Adoption Stories Uncovered in PBS’ “Finding Your Roots”

finding your roots celebrity adoption stories

From beautiful interior design in “Fixer Upper,” to the pursuit of partying in “Jersey Shore,” it seems there is a reality show for just about everything these days. One of the more meaningful shows to launch in recent years, however, is all about tracing your ancestry and discovering answers to your past. PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” conducts genealogical research on celebrities, helping stars trace back their heritage, uncover their roots, and discover unknown details about their biological families. As you can assume, adoption plays a major role in this TV series and in the lives of many celebrities today.

Now in its fifth season, “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Harvard professor, endeavors to “get into the DNA of American culture.” The show has been helping stars such as Andy Samberg, LL Cool J, and Téa Leoni uncover their biological roots. With each episode, professional genealogists sift through census data, birth and death certificates, marriage records, and many more legal documents. They also analyze genetic code, having DNA diagnosticians trace bloodlines, and uncover family secrets while, often times, discovering new connections with relatives.

We know that adoption, as well as search and reunion, are very delicate and emotional experiences. In “Finding Your Roots,” the journey to discovering one’s biological history is equally emotional and sensitive. After the genealogical research is complete, the celebrities are presented a compiled book of “answers” about their past. As they turn the pages, they learn all of the unknowns about their family backgrounds. It’s a deeply personal experience, as many of these stars learn that adoption is actually a part of their family background. Some already knew, and some discover this along the way.

Funny How This Happened

In the season five premiere, Andy Samberg seeks answers to his mother’s unknown past. His mother, Margie, was adopted by her parents as an infant, and never learned anything about her biological  parents. She was always curious, but all her  parents told her was that they were killed in a car accident in California.

As she grew, however, Margie never stopped imagining what her mother looked like. She had tried looking into the situation for herself, but the closed adoption laws in New York prevented her adoption agency from giving out the names of her birth parents. Eventually, Margie’s youngest son and the star of the hit comedy “Brooklyn Nine Nine” Andy Samberg was contacted about being a guest on PBS’ “Finding Your Roots.” Normally a very private person, Samberg agreed in search of answers for his mother.

After several months of research, the genealogists of “Finding Your Roots” scheduled Samberg’s show taping. He was brought to a house that PBS had rented, and as he leafed through the “Book of Life”, as the show calls it, so did his parents in another room. The first page showed Margie’s birth mother, Ellen Philipsborn, who came from a German-Jewish family that immigrated to Berkeley, California during World War II. Margie’s husband, Joe, described her explosive reaction to the photo as very emotional. “I have never seen her lose it like that,” said Joe. “She looks at the picture and she bursts into tears. She is sobbing. She can’t stop sobbing.”

“There was no controlling it,” Margie said. “That was the child that had never seen her mother.”

The impact of seeing the photo of her birth mother was so profound, Margie says she was completely overwhelmed with emotion. She had wondered her entire life what her birth parents had looked like, so to finally see them was a deeply moving experience.

In addition to the photos and information about Margie’s birth parents, the Sambergs also learned that Margie had three half-siblings from her father’s other relationship: Two brothers and a sister. One of those brothers lived nearby. She contacted them and has since gotten to know these long-lost relatives. Margie is 72 years old, and she and her family are just now getting to know a whole new group of family members.

A Drama Star’s Family Drama

Téa Leoni’s season four episode of “Finding Your Roots” had the actress in tears. She was also seeking information regarding her mother’s adoption story. Due to the adoption laws that were in place in Texas, the documented details were hard to come by. Through DNA research, the experts of “Finding Your Roots” were able to identify both of Tea’s biological maternal grandparents.

Not only did the show uncover the names of her grandparents, they found that the grandmother was still alive at age 96. A private meeting was arranged with her to meet Téa and her daughter and mother.

Cool Revelation

LL Cool J learned about an adoption story in his own family, thanks to the ancestry research of “Finding Your Roots.” Scarred by his parents’ separation and violence as a child, the Grammy-winning rapper was raised by maternal grandparents who took him in and taught him about love and music. What they did not tell him, however, was that his mother had been adopted as an infant.

The secret had been kept from both LL Cool J and his mother. She also appeared on the show. The host did not feel it was right to surprise them with this sensitive news on television. Instead, they were told ahead of the show taping in a phone conversation.

LL Cool J’s mother said, in the show, that she understands her adoptive parents “had their reasons” for not revealing they had adopted her as an infant.

Andy Samberg, Téa Leoni, and LL Cool J share a common theme involving these adoption stories of their mothers: They were all kept a secret. For their entire lives, these women were in the dark about their biological families. For Andy Samberg and Téa Leoni’s mothers, the questions always swirled in their heads. They were always wondering about their birth parents and longing for answers. Understanding one’s biological past is so important. It is a big part of your identity. Not knowing where you came from can have a negative impact on your outlook on life. Fortunately, this is not the norm for children of adoption today.

Adoption has changed significantly over the years. It is not the secretive and shrouded subject that it once was. Today, most children grow up understanding their adoption stories. In fact, by the age of 5, more than 99 percent of adoptees know they were adopted. And because of their parents’ openness, the majority (90 percent) have positive feelings about their adoption experience.

95 percent of adoption agencies today offer open adoptions, meaning that the biological families and the adoptive families have some relationship with one another. Some meet and get to know each other in person. Some exchange letters and photographs over the years. Some talk regularly on the phone, or through email conversations. Open adoption has many benefits for children and their families, and for this reason, it has become the norm. Today, more than two-thirds of privately adopted children have had contact with their biological families. This level of openness – and the ability to ask questions and get answers – often leads to better identity formation and a stronger sense-of-self in children.

Sure, anyone looking for information regarding their biological roots can purchase a DNA kit, made popular by companies like “23 and Me” and Ancestry.com. However, for those who have been touched by adoption, this is not always recommended. Those in closed adoptions should work with their adoption agency to conduct a proper search, or to reach out to their birth parents with the help of an adoption social worker. Adoptions With Love has an active search and reunion program for those looking for more information about their biological families.

With open adoption, this is usually not necessary at all. Today, adoptive parents are encouraged to talk about adoption openly with their children, and to talk often. Keeping the conversation going helps adopted children understand their story and background, and feel loved and wanted.

If you would like to learn even more about adoption, reach out to Adoptions With Love. Our caring staff can help get you start on an adoption journey, or just answer questions you may have regarding the adoption process. Call us toll-free at 800-722-7731 today.


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