigation, she heard her described as ''short and stout'' and learnt from her adoptive parents that she was a nurse. But all efforts to track her down on nursing registries have failed.

In the late 1960s, after hearing from a friend that a Shelagh Collins worked at the Austin, Menta rushed to the hospital and waited for hours to meet a woman she thought was her mother. She left disappointed.

''You don't ever want to do that, to wait in a hospital for your mum to arrive, you feel absurd,'' she says.

Years later, through contacts in England, Menta found a birth certificate belonging to a woman by the name of Shelagh Collins, born in Dagenham on August 9, 1925. Menta contacted a local newspaper, which featured her story. But again nothing came of it.

''I want to know where I came from, what my background is, whether I have a brother, a sister, an auntie or an uncle,'' Menta says.

''Not knowing is like a black hole and sometimes I feel as though I am falling into it.''

While Menta says her search has yielded no results, Raymond is a little more optimistic. In the absence of solid facts, he has relied on informed conjecture, setting up scenarios then knocking them down one by one when they don't fit.

The first possibility is that Enid Raymond was his birth mother and had been cagey about it to hide the fact he was illegitimate. But that seemed unlikely. ''I never felt a real bond, like a blood bond with her. She was kind and I'm sure she loved me but I never felt the kind of emotional tie that my children have felt to their mother.''

A second, and far more likely scenario, is he was passed into her care as an infant.

At the time, she worked as a housekeeper and counted a handful of Jewish clients, including Rabbi Herman Sanger, the founder of Melbourne's Jewish Reform movement. She also cleaned Temple Beth Israel in St Kilda.

These details take on relevance when considering that Enid Raymond, a devout Christian, sent Raymond to Mount Scopus College, a private Jewish day school she could ill afford. Perhaps someone else had been paying the fees, someone who had wanted him to receive a Jewish education?

Raymond suspects he was born, illegitimately, to a Jewish mother and quietly handed over to Enid Raymond to raise.

''I can't think why else she would have sent me to Mount Scopus instead of St Kilda Primary, or even a Christian school,'' he says. Correspondence with Jewish leaders, past and present, has turned up nothing to support his theory. But he has a hunch that someone, somewhere may have the answers.

Alana Rosenbaum is an Age journalist.

This story Who am I? Where am I from? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.