When I was about six months old, I was given over to foster care by my birth mother to a couple named Alan and Kayc Oppegaard. My original name was David Bolt, so I believe I’ve retained the same first name all my life. Alan and Kayc were fostering several children at the time I arrived, but I was the one they eventually chose to adopt in the early 1980s. My aunt told me once they had a big party when I was officially adopted—she said the celebration felt like the 4th of July.
By almost every measurable standard, being adopted was like hitting the jackpot for young David Bolt. Alan, and his hefty last name Oppegaard, was Norwegian, and if you see us together, or even see pictures of us together, you’d swear that he was my blood father, that this whole adoption story I’ve been told my whole life was a huge lie, an inversion of the standard “You’re adopted!” revelation you might see play out on daytime television. My brain is always thrown for a loop when I spend time with my father—witnessed together, we’re a strong argument for nurture over nature, for one’s environment affecting them as strongly as genetic code, even though he is seven inches taller than me.
When I compare my story to other adoption stories, I feel a little guilty about how well I blend into my adopted family, including how early on in my life the process was completed. I have no memories of my birth mother that I can access—as far as my own memories go, I might as well have appeared on Alan and Kayc’s doorstep in a basket. I know adoption can be so much harder, especially for those adopted later in life, and for those with noticeably different physical attributes than the other members of their adopted family. I once told someone when I was attending St. Olaf College that I was adopted and she paused, astonished, and said, “But you’re white!”, as if no one would ever think about giving up a white baby.
I suppose the ease and early age of my adoption has lessened its importance in my mind over the years, turning it something closer to a neat fact I can mention at parties than something I spend a great time pondering. Strangely, this little essay, written for this book release party, is the only time I can ever remember writing about being adopted at all, though I’ve been writing all my life. I don’t even think there’s been an adopted character in any of my seventeen novels or various short stories, though I can remember feeling a special connection to Luke Skywalker, himself adopted from a shadowed past.
The one true anchor to my pre-adopted past is my younger sister, Tia, who was also adopted by Alan and Kayc, two years after I came along, from the same birth mother, though most likely from a different father (though even this is unclear). Unlike me, she was damaged by our birth mother in a noticeably significant way and suffers to this day from mental disorders that have been attributed to our birth mother’s use of drugs and alcohol.
While physically healthy as a horse, Tia has no sense of right and wrong, is self-absorbed to the point of cartoonishness, and is unwilling to hold down a job, instead relying on government welfare and disability checks. She has done so many terrible things, and behaved so appallingly, that just thinking about her causes my blood pressure to rise. It is probably the greatest irony of my life that my only blood relation is someone I’m ashamed to be related to at all. I say this even while being fully aware of the chemical origins of her personality, which is perhaps one of my greatest faults as person and as a writer—a lack of empathy on my own part that exists beyond the golden lands of reason and forgiveness, my least Buddha-self.
I suppose there’s another, more positive anchor to my adopted past. Thanks to fairy tales and myths, I’ve always felt there was something a little magical about having been adopted. Something special I had over all the non-adopted people around me, who were allowed to live Plan A lives with their Plan A parents. My adoptive mother, my mother, Kayc, certainly never did anything to disabuse me of this notion. She always encouraged me, nurtured me every step of the way with an abundance of love, and when I got into writing she became my greatest champion and critic, the person who I wrote to impress and make smile. If I’d somehow supernaturally adopted my father’s physical traits and mannerisms, I like to think I adopted her sense of humor, toughness, and style. Every day, I try to remember her kindness to everyone she encountered, whether they deserved it or not.
One of the most common questions I get when I tell people I’m adopted is whether I’m interested in meeting my birth parents. I’m honestly not interested. Even when my mother, Kayc, died when I was twenty-one, an event you might think might propel a young man to seek out his blood roots, I still remained uninterested. I saw a picture of my birth mother once when I was a teenager and felt a strong, instantaneous sense of revulsion—she had auburn red hair and I thought she was ugly, though, looking back, she probably was just an average-looking person with crooked teeth and a sad smile. Nobody, including my birth mother, was ever exactly sure who my biological father was. I like to joke it was Ray Bradbury, maybe visiting St. Paul for a reading. Maybe that’s why I ended up becoming a writer.
This all said, I suppose one adoption-related thought has been in the back of my mind lately. I know my sister was adopted by my parents almost immediately after her birth, but there was a six-month period before I was put into foster care that I must have spent with my birth mother. I’ve always been a healthy person, physically, so it’s hard to imagine I suffered too much physical deprivation in her care. I don’t know how deeply chemical use already had its talons into my birth mother at the time, how much she was able to focus on nurturing an infant, or how much experience she had by the time I came along, but I do know she felt incapable of the responsibility to the point of giving me up. The first six months of an infant’s life, which science tells us are so crucial to their development, will forever remain a hole in the fabric of my story. Is this period of time the original dark seed planted inside me, the core reason that the adult David so often writes such dark novels, novels about suicide plagues, teenage serial killers and firebugs and other broken souls? Or would I have been drawn to this material no matter what? Were strange characters and apocalyptic landscapes in my DNA from the start? Do I, in some strange twist of chemicals, actually owe a creative debt to my birth mother’s habits during my incubation?
I guess I’ll never know for sure, and maybe that ambiguity is the defining characteristic I’ve accumulated from being adopted. The bone-deep knowledge that the world is an uncertain place, with gaps in its narrative fabric that are not always meant to be filled in.