The truth about Penny Zagarelou-Mackieson, her heritage and natural family would have never come to light, if it wasn’t for a surprising DNA test result in 2016, that revealed that she was Greek, actually, something she couldn’t have imagined, after everything she was led to believe about her birth.
Born in Melbourne, in 1963, at Queen Victoria Hospital, Penny was raised in a nurturing and loving family in a small town in Victoria, and always knew she was adopted. However, it wasn’t until her twenties, following a tragic loss, that she embarked on a quest to uncover her roots.
Applying for her birth records, would lead her to an Anglo-Celtic Australian family, nurturing a relationship with the woman she thought was her natural mother for 20 years, before she discovered that they were not related at all, after a second DNA test confirmed this. A devastating revelation for all parties involved.
All Penny had was the result of her DNA test confirming her Greek heritage, and with that, the Adoption Information Services were able to identify very quickly a woman with a Greek name, who had given birth on the same day to another girl, at the Queen Victoria Hospital, which of course indicated that the two were swapped at birth.
What followed was an emotional roller coaster for Penny, as she struggled to find out more about her putative natural mother, facing challenges every step of the way, as she also strove to correct her official records to reflect her true origins.
Her struggles with a system based on secrecy, and designed to prioritise the wishes of all other parties involved in an Adoption Order, ahead of her own, as adoptee, are vividly detailed in her powerful book titled, Greek, Actually. The book, published by Spinifex Press, was officially launched on Thursday, coinciding with the screening of Every Family Has A Secret on SBS, which documents her extraordinary story until she finally travels to Greece to meet her birth mother and maternal siblings.
Without her mother’s willingness to do a DNA test to confirm that they were related, and though there were strong indications that she was her natural mother, Penny was in danger of ending up with an ‘original’ birth certificate that recorded both her natural parents as unknown! Though thankfully this did not happen, it took years before she could celebrate the legal recognition of her true natural identity, and one more year to finally get to meet her mother, and her three maternal siblings, two brothers and a sister, who welcomed her with open arms, earlier this year.
“It is a huge relief, as well as the fulfilment of a lifelong desire, to know for sure where I came from and, especially, from whom I came. DNA doesn’t lie, and now, having at last connected with my real natural maternal family, I see myself genetically mirrored. It’s difficult to express how hugely grounding and reassuring this is to me,” Penny told Neos Kosmos.
Though her story has a good ending, Penny wasn’t so optimistic at first, since her mother had expressed that “It was too late”, when the AIS first contacted her.
It was Penny’s two half-brothers and half-sister in Greece who made it happen. Agreeing to a DNA test which confirmed their genetic relationship, they were very excited to have found a sister, gently telling their mother that they knew, and encouraging her to meet with her firstborn.
It must not have been easy being a single woman, pregnant, in a foreign country, in those days. According to the information Penny found out about her mother, she had arrived in Melbourne from Greece by ship, as a single young woman and had lived in metropolitan Melbourne when she was born in March 1963. She returned to Greece, in the early 1970s, with her husband -whom she married a few months after her birth- and their children.
As detailed in Greek, Actually, Ange Karavidas, AIS Manager, who is Greek Australian, spoke directly to her mother several times, about Penny’s efforts to connect with her. At first, all her mother wanted, was to know that she was well and that she had been raised by a good family. She said that she was young and innocent when she conceived her. As a single young woman newly arrived in a foreign country, without being able to speak English, she realised she would be unable to care for her baby. Later the elderly Greek woman would add that she had carried the secret her whole life and was afraid of it coming out now. Having her baby taken away was a haunting memory, a wound which had reopened. She didn’t see any other option at the time, and the Greek social worker had told her that she had no choice but to relinquish her baby for adoption.
Penny also discovered, looking through the records, that her biological mother’s written consent for the adoption was obtained a day after she was actually given up for adoption. Obtaining a mother’s consent for the adoption of her child after placement of the child with the adoptive parents, Penny knew was unethical and also illegal under the Adoption of Children Act in 1958, something that made her feel that perhaps the separation from her mother occurred under coercive circumstances.
These were not the only shady practices she uncovered during the course of the last few years, which are all detailed in Greek, Actually, a fascinating honest account of how she reclaimed her original identity, her birthright and fundamental human right.
Was it all that you hoped for? Finally connecting with your natural family? We ask her.
“Yes, indeed! I was seeking the truth about my origins and, if possible, also connection with natural relatives with who I share a resemblance, and all of that has been achieved. It has greatly helped me to reframe my situation. I’ve moved from feeling incredibly unlucky, to have been duped of my true origins twice over (through having been adopted under closed adoption arrangements, but first having been misidentified in the hospital where I was born!) to now feeling very lucky to have been able to connect with my mother and her family.”
Penny is healing after 34 years searching for her roots, knowing now that her mother always thought of her, loved her, and lit a candle for her in church, throughout the years. Finding out her Greek name (which is not made public) was another healing experience, knowing that her mother had named her after her own mother, when she was born.
“I was aware of a deep contentment permeating my mind and body since registering not only that I have found my true tribe but that they accept me and have embraced me just as I have for so long sought to embrace them. Perhaps it is a sense of completeness or how it feels to have healed,” she writes.
Penny who is maintaining regular contact with her maternal family members, is continuing to learn the Greek language so that she can speak directly in private with her mother next time she visits Greece.
“Ideally, I would like to hear directly from my mother the story of my conception and relinquishment and, of course, the identity of my natural father, but only if she feels comfortable to tell me,” she tells Neos Kosmos.
“My next trip is already planned for April next year with my husband Bruce, and I’m going again in September next year with Patrick, my son, because neither of them got to meet my maternal family members.”
Persistent and patient, like her namesake, Penelope, the wife of mythical hero Odysseus, who waited 20 years for her husband to return to Ithaca, Penny believes that “Success does not happen without perseverance, and perseverance cannot happen without hope” and she shares her story in the hope that others in a similar situation will be encouraged.
*To obtain a copy of Greek, Actually, visit www.spinifexpress.com.au
**Author Penny Zagarelou-Mackieson is a social worker by profession, working for three decades in the child and family services sector. Her PhD research explored Permanent Care Orders for children in Victoria’s child protection and out-of-home care system and from 2014-2019 she was Chair of VANISH.
If you need support and information about your natural parents, you can apply for information via the following link.