February 19, 2020

Are You My Mother?

All her life, Jeanette Kopitowsky has been searching for a face in the crowd. She scans strangers’ faces for someone, anyone who looks like herself. Her biological mother. Her father. A sibling.

The playwright-actress, who was abandoned by her parents as a baby, grew up in foster homes until she was adopted by a Jewish family at the age of seven. She describes the painful experience in her powerful, one-woman show, “What’s Your Name, Who’s Your Daddy?” which asks the question, “Do I exist if I don’t have anyone to claim me?”

In one scene, young Jeanette approaches a dark-haired woman in the supermarket and gingerly says “You look like a very nice lady…and I think you might be my mother.” The child asks the woman to meet her in the same spot the following day, but the woman never appears.

“Even today, when I see people who look like they could be related to me, I always want to ask them ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘Do you know a Jeanette?'” Kopitowsky told the Journal.

She says she wrote the play to heal herself, and also to help other foster children to heal. “I want to let people know what can happen to the psyche of a child in foster care,” says the actress, a para-professional counselor at the Stephen S. Wise Adoption Support Center. “I want them to know what it is like to feel like an outcast because you don’t have a family.”

All Kopitowsky has of her birth mother is a “faded little picture” of an unsmiling woman with haunted eyes. From the Jewish adoption agency, she had learned that her mother was an Argentinean-born teacher who had suffered from mental illness. Jeanette and her younger brother were whisked away to separate Jewish foster homes; her Catholic mother had insisted upon Jewish families, perhaps because she had assumed that Jews make good parents.

Nevertheless, Kopitowsky always felt “different, alien, apart” while growing up in an upper-middle-class Jewish foster home on Long Island. “Instinctively, I knew that I did not belong,” she says, “and that I was not supposed to stay.” Every Saturday, Jeannette stared enviously at the other Jewish children who were walking with their “real” parents to shul.

Her foster parents did not neglect her, she insists, but it was clear she was not their own. So Kopitowsky learned to parent herself: She cut her own hair, bought her own toiletries, drank soda for breakfast, walked herself to school, dressed herself in the hand-me-downs provided by her guardians. She was punished for writing her name in crayons on the floor of her bedroom. “I was marking my territory,” Kopitowsky explains. “I did it for the same reason that I compulsively hoarded my Halloween candy. As a foster child, I just needed to know that something belonged to me.”

When Jeannette was 5, a social worker told her that she was going to Buenos Aires to live with her real mommy and her little brother. One day, the doorbell rang, and there was the social worker with a little boy, his eyes round as saucers. “Here is your brother,” the social worker said, “and the two of you will take the airplane ride together to Argentina.” The social worker took the children to Burger King to get acquainted, but Patrick was so scared that he threw up.

After that day, Kopitowsky did not see her brother again for two decades. Something had happened to their birth mother, the social worker said, and Jeannette would have to find other parents.

“Auditioning” for an adoptive family, Kopitowsky believes, is what turned her into an actress. Even at age 6, she knew she had to appear cute and charming in order to impress prospective parents. “Please take me!” she would pray.

In the play, the actress describes the day she arrived at the Long Island home of the Kopitowsky’s, the people who would eventually adopt her. “My forehead started to sweat, my heart started to race, I couldn’t breathe right….I [thought] I was about to die,” she remembers. Upstairs, the skinny, brown-haired girl stared in disbelief at the lovely bedroom that Diane Kopitowsky had prepared for her, with butterflies all over the walls and a bedspread with a rainbow and ruffles. “This [is] too good for me,” she says in the play. “I’m a foster kid.”

The Kopitowskys proved warm and loving parents, but the damage had already been done. Jeannette became an actress, in part, to seek the love and attention she had missed during her first seven years of life. She studied theater at Pace University, did TV commercials and musical theater in New York and moved to L.A. in 1995.

After some detective work, she found her biological father, who refused to return her letters and hung up on her when she telephoned. “That was devastating,” Kopitowsky says, “but it also provided closure and allowed me to move on.” At the suggestion of her therapist, the actress began writing a one-woman show to explore and exorcise her childhood memories of feeling “lost, confused and unwanted.”

And around the time she conceived the play, several years ago, Kopitowsky received a startling telephone call that would change her life. A strange young man was on the other line. “He said, ‘My name is Patrick, and I’m your brother.’ I was so shocked that I dropped the telephone,” the actress recalls. The siblings talked for three hours, then arranged to meet on the top of the Empire State Building. Kopitowsky first spotted him while she was waiting for the elevator near the 80th floor; he was holding a bouquet of flowers. “We ran to each other and hugged,” she says.

Recently, Patrick flew to Los Angeles to see a special performance of “What’s Your Name?” the proceeds of which benefited the Stephen S. Wise Adoption Support Center. Afterwards, he embraced his sister. “He told me that the play was his therapy, because he went through all the same feelings that I did,” Kopitowsky says.

The Oasis Theatre Ensemble presents “What’s Your Name, Who’s Your Daddy?” through Aug. 15 at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave. in Venice. Tickets are $15, and $20 for the Aug. 15 benefit performance for Concerned United Birth Parents. For information, call 310/ 823-1286..