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Ira Glass: Back in 1994-this is back in the days when people still delivered big news to each other by mail-two women who barely knew each other, Martha Miller and Susan McDonald got a letter from Marthaâ€™s mom.
Ira Glass: That’s Martha reading. And the purpose of this letter is that Mrs. Miller is breaking the news-- 43 years after the fact-- to Martha and Sue that she took the wrong baby home from the hospital, that Martha and Sue were switched at birth, that she’s not Martha’s biological mom, she Sue’s.
And part of what makes itâ€™s so strange is that this wasnâ€™t the sort of thing where Mrs. Miller figured this out to her surprise after decades of wondering, and pondering, and painstaking detective work. No, no, no.
that she had the wrong baby, a baby born to a woman named Kay McDonald. And she kept it quiet all those years. Here is how it Mrs. Miller explained that in the letter. The other daughter in this baby switch, Sue, who was born to Mrs. Miller, the one writing the letter, but raised by Kay McDonald, the other woman, reads:
Ira Glass: Again Martha Miller, who now goes by Marti, who once was the baby who sneezed five times in a row.
why in the world didnâ€™t mrs. miller straighten this out quicker? why did she listen to her husband back in 1951? why the big concern about disgracing the doctor over, you know, having the wrong baby?
Ira Glass: So, at this point youâ€™re probably wondering, why in the world didnâ€™t Mrs. Miller straighten this out quicker? Why did she listen to her husband back in 1951? Why the big concern about disgracing the doctor over, you know, having the wrong baby? And as you heard in the letter, one thing that makes this whole thing even stranger is that
The Millers were at the McDonaldâ€™s anniversary party. They had mutual acquaintances. They lived a short drive from each otherâ€™s houses in Wauzeka and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.
And when Mrs. Miller finally let everybody know the truth long after both girls were grown up with children of their own, it was disruptive.
that is the kind of news nobody ever wants to hear. and when you get this kind of news as an adult, that your mom isn’t really your mom or your daughter isn’t really your daughter, and at the same time you have a new mom or a new daughter, it is not so clear what you’re supposed to do with his new parent or new child who’s now in your life. what are you supposed to be with each other?
And both Marti and Sue worried that the families that always thought were theirs would still want to keep them. And both mothers and daughters each had to figure it out on their own. All four women say things got very lonely for them.
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Ira Glass: Today on our show we hear what happens when somebody takes your family and throws it up in the air like a deck of cards. From WBEZ Chicago, it’s This American Life distributed by Public Radio International. I’m Ira Glass. We’re devoting the full hour today to what happened to these two families. Jake Halpern is the reporter. And before he starts, just to help you keep everybody straight in this story, a quick overview of the two families. The Millers are the bespectacled dark haired ones from the letter. Mrs. Miller’s husband, the Reverend Norbert Miller, was an evangelical preacher devoted to the church. And they were a bookish, serious bunch. This is a house with a lot of rules. And there were a lot of kids, too-- seven kids in all. The McDonalds are the lighthaired ones from the letter.
And it was a much smaller family, just two kids. And the feeling in their house was very different from the feeling in the Millers’ house. They were easygoing, quick to laugh and joke around. Mr. McDonald ran a TV repair shop in town. Here’s Jake Halpern.
Jake Halpern: It was the four women at the center of all this, the two moms and the two daughters who were affected more than anyone. So let’s take them one by one, starting with Sue, Mrs. Miller’s baby, who was raised by the McDonalds.
Sue McDonald: In junior high, I remember my friend said to me, you must be adopted because you do not look at all like your parents. And I said, I don’t know. I asked my mother, I said, am I adopted? And she said oh, no, no. She says, I was pregnant. And you are my child. I wanted a baby, Before the letter arrived, the you know, and you’re my baby. facts of Sue’s life had seemed You were not adopted. pretty orderly. She was a married mother of three living Jake Halpern: So that convinced in Michigan, where her you? husband worked as a chemist. Sue McDonald: Oh yeah. That She was close to her mother. was enough. That was right. She called and visited her My mom said oh, well you just parents regularly. She also take after great grandpa this had an older brother, Bob, or aunt so and so. So then named after their dad. It was I just forgot about the whole all pretty straightforward. thing. And yes, Sue was different from the rest of the family in certain ways, dark, and tall, and skinny in a family that was none of those. In a pretty lighthearted household, she was nervous, studious, serious. But that didn’t seem so strange.
Jake Halpern: Years later when she got the letter that told her the truth, she was stunned. And she knew she had to break the news to the McDonalds, who’d raised her. But she didn’t call them right away. Mr. McDonald had a bad heart. And she didn’t know what the stress would do to him. First she wanted to be absolutely sure it was true. Blood tests were done with the Millers and they proved Mrs. Miller was right about the switch. Weeks went by and Sue began to fret. She wrote letters to her parents but didn’t send them. She worried her mother might reject her. Sue knew her mother had never been a big fan of the Millers ever since they met.
she worried her mother might reject her.
and she’s going to get this popular marti who’s so fun-loving and looks like her. and then she’s going to say well, i don’t need that daughter anymore.
And now suddenly it turned out she got the letter, Sue went to Sue was one of them. see her biological mother and father. This is a videotape Sue McDonald: It was confusing. of that first meeting. And then after I knew that I had been switched, and that I Sue McDonald: And who are had different genes, and my these people? parents kept talking about Sue Mcdonald: Now this, you tell these people that were so odd, who that is. the Millers, because Reverend Miller, he is an evangelical Martha Miller: Is this your preacher. He wants people to dad? know Jesus Christ and that Jake Halpern: Sue looks happy. they would be saved. And I’m Reverend Miller is affectionate really like that too. with her, putting his arm Sometimes my mom thinks I’m a little fanatical. I’m really a Miller. What does she think of me? That’s my biological family. So I did think, yeah, you know, she’s going to know that’s not my daughter. And she’s going to get this popular Marti who’s so fun-loving and looks like her. And then she’s going to say well, I don’t need that daughter anymore. She’s part of that odd family.
around her waist. Everybody is smiling. Sue now had four new sisters and two new brothers. And the Millers show her pictures of her other relatives. Male Miller Relative: He went to Oregon. He got a girl in trouble, see?
Jake Halpern: There’s a lot of nervous laughter and there are some awkward moments, like when Sue talks to Mrs. Miller about the fact that she never got Jake Halpern: A month after enough breast milk as a baby.
Sue McDonald: My mother didn’t have enough milk for me. It’s all your fault. Did you have enough? Jake Halpern: But overall, the Millers seemed giddy that their daughter has finally come home. And Sue seems eager to know them. Sue McDonald: Esther.
Female Miller Relative 1: Esther, you look like her, too. Sue McDonald: That’s what I was thinking, kind of. Female Miller Relative 2: And you look so much like Carol. Jake Halpern: Later that same day, Sue drove to the McDonalds, to the parents she’d grown up with. After dinner she sat down and told them about Mrs. Miller’s letter, told him point blank she wasn’t their child. At first they refused to believe her.
she told them point blank she wasnâ€™t their child. at first they refused to believe her.
But then she told them about the blood tests. Finally Sue handed over all the letters that she hadnâ€™t sent them in the past month, letters telling them how much she loved them and how much she wanted to stay their daughter. Sue McDonald: And like my dad said, you know,
And my mother, nothing was going to be different between us. But it took awhile for us to-- how are you going to think? Mrs. Miller has for 43 years been longing to see the child she’d given birth to. So she’s excited about it. And my mother’s like, what happened to my life? It exploded.
And when Bob found out about Marti, found out that she was his biological sister, he called her right away in California. Bob McDonald: When she got on the phone I was just totally blown away. The way she pronounced her words were identical with the way my mother talked. She could have been my aunt or my mother talking on the phone. I knew that she had to be my sister. And I was super anxious to meet her in person. And until that time we just talked all the time. With every phone call that we made, we opened up more to each other. And we had the same personality. And we think so much alike.
what happened to my life? it exploded.
Jake Halpern: Once things calmed down, Sue came to two conclusions: one, she wasn’t going to become estranged from her mother. And two, it was her brother she might lose. Bob McDonald: My name is Bob McDonald. And I am 61 years old. I would say that Sue and I were probably not that close for whatever reason.
Jake Halpern: The reason was pretty simple, actually. They have almost nothing in common. Bob is four and a half years older than Sue, a sweet, jovial guy who never got along with his broody little sister.
Jake Halpern: Once things calmed down, Sue came to two conclusions: one, she wasn’t going to become estranged from her mother. And two, it was her brother she might lose.
Bob McDonald: My name is Bob McDonald. And I am 61 years old. I would say that Sue and I were probably not that close for whatever reason.
all the time. With every phone call that we made, we opened up more to each other. And we had the same personality. And we think so much alike.
Jake Halpern: The reason was pretty simple, actually. They have almost nothing in common. Bob is four and a half years older than Sue, a sweet, jovial guy who never got along with his broody little sister. And when Bob found out about Marti, found out that she was his biological sister, he called her right away in California.
Sue McDonald: My brother and Marti are just like thick as thieves it seems like. And whenever Marti comes to my hometown she stays with my brother. And they stay up to all hours of the night talking.
Bob McDonald: When she got on the phone I was just totally blown away. The way she pronounced her words were identical with the way my mother talked. She could have been my aunt or my mother talking on the phone. I knew that she had to be my sister. And I was super anxious to meet her in person. And until that time we just talked
Jake Halpern: For Sue, her brother’s enthusiasm for Marti brought out every insecurity she suffered as a school girl. She didn’t fit in. She didn’t have the social ease that came so naturally to Bob and Marti. Sue McDonald: He was popular. And I wasn’t. I was like a serious person.
Nobody would dance with me at the dances. He had a band. I was shy or I was whatever. And I wanted to be a cheerleader. I tried out for cheerleading. I just couldnâ€™t do it. You know, I didnâ€™t get picked.
Jake Halpern: As years went by, when there were family events with everyone, Sue would get anxious if Marti was there too. Occasionally she would break down and cry. Sue McDonald: I remember at the wedding when my nephew got married, my brother danced with everybody. He danced with Marti. And you can see theyâ€™re just having so much fun and laughing together and just dancing away. And then he danced with my cousin. He danced with my mother.
sue ≠ mar
And here I am. You know, it’s also religious like Sue. But like I’m a teenager again. And that’s pretty much where it nobody would dance with me. It ends. was bad. But the good part about that was, when I got home from the wedding, and my brother called me. He said, you know what? I didn’t even dance with you. And I said, who told you to say that? So he did know it too. But it just brought up feelings that feel crummy again. And, you know, because I wonder what’s going to happen when my parents are gone. Is my brother going to care to even see me anymore? Jake Halpern: This brings us to Marti, the other baby in this baby switch. Before she found out the truth about who her mother really was, Marti’s life wasn’t all that different from Sue’s. Marti was also married, also had three kids. She’d also moved out of Wisconsin, in her case to Southern California. She’s
Marti worked all her adult life and still does as a nurse. She grew up as the sixth child in a family of seven kids. Besides her, there was Mary Lydia, Faith, Ruth, Sonny, Luke, and Esther. Her mother ran a disciplined household. Everyone had to work. She remembers washing and drying all the dishes by the time she was five or six. There wasnâ€™t much money around. The five girls shared one bedroom.
The church was the center of their lives, and the family never went on vacation or even to the movies. Instead, they were all taught to paint and encouraged to play music.
Like Sue though, Marti stuck out in her family. For one thing, she was the only one who joked around. She says, even now, the Millers can’t tell when she’s being ironic. And then there was the blondness and the perkiness and the socializing. Marti says she felt like everything she was interested in was lost on her parents.
someone actually told her that she might not be a Miller. One of her older sisters, Ruth, came to visit with her husband Rudy. Rudy had a couple of beers and after dinner he got to talking.
she felt like everything she was interested in was lost on her parents.
Martha Miller: I don’t think that they ever came to watch me cheer in a game. That wasn’t something that they would have done. Because athletics was really not of value to them at all. I was just not ever meeting their expectation of intellectualism. And my mother has told me since then, you know, I really didn’t expect that much from you because I knew that you weren’t our child. That was a hard thing to hear. Jake Halpern: Incredibly, when Marti was 21 years old,
Martha Miller: Then he started asking me what I knew about the McDonalds. And I really didn’t know anything about the McDonalds. And then he told me that I looked like them. And he said, what would you do if I told you that they were your parents? And I was kind of stunned. It was the first I had ever heard anything about it. And he did, in fact, say some hurtful things. Cause he told me, you know, I don’t care what anybody says. From as far as I’m concerned, you’re not really Ruth’s sister. I thought it was just Rudy being Rudy. He just has crazy ideas and he dreams these things up.
Martha Miller: I don’t think that they ever came to watch me cheer in a game. That wasn’t something that they would have done. Because athletics was really not of value to them at all. I was just not ever meeting their expectation of intellectualism. And my mother has told me since then, you know, I really didn’t expect that much from you because I knew that you weren’t our child. That was a hard thing to hear.
Jake Halpern: Incredibly, when Marti was 21 years old, someone actually told her that she might not be a Miller. One of her older sisters, Ruth, came to visit with her husband Rudy. Rudy had a couple of beers and after dinner he got to talking. Martha Miller: Then he started asking me what I knew about the McDonalds. And I really didn’t know anything about the McDonalds. And then he told me that I looked like them. And he said, what would you do if I told you that they were your parents? And I was kind of stunned. It was the first I had ever heard anything about it. And he did, in fact, say some hurtful things. Cause he told me, you know, I don’t care what anybody says. From as far as I’m concerned, you’re not really Ruth’s sister. I thought it was just Rudy being Rudy. He just has crazy ideas and he
dreams these things up. Ruth Miller: I was just horrified. And he didn’t tell me ahead of time. He just came out with it. Jake Halpern: That’s Ruth. She, and Faith, and Mary Lydia-- the older girls-- had sort of always known about the possibility that Marti wasn’t their biological sister. A couple of them, including Ruth, had vague memories of their parents talking about it after they brought Marti home from the hospital, about how this baby looked different from Mrs. Miller’s other babies, and that maybe this baby had been switched. Then when Ruth was about 16, her older sister, Faith, came home from a trip on a Mississippi River boat and told Ruth she’d seen Sue McDonald on the boat, and that she looked an awful lot like them. They decided that
Ruth ought to have a look too. So the two girls cooked up a reconnaissance mission. On one Sunday, they got their boyfriends to drive them 17 miles away to the McDonaldâ€™s church in Prairie du Chien. Ruth sat down in a pew near the front next to Faith. Ruth Miller: Right before the service began, she says, thereâ€™s Sue walking down the center aisle. And I thought, she even walks like Mary. You know, I was just like wow. Wow. That could be her. That could be my sister. And yeah, I think it might be.
Jake Halpern: At any point during this time, does it cross you mind, well why don’t we just ask mom and dad about this? Ruth Miller: No. Jake Halpern: That’s not how their family worked. They just didn’t talk about these kinds of things. And as Ruth and Faith saw it, it wasn’t their place to mess in their parents’ affairs, which is why, when her husband Rudy blurted it out a few years later, Ruth was so shocked. Ruth Miller: And Marti refused to believe it at that point. She denied it. She says, oh no, no. That’s not true. So then I thought well, OK, then it’s not so bad. If she still believes she’s my sister, that’s good. Jake Halpern: The next week though, when Marti was visiting their mom, Mrs. Miller, she asked her about what Rudy
had said. Mrs. Miller gave her a noncommittal answer, saying that once upon a time they thought that maybe perhaps it might have. But even if it did happen, there was no way to prove it. So that was that. Over the years, the thought that she might be someone else’s child festered in the back of Marti’s mind. And much later, when she was in her mid-30s, she decided to get to the bottom of it. She was working for a group of pediatricians, which included a genetic counselor. She told a counselor her story and said she wanted to get blood tests done. The counselor asked her what the McDonalds knew about all this. Martha Miller: I said, I don’t think they know anything about it. So she said well,
if you were to find out that these parents that you have are not your parents and the other family doesnâ€™t want to have anything to do with you, how are you going to feel?
And I said, well, I don’t know. I don’t have any idea. And she said you really need to consider how that’s going to change your family for you and how it’s going to change relationships for you. So she said, unless there’s a real reason that you need to know, she said, I don’t recommend that you dig into it. Jake Halpern: That sort of spooked Marti. So she left it alone. That’s where it might have ended if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Miller’s letter a decade later. It’s hard enough to learn that your mother isn’t your mother. But it’s even harder when that news is delivered by someone like Mrs. Miller. Tact isn’t her strong suit. In fact, she seemed to have a tin ear for the whole thing. For starters, Mrs. Miller didn’t contact Marti and Sue at the same time. She first sent the letter to Sue McDonald, the
daughter she barely knew, and then waited almost two weeks before mailing the letter to Marti, the daughter she’d raised. She said she wanted to call Marti first but never managed to reach her. As a result, Marti got word about one of the most basic facts of her life second-hand, all the while waiting to hear directly from her mother. Martha Miller: And in the meantime, I had gotten phone calls from people I didn’t even know that were telling me hey, I’m your brother. Hey, I was switched at birth with you. Jake Halpern: When she finally heard from Mrs. Miller, the mother she’d grown up with, not only did she get the letter, but Mrs. Miller had just been to the 50th anniversary party of the McDonalds, Marti’s biological parents.
Martha Miller: And so she took one of the programs from it and she mailed it to me. And basically-- and this is going to sound like kind of a small thing, but it was a big thing to me-she circled the names of people that were participating in the program. Like one of my uncles on the birth side, Earl Gonzales, she circled his name and she wrote, this is your uncle. And she circled my brother’s name, and said, this is your brother. Like Bob and Kay, she would circle their names and say, these are your parents. And, you know, I’m reading this thing going what do you mean this is my uncle, this is my brother, this is my mom and dad? This is not my family. I don’t even know who they are. And I took that as, OK, I’m saying as of right now you’re not our kid. You’re their kid. You’re in their family.
Jake Halpern: Marti says her mom, Mrs. Miller, sees the world in black and white. She focused on the facts of the situation, maybe hoping she could fix things by simply setting the record straight. She wasn’t malicious. She wasn’t trying to be hurtful. After all those years she was just tired of secrets. And now she wanted everyone’s role to be clear. But it was hard, Marti says, to be on the receiving end of the sudden adamant truth-telling. Martha Miller: There were a few years there where every chance my mother got, she made it perfectly clear that I was a McDonald. For the longest time, whenever she would write to me, she would include McDonald in my name. Jake Halpern: Oh my god. Are you serious? Martha Miller: Just absolutely bizarre things like that.
That’s just how she is. There is no gray area. Actually my mother wanted to go to court and have my name legally changed back to Sue McDonald and have Sue’s name changed. That was her idea. She tells me that you’re my daughter. But at the same time, when she refers to Kay, she says, well, your mother is doing such and such. Or your mother said this. And when I think of my mother, I think of her. Jake Halpern: During this time, it was Marti’s dad, Reverend Miller, who reassured her. They started talking on the phone a lot. He explained things like, why all those years ago he refused to return to the hospital and switch back the babies. And he let Marti know that he still loved her. Martha Miller: want her to push family. He, in call me and tell
He did not me out of the fact, would me, you know,
I don’t care what she says. You’re still our kid and I’m glad we had you.
the phone. But they weren’t exactly welcoming her into the family.
Jake Halpern: Did you feel that then after this happened a little bit closer to your dad than your mom?
Bob McDonald: I remember talking to mother about, this is your blood daughter.
my dad had this horrendous guilt because he felt like it was all his fault
Sue McDonald: Yes. Yes definitely. At that point my dad had this horrendous guilt because he felt like it was all his fault, that he should have believed my mother for all those years. I think he honestly never thought it was a possibility. He thought she really dreamed this up in her head and just got obsessed with it. And the other thing was that he really thought, what difference does it make? A child is a child. She’s with us. She’s ours now.
Jake Halpern: The other problem for Marti was how to approach the McDonalds, her biological parents. They were nice enough when she spoke to them on
Jake Halpern: Here’s Bob McDonald who remember, was having these great phone calls with his newfound sister? Bob McDonald: This is the daughter that actually was in you. And I mean I understand you didn’t raise her. But she is your blood, biological daughter. And I don’t know that she was as excited about that he should have believed my mother for all those years. I think he honestly never thought it was a possibility. He thought she really dreamed this up in her head and just got obsessed with it. And the other thing was that he really thought, what difference does it make? A child is a child.
She’s with us. She’s ours now. Jake Halpern: The other problem for Marti was how to approach the McDonalds, her biological parents. They were nice enough when she spoke to them on the phone. But they weren’t exactly welcoming her into the family. Bob McDonald: I remember talking to mother about, this is your blood daughter. Jake Halpern: Here’s Bob McDonald who remember, was having these great phone calls with his newfound sister? Bob McDonald: This is the daughter that actually was in you. And I mean I understand you didn’t raise her. But she is your blood, biological daughter. And I don’t know that she was as excited about it as I was. And I couldn’t figure that out at the time. She was guarded. Jake
perspective, the genetic counselor’s prediction from years before seemed to be coming true, and felt like she was losing both her mothers. Jake Halpern: From Marti’s perspective, the genetic counselor’s prediction from years before seemed to be coming true, and felt like she was losing both her mothers. Marti wrote a letter to Kay and Bob McDonald, her biological parents.
i want you to know that i’ll accept whatever contact you choose to have with me, even if it’s none at all. i promise you i’ll never try to make you think of me as your daughter. i know that sue’s your daughter and no one could ever expect you to feel otherwise.
Marti eventually decided that
the only way she was going to resolve this was by getting on a plane and flying out to Wisconsin to meet the McDonalds face to face and give them a real chance to get to know her. The get-together at Bob and Kay McDonald’s house didn’t go exactly as she wanted. From the McDonalds’ perspective, Marti looked and acted remarkably like a McDonald. She got along famously with their son, Bob. She even had the exact same oil painting hanging on her wall in California as they had in their living room, a landscape with trees and water. But Sue was the girl they had brought up, and they felt loyal to her, protective. Martha Miller: I kind of felt like Bob and Kay were kind of keeping me at an arm’s distance because they weren’t really sure how they felt or wanted to feel. And I don’t
think Sue had that sense. Jake Halpern: In fact that’s true. Maybe because some of the Miller girls suspected that she was their sister for decades, and because Mrs. Miller always knew the truth, Sue was being embraced completely by the Miller clan. And so while Sue had feared everyone would choose Marti, the outgoing cheerleader, over her, it didn’t work out that way. Here’s Marti. Martha Miller: In fact, it was the exact opposite. She had both families wanting to make sure that she was included in their family. The Millers wanted to incorporate her family into our family as quickly as they could. I did feel in the beginning like she was taking my place in my family. And that was odd, very odd.
And sometimes I don’t know exactly what her relationship is with my sisters.
i honestly don’t know how much they communicate, how much they’re in touch. part of me really doesn’t want to know because i think i would feel left out of something.
Ira Glass: Coming up, what it’s like to be a mom and to learn at the age of 69 that your only daughter isn’t actually your daughter at all, and, if that weren’t bad enough, that lots of people in your town, people around you, knew years before you did. Jake Halpern’s story continues in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
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Ira Glass: It’s This American Life, I’m Ira Glass. If you’re just tuning in, Jake Halpern is telling the story this hour of two girls switched at birth. One mother, Mary Miller, knew and kept it a secret, did nothing about it for 43 years. The other mother, Kay McDonald, had no idea. The two fathers in this story were not interviewed. Mr. McDonald’s health didn’t allow it. Mr. Miller died in 2000. And so, in this half of the story, we hear from the mothers. Again, here’s Jake Halpern. Jake Halpern: At the hospital in 1951, Kay McDonald was told she’d given birth to a nine pound, four ounce baby. She didn’t question that. Every day she was at the hospital, the nurses brought her same baby girl. Nothing seemed amiss to her. And as that baby, Sue, grew up, the
one thing that puzzled Kay was that Mrs. Miller, whom she knew only vaguely from church, seemed so interested in Sue.
she always referred to the girls as sisters.
Kay McDonald: After they were born she had written us a Christmas letter and said she’d always like to keep in touch with Susan because the girls were so much like sisters. And, of course, I thought that was foolish. But I went along with it because I don’t like to make waves, I guess you might say. And so that’s why I started sending them a copy of our Christmas letter. Jake Halpern: That’s how Mrs. Miller kept track of Sue. Over the years, Mrs. Miller would do or say things concerning the girls, things that just seemed strange to Kay. When Kay’s church was celebrating its 150th anniversary, for instance, Kay was chairperson for the event. Reverend Miller had once been pastor there, so he and Mrs. Miller were invited. Kay McDonald: And the Millers came. And I was in the hallway.
And Mrs. Miller said to me, did you ever think that our girls were switched at birth? And I said, heavens no. I thought that was such a ridiculous thing to say. And, of course, I was very busy because I was chairperson. And I had so many other things to do. So I passed it off. But that’s all she said. There was nothing any further. It didn’t bother me because I couldn’t see any merit to it. I didn’t have a doubt in my mind. And
Jake Halpern: What Kay McDonald didn’t know was that there was a whole slew of people in her church community who had heard about the rumored baby switch from the beginning. Mrs. Miller and Kay McDonald were actually in different churches. Kay was a Methodist and the Millers were Evangelicals. Mrs. Miller told people in the Evangelical Church about her suspicions, friends of hers and people she hoped would keep an eye out on Sue. But later, the two churches merged. So a bunch of people from the Evangelical Church now knew who Kay McDonald was and who Sue was, and realized that this was the girl Mrs. Miller believed to be her own. And this whole crop of people knew but never said anything to Kay McDonald. One of them was Darlene Wolfgram. She heard it first from her own mom, who heard it at church.
Darlene: She said, everybody kind of at church after having seen Marti beside the rest of the family, just couldn’t believe that that was their child. It was pretty concealed right within our own church, probably the Ladies Aid maybe, you know the little group that got together. In fact, my mother said, well just don’t tell anybody, you know? So we all never said anything about it. Jake Halpern: Darlene Wolfgram did tell her daughter, though. And the daughter-- bear with me-- ended up marrying Sue’s brother, Bob. But even she never divulged the secret to Bob or any of the McDonalds. Here she is. Her name is also Sue. Sue: No, I didn’t. Because it was always just a rumor. And I thought, well he’ll think I’m nuts. He was very angry at first with me. And he said, why wouldn’t you have
told me that? And I said, would you have believed me? I mean, I’d say gee, guess what Bob? I don’t think your sister’s yours. Well, you know, there was no DNA testing back then or anything else. So, I mean, there would have been no proof. Jake Halpern: That’s what most people in town seemed to feel. It wasn’t their place to bring up such a thing, especially with no way to know if it was true for sure. What that meant was that after Kay McDonald finally found out the truth in 1994, people started coming up to her, in church mostly, casually mentioning that they’d known about it all along. Kay McDonald: I was surprised that nobody really ever told us-- the Booms, the Tinors, the Langs, the Haisens. I just couldn’t believe it. I just thought it was odd that so
many people would know in a town of our size, which is like 5,500 people, when that many people were aware of it, that the news didn’t get to us.
Jake Halpern: Slowly anger began to set in. Kay was angry that Mrs. Miller hadn’t corrected things back in 1951, that Mrs. Miller had hijacked her life in this way. And she was angry that Mrs. Miller put Sue in the difficult position of having to break news like this to her parents. And angry that now the Millers were asking so much of Sue’s time and attention. It got so bad, Kay had to go on medication for high blood pressure. Kay McDonald: Well, of course, they were really clamoring to get to know her. And I felt excluded. I felt they were trying to take her away from us. And Susan always had said to me, mom, why didn’t you have any more children after I was born? She wanted to be a part of a big family. So then she found out she had all of these brothers and sisters. And the phone calls were fewer.
And of course Marti didn’t really call a whole lot. She’s a very busy gal. And I was not having that much communication with her. And I thought I was losing both of them. Jake Halpern: Kay McDonald began getting notes and phone calls from Reverend Miller. He told her that he thought it was God’s will this had happened. Even so, he asked her for forgiveness again and again.
Jake Halpern: Heâ€™s just outright saying, can you forgive me, just like that on the telephone? Kay McDonald: Yes, and quoting scriptures all the time for me to read to console me. Because I had said that I had shed a lot of tears. And I had probably all of the emotions that you have with death in a family. I think I went into a kind of a depression about similar to when my mother died. And so of course he was trying to get me to say that I had forgiven them.
give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of god in christ jesus for you. 1 thessalonians 5:18
Jake Halpern: How did you feel when he said this was God’s will? What was your reaction? Kay McDonald: I couldn’t believe that because I don’t have that feeling. I don’t think God punishes us in any way. I think what we do is pretty much our own doing. But he had everybody convinced, I think, that it was God’s will. But I had talked to several of our former pastors who knew about the situation. And they assured me that this was not God’s will. They said that was a cop out. And so I don’t think that was too well received when I mentioned that.
in a letter to Mrs. Miller, eight years after she learned the truth. That’s how long it took her to sort out her feelings. Kay McDonald and the Millers eventually reached a kind of detente. Kay is no longer angry the way she was. But she says she’ll never understand why Mrs. Miller stayed silent for all those years.
he does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. psalm 103: 10
I told Mrs. Miller I felt that it was God’s will when she realized that she might not have the right child, I think it was his will that she do something about it. Jake Halpern: She wrote that
Kay McDonald: If I had as strong a feeling as she did that I had the wrong baby, I would have pursued it. I don’t care whether my husband objected or not. I feel like I should have made a wrong into a right. I only had this one daughter. And she had five daughters. In fact, we weren’t even sure we’d have another child. So, of course, we were elated when I did get pregnant. And then to think that I didn’t get to raise the one that I had wanted so much. So I never will probably understand why. I’ve forgiven them but that doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten. I can still wonder why and probably never will know why it didn’t come up to any sooner. Jake Halpern: Mary Miller is 96 now. She lives by herself in the country. Her house is filled with the remnants of her and Norbert’s life together
in the church. They were married for 60 years. There’s a large statue of an angel in her sitting room, which she’s planning to put on her own grave. When I first talked to Mrs. Miller about what had happened when Marti was born, she told me pretty much the same story as she told in her letter, how she knew as soon as she got home and weighed the baby that the nurses had made a mistake. Mary Miller: Yes, I told Norbert I think we have the wrong baby. And he said, well I wouldn’t disgrace the doctor by telling him he gave us the wrong baby. And he says, this is a nice little baby. We’ll keep her.
Jake Halpern: When your husband said to you, this baby’s cute. Let’s keep it. Did you agree with him immediately, or was there a little bit of arguing back and forth over what to do?
She was losing blood and having spasms. She thought she was going to die. She told me that she even started calling around trying to find someone who’d be a mother to her six children.
Mary Miller: We didn’t argue about that. But I kept looking for her. And I was always asking anyone who might have seen her. In fact, when I would go down and have any touch with the McDonalds-- we got introduced to them-- I tried to talk to her about it. And she told somebody that I was crazy. I was a crazy woman thought I had her girl.
The sickness, she said, lasted for six or seven months. By the time she was well, fixing the baby switch problem was that much harder. Even if she could somehow convince everyone it was true, what would happen if you suddenly took a six month old away from the only mother she ever knew?
Jake Halpern: It was a little surreal to hear her talk about it in this way, laughing like that, especially after hearing Kay McDonald’s side of things. But then Mrs. Miller told me more of her side of the story. For one thing, she explained just how sick she was after they’d gone home with Marti in 1951.
And the family’s relationship with Dr. Deslack was no small thing either. Reverend Miller had made many visits to Dr. Deslack’s wife when she was sick. And now Dr. Deslack refused to charge the Millers for anything. The Millers didn’t have much money. And they might not have been able to afford the health care otherwise.
Mary Miller: Of course we felt indebted to him for doing that. This doctor had been so kind to us and good to us. And why ruin all of that, you know? That’s a big consideration. Jake Halpern: Because Mrs. Miller didn’t want to cross her husband, all she could do was hope that maybe if she dropped enough hints-calling the girls sisters and such-- Kay would eventually realize on her own what had happened. It was an odd strategy, if you can even call it that. When Sue got married, for instance, the Millers gave her a trivet Norbert had made. The card was signed, from your other possible parents. Sue dismissed it as part of the whole sister thing, which she also thought was kind of weird. Mrs. Miller’s most ambitious scheme happened after the
girls graduated from high school, when they were about to be 18. Mrs. Miller arranged for the McDonalds to come to dinner. She figured if she could simply get Kay to look at Marti, Kay would figure things out. The evening just ended up being kind of baffling for everyone involved since only Mrs. Miller knew what was going on. Mary Miller: But they didn’t notice anything. I don’t know why they didn’t notice that Martha looked like them and was like them. I don’t know why they didn’t notice that. Jake Halpern: The fact is, Mrs. Miller longed for Sue, for her biological daughter, ever since she realized the mistake back in 1951. But it seemed futile trying to convince her husband Norbert. Mary Miller: I said, I think it’s not right to do that, you know, to keep somebody
i didn’t want disagreemen him because ruined our m that would h and i didn’t
else’s baby. I didn’t think it was right to do that. And every time I’d talk to him he’d say, oh, it’s all right. It’ll be all right. I can’t tell you how hard it was. But it was hard on me all along.
Jake Halpern: Were you afraid of Norbert at all?
Mary Miller: Well no. I wasn’t afraid of him. I knew there were things I couldn’t do and keep his friendship, if I turned against him like on that. I guess you can’t understand. I didn’t want to have a disagreement like that with him because that would have ruined our marriage. That would have ruined it. And I didn’t want it ruined. I had six little children to take care of.
t to have a nt like that with e that would have marriage. have ruined it. want it ruined.
Jake Halpern: Was there ever a time when you thought back and thought, I should have stood my ground more with him on that. Mary Miller: No, I guess I haven’t because I knew it wouldn’t have worked. I couldn’t do anything about it. Norbert and I had a good time while we were together. But Norbert should have gone back and said, this isn’t our baby. And this was a bad decision. But he didn’t realize what effect that would have on everybody to make a decision like that. Jake Halpern: Neither Sue nor Marti blames Mrs. Miller for going along with her husband. They say they’re not angry with her. They knew Reverend Miller. They understand what their relationship was like. They understand why she didn’t speak out sooner. 42
Reverend Miller finally laid eyes on Sue at the McDonalds’ wedding anniversary party. And the moment he saw her, he knew that she was his biological daughter. She looked exactly like him. At last, Mrs. Miller felt free to act. A month and a half later she wrote the letter. Mary Miller: Yeah, I wanted him to agree with me. And he did. He finally did. But boy, it was a relief for me. Because that was terrible to have that hang over you all the time. It’s sad that it happened. It took Kay an awful long time, and I’m sorry for her. Jake Halpern: One thing Mrs. Miller doesn’t regret is raising Marti. She members Marti always lightening the mood in their house. Mary Miller: As a kid she was really a live wire. She
always had jokes. She had jokes every day. And she’d keep us laughing. You know, it was good for us to laugh. It was really good for us to have her around. I mean, my kids are awful serious about their life, you know? They’re more like I am. Jake Halpern: Before, when I’d asked you if you thought it was God’s will, you said yes. And is the reason because Marti brought something important to your family? Mary Miller: Yes she did.
Sue McDonald: Dear Sue, I’m writing you this short note to officially give you my welcome to this Miller family and relationship. Jake Halpern: This is Sue reading a letter she got some time ago from her new found Miller sister, Faith. Sue McDonald: Through there are many, many good things about our family and parents and being raised by that family, there were also some definite deficits. If you’re ever curious as to what they were, I would be very willing to fill you in so you fully appreciate the parents who have raised you. Between ourselves, Ruth and me, we, or at least I, always figured you lucked out. Probably Martha, with her happy-go-lucky nature, could take the climate of the Miller home better. And we hope you flourished in the McDonald household.
Jake Halpern: Wow, wow. Sue McDonald: Yeah. Jake Halpern: So she’s basically saying to you, you may have actually gotten up a break here being in the family. Sue McDonald: I lucked out. Jake Halpern: I mean, are there times when you feel a little bit guilty about kind of having lucked out with the home that was maybe a little bit easier to grow up in? Sue McDonald: Well, sure. I guess a little bit of guilt. But it’s not my fault. I didn’t have anything to do with it. My sister, Faith, called and she was talking about how she was growing up and how her parents would spank her with a strap. And she says, the way her mother would talk to her. And I’m thinking, how would I have survived with that
kind of upbringing? I didn’t grow up like that at all. I don’t know how I would have survived. Jake Halpern: But Sue says there are a lot of things she missed out on too by not growing up with the Millers. The family did all kinds of hobbies, painting, and rock polishing, and 3-D photography. They had dogs are raised Angora rabbits All sorts of interesting people came through the house, guests from out of town and missionaries. It was a different way of living, one that she admires. As for Marti, she doesn’t like to dwell on the notion that Sue might have been the one who lucked out. Jake Halpern: Does the thought ever cross your mind, what if the switch hadn’t been made? What if the McDonalds had just taken me home and I had grown up in the house with
my biological parents, my biological brother, who would I be? Martha Miller: That’s a funny question. I really only thought about that one time. I only let myself think about it one time. It was actually right after I met them. And I was going back to my mother’s house. So I left Prairie du Chien and I was driving. And it was then that I started thinking, oh my gosh, you know, my life would have been so different. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized, you know, I can’t think about this. Because it will drive me crazy if I do. And so I kind of made a promise to myself that
i would just never go down that road again, that i was just not going to go there. and i really havenâ€™t because thereâ€™s no point.
Jake Halpern: It’s pretty rare that Marti and Sue actually meet face to face. Once every few years they get together for a large family gathering-a wedding, a graduation, a funeral. This summer Bob McDonald’s younger son got married in Prairie du Chien. When Marti showed up at the house for brunch the day after the wedding, she couldn’t have seemed more at home with the family that she didn’t meet until her 40s. She teased the groom and handed Bob’s older son a present for his baby. Martha Miller: It’s a little late. This is for your child. It’s before kindergarten so it’s OK. Male McDonald Relative: He’s ten months old. Martha Miller: Shut up. it’s a birthday present.
Jake Halpern: When Sue arrived, she slipped in quietly. This
was the side of the family she was raised with. But she seemed tense, watching as Marti made the rounds, everybody laughing. Having the two of them so near each other was a little awkward. People were definitely aware whenever both women were in the same room. At one point toward the end of the party as Sue stood nearby, Marti started talking about the room that she had grown up in in the Miller household. All the girls were in the same room. Marti shared a bed with her sister, Faith, and had to crawl through this vent to get to the bathroom at night because Faith would block the doorway to the hall. Martha Miller: So instead of going in the hall, we would crawl through the register. Female McDonald Relative: Going the normal way, like most? Martha Miller: Well my sisters
had this crazy thing going on when Faith was a teenager. She would push the dresser and the cedar chest against the door. Sue McDonald: In the room you were in, you mean? Jake Halpern: That’s Sue. It was the first time I’d seen them talk to each other. Martha Miller: Yeah, in the room that was slept in. Sue McDonald: So then you went through the register to get to the bathroom. Martha Miller: To get to the bathroom, you had to go under the bed and crawl. Jake Halpern: It’s like a dog door. Martha Miller: Exactly. Yeah. It was like a dog door. Jake Halpern: Just out of curiosity, what was your room like? Martha Miller: Yeah, what was
your room like? You had your own room, didn’t you all to yourself? Sue McDonald: I had my own room, yes I did. And my own bed too, everything. Martha Miller: That’s what I’m talking about. Yeah, whatever. It was a different life. Jake Halpern: Mrs. Miller says she worries for Marti and Sue about whether they’ll ever truly get along. But there’s no question, things have gotten better between the two girls and their moms. Kay McDonald is still tight with Sue, the daughter she raised. But she’s also much closer with Marti. Kay and Marti both cried when Marti left the wedding for California. And things are good with Mrs. Miller too. Marti’s accepted that despite some of the clumsy things that her mother
said and did when she broke the news to her, she meant well. Marti calls Mrs. Miller once a week to check up on her just like Sue does. Now that the big family questions are mostly worked out, one of the toughest things both Marti and Sue have to deal with is logistical. Having two sets of parents and two full sets of siblings and cousins is kind of a practical headache. There are birthdays, and graduations, and figuring out where to spend holidays. Earlier this month, Sue’s daughter got married in Michigan. All the Millers were invited and all the McDonalds were too. Marti considered whether she should go. She didn’t grow up with Sue after all, and she’s not actually related to her or to her kids. But in the end, she made the trip because she’s a Miller and so is Sue. And she’s a McDonald and so is Sue.
Ira Glass: Jake Halpern, he’s the author of several books, including most recently a fantasy novel, Dormia, which he wrote with coauthor Peter Kujawinski. This story was first broadcast on our show last year.
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