As 25-year-old Chris James is quick to admit, he’s a pretty average guy. He comes from a loving California family. He graduated from a Los Angeles university with degrees in marketing and screenwriting. He works on digital ad campaigns. He runs marathons and loves bar crawls. And he hosts parties in honor of awards shows and makes trivia games out of his favorite movies.
The story of his adoptive birth, however, is decidedly less average. On the day he turned 18, Chris went from knowing very little about his birth parents to realizing his birth mother and her subsequent children were eager to meet him. Soon thereafter, Chris agreed to a visit, and when it went well, he decided to go ahead and meet his birth father, too. Within a matter of months, his dad went from a blip on his radar — a new acquaintance he wasn’t all that curious about to begin with — to a national news story when, in 2011, he was murdered by a skinhead.
The resulting news coverage revealed to Chris that his biological father was a prominent neo-Nazi leader with a long history of rallying in favor of hate crimes against people of color, immigrants and Jews. Even some of his most vehement critics had called his dad “clever” for managing to outrun the law and his enemies long enough to maintain his status as an Aryan aggrandizer for multiple decades.
Suddenly, Chris was saddled with the realization that he was spawned from a militant white guy who wanted to make sure America wouldn’t end up straying from the racist origins he believed made it great in the first place.
During the election last year, I heard numerous friends and coworkers say they had no idea neo-Nazi hate groups were still active in America. I’d always awkwardly offer my disdain, but the existence of these collective forces of hate was no surprise to me.
I’m from Lodi, California, a small wine town between Sacramento and Stockton in Northern California, and I like to say that my life is the Juno story. My parents struggled with fertility for a long time before finding my birth mother, who had put me up for adoption before I was born. My parents spent time with her during the pregnancy and accompanied her to Lamaze classes and stuff like that. They also framed my adoption papers above my crib, so it’s something I’ve always known. That sort of openness was important because I never understood being adopted as something less than ideal, not even when my parents ended up being able to have a biological son through in vitro shortly after I was adopted.
Both of my parents come from wine and agriculture families. They’re like Mr. and Mrs. Central Valley. My dad was the class president, a big party guy in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere, and my mom was captain of the drill squad and the Regina George of her high school. She would deny that, but I’ve read her yearbooks, so it’s confirmed.
For them, fitting in has always been easy, and growing up, I could see that as one of the ways I was different from my biological family. I’ve always been an academic movie nerd, whereas my brother is super athletic, like my parents. I had acne and was gawky. I got better grades than any of them ever had, but my social calendar wasn’t exactly buzzing. My routine was to run about a mile to Hollywood Video at the start of every weekend, get four movies or so, and stay up late watching them and anything else I could find with On-Demand.
I had friends at school, so I was fine; I just never saw my life taking off in Lodi. In general, my neighborhoods were very white, but I was never encouraged to be racist. My community became a lot more multicultural once I went to high school in Stockton. That’s when I started noticing that understanding the experiences of other races and cultures could broaden my own horizons, too. None of my prom dates were white, and my family didn’t think anything of it.
In terms of my adoption, I never felt like I was a burden or that I was loved any less. Nor did I think much about meeting my birth mom. I was curious and daydreamed about it sometimes, but since my parents were around to tell me so much of my birth story, there wasn’t a lot of mystery I was looking to solve. I was like, “Okay, I get it.” And I never thought much about my biological dad because he wasn’t around for the pregnancy. All I knew is that she was 15 and he was 22 when they got pregnant.
When I turned 18 during the summer of 2010, however, my parents sat me down with a big stack of my birth records, as well as letters from my biological mom and the two kids she had after me. That’s when I found out my adoptive mom sent her Christmas cards each year, unbeknownst to me, and that she and her kids only lived about an hour away in Sacramento. I thought it was cool that she’d been able to see me grow up over the years.
As I read the letters, I realized they all wanted to meet me, and I got really excited. It was thrilling to know they all knew about me and took the time to write.
We made plans for the next weekend.
My parents supported my decision to meet her, but it wasn’t easy. I was set to leave for college just a few weeks after my birthday, and I’d been talking about moving to L.A. since I was 6, so they knew that once I left, I’d probably never live in Lodi again. My parents, particularly my mom, didn’t appreciate the timing of it all, and in thinking she was about to lose me, she started latching on tighter. She was like, “We have to be strategic about this. No one can know you’re doing this. You’ve got to pick a neutral zone. It can’t be anywhere too close to her or too close to us.” We had to meet at the exact midpoint, in a town between Lodi and Sacramento, because she wanted us to have total privacy from any small-town gossip.
So we met up at BJ’s and got Pizookies with my birth mom. It was my mom, dad, brother, me and her. The moms took tequila shots because everyone was nervous, but it ultimately went well. This woman wasn’t a stranger to my parents, and because of the Christmas cards, I wasn’t much of a stranger to her. We got along, so she invited me to see her again.
My parents were better about it this time, and the next visit went really well, too. But toward the end of it, she was like, “Your birth dad is in the picture, and he really wants to meet you. Would you like to meet him?”
I had no idea they were still in contact. It was a shock, almost like a realization, to even remember I had a birth dad. That’s when she gave me photos of my birth dad from throughout the years and a letter he wrote that said he wanted to meet me. Even from the photos, I could tell his eyes were piercing, and it was also clear that mine looked just like his. A lot of people have told me my eyes look like wolf eyes, very blue and gray, so seeing them on someone else was cool. It wasn’t like I was a dead ringer for him, but our similarities were clear.
I feel like I should’ve been more suspicious about meeting him, given that he left a pregnant teenager to fend for herself, but I looked at it like a journey of self-discovery that he was just another part of. My parents weren’t convinced, though. They were on edge about meeting him and insisted they tag along. They’d never had any contact with him, so he was as new to them as he was to me. Although he was dating my birth mom at the time she got pregnant, he moved to Florida before my parents got involved with her.
I remember my birth mother being like, “What if he’s a heroin addict? I bet he’s a heroin addict.” To which I jokingly responded: “I’m scared of needles; there’s no way I’ll do any if he offers.”
More to the point, I kept thinking, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
I don’t want to say his name because I don’t want any communication with his affiliates, but at the time, the biggest reason I wanted to meet him is that he shared the name of a film director I liked. That felt fated. It’s also why Googling my father’s name wasn’t any help; the search was filled with results related to this very famous director.
We met at a tapas restaurant in Sacramento, still just a couple weeks after my 18th birthday. It was my whole family, plus my birth mom and birth dad and each of their two kids. They hadn’t always been in touch, but they all knew each other and got along. There were like 10 people at the table, and my biological dad’s daughters told me about how they’d always try to find me on Myspace, circa 2007, which was kind of cute. My dad had a shaved head, but when you’re from the Central Valley, you get used to the Sons of Anarchy aesthetic. I just assumed both my birth mom and him were into punk rock or something like that.
We all talked about basic stuff at the table, like favorite movies and foods. I found out he was adopted too, and that he’d only met his birth mother the year before. In general, he was warmer than I expected, charismatic and super-engaging. I remember thinking how much I loved talking to them. They showed me family photos, and one of his daughters, who was actually older than me, asked me questions about college. It was clear they’d heard more about me long before I’d ever heard about them, which was cool. I felt like a figure in their lives already.
The only weird thing about the dinner was how quiet my parents were. On one hand, it seemed like they were just respecting our time together, but since they’re such huge talkers, this was new and awkward for me. Also, my birth dad wore a collared shirt to dinner, which my mom found suspicious. When we left the restaurant, she was like, “Do you know why he did that, Christopher? Because he has tattoos and didn’t want me to see them. But I know, because I always know. Nobody wears long sleeves in Sacramento in July.”
She hates tattoos, so her response was expected. My dad’s take is what surprised me. He’s usually fair and friendly, but for some reason, he said he was uncomfortable sitting at the table with my birth dad. He didn’t say anything more inflammatory than that, but his tone and demeanor made me defensive.
My mom told me she’d prefer it if I didn’t meet him again, and I told her I’d definitely prefer it if I did. My dad and her wanted these meetings to be a one-and-done thing. Since my adoption was closed in the first place, they thought they’d already gone beyond their due diligence by letting me meet them both. This became my big spurt of defiance. I was never rebellious, but I love movies with big dramatic monologues, so I figured this was my chance to push the boundaries I grew up dutifully respecting.
At first, meeting my dad was just an item on a to-do list that I wanted to cross off, but given how my parents were talking about this night, in a way so radically different and more negative than I was, I became determined to meet him again. Why wouldn’t I want more people to visit on trips home?
At that point, my mom told me she didn’t want any part of it, and I let her know I didn’t want her to be involved anyway. I didn’t actively defy her and my dad, because they told me I could make my own decisions, but I knew choosing to see my birth dad again was something they didn’t like and that was part of why I wanted to do it.
I met up with my dad and his daughters alone, sans parents, not long afterward. We ended up back at BJ’s for pizza and Pizookie. That’s when I realized I was maybe biting off more than I could chew. My birth dad and his girls kept talking about stuff they wanted to do with me and places they wanted to take me. They were really ready to welcome me into the family. I wasn’t so sure, though. It was all moving a little too quick. Luckily, there wasn’t any more time to hang out before I was off to college.
Once I was at school, my sisters messaged me a couple of times and my birth mom called once, but I was mostly focused on enjoying my first semester. Film school was always my dream, so I had a great time meeting everyone and partying for the first time in my life. But my second semester got off to a rougher start. I stopped drinking and had horrible skin because I went on Accutane, which makes your skin worse before it looks better. Needless to say, the party scene wasn’t happening for me. My dad was a Lambda Chi frat star, so I rushed fraternities at the start of spring semester. I hoped it would give my dad and me something to bond over. We’ve always gotten along great; we just don’t have that much in common. Frat life seemed like great common ground, but I wanted to earn the bid on my own so I didn’t mention my dad or his affiliation.
I didn’t get in.
Then the people I planned to room with the next year bailed on me.
Mind you, my face was still oozing with the worst acne of my life.
All in all, I went home for spring break a little depressed. I remember thinking, “If my life was a movie, this would be the low point.”
The real low point, however, came the day before I returned to school. My mom was yelling my name down the hall after I’d just stepped out of the shower. Still wrapped in my towel, I asked her for a minute to get dressed, but she told me I immediately needed to see what she was talking about.
“Can I put on some underwear first?” I asked her.
“Your birth dad died,” she replied.
She saw a post about his death on Facebook, as well as a comment that said some organization we didn’t recognize was investigating his death. He seemed healthy, so we were confused as to what had happened and figured it was probably an accident. I didn’t feel too much. I felt sad, especially for his family, but also guilty that I wasn’t more broken up about it.
My brother was the first of us to know about my dad and the nature of his death. He heard it on the news at 5 p.m. We heard it at 8 p.m.: “Hate group leader killed.”
He was killed by someone believed to be a fellow gang member and then had his house ransacked by the police, probably because they knew they’d find arms and evidence there. The news went on to describe him as one of the most influential figures in the American white supremacist movement who hated all people of color.
I’d never felt unloved or “othered” by my parents because I was adopted. They always celebrated our differences, like, “Be glad you’re the smart one!” But sitting in that room and watching the news with them, I felt so alone. It was the first time I saw my parents at a loss for words. They didn’t know what to say or how to respond. Suddenly, I felt so different from them.
I locked myself in my room and got to Googling, only to find countless stories about my birth dad and the hate he spewed. (This time, I used “Nazi” to filter my searches from the film stuff).
One time, he discovered a fellow white supremacist to be Jewish and beat the shit out of him. His name was mentioned in a lot of murder cases, and I even found out he was the neo-Nazi who broke the chair over Geraldo Rivera’s head in the late 1980s. I read about his trips around the country and even to Canada, where he would organize other white people around hating immigrants and people of color. I just wanted to slam shit around and scream.
Before this happened, I always believed in nurture over nature. But once I learned the truth about who my birth dad was, I became obsessed with my natural connection to him. I started wondering about whether or not I was a hateful person. Suddenly, I was scared that I might be able to commit the same atrocities as my father. I was desperate to spend my time doing something other than think about him. I became really isolated. I started to see his eyes when I’d go to sleep, which meant I stopped getting any rest. When I did get to sleep, I’d have dreams where he’d be loudly spewing Nazi jargon and other hate speech, even though he never said anything like that to me.
Still, I thought that everyone has struggles, and this was mine, so I needed to barrel down and power through it. But stuff kept getting worse. His daughters reached out, as did my birth mom and his own birth mom. They all told me to respect my birth dad for providing for them. I, however, was annoyed that they were defending him to me and was especially angry at my birth mom, who’s the one that insisted we meet in the first place. I felt like she brought this shit on me, only to act like it wasn’t a huge deal once it boiled over. I don’t believe she was directly involved with any hate group activity — we stopped talking before I could ask her directly — but I do think she knew about it, or at least knew how he felt.
There’s something about being adopted that makes you want to be extra-good, so your parents feel like they got a winner and not a dud. My goal was to be the easiest kid I could possibly be. Anytime I wasn’t easy, I felt like shit. This news, though, triggered abandonment issues. I didn’t want to be the kid who brought an unimaginable situation for them to deal with. Luckily, as usual, my parents handled it great. When I visited home again a few weeks later, my parents acted totally normally. They didn’t see a Nazi, which was my fear, and I started being able to sleep again. I realized I didn’t have to ask for help—I just had to be with the people who have always loved me and I would receive it.
One of my favorite movies is Rabbit Hole, which I watched a lot that year. Nicole Kidman plays a mom whose young son died in a car accident. And while that’s very different than what I was going through, something her character’s mom says to her has always stuck with me, which I’m paraphrasing here: “I never got through it, but I learned how to deal with it. It was like I was carrying around a brick in my pocket at all times. It’s heavy for a while, but once you get used to it, you don’t realize it’s there anymore. Every once in a while, however, you stick your hand into your pocket for whatever reason and remember you have a brick there.”
I’m happy to have my brick because everyone has a brick. I can’t pretend I’m not related to my birth dad. In every mirror and in every picture, I see his eyes in mine. But now that some time has passed, I’m glad everything happened the way it did. My brick has only made me stronger; in fact, at this point, I’m an emotional bodybuilder. I’ve survived something that scared me beyond measure.
At the same time, I don’t pretend like I’ve had such a hard life. If I hadn’t been adopted, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college or live as comfortably as I have. Aside from this highly unique experience, my life hasn’t been a struggle. It’s actually been pretty great.
I’d be remiss, though, to say I don’t think about it — especially when stuff like this past weekend happens. It’s weird. California is known as a liberal state, but Lodi and its surrounding communities are incredibly red. I didn’t meet a Democrat until I was 13. My mom and dad are both Republicans and voted for Trump — even if they weren’t gung-ho about him.
That’s why it hurts me that “conservative” and “neo-Nazi” have become synonymous post-Trump. I didn’t vote for him, but I also don’t think every conservative I grew up with is suddenly a Nazi. (And I’ve obviously known both.) That said, just as liberals need to understand how conservatives could vote for Trump, more conservatives need to rally against the hate speech that’s become so commonplace in the Republican Party. I believe a lot of people exist in the middle. I’m living proof.
—As told to Tierney Finster