In Search of Orphans
One year after becoming an orphan, Ruby Brunton was still looking for community, but wasn’t ready to share her innermost thoughts and feelings with just anyone. Taking her search for fellow orphans online, she found something quite disturbing.
At 22 I had been officially an orphan for one year, but didn’t feel I’d made any more sense of my situation. I was desperate for community, desperate for people who shared my experience, desperate to not feel alone, at least less alone than I already felt. I had so many questions. I needed answers my friends with parents were unqualified to provide. There were many half orphans in my circle, but no other full ones that were anywhere close to my age. I couldn’t make sense of my loss on my own, I didn’t know how to deal with my uncertain future. Pity and condolences surrounded me, but I couldn’t spend them or turn them into hard cold facts.
One night, I stayed up drinking with a friend, who knew and seemingly understood the need I felt for connection, and we hatched a plan. She had been faced with her own fairly unique and troubling family experience. She had found support and community in an anonymous online forum. She suggested I look for the same. I was new to the Internet for the most part, I had a MySpace and a Facebook but hadn’t figured out what either was useful for yet (it would take a while for me to realize neither of them really were).
I hadn’t told very many people that I was an orphan. Everyone who’d grown up with me knew, as was the case with everyone who’d known my parents. Fleeing New Zealand where I had grown up for New York, I had slipped into an anonymous identity. I had decided to depart from my past and seek out new connections, people who didn’t already know. I had new Facebook and Myspace friends, but I couldn’t just announce to them that I was looking for orphan communities online because I wanted them to view me as a hard, shiny gem. People get weird when you tell them you’re an orphan, like they don’t want to make friends with you or date you or hire you or sleep with you. You become a delicate flower no one can brush up against in case all your petals fall.
I had to start from scratch, trawling for possibilities like every hopeful right-swipe on Tinder. I spent hours scouring Google, testing out different search terms hoping for different results. Finally I came across a site that looked promising called Connecting Adult Orphans or something along those lines. I chose the username “Redstone” because I’m a fan of discretion. I wrote and rewrote my introduction several times.
“22 year old orphan seeks fellow orphans for friendship & to share experiences, message if interested.”
I could not wait to pose my questions to my new orphan friends. I had a list a mile long.
Do you worry about who will help take care of your kids now there’ll be no grandparents on your side?
How do you deal with the suffocating pity when you know people are just trying to be nice and don’t know the right thing to say?
How do you cope with the overwhelming presence of two-parent households in all mainstream media?
How do you convince people you still have a very healthy sex drive and they don’t need to handle your naked body like it’s fragile cargo?
Do you ever want to just pull all your hair out?
Do you get upset/angry when your friends with parents call it an Orphan’s Christmas or Orphan’s Thanksgiving or are you just like it’s fine, don’t be sensitive?
I waited a day or two before I had a notification in my email inbox “Redstone, FrankieJnr has sent you a message”. I clicked open a new tab, excited to start communicating with my fellow orphans. “Redstone: Please send nudes.” My hands shook and my eyes welled with disappointment. It would be ok, I told myself. A glitch in the system. FrankieJnr was an anomaly. I was so close to finding my people. The next day, a new message, “Hey Redstone: I want to see you naked.” My phone didn’t even have a camera on it. My body was next to skeletal. Nudes weren’t a thing I’d send to strangers on the Internet for years to come. I received a few more versions of this message including my favorite, “Redstone: I just jerked off to your avatar, would you like to see the vid?”
I realised after that it was going to be harder to find a genuine orphan community online. My expectations were shattered, and yet I was no different to the other ninety-five hundred women who are looking for something online and end up getting hassled for nudes. The disappointment helped me realise a supportive community of orphans was not just a mouse-click away. I couldn’t exist as anonymous online and hope to find other orphans, I knew I had to find the courage to wear my label, but I still didn’t feel ready to face the difference in the way people might treat me.
I kept my anonymity as an orphan in real life, stumbling across others unexpectedly. Those with a greater comfort level confessed their status to me first, or breathed a sigh of relief and responded “same” when I confessed mine. I seemed to meet orphans everywhere, two students I taught English to, a stranger who sat next to me on the plane, a date who held me in the middle of the restaurant and still tried to take me home afterwards despite my glossy eyes. I have yet to find a space where a group of us orphans can hash out the questions I had hoped the forum would answer. The lack of community, and the lack of being honest about my own family situation have harmed me in so many ways. I want to come clean so other people don’t have to go through that.
There’s a point in every conversation with a new person where family inevitably comes up. This fills me with anxiety still. I never ask about people’s familial situations but almost everyone I meet asks me. It’s really hard to know what to say. Unwilling to damage a new friendship, not wanting to remove sex from the table after a date, not wanting to be psychoanalyzed, pitied, sympathized with, relegated to a box, I often revert to actress mode. Swing my hair over my shoulder, create a lie or a distraction, depending on my own comfort level I’ll confess but cover up any awkwardness with a laugh or inappropriate joke. Recently I had a Patti-Smith-writing-Just-Kids moment where I felt like it was time to ditch the fear and start talking about it. If the orphans won’t find me through an online “you wish this was a sex chat” forum maybe putting my story out there will bring them to me. And if it doesn’t, at least I can send the articles to all future friends and lovers so we don’t have to have an awkward “I’d rather not talk about it” conversation that puts a damper on getting to know each other.
Originally published in the “Crossing Paths” issue on April 23, 2015