Author-comedian Alison Larkin mines her adoption for humor, insight

BACK HOME: Larkin, with a photo of her adoptive parents, spent her early years in Washington. She performs "An Evening With the English American" Tuesday.
BACK HOME: Larkin, with a photo of her adoptive parents, spent her early years in Washington. She performs "An Evening With the English American" Tuesday. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Rebecca J. Ritzel
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Alison Larkin was 6 years old when she arrived at Sheridan School in Northwest Washington one morning with some news for her classmates. Grinning impishly, the freckled girl with auburn hair announced: "I'm adopted."

The night before, Larkin and her mom had had The Talk. The pivotal one when she found out that she did not come from her mommy's tummy, like other boys and girls, but had instead been handpicked as a baby. She was what they called, in 20th-century adoption parlance, "a chosen child."

"I thought it was extremely exciting, very exotic," says Larkin, now 46. "Privately, I felt very sorry for everybody else, because they just came."

Her parents, Rob and Brigid Whyte, were relieved that she took the news well. But in 1969, adoption was not the sort of thing one boasted about like a loose tooth. Especially given that the Whytes were proper, reserved and British.

Seven years earlier, Larkin's father, an international development expert at the World Bank, had confided to a colleague that he and Brigid were considering moving back to Great Britain. Six years of trying and still no baby. They would have to reestablish residency before they could adopt. The colleague replied, "Well, we do have babies in America, you know."

And so, through a process that was then as clandestine as a Scotland Yard/CIA transaction, the Whytes brought home a baby. They could not have imagined that their "chosen child" would someday be known on both sides of the Atlantic as "The English American," an author, comedian and actress who speaks even more openly about adoption now than she did at age 6.

On Tuesday, Larkin returns home to read from her novel and perform excerpts from her one-woman show at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda. The performance of "An Evening With the English American" will benefit the post-adoptive services at the Barker Foundation, the agency that brokered her adoption 46 years ago and helped her reunite with her birth parents in 1990.

"I'm so excited," Larkin says. Money raised Tuesday will help Barker aid adoptees who come to the organization in a very vulnerable way. "It's a kind of magic really. I still don't quite believe it. It gives it all some sort of purpose."

Ever since she started performing in New York comedy clubs 12 years ago, Larkin has steadily built her "English American" franchise. Given Rob Whyte's job, the family moved frequently between Washington, London and Africa. But Larkin lived in England from the age of 10 on, when her parents sent her to boarding school. That made coming to America at 28 quite a shock. After discovering that her birth parents were not Kennedys -- as she had long hoped -- but everyday folks from Appalachia, Larkin settled in New York and set about becoming an actress. While appearing on Broadway during the 1997 run of "Stanley," a West End transfer starring Antony Sher, she found her late-night calling.

"After the show, I used to go down to [comedy clubs] and say things like, 'I've always thought infidelity is wrong, because it means betrayal of the most hurtful kind possible. But if my birth father hadn't cheated on his wife, I wouldn't exist.' " She then encouraged anyone in the audience having a secret, steamy extramarital affair to breed.

People laughed. Nervously, but they laughed.

Her one-woman show, "The English American," debuted successfully in 2000, but Larkin maintains that she had, and still has, altruistic motivations for exploiting her story. "If you look in fiction, or even nonfiction, adopted people are portrayed as eternally damaged victims at best or serial killers," she says. "There is no understanding of what it might be like for someone from a very happy adoptive family, which I certainly had."

She has also established a happy family of her own. One night during those grunge-ridden 1990s, Larkin fell in love with a drummer from New Jersey. After the birth of her second child, Larkin began writing the oh-so-thinly fictionalized version of her story, which Simon & Schuster published in 2008. In a feat of convergent marketing, a paperback edition of Larkin's book, "The English American," also arrives in bookstores Tuesday.

Marilyn Regier, executive director of the Barker Foundation, remembers being nervous last year when a staff member told her that a "Barker baby" had written a tell-all. No agency is named in the novel, but Larkin says the frustrations experienced by Pippa, her alter-ego protagonist, mirror her own. Her attempts to contact her birth parents are greeted with "Oh yes, we remember you. The one with the beautiful English accent." An excruciating mire of red tape follows.

When Regier took over the Barker Foundation in 2002, she made providing post-adoption services a priority. Mountains of files are still stored off site, but at the agency's modest headquarters in Bethesda, Barker maintains a secure database of birth records. Adoptees who call with a question about their health history can get an answer within minutes.

Larkin didn't have that professional safety net. Her "honeymoon" reunion with her birth mother didn't last, and she found herself in a foreign country with an identity crisis. "It was a very frightening thing to do on one's own, with no support and no counseling," Larkin says.

Providing post-adoption support is a relatively new but important trend in adoption services, Regier says. It's one of many ways adoption has changed since Richard and Ruth Barker founded the agency in 1945, at the request of the U.S. Navy. It seems that when not fighting U-boats, some sailors and WAVES were making babies. A high-ranking officer suggested that the Barkers, a family with two adopted children, might be able to help. So the Barkers got a license to place children, and began welcoming pregnant women into their home.

"They were the perfect combination: a lawyer and a psychologist," Regier says. When the Whytes came to Barker in the 1960s, there wasn't even a sign. They never met Larkin's birth mother, who most likely entered through a back door and waited in a sequestered room. "So much has changed," Regier says.

Today, Larkin maintains cordial, mostly e-mail relationships with her birth parents. "They are very private people," she says. But whenever he travels, her birth father -- an accountant -- takes the book jacket of his daughter's novel along, and discreetly slips the cover of "The English American" over whatever book he is actually reading.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

An Evening With the

English American

Tuesday at 7:30 at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East West Hwy, Bethesda. Call 301-664-9664 or visit http://www.barkerfoundation.org.


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