KT Tunstall’s story broke my ambivalence about adoption TV – Dr Gary Clapton

Singer KT Tunstall found she had two half-sisters. Picture: Mark Davis/Getty Images
Singer KT Tunstall found she had two half-sisters. Picture: Mark Davis/Getty Images
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When Apollo 11 landed on the moon on 20 July 1969, history was made. Fifty years later, it stands as arguably the greatest achievement of the 20th century and a testament to human endeavour and perseverance.

Most of us who work or research (or both) in adoption have a love-hate relationship with media ­programmes that feature our subject and passion. The inability to switch off is common and regularly stretches to shows and programmes on after the working day.

Dr Gary Clapton for Birthlink.

Dr Gary Clapton for Birthlink.

I have an ambivalence about watching content that is similar to what we do in Birthlink. This is mostly to do with the fact that invariably there will be some misinformation or detail that doesn’t ring true and I’ll get irked, thus my sometime-reluctance to ­listening to or watching adoption reunion stories.

Nevertheless programmes like Long-Lost Family (STV) are ­attention-seeking magnets. I was hooked when I discovered that KT (Kate Victoria) Tunstall was to ­feature in one of the June episodes and, though I could have watched it later via catch-up, I watched it in real time. My decision was rewarded.

KT Tunstall is one of Scotland’s leading singer-songwriters, famous for her album Eye to the Telescope and the hit single Suddenly I See (a campaign song of Hillary Clinton’s in 2008 when Clinton ran for US ­president), and she is a magnificent performer on stage.

KT was born in 1975 in Edinburgh, “a little quarter Cantonese, half Irish, quarter Scottish baby with lots of black hair”. She was adopted and grew up in Fife. In the programme there are marvellous clips of her as a small girl singing and dancing, a ­prefiguration of her talent.

KT always knew she was adopted and the story continued with her adopted father’s death being the trigger to finding out more about the mother who gave birth to her. She and her mother eventually met in 1998 and remain in touch.

However, the centrepiece of the episode was KT’s curiosity about her birth father who was, together with her mother, “what led to me coming to being”. This is entirely in keeping with my experience of adoption search and reunions. It’s usually the mother first, very often because the mother’s name is always on the ­original birth certificate whereas, often in the cases of unmarried ­couples when a women became pregnant, the father’s name was omitted.

The programme followed KT to Spain where her birth mother now lives and featured a discussion about her father, his name and the mother’s recollections of him. KT’s mother was a dancer and, guess what? Her father loved to sing. Others can argue about nature and nurture but in this case it would seem that KT had a career on stage all pre-mapped. After Spain, we found out that her father was against her adoption but to no avail. We also discovered that he kept a photograph of her in his wallet.

These are vital facts for someone who has been adopted. Often it is the smallest things that have the greatest significance. A photo held onto for years. A father’s love of singing. The jigsaw starts to fall into place. Identity takes form completely and finally.

Armed with as much information as possible, the researchers on Long Lost Family went to work. This part of the show was riveting. For those of us who have searched on behalf of ­others, we are always alert to any economies with the truth because trawling births, marriages and deaths is complex.

When names are common or ­people move often, establishing someone’s whereabouts can be laborious and take months in real time. With a ­couple of quick shots of record-scrolling the programme established news of KT’s father. Unfortunately they discovered that he died 17 years previously. The news was broken off-camera but on camera we heard that he went on to to have two other daughters. Both happen to live in Fife. They were located. And we found out that both had sung KT’s songs at karaoke – not knowing their relationship to her. Both knew about the photograph in their dad’s wallet. And both used to visit the ice cream shop in St Andrews where their half-sister worked as a teenage singer! All three were filmed in a joyful meeting and Long Lost Family concluded with KT performing with her sisters singing along in the crowd. The last words were left to KT when she explained that her birth father “is an essential ingredient of who I am”.

My ambivalence? Dispelled in a sheer rush of satisfaction for her.

Dr Gary Clapton for Birthlink.