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Families can be complicated and not everyone has a close relationship with theirs, but for most of us they are fundamentally important to our identities.
It helps your sense of who you are and how you fit in the world when you recognise your eyebrows come from granddad, your knees are shaped the same as your mum’s.
For Māori, there’s a further dimension, where every individual has a paramount connection with tupuna, their ancestors.
But what if you don’t know who those ancestors are? Where does that leave you?
Anyone who’s adopted or is connected with someone who is knows it’s complex - the questions over identity, belonging, and history.
These questions were central to Emma Barrett’s quest to discover her roots.
Emma was adopted to New Zealand from Russia in the 1990s. She’s a workmate of ours at Stuff, and came to us wondering if we could help her find her Russian family. The result is the latest documentary from Stuff Circuit, Emma.
It’s a story of rejection, acceptance, fear and hope, because she did discover her roots - and so much more.
Emma Barrett now has not one family, but three.
“I’ve wanted to find you since I was 13 years old,” Emma Barrett wrote in a letter she hoped would find its way to her birth mother, about whom she knew virtually nothing.
It’s such a simple statement yet one so loaded with expectation.
Will there be any family to find? Will they want me?
Every adoption story is unique and almost inevitably sad in its own way, but Emma’s story seems to layer sadness upon sadness.
She was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, not that her adoptive mother, Jan Halvorsen, knew that when she collected her from a Russian orphanage. And Emma’s chance at a new, fairytale life in New Zealand was interrupted before it really began: Emma hadn’t been here long when Jan committed suicide, meaning Emma eventually ended up in the care of her adoptive father, Terry Barrett.
“I wish she was still alive today,” Emma says, “because then I could ask her things and she could give me advice, and yeah, I think she’d be excited about the journey I’m going on.”
The journey is both literal and figurative. It takes her back to her homeland; a heart-wrenching trip against the backdrop of a two-sided Russia: the opulence of Moscow and the bleak reality of poor, rural communities. But finding answers there raised many more questions, about an untrodden path.
Might there be any more family, in New Zealand, on her adoptive mother’s side? Could we find them too?
And so, fresh back from Russia, another search began.
As far as Emma knew, her mum’s immediate family had passed, but she was aware there was a cousin - maybe they knew something?
They sure did.
It turns out the cousin, Gail Halvorsen, was an amateur genealogist who was documenting her whole family tree, and it referenced someone who looked like he could be Emma’s mum’s brother - and it looked like he might still be alive.
So we made contact with Gail, and she replied instantly.
“Yes, I know him and have details for him. Yes, he is Emma’s uncle.”
It didn’t take long before he, too, emailed.
“My name is David Niel Murray (Neil, he calls himself). I am Jan Halvorsen’s brother.” He said he was a school bus driver, living in Perth, Western Australia. Neil was delighted at the prospect of contact with Emma, and proud of his sister’s role in her life.
“Emma certainly has a lot to thank Jan for. I think she would certainly have had a much better life in New Zealand, than if she had remained in Russia.
“Hoping Emma is excited about finding out a bit of her life”, he signed off, saying he would send photos.
When the envelope arrived, it was a treasure trove: photos from throughout Jan’s life, her passport, cards to Emma that she’d never seen, and a letter Jan had written to her father, Emma’s grandad, from Russia.
“I’m finally here and have been with Emma for the past three days”, she wrote. “I spend every morning and every afternoon with her at the orphanage until the final papers are signed so I can take her out for good.
“Emma and I have bonded well and it’s hard leaving her, as she clings to me and won’t let me go - it’s very hard for her and for me.”
The complexity of adoption doesn’t lie with the child alone, of course. A friend who is an adoptive father explained the prospect of their child wanting to find their birth family as, “a double-edged sword that pierces you.”
The role adoptive parents assume in that child’s life is crucially important, and you can see that in the way Emma navigates the world.
Thankfully Terry Barrett didn’t have to fulfill that role by himself. Some years after Jan Halvorsen died, he remarried (to a very private woman who didn’t want to be interviewed for the documentary). Together they painstakingly, patiently taught Emma how she can find her way, day to day; the right things to do, to say, how to behave in particular situations, and the nuances of living a life in a society that can be difficult to understand, even without an intellectual impairment.
So how would Terry respond to Emma wanting to find her roots? What happens when you invest so much time, so much emotion, give so unselfishly, only to face the tumult of your child wanting more?
I’d asked my friend, who’d described the two-edged sword, to watch Emma.
And in Terry he found inspiration, in the pragmatic and apparently unfazed way he reacted to Emma’s quest: “I know she’s smart enough to know when she’s well off”, Terry said in an interview for the documentary.
“I wish I had the resilience and generosity of Terry”, my friend said.
“That’s unadulterated love to me, a selfless act from a man who I don’t know, never will, but can vehemently admire for it.”
You’ll see in Emma that the challenges she has faced in her life are not over. In fact, as she enters her late 20s, there’s even more she’s trying to navigate.
But now she can do that with the knowledge that she has family, people who love her, and connection in a world that’s become fragmented.
She knows who she is.
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